Thinking Out Loud

January 19, 2021

Politics, Race, Viruses, Immigration: The Illusion Analogy

So what do you see?

Do you see a vase? Or do you see two profiles of people facing each other (and not social distancing)?

It occurred to me last week that this is an analogy to where we find ourselves in a coincidentally black-and-white situation with regard to the issues of the day, be it the U.S. federal election, models of theories of the impact of ethnicity, masking or non-masking, getting vaccinated or remaining an anti-vaxxer, being pro-immigration or anti-immigration, etc.

Things are currently polarized. Like we’ve never seen before.

Fact checking is pointless, because sources are challenged. Is it my truth or your truth? Where might objective truth be found? Social media has become a default news source, so you’re getting most of your information from your brother-in-law’s Facebook post.

Which brings us back to the vase above. The picture — and there are now dozens of variations — is called Rubin’s Vase, attributed to the Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin who created it around 1915.

The key to the whole thing is that you can’t see both the vase and the profiles at the same time. At any given millisecond you’re seeing either one or the other. Wikipedia puts it this way: “The visual effect generally presents the viewer with two shape interpretations, each of which is consistent with the retinal image, but only one of which can be maintained at a given moment.”

And this is where the analogy breaks down, because if you’re seeing a vase, or a goblet, or a birdbath; I can then point out the faces to you. You may remain loyal to your initial impression, but you’ll be forced to concede another perspective is possible.

But in real life, it’s often impossible to get someone to see the contrary position.

Or admit that they see it…

…Interestingly, Wikipedia links to an article on Pareidolia, which is the way we read things into certain stimuli that aren’t really there; “the tendency for incorrect perception of a stimulus as an object, pattern or meaning known to the observer, such as seeing shapes in clouds, seeing faces in inanimate objects or abstract patterns, or hearing hidden messages in music. Common examples are perceived images of animals, faces, or objects in cloud formations, the Man in the Moon…”

(Interesting for the purposes of readers here, is that later on the article notes: “There have been many instances of perceptions of religious imagery and themes, especially the faces of religious figures, in ordinary phenomena. Many involve images of Jesus, the Virgin Mary,…”)

If Rubin’s Vase helps us understand polarization of opinion, I would argue that Pareidolia helps us understand conspiracy theories which are, in simple terms, reading something into a situation which isn’t there.


September 16, 2019

Opinions Change, Values Should Not

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:02 am

Despite the steady growth of people posting things to WordPress as evidenced by this slightly older graphic, the impact of bloggers in Christianity is not the same as it once was.

Now that I’m not posting every single day, 24/7/365, I allow myself to question whether I need to weigh in on each and every topic which comes under this blog’s larger area of study — Christianity and Culture — or involves something currently making the rounds in Christian news or opinion.

If I were to go back ten-plus years, I would probably see blog posts that were filled with self-importance, and in fairness, this blog did regularly rank among the top such sites in North America.  Now, in the years following the post-blogging boom, I realize that my opinion is not that for which the world waits.

I also realize that my opinion on a few things have changed.

Let’s be clear what I mean by that:

  • My core doctrine is solidly unchanged on the things that matter
  • My core values are unchanged on the things that matter to me
  • My beliefs on secondary and tertiary doctrines have shifted slightly, perhaps more radically in a few cases
  • My ranking of what things I prize or value is unaltered by any shifts on secondary matters

People change, but I believe the core statement-of-faith type things have to be non negotiable. These are not on the table for discussion.

However, on a whole other list of things, my opinions or understanding has shifted somewhat.

What are your non-negotiables?

I recently discovered this list of 255 dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church. These are their non-negotiables. To dissent on any one of these is, in one person’s words to “cease being a Roman Catholic.”

We don’t have such a list in Evangelicalism. Our faith statements or creeds give prominence to about 8 to 10 core doctrines. Then there follows that many again that some people would like to see in the core list. You have yours and I have mine.

Except that I don’t actually have any. I can live and fellowship with people who simply are satisfied with that 8 to 10 items.

And it sure beats 255…

…Before you ask, I’ve never deleted a blog post. I’ve never gone back and said, ‘This would be embarrassing should anyone find it today.’ Because the word blog is shorthand for web log and that’s what it is, a log or diary of my thoughts at that time. (Captain’s log, Stardate 5743. We were cruising the Romulan galaxy…)

And if you are human, your thoughts should be allowed to change; you should give yourself room to grow.

May 24, 2013

Comments, Spam and the Art of Self-Promotion

Filed under: blogging — Tags: , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:27 am

Everybody seems to have a cause for which to speak
Loudly from the rooftops they proclaim the thing they seek…


Long before starting this blog, I was a regular reader of others. I’m not sure when I had the first impulse to leave a comment, but there was no doubt some issue on which I felt I was both qualified and passionate, and so I clicked the ‘leave a comment’ button. There I encountered a dialog box (aptly named in this case) which looked something like this:

Email (won’t be published):

The first two fields were mandatory, but I had nothing to put on the third line. Later, I would start a page which was annexed to the religion page at USAToday, but it was several years before I would start what became the project you are now reading.


Blog commentsOnce this page was up and running, I continued to read what others were writing, and the conventional wisdom was, if you want to bring readers back to your page, and build traffic, you need to leave comments on other blogs. There is a sense in which this works, but again I tried to limit myself to subjects on which I felt qualified to offer an opinion, introduce a secondary source or quotation, post a witty remark, or simply express my passion on a particular issue. However, it was evident that this wasn’t hurting traffic at all. Was I selling myself out for the sake of building audience?

“Go to the most popular Christian blogs;” I was told; “And leave a comment regularly.” Of course, part of this is based on the idealistic notion of building blog community. That online fraternity does in fact develop, but here it’s limited to a handful of people; people whom I should say I am better for having met, if not in person, via the next best alternative.


WordPress bloggers: Have you ever actually looked at the spam comments that Akismet filters out? Blogger Clark Bunch recently received a massive template that is used by many such spammers, which someone had erroneously sent him as a single comment. Reading the text of those comments gives you a different perspective on the comments you do get.

My thesis is that there is a sense in which all of us have been partially corrupted by the goal of self-promotion. In a world filled with so many voices — and so much noise generally — we all want to be heard; we want to feel we’re making a difference; we want to voice ideas we feel are significant.


A few weeks ago the impulse must have returned because I found myself on the website of a distinguished author and professor who was writing about the impact of book reviews. Before I could take an extra minute to reconsider, I had left a comment, completely missing that he was referring to what academics call ‘peer reviewing’ which is entirely different than the book reviewing we do here. Furthermore the comment was somewhat lame. Why on earth did I feel I needed to say something?

I quickly tracked down contact information for him, and asked him to remove the comment. He was more than willing to oblige.


Deliberately using the contact information from others’ comments is not a bad thing. On at least ten different occasions in the past five years, there have been days when the Wednesday Link List was rather lean. I’ve surmised that if I’m looking for colorful content, the type of people who regular read Internet Monk, or Stuff Christians Like, or Pete Wilson are probably up to something interesting.

Similarly, there are times when I simply want to return the favor with people who regularly contribute here. So I’ll drop by the blogs of people who leave comments here and reciprocate, provided I have something significant to say.


I was originally going to title this piece, “All Comments are Spam.” There are certainly days when I feel that everybody seems to have an agenda or a book to sell. But that title would have been insulting to some of the regulars here who, it must be said, comprise the majority of comments.

Decades ago, a friend gave me the book, How to Sell Yourself by Joe Girard. Like the movie Snakes on a Plane, once you know the title, you know what the book is about, and there is a sense in which in order to pursue what the world calls success, you have to adopt the principle of promoting yourself.

Around the exact same time, I was sitting on the grass at one of those large outdoor summer festivals, when Scott Wesley Brown drew attention to the wording of Psalm 75 in the King James version:

Psalm 75 (KJV)
6 For promotion cometh neither from the east, nor from the west, nor from the south.
7 But God is the judge: he putteth down one, and setteth up another.

Who knew the Bible covered promotion, marketing and merchandising?


A couple of days ago at Christianity 201 (there’s some cross-blog promotion) I mentioned a quotation that I also posted on Twitter (there’s some cross-platform promotion) from Skye Jethani (guess it’s only fair to give him a link, too). While he doesn’t address commenting specifically, I love what this says:

Many books should be articles. Many articles should be blog posts. Many blog posts should be tweets. And many tweets should not be.

So true.


At the same outdoor festival, I also learned this verse from Proverbs:

Proverbs 16 (NIV)
2 All a person’s ways seem pure to them,
but motives are weighed by the Lord.

Ultimately, it often comes down to what motivates our actions, not the actions themselves. Maybe my comment is actually quite valid, as are the comments of people here at Thinking Out Loud. But as I learned with my comment on the professor’s website, I need to take an extra minute to ask myself why I am weighing in on a particular topic. As the C201 article I mentioned above states, scripture seems to suggest that a theology of reticence; a time to keep ones thoughts to themselves.

…Oh, by the way, your comments are invited!

July 29, 2012

A Guide to Handling Online Controversy

This is from Canadian pastor and longtime blogger Darryl Dash, where it appeared at his blog under the title Field Guide for Volatile Topics. It’s a great help to fellow-bloggers, but really applies to anyone who makes their opinions known in any public forum

Inspired in part by recent events online, as well as by ministry as a church planter in a post-Christian culture:

  • Not all topics are equal. You can swing at some subjects with a big stick and nobody will care. Other topics require delicate treatment. Learn finesse.
  • If you can be misunderstood, you will be misunderstood. Expect that what you say will be taken out of context. Don’t be surprised.
  • Be aware of stereotypes. Know how people will misconstrue your position, and don’t reenforce their mistaken beliefs. If you’re Canadian, for instance, don’t talk about beavers and wear a Mountie hat. If you’re complementarian, don’t say anything that could remotely be taken as chauvinist. Some people will build straw men; be careful not to hand them straw.
  • Know that you belong to a camp. Some people hate that camp and are waiting for you to say something stupid. Speak accordingly.
  • Being a nice guy doesn’t count. Your mother, wife, kids, and dog love you; this won’t count much for those you offend.
  • Show grace to those who criticize you. They won’t always deserve it, but neither do you. Show grace anyways.
  • Apologize. Nothing will defuse the situation like an honest apology. People will know if it’s sincere or not, so don’t try to fake this one.
  • Move on. Some people will be angry with you anyways. Rest in God’s grace.

My guess is that the skill of dealing with volatile topics is going to become even more important than it is now. I’d love to hear your ideas on how we can do so.

~Darryl Dash

February 10, 2011

Being the Go-To Guy for Opinion and Information

An old friend of ours is frequently called upon by a Christian television show to offer his opinions on the major story of the day or general trends.  He’s one of a number of “go-to” people they use when they want to gather additional commentary on a given topic. He’s knowledgeable about many things, and I don’t at all question their judgment in using him.

When I worked briefly in campus media — newspaper and radio — at Canada’s largest university, we would receive a phone book of sorts titled Sources; a listing of people in business, finance, academia, education, entertainment, sports, politics, world affairs, etc. who were considered experts in their field.  The book allowed writers and broadcasters to get past the screening processes and be in contact with these people quickly.  A good journalist has his or her own contacts as well.

It’s always nice to be asked your opinion.  It’s self-gratifying perhaps, but always good for self-esteem to hear someone say, “What do you think about this situation?”  Recently, “Canada’s most-listened to spiritual talkback program” as it is known, cut back it’s actual time allotted to talkback.  I think it’s unfortunate when fewer and fewer voices get to be heard.  Or when only a few people get the morning call from the Christian television producer to prepare a soundbite for the morning broadcast on a fast-developing story.

But we all can’t be experts on everything.  For the past three weeks I’ve followed the uprising in Tunisia and the subsequent protests in Egypt without writing a word about them here. I think I understand the basic issues enough to explain it to my kids, but that’s where I draw the line at jumping in on that one.

You see, I went to an experimental high school in Toronto.  We were among the first to get “unstructured modules” or “spares” in the middle of the day.  Also, we were allowed to drop history if we took geography, which means that I’ve never taken high school history (nor political science) and my middle school history classes were taught by a former hippie whose teaching of the subject consisted of playing the banjo (seriously!) and spinning tales that often sounded more like fiction than fact.  He wasn’t big on students taking notes either, so in those three years of junior high, my cumulative notes would barely fill a single notebook.  So I tend to shy away from topics related to history, political science or macro-economics.

It’s important to know what you’re an expert on and where you’re out of your depth.  Yet we know people who feel they have to have a take on everything and at least one Minneapolis pastor who I sometimes feel is placed in a spotlight where he has to have an opinion on every issue passing by.

Locally, I’ve worked in inter-denominational ministry for 16 years now in a somewhat higher profile position, but not once have the local newspapers contacted me when a local religious news story is breaking.  It would be nice, just once, to be a source.  I can’t do Egypt.  I can do topics of interest to the faith community.

But you, too can be a source.  There’s always blogging.  As I approach the three-year anniversary of this project in a few days, I am reminded that I’ve always felt I got into this too late. That for someone who has always been a prolific writer, building a platform might have come easier if I’d started earlier.

But then yesterday I spoke with a professional writer who has just started one.  And honestly, I don’t think it’s ever too late.  This one succeeded partly because it wasn’t about my issues or local issues.  The first time a comment came in from Europe or Australia, I knew that I was being followed by a much larger audience than I imagined, and I responded by writing in a way that would make this blog world-friendly.

However, if you read the stats on Christian Blog Topsites (the first of the aggregator ‘buttons’ in the sidebar) you know that all of us in the upper tier play second fiddle to a woman who simply writes about “raising four kids under five.”  So you don’t have to take on the world in order to reach the world with your writing.

And if you’ve already made that leap, today’s comment section is available for you to promote your writing.  Who knows?  You might even turn up as a Wednesday link at some point in the future.

If you care about your world and can express opinions cleary, You are a source. And your opinion is worthy of an audience.

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