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Selective Attention


Perhaps you have seen the Youtube video of a now famous 1999 experiment by two cognitive scientists, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, on selective attention.  In the film, six people stand in a room, some of them dressed in white and some of them dressed in black. Viewers are instructed to watch the group throw basketballs to one another and to count only the passes made by the players dressed in white.

(If you haven’t seen the video already you might want to watch it here before reading further.)

Remarkably, about half the people who watch this video become so focused on counting basketball passes they fail to notice a jarring sight: a man in a gorilla suit walks in and out of the scene thumping his chest.  How could so many people fail to see something so dramatic and so obvious right before their eyes?

“Although people do still try to rationalize why they missed the gorilla,” Simons concludes, “it’s hard to explain such a failure of awareness without confronting the possibility that we are aware of far less of our world than we think.”

Put in other terms, we tend to notice what we are already looking for—and we are often oblivious to glaring facts that challenge our expectations or disrupt our settled worldviews. 

This week, the Sabbath School Quarterly unintentionally illustrates another kind of selective attention—theological selective attention.  To state the matter inelegantly, whenever we read the Bible, Christ is always the “gorilla in the room.”  He is the one we ought to be paying attention to and following.  But we are easily distracted by a host of other attention-stealers, both in and out of the text.  We thus often miss the most important and dramatic action right at the heart of the story. 

Unfortunately, authors and editors of Sabbath School Quarterlies are not immune to this peril.

Attention Stealers

Consider a disconcerting fact: Christ is barely mentioned in this week’s lesson study.  I do not want to harshly criticize anyone for what was perhaps a mere inadvertence.  Nor do I want to suggest that the best or only way to think and talk as a Christian is by constantly referencing Christ’s name.  Yet given the topics of this week’s lesson study—the Holy Spirit and the nature of revelation and inspiration—the absence of any discussion, over the course of an entire week, of the centrality of Christ to Christian hermeneutics is a puzzling and inauspicious start to the new year.

True, in the first lesson we are told, “the Spirit works with and through the Written Word to transform us into new creatures in Christ.”  Four days later, the lesson states the same idea in slightly different words: “the Holy Spirit works in harmony with and through the Bible to draw us to Christ.”  Finally, at the very end of the week, the lesson declares that “Jesus Christ died for our sins,” and that this is “the most important truth of all.”  But other than these three sentences, the Quarterly barely so much as alludes to the One who the story is in fact all about. 

One attention-stealer that clamors for our attention instead is fundamentalist creationism.  “God hates false witness,” we are warned.  Many “people, while claiming to believe the Bible, reject such things as a six-day creation.”  Christians who do not interpret Genesis 1 in strictly literalistic fashion, the Quarterly suggests more than once, are not true believers.  We are encouraged to ponder and write down what we think should be done about “the people promoting these errors.”

These preoccupations of the Quarterly seem to be animated by the notion that salvation is above all a matter of holding correct doctrines—correct knowledge—in one’s head.  The primary role of the Holy Spirit, the Quarterly strongly suggests, is to convey the right information or propositional truths which “we could never know…through natural means.” 

But nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus say, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, that you know correct doctrines.”  What Christ says is, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:5).  Wherever the Holy Spirit is at work, the result is restored community and restored relationships.  Knowledge puffs up while love builds up (1 Cor. 8:1).

Reading the Bible with Christ at the Center

When we fail to read the Bible in a truly Christ-centered or Christological way, we invariably fail to discern the work of the Holy Spirit both in Scripture and in our lives.  Our interpretations become little more than brittle exercises in confirmation bias.  We confidently call our own readings “plain” and other people’s “subjective,” refusing to acknowledge that we too bring a host of cultural, psychological, and cognitive biases with us to the text.  We imagine that God is guiding us every step of the way.  In fact, we might be engaged in nothing more than a subtle—or not-so-subtle—game of power and control. 

I have never seen a church community torn apart because its members were excessively concerned with building up and supporting their neighbors, even at times across deep theological differences.  I have seen communities torn apart and thrown into confusion and controversy by individuals with inquisitorial spirits who imagined that they were divinely appointed guardians of Truth.

How, then, might we correct our hermeneutical lenses?  How might we open ourselves to the moving of the Holy Spirit and to the living Christ who stands at the center of all of Scripture?

According to the great Protestant theologian Karl Barth, the Bible is in fact not God’s revelation—at least not in the fullest sense of the word.  Rather, the Bible is an authoritative witness to the God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. What this means is that our readings of Scripture must always be firmly anchored in the Jesus story.  We know that the Holy Spirit is at work whenever we encounter believers who care most deeply about the things Jesus cared about when he was on earth, who treat other people the way Jesus treated even his enemies, and who are humbly walking in Jesus’ footsteps.  These are our best readers and interpreters of Scripture—and they often interpret the Bible by their actions more than their words.  It is by their fruits that we know them.

Questions for Reflection

I do not mean to minimize the importance of correct teaching or orthodoxy (right belief).  But following Jesus, as a matter of daily living as well as daily Bible study, has far more to do with orthopraxy (right actions).  And one kind of right action is how we relate to people in the Body of Christ with whom we might find we have strong theological and interpretive disagreements.  The Sabbath School Quarterly this week encourages us to vigilantly spot the false believers in our midst.  I would instead encourage readers to make a habit in 2017 and beyond of asking themselves the following questions as they read the Bible alongside others in our community:

  • How can I be an even better listener than speaker, leaving ample space for other voices and perspectives?
  • How can I express myself with the utmost courtesy and respect toward others, especially those with whom I have strong disagreements?
  • How can I be true to my convictions without passing harsh spiritual judgment on fellow believers for whom Christ died?
  • How can I focus on the big picture of what Christ is doing in other people’s lives, recognizing that theological and interpretive disagreements are often matters of personal growth and experience, that we are all in different places in our spiritual journeys, and that we all have blind spots and unconscious biases?
  • How can I not lose my sense of humor or drieth up other peoples’ bones? (Proverbs 17:22).


Ronald Osborn is a wandering philosopher and the author of "Humanism and the Death of God: Searching for the Good After Darwin, Marx, and Nietzsche” (Oxford University Press, 2017).

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