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 toponder 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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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Brilliant analysis, Sir Ron, of the collective hermenuetical woes of our community. We indeed are all too often looking for the wrong thing(s) when we open the pages of Scripture. I would only add that followers of Jesus should not only be looking for Jesus, but looking for how Jesus himself interpreted the Bible; students of Jesus should read the Bible like Jesus.


Thank you Ronald for a timely and much needed reminder of what is the heart of our Christian walk and our gospel message - Jesus and His love and grace as He dwells in our heart through the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. This introductory lesson to such a critical topic left me feeling cheated and at times just frustrated. You have really nailed the problems.

The issues you highlight are a real challenge to our spiritual experience. How many sermons do we listen to that have a few references to Christ tacked on the end to make them, supposedly, “Christ-centred?” As you point out, the lesson talks a lot about the plain reading of Scripture. It seems at times that we get so busy defending our long cherished beliefs that not only do we miss the reality of Christ and the centrality of the cross and the resurrection but we also ignore the basic life changing revelations of the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts that impact every moment of our lives.

When I was growing up the Holy Spirit was still spoken of as “It,” like the wind. Scientifically, we know a lot more these days about the wind and by the same token, the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives is not the mystery we used to make it out to be. Of course there is so much we do not understand but we know that Christ dwells us through the Holy Spirit. Therein lies the power of being a Christian believer. We are challenged to walk in the Spirit. We rejoice in the work of the Holy Spirit as the cause of our new birth, the removal of our old sinful nature and the creation of our new spiritual nature where He abides in us as our Guide and Comforter.

Sadly, there are believers who still prefer to be under the law rather than being led by the indwelling Spirit. Perhaps some plain reading of Scripture starting in Galatians could help.

Paul seemed to understand the reality of the Holy Spirit pouring the love of God into his innermost being. “Walk by the Spirit” was his advice. What an amazing truth we have to live by and to share with the world - Father, Son and Holy Spirit.


In considering that Christ did not make a statement saying that by knowledge of doctrines will they know you are disciples, He did say something to the effect that we worship Him in vain when the doctrines of men are elevated. So, it would seem that orthodoxy is important so as not to to worship Christ in vain.

One would also imagine that if the Genesis account is not to be taken literally, then neither is the Fourth Commandment. And neither would Christ’s reference to Noah be valid as this would make Him a promulgator of a false Flood narrative.

Furthermore, if the Bible is not God’s revelation, then the book of Revelation should be thrown out for falsely stating that it is the revelation of Jesus Christ.


It often seems that religious orthodoxy, even under the guise of biblical truth, ends up becoming ossified into tradition…little more than the commandments of men. An example could be that if a church body stops at the understanding of justification by faith as expressed by Luther, it could be on these grounds…more tradition than vital faith. So much has transpired in five hundred years of biblical scholarship and studies that have gone beyond Luther’s time and circumstances, that to ignore that, while sticking with 16th century orthodoxy, would be tantamount to worshiping tradition.

Adventism certainly doesn’t get off the hook with this, either. Plenty could be said about Adventist traditional beliefs that have lost their relevance over time, and have no life giving power, as well.

To me, this is why the above article is so on the mark. The living Christ, who will energize us to practically express God’s love and presence in this present age, and who gives us hope for the one to come, never loses his relevance. And, he will always come to us with life giving power to be and act as God’s people, even while we may hold different theological understandings and positions on various other issues.

The bible, including the book of Revelation, is centrally a witness of this, and of him. As Jesus himself was quoted by John, “…these (the scriptures) are they which testify of me.”




Very nicely written, Ron. I really appreciated the pointed reminder that too many among us too often forget Christ’s own words: "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:5). We’ve all seen other criteria applied for identifying the “true” saints.

Ted Robertson, by the way, has some merit with his counterpoints.

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We often compartmentalize our distinct doctrines without the main connection to the central issue - Christ. We find a sort of pride in our tradition of always having a verse to memorize in our prescribed weekly lessons, starting in cradle roll. I remember well when I first read beyond the snippet you quoted: “…these are they that testify of me.” - referring to the scriptures, used to hold up our list of distinct verses that keep upright the pillars of our faith. What we discover here is a condemnation of the, then, traditional pride in the Hebrew scriptures, just like the one we have today. What precedes your quote, says, - “you search the scriptures because you think you will find eternal life; but they testify of me” - (the true source of life) - vs. 39. This is furthered in verse 40: "and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life" This is to say, no rote memorization and repetition of individual verses that bolster our distinct beliefs is going to give us life here or into eternity. Unless these scriptures take us to “Christ and Him crucified”, all our beloved proof texts will amount to nothing.

What we have been doing is compartmentalizing our beliefs into separate little packages - when put together, make no sense. There is no way you can place, side-by-side, “By faith you are saved, not by works.” AND, at the same time, place a halo around the fourth commandment by placing it within our identifying name, indicating its supremacy within the Ten Commandments. When asked, point blank, “How are we saved?” the answer is by faith in Christ; but, the rest of the SDA identity revolves around the keeping of a day. It’s one or the other. It can’t be both, and still see the “gorilla in the room”.


May the Spirit of Christ bring you and Clifford into the unity Jesus prays for. This feels more like an ongoing vendetta between brothers who take potshots at each other while on the same “theodic path.”

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The Adventist focus. Is on fear, not Grace. Daniel - Judgment: Revelation, The Trumpete, Rush for cover of the Sabbath. not the Lord of Time And Grace. The book of Revelaion is about the victory of the Lamb. To tell that story and the beasts of Revelation offer no fear. Let us live our lives under His wings with gratitude and generosity. The Truth had consequences


Excellent. Thank you. The political consequences of what you bring up here are tremendous, as well.


John. Ron and I are very good friends despite our vast disagreements on crucial issues. There’s no vendetta, not from me and I don’t think from him either. We just think each other wrong, that’s all.


Too bad you couldn’t have ‘backed up’ the Christlessness of this current lesson.

Cliff, I take it from this comment that you do not agree with what Ron has written in this article. I just wish you would get away in a quiet corner, put aside your differences and take a long hard look at Lesson 1 and what Ron has written. All we want is more of Jesus and His love and grace.


What is (are) the issue(s) you have with Ron’s essay, Mr. Goldstein? Please, enlighten us. You represent the officialdom of the current leadership of Adventism. Tell us!


Ron would definitely enjoy a book by Brian McLaren
"A New Kind of Christianity".
He discusses This Exact same Issue.
How We SEE.
Looking at Jesus from 2017 back though the Reformers, the Church Fathers, the Early Church Fathers
Looking at Jesus beginning from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Two totally different views.
Also TWO different Gods. Theos, the god of the Greco-Roman philosophers, created Perfection,
Elohim, who instead of pronouncing the created world “perfect”, announces it is “good”.
Perfect means there can be no improvement, and can only go “down”.
Good allows for Evolvement into something better, more Good, something more wonderful, continued development.
Also Good allows Elohim to bear patiently with a rebellious and foolish humanity again and again.
Discusses the friction between Plato and Aristotle. And their influence on Rome and later on Roman Christianity.
And how Plato and Aristotle philosophy still influences us in the way we read the Bible today as SDAs.
A good read.


Hello, Ted–

In terms of “orthodoxy” and how to “take” the Bible as “God’s revelation,” there are a variety of “orthodox” Adventist ideas one might keep in tension:

  • Some parts of the Bible (e.g. I Cor. 1:14-16) give the impression of having been written as an individual’s thoughts unfolded (or as an amanuensis recorded them) rather than having been written by someone who consciously picked up a pen to record infallible scripture.

  • Other parts of the Bible (e.g. the two accounts of creation in Gen. 1-2:4a and Gen. 2:4b-25; II Samuel 24 and I Chronicles 21; and the accounts of Jesus and the demoniac/s in Matt. 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-20, and Luke 8:26-39) give the impression of being passed along by writers and then editors/compilers who had concerns that were more important to them than giving us the one factually correct account.

  • Any pre-teenaged Adventist reading her Bible through for the first time is confronted early on with the awareness that Adventists regard Exodus 20:3-17 (and Leviticus 11) very differently from passages just as self-evidently literal (say, Leviticus 12 or 15). She will discover many places where Adventists don’t take the Bible just as it reads. The takeaway: the authority of scripture is something faith communities accredit scripture with … as well as something that inheres in scripture.

  • In accepting a diagnosis of demon possession where most 21st century American Adventists would see schizophrenia or epilepsy or autism, Jesus appeared to agree with (his) contemporary traditional understanding rather than ours. Does this make him, or us, a “promulgator” of “false” medical information? Even assuming he saw the person’s condition as we do rather than as his contemporaries did, Jesus was not concerned with straightening out bystanders when he could heal and restore the suffering.

Biblical literalism as fundamentalists understand it was not the Adventist orthodoxy of biblical inspiration in the 1970s when I first became aware of the discussion. And of course Ellen White’s practice as we learned about it in the 1980s (as Joe Willey discusses elsewhere in the blog in his Rea interview) further clarifies that we idolize the writer and the text of inspired writings at the peril of future embarrassment.

Recognizing that our faith community accredits Ellen White with spiritual authority (and that she had personal experience with “revelation”), I will give her my last word in this comment:

"The Bible is written by inspired men, but it is not God’s mode of thought and expression. It is that of humanity. God, as a writer, is not represented. Men will often say such an expression is not like God. But God has not put Himself in words, in logic, in rhetoric, on trial in the Bible. The writers of the Bible were God’s penmen, not His pen. Look at the different writers.

“It is not the words of the Bible that are inspired, but the men that were inspired. Inspiration acts not on the man’s words or his expressions but on the man himself, who, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, is imbued with thoughts. But the words and thoughts receive the impress of the individual mind. The divine mind is diffused. The divine mind and will is combined with the human mind and will; thus the utterances of the man are the word of God.”—Manuscript 24, 1886 (written in Europe in 1886).


the chabris-simons gorilla experiment that ron osborn is using to illustrate his point contains a flaw that i think detracts from that point…it doesn’t isolate what is being tested from cross-contamination from the environment…viewers are told to count passes executed by players dressed in white, but there are players dressed in black also executing passes that need to be ignored in order to count correctly…meanwhile, the gorilla is also dressed in black…how to we know that the people who don’t see the gorilla haven’t shut it out because it’s the same color they need to shut out in order to follow instructions…if the gorilla was dressed in orange or purple, or if the players executing passes not being counted were dressed in orange or purple while the gorilla remained black, would we see the same result…i don’t think so…

i believe i’m seeing similar assumptions in this particular article…ron appears to see a problem in the fact that this week’s SS quarterly mentions christ three times, which he believes is the gorilla being overlooked because our attention is focused on issues having to do with fiat creation, namely that those who don’t believe in a literal six-day creation aren’t true believers…aside from the fact that we should probably be reminded that ron is the author of “Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering” (reviewed here: ), which is a definite move away from a literal interpretation of the bible’s creation story, what should probably be mentioned is the fact that the SS quarterly is likely assuming that its target audience, adult SDA’s, already know that christ is central to all the church’s doctrines, and that space in each weekly lesson can be safely used for material which the SS class can shape into a christ-centered discussion of its own choosing…

since returning to the church in 1993, being rebaptized in 1994, and having visited numerous adventist churches throughout n. america, parts of europe and south africa, i can say that i have yet to sit in a SS class that actually follows the SS quarterly verbatim, or that doesn’t use it as a springboard for conversation that the particular SS class deems relevant…for instance, the SS class i attended this morning at my home church wasn’t focused on vigilantly spotting false believers in our midst…we talked mostly on what inspiration means, and the fact that the bible, like the nature of christ, was a blend of human and divine…we also talked about how to read the bible daily in a way that produces christlike results in our lives…i hardly think that the SS class i attend - in a church that is hopelessly male headship, ultra-conservative, and probably fundamentalist - is an exception…

Such quotes have always helped me navigate the interpretive riptides in our history. But even they are no longer sufficient. Some biblical materials are simply lists of generations. or behavior codes, that pertained to Israelite life long ago. Without question, portions of the Wisdom Literature are human musings about life (all is vanity) which are inconsistent with other Scriptural admonitions urging us to be grateful for the joy of existence. However the writings originated (person, process, etc.) their authority is sourced in their meaningfulness to the Hebrew and Early Christian believers who canonized them for reasons not always clear to us. Yet they have nurtured faith for millions through millenia.


"We are encouraged to ponder and write down what we think should be done about ‘the people promoting these errors.’”

Naturally, one wonders what should be done about “the people” promoting such an erroneous focus. As Ron eloquently affirms, the best approach is to love them unconditionally, thus demonstrating the error of their ways.

And yes, let’s please keep our humor intact. Whenever we remove the fun from the fundamentals we’re left–as is the case in far too many churches–with “damentals.”


The Bible is not God, but we seem to think it’s blasphemous to point out its contradictions.

And we should be willing to admit that that plagiarized passage in Manuscript 24 is not necessarily accurate either.

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