If you’re anything like me, what you may have taken from formal education is primarily a collective experience, littered with “nuggets” that you picked up in various lectures and labs along the way. Having done my undergrad in psychology, one concept I remember is that of filters and lenses. (Forgive me, momentarily, as I do my best to present psychological concepts in layman’s terms without butchering them!) A “filter” is a word that creates a predisposition towards a certain set of feelings. This is known as the primacy effect. For example, if I am describing a person, and I throw in one questionable, or potentially negative term, the listener will have a negative opinion formulated of him before she even meets him. Lenses are our proverbial “rose-colored glasses.” They are the way we perceive the world, primarily based on our personal experiences. The feelings, impressions, and encounters we’ve had with various people, celebrities, concepts, and ideas, create a predisposition to respond to related stimuli in a particular way. A guy who has had his heart broken three times by blondes driving red sports cars needs no assistance in creating a stereotype of the next blonde he sees in a red sports car. The cynicism, avoidance, or even rage, he feels toward the next one he meets is his lens. That is his perception of the world based on his experience.
Filters and lenses are inevitable intricacies of the human existence. In fact, I believe they are God-given defense mechanisms that prevent us from repeating our mistakes. How many times does a child have to touch a hot stove burner to know not to do it again? But with every useful tool that serves a good purpose, there is an inherent danger that its us will become a detriment to the user. That is what has happened with filters and lenses, particularly in the church.
“Liberal”, “conservative”, “feminist”, “independent”, “Muslim”, “Israel”, “gay”, are just a few trigger words. Regardless of what side of the fence you are standing, the very sight of these printed words probably creates some sort of inflammatory response that is either positive or negative, depending on your particular beliefs. And just like the guy who had his heart broken by the blonde in the red sports car, these words cause us to tune out rhetoric that deals with these and other topics.
I recently read a great article on the CNN Faith Blog and posted a quote from it on Twitter, ascribing it to the author. Come to find out, the author (unbeknownst to me) is a pretty polarizing figure in modern Christianity. Had I chose not to read the article (filter) based on the author, I would not have read it. But in this case, ignorance worked in my favor. A friend even said he was going to post the quote without ascribing the author’s name because he would be scrutinized by his colleagues. It was then, I understood the power of filters in the church.
How often do we do that? We get so caught up in our labels and our stereotypes. We brand someone as this type of person or that type of person and because we know what type of person he is, then we have him all figured out, right? We know his political agenda, we know which news station praise his speeches and which ones criticize them. We know which bookstores will carry his books, and which ones won’t. We know what the social media responses have been to him, as well. Consequently, we don’t need to hear what he has to say because we know exactly what’s going to be said anyway. So we tune him out and never truly listen. Or, better yet, we listen, so we can comment with our opinionated retorts, laced with sarcasm so people truly understand the idiocy of what’s being presented.
Filters and lenses are not modern concepts. They precede the study of psychology by thousands of years. In the Bible, there were some trigger words that caused people to have some very intense reactions. These were words like: “sinner”, “tax collector”, “Samaritan”, “leper”, “adulterer”, and “Pharisee.” The Gospel of John is full of stories where Jesus puts aside his filters and truly listens to those in need. Jesus listens to a Pharisee in John 3:1-21. He listens to an adulterous Samaritan woman in John 4:1-26. One that is not in John is the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector in Luke 19:1-10. What if Jesus had written off Nicodemus because he was a Pharisee (without Nicodemus, there is no John 3:16!)? What if he had dismissed the woman at the well because she was an adulterous Samaritan woman (three trigger words in that one)? What if he had left Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree because he was “just a tax collector”?
I believe God has given us our intellect to make intelligent decisions and to carefully scrutinize our actions as well as the information we process. So I am in no way endorsing that we should automatically agree with everything that is presented to us. I think we should know what we believe and why. Part of that process is being familiar with different views from our own. It is important for us to be firm in our convictions. However, when we dismiss people based on a label or a stereotype, we are not taking on the nature of Christ. What are the trigger words that cause your filters to dismiss others? What are the lenses (personal experiences) that make it difficult for you to engage people with views that are different from yours?