My parents took hundreds of pictures of my brother and me when we were children. They were acutely aware that our childhood quirks were literally there one day and gone the next, and they responded to our scarily rapid evolution by trying to capture every moment with a still photograph. It seemed that every breath was followed by a blinding flash of light. Every milestone was recorded on film. My parents knew that pictures would be much easier to preserve than their memories.
I peruse those old photos and like a time traveler, relive the beauty of my own human journey… laughter… tears… deceased relatives whose names I don’t remember, but whose kisses on my tiny cheek were preserved forever on Polaroid paper… bad haircuts and good friends… First steps and last occasions… All neatly and chronologically immortalized in volumes of dusty picture albums.
The Bible offers something very similar.
Through the words of ancient men and women, we’re given the distinct privilege of unpacking a time capsule full of photographs. When we read a Bible passage (or any other ancient text), we’re peering into one moment in time. Like a catalog of faded polaroid pictures, the Bible allows us to hold a series of expired moments in our hands… one split second… and then two seconds… and three seconds of an age gone by… Yes, gone forever… but forever tangible.
When I look at my own baby pictures, and my school photos, and my graduation photos, and the photos of my early adult life, I am deeply grateful to have such beautifully-preserved records of my life-journey. However, the fullness of my story is not present in any one of those old photographs– or even in any of the newer ones. The fullness of my God-given purpose cannot be surmised by looking at one– or even one hundred– of my life’s photographs.
The Bible offers photographs of war and peace, love and hatred, acceptance and bigotry. Those photos show us times and places, people and things, ideas and ideologies. But like our own personal picture albums, the Bible–Christianity’s picture album– is not an eternal commentary. It is one volume of the faith’s long history.
Despite this, we look at the Bible’s photographs and attempt to expand the images beyond their context. We attempt to apply the imagery generated by a culture thousands of years older than our own to our society. We infer from one photo in which one man told another, “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” that every marriage will carry these narrow characteristics for the rest of eternity. (…We infer a two-person heterosexual marriage from these words, even though the marriages of which Jesus spoke didn’t actually match our cultural pattern. We’re talking about men who married twelve-year-old girls, and often entered polygamous relationships. How’s that for promoting “biblical marriages” as described in Matthew 19:3-7?… But I digress.)
What would happen if we did this with all of our photographs? What would happen if someone found a picture taken of you before you became who you are today… before you were older and wiser… before you knew what you know now… and decided that the old you was the only you that could ever be considered legitimate?
How does our perspective change when we realize that we’re only living in a snapshot of humankind’s history? That we don’t know everything that will be known about scripture or Jesus? That the next generation will know more about being fully human than we know today?
How would our use of the Bible change if we understood it as a time capsule filled with pictures?