While delivering an address at the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology, Richard Lucas, the longtime pastor of St. Helen’s Bishopgate Church in London, England, once said that the phrase “and he also made the stars” at the end of Genesis 1:16 was perhaps the greatest throwaway line in all of Scripture. Having God’s galaxies-creating act described in such a succinct way should give every reader pause, considering the number of created stars—about 100 octillion (1 followed by 27 zeroes) of them, according to some astronomical estimates. In reading the creation account of Genesis 1, we are prone to roll past this phrase very quickly, not pausing to fully consider the enormity of this great work of God: “He also made the stars.” Indeed, we should heed the counsel of the author of Hebrews, who, after citing Old Testament testimony of God’s infinite greatness, calls us to “pay much closer attention to what we have heard” (Heb. 2:1).
Consider God’s own pattern of paying attention. After completing each day of creation, what was God’s next immediate act? It was to look: “…and God saw that it was good” (emphasis added). It was to observe—God looked upon creation, paying close attention to what he had created. Observation is arguably inherent to the recognition of goodness, for what can be declared good without first being seen?
During his earthly mission, Jesus exhibited perfect observation. Consider his encounter with the widow of Nain, as recorded in Luke 7. As Jesus and his disciples approached the city gate, he was accompanied by “a great crowd,” and as he entered, a widow who had recently lost her only son was leaving, accompanied by the funeral procession. Imagine the commotion as the two parties collided, each trying to make its way past the other. Amid the certain chaos, what did Jesus do? Before he had compassion on the woman, before he comforted her, before he restored her son to life and gave him back to her, Luke tells us that “the Lord saw her” (Luke 7:13).1
We find accounts of looking throughout the four Gospels. The wise men saw a star rising in the east, recognized its significance, and were led to see the promised child. The devil took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and then to the top of a mountain—for improved vantage points from which to view and offer temptation. Jesus sees each individual before he calls them as disciples. Amid the many crowds he encounters, Jesus sees the sick, the lame, and the blind before healing them. He sees a withering fig tree and curses it; he looks upon Jerusalem and weeps over it.
Not surprisingly, Jesus has much to say about the use of our eyes:
Clearly, looking is an activity that receives considerable attention throughout the Bible. Not only do we discover Jesus always looking skillfully and lovingly, but we ourselves are called to be good observers, to use our eyes wisely. Consider how any evangelistic appeal must call people to look at the evidence for Jesus’ incarnation, humiliation, death, resurrection, and ascension, all of which are based on the eyewitness testimonies of the Gospels. It comes as no surprise that we are told that at Jesus’ return, “every eye shall see him” (Rev. 1:7).
Much attention also focuses on blindness—the inability to see. We have the account in John 9 of Jesus restoring the sight of a man blind from birth. John tells us, “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind!” (John 9:32). Moreover, we know that even those with eyesight may fail to truly observe—the prophet Isaiah spoke of one who “sees many things, but does not observe them” (Isa. 42:20a). Even our popular cultural phrase “eyes wide open” suggests there are occasions when our open eyes are not completely open, when we miss perceiving some aspect of the world before us. Indeed, we are often inattentive to what exists right around us. We look, but we don’t see, or (to borrow Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s phrase) we see but do not observe.
There are a number of recently published books that discuss looking as a skill. Amy Herman’s contribution, Visual Intelligence, draws from her work helping law enforcement (police detectives, FBI agents, State Department investigators, and the like) to improve their observational skills. Her method involves looking at various art paintings, noting what details onlookers fail to notice, and then leveraging such discoveries to examine what gets missed when looking in other settings, such as crime scenes. Her plea for greater visual acumen finds many other applications, for example, in examining medical patients. Herman notes, “We can train our brains to see more, and to observe more accurately.”2 Gary Klein’s Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights (Public Affairs, 2015) provides a study in how various observations, even a single incident, can trigger changes in a person’s beliefs. These treatments of the subject of observation provide long overdue amplification of the themes advanced in John Berger’s seminal tome Ways of Seeing (Penguin Books, 1990), a book based on the four-part 1972 BBC television series of the same name. Berger’s groundbreaking contention (and challenge to traditional understanding of how art is to be viewed) was that all visual images contain latent ideological messages; we often fail to see below the surface level.
Today we live in an age of unprecedented exposure to visual images, “distracted from distraction from distraction” as T. S. Eliot presciently described “this twittering world” in his Four Quartets. (This reality is most vividly demonstrated to this author’s eyes when observing people three screens deep in digital distraction—with smartphone, tablet, and laptop all turned on and commanding complete and divided attention.) At such a time, we would be wise to consider three lessons provided by Herman, Berger, and Klein, respectively:
In my own contribution to the subject, Look: A Practical Guide for Improving Your Observational Skills, I note that this simple progression is always at work:
Looking ➔ Thinking ➔ Acting
Thought and action do not occur in a vacuum. Simply put: What you observe informs what you think about, which in turn influences what you act upon. Observation is the fountainhead from which any thought and action take place. If we hope to have unbelievers come to faith—if we want them to think differently about the claims of Christianity, and to act upon the evidence and believe—then they must be encouraged to first look, to see anew. Similarly, if we hope to strengthen the faith of those who do believe, then they must be encouraged to look more richly at the storehouse of material recorded in Scripture. (I’m speaking humanly here, of course; for all such observations must be illuminated by the work of the Holy Spirit.)
Tools can aid in the effort to improve observational capabilities by introducing new skills to the observer. The Six Looking Glasses method helps improve observational skills by using a distinct set of metaphorical “looking glasses.”3 Just as wearing physical glasses helps people to better see and interact with the world around them, so it is with “wearing” the Six Looking Glasses. Each promotes a different way of making observations by functioning as a unique viewfinder, and each viewfinder (or way of looking) is named after a particular device or apparatus designed to enhance one’s looking in order to help the individual explore, see, and discover.
Each function should be readily understood based upon the name of the associated device and its primary purpose:
Binoculars are useful when you “can’t see the forest for the trees.” Binoculars-looking takes place at a distance from what is being observed, surveying all there is to be seen. It involves being aware of your environment and its limitations, and picking a vantage point that will enable you to better observe the overall scene. It sees the “big picture” and establishes the context for further discovery.
Years ago, football coaches were confined to the sidelines; now they occupy elevated press boxes in order to better see the plays develop below. Similarly, one can only appreciate the pattern-making maneuvers of a better marching band, such as The Ohio State University’s formation of the word Ohio, from a distant elevation. The assortment of stores in a shopping district is best observed from the far side of the street; a good seat at a show is found by first surveying all the possibilities.
We find examples of such binoculars-looking in the Bible. Think of Zacchaeus climbing a sycamore tree because he couldn’t see Jesus for the crowd, and the father of the Prodigal Son seeing the arrival of his long-lost child even when he “was still a long way off” (Luke 15:20). This sighting could happen only because the father was constantly surveying and scanning to see if his son was coming.
Bifocals take two different views of any situation to compare and contrast them in order to see various similarities and differences. It pairs obvious opposites, or it looks for not-so-obvious combinations to pair as opposites, and then alternates between these two different views in order to identify ignored perspectives. In doing so, it challenges an observer’s dominant point of view, helping overcome what psychologists call “confirmation bias.”
In business, many design opportunities can be uncovered by comparing and contrasting opposites. Think of how differently a car might be manufactured if designers took time to observe how women (versus men) enter and occupy automobiles. Consider how family dynamics might be affected if parents examined how everyone interacted at breakfast versus dinner, on weekdays versus weekends, school days versus weekends (or a host of other paired opposites), in order to better determine ways to foster healthier relationships.
Scripture offers looks at many paired opposites as a means to uncover greater truths: good/evil, light/darkness, life/death, freedom/bondage, law/gospel. Many people are paired as opposites—Cain/Abel, Saul/David, Mary/Martha, Sarah/Hagar—as are places—Mt. Sinai/Mt. Zion, temple of God/temple of idols, heaven/earth. Seeing these contrasting views often sheds light on understanding many passages of Scripture. Yet it is often necessary to compare and contrast nonobvious pairings as well. For example, the obvious pairing in the parable of the Prodigal Son is to compare and contrast the two sons. But both sons fail to understand grace. Far more insightful is pairing the father with either son to see the father’s grace versus the sons’ law focus.
Looking through a magnifying glass helps examine something more closely, pinpointing that which may not otherwise be noticed, putting all else aside in order to identify a particularly significant aspect as meaningful. It spots the one particular element that stands out as most noteworthy. It sees what stands out, concentrating on one main point, and looks closely to locate the critical essence of any scene.
In the 1970s, Frank Wills was a security guard in the Watergate building in Washington, DC. One night, he spotted a piece of duct tape fixed to the side of the door, covering the latch plate. He removed it and continued his rounds. When he returned later, he again found the latch covered by tape. He called the police, and five burglars breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters were arrested. A scandal unfolds, a president resigns, and the course of history is changed—all because Mr. Wills spotted that tape.
When the apostle Paul visited Athens (Acts 17), he encountered a city “full of idols.” Later when he stood in the Areopagus and spoke before a gathering of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, he called specific attention to just one of these idols, the one that bore the inscription “to the unknown god.” Of all the idols in town, when it came time to share his thoughts on what he had observed during his tour of the city, Paul highlighted just one object with his Greek audience. He focused on the one detail that held the most significance—the one he spotted as representing the very essence of all that he had seen in the greater cityscape.
Looking with a microscope involves looking for more and greater details. Rather than zeroing in on one particular point, microscope-looking moves up and down, left and right with painstaking care to scrutinize and study each minute detail. It looks around and around again, noticing every nuance, looking closer and closer at everything there is to be seen.
Most of us can sense when another’s eyes are fixed upon us. A friend of mine who has dealt with various skin issues over the years says he can actually feel the difference between an inferior and a superior dermatologist—the latter will examine the skin more carefully and delicately. The best poker players constantly practice microscope-looking, supplementing their intimate knowledge of the various odds for different hands with acute observation of other players’ “tells”—facial expressions, nervous twitches, and other body language—that may signal what kind of cards are being held.
Consider this example of microscope-looking: when Jesus looks upon the silent Pharisees in Mark 3:5, “he looked around at them with anger.” It was through the intense looking that the Pharisees felt the intense anger, as Jesus’ gaze turned on their hardened hearts. This is the kind of looking we should emulate, surveying the breadth and length and height and depth of all there is to be seen in any circumstance. Jesus’ admonition to “look at the birds” and to “consider the lilies of the field” in Matthew 6 is not only a rebuke against personal inward anxiety, but also a call to look outward at the wonder of creation in all its various details.
Looking with rose-colored glasses enables the observer to see the positive that may not be readily apparent. It looks past obvious flaws to see the opportunities present, and it filters through the bad in order to see only the good, thus identifying “the rightness” behind any otherwise poorly displayed or poorly executed item. It doesn’t represent an unreal possibility, but it looks for a ray of hope, focusing on the unrealized reality in any (already-but-not-yet) scene.
The unmerited favor of God’s grace could be considered an example of rose-colored-glasses-looking: in Christ, the Father sees only the righteousness of his Son and not our unrighteousness. (It’s truly what makes grace amazing!) It’s the kind of looking that we are called to practice in keeping the ninth commandment, as the Heidelberg Catechism explains in its answer to Question 112: “defend and promote my neighbor’s good name.” Living up to this standard usually requires seeing only our neighbors’ virtues, not their vices.
In his book, The Necessity of Theater: The Art of Watching and Being Watched (Oxford University Press, 2008), Paul Woodruff notes that a major factor in today’s homeless being homeless is that they often feel they are not seen—never noticed by anybody—let alone seen with rose-colored glasses. Sometimes the only thing it takes to improve someone’s life is for that person just to be seen.
Blindfold-looking is looking back and recalling. As such, it fundamentally differs from the other five looking glasses. Rather than look at what’s “out there,” blindfold-looking reflects upon what was seen (or not seen) and how it was seen (or not) in the mind’s eye. It recalls what has already been seen in order to accurately assess prior observations to reflect on how and why something may have been missed or mistaken. In this sense, it looks at looking itself.
Too often, after we have seen something (especially something of importance), we fail to register the observation for future recollection. We are like the man who looks in the mirror and, as James describes him, “goes away and at once forgets what he was like” (James 1:24). Consider prayer: the neglect of prayer can simply stem from an insufficient use and practice of blindfold looking.
We often fail to recall the many mercies we have received at God’s hand and all those people for whom we ought to intercede. Maybe this is one reason Jesus tells us to “enter thy closet” (as the King James puts it in Matt. 6:6); it’s a reminder to begin prayer with blindfold-looking.
Consider the ten lepers healed by Jesus. Once they had been healed, each left to go present themselves to the priests as commanded; but only one, “when he saw that he was healed, turned back,” for he immediately saw Jesus in his mind’s eye and returned to give thanks. The other nine lepers failed to do such blindfold-looking; they were so focused on their healed bodies that they forgot to look back (and thus go back) to the healer. How often do we see only that which lies immediately before us in the here and now, neglecting to recall what we’ve previously encountered?
The Six Looking Glasses provide a tool to help improve anyone’s observational skills, by practicing each of the six different methods of looking. So where do we look? Here are a handful of suggestions worth considering:
Looking at Scripture
The renowned Bible teacher Howard Hendricks famously advanced this three-step method for studying the Bible: observation, interpretation, and application. The initial step in the process is to observe, to see beyond the mere words in the passage in order to really see the text, not just perfunctorily read it. What’s the difference? Well, just as reading alone does not guarantee comprehension, so too, reading without observation may hinder a rich and full appreciation of any text. Surveying and scanning a passage for its genre, structure, and form may lead to spotting key words; opposing terms might be compared and contrasted, certain words scrutinized for their placement and phrasing, and difficult terms noted. These different kinds of looking aid the reader in interpreting and applying the truths of Scripture.
Looking at Congregations
As the body of Christ, how are we to be “bearing with one another in love” (Eph. 4:2) if we do not first see one another? Paul tells us that the whole body grows into Christ when “each part is working properly” (Eph. 4:16). This proper functioning must begin with looking. How can the parts work together if they are alienated from and ignorant of each other—if they don’t see each other’s respective gifts and needs? Local congregations and collective denominations suffer when they neglect fellowship. Much good can come from greater survey and observation of all the different types of people in our midst. Looking at different pairings of people in any congregation—male/female, adult/child, young/old, married/single, divorced/widowed, familied/orphaned—should yield greater love for all. Efforts should be made to spot unspoken pain and suffering—not just the obvious physical and medical, but also the mental and emotional, and certainly the spiritual.
Looking at Communities
We are called to love our neighbor. Picture the behavior of both the priest and the Levite in the Parable of the Good Samaritan—both saw the half-dead man on the side of the road, but in “passing by the other side” each chose to avert their eyes from further observation. Only the Samaritan “went to him,” looking through the ethnic heritage and ritual uncleanliness with the magnifying glass of grace and focusing in with microscopic attention to his many wounds. Only when we observe our neighbors with similarly close attention might we hope to point them to Jesus. Right before telling this parable, Jesus told his disciples, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see” (Luke 10:23). So we should don the various looking glasses if we would love our neighbor as we have been commanded to do. Explore your towns and neighborhoods. See who and what is there to see.
Looking at Culture
Peter Drucker has been credited with saying, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The implication is that any course of action is best informed by a rich understanding of the external culture in which any enterprise makes decisions. In Everyday Theology: How to Read Culture Texts and Interpret Trends (Baker Academic, 2007), Kevin Vanhoozer advances the study of “cultural hermeneutics,” or treating broader culture as an interpretable text. (This field expands the insights of John Berger in whole new ways.) Consider the following as observable cultural texts: millions upon millions of apps, adult coloring books, the dogma of diversity, environmentalism, all things sustainable and green, happiness literature, mindfulness retreats, pleasure-seeking experiences, selfies, tattoos, veganism, and yoga. See what’s happening? What latent message might be seen by looking beneath these collective behaviors? Perhaps this: Many people today are practicing functional Hinduism!
Looking at Commerce
Admittedly a subset of broader culture, commerce is nevertheless worth separating out as a distinct observational category, because what people willingly pay for is significantly indicative of what is most valued in the culture they occupy. Commerce is codified culture. Pay particular attention to new genres of commercial offerings, for they indicate that certain cultural sensibilities have become so prevalent that some enterprise believes there is enough demand to merit selling commodities that will satisfy them. Today we find new businesses that sell time doing some activity in an individual room. These encompass everything from escape rooms, salt-relaxation rooms, to nap rooms and rage rooms—a venue in a Las Vegas resort casino even offered time in a man-cave for a fee. Each type of room—as with any commercial offering—instantiates a particular consumption preference, and each speaks volumes about your neighbor’s (and perhaps your own) wants and needs.
We are called to be observers. There is no lack of things worth observing. Perhaps it is time to ask ourselves: How do we spend time with our eyes? How should we?
James H. Gilmore is author of Look: A Practical Guide for Improving Your Observational Skills (Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2016) and serves on the board of White Horse Inn.