I admire the artist Charlie Mackesy’s ability to create lifelike images of people and places with just a piece of charcoal on paper (www.charliemackesy.com). His ‘Boy from Malawi’ is a striking example. With just a few strokes and smudges he creates life from lines. The key to brilliance in many pictures and paintings is, of course, down to use of light and dark. Mackesy uses white charcoal on black paper, or black on white, to create people, scenes and objects. But other times he merely draws in the shadows, the darkness, leaving patches of white paper exposed to create the central figures (see ‘Jacob and the Angel’).
Artists, poets, philosophers, musicians, authors, film makers and numerous others have often revealed a shared worldview by depicting the world in terms of ‘light’ and ‘dark.’ It’s impossible to identify the precise origins of such a worldview, but I have yet to come across anyone who doesn’t understand the symbolism behind the concepts or who fails to make the metaphorical connection between light and good and dark and evil. What is it about the world and human nature that makes such a worldview so clear, so compelling and so common?
It is difficult to say whether the world has become ‘darker’ or whether the human proclivity to evil has increased over time, but it seems that people intrinsically recognise the presence of evil or ‘darkness’ in the world. But it’s hard to understand it if we don’t know what is meant by ‘light’, and it’s even harder when the lines between good and bad, dark and light, have been blurred. Horror films and novels, violent computer games, and consensual sadistic sexual practice constitute legitimate forms of ‘light entertainment’ in Western society. At what point do we recognise that we have crossed from light to dark or dark to light?
In John’s gospel light is one of the major ways Jesus uses to explain himself. “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Similarly, John writes that “light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.”
These words of Jesus may sound as strange as a sudden beam of light invading the darkness of an underground cave. But take your time, light takes a while to adjust to, if are away from it for a long period. Like the rescued Chilean miners who had to wear dark glasses to protect their eyes from exposure to sunlight, the longer we spend in darkness, the more sensitive and cynical we can become towards light. Exposure to sudden light can leave us reeling, but when we’ve had time to adjust to it, walk in it, live in it, we can take off our shades and look both the light and the world in the face.