My first camera was a plastic Kodak Brownie, which came with its own flash attachment and sold for about five dollars when it was introduced in the 1950s – a lot of money to a kid back then. The flash operated with disposable flashbulbs that had to be changed every time you took a picture. They produced small but blinding detonations of light that left subjects seeing spots. Needless to say, there was no firing off shots in rapid succession. For one thing those flashbulbs were hot after you took a picture, so you had to wait for them to cool off. Essentially, you were working off light from a controlled explosion that was contained within a small plastic bulb.

Flashbulbs were a distinct advance over early flash photography, which relied on combustible powder ignited in an open container. This was the method that journalist and social reformer Jacob Riis used to obtain his muckraking photographs of New York slum tenements in the late 19th century. He had originally relied on sketches to depict the deplorable conditions in the city’s tenements, but he realized these didn’t have the impact of photographs. However, the interiors were too dark to permit photography – at least not until Riis heard about a pair of German chemists who first mixed magnesium and sodium chlorate to produce flash powder. The stuff was dangerous to mix and dangerous to use, but it enabled photographers to pierce the darkness for the first time. Riis and the photographers who worked with him were among the first Americans to use flash powder, and they approached their task with messianic zeal, exposing the squalor and human misery that had heretofore been hidden in darkness. His work was published first in Scribner’s Magazine and then in a best-selling book entitled “How the Other Half Lives.” It was greeted as a revelation by the public, almost as if Riis had photographed the dark side of the moon.

Flash powder is as good a metaphor as any to convey the powerful and sometimes disorienting effects of true revelation. Consider the case of Saul of Tarsus, a tough-minded Pharisee who originally saw it as his mission to hunt down members of the despised Christian sect in first-century Judea. He was introduced in the New Testament as a witness and participant in the murder of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Then Saul, described as “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,” set off for Damascus to round up more Christians. The story picks up from there:

Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"

Saul was temporarily blinded by his fateful encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, and for a time he found himself utterly dependent on those he had once persecuted. Saul of Tarsus would survive this encounter, but he would now be called Paul. The tough-minded Pharisee found his whole world of law and tradition blown apart in an instant and replaced by what he would later refer to as the “living God.” The flash from heaven may have temporarily blinded him, but it had illuminated a place as dark and grim as any slum tenement that Jacob Riis photographed on the Lower East Side in New York. It was he darkness of his own mind.

Acts 9

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