In Memoriam: The Internet Monk

Dennis Michael Spencer, the Christian blogger known as the Internet Monk, passed away on April 5 at age 53 after a four-month battle with cancer. He left behind him a devoted community of readers who were inspired and challenged by his “dispatches from the post-evangelical wilderness”.

Michael never shrank from pointing out uncomfortable truths about American Christianity’s militarism, materialism, shallowness, and other distractions from a faith centered on God’s grace and Christ’s saving work. He gave a voice to many people who felt that their church was no longer a safe place to admit that they weren’t perfect. While I had trouble with his conservatism on sexuality and gender, and wish he could have extended his wonderful critique of legalism to include these issues, the work he did is enduring and valuable, and (in my opinion) led by the Holy Spirit.

I’m happy to see that his literary agent, Jeff Dunn, and the guest preachers who filled in on his blog when he became ill, plan to continue the iMonk website and community. Among other projects, they will be promoting his book Mere Churchianity: Finding Your Way Back to Jesus-Shaped Spirituality, forthcoming from WaterBrook Press in September. Pre-order your copy at now.

One of the most popular and representative of Michael’s blog posts was “Wretched Urgency“, in which he confronts Christians’ “guilt-inducing, blood on your hands” panic about making converts. We should be zealous to know Christ and be transformed into his image, Michael says, but a “humble and quiet rest in who God is and what God does” should always come first. God’s grace saves the world, not us.

My personal favorite from the iMonk archives, though, is the 2006 post “I Hear Pepper Talking“. I thought I was the only one who felt compassion for inanimate objects. Without sliding into pantheism, Michael defends his tendency to personification, saying it’s not only a sign of respect for God’s creation, but an ethically useful habit of mind that counteracts our tendency to dehumanize people:

…The smallest thing I ever personified was a packet of pepper. I got it in the cafeteria line and didn’t use it, so I put it in my pocket. When I got ready to throw it away, it said “Please, sir. I was created to be useful to someone’s food. Can’t you give me another chance? Don’t throw me away and waste my life.”…

…If someone were to film our family personifying animals, they would conclude we were several fries short of a happy meal. We enjoy the fun. We’ve passed on this little habit to our kids, and along the way, taught them to think about what they were doing to a toy, or how it felt to be lost and misplaced, or why something given as a gift wants to be shared.

God took the dust of the earth and made human beings. He took a rib and made Eve. These are stories of God making persons out of the impersonal. Capon (via Augustine) says that we are given our meaning in the mind of God, who conceived of us as persons when we were not yet, and had done nothing. He thought of us, as we are at every stage and moment of life, loved us in Jesus, and reconciled himself to us… all before we existed. He delights in us in his own thoughts in perfect grace….and then he makes us persons in his image and in his Son.

We are persons, made in God’s image, only because God gives to us a voice, significance and life. We have life in Christ. His life is the light of men. He gives creation its personal character. We are persons because we reflect our creator, and not just the creation or other beings. We are made persons by God’s personal action to cause us to be, and to be again.

Jesus treated all those he met with love, dignity and compassion. He made persons out of the non-persons in his culture. He included the sinful, the excluded and the dehumanized. Oppressors have always used the process of dehumanization to cement their power over the world, but God causes the downtrodden to be lifted up, the forgotten to be remembered, and the dead to be raised up.

Now we who are loyal to Jesus and worship the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ are person-makers as well. We follow Jesus when we look upon the world and endow it, again, with its God-given character. All that God has created displays dimensions of his being, and the wonderful work of his hands. We do not merely exist, use or consume, but we worship God as stewards and namers of creation. We are creative because we want to take the someTHING and show that it all related to and speaks for someONE.

Most significantly of all, we give voice and significant to other persons in a dehumanizing, empty world. We make persons out of the lonely, the overlooked and the suffering. We refuse to live dumbly and distracted in a world where people are numbers and statistics. We seek to joyfully live and serve in a way that gives human dignity, human respect and God’s love and grace to every person who knows us, works with us or lives with us.

Our personification is ongoing, as God makes us, through the Spirit, more and more like himself. Our giving personal significance to others is ongoing as well. Whether we are parents, teachers, artists, counselors or caregivers, we imitate and obey God when we make those around us more the persons God created of for whom Christ died.

Rest in peace, generous heart.

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