The Darkness we Need

It’s almost time for bed, so I guess I’ll just check Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and one full season of a TV show on Netflix real quick. – Jamie Woodham (Comedian)

phone in bed

In the beginning it was dark.  The first chapter of Genesis states this fact in no uncertain terms: Darkness was over the face of the deep.  We are not told how long this darkness lasted, but at some point God spoke and the lights came on.  And it was good.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. (Genesis 1:3)

Even though the light was good, God did not see fit to give us one endless period of illumination.  Instead He instituted cycles of light and darkness and gave them names, “Day” and “Night.”  And both the dark of night and the light of day were good.

And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
And God saw that it was good.

Whatever lens we use to examine the first chapters of Genesis – literal, historic, poetic, or a combination of the three – it is generally agreed upon that the thrust of this creation narrative is God “making and preparing the earth for its inhabitants.”  He does so, argues Justin Taylor, “with a highly patterned structure of form and filling,” as seen in the following chart:

Screen Shot 2015-01-28 at 8.37.11 AMFor countless years we governed our lives within a creational rhythm of light and dark, rising during the day and sleeping during the night.  While scientists today do not speak of creational rhythms necessary for human flourishing, they do speak of our circadian rhythm, or internal “clock,” that is biologically in tune with light and dark.  Brandon Keim, writing for the Atlantic, explains the purpose of the circadian system better than I can pretend to:

The circadian system synchronizes physiological function—from digestion to body temperature, cell repair and immune system activity—with a 24-hour cycle of light and dark. Even photosynthetic bacteria thought to resemble Earth’s earliest life forms have circadian rhythms. Despite its ubiquity, though, scientists discovered only in the last decade what triggers circadian activity in mammals: specialized cells in the retina, the light-sensing part of the eye, rather than conveying visual detail from eye to brain, simply signal the presence or absence of light. Activity in these cells sets off a reaction that calibrates clocks in every cell and tissue in a body. Now, these cells are especially sensitive to blue wavelengths—like those in a daytime sky.

Human flourishing is, it would appear, tied to the rhythms of light and dark.  So what happens when we alter this rhythm, as we did with the invention of electric light that promised to “turn night into day” with the simple flick of a switch?  According to Richard Stevens, a cancer-epidemiologist interviewed by Keim, everything.

“Everything changed with electricity. Now we can have bright light in the middle of night. And that changes our circadian physiology almost immediately,” says Richard Stevens….“What we don’t know, and what so many people are interested in, are the effects of having that light chronically.”

In Stevens lab, they altered the circadian clocks in mice and found it led to diabetes.  In another experiment, the cycle of night and day for volunteers was altered to coincide with a 28-hour day, and the result was a drop in the functioning of endocrine, metabolic and cardiovascular systems.  While Stevens is not quick to link studies that focus on sleep patterns to conclusions on the effects of artificial light, he does offer some reason to see a connection:

 “You can wake up in the middle of the night and your melatonin levels don’t change,” he says. “But if you turn on a light, melatonin starts falling immediately. We need darkness.” According to Stevens, most people live in a sort of “circadian fog.”

The reason we live in this circadian fog is because we do not embrace the “goodness” of night.  Instead, night has become ubiquitous with “an estimated 95 percent of Americans regularly using screens shortly before going to sleep.”  It is the lights of our digital devices that mirrors daylight and tricks our brains and circadian systems.   Keim explains:

[A]rtificial lights, particularly LCDs, some LEDs, and fluorescent bulbs, also favor the blue side of the spectrum. So even a brief exposure to dim artificial light can trick a night-subdued circadian system into behaving as though day has arrived.

Disruption of the circadian rhythm results in the disruption of proper body regulation.  Cancer, diabetes, obesity, and depression have all been linked to lifestyles that are out of sync with light and dark.

This is probably a long shot, but maybe we favor light to darkness because its goodness is a recurring metaphor in both the Old and New Testaments.  In Psalm 89, David praises those who walk in the light of Gods’ presence: Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, LORD.  In Isaiah 5, the prophet warns against mistaking darkness for light:  Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.  And in 1 John 1, the apostle uses light to describe the essence of God:  God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.

Darkness has a bad rap in the world of Biblical metaphors.  But if the form of light and darkness that was filled with the sun, moon, and stars truly was created for us, the inhabitants of earth, then both day and night were established for our well-being.  So the next time you reach for your phone before bed, remember the literal “goodness” of night and embrace the dark.


4 thoughts on “The Darkness we Need

    • True. Perhaps one day we will no longer require darkness for sleep, but will be forever awake in a perpetual state of light. Imagine all the blogging we could accomplish!

  1. I suggest that you pick up Craig Koslofsky’s Evening’s Empire: A History of Night in Early Modern Europe (2011). He makes the point that for most of human history–and we have a fair amount of evidence for this, if only you know what to look for–people have experienced two periods of rest with a period of two or three hours in the middle of night of wakefulness.

    The idea that you were awake during the day and asleep through the night is a peculiarly modern invention that comes after people start to regiment their days with the aid of mechanical timepieces and fairly safe lighting technologies. So not exactly ‘creational’–but something that has been ‘rationalized.’

    But I take your point about LED lights interrupting circadian rhythms.

  2. The other point to be made here is that the difference between the creation narrative in Genesis 1 and its reinterpretation in the light of the Word’s incarnation in John 1 is that the light/dark distinction becomes moralized/spiritualized. In Genesis, God separates light from dark, but doesn’t assign any obvious moral value to either of them. In John 1, the light very explicitly ‘shines through the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.’

    It would interesting to make an extended comparison of light and darkness metaphor in the Old and New Testaments. My suspicion is that you would see much fewer hang-ups with darkness in the Old, while in the New darkness would assume more sinister aspects. And I suspect you would be able to make the case that God’s Incarnation creates a new urgency, or a new sense that creation is not merely good (per the Old), but something that is being fought over (i.e. the New).

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