The Problem With Black-and-White

There are certain acceptable ways to respond when you disagree with another person’s opinion. Sometimes, I do a great job of finding and executing those responses.

Other times, I don’t.

Last week, I was talking with a group about the morality of lying in less-than-clear situations (think “Are you hiding any Jews?” during Nazi Germany). I was just gearing up for a dramatic speech when the guy across from me said, “Why are we even talking about this? All lying is wrong. It’s black and white.”

And I immediately started laughing.

This, friends, in case you were not aware, is not the correct response to someone’s very serious opinion. Nope.

I awkwardly cut off my laugher by clearing my throat and forcing my face to be serious again. (And you thought that only happened in movies.) In my defense, I honestly thought this person was just baiting me to get a reaction (he wasn’t).

All that to say, I am not a black-and-white person. But I also don’t usually like to say that I see things in shades of gray instead. (And not because of a certain smutty bestseller. Although, you know, distancing myself from that is a nice side benefit.)

Instead of saying that I see things in shades of gray, I like to look at it as seeing things in color. It’s like looking around at the black-and-white world of Dorothy’s Kansas and saying, “There must be something more than this.” And then, suddenly, I wake up one day, and the world is in Technicolor. (No singing Munchkins, though. Let’s not take this analogy too far.)

Irony: Dorothy signing about rainbows in a place with only sepia tones.

Irony: Dorothy singing about rainbows in a place with only sepia tones.

In a world that’s more than black-and-white, it’s harder to judge people. Ethical questions get more complicated. Interpreting the Bible isn’t always as simple as it was in third grade Sunday School class. To some people, this is intimidating, but I love it.


Now, only God knows the real colors of things. Let’s make that clear. He’s the final word on all of those tricky ethical or interpretive issues. And also, we are not God. (Sorry to burst your bubble if you weren’t aware of that one.) So we have to be careful whenever we talk about tricky subjects.

To me, thinking about the hard questions theology and ethics is like filling in the lines of a coloring book page with waxy bursts of red and blue and Purple Mountain’s Majesty. It takes something simple and makes it complex and beautiful. It’s the best representation we can make of the world and how we should live in it.

I thought this was the best crayon color ever just because of the name.

I thought this was the best crayon color ever just because of the name.

Note that there are lines, boundaries, absolutes. (For example, I’d say that some statements we call “lies” are morally acceptable in certain contexts. But I’d also say that there is an absolute right or wrong in every individual situation and that the reason we saying “Lying is wrong” is because in 99% of situations, it is.)

Yes, it can be a slippery slope to start singing the praises of questioning your beliefs or trying to listen to the other side. There are dangers there. But there are also dangers in seeing the world in black-and-white.

And it makes me wonder: maybe we balance each other out. Maybe the black-and-white Christians keep the rest of us grounded, draw the lines, give us healthy boundaries, and warn us that no matter how hard we insist that the sky is green…it just isn’t. And maybe the color-focused Christians fill in the blank spaces, understand the nuances, and challenge the others to be bold and ask questions they might not be comfortable with.

I have to remember this, because I am a cocky little punk and my tendency is to decide that the rest of the entire world, but more specifically, the Church, should be just like me.

This is an extremely bad idea. Like, I can’t begin to explain to you how bad things would get if every Christian had my personality type. There would be Reformations every two minutes, problems would all be solved either by abstract discussion or giving out hugs, and we’d have church potlucks basically every night that would devolve into treasure hunts and karaoke.

We need black-and-white. We need color. We need absolutes and abstracts, planners and dreamers, pragmatists and idealists, how-it-is and how-it-ought-to-be. We need people who can talk for hours about aliens and predestination and whether or not we should clone people or assassinate Hitler. And we need people who say, “Who cares?” and would rather focus on practical things.

That said, if you ever would like to talk about any of those things…I’m always game. Always. I’ll bring my coloring book. And I promise not to laugh at you.




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