Wait, say what now?

While I’m no Gandalf, I’m capable of a little ordinary wizardry. And so are you. We are all, in a sense, master illusionists. It’s a God-given talent built into the structure and function of our brains.

When we look out at the world through our eyes, light falls on our retinas, activating light-sensitive cells that send signals to our brain through the optic nerve. Our brain then interprets that pattern of signals, and we have the experience of sight. That’s magical enough.

But there’s more. Like having a hole in a projection screen, there are no light-sensitive cells where the optic nerve joins the retina, creating what should be a blind spot. In theory, there should be a dark patch in the middle of our field of vision.

Not to worry: our brains work a bit more magic. They anticipate what should be there, and Photoshop it into the picture. This is how our brains work, always learning, always anticipating, always predicting what’s supposed to happen next.

I remember an illustration of this from when I was a kid. Try it yourself: read what it says in the triangle to the right. Now, in fairness, given what I’ve already said, you’re probably primed to expect a trick and may not be fooled. But if you came across this casually, in another context, you might not notice that the word “the” actually occurs twice. You would read it as if there was only one, because that’s what your brain expect to see.

That’s why I was both surprised to discover recently that even after having read a particular verse from James many times, I had never actually seen what was there, but saw what I expected to see.

. . .

James, as we’ve seen, has been arguing that authentic faith can’t just be a matter of beliefs that we hold in our heads. A true and living faith must be embodied, demonstrated in our conduct toward others. He used a hypothetical example to press his point: If a member of your church came in Sunday morning in obvious and dire need, you’d do something about it, wouldn’t you? What would you say about the “faith” of someone who didn’t? Would that be a “faith” worth having? Thus, James says, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (2:17, NRSV), and he will say it again at the end of chapter 2.

But immediately after this verse, he poses another hypothetical, this time in the form of an imagined (or possibly actual) debate: Somebody might want to take issue with me, and argue X — but then I would respond Y. Here’s what he says:

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. (James 2:18, NRSV)

For convenience, let’s call this hypothetical someone “Frank.” I’ve always read this passage as Frank claiming to have what he calls “faith” without what James calls the “works” or deeds or actions that would demonstrate that faith. That’s why James says in response, “You might try to show me what you call ‘faith’ apart from any faithful deeds, but I will show you the authenticity of my faith through how I live.”

Right? But that’s not what Frank says.

Read it again, carefully. Frank doesn’t say, “I don’t care what you say; I have faith.” He says, “You have faith.” And he doesn’t say, “I don’t need works to be faithful.” He says, “I have works.” I never noticed the oddness of what Frank says, because I read those words in terms of what I expected, not in terms of what was there.

As you might imagine, much scholarly ink has been spilled over this verse through the centuries. The difficulties and questions are many. Is the “someone” a real person or a hypothetical one, and are they friend or foe? There are no actual quotation marks in the original text: where should they go? And depending on where we put them, to whom to the pronouns “you” and “I” refer?

Suffice it to say that many competing alternatives and suggestions have been suggested, and it would take us too far afield to explain them here, even if I could. Instead, here’s the way I’ve chosen to read that first sentence of verse 18: “Franks says he has faith, and I, James, say I have works.”

It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s consistent with what James teaches. And going forward, I’m going to try to be more careful about reading what’s actually there.