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God and “Gorillas”?- Inattention in the Christian Life (Part 1)

I was listening to one of Jordan Peterson’s lectures and he referenced a psychological study by Simons and Chabris entitled “Gorillas in Our Midst: Sustained Inattentional Blindness for Dynamic Events.” While sitting at my gate at the airport, I pulled the article up on Google Scholar and dove in. The study involved a relatively simple task in which participants were shown a video with two sets of people (one set in black shirts and one in white shirts) who would be passing basketballs. The participants were asked to count the number of passes made by the white team. At the end of the experiment, the participants reported how many passes the team in the white shirts made and were asked a question: “Did you notice the gorilla?”

It turns out that at some point during the video of the two teams passing basketballs, someone dressed in a gorilla costume had walked halfway across the screen, stopped in the midst of those passing the balls, beat on his chest, and then walked off the other side of the screen. Only fifty percent of those watching the video noticed the gorilla. they were so intent on counting the number of passes (the primary task) that they missed a surprising, unexpected event in the film. The results of the “gorilla” study and other studies of inattentional blindness seem to suggest “that, without attention, visual features of our environment are not perceived at all (or at least not consciously perceived)—observers may fail not just at change detection, but at perception as well.”

Having read the study, I began to wonder what relevance inattentional blindness, or “the surprising failure to notice an unexpected object or event when attention is focused on something else” (Simons), might have for the Christian life. At what point does God become our gorilla? How is it that we can so orient our attention elsewhere that we miss the unexpected interventions of God in our lives? How might we reorient our attention so that God never becomes like the gorilla in Simons’ experiment?

In their study, Simons and Chabris note, “The level of inattentional blindness depends on the difficulty of the primary task…” So, it stands to reason that we need to consider what our primary task is at any given moment. Might it be that by making my primary task getting to the gate on time at the airport, I am missing the unexpected interventions of God in my life? What might happen were I to make it my primary task to live as if Christ’s resurrection actually makes a difference? What would I need to do to remain focused on that primary task?

Rather than try to squeeze this topic into a single blog post, over the next several weeks I’m going to offer some thoughts on what might be required to make our primary task demonstrating the difference that Christ’s resurrection makes for the way we live our lives. It seems to me that there is no more important task for the church than to offer faithful testimony in word and deed concerning the God we serve. Yet, as I look at my own life, I am quite sure that often the most important task is not my primary task.

I believe that is the case because at some point along the way I began to assume that I understood what it means to live a Christian life. I became complacent, satisfied with my own relatively low standards of what it means to dedicate one’s life to Christ. Far from being an exercise in self-flagellation, recognizing that God has too often become the gorilla in the frame that goes unnoticed is an acknowledgment of our need to be a confessing community that is truthful about our shortcomings and honest that we often seem more sure than we have a right to be. Perhaps by acknowledging that we know less than we’d like about what it means to live a Christian life we can rediscover and be more deeply committed to a loving, holy God by whom we cannot help but be surprised.

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