Review — Look: How to Pay Attention in a Distracted World

Christian Madsbjerg. Look: How to Pay Attention in a Distracted World. New York: Riverhead Books, 2023, 234 pages, $29.00.

Nothing is more central to the whole Theological Aesthetics project than accompanying the Christian community as we learn to look. I practice theological aesthetics in my classroom teaching and general living with this basic conviction. Looking. Listening. Attending. This is what theological aesthetics, whatever else, is all about.

My introduction to theological aesthetics was inductive Bible study. Some readers may recognise the phrase, especially those with an evangelical Christian experience. In the world of inductive Bible study, we are charged to look—to observe. We were to put away preconceived notions and what we heard preached and to return to the text with fresh, unbiased eyes. We were to practice what Christian Madsbjerg calls ‘clean, direct observation’.

Little did I know back in those halcyon days of small group Bible studies in claustrophobic dorm rooms that I was learning a phenomenology of textual reading—going ‘to the thing itself’, suspending previously taught and caught assumptions about the text, and engaging in an unmediated encounter with the thing before us.

No training better equipped me in theological aesthetics. It taught me the discipline of looking, discovering patterns, and oscillating between the foreground of the immediate text and its background of cultural practices and assumptions or ‘worldview’.

Forty years after my evangelical Bible studies days and about ten years after my study at St Andrews, Christian Madsbjerg writes a secular version of the dissertation I produced and subsequently published. In Look: How to Pay Attention in a Distracted World, Madsbjerg exhorts his readers toward a fundamentally contemplative experience of life. Put aside assumptions, focus your senses, and attend to the thing itself.

Both Madsbjerg and I place phenomenology at the centre of our practice and teaching. Where we differ is in our intellectual sources. For Madsbjerg, it’s all social sciences, especially the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. For me, it is Michael Polanyi and James Loder and their more decidedly personalist approach to phenomenology. Otherwise, it is much the same: the discipline of patient looking, the discovery of patterns, and a “eureka” of discovery. And then the process begins all over again.

The connections to the arts in Madsbjerg are many. Central to his thesis is the distinction between foreground and background, terms related to paintings, and how most of us, if we’re looking at all, attend to foreground matters without sufficient awareness of background context. Attentiveness heightens awareness of the background of things. We learn to hear not only what’s being said at a faculty meeting but also what’s not being said, where it’s being said, and who’s doing the saying.

Madsbjerg commends the neologism ‘hyper-reflection’ to identify the skills of this sort of dialectical awareness of foreground and background. I would have thought something like ‘meta-reflection’ would be both more accurate and less, well, hyperventilating. But Madsbjerg does want to encourage an intensity of engagement—he uses the word ‘obsessed’, that is, ‘driven to the phenomenon in its every form’. (197)

The practical thesis of Madsbjerg’s project is the stock and trade of good phenomenology—don’t rely on what you think; go to the thing itself and begin living with it. With patience, persistence and practice, patterns will present themselves. Details and repetitions will start to cohere into the emergence of that favourite of German phenomenologists’ word-horde—a gestalt, a meaningful whole. And the pay-off is what Madsbjerg calls ‘insight’, further described in frankly spiritual terms:

When you experience an insight like this—especially after having wrestled with a particular topic for a long period of time—it is a tremendous relief. The truth of reality emerges from the patterns of the phenomenon. Your mind is finally at ease. The experience of this kind of insight is so thrilling; in fact, it justifies all the effort. It could be an end in and of itself. (209)

Much of the book is an effective narration of different episodes, from scientific breakthroughs to artistic innovations to business-world transformations brought about by someone’s dissatisfaction with what was believed to be true and their determination to get to the heart of the matter. Madsbjerg names the familiar phenomenological figures—Merleau-Ponty, Husserl, Heidegger. His own field of vision somehow missed others who also spoke of the centrality of attentiveness, like Simone Weil, for whom attentiveness and its disciplines were tantamount to prayer. Michael Polanyi, the Hungarian-born British scientist, provided a language of attentive engagement, a language distinguishing focal from tacit awareness, and of the need to indwell a problem or object, much the way Madsbjerg speaks of an ’embodied presence’ which facilitates effective engagement. Polanyi challenged epistemic assumptions with his insistence on the personal dimension of true observation and insight.

The late James Loder of Princeton Theological Seminary taught a process toward insight which anticipates much of what Madsbjerg writes. Loder outlined personally transformative observation (which is what Madsbjerg promotes as well) in terms of (1) the presentation of a conflict, a dissatisfaction, and conundrum, followed by (2) and “interlude for scanning,” the patient process of looking, of indwelling the art-work or situation long enough almost to become identified with it, (3) a constructive act of imagination where the latent gestalt begins to emerge resulting in a (4) eureka-type of moment like Madsbjerg describes above, and (5) the placement of this new insight within an ever-growing sense of things which gradually transforms the observer as much as it might contribute to the advancement of knowledge.

Madsbjerg’s book is to be commended for placing these resources within reach of a new and secular audience. For those in theological aesthetics, it is a fine introduction to phenomenology and a resource for church and classroom teaching.


  • James McCullough is a graduate of ITIA, completing a PhD in 2013 under the supervision of David Brown. He is the author of Sense and Spirituality: The Arts and Spiritual Formation (Cascade, 2015), and more recently, with Philip Krill, Life in the Trinity: The Mystery of God and Human Deification (Wipf & Stock, 2022). He currently teaches theology, literature and music appreciation in the Archdiocese of St Louis.

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