#ThatDress and the Problem of Interpretation

How can two people look at the same dress and see different colors? And not just slightly different colors, but ones that are so far removed from each other as to be completely unrelated?

Everyone in the internet-connected world was suddenly distracted from escape-artist llamas to ask these vital questions for one mad moment last week, before we resumed the usual business of posting pictures of our dinners and our cats.

As we all now know, the sharp divide in how we see that dress is caused by whether the brain of the person looking at the ambiguously colored image assumes that the dress is in deep shadow (making it appear to be white and gold) or in bright light (voilà! blue and black). That mental manipulation of the image is unconscious and involuntary, and in this case it results in radically divergent perceptions for different individuals.

I’m sure you see where I’m going with this.

I’ve often heard people say that the Bible is clear. And sometimes, it really does seem to be clear. Looking at a particular passage, it’s painfully obvious that it’s white and gold. It couldn’t be anything else. It’s all spelled out. It’s right there. Why should there even be any debate?

But we all come to the Bible with assumptions and presuppositions, some that we are conscious of and some that we aren’t. It’s possible for two people looking at exactly the same text to come up with entirely opposite interpretations. Each person sees their own interpretation as clear and plain, and sees the other as obtuse, insane, or heretical.

When one person looked at that dress and saw white and gold, while someone standing right beside them saw blue and black, that didn’t mean that either person was willfully misinterpreting the image. It didn’t mean one of them was lying about what they saw. It didn’t mean that that either person “doesn’t believe” the picture.

It’s good to remember the same thing when we deal with differences in Biblical interpretation. Of course it is entirely possible for a person to lie about what they actually think the Bible is saying. But too often in a disagreement in interpretation, people who are each honestly describing what they see in good faith will start to attack each other, accusing one another of malicious misreading, dishonesty, disbelief.

Part of the appeal of #dressgate, beyond providing an escape from negative and frightening global news by briefly creating a shared cheerful fascination with an optical illusion, was that it gave the internet community a chance to parody its expected practices, to laugh at itself. Is there a polarizing “issue”? Break into teams! Fling ad hominem insults at each other! But in this case, we all knew that seeing blue-and-black as opposed to white-and-gold, or vice versa, said absolutely nothing about a person’s morality or character. Going through the usual—or humorously escalated—patterns of heated debate over a picture of a dress seemed (to me anyway) like a bit of meta fun deflating our readiness to resort to character attacks when it comes to much weightier issues.

We should all recognize that a difference in perception isn’t always an indication of individual moral failure, both in the wide world of the web and in the narrower realm of biblical interpretation.1

This isn’t to say that there are no best interpretations. But sometimes, we have to question our presuppositions in order to reach that best interpretation. And sometimes, we have to go beyond the Bible to find it. I know that dress is going to look blue and black in pretty much any other picture, but I definitely wouldn’t reach that conclusion just from the one original image alone. (Yay team white-and-gold—I am one of you!)

And sometimes, too, the original image is all we have. Sometimes we have to do our best with that, even though it’s going to keep right on looking different to different people. We should remember then that we are each seeing by means of limited human eyes, seeing from unique and separate vantage points, seeing through a glass darkly.

[Photo credit: xkcd, CC 2.5, background added]


  1. Though of course our presuppositions sometimes can be connected with morality. Many systemic presuppositions that affect perception—racism, for example—are certainly harmful and unethical, even though their workings in a person’s mind aren’t always conscious or voluntary. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t object to individuals’ participation in unjust systems; we should. I’m just saying that, particularly in discussions of biblical interpretation, we shouldn’t leap to accuse each other of determined dishonesty or deranged degeneracy and disbelief. 

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