One of my favorite shows to binge-watch on Netflix is the 21st century update of the Sherlock Holmes stories, starting Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular detective and Martin Freeman as the faithful Dr. Watson. As a kid who grew up reading Encyclopedia Brown novels and trying to figure out who stole Mary’s homework or some other such adolescent crime, I love watching Sherlock be smarter than everyone else in the room. It’s like he has a sixth sense about seeing what others do not. As often hisses at Doctor Watson, “You see, but you do not observe.” Holmes can tell at a glance if someone is a teacher by the slight presence of chalk dust on a sleeve, or that a woman is cheating on her husband by the fact that her wedding ring shows wear and tear while the rest of her jewelry is clean. It always makes me wonder how much I’m missing when it comes observing the world around me every day.
“A man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose,” Sherlock Holmes famously remarked in one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels about his adventures. Maria Konnikova, in her insightful book Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes calls this “observation with a capital ‘O’” — the ability to know what and how to observe by directing attention to only those pieces of mental “furniture” that matter. As Konnikova puts it, Holmes-like observation “means not only looking properly, but looking with real thought.” It’s being intentionally mindful of the details even when, as she points out, “our minds are wired to wander.”
When you put it that way, a lot of what Holmes does in observing people looks a lot like the preacher’s exegetical work of observing a biblical text. I know that my mind is “wired to wander,” and every Wednesday when I sit down to write Sunday’s sermon I’m bombarded with myriad other forces competing for my attention. But attention is a limited resource and our pride in being 21st century “multi-taskers” actually hurts our attention to detail. Konnikova suggests that if we want to think like Sherlock (or, if Sherlock were a preacher, to prepare sermons like he would) it requires developing certain habits and motivations like these:
- Be selective. Our retinas process ten billion bits per second of visual information but only ten thousand bits actually make it into the first level of our visual cortex, which is still a lot of furniture. With all the information coming at us, we have to learn how to discern between quality and quantity of information. When it comes to looking at the biblical text, it helps if we’re focusing only on the text itself and not the text along with fifteen other commentaries laid on the desk in front of us. We have to learn how to be selective and focus on the little details — words, phrases, pictures — that are the keys to unlocking the writer’s motive and intent.
- Be objective. We tend to believe what we want to see and what our mind attic decides to see, thus we tend to interpret data with preconceived notions. If we’ve preached a text before, for example, we’re likely to interpret it the same way we did the last time. Observation and deduction are two separate steps, however, and so observing what the text actually is saying should come before our deductive exegesis every time.
- Be inclusive. Attention is about using all the senses — sight, taste, touch, sound, smell — and learning not to leave anything out. When looking at a biblical text, what senses does it evoke? When you read about Jesus at a meal, what senses does the story engage? When you read one of Paul’s letters, what sense do you have of the setting of both the writer and the readers? Make your exegetical work three-dimensional and multi-sensory, leaving no stone unturned.
- Be engaged. When you are engaged in your writing and study, persisting when there are hundreds of other excuses to do something else, that’s when you begin to extract more from the Scriptures. It’s tough, but staying with it despite the difficulty can give you a sense of satisfaction or, when it’s really humming, a sense of being in the “zone.” Of course, Holmes also famously had times when he threw his brain out of action in order to reboot his thought system. Even Jesus did this in his ministry, heading to the hills when he could have been preaching yet another sermon. Knowing when to dig in and when to pull back are keys to making good exegetical progress.
Developing these habits will make your mental attic a little less cluttered—and it may make you want to don that deerstalker hat before you preach as well.
Popova, Maria. “How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes: Lessons in Mindfulness and Creativity from the Great Detective.” Brainpickings Web Site.