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Did you try pressing the display button several times? in both viewing mode and record mode? Cycle through all display modes, s you get used to the button, so it does not trow you off when it happens again.
You get to the viewfinder by putting an eye to it. The Rebel XT works as SLRs have worked for half a century, showing you the image through the viewfinder. Only more recent dSLRs have a Live View capability, allowing you to use them as point&shoot cameras by viewing the image on an LCD.
If the camera is working properly with other lenses, then you have a problem with that lens. In M, you can set the aperture yourself, and the photos come out properly exposed. When the lens is set to auto, apparently it is going to minimum aperture and not responding to the camera's 'instructions'. The thing that makes me think so is that you say everything looks dark through the optical viewfinder. Normally the aperture stays full open so you can see and compose your shot, and only stops down to the correct aperture when you actually take the shot. I would suggest having the lens checked by an appropriate camera service shop.
NatD, The D50 and indeed most SLR digital cameras [ I have a D40 ] does not allow you to take pictures using the LCD display ... this is by design, you are meant to use the viewfinder and the image you see through it is straight through the lens via a mirror block [ called a reflex pentamirror or prism ]. When the mirror is down such that you can see the image in the viewfinder it is obscuring the sensor [ the bit that takes the picture ] and when you take a shot the mirror lifts and the picture is recorded. Its this reason that DSLR's dont use the LCD to shoot, however there are a few now available that do let you do this, such as olympus, new panasonic one and higher end Nikon and Canon cameras. Hope this explains it without getting too detailed!
to my knowledge digital slrs aren't supposed to show you the image on the screen before you shoot because the battery would get used up too quickly this is what the viewfinder is for and the lcd is purely there to tell you info on what the settings are and to view your pics after shooting, I have the 400d and its the same for that.Hope this helps