How pictures can shape our worldview

On Sunday, I was asked to give a brief illustration of one aspect of my team’s work, how the pictures we use shape our view of the world. I thought maybe I could share it with you.

In the following images, which characters would see as ‘good’ and which would we see as ‘bad’.

We have been conditioned to see those characters portrayed in white, or in the light, as good. While those in black, or kept in the dark, as bad.

This has carried across to film too. Luke Skywalker usually appears dressed in light coloured clothing, Darth Vader, in black.

The use of this kind of colour translated across into Christian literature too. Jesus is always portrayed in white, the devil in black. Even today, you’re more likely to find Jesus, wearing white robes and looking like he’s come from western Europe or North America, rather than dressed like a carpenter’s son from Galilee.

So when western Christians turned up in parts of the world where most people have a darker complexion, what did the images imply. That those with light skin were ‘good’ and those with dark skin were ‘bad’?

Even today we hear reports from people for whom these kinds of images have left scars.

But, I think this also questions the kinds of images we respond to today.

Most of our mental image of Africa are still formed by shocking pictures of famine and poverty. For me, I still can’t shake the images that led to Band Aid back in 1984, they still influence my perception of the world. And while famine still hits the continent, Africa’s a big place with a lot of other things going on. Our stereotypes that fit with those images from the 1980s are a stark contrast from the Addis Ababa light rail system or the urban sprawl of Lagos in Nigeria, Africa’s largest city.

Mission agencies have to take some of the blame for that. We haven’t always done a good job of representing the world we serve in. Mission today is as likely to require us to serve in urban or suburban areas around major cities, as to relocate to a rural community. While, today’s acts of service are much less likely to be as a sole evangelist in a cross-cultural setting and more as part of a strategic team, working alongside indigenous Christians and in partnership with the local church.

Of course, the images that represent these 21st Century mission roles are not the kinds of pictures that spur us to action. We are more ready to go and serve those that look different to us than to go to those that work in office blocks and have a daily commute. But, maybe this is where the church can do more to encourage us to see the world as it truly is, rather than as one presented to us in the pictures.

The book, The Future of the Global Church, puts it like this.

‘In 1800, only 3% of humankind lived in cities. It is estimated that in 2100 the figure will be nearly 90%. It was probably in 2007/08 that the world’s population first became predominantly urban’