Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Bible is Like a Rorschach Test

Long before I read Brian Zahnd’s new book Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God I had made a note to use the above title for a future blog article. Thus, I was surprised when I read this in BZ’s book: “Sometimes the Bible is like a Rorschach test: our interpretation of the text reveals more about ourselves than about God” (p. 14). Quite true!
Literal and Metaphorical Rorschach Tests
Rorschach inkblot #10
The story of the background and development of the Rorschach test is thoroughly told in a book by Damion Searls published earlier this year under the title The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing. (I have only scanned the book, but here is the link to Thinking Friend Clif Hostetler’s review of it.)  
Rorschach created the inkblots test for the purpose of psychological analysis and evaluation. But the popularity of those tests has resulted in their metaphorical use also.
In his book, Searls reports that in 1993 Hillary Clinton said to an Esquire reporter, “I’m a Rorschach test” (p. 263). And then in 2008 Barack Obama said to a New York Times reporter, with a somewhat different meaning, “I am like a Rorschach test” (p. 309).
Truly, as the Rorschach test amply illustrates, people look at the same thing, or same person, and come to widely different conclusions about the nature and significance of those things or persons.
That is true for the Bible also.
The Bible as a Rorschach Test
How people read and interpret the Bible varies greatly. For example, the Bible as seen by fundamentalist Christians is different in multifarious ways from how it is seen by those of us who are not fundamentalists.
The passages of the Bible a person chooses for evaluating current issues tells us a lot about that person. Their use of the Bible is, truly, like a Rorschach test.
For a case in point, consider Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas. Last month (here) I quoted Jeffress saying that God has given Pres. Trump the authority to “take out” Kim Jong-un. That dangerous assertion is based on his selection and interpretation of “God’s Word” as found in Romans 13.
Then on Sept. 11, in commenting on the immigration issue and the “Dreamers,” Jeffress told Fox News (see here) that “God is not necessarily an open borders guy.”
According to the Dallas pastor, the Bible teaches that God has established borders and instituted the government to protect its citizens. Thus, he says, those Christians who emphasize compassion based on Gen. 1:27 are telling only one side of the story.
It seems quite clear than when Jeffress looks at the Bible, he sees a book that supports the current President of the U.S. and the bulk of the Republican Party. That doesn’t tell us much about the Bible, but it tells us a lot about Jeffress and the “evangelicals” who agree with him.
The Proper Criterion
In his book mentioned above, Zahnd emphasizes that all of the Bible should be read from the viewpoint of Jesus. That is, the Old Testament, the letters of Paul, and all other parts of the Bible must be interpreted in light of the life and teachings of Jesus.
Baptists used to have it right: the 1963 version of the Baptist Faith and Message clearly and importantly stated: “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.”
Thus, when Jesus is the basis for interpreting the Bible, we find a perspective considerably different from that of Pastor Jeffress.
What does your interpretation of the Bible say about you?


  1. Local Thinking Friend Greg Brown, who does not comment often, sent these pertinent comments about the above article:

    "I have long thought that any thinking person would see the Bible
    as a Rorschach Test, an opportunity for projection. Let me share my
    projection: It is often claimed that if Jesus were here today he would
    likely not be a Christian and would disavow much done in his name.

    "Thank you for your essay. I do appreciate your efforts to grapple with
    these contentious issues."

    1. Another way of getting at your title is the old saying “what you have in your mind determines what you see.”
      Using what we think we know and what we believe about Jesus to interpret the Bible works for Christians, though it does little to help understand as best as we can what the writers of the Hebrew scriptures and multiple different parts of the new intended, as best as we can determine. I find the centuries long work of obtaining an historical background of all the Bible’s books invaluable, though not the basis of my personal faith.

    2. Thanks for your comments, Larry.

      Along the lines of your first sentence, I had in my notes, but did not have room to use, the following statement: "“We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are” (Anaïs Nin). I think that is an important insight, as you suggested.

      I agree that there is value in studying the historical background of the various parts of the Bible. But if we are going to be Christians, I think it is imperative that we interpret the meaning, and relevance, of all parts of the Bible--and especially the Old Testament--from the viewpoint of Jesus.

      Part of the problem of fundamentalism is that sometimes they let Moses, or even Paul, determine beliefs and practices more than Jesus.

  2. Wow! Look how a clinical psychological research tool has morphed into a phrase of idiomatic usage! So much in your article prompts response (like a Rorschach ink blot), I will try to limit my comments to evocations prompted by the statement: “Sometimes the Bible is like a Rorschach test: our interpretation of the text reveals more about ourselves than about God.”

    “Sometimes.” A good Rorschach word: it is wildly indefinite; once, twice, frequently? and on and on.
    “Bible is like.” For all its diversity and ambiguity I still have trouble with imagining the bible as a randomly produced ink blot. :-) It’s a literary work with oral story beginnings: that’s interpretation evoking enough.
    “Rorschach test.” The test is more than the ink blot. Does this statement mean to suggest (!) that the bible is (mostly?) a tool for psychological health? Spiritual health? Who is the interpretive guide/clinician?
    “our interpretation of the text . . . God.” Well sure it does. The text (of course there are multiple texts, hence ambiguity) is the revealing of ourselves (humanity) already. God is encountered, recognized, attended to *in the midst* of our stories.

    Has a point emerged for me? The Rorschach T(!)est involves by *intention* a person in the process. Increased awareness of self is the (desired?) purpose. The ink blot is assumed to be without inherent meaning on the basis of how it was produced; the bible is a whole lot *not* like that! Neither is Shakespeare.

    Also, introducing color to the ‘blot’ directs attention of the perceiver more than single color ‘ink blots.’

    Have I revealed enough about myself? :-)

    1. Dick, I thought you, more than most people, would understand the metaphorical use of "Rorschach test."

      The main point is re-stated in my response to Larry G. above: “We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are” (Anaïs Nin).

      As for the Bible (as a whole), I was trying to say that seeing it, for example, as authorization for "taking out" the head of a sovereign nation or building a wall to keep out "illegal aliens" says more about the person interpreting the Bible than about the Bible itself--especially the Bible as interpreted by the life and teachings of Jesus.

      Of course, I think you know that and were just having fun by your comments above.

      One more brief point: of the ten "inkblots," some are only black on white, a couple are black with a little red also on white, but the last three are in full color.

    2. Thanks Leroy, I don’t mean to be taken as a total rube. I trust “metaphorical use” does not mean one is not encouraged to be critically engaged by the language and the connections metaphors elicit, as well as the uses to which they are put.

      Just as there is more to the test than the ink blots, there is more to understanding God and ourselves than the bible. I wish “the viewpoint of Jesus” were enough!

      Sorry that I haven’t been able to discern the appropriate response protocol. I was not suggesting that you, Leroy Seat, had introduced additional colors to black ink blots.

    3. Dick, being able to understand the tone and intention of the comments made on this blogsite is a problem I struggle with in trying to respond. I have trouble sometimes knowing when people are being completely serious and knowing when they are writing partially "tongue in cheek."

      That is especially when responding to someone who is of superior intelligence and erudition--which is how I peg you.

      Far from taking you as a rube, I struggle to understand and to respond adequately to the nuances, the subtleties, and the hinted at meanings of your comments. I apologize if I seemed to be dismissive in my previous response.

      Concerning your last point, I assumed you knew that some of the inkblots were colored. But my responses are written not just to the one to whom the response is made but to others who will read the comments--and I did not assume that everyone knew that there are colored inkblots in addition to the black/white ones that seem to be most often seen.

      So thanks, Dick, for your comments, and I will try to do a better job in the future to respond to you in a more adequate manner.

  3. Since I mentioned Robert Jeffress in the article above, let me share with you his comments about Pres. Trump's UN speech yesterday (from Christian Post):

    "For far too long the United States has poured countless millions of dollars into a United Nations that fights against American interests, pacifies global tyrants, promotes anti-Semitism and mismanages humanitarian crises," Jeffress asserted.

    "President Trump's inaugural visit to the U.N. General Assembly represents a day of reckoning for a near hopeless bureaucracy, and his inaugural speech was the most courageous speech ever delivered by any President to address that global body. Thank God for a President who will call evil 'evil.' Today, Trump was Churchill."

  4. Faithful Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago today shares the following thoughtful comments:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your comments about interpreting the Bible.

    "While I certainly agree that how one interprets the Bible reveals much about the interpreter, the same can be said for how a Muslim, or even a non-Muslim, interprets the Qur'an.

    "As for Pastor Jeffress, I suspect that he would argue that he interprets entire Bible in the light of the teachings and life of Jesus.

    "But what kind of hermeneutical principles should one employ in interpreting the Bible, especially the Old Testament (OT), in the light of Jesus' life and teachings? Does every OT verse somehow anticipate Jesus, a traditional Christian perspective? Or do just the prophecies in the OT apply to Jesus, or perhaps only those prophecies cited by New Testament writers? Should a moral perspective be used? Does the OT lay the groundwork for the moral and psychological teachings of Jesus, especially those teachings about humility and compassion for those who are suffering? (I believe that it does and Jesus takes them to a higher level.)

    "It is fascinating stuff and it certainly challenges us despite our different perspectives."

    1. Thanks, again, Eric for your pertinent comments. Let me make three brief comments about your three paragraphs.

      Yes, the same sort of thing can be said about Muslims' view of the Qur'an. There is a marked difference between how a peace-loving Muslim in Kansas City, for example, reads the Qur'an and how Muslim terrorists read the Qur'an--although that is not, as far as I know, primarily a difference between focusing on the teaching of Muhammad as opposed to other parts of the Qur'an.

      I can't agree with your second point. I don't see any way Jeffress could come to a position of "taking out" Kim Jong-un or building a wall to keep "illegals" out of the U.S. on the basis of the teaching of Jesus. Fundamentalists such as Jeffress see all the Bible as the infallible Word of God and, thus, all parts as being more or less of equal authority. The 2000 revision of the Baptist Faith & Message, which the Southern Baptist Convention goes by now, changed the 1963 statement about Jesus being the criterion for interpreting the Bible.

      Concerning your third point, I do not think that most OT verses anticipate Jesus or point to him, although I think there are some (few) legitimate prophecies like that. The OT, however, is primarily the writings of the Jewish people telling both the story of their historical past and their ethical development. The height of the prophetic message is about the solidarity of the human race and about justice for all. (See, for example, the books of Isaiah, Amos, and Micah.) Jesus, I believe, was in the train of such prophets and elevated their teaching to even higher levels.

  5. Esteemed Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky responded to the closing question with this brief comment:

    "I hope that it shows I use Jesus Christ as my guide to interpretation. That approach can get you into trouble in Baptist circles."

  6. Thinking Friend, and retired Baptist pastor, Michael Olmsted shares the following comments:

    "After over 50 years teaching and preaching from the Bible the same flawed approaches appear because aspiring preachers/prophets claim for themselves a special insight into what God means in select texts from both Old and New Testaments. When we treat the Bible as a book of secret codes and formulas that only a select few can understand we end up with all kinds of end-times, calamitous, titillating theories about the end coming next Friday or the identity of THE ANTICHRIST.

    "It is equally shameful when a minister takes it upon himself to claim God's special revelation or for a pastor to think himself qualified to pronounce who we should vote for or who has the ear of God on how to deal with a bully dictator.

    "When will we understand that the Old and New Testaments are not like pagan literature or stories concocted to support suppressive governments or dictators, the meaning of which are found in numerical systems or mysterious images.

    "The Bible must be interpreted through the person of Jesus Christ. Our Savior, 'God in flesh,' did not come to replicate the forms of pagan religion, witchcraft, fortune tellers, or a whole list of self-serving
    prophets. At the core of the Christian faith is the astounding truth that God, from the very first, has always sought a relationship with us.

    "The Bible communicates that clearly all the way to the coming of Jesus. Our Savior's words are clear ... there are no hidden meanings for a select few ... grace is the very power of God to change us and through us to change this world for the better.

    "What we need is not another pontificating preacher or a clever false prophet ... we desperately need God's love and his Holy Spirit to guide us as we deal with tragedy and darkness.

    "There are no simple answers. The cross is the most complex and powerful evidence that God cares. But are we paying attention?"

    1. Thanks so much, Michael, for your thoughtful comments.

      Your closing paragraph reminded me of Brian Zahnd's book "Beauty will Save the World" (2012), which I am currently reading.

      BZ emphasizes that "the cruciform (the shape of a cross) is the eternal form that endows Christianity with its mysterious beauty" (p. 6) and that "God saves the world through the ironic and mysterious beauty of the cruciform" (p. 9).

  7. Your comment about the change in the 1963 BF&M to reach the thought of the 2000 is why I cannot support the latter document. Questions raised about the "gracious submission of the wife" and the pastorate being restricted to men become moot in my thought. Without Christ as the criterion for interpretation, you can be all spiritual and claim "the Holy Spirit told me so." That takes us back to Judges where every man did what was right in his own eyes. Definitely how we are willing to approach and use the Bible says a lot about what we want to see in the Bible, God and his plan through Christ, or our wishful thinking.

    1. Thanks for your pertinent comments, Tom--and for mentioning the contrast between BF&M 1963 and BF&M 2000. I didn't have time to go into that in the blog article, but I appreciate you calling attention to it. (I did briefly mention the difference in my response to Eric D. above.)

      As you may or may not know, June and I were forced to retire as IMB missionaries because we would not sign that we agreed to work "in accordance with and not contrary to" BF&M 2000.

    2. My Baptist Association is supposed to be a seminary extension center. Unfortunately those most qualified to teach these courses for our folks are like me. They will not sign a document that demands you will teach "in accordance with and not contrary to" that 2000 thing. My churches are missing out on some excellent education. I have a cousin who with her husband resigned about the same time for the same reason while serving in Africa.

  8. Thinking Friend Tim Laffoon, who is also my son-in-law, gave me permission to post his important comments made by email earlier today:

    "The problem with using Jesus as the standard of interpretation is that there are so many view of Jesus – some traditional, some novel, some cultic. The Jesus Seminar is an enlightening illustration. I have heard some other views of Jesus which are just as heretical in my years."

    1. Tim, I appreciate your comments, for prior to posting this I was thinking that people can (and do) interpret Jesus in different ways just as they do the Bible.

      My position, which is basically the same as Brian Zahnd's, is that the Jesus I am talking about is the Jesus found in the Bible--not from the Jesus Seminar or from speculation about who Jesus might have been or might have done.

      I realize this is circular to a certain extent: we interpret the Bible from the standpoint of Jesus and we know Jesus from the Bible. However, the main point is that the Jesus we learn about from the Bible (the Gospels) is the essential standpoint by which we must, as Christians, read and understand all the rest of the Bible.

      Brian Zahnd goes to considerable length in explaining this in his book that I referred to in the article above, and I highly recommend it for a fuller understanding of this important point.

  9. In parallel with this Rorschach Test idea, I’ve been thinking about an important nuance I’d like my atheist friends to understand: It’s not all religion that is evil, promoting ignorance and fear and bigotry — there’s a distinction to be made between good and evil versions of each religion.

    And indeed, perhaps the version we choose says more about us than the sect.

    When it comes to interpreting the OT in light of Jesus, I’d add that we should also remember to interpret Jesus in light of the OT. Probably more than most Christians do. That will involve understanding the history of a people almost continually oppressed by one empire after another.

    1. A wise insight, Fred. I have several Jewish friends who are Messianic "Christians". The traditional Church does not historically approve of them, but they view the traditional Church as a cult which has thrown out a historic understanding of the holy Scriptures which were foundational in the early Church. It would do the Church well to have a working understanding of our Jewish roots. I enjoy going to synagogue with Jewish friends (non-Christian) who are Reformed, Conservative, neo-Orthodox, and Orthodox.

    2. Fred, thanks for your comments.

      I certainly agree that it is important to realize that Jesus was Jewish and that what we call the Old Testament is the Bible that Jesus knew and read. The historical background of Jesus and most of his early disciples is important.

      But it is even more important, I think, to emphasize that Jesus said, "You have heard it said . . . but I say unto you." That is, the life and message of Jesus is far more than just an outcropping of the Old Testament tradition--and that is why we have to be critical of much in the OT as well as appreciate of much of it.

      I would recommend listening to "What about Old Testament Violence," the sermon Brian Zahnd preached at his church on Sept. 17. (Here is the link to that powerful sermon:

  10. In a way, it is sad that the Bible is often a Rorschach Test, even in a metaphorical sense. The mystery in a Rorschach Test is that someone is responding to a novel stimulus, and finding strong responses to it. The American flag, I would say, is more of an icon than Rorschach Test, since it is extremely well known, although it still causes strong responses. Yet, it is sad, too, that the Bible is often just an icon like a flag. Now Robert Jeffress has taken it a step past this, and engaged with the Bible to the point of using it as a source of proof texts, rather like a compendium of famous quotations. I appreciate the discussions above about how to interpret the Bible, for only when we engage with the Bible as a deep source are we actually letting the Bible tell us something new, as opposed to be just another funhouse mirror reflected fractured images of ourselves back at us.

  11. Here are comments from local Thinking Friend Wade Paris; I received his email with these comments on the 20th but failed to get them posted here yesterday after receiving permission from him to do so:

    "First, let me say I agree with the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message that the Bible must be interpreted through the eyes of Jesus (my words not exact quote). There are those however who say we can only know Jesus through the Bible therefore you are judging the Bible by itself and that is not a valid method. For my own benefit I would like to hear your comment on that idea."

    1. Wade, thanks for raising a very important question. After you wrote, I posted and responded to comments by Tim Laffoon, who raised a similar question. In my response, I said that the argument of reading the Bible from the standpoint of Jesus, is somewhat circular.

      Still, as Christians we are committed to Jesus as Lord and Savior. While it is true that the Bible is the main source of information about Jesus, it is not the object of our faith. The God revealed by Jesus is the object of our faith. The Bible witnesses to God primarily, we believe as Christians, though Jesus.

      If Jesus is the main source of our faith, we do not place our faith primarily in the witness to Jesus (the Bible) but in Jesus. The Bible includes much that is before and after Jesus, but Jesus is the criterion by which the before and after is to be evaluated.

      Fundamentalist churches have often called themselves "Bible-believing" churches. But it seems to me that Christian churches ought to be primarily Jesus-believing and Jesus-following churches. The Bible helps us to be Jesus-believing and Jesus-following, but it is instrumental, not the object of our faith.

  12. I'm a little late here in responding, but I have been studying the book of Ruth lately and been thinking about this Christian urge to read the OT always in light of or through the lens of Jesus. Lauren F. Winner, a Jew turned Christian, writes beautifully about this question in her book "Girl Meets God." She, like I, wonder at times if there is a way to read the Hebrew Scriptures "Christianly" without turning the Hebrew Scriptures into nothing but a prelude to Jesus. Are there things we can gain as Christians when we appreciate the Jewish texts for what they are: Jewish stories in all their beauty and complexity. I just wonder if in our Christian impulse to interpret these stories through the lens of Jesus, do we circumvent the power of these stories to teach us something about God in that context/faith tradition. Thanks, Leroy for prompting these reflections, reflections that do not lead to easy resolution!

    1. Pastor Ruth, thanks so much for posting your significant comments. I appreciate you taking the time to do that--and giving me occasion to think more and write more about this important topic.

      First, let me say that I do not believe that the Hebrew Scriptures should be seen as "nothing but a prelude to Jesus." There are certainly things we can learn and appreciate in the Jewish texts "as Jewish stories in all their beauty and complexity." The same could be said, of course, for (say) Buddhist stories or a multitude of "secular" stories. There are things we Christians can learn about God from various sources. I have long held to the maxim that "All truth is God's truth."

      At the same time, if we are going to use the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scriptures, I think it is imperative to see them through the lens of Jesus. That doesn't mean to see everything as pointing directly to Jesus, but rather that there is nothing in the Old Testament that should be affirmed if it is contrary to what we know about God through Jesus.

      I am sorry I won't be able to hear your presentation about the biblical Ruth tomorrow morning, but one online site I found said we can learn the following lessons (among others) about Ruth: (1) God is concerned about all people regardless of race, nationality, or status. (2) Men and women are both equally important to God. (3) There is no such thing as an unimportant person in God’s eyes. If people can learn those lessons directly from the study of Ruth, more power to them. In my opinion those are all completely consistent with the life and teachings of Jesus. If people learned those lessons before the coming of Jesus, that is great. (Unfortunately, some who claim to follow Jesus don't seem to have learned those lessons well.)

      I hope you have some written notes about what you have learned from your recent study of Ruth that you can share. The three points given above are from a Christian writer. Do you have some strictly Jewish sources that emphasize the same, or equally important, points?

      Thanks again for your thought-provoking comments.