A new way of looking at the world

Whenever a crowd gathers, you know something’s up. Hopefully, it’s not something tragic, just interesting.

It was sometime back in the 90s. My wife and I were walking through our local shopping mall. A knot of people were bunched up around a display that was set out in the open to grab the attention of passersby. Looking over their shoulders, all I could see was a large poster, imprinted with a colorful but nonsensical and jumbled pattern. People were staring at it and tilting their heads this way and that. What in the world are they looking at? I wondered.

Then, every once in a while, someone would gasp, seeing something in the poster they hadn’t seen before. Some people, in response, just stared harder; others shook their heads and walked away.

Me? I got closer and stared, but still didn’t get it. Eventually, I was one of the ones who walked away.

First published in 1993…and still in print.

Such was my introduction to the so-called “Magic Eye” pictures that became all the rage that decade (you can still find examples galore online). They are what are technically known as autostereograms — flat, two-dimensional pictures that create a startling 3-D effect…IF you look at them the right way. I finally learned how when given another chance. And when the 3-D image suddenly “popped,” as if out of nowhere, I felt like Alice suddenly stepping through the looking-glass into Wonderland.

The trick is in learning a new way to look at things. If someone holds a picture in front of us, our eyes will immediately focus on it. But in order to see the “magic” 3-D image, we have to diverge our eyes. In other words, we have to suppress our natural urge to focus directly on the picture and turn our eyes slightly outward, as if we were focusing on an object about a foot behind the picture. When we do, a whole new scene suddenly emerges. If we can hold that focus, we can even look around at the different parts of the picture, as if exploring a new landscape.

So what do Magic Eye pictures have to do with anything, especially on a blog like this one?

Over and over in my writing and teaching, I have emphasized the importance of what theologians call eschatology, or the “doctrine of last things.” Put differently, it’s not simply a matter of whether you as a Christian believe this or that about your future destiny — it’s whether you have the imagination to see the present in terms of that future.

It’s natural that we would focus on the present, especially when we’re experiencing difficulties. But those difficulties can occupy so much of our attention that we can’t see beyond them. Our perspective narrows, and our options seem limited.

Cultivating an eschatological imagination doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to problems and challenges. But it does mean changing our point of focus. We don’t look away from the challenges, we look through them to the future that lies beyond. And when we do, what started as a flat, jumbled picture can take on new dimensions worth exploring.

We may see our present situation — indeed, our present world — as impossibly broken or nearly so. But what might change if we could look through the present to a future in which wholeness, restoration, and resurrection were the reality? How might the present look different? What new possibilities might suddenly appear?

Things are more than what they seem. It’s a matter of how you look at them. That’s not magic; that’s hope.