Thursday, October 1, 2015

Invisible Gorillas, Parables, and Reception History

Can you see the gorilla?

I spent a few pages in the Introduction of my James Through the Centuries reception history commentary explaining the theoretical/philosophical foundations for my approach to reception history of the Bible. I am not repeating that more detailed argumentation in this student-oriented textbook on the reception history of the parables. I am including a section, however, that explains in a slightly humorous (maybe) way one reason why reception history is helpful: It helps us see gorillas that might otherwise be invisible.

Here is the first draft of that short section:

The Invisible Gorilla, Parables, and Reception History

Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction (Bakhtin 1984: 110).

This quote, perhaps better than any other, helps to illustrate the philosophical foundation of my approach to reception history—and why I do reception history in the first place. No one person or interpreter holds a monopoly on truth, and an essential element of reception history—and the search for meaning in these texts—is listening to and interacting with a wide range of voices, including those whose voices are usually not heard.

One basic truth concerning the interpretation of any narrative is that any interpreters tend to find what they expect to find in a narrative. What interpreters expect to see influences what they see. This selective attention places blinders on interpreters, blinders that can only be removed when interpreters join in dialogues with other interpreters who have different perspectives, presuppositions, and modes of analysis.

The famous “invisible gorilla” experiment by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons illustrates how our perceptions of what we things is “reality” are skewed by our preconceptions. Participants in the experiment were asked to watch a brief video in which three people in white shirts pass a basketball back and forth to each other and three people in black shirts also pass a basketball back and forth to each other. Viewers of the video were instructed to count the number of passes the people in the white shirts made to each other. In the middle of the brief video, a person dressed in a gorilla suit walks from slowly from the right side of the screen into the middle of the six people passing basketballs, stops, faces the camera, and beats his chest before slowly walking off to the viewers’ left. The person in the gorilla suit spends a total of nine seconds on the screen (see

Surprisingly, almost half of the viewers of the video did not see the gorilla; because they were focused on counting the number of passes made between the players in white shirts, the gorilla became invisible to them. I have shown students in some of my classes over the past few years, and a similar percentage does not see the gorilla. What we look for influences what we see, and interpreters can miss a significant number of elements in a narrative simply because of their own contexts and presuppositions. Interpreters may believe that they interpret the text “as it is” as objectively and completely as possible but actually overlook a number of significant elements, metaphorical gorillas stroll through the narrative sight unseen. Reception history helps to overcome these shortcomings and remove exegetical blinders from interpreters, especially when diverse voices from various perspectives are included in the conversations. 

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