Instructions for processing a film negative, plus how to read the Old Testament

I don’t really know much about it, having grown up in the era of point-and-shoot, take-as-many-as-you-want digital photography. A child of the 90s, the closest I got was taking a roll of film to the Kodak shop where we lived to get it processed. But we never saw how it was done.

Roughly, in the old days, when you took a picture on a roll of film, the colours came out negative – something you’ll recognise from retro photo filters in your app of choice. If you’ve dug that deep. Whites are blacks, blue is orange – or something weird like that. All the images pop and look crazy, like a psychedelic dream. You can make out the form of things, but all the colours are flipped.

In the old days then, you’d have to take the printed negative into a ‘dark room’ and carefully immerse it in some kind of chemical solution, to bring out the true colours of the image as you saw it through the viewfinder when you pressed the shutter button. At last the true image is restored; it was always there, but it needed immersion.

I’ve been reading the Old Testament (well, and the New) for decades now. I try to read through it consistently. The more I read it, sometimes, the more confusing it seems. I try to reconcile it with Jesus’ commands to love enemies and aliens, and often can’t square it. Some of the passages just feel, off. I think rightly they should; every Christian ought to experience this kind of dysphoria if they’re serious about the message of Jesus. Debates about how to read the Old Testament are as old as the church itself, and I think aren’t going away.

Recently, for example, I’ve been in the conquest passages in Joshua. Now I’m in Judges. With those books perhaps, maybe it’s an especially stark case in point, but few Christians can read those books without at least scratching their heads and wondering how murderous Jephthah (for example) can be counted among the heroes of faith in Hebrews (in the New Testament). How can a life of faith be championed in the life of one who killed in the name of YHWH?

Is the Old Testament, then, a bit like a film negative? I don’t want to stretch this analogy too far, but hear me out. When, as a Christian, you read stories of murderous conquest and other questionable moral behaviour, the colours come out negative. All the pictures pop and look crazy, from Samson to Saul, Samuel and Solomon – like a psychedelic dream. With some of the more beautiful prayers of the people of God, the beautiful portraits and promises of God, you can make out the form of things – but so often, the colours are flipped. What Christians today, after reflecting powerfully on how they are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’, agree with David about hating their enemies at the end of Psalm 139? Jesus would say: your enemies are fearfully and wonderfully made too.

Is the cross the dark room? …Okay, that’s probably stretching it too far. But Jesus certainly immerses the Old Testament in his profound revelation of the love of God, the Father heart of God, taking the form of things (‘You have heard it said, you shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy’), and baptising them until the true colours shine (‘but I say to you, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you,’ etc.). In some of the anecdotes of the Old Testament, those ideas may have lurked in the shadows; Jesus brings them into the light. In the Old Testament, the arrival of the kingdom of God takes the form of violent, bloody conquest. In the New Testament, it bursts into life with the sick healed, the dead raised, the poor lifted up, the kingdom of God within you, and the true enemy of evil and the demonic vanquished through love, prayer and self-sacrifice. The conquest still must take place if God is to reign on the earth. But the methods of warfare are radically redefined, the crosshairs swung about and refocused on evil itself. The form was there, but the colours were all flipped.

This analogy hopefully preserves a sense that the Old Testament in its entirety is important; Jesus clearly thought so, which should be the only reason any Christian should be encouraged to stick with it. So out with Marcionism then. It also hopefully draws a little bit on some of the New Testament’s own language about how Christ relates to what is described in the Old Testament (c.f. Hebrews again speaking about Moses’ tabernacle containing forms and shadows, but the substance belonging to Christ).

But no doubt the analogy also suffers because it is just that, an analogy, and a modern one at that (i.e. inappropriate if we want to discern how the first followers of Jesus understood the Old Testament); it is just an attempt to find a picture (in this case, sort of literally) that will help us understand how to make sense of the Old Testament. The Old Testament is vast, its 39 books spanning a millennium or more, containing history, poetry and prophecy. The cultures it describes, virtually alien to our own. We need deep scholarship to help us understand even some of the most basic elements, let alone the finer details. Many parts of the Old Testament (like, for example, most of Psalm 139 as mentioned above) find a home right alongside our favourite parts of the New Testament, without quibble. I’m just looking for ways, as many others have done, to understand those parts that seem alien to my conception of God in Christ. Perhaps this is one.

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