Old photos, adoption and conformity

One thing you learn from housesitting is that people have a tremendous capacity for keeping mantlepieces/hearths horrendously cluttered. A few years back I decided that should I ever reside in a house or a flat that came with its very own MantlePiece 2000©,*  I would line it with books of poetry, and that the room in which it sat would be equipped for reading with a good armchair or possibly a futon since my finances would likely only permit bedsit living for quite some time.

As I am still hearthless, though, I must rely on is investigating how other people make use of their mantlepieces. The lovely old victorian in Hackney in which I am currently residing boasts a thin, plain mantle with a wide mirror ** and several black-and-white photographs. In one, which I’d guess to have been taken in the late 80s or early 90s, a child is grinning. The next, decades older, features a man, waist up, all in black, with a cigarette drooping from the corner of his mouth. The next is a pale woman with short dark hair gazing upwards, and in another one is a family outside near a stone bridge, dressed in 50s attire, with the same pale woman standing behind a stroller.

Only one of these photos is labeled with a name. I have been trying to find traces of the house-owners’ faces in the faces of the family, but as I don’t know them well, the noses and eye angles and ears are all blurring together in my mind.  I have heard anecdotes of adults speaking to adopted children, unawares that their parents were not their biologial parents, and commenting on how much they looked like their mother and father. This inclines me to believe that as far as family goes, we see resemblance where we want to see it. I never thought I looked much like my father or mother, except that I have my father’s skin, mercifully normal and dry but ever so prone to sunburn.

Yet somewhat like how you can’t effectively know what your voice sounds like until you hear it recorded, § I don’t think you can see family resemblance until you see pictures of yourself and your family members side-by-side. And it’s not as if faces are static – we lose and gain weight, we age, we wear our hair more or less severely pulled back.  I thought I might try to make a graph of ‘moments in life in which a parent and child of the same sex will look identical.’ However, I suspect the dots on such a graph would probably cluster around the ages in which the parent and child are both very young or very old, or when one is old and one is young. §§

It got me thinking theologically, as most things do these days, about what adoption means in terms of the life of the church. In unfortunate reality, our adoption into Christ’s body sometimes has a tendency to blur all our features together until we become little monocultural pockets. People who have not elected for this adoption in their own lives and communities see resemblances which are artificial and have more to do with Christian jargon or maintenance of social mores than with faith. They see conformity, not transformation.

Adoption into faith in the triune God isn’t about conformity, despite how well-policed the norms of Christianity may be. That is not to say that nonconformity need be the bedrock of what Christians say and do. It is, however, to remind those who would tattoo themselves with Christian identity that they must seek out the different, the unsettling and the strange as they live out this identity.  And they must do it not with a motive of colonising evangelism, but with a desire to meet and point out God where she is already present.

I don’t do this enough, for all my strong words. I like my comforts & I hide behind introversion. Worse, I argue loudly for what I have said above and I don’t follow through. I criticise sameness and then seek out other types of sameness where I’d feel more at home. But it is becoming increasingly clear to me that to do this is to lie damnably about this Identity who has adopted me, cowardice, weirdnesses and all. It is to present a Christ who was only special in spite of his particularity as a Jew, a man, a member of the ancient near eastern world, and a carpenter – rather than to present a Christ who is special because of these things which constitute his individual humanity.

This is another mutt. Aren’t we loveable?

As a woman of mixed European heritage with dash of Native American blood here and there –  a proper mutt, really – I know I that a picture of me would bear no resemblance to a picture of an itinerant working-class Nazarene preacher from 2000 years ago. But I have not been adopted to be made any of these things (Sorry, not-such-Good-News of Thomas). I have been adopted into a group of people different to me, with whom I will argue, with whom I will cry, with whom I will widen the circle and welcome others, even when I know they will bring more arguing and crying.

It’s going to be a crowded mantlepiece.


* Not a real product – unlike the Nimbus 2000© which may or may not be real, but try producing and selling one and see if you don’t get sued by a horde of angry Rowlingites.

** Why always mirrors on mantles? Do you want to powder your nose whilst your skirts catch fire or your  shoes melt?

§ So many people hear recordings of themselves and say, “Is THAT what I sound like?”

§§ Because all babies look like old people, or aliens, or both.


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