You’ve probably heard of the famous “Invisible Gorilla” study, conducted by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris several years ago. It was a work that won the Ig Nobel Prize for Psychology in 2004. In the study, Simons and Chabris asked volunteers to watch a one-minute long video of two teams (one group in white shirts; one in black shirts) passing around a basketball. The volunteers were specifically tasked with keeping count of how many times the ball is passed by a member of the white-shirted team. Halfway through the video, a person wearing a full-body gorilla suit walks through the scene, pounds the chest, then leaves. After watching the video, the volunteers were asked to give their official counts, but were also asked if they saw anything else in the video. Amazingly, only around 50% of the volunteers saw the gorilla.
The experiment clearly demonstrated what is known as “Inattentional Blindness,” a common mental phenomenon defined by a lack of expectation for an unattended stimulus. Test subjects didn’t expect to see a gorilla while they were focusing on their counting task, so quite often they didn’t even notice the ape in plain view.
Are We Spiritually Blind To Today’s Cultural Dangers?
Do we see the possible “gorilla” in the room? As Christians, born to be in this world but not of it, we should be very aware of our possible inattentional spiritual blindness in the midst of our surroundings. In fact, we are commanded many times to “keep watch” (Matthew 26:41; 1 Corinthians 16:13; 1 Peter 5:8). This is a solemn task designed to keep us on the straight and narrow path of discipleship, to avoid falling into sin, and to avoid the appearance of evil for the sake of our gospel witness.
The Christian’s engagement with the American culture is a prime example. Now more than ever, we are inundated with the swirling sights and sounds of a beckoning world system, ruled by the prince of the power of the air and the temptations of the flesh. As Paul reminds us, we wrestle “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). This is a battle requiring the whole armor of God and we must always be on guard and watchful.
The current driving philosophy in American Christianity, however, is that we fully engage in that dark culture, not in clear opposition to the sin and spiritual destruction within it, but to mine the culture for any nugget of truth we can find for our ready enjoyment. We have made Philippians 4:8 our perennial life verse, and we make it our goal to zero in on the “commendable” things alone and ignore the rest, leaving the chaff for the world to consume with little regard of the consequences. This is particularly noticeable in the realm of entertainment, in speculative fantasy books and movies, and the popular fictions of The Shack, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.
Such postmodern thinking is exemplified by Andrew Peterson, the Christian singer/songwriter. In his essay, Harry Potter, Jesus, and Me, Peterson characterizes his enjoyment of Harry Potter books as a noble pursuit to find glimpses of gospel truth in the world:
“For us in the Age of the Church on earth, we get the privilege of proclaiming [Jesus’] story, of looking for its glimmers like men hunched over a river and panning for gold, pointing it out, whooping for joy, glorying in the grace of the King.”
What Peterson is specifically speaking of here is his public testimony of enjoying and promoting the Harry Potter books (and subsequent movies) because he saw a profound echo of the crucifixion in Harry Potter’s sacrificial death. Wrote Peterson, “In that moment I was able, because of these books, to worship Christ in a way I never had.”
For Peterson, then, Harry Potter has seemingly become indispensable to his faith and he unabashedly defends the spiritual value of this literary work, despite the controversy over its occult themes. And he is not alone in this; it is readily apparent that the vast majority of evangelicals in America have decided to rub shoulders with unbelievers and join the ranks of rabid Potterites. Same thing goes for Christians who fearlessly become public fans of Game of Thrones or Outlander or “fill-in-the-blank” of some new entertainment enterprise. If they can sniff out one dry morsel of bible-like truth in the midst of that barren, dangerous landscape, they are all over it. After all, they contend, we can “eat the meat, and spit out the bones.”
Are We Blind To The Cultural Dangers For Unbelievers?
The problem with this new Christian philosophy, however, is that it creates the perfect atmosphere for inattentional blindness that cannot see the invisible gorilla in the room. If Christians believe that one of their main tasks in this life is to count every speck of “gold” in the muddy streams of this world, they may never notice the surrounding deposit of golden-flecked quicksand by which the world is deceived. In the end, such a Christian boldly celebrates Harry Potter for some emotional moment of personal spiritual fulfillment, and meanwhile an unbeliever reads the same passages and becomes so enchanted by the power of fictional magic that they fly to the nearest bookstore to learn more about spell-casting and the alluring aspects of the occult, and move farther away from God and His truth.
For Christians, finding an interesting literary metaphor for sacrificial love in Harry Potter is hardly worth it if a neo-pagan like journalist Sarah Lyons confesses without prompting:
“Speaking from my own personal experience, yes. Harry Potter was definitely my gateway drug to the world of witchcraft. Reading stories focused on witchcraft made me so excited and curious that I went out to seek the real thing; I can still remember finding a copy of The Witches’ Almanac in a tiny bookstore when I was 13 and feeling like I had finally gotten my own letter inviting me to a magical world.”
This is the gorilla in the room. In light of Sarah’s heartbreaking testimony, the only sacrificial love that a Christian should focus on is the one which compels him to sacrifice his enjoyment of Harry Potter out of love and concern for the many unbelievers like Sarah who are confused and deceived by it. The question that should be asked by every watchful believer is this:
“Is there a detrimental spiritual component, immorality, or false teaching attached to my public interests and activities that might compromise or destroy my gospel witness or worse, bring dishonor to Christ?”
Opening Our Eyes To Biblical Truth
Sadly, too many Christians have perverted Philippians 4:8 for a self-centered pleasure or to create a “safe space” in a world that hates Christ and His gospel. Paul’s recommendation has an important context for that verse: It is more about guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus from sinful and unprofitable things (verse 7) and focusing instead on the excellencies of Christ, found especially in what one has “learned and received and heard and seen in [Paul]” (verse 9). This is an affirmation of his apostolic example and teachings. Surely no one can defend Harry Potter as “pure” when its toxic narrative often feeds the flames of pagan sensibilities in the reader.
This has nothing at all to do with our Christian liberty to enjoy “meat sacrificed to idols.” In fact, this particular issue has little to no connection to that teaching from Paul. There is a big difference between knowledge of the food’s pagan-butchering process and whether or not the meat itself is full of maggots. You can drink a refreshing glass of Kool-aid mixed by pagan hands if you want, but the bigger issue is whether it contains a tablespoon of potassium cyanide. Just try to spit out that pinch of poison and only swallow the pure Kool-aid without incident. The deadly situation becomes even worse when an unbeliever follows your lead, thinking the concoction is safe for consumption.
The biblical passage that has more application to this situation is in Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthians as “people of the flesh, and infants in Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:1). Their behavior was childish in their form over function. They had carelessly focused on the mere skeletal form of Christianity, instead of the sacred function of outward community that needed to reside inside: a holy and mature people worshiping in spirit and in truth. As a result of their transgression they had failed miserably to “discern the body of Christ,” and in turn had become blind to the clear and public display of sexual immorality in their midst, a kind of sin that was not tolerated even among pagans. Paul’s emphatic admonition to them, “Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this [sin] be removed from among you” (1 Corinthian 5:1-2).
The present invisible gorilla in American Christianity isn’t a particular person that needs to be put out for his unrepentant public sin. Instead, it is the resident member of an entrenched idea within the visible Church that claims our Christian witness has no relationship at all with the pursuit of Christian liberty in our various engagements with the current culture. This false notion, however, has not discerned the Body as the physical representation of Christ in this world and as the ambassadors of Christ to the world, which implore sinners to be reconciled to God.
Some may argue that the invisible gorilla analogy goes both ways: perhaps a Christian is so focused on the appearance of evil that he misses seeing the good things in the world. They will say that a Christian like that is losing sight of the “splintered fragment of the true light” (that Tolkien espoused in the defense of his mythology) for fear of being tainted by the surrounding darkness and that such a Christian is spending way too much time searching for a pagan “boogeyman” that might be lurking in the dark corners.
Their argument may have some merit on a personal level. Certainly a Christian can become unbalanced in his practice of spiritual discernment, and he shouldn’t ignore those daily evidences of God’s grace and truth that are revealed to him. But this issue isn’t about one’s overriding fear of personal harm. Nor is it about some sanctimonious judgment against a person’s freedom in Christ to (for example) watch television, have long hair, or eat with unbelievers at restaurants where alcohol is served. This is about the unqualified, public endorsement of certain authors and their literature (or movies, etc.) as suitable sources for spiritual insight by the visible Church at large. It is an issue that transcends a mere quibble on individual liberty and reaches the heights of a monolithic spiritual recklessness which seriously damages our corporate witness as proclaimers of Christ and His truth.
Whether one realizes it or not, this philosophy espoused by Andrew Peterson and others has subtly crept into the American Church, a Trojan horse in the guise of fantasy literature and movies. Whether “Christian” or not, these creative pursuits and enjoyments have already undermined our foundational belief in “sola Scriptura” and marred our witness to the world as a “peculiar people, a kingdom of priest” set apart for the Gospel. Such worldly focus has caused an inattentional blindness that has almost completely missed these fundamental and crucial admonitions from the Bible:
Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders (Colossians 4:5).
Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation (1 Peter 2:12).
But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints (Ephesians 5:3).
But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak (1 Corinthians 8:9).
Abstain from all forms of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:22).
The Bible is crystal clear on this point, and it is the holy Book that is “profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness.” Why, then, do we feel a need to pan for specks of fleeting glitter if we have already hit the mother lode? God has given us His direct revelation in the Bible, which has a golden brilliance that would take more than a lifetime to gaze upon and fully comprehend the extent of its value and beauty. This should be where we find our true, never-ending joy in discovery.
We Should Marvel At The Pure Gold Of Scripture
To turn from the endless treasure of God’s word in order to pursue a mere glimmer in the darkness may indicate a stronger preference for the things of this world rather than the things of heaven. Such people justify this search for random truth as an honorable pursuit and spiritual discipline, but it might just be a clever excuse to enjoy playing like children in the muddy waters of this present age without feeling stained by it.
Our direct commission from Jesus Christ, however, is strikingly different. We are to go into the world as those mature in Christ to proclaim what we have already been given, not to go into the world to look for something we think we might be missing. To constantly search for a mere trifle among the streams of human wisdom is a fool’s errand that will inevitably lead to presenting fool’s gold to the world instead of the pure Gold of the Gospel.
Let us instead join with Paul in stating without hesitation, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.”