All my friends know that winter is my favorite season. I love the snow, I love the cold, I love the crisp air, I love the stark landscape—and I love my winter wardrobe of sweaters, boots and tights. It doesn’t bother me that I am the exception in my affection; I know full well that most people prefer the summer sun and heat.
I don’t mind being a seasonal outlier, but I do get tired of winter being used metaphorically to connote images and feelings of bleakness, death and solitude—in contrast to summer images of life, joy and growth. Winter is so much more than just a fallow time, a time for hibernation—the “down” cycle in the ebb and flow of life—and I find it frustrating when winter is so singularly and insistently stereotyped in a negative way. [This isn’t always true, of course, but it often is.]
I say all this as a way to introduce a lovely little book I just ordered: God’s Holy Darkness. It is a children’s book, but its message is for everyone, and stated clearly in the first pages of the book: “darkness and blackness and night are too often compared to lightness and whiteness and day and found deficient, but let us name the beauty and goodness and holiness of darkness and blackness and night.”
I confess that I am guilty of having done just that, and perpetuated the association of blackness with the absence of God, and the darkness as a place of fear, of threat—something to be avoided. And, there is no question the church as a whole is guilty of this association as well: we hear it in our hymnody, our readings, our prayers and our liturgies.
Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “So what? Why is this is problem? Sure, the connections between lightness and goodness, and darkness and evil/death/fear, etc. are there in the Christian tradition, but it doesn’t matter. Certainly, it doesn’t have anything to do with the way people are viewed in the world.”
This, however, is naïve prevarication. Words matter, especially when they carry the weight of the church behind them; and images—both positive and negative, especially vivid images that are regularly repeated, burrow into our subconscious and can impact the way we view the world and the way we view other people.
So let me be explicit about what I am talking about here: reiterating these associations about lightness and darkness without nuance or variation reinforces the idea that whiteness (and white people) are associated with goodness, wisdom, godliness, angels, heaven, etc., and blackness (and black/brown people) are associated with “badness,” evil, devils, god-forsakenness, ignorance, etc. It is these widespread and pervasive associations that support the ongoing racist attitudes and behaviors that characterize our society and our church.
As the book notes at the end, these associations must be disrupted. So, I am going to start thinking about other words and images I can use instead of darkness: obscurity, confusion, fog, uncertainty, gloom; and other images for light: cheer, gladness, hope, delight, dazzling. I can’t promise that I will never use “night,” or “dawn” again in a metaphorical way—I find those words in particular (and the real-life experiences they call to mind) vivid and powerful. But, I am committing to being more careful with my language, and more expansive; and also more intentional about lifting up the positive images of darkness and God’s presence in darkness in Scripture.
As the book’s title notes, the darkness is holy, too, and a place where we meet God.