The church in 3D

When I was a boy, one of the coolest toys you could get your hands on was called a View-Masteressentially, a stereoscope for kids, the ancestor to today’s virtual reality technology.

The plastic viewer came with “reels” — cardboard discs embedded with tiny Kodachrome slides, depicting nature scenes, tourist destinations, or cartoon characters. Through the View-Master, the slides are presented in pairs. Your left eye sees one picture; your right eye sees the same scene photographed from a slightly different angle. From there, your brain automatically and seamlessly merges the two views into a single, eye-popping 3-D illusion. For me as a kid, it felt like magic.

Honestly, it still does.

I don’t know why I was surprised to find out the View-Master is still available; you just can’t kill some forms of cool. Kids (and their parents!) can still tour national parks or see their favorite Disney characters in 3-D. It’s one thing to look at a picture book, but it’s another to see things in stereo. The flat representation may be interesting or informative — but in 3-D, everything comes alive. 

There’s a useful metaphor here for how we can read Scripture. Sometimes, we get a story only through one author’s lens. But other times, we are gifted with two or more views of the same story. It’s informative to study the text through one lens or the other, but the text pops with lifelike depth when we try to use both lenses at the same time and see the situation in stereo.

In previous posts, I tried to do just that, using both Acts and First Corinthians to see the story of Apollos in stereoscopic 3-D. Luke gives us one view, a view that fits his purpose: to help Theophilus (and other potential readers) marvel at the movement of God’s Spirit through the ministry of the apostles. From that perspective, we’re given a front-row seat to Apollos’ gifts and the positive impact of his ministry.

But Paul gives us a different vantage point that lets us see the other side of the situation in Corinth. Despite Apollos’ considerable talents, the church still swirled with a variety of controversies that don’t make it into Luke’s narrative — conflicts that may even have caused Apollos to leave.

Seeing the church stereoscopically means not having to choose between Luke and Paul, between Acts and First Corinthians. A stereoscopic view allows us to accept the church in all its dimensions. Through one lens, we see people transformed; through the other, we see that remnants of the old life remain. Through one lens, we see how the Spirit is alive and well in the people’s midst, but through the other, we see how they still think and act in worldly ways.

That’s important to remember when we look at our own congregations. There we see both beauty and ugliness, self-giving love and selfishness, harmony and conflict. It’s not that the good stuff is the “real” church and the bad stuff is…well, something else. It’s all part of the one complicated, multidimensional reality that we call church, during a time in which we still groan and await the fullness of God’s redemption and restoration (Rom 8:18-25).   

If we are to appreciate the church for the spiritual miracle it truly is, we have to be able to see the wondrous reality that co-exists in stereo with the gaudier and less impressive aspects of our life together. By God’s grace, we are still the church, even when we mess up.

Somehow, that should be at least a little comforting.