Sunday, March 18, 2012

Photography, Christianity, and Modernity

Ever ask a fish what water is like? Even if fish could talk, they probably couldn’t give a very good answer, because water is such a basic, constant, and unchanging part of the existence of a fish. Some of the hardest things to notice are all around us, all the time, and shared by everyone we know, and it takes a lot of effort to disengage yourself mentally from your surroundings in order to see assumptions or underlying ideas that have powerful effects.

We have Craig M. Gay to thank for making this effort. Author of the 1998 book The Way of the (Modern) World, he has asked why modern life makes it so easy to act as though God doesn’t exist. I cannot pretend to summarize in a thousand-word blog what took Prof. Gay 314 pages to say, so I will use a personal example to give you a flavor or sampling of his findings. For the full meal, see the book.

I have been an amateur photographer since my teenage years, when I rigged up a crude darkroom in a disused garage apartment and developed and printed my own black-and-white photos of things like my home laboratory, my cat, and my cousin, who posed angrily for the camera as he wielded a baseball bat. You can go about photography in various ways, and I will attempt to describe two possible extremes that express a contrast or polarity that keeps coming up in various forms all through Gay’s book. The polarity is between modernity, meaning the way we in the U. S. have done things since, say, 1900 (if not earlier); and something that doesn’t have a simple name, but let us call it historic Christianity, although that doesn’t really capture the totality of the other pole.

How would a historic Christian go about being a photographer? He or she would, I think, approach photography as an art form, a way of helping others to see things that they might not otherwise notice. Art which is historically Christian in spirit somehow glorifies God and His creation by showing naturally beautiful, good, or true things, or by using elements of creation in new ways that help others to see God’s actions and achievements. Does this mean that all such photographs would be “pretty” in a conventional sense? Hardly. But photography, if pursued in the way I mean, would connect the viewer to something important in the divine scheme of things: a holy person, perhaps, or a story reflecting the divine nature. If this sounds restrictive and censorious, you misunderstand me. God created human bodies, for example, so people in all stages of dress or undress could conceivably show up in an exhibit of photographs taken in this historic Christian sense. The technology (chemical, digital, whatever) would be wholly subsumed in the God-to-person and person-to-person communication that the photographs enable to take place.

Now, how would a modern person go about being a photographer? More or less the way I do it, as it turns out, because despite my best efforts in some areas I am in most ways a typical modern. The focus (pardon the pun) would be on the technology: more megapixels, more convenience in file sharing, higher resolution, more levers to pull and knobs to turn, etc. What to photograph would be way down the list. Ease of control and reliability and uniformity of result would be important, as well as the possibility of mass duplication and broadcast to as many people as possible, regardless of whether the picture would mean anything to them or not. Lots of money would change hands because of this process, if possible. The machinery used would be as complicated and up-to-date as you can get, and would work exactly the way the user plans it all the time. There would be impersonal criteria by which photographs would be judged, with a grand hierarchy of amateurs at the bottom, then lower-paid and higher-paid professionals toward the top. The higher-paid people would get a lot of money, fame, and the other universal desirables of modern life.

Do you see the difference? Some words that relate to what I am inadequately terming historic Christianity are: hope (not certainty or assurance), creative making (not mass production), hand tools (not sophisticated machines), faith and trust (not rational thought ruling everything), one’s career viewed as a calling (not just work or a job), obedience (not being an autonomous self-definer), and patience (not impatience). The words in parentheses all describe modernity in its many and various guises, as Gay portrays it. The great irony he points out is that much of what modernity urges on us was originated by Christianity: the concept of the individual, the notion of science as the pursuit of truth, and many other tropes as well. But Gay shows how when these things are ripped out of their Christian context and set up as absolutes, they start banging into each other, and in order to please first this modern demand, then that one, we run around like ants on an anthill that’s been knocked down, never finding our place in the world and never being truly satisfied with anything.

As I said, you can’t summarize a three-hundred-page book in a blog. But Gay is on to something in this book, and as I let his ideas soak in I may have more to say about this in the future.

Sources: Craig M. Gay, Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at the Regent College International Graduate School of Christian Studies, is author of The Way of the (Modern) World, or, Why It’s Tempting to Live As If God Doesn’t Exist (Eerdmans, 1998).

1 comment:

  1. Hi there, thanks for this post. I found it by googling "photography and christianity" because I was interested in understanding what it could mean to make, for lack of a better term, christian photographs--not just photographs of crucifixes but photographs made in the spirit of the gospel. I think you did a fairly good job of articulating what that might be, especially this phrase: "by using elements of creation in new ways that help others to see God’s actions and achievements". I'm an aspiring art photographer and have made some works that I think might be "christian" in the sense you described, but I will leave that up to you to determine. please excuse this bit of self-promotion. I am not so much interested in "getting my name out there" as in learning if the "christian" element of my work is discernible, as it is not overt. Thanks again for the post. -David