Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Mr. Potato-god

When I finished seminary, I was working as a carpet cleaner in Los Angeles, traveling throughout the city in a van and pumping steamed water into stained fabric. This trade allowed me conversation with a large cross section of humanity, and the many conversations I had about God during those days were, in retrospect, a profoundly valuable part of my theological education. It was because of these rug cleaning gigs that I got the chance to learn what people really thought about God.

It turns out that most people had lots of respect for "God". It also became quickly clear that for most, the god they respected was of their own making. Picking and choosing from the gamut of values and character qualities, they built their own unique notions of deity, resulting in endless 'designer gods', created in the same way I used to turn a potato into a character using my "Mr. Potato head" toy box, choosing this nose, those eyes, that mouth until...Presto! I've made a creature unlike any other.

The history of religion shows us that the biggest danger of all isn't walking away from the truth entirely; that would be blatant, obvious, bringing our desire for autonomy into the open. Much worse is to keep fiddling with all the genuine character qualities of God, pasting some on our designer god, while being careful to leave others in the box. When I do this I build a god that's just like me, a god that reinforces my basest natures, while providing enough idealism to convince me that I've the coolest, truest god on the block. Church history is rife with these distortions, but rather than breaking open textbooks, we can simply go to the Bible, where Jesus told the religious experts that the searched the scriptures because they thought it was there life could be found. The scriptures pointed to Christ, but those same experts were unwilling to come to Him that they might have life, preferring their designer idol to the real God. You can read about it here.

I'm of the opinion that it's not the real God that's been fought over and defended in the enormously destructive culture wars and denominational divisions during these past decades. Instead we've been busy hurting each other because of our defense of "Mr Potato-gods" - and mine is better, stronger, truer, than yours. The greatest tragedy of all is that every little group, it seems, has only a few pieces in their box, and could never find the true God without coming together with the other boys and girls to see what parts there have to offer.

I'm hoping there's a place where we can come together and throw all our pieces on the floor so that we can work together to build a testimony of the real Jesus. The right has some things to offer; some of their pieces are forgeries, and other pieces have gone missing from their box, so much so that the poor children don't even miss them. The left faces the same problem. Established and emergent churches face the same dilemma. Pray with me that we'll have the courage and humility to do this - each of us in our own circles, so that Jesus can have His way with us, and His real character can be seen.

O Lord Christ -

You've watched us try to scare each other into voting for God's man, as if one party had all the pieces in place and was committed to using them. You've graciously stuck with us, and we watched history this week, and pray that your mighty and merciful hand would be upon our new leader. You've faithfully brought us closer to your heart by breaking down walls of racism, even while we remain far from you in so many ways. I pray that we, your church, would have the humility and courage to come together in prayer, dialogue, prayer, and service, trusting that as we do so, we'll all become exposed to the missing pieces that might better represent your heart. To do this will require grace and love that none of us, on our own have. So we ask for your indwelling and the stirring of your spirit, to take us down this path. We'll thank you for it, and give you the glory, even as we pray that your glory would find expression through our lives, homes, and communities of faith in these amazing days. In your great name I pray...



At 8/11/08 13:02, Anonymous Tyler said...

great post richard. thanks for your words here.

At 8/11/08 21:01, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...we can simply go to the Bible, where Jesus told the religious experts that the searched the scriptures because they thought it was there life could be found."

Richard, wouldn't you agree it is quite possible that anyone could claim the bible as their primary source of knowledge about God and still come to believe in a very different God than someone else who is using the same bible as their source? Even if we narrow that question down to just the NT, isn't that still a possibility? - Roy

At 9/11/08 05:55, Blogger Richard Dahlstrom said...


yes - the reality is that none of us 'gets it' perfectly or objectively. That's precisely why we need the larger community of faith and church history. We're in a process of refinement that occurs best when people come together across boundaries of culture and church history, prayerfully and in humility.

At 9/11/08 07:17, Blogger Living-dom said...

I think it brings more people to a covenant relationship with Jesus Christ if we focus on the essentials (the potato) and don't get caught up too much in the parts we add from our own cultural and interpretive context. I agree a community of faith provides support for the essentials.

At 10/11/08 11:49, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Your post speaks the truth of the major problem with religion and Christianity.

Currently, the quest to find common ground through the bible regarding Jesus is impossible with so many factions. Whether that be Non-denomination Christians, Catholics, Protestants, Lutherans, Baptists..and the list goes on and on.

I appreciate the fact that you acknowledge the existence of these potato-head Gods, but it only shows how truly subjective Christianity is.

With this acknowledgment of great subjectivity, it shows that nobody knows the true objective view of Jesus. This really does open the door that other religions and belief systems are just as true/valid as the subjective view points of Christians.

You skimmed over the idea briefly, but we all may be worshiping the SAME God out of different books, upbringings and subjectively judgmental viewpoints.


I think it is essential to be concerned with the potato and the parts. It is an odd comparison, but the mixing and matching is what separates us, but why would these parts open for discussion and free thought be included in the bible?

I love the idea of getting back to basics, but there is already so many mental barriers for everyone(including myself) I find it difficult to hold out much hope for resolution.

At 10/11/08 16:40, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting is the topic that directly deals with recent discussions with those whose opinions and perspective I admire most. Easy is it to criticise those whose opinions and perspective do not match my own. The loudest and most radical of opinions get the most attention, while the more learned and therefore most important topics and opinions amazingly get ignored.
There is a power at work for the good AND the evil. The good has the power of enabling even the least educated to see truth. The power that evil has for blinding the most educated of that same truth is extraordinary.

At 13/11/08 18:50, Anonymous Pete Wilson said...

Wow! Great post. First time here and I love it


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