Blank Canvas vs Paint By Number Christianity

paint by numbers

Have you ever painted a paint by number picture?  The canvas has various parts of the picture numbered, and these numbers correspond to a particular color of paint. If the painter follows the number/color scheme they will end up with a beautifully painted picture.

This is a perfect illustration of historic, orthodox Christianity. Over the course of 2,000 years, the organized church, and the church has ALWAYS been organized, determined what colors went where.  While the picture pattern and the colors have been tweaked, corrected, and slightly changed over the years, the picture has remained pretty much the same. Those who wanted to change the colors or use a different number scheme are condemned as heretics or banished to the margins of organized Christianity.

When I was a youth, I tried my hand at painting by number. I quickly learned that I was not much of an artist. No matter how much I tried, I couldn’t keep the paint with the boundary of the number I was painting. Thus, my finished painting still somewhat looked like it was supposed to, but it was quite evident that I had painted outside the numbers.

This is a perfect illustration of the increasing number of Christians who no longer accept the number/color scheme of the past.  These people want to radically change the number/color scheme, and some of them want a new picture altogether. Most of the internecine battles fought within Christianity are between the people who want to use the same number/color/picture they have always used and the people who want to radically alter the number/color/picture.  This battle is not much different from the battle between people who think the US Constitution is a fixed, unchanging document and the people who think the US Constitution is a living, breathing document in need of correction and change.

There are other people who claim the Christian moniker I call blank canvas Christians. Their brand of Christianity, if it can even be called Christianity, is a blank canvas upon which they paint a picture of Jesus, a picture that eerily looks just like the painter. These people want nothing to do with the number/color schemes of the past or present. They want to paint like Jackson Pollock, unhindered by the constraints of history.  They refuse to acknowledge that their knowledge of Jesus, his divinity, and the claims they make for him, are only known because they were exposed to paint by number Christianity sometime in their life. They fail to recognize that there is no Christianity without the organized church. Even when it comes to the Bible, the Bible didn’t birth the church, the church birthed the Bible. The organized church has always been the gatekeeper and arbiter of what the number/color scheme is.

Perhaps blank canvas Christians should stop saying they are Christians. At what point a their version of Christianity cease to be Christianity? If Jesus is stripped of his divinity, his miracles, and resurrection from the dead, is the man who remains really the Jesus of Christianity? Once Christianity has been gutted, is it really still Christianity? Or is it really just a moral/ethical society or some form of spirituality, not any different from any of  the spiritual practices found throughout the world?

Comments (10)

  1. Josh

    “They fail to recognize that there is no Christianity without the organized church. Even when it comes to the Bible, the Bible didn’t birth the church, the church birthed the Bible. The organized church has always been the gatekeeper and arbiter of what the number/color scheme is.”

    Very good thoughts here. I would take it even futher (from an historical view point) and say that a particular version of the church pushed their version of the bible.

    As per your topic though; where would put someone like Shelby Spong on this list? He seems to me to be a Blank Canvas christian but self-aware of this fact.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      I like Spong and I read a lot of books at the tail end of my journey out of Christianity. I think he gives away so much that is hard for me to see it as Christianity. That said, I definitely wish every Christian was like him. I also enjoyed the writing of NT Wright, Robert Capon, and Thomas Merton. I have often wondered if I had been exposed to THIS kind of Christianity if I might still be a Christian? I think for people like me, who are/were so heavily invested in the Bible being the inerrant, inspired Word of God, finding out that this belief is not true, leads to a great fall.(Bart Ehrman is a similar example of this) For someone raised in a liberal Christian environment, the Bible never was the end all, and learning that ______________ is a fable or not true, does not bother them like it does the inerrantist.

      Reply
  2. pilgrimsinthisworld

    A book I highly recommend is Letters from a Skeptic… interesting dialogue about the church, Bible, etc… and the paint by number type of Christianity you are talking about.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Please read http://brucegerencser.net/about/

      I read Boyd’s book when it came out. I know this sounds harsh, but I have been there done that.

      Bruce

      Reply
  3. pilgrimsinthisworld

    It doesn’t sound harsh at all.. good to know you read it. ;)

    Reply
  4. sgl

    re: “Over the course of 2,000 years [...] the picture has remained pretty much the same. ”

    according to the book “saving paradise”, the theology did in fact change, from being about paradise on earth now, to being about jesus’ death, and paradise in the next life. (haven’t read it, but it appears to be legit scholars.)

    on amazon:
    http://www.amazon.com/Saving-Paradise-Christianity-Traded-Crucifixion/dp/0807067547

    their website:

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Count me with group “Skeptics may view with suspicion the authors’ willingness to substitute conjectural interpretations of art and heretical gnostic texts for plain readings of the orthodox biblical canon. However, as the response to The Da Vinci Code (2003) established, highly speculative retellings of Christian history attract readers.”

      My focus is on what is normative and has historically been considered orthodox. If you drag into the discussion every text and sect, then most anything is possible. We then end up spending all our time talking about the outliers. Certainly not my cup of tea. :)

      Reply
      1. sgl

        my impression from the description was that it was the mainstream view that changed, not a minority view, but don’t know (and don’t really care all that much).

        regardless of whether that particular view has changed or not, i have read that the notion of the trinity didn’t appear until 1000 yrs after jesus. and the vatican didn’t start claiming to be infallible until the mid-1800′s. not very well versed on church history, but human nature says that institutions change over time, and often become the exact opposite of what they were founded upon. so the notion that the church has had the same teachings all those 2000 years is likely false, altho everyone in authority probably wants to obfuscate that.

        so saying “it’s always the same” is an appeal to authority, and probably wrong. others appeal to the opposite — that someone took a wrong turn but we rescued the original. eg, quaker william penn who wrote the book “primitive christianity revived”. while it’s true it’s likely changed, the notion that any particular group can successfully retrieve the original is also unlikely to be true.

        so along the path of “infinite number of monkey typing for an infinite amount of time will eventually produce shakespeare”, then eventually there will be a religion that actually does match reality. ;)

        (of course, the internet has disproved the notion that an infinite number of monkeys would produce anything useful at all) ;)

        Reply
        1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

          “always the same” in the context I gave it:

          “While the picture pattern and the colors have been tweaked, corrected, and slightly changed over the years, the picture has remained pretty much the same. Those who wanted to change the colors or use a different number scheme are condemned as heretics or banished to the margins of organized Christianity.”

          RE: The Trinity? You are about 900 years off. The Nicene Creed, for example, is dated 325 CE, of which Wikipedia states “It is the only authoritative ecumenical statement of the Christian faith accepted by the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglican, and major Protestant denominations.” It is clearly Trinitarian and I think you can find Trinitarian thinking all the way back to the second century CE. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trinity

          Any attempt to claim or regain the Christianity of Jesus is doomed to fail. Without exception, these groups appeal to Paul who taught a different Christianity than Jesus, and a different Christianity than James. (and maybe Peter and John) In the three centuries after Christ, power was consolidated, and orthodoxy became what those with the power said it was. The victors always write the history.

          Reply
  5. Ian

    This blog made me think of a co-worker, Frank. When I started my current job, I was still a solid Christian. When I questioned Frank about his beliefs, he said he was “spiritual, not religious”. I had never heard that one before. Since then (6.5 years), I have heard that many times. This is always from people who want to drink, smoke, party, dance, and live a good life, yet still know they are fine with God. When I say live the good life, I mean heavily drink, party all night, sleep around, etc., not just live on the edge of “the world”, an most Christians do.

    I really like the analogy to paint by numbers. As a child, I was metaphorically handed the picture along with a certain number of colors to use. This was a picture with large images and a lot of colors. Moving to different churches meant being given a different picture and set of colors. By the time I was a Sovereign grace follower, my picture had hundreds of tiny squares with only a few colors. Sadly, the group I left has been making smaller and smaller squares with less colors; yet they claim to be free. Thank whoever, I am free of that.

    Reply

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>