October 22, 2020

iMonk Classic: Dumb Up, Brother: A Spirituality of Ignorance

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
Originally posted September 27, 2007

Somewhere in the backlogs of this web site I recounted what it was like being on staff at a church full of seminary students. Everyone knew so much that we had real difficulty doing anything- like buying stamps- without endless debate.

Of course, there were advantages to having a lot of smart people in the church. Our liturgy was far ahead of most churches, so on an intellectual and aesthetic level, it was a thing of beauty. We never had problems getting Sunday School teachers. We had problems getting our Sunday School teachers to not use too much Hebrew grammar. And, of course, because we were a rather intelligent bunch, we enjoyed the blessing of not being ignorant.

I’m quite serious. It’s not a good thing to be ignorant, and Christians shouldn’t hold up ignorance itself as any sort as a virtue. As much trouble as it was, I was glad there was always someone around to remind us that economic decisions had connections and repercussions in the real world. I was glad we were made sensitive to racism, sexism, discrimination against the disabled and so forth. I was even glad when some homosexual Christians came by to talk with the pastoral staff about their concerns. They didn’t get what they wanted from us, but it was a conversation that I wasn’t ashamed to participate in.

Now I live in a part of the county where ignorance of every sort is widespread. The dropout rate is almost 30%. Running any kind of school here is a battle. And most of the ministers and Christians in this area are untaught, or at the most, self-taught. Comparatively speaking, pastoral ignorance of various kinds is common.

My friend Walter is a local pastor. He’s never attended Bible school, much less college. He’s not much of a reader. He’s too busy in his bi-vocational ministry just trying to make ends meet and do what his job, family and church need of him to be a scholar. Some of Walter’s sermons are difficult for me to listen to. They are delivered in mountain style and they are, frankly, hard to understand. Mostly, Walter takes a well known character or story and applies some principle from the scripture to the day to day experiences of his congregation.

Mountain people face many difficulties. These include poverty, drugs in the community, unsafe living conditions, lack of economic opportunities, undependable medical care, crime and so on. A mountain pastor is always facing a congregation who, for the most part, are there because if God doesn’t come thorough, life is going to fall apart. Walter’s people believe that he can point them to God’s power and presence. They believe the encouragement of the Lord comes through the “man of God.” They are generally not there to experience a “Christian classroom” with pastor as professor.

Of course, those who are more educated in the doctrines of the Christian faith will tell me that there is much wrong with Walter’s ministry. He needs to know many, many things and preach them faithfully. His congregation will be strengthened by doctrinal soundness in way they won’t be through Biblical stories and their lessons. His ignorance ought to be repaired and his ministry improved. I’ll not argue with that, but I will tell you another Walter story.

One thing I didn’t tell you is that two years ago, I was in the hospital with my dying mom, and I needed a pastor. At the time, I didn’t have one. I guess I could have called any number of the ministers that I know. Actually, having been the minister in the hospital before, I was fairly certain of what would happen, and while I wouldn’t have been ungrateful, it wasn’t that important to me.

Walter happened to be in the hospital that day, visiting members of his congregation and the wider community, as was his habit. He found me, my wife and my dying mom in the ER.

Walter stayed with me all day. He found a doctor who would let my mother stay in our hospital and pass there, instead of flying her to Lexington. He helped me talk to the doctors about the course of treatment mom and I had agreed on. He prayed for me. He was a pastor to me. He was Christ to me.

Never once did Walter attempt a theological justification of the ways of God. He never got out the Bible. (Nothing wrong if he’d chosen to, of course.) He was the Bible for me that day. He put flesh and blood on God and hung out with me. He thought for me when I couldn’t think clearly. He knew my heart and he helped me listen to my heart at a very confusing moment. He treated me with love and dignity that brought joy into one of the worst days of my life.

Walter showed me that day that if you are going to measure life by how it’s lived, and not by how people talk about what they believe, he knows a lot more about God than I do. He’s not read anywhere close to the books that I’ve read and he doesn’t have my vocabulary or degrees. He has the the book that matters, and its author, in him. Compared to Walter’s embodiment of Jesus, I’m stupid.

Those of you planning to write and tell me the other side of the coin can save your ink. I know the other side of the coin. What I’m going to say to anyone listening is that I see little evidence that great learning or correct doctrine produces Christ-like people. It may, and it certainly has a part to play that can’t be eliminated. God has used books in my life to make me more like Him. But a lot of those books have been theologically ignorant and incorrect by the standards of the doctrinally correct and intelligent.

I’ve spent years listening to claims and counter claims about how various theologies, doctrines and denominations can get you the real Jesus if you’ll learn there bit or or join their team. Based on the resulting lives I’ve seen—starting with my own—I’d say we’re all full of “dung” on that one. Christ-possessed individuals exist across the spectrums of denominations, education and sophistication. In fact, I’m starting to suspect God puts his fingerprints all over more people from the wrong side of the tracks than on “our” side just to throw us off. He must enjoy hearing me say someone who does or doesn’t believe theology/doctrine “X” can’t manifest the deep imprint of the fingerprints of Jesus. (Heaven’s Comedy Channel must include hours of stupid things I’ve said.)

Jesus says that God loves to take a Walter and show me real spirituality. He loves for me to realize that I can make an “A” on a theology paper and be useless in a hospital or in the lives of real people. He loves for me to hearing the banging, clanking, crashing uselessness of much of what I’ve valued, and then discover the treasure in what I’ve called trash.

Walter has a life full of Jesus. How did Walter get so full of Jesus? By wanting him there and keeping the doors and windows open for Jesus. Not by learning the outline, the answers and the powerpoint version and stopping there. My version of Jesus often looks a lot like an essay question I’d write. Walter’s Jesus- his rough, unpolished and ignorant version of Jesus- is the real deal, at least when it counts.

Remember that Jesus was a teacher, but he never dismissed class. Life was his classroom, because he refused to isolate truth into compartments. He had no intention of producing a disciple who was an expert in theology but useless in a hospital ER. He had no plan to allow the specializations we use to excuse ourselves from what it really means to be a Christian. Carrying the Cross and Washing Feet weren’t talks. They were your life.

And if you’re smart enough to improve on that, you’re too smart. Dumb up, brother.

(NOTE: “Walter” is not a real person, but a combination of several mountain pastors I know who all have the character I am describing. And, yes, one of them spent the day with me in the hospital, just as I described.)


  1. I think this was my favorite post of the Imonk.

  2. Love this

  3. one more Mike says

    “Remember that Jesus was a teacher, but he never dismissed class.”

    So was Michael Spencer, and he hasn’t dismissed class either.

  4. “Walter stayed with me all day. He found a doctor who would let my mother stay in our hospital and pass there, instead of flying her to Lexington. He helped me talk to the doctors about the course of treatment mom and I had agreed on. He prayed for me. He was a pastor to me. He was Christ to me.”


    Michael understood a lot of things.
    He will be remembered by many of us for being able to share his understanding in a way that transcended barriers between people of different backgrounds.

  5. It’s hard to anything in the way of commentary to this post. I believe folks in my community would say, “amen. That will preach, brother!”.

    I’m reminded of a song Charlie Peacock wrote a few years to sing at a memorial for his pastor call “Cheer Up Church”. Specifically these lines:

    It’s just like God to make a hero from a sinner
    It’s just like God to choose the loser, not the winner
    It’s just like God to tell a story through the weak
    To let the Gospel speak through the life of a man
    Who’ll be the first to say

    “Cheer up, Church
    You’re worse off than you think
    Cheer up, Church
    You’re standing at the brink
    Don’t despair
    Do not fear
    Grace is near”

  6. First of all, this is beautiful. I’m an academic, bookish sort, and ignorance annoys me. So I need to read this, and often. I don’t think I’ve ever been called out as beautifully and gracefully as this.

    Second, these sorts of stories always make me think of Lord of the Rings. “Walter” is like Samwise: unpolished, unlettered, and simple. But he was rock solid, the best of the hobbits. And then there’s Saruman. He was “the greatest of the Wise,” but all his knowledge didn’t prevent him from becoming evil.

    I think when I encounter real life Sams, more often than not, my first response is some degree of condescension. Thanks for calling us all to repentance; I know I sure need it.

    • Thanks for the humble reply. Your reply is a reminder to me of my shortcomings in accepting correction well. Also, I think I’ll keep this post handy to put me in my place from time to time.

  7. God calls those who believe they are unequipped to carry out a certain task, and in the end, even upon kicking, crying, and screaming from those who believe they can’t be used, God still manages to do great things!… He makes the things which appear foolish in this world to actually be the things which count. (How great is our God!?)

  8. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

    Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

    …where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.

    And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

    Only the presence of God within can teach us what Love is, enable us to love, transform us in to Love. Walter knew how to surrender to to the God of Love within.

    Wonderful post and message. Thank you Chaplain Mike.

  9. Amen and amen.
    Such a joy and blessing to “listen to Michael”, as always.
    Thank you Chaplain Mike for posting.

  10. This brings tears to my eyes. Michael Spencer’s posts have always deeply moved me. Such an incling of what grace is, such deeply felt passion for who Jesus must be if we believe the Scriptures to be true.
    It is at this level that Michael impressed me for at that level all differences just vaporize instantly: Michael american me dutch? not important. Me from catholic and he from SBC background? not important. Different cultures and economic systems? Not important.
    I’ve been using the Mosaic bible now for over a week and Michael supported it and I understand why: to realize that the body of Christ worldwide is a mosaic of totally different languages cultures theologies denominations social classes nations peoples and minorities.
    A broken body… shattered to pieces and then put together again as a mosaic.
    It’s in our brokenness that we experience the Living Christ.
    I honour the memory of Michael Spencer: a true man of God who united ppl and keeps uniting us because he accepted being broken.
    And once you start breaking the Living Bread it never ever stops…

  11. I loved Michael Spencer from the first day I found him. I still do.

    He was, on many occasions, Christ to me.

    Thank you, Chaplain Mike, for republishing this post.

  12. “Amen!”

    I’m new to imonk and this post is new to me and rings with such truth that I jumped out of my chair to cheer. As one who served in a liturgical church for year without an MDiv but with passion and calling this very much resonates with me. I had the blessing of working besides some of the best minds and critical thinkers of my age. I was challenged in my theology, encouraged in my faith and taught much of who God is and who His church is. I was also ignored, demeaned, and pushed back into “my place”.

    In my years in ministry I found, in most situations, I enjoyed working with/learning from Priests who had been working in ministry for years rather than fresh out of seminary. I am sure there are many exceptions to my experience and I can think of one great example, Andrew. I think Daisey states is clearly, the difference is love.

    Thank you so much for sharing past postings.

  13. For the past 17 years I have served as a church planting missionary in the mountains of Vermont. Though I am blessed to have lots of fancy degrees hanging on my office wall from credible institutions of higher education, the vast majority of the pastors I serve do not much formal education. I have found a great many “Walters” in my ministry and thank God for each one. Like you, I’d rather have them at my side in a time of trouble than a “professor” type pastor. Thank God for Walters!!!!


  14. This is why you’d need to get one of those “Share This” do-bobs” for your sire.

    This is so timely for me, I wish I could have passed it out at a church meeting I was at last night, because it would have blessed all of us there, as we’re all seeking on how to do minstry, whatever our “educational”/”smartness” level might be.

    • You can get “share this do bobs” for your browser toolbar. (There are those (like at Facebook) that you can drag and drop onto your toolbar.)

      Or, another option if you use Firefox, are sharing plugin/add ons.

  15. GREAT. Reminds me of:
    The training is nothing, the will is everything, the will to act – Batman Begins

    I have a different opinon, on one thing:
    He never got out the Bible.
    Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. – Romans 12:15

    I have known, one to many brothers, say to me, cheer up, when I was going through a rough time.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      And when you’re really hurting, Five Fast Bible Verses and a Happy-Clappy Praise-the-LORD only makes it worse. Only thing I can figure is your suffering is an embarrasment or affront to the Happy Clappy Joy Joy Victorious Christian (TM) and he has to blow you off with Proof Text Platitudes. Your suffering hits too close to home and he shoves you away in self-defense.

      IMonk Classic covered that specific application some years ago with “You Need to SMILE More”. My favorite comment from that thread was from a European: “In my country, the only people who SMILE all the time are used-car salesmen or idiots.” (Come to think of it, both words could describe Televangelists and their resulting Christianity Lite…)

      • Thanks for https://internetmonk.com/archive/you-need-to-smile-more

        I do believe that laughter is the best medicine but I also believe it has its place and time.

        Ecclesiastes 3
        A Time for Everything
        1 For everything there is a season,
        a time for every activity under heaven.
        2 A time to be born and a time to die.
        A time to plant and a time to harvest.
        3 A time to kill and a time to heal.
        A time to tear down and a time to build up.
        4 A time to cry and a time to laugh.
        A time to grieve and a time to dance.
        5 A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones.
        A time to embrace and a time to turn away.
        6 A time to search and a time to quit searching.
        A time to keep and a time to throw away.
        7 A time to tear and a time to mend.
        A time to be quiet and a time to speak.
        8 A time to love and a time to hate.
        A time for war and a time for peace.

  16. Although an undercurrent of ecumenism may seem offense to some, there is much in A.J. Cronin’s novel, The Keys of the Kingdom, that resonates with this discussion. Especially concerning a heart to serve God rather than impressing men. It’s well worth the read…

  17. This post is new to me being a late comer to IMonk. Amen, it’s what you do that counts not what you say. I would be like Jesus. Even though I fall short daily it’s still an Ideal to follow. Talk is chear, but it takes _________.

  18. Does anyone have any ideas how a “Walter” can compete, not so much with the academic professor types, but with the rockin’ mega church entertainment hoopla extravaganze sweepstakes church down the street?

    • The “Walters” I know aren’t interested in competing with the mega-church down the road (assuming there actually is one). They are simply content to be Jesus wherever they are, and they don’t base their self-worth on the size of their church.

  19. I’m not sure how he competes, but somehow it works… God is great and mysterious that way! I don’t claim to get it, though.

    1 Cor 1:

    17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
    Christ the Wisdom and Power of God

    18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,

    “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
    and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

    20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

    26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world

  20. I am new to iMonk, also. I follow much of the discussion with interest, if not full understanding. As much as I appreciate the learning and intellect (and often wisdom) I observe here, one question invariably comes to mind: How much theology does a man or woman need to know in order to love Jesus?

    I will continue to lurk among the learned. Please carry on … :>)

    • Enough to get to know his character, and through his image the character of God, I expect

    • Something to think about::

      Billy Graham is short on theology, look how God has used him…

    • Jim Park wrote, “I will continue to lurk among the learned.”

      Me too, Jim.

      Michael Spencer wrote, “He loves for me to hearing the banging, clanking, crashing uselessness of much of what I’ve valued, and then discover the treasure in what I’ve called trash.”

      Beautiful…like poetry.

  21. I have been around so much “weird” and new and sound doctrine is so important to me. The modern prophets and apostles and import placed on signs and wonders…it was the “religion” of the day for me. It was never what I embraced, but those closest to me did and it caused a great divide. I believe in what Michael said about the Jesus of the streets…but it IS Jesus Christ of Nazareth, of THE Book, and that is who Michael knew and wrote about. Letters and degrees do not make a Christian, but scholars (like Michael) who paid the dues to uphold what it is that we must hold to…those historic truths…if you had been where I have been, sound theology is a biggie.