Selective attention is the process by which our brain determines what is important for our senses to notice. At any given moment, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of things vying for our attention through our senses. Our brains are amazingly adept at helping us notice only those things we need to notice.
Of course, we train our brains to do this. Part of learning how to drive, for example—is learning to prioritize what you see. You may notice the scenery less but you’re more aware of the cars around you. Naturally, there’s a lot we don’t see. Someone involved in city planning or the upkeep of our roads will notice different things when driving down Cottage Road than I do. I probably see lots of things every day that don’t register because they don’t mean anything to me.
There is a condition—I don’t remember what it’s called—that is defined by the inability to filter out what is unimportant. The brain takes in all stimulus and is overwhelmed by it. And then there’s the opposite problem, which is more common, the tunnel vision mode that some of us, myself included, fall prey to. If I’m looking for someone on Sunday morning that I need to speak to, I can pass half a dozen people without noticing them because they’re not the person with whom I need to speak.
This is all selective attention, and it’s a normal thing, even a good thing in many cases. Artists know how to tap into this ability, either catering to it or pulling us out of it. Last year the Sandy Hook Promise organization put out a video in which you are supposed to spot the warning signs of gun violence. In each scene the focus of the camera is on a boy as he starts an anonymous correspondence with a girl. As time passes you see him trying to find out who he is writing to. When, at the end of the video, another student pulls out a gun, we’re shocked—because we never even saw him. Then they show the video again, this time with a spotlight on the person in the background: a boy reading a gun magazine, being bullied, exhibiting anger. But we never noticed. Our brains are trained to see what is front and center, not only in a video, but in real life.
We do the same thing when we study scripture. We focus on what is front and center because most of the time that’s where the meaning is. But sometimes, especially with a familiar story, I like to look at it differently. I like to take the story in my hands and turn it, see what’s in the background.
In today’s story, the camera is focused on two parties: King Herod and the traveling magi. Let’s start with the magi. We don’t know how many there were—we assume three because of the three gifts—and they were known as astronomers, astrologers, people who seek wisdom in the stars. But here’s the thing about the “wise men”—apparently they weren’t very smart, or at least they were missing some crucial information. One scholar I’ve quoted before puts it this way: “To search for the Christ is the epitome of wisdom. To underestimate King Herod is the epitome of stupid.”
I imagine the first people to hear this story, as Matthew told it, must have fallen out of their chairs, laughing, at the very first sentence. Those men . . . waltzed straight into Jerusalem and did WHAT?! With HEROD on the throne?! What idiots!! The first people to hear this story would have caught the supreme irony at work in the telling, because they would have remembered what it was like, when King Herod was on the throne.
Herod was one of the cruelest dictators ever to pass through the Middle East, a man so paranoid about succession that he had his own sons executed, to keep them from inheriting his throne. . . . You couldn’t pick a worse strategy for the wise men than to cross the border into Israel, head straight to the capitol, and openly ask for the address of some baby that has been born king of the Jews [and is thereby a threat to Herod] — adding, of course, that this baby’s birth announcement was actually written in the stars, for everyone from here to Persia to see.”
We stopped reading at verse twelve, but if we’d kept going, we would have heard the story of how Herod responded to the news—by ordering that all baby boys in Bethlehem be put to death. And here’s where I want to turn the story, to look at those in the background because the magi, being from away, may not have known King Herod’s reputation or character, but the chief priests certainly did. That’s who King Herod turned to for advice: the chief priests and scribes. They had to have known. They had to have known who Herod was—his cruelty, his paranoia, his tendency to lash out at anyone who threatened his power. So why would they tell him? Why would they give him information that they had to have known he would use against this child, this promised one? They gave him the information that, according to the story, led to the death of hundreds of baby boys. Were they too afraid to stand up to him? Does that make them partially responsible? Were they “just doing their job?” Were they intentionally blind to who and what he was, or just to what he might do with that information?
At the beginning of my sermon I talked about this idea of selective attention, when your brain determines how much you should see and hear. But then there’s selective perception, which is different than selective attention. “Selective perception is the tendency not to notice and more quickly forget stimuli that cause emotional discomfort and contradict our prior beliefs…. Selective perception is a form of bias because we interpret information in a way that is congruent with our existing values and beliefs.” Selective perception is seeing what we want to see and not seeing what we don’t want to see. It’s believing what we want to believe because it fits our preconceived notions, or because it’s too uncomfortable to admit we were wrong. Selective perception allows us to hold onto prejudicial stereotypes because we don’t see all the contradictory evidence. It allows us to hold onto misguided beliefs because we dismiss anything that doesn’t fit our belief systems as false. It allows us to ignore anything that makes us uncomfortable. And some things need to make us uncomfortable!
This past Wednesday night the Eskimos men’s group sponsored a speaker on a difficult topic—sexual abuse and sexual trafficking. It was far from their typical meeting. Nobody went home feeling warm and happy like after a concert of old favorites. But it was an important topic. The responsibility to prevent these abuses lies with all of us, so we needed to hear about what we can do, about our responsibility to report anything that seems weird, about the need for good education for children and adults. It made some of us uncomfortable, and it needed to. We have to stand up. We have to protect those who are vulnerable.
The chief priests and scribes that Herod consulted failed in that endeavor. They did not protect those who were vulnerable. In today’s world, that’s called being complicit.
I’d never really thought about their role before. I was always focused on the magi because hey, I’m a seeker, right? I’m the kind of person who seeks spiritual wisdom and tries to follow. I can put myself in this story and imagine myself as one of the magi. I certainly would never compare myself to Herod. I don’t have his thirst for power or his cruel bloodthirsty style of leadership. I could never relate to Herod. But when we take the spotlight off the two of them and put it on those in the background, well, then it gets a little more uncomfortable . . . because unfortunately it’s not as hard to see myself as a religious leader who gets caught up in what the Bible says, but fails to see. Oh, sure, I certainly would report a crime or step in to help a child being abused. But I also know my tunnel vision might conveniently keep me from noticing all who need help.
Growing up I was taught that being a Christian was counter-cultural. I thought it was because the culture around me was so decadent and we as Christians were to eschew such hedonistic pleasures as premarital sex and, you know, dancing. I still believe that being a Christian is counter-cultural, but for different reasons. The culture around us is focused on greed, and Christ tells us to share. The culture around us values success, and Christ calls us to sacrifice. The society around us says every man for himself, and Jesus said that whatever we fail to do for those in need, we fail to do for him.
It’s the beginning of a new year, and conventional wisdom says we should ask ourselves what we want to do in the next year, what we want to accomplish, where we see ourselves one year from now. Instead I want to know:
What will you do this year to make the world a better place?
Where and when will you use your voice for those in need?
How will you stand up to the empire of greed and power?
Because here’s the cool part. It’s not uncommon for me to invite you to enter into the story, to point out which characters we might identify with. But we get to do more than that. We get to rewrite the story, at least for our time. We get to change the ending. We get to say “No, the religious leaders don’t back down in the face of power. The religious leaders stand up and say ‘no more.’ Not another child.” We get to say “Wise ones don’t go home by another route to ensure their own safety—they stay and protect everyone.” We get to say “No, families should not have to flee for their lives or go into hiding because the government is threatened by their existence.” We get to rewrite the story for our time.
It’s a new year, with lots of opportunity ahead of us—opportunity not for personal gain but for rising to the challenge of living as counter-cultural Christians. If we do that, then the light will break forth. Isaiah said, “Arise! Shine! Your light has come; the Lord’s glory has shone upon you.” It’s true—God’s Light has come. So now I say to you: “Arise! Shine! Your time has come!”