Nativity Scenes, T-Rexes, and the Gestalt Shift

How We See the Nativity

The run-up to Christmas in my city, like most places in the US, witnesses a wide variety of yard adornments celebrating the season. Some are gaudy inflatables of Christmas cartoony creatures. Some are simply glowing messages of “Peace” or “Seasons Greetings” (absent the needed apostrophe). And many are, appropriately, scenes representing the real “reason for the season”—the nativity scene. The holy family, angels, shepherds, animals, and wise men (who according to the biblical text didn’t arrive for a couple of years, but that’s OK) compose a popular form of front lawn festive images.

When I was growing up, nativity scenes came in two versions: (1) temporary live ones, sponsored by a church with people dressed up to reenact the first Christmas, and (2) scenes with painted statues. I’m not sure when the transition occurred, but today during Christmas I rarely see either of those versions. Instead, the most common form of the nativity scene I encounter now is the white, wooden cut out style. They are usually about 4 feet tall and provide stylized silhouettes of Mary, Joseph, and a few animals. This representation is fine enough. It gets the basic idea across, even including a healthy dash of piety with Mary and Joseph in prayerful positions and a halo indicating baby Jesus’s divine status.

Come and See

Jonathan T. Pennington

Jonathan Pennington helps readers understand what it means to know God and provides 3 effective approaches to interpreting Scripture: informational, theological, and transformational.

But what the original makers of this now-popular version did not anticipate is that if you look at this scene in a different way, it communicates something absurdly funny. Mary and Joseph’s prayer postures look strikingly like tyrannosaurus rexes rearing their heads while the halo on the baby crib between them looks like a table saw in action. We could put a label across the bottom of this picture that reads, “Two T. Rexes Fighting Over a Table Saw.” And once you do that, there’s no going back. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.1

A Shift in Perspective

This change in perspective on what we are seeing is called a “Gestalt shift.” The German word Gestalt means “form,” and when used to describe the psychological experience of seeing something in a different way, the word means “a pattern or configuration.” Gestalt psychology arose in the early twentieth century as a different way of thinking about the human experience. Particularly, Gestalt theorists argued that the whole is more than the sum of its parts and that humans experience the world not through atomistic elements but as a whole. It is the whole that makes sense of the parts, not the other way around. So when we look at the nativity scene, the elemental parts don’t change, but suddenly we can come to see the whole differently: not a pious scene in a barn but an absurd and unexpected image of fighting dinosaurs. The actual picture has not changed. Rather, we come to perceive the whole scene differently. And once the whole is perceived differently, the parts take on different meaning.

The same thing can happen with another nativity scene, this one from a postage stamp. A well-meaning UK Royal Mail stamp from 2015 depicted Mary and Joseph from afar against a starry night.2 At some point in the world of online memes, it was noted that it looks like Mary is playing keyboard and Joseph singing vocals. The raised crib looks like a keyboard stand and Joseph’s staff becomes a mic stand and mic. Once again, this is a Gestalt shift—another holistic way of seeing the parts. And in both of these cases, the power of the Gestalt shift is the absurdity of the juxtaposition of the one way of seeing with the other.

In the latter part of the twentieth century, these notions resurfaced in a different form in the world of cognitive linguistics. In cognitive linguistics scholars talk about construals and frames. Construals and frames are ways of seeing. The world is full of innumerable data points—more than any human brain can interpret at once. So how we make sense of the world is through a construal or frame that organizes, highlights, deselects, and creates correspondences and causal relations among the data. The construal is a Gestalt, a shape or form that gives us a sense of the whole rather than just the parts. And one of the most powerful human experiences is when one construal is replaced with another, when a shift in the Gestalt happens and we come to see in a different way. Philosophers of language have even described this eye-opening experience as a conversion—a new way of seeing what was there all along.

How We See the Bible

This can happen to us when we read the Bible as well. For example, if you’ve never thought about the message of the gospel in terms of God’s restoring his kingdom on the earth, there are a lot of things in the Gospels that you may ignore. But once you start to think of Jesus’s message and work as bringing God’s kingdom into the world—that this is the “good news”—then all of a sudden so much makes sense. The Gestalt shift happens, and the message of the New Testament starts to fit together more fully. The gospel of the kingdom is why Jesus calls people to repent, because a new reign with a new King (Jesus) is arriving on the earth (Matt. 4:17). This also clarifies why it is so important that Jesus is the Son of David, because he must be the rightful King who also fulfills the promise that a descendant of David would once again reign on his throne. Additionally, this is why so many of Jesus’s parables use royal scenes and have characters such as kings, princes, and landowners who have servants.

One of the most powerful human experiences is when one construal is replaced with another, when a shift in the Gestalt happens and we come to see in a different way.

The Gestalt shift toward understanding the gospel as being about the kingdom also explains why the message of “eternal life” in the Gospel of John at first appears to be so different from the message of the coming kingdom in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. From an ancient Jewish perspective the “eternal life” that they were looking forward to referred to the time and space when God would return as King to establish his reign and to bring shalom upon the earth. To receive or inherit or enter into eternal life meant to enter into God’s kingdom where the true flourishing or shalom life could be found. The “eternal life” that Jesus talks about in John is not some disembodied existence in heaven; it is nothing other than the life of God’s people lived together in a renewed earth with God reigning as king—that is, the kingdom of God.

This is just one example of how seeing the Bible with a new (biblically rooted) Gestalt enables us to see the parts differently and make more sense of them. This also happens when we read the Bible with the help of the orthodox creeds and confessions. Key framing truths from the creeds about the triune nature of God, the two natures of Christ united in one man, the future hope of the bodily resurrection, and so on, enable us to see how the various teachings of Scripture fit together and make more sense when seen from the perspective of the whole.


  1. Many images of this nativity scene can be found online. Try googling “two t. rexes fighting over a table saw.”
  2. See Georgina Tomlinson, “The Christmas Nativity,” The British Postal Museum and Archive Blog, December 18, 2015, https://postalheritage

This article is adapted from Come and See: The Journey of Knowing God through Scripture by Jonathan T. Pennington.

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