January 20, 2021

Ink Blot Church

blot.jpgGod is like a Rorschach test. You know, the ink blot test, where you look at an image that really presents nothing coherent, and you describe what you see. Kind of like looking at clouds and talking about what you see.

The Rorschach test is outdated and was always controversial, but it does yield one agreed upon result: There are a limited number of common responses to each image, and they do demonstrate that we don’t just purely see the world, but we bring a complex grip of presuppositions and assumptions to what we see, and this influences how we interpret an image.

I’m wondering why certain kinds of people seem to identify with particular expressions of Christianity. I don’t have to do this exercise for you, do I? Charismatics. Calvinists. Warren-style Boomers. Traditional Southern Baptists. Emerging church twenty-somethings. Social justice liberals and Jerry Falwell fundamentalists….they really aren’t the same kinds of people. They are different. Though they read the same Bible, hear the same stories about Jesus and talk about the same God, they are different from one another, and similar to those with the same label.

Is this really because some are smarter than others? Some are better at hearing God’s voice? Is it all a matter of social and family context? Or is it- at least partially- a matter of psychological factors that we don’t really want to look at, because they take away the veneer of “being right” and confront us with the fact we’re not quite the free-choosers and serious disciples we think we are?

Was Arthur W. Pink unable to find a church where he could minister because of his study of the scriptures? Did his eventual withdrawal to write a magazine at home with his wife, living almost as a hermit, come from the God he came to know in Jesus? Perhaps Pink was a hermit and a loner for reasons that we don’t know, and he interpreted Christianity in a way that made his withdrawal from other people a necessary protest against the weak Christianity of the age.

Are Rick Warren’s members and disciples really taken by Warren’s preaching and writing? Or do his followers come from those who have a psychological need to be part of the “winning” team as a way of validating themselves?

Do liberal Christians like Bishops Spong and Robinison represent a more humane, rational approach to reading the Bible, or are they identifying with an approach to God that allows them to deconstruct the strictures and prejudices they have suffered under throughout life?

Is Michael Spencer writing what he learns in his study of the Bible and his reflection on his faith, or does he need to be a writer to make up for failures to succeed in his career? Does self-publishing allow him to pretend he has something worth saying and people who want to read it?

This could go on for days. Do we see Jesus as he is? God as he is? The Bible as it is? Are we at all what we seem in our discussions and ministries, or are we moving to music that is deep within our make-up; music we can’t admit hearing and responding to?

I know it is possible to upend a lot of our Christianity under a ruthless psychological examination. The need for God to exist, the need to be right about morality and the afterlife, and the need for our answers to work are presuppositions with many of us. When we look at religion, and at Christianity in particular, we see what we need to see and what we deeply desire to see in order for life to work. The vehemence of much of what we say to one another in the name of “right theology” and “right doctrine” is bogus. Much of it is nothing more significant than the need to assure ourselves we are right.

Faith in God is a living reality that risks all on a God who is not a psychological puppet show. Jesus really calls us to follow him. The Spirit invites us to live in a trusting adventure. These realities come to us through, above and beyond the many ways we presuppose the “truth” about God.

It would be good for me to step back and remember that my voice isn’t reporting the unbiased, pure teaching of scripture. Whatever I say comes along with all my psychological needs and baggage. Whatever is said to me by those who are sure they have the truth comes to me with their presuppositions and unacknowledged motivations as well.

What we see in the faith, in the scriptures and in the Gospel is highly personal. The kind of Christian we are is not automatically a reflection of Jesus. Frequently it is far from Jesus, and very close to our own dark sides. Pastors know this when they preach, if they will be honest. But it is hard to be honest. It’s hard to live this truthful life Jesus expects. We need to pray and be open to the ways God can shape us to be simple Christians, obedient servants and loving children in his family. Those who speak the loudest often live the least like Christ. That is certainly true in my case. It would be good if we could all acknowledge that much of what we offer others isn’t genuine at all, and we have fooled ourselves (and others) rather than admitting the truth about who we are and why we do and say what we do.


  1. Amen, my friend. This despair at the limitation of knowing can be a good place, a humble one, to begin. In many ways, the epistemelogical question “how can we know?” is what drives the “emerging church conversation” that I try so hard to document (See my attempts at http://www.zoecarnate.com)

    On the other hand, I really do think there is a Transcendant, and Absolute–Christ Himself is our ultimate Reality Hermenutic, and He really can be touched in the life of the local church, where we have the mind of Christ.

    At least, that’s been our experience in my church these last several years (see our attempts at http://www.atlantasaints.com). The quest is worthwhile.

  2. Yes, and it is interesting that commmunities which aim to be diverse are often very homogeneous. And small. In reality, the most diverse communities are, inevitably I guess, the largest. In my opinion, the only real choices, in the US at least, are either Baptist or Catholic (or, maybe, generically charismatic but that is too nebulous to be called a “church”) and even then any particular congregation/community is often too narrow to really suggest the Body of Christ.

  3. This post resonates with me because I have realized recently that I have an extraordinary need to make my own voice and views heard. Even my protest against “those who need to be right” is birthed out of the fact that I am one of them.

    It is so much easier for me to discuss theology and ideas than it is for me to love my neighbor. We Western Christians in particular are much better at concentrating on knowing than being.

    Ultimately, I need to remember how easily I deceive myself and to live more aware of my humanity, more aware of my lack of self-awareness, giving grace freely because it is daily so freely given to me.

  4. Brian Pendell says


    Well spoken, sir.


    Brian P.

  5. uh huh.

    well spoken.

    i will borrow this quote for my blog, if i may.

  6. Big Fat John says

    I think that’s what I needed to hear. Too often I crticize the likes of Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, the TBN bunch, and frankly anyone who I consider to be presenting a watered down theology, from hostile motive. I must realize, as one who believes in progressive sanctification, that we are all at different stages in our walk with God. We are given different talents, ablilities and even the degree of faith in which we believe. We are all one body and must strive at unity as Paul states in 1 Cor.12-14, but the epistles later warn us against false teachers and doctrine. Here’s where I get into trouble. Charles Spurgeon said well:
    “I cannot endure false doctrine, however neatly it may be put before me. Would you have me eat poisoned meat because the dish is of the choicest ware? It makes me indignant when I hear another gospel put before the people with enticing words by man who would fair make merchandise of souls; and I marvel at those who have soft words for such deceivers.”
    At one time I would have been ready to verbally kill the individuals Spurgeon is refferring to becuase it ignites this crazy angered passion inside when people put God in a box and dumb Him down for the masses to this type of “Hallmark card Theology”.
    However, some of these men truly believe they are doing God’s work and would probably exercise more hospitable behavior to us than we would to them. They are products of their spiritual environment and could very well have psychological issues beyond our comrehension. I fear I haven’t touched precisely on the issue at hand here, perhaps partially, but I will attribute it to the fact that even the mighty BFJ(as I’m affectionately known as in the ‘hood) am also psychologically challenged at times.
    Bottom line is the point at which one must decide to humbly disagree with silent compassion or boldy speak against incorrect theology, for whatever reason it stems, is very difficult to discern. Forever I will struggle with this…as well as forming coherent responses pertaining to the posts in which I reply.

  7. Beautiful words and insight. Thank you times a million for your openness and honesty with yourself and with your readers once again. My favorite line …”Those who speak the loudest often live the least like Christ.” Conviction spreads through me like wildfire. It reminds of the verse, “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.” 1 Thess. 4:11.
    Peace be the journey.

  8. This is one of those essays that hits home, and hurts. As something of a philosopher (and a recovering arugmentative theologizer), I cringe when I read this. My reaction is, “If there is a God, and He has revealed Himself to us, then His word should be understandable! And if it is understandable, all His people should understand it, and agree on it! And those who are wrong are really not listening to Him, somehow! After all, if we can’t be sure we know the Truth, how can we really know we know God!?!”

    That’s how I *want* to think things should work. Thankfully, they don’t. I have to stop often and remind myself of several things.

    First, that our fallenness carries over even to our thinking about God. Nobody can get it all right. That’s why we need to listen to others not from our own traditions, as their blind spots are different from ours. And to think we *don’t* have our own theological blind spots is simply another form of Pride.

    Second, that salvation is by God’s *grace*, through *faith* in Christ. 100% doctrinal purity is not required. In fact, may not one big test of our faith be loving our brothers and sisters who do *not* agree with us 100%? And as some high profile cases have proven (I’m thinking of Brimsmead here in particular), stated doctrinal correctness even in the essentials is no guarantee against apostasy. Only God’s mercy is.

    Third, since the subject (God) is Transcendent and Infinite, theology is (or ought to be) full of mysteries. That’s a toughie for me. Someone once said, “As nature hates a vacuum, theologians hate mysteries.” Learing to live with mysteries has helped take a lot of wind out of my fighting sails.

    This essay is strong medicine, and may be tough to read for those who need it most. But taken as it was intended, a good correction to theological arrogance.

    Thanks, Doc.

  9. This is certainly a challenging topic and it does hit close to home with me. I am currently going through 1 John with a group of men. John does not hesitate to say that if we don’t show love to our brothers (in this case I believe he means believers) that God’s love is not in us. These are hard words to swallow. John also goes on to make the amazing that God’s love is perfected (or completed, fulfilled-depending on your translation) in us WHEN we love our brothers.

    So it is with all God’s wonderful gifts-they always demand a reaction. God pours out His redeeming effectual love on us so that we will turn and love others. God, through His Holy Spirit, teaches us from His word so that the truth in His word changes our lives and affects the way we live with others.

    It is absolutely essential that we study His word and refine our theology so that it is His theology. But the reason for believing right things is so that we practice right things. John Owen was right when he said the “will cannot choose what the mind cannot comprehend”. Paul prayed that the Philippians would have all knowledge so that they could approve what was excellent. So our prayer MUST be that the Holy Spirit will use the things we learn to radically change our lives and the way we love others. All the while we must remember that we are fallen and that means our intellect is fallen also. We must be humble enough to say that if we see we are wrong according to the Word and wise counsel of brothers, we will admit it and move on.

    No one has attained perfection yet, but we do press on to lay hold of it.

  10. Carol M. says


    One of the Christian mystics (Ekhardt?) spoke of needing to approach God through a ‘cloud of unknowing’. We can’t come closer to God until we recognize and are willing to let go of our often false assumption about Him.

    btw, reading this reminded me a favorite childhood carol, “Some Children See Him”, about how children from different races and aprts of the world envision Jesus as looking like them. But it doesn’t matter what He looked like, it only matters that He came to us.

  11. Brian Pendell says

    Having had a while to think about it .. I STILL think it’s a good essay …

    but I want to raise one Devil’s advocate point. It’s one we were discussing in Bible Study last night:

    Person 1: When we read the Bible, we have to consider who wrote it and what the culture was like. For instance, Moses was by education an Egyptian writing in the ancient near east. His assumptions and way of viewing the world is different from what our is. We have to try to read Exodus through that lens if we want to properly appreciate what it’s saying.

    Person 2: No, we don’t. Because the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit. It was written by God for all times and all places. So we don’t have to worry about the context.

    Expanding the argument .. if person 2 were reading this thread, he would say that worrying about psychological issues or what not is pointless when reading the Bible, because the Holy Spirit is bigger than those things. Anyone who reads the Bible in the right Spirit will get the intended message.

    How would you respond to this?


    Brian P.

  12. Brian P.-
    I know that when you said, “how would you respond?” you weren’t talking to me, but I thought I might answer anyway 🙂

    In my mind person 1 and person 2 are both right. The Bible does teach truth that transcends time and culture. However, the specific way that these truths are applied and revealed are usually cultural. In our American culure picking fruit from a stranger’s trees without asking is (probably) stealing. However, Jesus’ disciples had no qualms about picking and eating grain from the field of a stranger. Stealing is always a sin, but applying “You shall not steal” varies across culture.

    A second thing to consider is exactly how you view the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the writing of Scripture. I firmly believe that all Scripture is God-breathed. However, God chose to use humans to record His word and I don’t think He “inspires” in such a way that overpowers and negates the writer’s personality. You can see this in the New Testament in several ways. Matthew was a tax collector and his gospel account has more numbers in it than the others. He liked to count things. Paul had distinct Greek influence on his education background so he (often) uses very linear, straightforward logic. So we Baptists really appreciate that his discourses lend themselves very nicely to 3 or 5 point outlines 🙂

    So to have the writers’ culture and personalities come across doesn’t diminish the divine nature of Scripture. God created those writers just as they were and He knew their personalities could and would be used in the communication of His message.

    At least that’s how I see it.

  13. IMHO Christ chose 12 very different disciples so that we all would have someone to identify with. Each of their personalities can be found in my church. I sometimes identify with Thomas who said, ” Ok sure I’ll believe if you prove it to me.” (translation is mine) and Peter who said, “I believe, now what did I just agree to?” and then there were his circle of friends. Were any of them too much alike (Mary and Martha who were related were so different)? What they did have in common was a desire to follow Jesus to the cross, to learn more about Him, to hear what He had to say.

    I am a mainstream Baptist in a conservative Baptist church, I am a Democrat in a sea of Republicans, I am a traditional worshiper in a world of Praise songs. If I leave my church to find more people who agree with me or think like I do then who will challenge my thinking and my life and who will challenge theirs?

    I think what matters is that we are following Him.

  14. Well said, and a very correct perception. I would only want to add that just because we don’t see God or Christ clearly due to our sinfulness, our upbring and/or our environment doesn’t mean that some don’t have a clearer picture than others.

    Similiarly, we must not conclude that just because we all have our own secret biases, that we are all equally correct. So we should keep in mind that we may be wrong but, should be open to correction. And we should still strive to determine God’s truth as clearly as possible.

    Mike, from a lurkers point of view, over the last 6-8 weeks you seem to be struggling with claiming to be right about a lot of things (Catholics, Calvinists, inerrency, etc…) and this has led you to adopt a more relativistic approach. Your thinking seems to be moving more towards a, “we don’t know enough to be certain..” or “only God can know that…” direction. Maybe I should say it is more of an agnostic approach on some things. I am not saying this is bad, it is good to dig into what we believe and why about many things.

    Of course, when you spell it out for folks, and drift a bit off the reservation(s), you are going to take some arrows. That part is unfortunate.

  15. Brian Pendell says

    Just a parting thought to Mark …

    I’m not sure I see the iMonk as becoming more relativistic. I think he’s just recognizing a truth — that none of us see perfectly.

    There’s a big continuum between the dogmatic Bible thumper who believes he knows everything and the wishy-washy hippy who thinks that everybody’s equally right — or equally wrong. Isn’t it reasonable for a Christian to be somewhere in the middle? Isn’t it likely that’s where Jesus would want us to be, neither unteachable nor so open-minded everything falls out?

    Remember, Mr. Spencer comes from the reddest of red states. As such, he’s probably had all he can stomach of dogmatism and is ready for a change. Can’t say I blame him. If he had lived his whole life in blue states as I have, his approach might be different. *Shrug* I guess that’s why we’re both in the body. To sharpen each other.


    Brian P.

  16. To Brian, you are correct and I apologize to Michael if he is offended by my use of the term relativistic. It does carry too much baggage. I did not intend to convey the idea that Mike was becoming relativistic in a general sense, as you correctly state there is a broad continuum there. I was only trying to state I was detecting a certain direction change. I thought I noticed a link between all the latest issues that Mike has raised lately.

    As we both know, the imonk can be very opinionated, something I like and admire. I would hate to see it fall by the wayside.

  17. Relativistic? :-/

    When I see that word, nothing resonates. I believe in absolutes. But I don’t believe in absolute perception of those truths. I don’t believe in absolute knowledge. I don’t believe in absolute certainty. I believe that God reveals absolute truths. I believe fallen humans percieve then less than perfectly and hold them less than certainly.

    I also believe it’s time we all took stock of why we are who we are and especially took stock of all the presuppositions, assumptions and X-factors that influence the things we think.

    The worst thing about most evangelicals is their certainty fetish. They play it all the time, and it’s imaginary. The card doesn’t exist. They wave their Bibles and yell about absolute truth in Genesis 1. I agree with them, but I don’t believe their reading, their interpretation or their hermeneutic is part of that absolute truth.

    Let God be God and every man a liar. Or better, let God be God, and let every one of us be honest that we are little fuzz balls blowing around on the floor only able to know what God allows us to know.

    The certainties of the “truly reformed” and the fundamentalists are embarassing to me as a Christian humanist. I know that Christ came for me, incarnated our reality, lived and died in our place. I believe what I know of him is truth, but the “absolute” never applies to me, but always to him.

    I have no admiration for relativists, but all kind for honest cynics. Ecclesiastes Rocks!! 🙂

  18. Absolutes?
    I was driving home from Phoenix with two friends. It was a long pleasent drive, but toward the end of the road everyone was really tired. I was in awe of the country side. There were millions of small purple flowers in the fields and growing up the bases of the rock formations. mixed in with this mass of purple were some orange and yellow blooms. The sun was just getting ready to set and the effect was breathtaking. I commented on it and my friend said, “they’re just weeds.” Which one of us was right? Two thoughts came to mind as I was reading this post. I think it matters less what we think about God, then what He thinks about us.
    We may not fully understand what He is all about.
    Deut 29:29, but the truly wonderful thing is that He understand fully what we are all about and He loves us anyway. A few months ago I was at an extremely charismatic church service. The preacher was young and very enthusiastic. He did a lot of yelling and a lot of sweating, and a lot of speaking in tongues between his points…
    And I asked God what He thought about guys like this? And I had a sense of a father, watching his two year old son, perhaps walking around in his daddy’s shoes, and the words, “Isn’t he cute?” Dumb comment huh? Oh yeah, why don’t any of you guys ever mention Wesley? Just wondering, since most of my Bible credits are from a wesleyan college.

  19. Mike, I was incorrect in using the term relativistic, so in that regard, I apologize. I guess to summarize your essay – you are stating that most of us hold to certain truths and they are sometimes based on who we are as people. And sometimes this has nothing to do with the truth.

    In your last response you said you believe in absolutes. But that we cannot know those absolutes completely. So the crunch comes down to what absolutes we know, and that some people draw a bigger circle than others. There are some things that we would say are clear in scripture, others take a little thinking to deduce and still others are unknown or not there at all. You are tired of people saying things are positively true when in your mind they are not. I agree that we sometimes claim too much certainty for things that God has left fuzzy. And most people are ignorant or too lazy to think through what they believe. They end up basing their beliefs often on what they have absorbed from their environment and not from careful reflection and study. That was part of the point you were raising in this essay.

    But there are things that we as Christians claim to know with certainty, such as the truth that God exists. The issues come when we don’t agree on what is certain and what is uncertain. Take the fact that we as Christians claim to know from Scripture, the fact that Jesus is God. Christians say that Jesus is God and can give plenty of examples from scripture but, then there are unbelievers who would say that it is not in the Bible. My point is that no matter where you draw the line, no matter how much truth you claim to know to be correct, there is always going to be a line of disagreement with someone. That was where my “relativistic” term was coming into play, it is all relative to the perspective you are coming from, what is true or not.

    I mean you would be willing to fight for some truths just as the “Reformed” want to fight for some they hold to be true. I think I am reacting to the idea that we can say, “well we don’t know that for sure, so it is not important and let’s not talk about it.” You did not say that explicitly but, I was rightly or wrongly picking that up. If you are just reacting to the arrogance of some, then I agree with you 100%, we need to be humble.

  20. I had a Rorschach moment this weekend, as I attended my girlfriend’s church for the second time.

    The woman who was chosen to lead worship this week belonged to what I charitably call the “cheerleading” school, or uncharitably call the “emotional manipulation” school, depending on how much sleep I’ve had. 🙂 Having sat through a candle-lighting missionary commissioning service led by Bill Gaither, watched bits and pieces of Benny Charlotte-Hinn ;), and read Hannegraaff’s “Counterfeit Revival,” I’m a little down on (and suspicious of) those worship leaders who feel it’s their job to guide the congregation to some sort of emotional state.

    And considering the people I know who have been scarred for life by end-times-driven cult networks, I feel I’m right to be sensitive to manipulative tactics. (Ask me some time. Really.)

    But then I looked at my own assumptions. My background is Roman Catholic. The Catholic churches I attended both as a child and as a college student were large — maybe not megachurches, but big enough. In contrast, in my girlfriend’s church, everyone knows everyone. I realized that part of my reaction to her church comes from my own developmental prejudices. Church, for me, is an introspective time, and in a small, highly interactive church service, there’s neither anonymity nor a place to withdraw to. To many people, I’m sure, introspection of my sort is not compatible with any definition of worship; but it is what I do, nonetheless.

    And that led me to another minor epiphany. (epiphanette?) At this stage in my journey, I have a lot of questions, probably too many in the minds of some, and I’m not sure the answers I’m going to arrive at are the same as those held by the people around me. In fact, they may not like them. And in such a circumstance it’s all that much easier to feel… well, watched.

  21. Michael –

    Great article.

    For me, I make one initial assumption: That there is a view that is absolutely correct, somewhere out there. I assume that truth can be known accurately.

    From there, I make it my mission to try and uncover as much of it as possible in good faith and with intellectual honesty. I’m not afraid to examine evidence and change my mind here and there.

    I always try to remember that I’m just a fellow traveller along with everyone else, trying to do the best they can. Of course we can all lapse into intellectual arrogance from time to time, but it’s ultimately fruitless. The best you can do is just honestly search for the truth as best you can.

    Of course, my views of the Bible and God are colored by some other a priori assumptions as well:

    1. God’s attributes are not created by God, they are exemplified by God. i.e. Love, Justice, Logic, etc.

    2. God’s primary reason for creating human beings is to have relationship with something besides himself, to show external love and share external communion.

    3. God is more interested in showing us love than in looking good, to the point where he will lower himself or change his plans in order to help facilitate that relationship.

    4. God genuinely experiences the emotions that the Bible claims he does.

    Of course, my Reformed friends across the aisle probably have major problems with some of those. But that’s what makes Christianity fun: examining your beliefs and making sure that you are always seeking the truth in good faith.

  22. Loved the article. It’s important to love our neighbors despite disagreements and be humble about our own point of view. I think Christians are all vital Body Parts, essential for the growth and maturing of the Kingdom. Ideally, we all work together and fine tune each other (inter-denominationally). And bringing new thoughts and opinions to the table can be very valuable as long as we don’t get too carried away and value the interpretation over the original Word.

    In that vein, I have found Dallas Willard’s “The Spirit of the Disciplines” to be an invaluable tool for the Holy Spirit to convict me about actually bodily living out a more Christ-like life. Only then can I become a more Christ-like person, putting off the “old self” and putting on the new. http://www.dwillard.org/articles/artview.asp?artID=103 Is an article by Willard about discipleship.
    So, do YOU have a plan for becoming more like Christ? 🙂

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