The Fourth of July: Religion and Politics in America

In the autumn of 2004, I answered my office phone and for a few seconds thought someone was playing a joke on me. Until it dawned on me that I really was listening to someone with that unmistakable BBC radio accent. Long story short, a producer from the BBC wanted to know if I would write and present a 30-minute radio program for them that traced religion and politics in America from the nation’s founding fathers and the fourth of July to today.

It’s a strange sensation, I’ll tell you, beavering away on a writing project, hidden out in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, and suddenly have the BBC World Service offer you a freelance job. “We got your name and number from one of your friends here in England,” the producer said. She laid out the idea, I plied her with many questions, and we reached an agreement. Over the next 2-3 weeks I wrote the script and we communicated frequently to polish a final draft. The program aired successfully on BBC radio, October 31, 2004.

I had occasion recently to read the text of that program, which I haven’t done for years. Today, fourteen years later, most of it strikes me as very relevant still (one bit in particular does not).

Before the program aired, two aspects of the editing process fascinated me. One was to see what bits of text the BBC omitted from my final draft in order to find time to include parts of well-known patriotic songs, readings, and interesting personal anecdotes from others, which I had no control over.

I wish I could reproduce those inclusions for you, here, but the program is no longer on the Web. Instead, I thought you might like to see the entire unedited text. I’ve noted the places the BBC omitted by placing brackets at the start and end of that material, and I added the song titles and other bits. Also, toward the end of the text I included some pretty bold statements, and I was pleasantly surprised that the BBC left those in the program.

START OF BBC RADIO TEXT

“God bless America.”

These three short words bring together religion and a nation – and all the controversy and paradox, and yes blessings, that the invocation reveals about America’s pluralistic experiment.

It’s not unusual to hear these three words on the lips of American politicians, especially during the closing remarks of important Presidential speeches.

Invoking God finds deep historical roots in America dating back to the nation’s Founding Fathers, and even before that to the Pilgrims and to the Puritans, who first settled in close knit Christian colonies along the New England coast in the early seventeenth century.

Even today millions of Americans genuinely believe that the nation should be blessed by God, and we’ll be hearing from some of them later. Many may even sing the famous Irving Berlin song God Bless America, written in 1938, at large sporting events.

Song – God Bless America

I never thought much about that song or its implications while growing up in Michigan in the more liberal North.

It was only after moving to the South, 15 years ago, where I settled into the beautiful rolling foothills of the Smoky Mountains, then I saw just how seriously
many people take the words “God bless America.” I had moved into the heart of what is called the Bible Belt, a large area of the country where Protestant fundamentalism is widely practiced.

Every Fourth of July, for instance–or Independence Day, as people call it–our nation celebrates one of its most cherished documents, the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson in June 1776.

Reading from – The Declaration of Independence

We, the Representatives of the United States of America … appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world … solemnly publish and declare that these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States [and] that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British crown …. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honour.

In the church that my wife and I attend, Sunday services every Fourth of July come alive with political fervor.

Inside the packed sanctuary you’ll see a large American flag with its bold red, white, and blue colors prominently displayed.

You’ll hear the pastor preaching a rousing sermon about why America is a Christian nation, a chosen nation.

[And the choir and congregation will ignore religious hymns that morning in order to sing patriotic songs like God Bless America or America the Beautiful.]

Song – America the Beautiful

There’s no doubt that religion and politics are in our bones here in the States.

[When the prominent French social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville arrived America in the early 19th century to write his classic book, Democracy in America, he wrote that the first thing that struck him in the United States was its religious atmosphere. De Tocqueville marveled not only at the number of religious denominations but also their mutual toleration.]

pause
God permeates much of everyday American life today.

On Sundays we pass the plate and on Mondays we pass the buck. And in both transactions God slips through our fingers – the slogan “In God We Trust” engraved on our money.

[And speaking of money, America’s deep religious beliefs have made it a very giving nation, both philanthropically and charitably, at home and abroad.]

And whenever students stand in their classrooms, hand over heart, to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, God gets a mention even in our secular, state school system.

Reading – Pledge of Allegiance

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

BBC added a comment from a Southern Baptist pastor from Dallas and a comment from a “humanist.

[It was in 1954 that Congress passed a law inserting the two words “under God” into the Pledge, and reasonable people have disagreed about that clause ever since.Two years ago, for instance, a self-professed California atheist got a Federal court to have the words “under God” removed from the Pledge. But just recently the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that verdict.]

pause
The religious conviction that America is “a chosen nation” dates back to the Pilgrims and the Puritans, who were fleeing religious and political persecution in England and Europe.

Many of their early documents reveal their deep faith in God, such as the 1620 Mayflower Compact, named after a ship in which many Pilgrims had sailed from Plymouth England to the New World.

Reading from – The Mayflower Compact

Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politic.

Winthrop ship The ArabellaIn a famous 1630 speech, Massachusetts governor John Winthrop stood on the deck of the gun-ship, the Arabella, in which he had sailed from England, and invoked blessings on the new colonies that were straight from chapter 30 of the book of Deuteronomy.

As Winthrop articulated his Christian vision for the New World, he declared that the colonies should be “a city upon a hill” — a direct reference to Jesus’ statement in St. Matthew’s Gospel that you are the light of the world, and that a city set upon a hill cannot be hid.

Reading from – John Winthrop’s 1630 speech

The Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us as his own people and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, [so that we shall see much more of his wisdom, power, goodness, and truth then formerly we have been acquainted with]…. The God of Israel … shall make us a praise and a glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantations: the Lord make it like that of New England: for we must Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.

Many of our politicians today, such as the late President Ronald Reagan, have appealed to Winthrop’s ideas.

At least twice in his speeches, Reagan included Winthrop’s phrase about “a city set on a hill” – once during his campaign for a second term; and later during his farewell address to the nation.

Did this mean that every early Christian leader believed that they were founding God’s chosen nation? Not at all.

Puritan leaders like Roger Williams warned that no nation since the coming of Christ has been uniquely God’s chosen nation. And this is a position that continues to be held by many prominent Christians today.

Nevertheless, not long after the nation had formed, the religious conviction that America was divinely chosen gave rise to Manifest Destiny, the powerful 19th century political doctrine that the United States had the right and the duty to explore and to expand itself throughout North America.

And in those more militant times, as today, Americans could be inspired by the song The Battle Hymn of the Republic, a rather frightening song about God wielding his swift sword against his enemies.

Song – The Battle Hymn of the Republic

In quite a different spirit today, the U.S. Congress acknowledged God’s special relationship with America shortly after the attacks on 9/11. On October 23, 2001, Congress passed a Resolution that permits a national day of reconciliation to occur every year.

The Resolution states that “the two Houses of Congress shall assemble [once a year] . . . to humbly seek the blessing of Providence for forgiveness, reconciliation, and charity for all people of the United States.”

This tradition dates far back in U.S. history, such as to President Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Day address in 1863. In a very moving appeal during the nation’s tragic Civil War, which was being fought between the North and the South, Lincoln declared bluntly that the nation had “forgotten God.”

The nation, said Lincoln, who had been made gaunt by the War, had become “intoxicated with unbroken success.” It had “become too self-sufficient.” And therefore we ought to “humble ourselves,” and “confess our national sins,” and “pray for clemency and forgiveness.”

Times haven’t always been pretty when it comes to religion in America. The Civil War was being fought chiefly over the slavery issue, and religious faith dictated two opposing views. Christians in the industrial North opposed slavery. In the agricultural South, with its huge plantations, Christians wanted to see slavery extended.

The suffering slaves themselves drew from powerful redemptive Christian imagery forged upon the sorrow of their chains.

Dozens of so-called Negro spirituals arose out of the slave’s pain and oppression, including songs like There Is a Balm in Gilead, and the soulful Swing Low Sweet Chariot, which was taken from Psalm 68:17: “The Chariots of God are tens of thousands.”

Song – Swing Low Sweet Chariot

BBC added a “testimony” from an Assembly of God church member and from a Catholic woman.

The relationship of religion to government in America has sustained one of the nation’s longest-standing and most heated controversies: the meaning of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Ratified in 1791, the First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or the free exercise thereof.”

[The great controversy has always been about how to interpret that. Since 1802, it has been known as the “separation of church and state,” a principle that has been derived from a letter written to the Danbury Baptist Association by Thomas Jefferson, our third President. In that letter, President Jefferson — a religious man who was not a Christian but a Deist — wrote that the First Amendment built “a wall of separation between church and state.”]

To many Americans today, this means that religion and politics should have absolutely nothing to do with each other. But to many other Americans, that is going way too far.

Battles over the meaning are played out regularly in our courts, where, for instance, rulings have been handed down to remove Christmas nativity scenes from government buildings.

[One of the most far-reaching decisions occurred in 1962, when the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited the saying of prayers in our state schools.]

But the battles are also played out between friends and neighbors. I used to have quite animated conversations about religion and politics across the fence line with my neighbor, Don, a silver-haired, straight-talking man who had retired to the Smoky Mountains from Florida.

Whenever I happened catch him cutting his lawn, Don would stop and wave me over to the fence line, where, as neighbors do, we would catch up on things.

Knowing I was a public Christian, within minutes Don would be baiting me about America’s religious right and its national political arms, the Moral Majority, and later, the Christian Coalition.

“What business do they have, always sticking their nose into politics?” Don would say.

Well, I took his point. But it must be said that government needs some sort of moral base, otherwise there’s going to be chaos or anarchy. The Pilgrims and Puritans understood this, but I don’t think that many non-religious Americans today think much about it.

But both liberal and conservative Christians today think about it. Big time. Both sides of the religious divide spend huge amounts of time, money, and effort trying to implement their version of Puritan moralism in American public life. [They also believe that it’s essential to elect Christian politicians to key offices, whether locally, regionally, or nationally.] Their efforts, however, may not be producing the intended moral effect on the nation.

After all, we’ve had almost 30 straight years of Presidents claiming to be “born again” Christians, ever since Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, popularized that phrase in 1976.

And polling research indicates that close to fifty percent of the population now attend church on Sundays.

The great irony is that after three decades of Christian Presidents and widespread church attendance, America still continues its slow general trend into materialism and moral decline.

I think there are many reasons for this.

Many churchgoers still cling to a 19th century pietism – a private faith that has little public relevance. [And many Christian politicians often fail to put forward viable policies that make sense to the nonbelievers in their constituencies.] Also, Christian activism often finds itself opposed by parts of society, whether rightly or wrongly.

[In their book The Search for Christian America, scholars Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden write that when Christianity is closely linked to a society, it can transform aspects of that society; but “on any large scale or in the long run such a transformation will be severely limited by other forces at the base of a society…, [especially] anti-Christian forces.”]

Clearly not everyone would “Amen” the sentiments of Walt Whitman, one of American’s great 19th century poets, when he wrote a poem called “Prayer of Columbus.”

Reading from – Walt Whitman’s Prayer of Columbus

All my emprises have been filled with Thee,
My speculations, plans, begun and carried on in thoughts of Thee,
Sailing the deep or journeying the land for Thee;
Intentions, purports, aspirations mine, leaving results to Thee.

O I am sure they really came from Thee,
The urge, the ardor, the unconquerable will,
The potent, felt, interior command, stronger than words,
A message from the Heavens whispering to me even in sleep,
These sped me on.

Song – America, America

BBC added a Catholic man’s “testimony,” a doctor from Dallas who was a former rock musician.

Many Americans like religion as a touchstone, but they resist having it enforced politically.

Nowhere has public resistance to religious activism been more successful than in the case of abortion, which was legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973. Even after more than 30 years of tireless widespread religious activism, the abortion decision has never been overturned.

[Christians have had much better success when working one-on-one with Americans on this emotional issue.]

pause
With all the Christian influence in the nation, however, do people of other faiths, such as Jews and Muslims, and even those who claim not to be religious, get a fair shake?

I think that most of the time they do.

A very tangible blessing of America’s pluralistic experiment lies not only in the U.S.
Constitution but also in the Declaration of Independence, which states clearly that “all men are created equal,” and “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

This means that “equal rights” for all takes precedent over any one faith. Rights, therefore, come first. And every American citizen has them. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. Should people’s rights be violated, as U.S. history reveals, the courts are brought in to settle the abuses.

pause
I’m sure that to people looking in from the outside, it must seem like the whole nation is one big religious hothouse, a society where religion is continually shoved in your face.

I think that would be an inaccurate picture of America.

For me, even as a Christian, I think that one of the great things about the American experiment is you can live here quite happily without being accosted by religion.

Many people live here for a long time and are not fussed about religion at all, even as I lived during one 10-year stretch of my life, when I was a New Age neopagan. Then in July, 1976, coincidentally during the month that America was wildly celebrating its two-hundredth anniversary, I was living alone like a hermit in California. That month I had a dramatic and unexpected encounter with the risen Jesus, which has always reminded me of Paul the apostle’s startling experience when he was knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus.

The experience immediately changed the direction of my life completely. I suppose you could say that I now find what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity” to be both personally essential and a public good.

Of course, nonbelievers won’t see it like that, but neither will they feel awkward seeing so many of their neighbors driving off to church on Sundays, although they might joke about seeing religious stickers on their neighbors cars, stickers that may say “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” or, “I’m too blessed to be depressed.”

I think that Americans of any faith, and people of no faith, have all learned to live here with grace toward each other – as we spend everyday in each other’s company, whether at work, at play, or across the fence line.

It’s certainly not perfect. We’ve got a long ways to go. But for the most part, we get along — even during a heated political season like the current campaign for President.

And that, it seems to me, is part of God’s grace blessing America.

Song – Amazing Grace
END

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

Images courtesy Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while to see if you like it. You can always “unfollow” anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

President Trump, John Bolton, and Regime Change in Iran

playing chessIn an article I wrote last year, I did not foretell that John Bolton would become President Trump’s National Security Advisor. I argued that President Trump’s posture on Iran was nearly identical to President Bush’s hawkish attitude toward Iraq in 2002-2003, which led to the war about Iraq, and I documented Bolton’s overt militant stance on Iran, which could provide a rationale for Trump’s goal of withdrawing the United States from Iran nuclear deal (aka: the JCPOA).

Bolton, a hardline foreign policy hawk with strong neoconservative leanings, has had a long career as a high-level policy advisor in various capacities since the Reagan years. It was probably inevitable that Trump would eventually choose Bolton to be his National Security Advisor (in April, 2018). But I will let you be the judge of that. Here is part of what I wrote in September, 2017:

From 2017
In a telling article in National Review (August, 2017) titled “How to Get Out of the Iran Deal,” John Bolton, a former U. S. Ambassador to the UN, laid out a detailed, five-page game plan for the kind of spin we can expect to hear about Iran from the White House and the media in the following months. Bolton, who calls the Iran nuclear deal “execrable,” was asked in July by Steve Bannon, then Trump’s chief White House strategist, “to draw up just such a game plan…, which I did,” Bolton wrote in the article. It’s a strategy, he states, “that can be readily expanded to a comprehensive, hundred-page playbook if the administration were to decide to leave the Iran agreement.”

Note the meaning of that carefully crafted sentence. Bolton, who has served at high levels in various presidential administrations, is no stranger to spin. He is not saying: here is a just case for pulling out of the agreement. He’s saying: if you [Trump] pull out when Iran is not in material breach, here’s how to spin your decision. [In previous administrations, Bolton has been tasked with helping to sell presidential policies to the public.]

Under four subheadings – Background; Campaign Plan Components; Execution Concepts and Tactics; Conclusion – Bolton’s argument may be summed up as: here’s how to pull out all the stops in a domestic and global campaign to get as many influential agencies, allies, and media as possible on board to support “a decision not to certify and to abrogate the JCPOA.” His ways and means include, but are not limited to:

■ developing momentum in Congress for pulling out,
■ diplomatic and public education initiatives,
■ early and quiet consultation with key players,
■ explaining why the deal is harmful to U.S. national security interests,
■ a full court press by U.S. embassies worldwide,
■ coordinating with all relevant Federal agencies,
■ the timing of announcements,
■ having unilateral U.S. sanctions against Iran ready to be implemented,
■ encourage public debate that goes further than abrogating the deal,
■ announcing U.S. support for the democratic Iranian opposition,
■ expedite delivery of bunker-buster bombs,
■ and actively organize opposition to Iranian political objectives in the UN.

Bolton expands on the “how” of those and other strategies throughout his article. “This effort,” he concludes, “should be the Administration’s highest diplomatic priority, commanding all necessary time, attention, and resources.”

If Iran continues to implement the deal but Trump remains firm about tearing it up, we should be prepared to face a deluge of what the distinguished foreign policy thinker John Mearsheimer calls, in his insightful little book Why Leaders Lie, “a deception campaign” based on fearmongering, which “occurs when a state’s leaders see a threat emerging but think that they cannot make the public see the wolf at the door without resorting to a deception campaign.”

“History may not repeat itself,” Mark Twain has been noted to have said, “but it sure does rhyme.” If we draw lessons from the deception campaign of Bush White House in 2002, it’s not hard to divine what kind of rhyming statements, i.e., sound bites, are going to be hawked by the Trump White House and influential others in the coming months. Here are some likely ones:

■ Of all of Obama’s wrongheaded policies, none is more dangerous to the US that the Iran deal…
■ Obama, Kerry, and others in that administration were naive to think that Iran doesn’t want nuclear weapons…
■ The time has come to pull out of the deal…
■ We have clear evidence that Iran is not abiding by the nuclear deal…
■ Congressional leaders are united in their view that Iran will…
■ The only way to stop Iran from having nuclear weapons is to pull out of the deal and place very tough US sanctions on Iran…
■ The Iran deal has not deterred it from pursuing paths to have nuclear weapons….
■ We support the President to pull out of the deal…
■ We are confident that Iran is seeking means to build a nuclear weapon…
■ If we do not pull out of the Iran deal and enact very strict sanction immediately…
■ Iran had no intention of honoring the agreement….

Back to today and looking ahead
You only have to read President Trump’s public statements about the Iran deal to see that many of them resemble the above sound bites. It is foolish to try to predict what the next five to ten years will look like now that the United States is no longer committed to the JCPOA, now that “the highest level of economic sanction” is being instituted (Trump), and now that all sorts of changes toward engaging with America are being discussed and implemented by many U.S. allies and partners, including in the EU.

Common GroundI, for one, however, hope that Trita Parsi is mistaken, though I fear he is not. Parsi, a respected foreign policy analyst, Iranian expert, and author, wrote in July, 2017, that Trump’s rationale for pulling out of the JCPOA was a “a rerun of the machinations that resulted in the Iraq war. It doesn’t matter what Iran does or doesn’t do….”

A far-fetched goal of the Trump White House? Don’t count on it now that John Bolton is the president’s National Security Advisor. In 1998, nineteen high-level Middle East policy advocates sent a formal letter to President Bill Clinton. Written on Project for a New American Century (PNAC) stationery and dated January 26, the letter argued that “the aim of American foreign policy” should be “removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power.”

PNAC was a well-funded, well-connected neoconservative think tank (1997-2006). “We urge you to articulate this aim,” the letter to President Clinton concluded. “We stand ready to offer our full support in this difficult but necessary endeavor.” Signatories includes: Robert Kagan and William Kristol (PNAC founders), Elliot Abrams, Francis Fukuyama, Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and John Bolton (a Director at PNAC).

It is tempting to conclude that this was “just a letter.” And many analysts have concluded that Clinton ignored it. Maybe. Maybe not. Certainly he never made any attempt to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. But regime change takes time to plan and to implement. Consider what did take place quietly in the halls of power nine months after Clinton received the PNAC letter.

In September 1998, a bill was introduced to both the House and the Senate under the cumbersome title: “To establish a program to support a transition to democracy in Iraq.” It sailed through Congress and was signed into law by President Clinton on October 31 as “The Iraq Liberation Act.” With that use of his pen, Clinton made regime change the policy of the United States toward Iraq. Five-and-half years later, in March 2003, President Bush sent the troops.

the White HouseConventional wisdom lays the decision to oust Saddam Hussein from power at the feet of President George W. Bush, but the policy had in fact become official U.S. policy under Clinton. We will never know all the facts and machinations that led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. As Al Gore once told Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, the public only knows one percent of what goes on at the White House.

What we do know is that Trump withdrew the U.S. from the nuclear agreement despite the IAEA’s widely respected conclusion that Iran was not in material breach of the agreement. We also know that part of Bolton’s Middle East policy was regime change in Iraq. We also know that another of his Middle East policies is “regime change in Iran.” This he made clear during a Fox News interview four months before he was installed as Trump’s National Security Advisor.

As Peter Beinart has written, it would be comforting to believe that withdrawing from the agreement has not “put the United States or Israel, or both, on the path to war with Iran. [But] another Middle Eastern war is entirely possible. Where it might lead is anyone’s guess. The greatest current threat to American national security is not Iran, North Korea, or ISIS. It’s amnesia. And Americans need a strategy to fight it.”

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

Images via Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while to see if you like it. You can always “unfollow” anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

Bullying of a different sort

There are bullies, and then there are bullies. I was reminded of two kinds in as many days. Today I was working out in our local gym, which had its three televisions running, each in different sections of the gym. A sports program was on at the far end and FOX News was running in another section. The program on the television near me was naff, so after determining that the middle-aged woman exercising nearby was not watching it, I found the remote and started surfing. When I landed on CNN News, I left it there and followed along using the “closed caption” option after I got back to my workout.

That was going along well until the middle-aged lady’s husband walked over from the other end of the gym. Nearly finished with his workout, he wanted to know when she would be done. They sorted that out, and he walked off to finish his workout, but not before he had made a rude remark about CNN. I hadn’t paid any attention to this man until the rude remark, which was impossible for me to miss. So I looked more closely and remembered him from the only conversation I ever had with him, in the gym a couple months ago. To each his own, but during that brief chat the guy really put me off with his Mr. Macho personality and hyper-aggressive patriotism. I was glad when he returned to the other end of the gym today. We did not speak this time, and I don’t know if he recognized me.

I kept watching CNN and working out. His wife moved to another nearby machine. Out of the corner of my eye a few minutes later I noticed the husband coming to talk to his wife again. He was done working out. I’ll be done soon, she explained. I got the feeling he was frustrated to wait. He looks up at the monitor, makes more rude remarks about CNN, and then plops himself down on the nearby couch and takes the remote and starts watching the History channel. He knows I’m watching CNN but he doesn’t consult me. Doesn’t even look at me.

Having had that previous distasteful encounter with him I decide to keep my mouth shut. Almost immediately the wife stops working out, walks past the couch, says, “Let’s go,” and heads for the door. This scene takes place about ten feet from me. It’s impossible not to notice some issues there, and I turn and look elsewhere. I’m not completely clear on what then occurred, but apparently the husband jumped off couch and took a few steps toward the door, but then stopped, retrieved the remote and changed the monitor back to CNN. He then spoke to me. “That’s what you were watching wasn’t it?” I look up and nod. He makes more rude remarks, complete with hand gestures, and then exits the building.

It’s annoying, that kind of soft bullying, and it is easily dismissed. Not so the hard-nosed bullying that yesterday strong-armed not only an adversary but also allies with its misguided foreign policy decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement. When a child bullies, parents can step in. Who can step into this?

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

Image: by dhruvgpatel via Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while to see if you like it. You can always “unfollow” anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

It’s the Presidency Not the President

dominoes“The intensity of public feelings about President Trump makes it hard to measure him against the presidency. His breaks with tradition are so jarring, and the murmuration of tweets so thick, that debate about his behavior tends to be conducted on the plane of propriety and the president’s seeming disregard for it.

“If Trump were a less divisive figure, we might view these lapses differently. We might consider that what looks like incompetence or impertinence on the part of the officeholder could also be evidence that the office itself is broken.

“Many of the responsibilities that vex Trump are ones that were not part of the job’s original design. They have accrued to the presidency over time, most in the recent past. The Framers, fresh from a successful rebellion against a tyrannical king, envisioned an executive who was limited in power and even stature. For a good long while, the design held. James K. Polk’s wife, Sarah, was so concerned that the 11th president might enter a room unnoticed, she asked the Marine Band to play “Hail to the Chief” to get people to turn their head when he arrived.

“Today we notice when the president doesn’t show up. We are a president-obsessed nation, so much so that we undermine the very idea of our constitutional democracy. No one man—or woman—can possibly represent the varied, competing interests of 327 million citizens. And it may be that no man—or woman—can perform the ever-expanding duties of office while managing an executive branch of 2 million employees (not including the armed forces) charged with everything from regulating air pollution to x-raying passengers before they board an airplane.”

[clip]

“Reforming the presidency is necessary, and hard, because the Framers were unspecific about how the office would operate. That’s why George Washington was so conscious of the fact that his every act would set a precedent for the office. It is a job of stewardship. Since Washington, presidents have tended to the traditions and obligations set by their predecessors and passed them on to the presidents who came later. This promotes unity, continuity, and stability. It also promotes bloat.

“Washington would never recognize the office now, though he could commiserate with its modern occupant. ‘I greatly apprehend that my Countrymen will expect too much from me,’ he wrote his friend Edward Rutledge in 1789. The modern president faces the same challenge of fulfilling expectations, but while Washington was conscious of not overstepping the boundaries of his office and making himself too big, the presidents who have come after face the opposite challenge: how not to seem too small for an office that has grown so large.”

Those are the opening and closing words of a significant essay by John Dickerson in The Atlantic Monthly. Significant to liberals and conservatives alike. In between those words, Dickerson thoughtfully moves back and forth through U.S. history to contrast what the Framers (and the Constitution) wanted the office of the President of the United States to be and how radically different the contemporary office has become today. And why that is a huge problem.

I have interrupted writing the next article I want to put on this blog in order to call our attention to this essay. Here’s why. My work on The Wisdom Project during the last fifteen years has of necessity included much research to try to get my mind around the U.S. presidency. Dickerson’s essay filled in an important area of my thinking. It scratched a deep itch that I have had for a long time. But that’s not why I offer the essay to you here.

After reading it I realized that its clear presentation of major changes to the office of the presidency (changes Dickerson identifies as beginning with the Great Depression and steadily increasing in complexity since then) would be very helpful to anyone who really wants to understand the contemporary U.S. presidency and why its ever-expanding job description does not bode well for the county or for the world. You may or may not agree with some of his equally thoughtful recommendations for the current and future presidents, but it is hard to gainsay his thesis: the problem might not be the president but the presidency.

NOTE: this is a topic that I would like to have some conversation about on this blog. If you’d like to get one going, please use the Comments area to share your thoughts. Using the Comments, rather than email, gives others who read this blog an opportunity to chime in. So we can learn wisdom from each other. Thank you.

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

Image: by Great Beyond via Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while to see if you like it. You can always “unfollow” anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

Christ’s Passion and God’s Grace for You

Christ on the CrossEaster weekend is a good time to take a sabbath from chocolate bunnies and colored eggs to remind ourselves of how harshly the weekend began for Jesus 2,000 years ago. The following reflection is from one of my first books, edited here. It appears in the book in a discussion about pride, humility, and the amazing grace of God.

The sin of pride may not be the most basic sin, but it is probably way ahead of whatever is running in second place. The great American preacher Jonathan Edwards, in his typically vivid imagery, put it this way: “[p]ride is the worst viper that is in the heart, the greatest disturber of the soul’s peace and sweet communion with Christ; it was the first sin that ever was, and lies lowest in the foundation of Satan’s whole building, and is the most difficultly rooted out” (Advice to Young Converts). Powerful words.

Pride is the all-too-human condition that makes “self” the center of my life, so that all others, including God, become subservient to me. The sin of pride is not the pride you may take in winning a scholarship to Juilliard, or by making an impossible catch in deep center field, or by the good feelings that arise when your child comes home from school with an “A+.” It is the kind of pride that says, however subtly, and in many diverse ways, “My will be done” (Isaiah 14:13–14 depicts the gravest expression of this).

Pride is the enemy of humility. Humility is about turning one’s attention away from self to God and to others. When we consider the purposes of God and the welfare of others as greater than ourselves, that is humility. “Self-forgetfulness” is the way C. S. Lewis put it.

Strange and annoying thoughts break in on our personal peace and security when our regard for God’s will and others’ welfare replace our attention to ourselves. A humility, or lowliness of mind, heart, or circumstance, then develops in us. This may occur with the discovery that I am inferior to God and must do what God says. It may come with the acceptance that I am powerless to do anything about the kind of hardship or suffering that is suddenly upon me. It may occur with the recognition of a barrier between myself and Jesus that must be terminated – a chosen career, a proposed marriage, an immoral relationship. There is, then, a shifting of priorities in the move from self to humility.

It may seem unlikely at the time, but in the process that spoils our own desires, hopes, pleasures, ambitions, or longings we receive more of God’s amazing grace to enable us to do what God is requiring of us. “Clothe yourselves with humility towards one another, because ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’” (1 Peter 5:5).

As we approach the reality of deeper obedience, our imaginations clarify as never before. For what we are about to lose or suffer appears on the path in a last-ditch effort to try to turn aside a heart moving into tender obedience. It is a pivotal moment. Might we not turn the wrong way? We may not want to, but still . . . .

The “self-forgetfulness” of our Lord is our model for humility, as he is in all things. One of the most concentrated expressions of the clarification process comes into sharp relief when our Lord is praying in the Garden of Gethesmane, as it is described in Mark 14:32–34:

“They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ He took Pete, James and John along with him, and he began to he deeply distressed and troubled. ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,’ he said to them. Stay here and keep watch.”

Just hours before his death by crucifixion, Jesus has walked to the Garden of Gethsemane, which in the Aramaic language means “oil press.” He has gone there to pray about what lay ahead for him, and that imminent future is being clarified to him through the agony he endures there.

Christ’s passion begins. The unbelievable cost of Calvary is being clarified to the Suffering Servant. In Mark’s description, three Greek words in the original New Testament reveal what was taking place in our Lord’s mind. A more accurate rendering of “deeply distressed,” “troubled,” and “overwhelmed” are the words “aghast,” “depressed,” and “grief-stricken.”

That Jesus did not like what he saw is also evident from the long time he took in prayer to ask the Father if “the cup” could pass from him. Drops of his bloody sweat stained the ground while he endured that racking oil press of lowliness. We know that he could have called on his Father to send legions of angels to fight for him (Matthew 26:53).

But Jesus chose to drink the cup, to place the importance of others as greater than himself. This comes ringing home in that climactic outburst before he walks from the garden, “Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). Thus strengthened by God’s grace, the Suffering Servant declares, “Rise! Let us go” (Mark 14:42).

Jesus exemplifies both the height and depth of realistic self-understanding before God, who has promised grace to the humble. If God had enough grace for Jesus in his passion, God will have more than enough grace for you in your humility. As the infinite depths of Christ’s descent mount up to the fullness of grace in Him, the humble have a share in both.

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

Image: Christ being raised of the cross, by Reubens

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while, to see if you like it. You can always unfollow anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

Like it or not, politics plays a key role in society

In his witty book The Devil’s Dictionary, the late nineteenth social critic and satirist Ambrose Bierce defined politics thusly: “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.” He being dead yet speaketh. Certainly, politics in America today would be similarly defined by many people.

I thought about Bierce’s definition recently, after a long conversation with someone who wanted nothing to do with politics. His final words on the subject, said with great conviction, were, “I don’t believe in politics.” End of conversation.

Not long afterward I ran into someone on the other end of the spectrum, who told me, “I’m running for political office.” That reminded me of Noah Webster’s definition. The language reformer famous for compiling a comprehensive dictionary, and a near-contemporary of Bierce, defined politics this way:

“The science and art of government; the science dealing with the organization and regulation of a state, in both its internal and external affairs. The theory or practice of managing or directing the affairs of public policy or of political parties; hence political affairs, principles, convictions, opinions, sympathies.”

Seen that way, certainly politics has an essential role to play in the proper functioning of a city, country, state, or nation.

And yet we hear widespread disillusion of politics in sound bites across the land. “We need to fire this President and hire a new one.” “Government needs to be run like a business.” “They’re all a bunch of crooks.” “They just want your money.” “Government is the problem.”

James Skillen, the president emeritus of the Center for Public Justice (Washington, DC), and a leading political theologian of our time, has a lot of sympathy for people who are mad as a hornet at politics and want nothing to do with it. But he goes beyond sympathy to solutions. Skillen calls for us to rethink how we understand politics and government. This we can do, he says, if we take time to reflect on important, and often ignored, questions, such as what is government for and how should its responsibilities be properly exercised? And what responsibilities are we as citizens to have in political life?

Answers to such questions aid in discovering what government should be. If we don’t know what government should be, how will we be responsible citizens? How will we know what our politicians should be doing? This is true of all other areas of life as well. If we don’t know what families or businesses or schools are for, how will we know how to run them for the good of society? How would we know what parents or managers or educators should be doing?

As parents, managers, or educators, we don’t begin from scratch. From childhood we are situated in a cultural context and have absorbed, or been taught, ideas, values, and principles about parenting, managing, and teaching in that context. If we had lived in ancient Greece or feudal Europe we would have had quite a different view of these areas. In whatever age we are talking about, including in America today, we cannot avoid asking how should we responsibly engage in these areas?

human eyeOf political life, Skillen writes that one of our big problems is that we tend to think more in terms of what government can do, rather than what it should be. And he has thought long and hard about what government should be. His answer in The Good of Politics, his most recent book, is to understand politics and government as “political community.” And he goes further, offering a vision for developing “just political communities,” whether they are local, statewide, or national.

In a just political community, he writes, echoing Webster, not Bierce, “Those who would aspire to become governing officials should be trained in the art of governance, the art of public service, the art of statecraft. As in other spheres of life, officers of government should be servant leaders, that is, public servants. And the politics of such a political community must be organized around the participation and representation of citizens who bear a responsibility for the common good.”

It’s a good vision, worthy of developing and acting on, whether we are fed up with politics or running for office or somewhere on the spectrum between the two poles. Anyone who cares about the good of this country should take Webster and Skillen up on it.

Charles Strohmer writes about politics, religion, international relations, and diplomacy. He is the author of several books and numerous articles.

This editorial originally published in The Mountain Press (Sunday, February 18, 2018).

Images: U.S. Capitol/AP Photo John Elswick. Human eye, via Creative Commons, (Cesar R).

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while, to see if you like it. You can always unfollow anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

The Clock Shop That Tells More Than Time

ten Boom house HaarlemA note from Charles. Today, January 27, is Holocaust Remembrance Day, to commemorate the six million Jewish victims and the millions of other victims of Nazism, and to honor the dwindling number of still living survivors. Often overlooked are the countless families who risked their lives hiding Jews and others in their homes. The story of the Anne Frank family, of course, is well known. Not so much the story of the ten Boom family. As I was thinking about this family this week, I remembered that one of the first articles I ever had published (25 years ago) was about this family. I dug it out and read it. I had forgotten what motivated their sacrificial love for the people they sheltered in their homes. It was the deep Christian faith that had been passed down through generations of ten Booms. I offer that overlooked part of their story here, in the original article, in the hopes that it inspires young families today.

The Clock Shop That Tells More Than Time

Hurtling alongside narrow canals and cutting through golden flatlands, the train from Amsterdam took twenty minutes before grinding to a halt at Haarlem. Number 19 was my destination. A three-story corner building on a small intersection once heavily patrolled by the Gestapo, it was now the most famous of all of Haarlem’s hiding places.

I strolled from the station and meandered the branching, cobbled streets past sleepy cafes, chocolate concessions, and fresh smelling bakeries famous for their croissants and shortbread. The closer I got to Barteljorisstraat 19, the more impressed I was by the clean, quiet, respectable air of the town. And then a great contrast broke in on me. Not many years previously, that pleasant environment had been plunged into hell on earth. A reign of terror had been ushered in by German tanks and trucks and Nazi soldiers. Their nailed boots pounded the streets and kicked open doors as Gestapo raiders shouted ultimatums and seized the town for Hitler.

During World War 2, many Dutch citizens, students, and all Jews had to go either into hiding or become secret resistance workers. As I entered Barteljorisstraat street and saw the bright red sign of number 19, marking the ten Boom family house and clock shop, it was hard to imagine that fear and chaos once reigned in this calm, respectable atmosphere.

Corrie ten Boom (April 15, 1892 – April 15, 1983) was imprisoned in Ravensbruck concentration camp for sheltering Jews in her home at No. 19. After her dramatic release she traveled the world (64 countries in 32 years) speaking the gospel message. Many people know that inspiring part of her story, from her book, and the movie, The Hiding Place. Not so well known is another important part of the family’s story, which I learned in Haarlem, where I had come to meet Anthony Huijser.

The founder and director of the Corrie ten Boom House Foundation, Anthony gave me a private tour of the large house and sat for a long interview, in whichten Boom dining rom I learned of the ten Boom family’s deep Christian faith and commitment to serve others that stretched back generations. Without that spiritual DNA, I wondered if the family’s sacrificial activism during the Nazi occupation of Haarlem would have taken place.

“In 1837,” Anthony told me, “Willem, Corrie’s grandfather, founded the clock and watch shop. In 1844, at the suggestion of a Jewish friend, he began a weekly prayer meeting every Monday evening above the clock shop to pray specifically for the peace of Jerusalem,” which, he noted to me, is a command from Psalm 122. Willem passed this prayer meeting on to his son, Casper, Corrie’s father, a Dutch watchmaker, who passed it on to his children, Corrie, Betsie, Nollie, and Willem. No doubt it would still be going on today, except….

From May 1943 until February 1944, the ten Boom family opened their home to hide Dutch students, resistance workers, Jews, and even deserting German soldiers.

One Monday evening in February 1944, as people were arriving for the weekly prayer meeting, the Gestapo also arrived. They stayed and arreseted all who came that evening (about 30 persons, plus the ten Booms). Except for two resistance workers and four Jews who managed to slip into hiding behind the false wall in Corrie’s bedroom, everyone was chained in pairs, packed into trucks, and delivered to jails, and later to concentration camps. The ten Boom meeting to pray for Jews had lasted exactly 100 years, the home no longer a hiding place.

It had been quite natural for the family to do resistance work and to hide Jews and others. It wasn’t as if they suddenly discovered how to love that way, nor was it just the result of praying regularly for the peace of Jerusalem. ten Boom hiding placeTheir love for the Jews and the others they sheltered arose from a broader love – to love their neighbor as themselves. This kind of love had been instilled in the ten Boom children for generations by their parents.

Grandfather Willem, and after him Casper, had taught their children to be obedient to Christ in the community with an “open heart, open arms” policy toward others. Corrie’s mother, for example, when Corrie and her siblings were young, made a “blessing box” that she kept out in the home, into which the children and their friends could drop coins to help the poor and missionaries. And as her children grew, Mother ten Boom would show them how to reach the neighbors through Bible studies.

Such early spiritual training led to the creation of “The Triangle Ladies.” Formed by Corrie, Betsie, and Nollie, this work, Anthony said, “was symbolized by the circle of Christ around the triangle of body, soul, and spirit, representing the whole human being controlled by Christ.” Prayer and praise “circles,” not “meetings,” arose around this concept. The idea was that if you kept your family surrounded by the “circle of Christ,” unwanted influences would remain outside.

Early childhood training also helped the ten Boom children gain a love for the disadvantaged and alienated. Before World War 2, one of Corrie’s many admirable pursuits became the schooling of mentally handicapped children in Haarlem. Tragically, those youngsters were spiritually neglected by the churches. But Corrie developed ways to teach them about Jesus. Though their minds were weak, she found ways to teach them through the senses, especially eyes, ears, and hands. It was through that process, Anthony said, that Corrie learned how to teach spiritual realities easily. “It become one of the classrooms where Corrie learned to become a teacher and evangelist, which would later help her to tell the world how simple it is to open your heart to the gospel.”

Raised by their parents within a climate of prayer and vibrant, practical, love-of-neighbor Christianity, the ten Boom children, as adults, found it quite natural and ordinary to open their home to the persecuted. “The Hiding Place” thus began easily enough as the usual course of things. In May, 1943, Corrie happened to be talking to the mother of a student whom the Gestapo were seeking. “He has no place to hide,” she told Corrie. “Well,” said Connie without flinching, “he can live with us.”

Corrie brought the young man home, saying to her father and Betsie, “We have a guest this evening. He has to hide himself.” And that was that. It was the expected thing to do for the entire family. A work for which most of the family would eventually die had begun – dare I say it – as easy as loving neighbor as one’s self.

Corrie ten BoomWhen the Gestapo arrived at No. 19 on that fateful (and faithful) Monday evening, it was as a family that they were all arrested, a family rich in generational faithfulness to God. The “circle of Christ” may have been breached by “unwanted influences,” but the love of Christ could not be deterred.

The ten Boom house and clock shop tells more than time. It is a testament about being faithful in little early on in order to be faithful in much later on. It is a lesson to never underestimate parental influence upon children. It is a memorial to the spiritual strength of Calvary that denies self for others’ sake, a love which entire Christian families may live and breathe.

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

This article, slightly edited here, was originally published under a different title in The Christian Family (April, 1992).

Images courtesy the Corrie ten Boom museum.

A note from Charles: If you would like more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

Wisdom and the Arts of Scripture

seamstress handsToday concludes this short 3-part series on wisdom in Scripture for the natural world, in education, and in the arts. Having looked at the first two subjects, we’ll reflect on various kinds of art in Scripture, beginning with overtly religious art.

When a “people” become a “nation” – or as we say today, an “independent state” – all sorts of conditions must be met. It’s not as easy as Frank Zappa is purported to have said: all they need is a bear and an airline! Sorry, Frank. There needs to be, among other things, a territory, a government, and the ability to conduct relations with other nations. When those are in play, a new nation today usually seeks to join the United Nations – that’s big, when the UN recognizes you.

Besides those essential features, another that plays a significant role is the symbolism of national identity, which may be overtly religious or not. The symbolism of the United States, for example, is not overtly religious. Its Declaration of Independence, the language of its constitution, its bald eagle, the Liberty Bell, the design of its flag, its national anthem (“The Star Spangled Banner”), and the Great Seal of the United States (E Pluribus Unum: “one from many”) do not promote allegiance to any religion. Nevertheless, all symbolically suggest values and ideas that helped forge and establish “American” national identity.

This is unlike national identity rooted in religious belief. To give one example, the nation of Iran took on an overt religious identity in 1979. The Emblem of Iran, for instance, with its four crescents and a sword in the shape of a tulip, are meant to stand for the word “Allah,” and its five parts are meant to represent the five main principles of Shia religion. And the language of its 1979 constitution clearly identifies the state as an Islamic Republic.

Whether it is religious or not, a nation’s founding symbolism relies on artistic skill, and in such art we can see the silhouette of a nation’s wisdom. The Bible itself underlines the importance of this in the fascinating narrative surrounding the many and varied symbols representing the religion of Yahwism, which were crafted by the ancient Hebrews during the period of the founding of the nation of Israel.

Gordian knotThis story occupies most of the second half of the book of Exodus. In particular, chapters 28, 31, 35, and 36 acknowledge the aesthetic wisdom of the artisans and craftspeople, both men and women, that created this religious art. In various places, the text explains that Yahweh had told Moses that he (Yahweh) had given the craftspeople wisdom “to make everything” according to the plans. Some of the leading artisans and craftspeople are named, and the specific tasks of all of the artists are carefully delineated according to the areas of expertise.

Some Bible translations use the English word “skill” for the Hebrew word for wisdom (hakam) in these texts, to indicate the top-notch talent. The text identifies many of these men and women: artisans, builders, craftspeople, gold or silver smiths, jewelers, seamstresses, and others. The text leaves no doubt as to the religious meaning of what is under construction. It was to represent a “sanctuary” for Yahweh and a place for the people to come to with their sacrifices and to worship.

Of course there are many kinds of art. And a lot of art, perhaps most art, at least in our day, is what we would call non-religious art. This is true even in Scripture, where we find various kinds of art sans overt religious meaning. I’ll close by noting just several genres briefly.

Drama. Drama is meant to evoke emotions in an audience, feelings of tensions, for instance, of anticipation, of what’s going to happen, how is this going to end? A scene, the way the characters act, the language they use, their moods, and much else besides all contribute to good drama. For me, the story of King David awaiting news about his son Absalom is a very moving mini-set piece that conveys an important dramatic point in David’s loving but deeply troubling relationship with this son.

Literature. The entire book of Ruth tells a story so well written that it has inspired artists down through the centuries. See, e.g., Keats “Ode to a Nightingale.” Goethe has called Ruth “the loveliest complete work on a small scale.”

The play. In the book of second Samuel, chapter fourteen, you will find a carefully scripted one-act play, right down to the costume and make-up of the actor. It’s a piece of fiction, performed with such great skill before King David that it changes the king’s mind about a very sensitive family matter. What I find remarkable is the name of the playwright. It was written and directed by Joab, King David’s top military general.

The fable. Fables tend to be dressed up in images of the astonishing, the fabulous, the fantastic. Think Aesop’s Fables, for instance. Today, fables are not the great literary device they once were. You won’t find many fables in Scripture, but the one found in Judges chapter nine, which is set in a political context, is rather daring, given that it quite publicly, deliberately, exposes a newly crowned king to ridicule. In this, it seems to be appealing to a large constituency’s suspicions of monarchies. (Second Kings chapter fourteen has another fable.)

The riddle. Riddles, like fables, popular in the ancient world, are not so common today, although you will usually find them in great literature, such as in Shakespeare or those between Gollum and Bilbo in Tolkien. Riddles are word-plays that have to be opened up, and they are usually about making guesses to get at a truth, which one person hides and the other must discern. In Scripture they are sometimes called “dark sayings” or “hard questions,” such as those that the Queen of Sheba put to King Solomon to test the superiority of his wisdom. And the Prologue to the book of Proverbs explains that part of the book is understanding the “sayings and riddles of the wise.”

Allegory. This art form works metaphorically. A word, image, or phrase about one person or object is used in place of another to suggest an analogy. The Pilgrims Progress may be the most well known modern example. Augustine, the famous fourth-fifth century North African scholar, expounded Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan allegorically. In Scripture, the dreams of Joseph, and Pharaoh’s dreams, later on in the Joseph narrative, work allegorically and need interpreting. There are a couple allegories in the book of Ezekiel, and the Bible’s apocalyptic literature is typically allegorical.

Poetry. Hebrew poetry in Scripture is not unlike poetry today, with its uses of imagery, language (not unlike allegory), and rhythms, all variously and deliberately chosen and arranged, in hopes of creating for the reader or listener specific kinds of responses. The Hebrew poetry in Scripture is not like much poetry today in that writers of the former offer what life is like in covenant relation with Yahweh.

Also, poets typically want you, the reader or listener, to get what you can from a poem, almost as an “each to his or her own” interpretation. This can disturb the literalists among us. The genius of the poetic ambiguity, however, is that a good poem with its universal imagery speaks beyond its time and to any culture. The Psalms of Scripture, for instance, written 2,500 years ago, still speak to people around the world today. Anyone who thinks Scripture is boring or dated would do well to find a good book that discusses Psalms as the poetry.

The proverb. We may not immediately think of proverbs as an art form, but just try to write a pithy saying, such as a maxim, epigram, or adage – intentionally brief in length, compact in meaning, easily intelligible to their audience, memorable – and you’ll discover how difficult it is to do that.

The parable. The same thing is true about parables – very difficult to invent. In Scripture it is clear that Jesus was a master story-teller, which is the basis of a good parable. And as are most other art forms, parables are also invitational. You’re being invited into an imaginary world, to see and experience what’s going on there. It’s a world where you can make what we might call cost-free decisions about what’s going on, because you’re not directly involved. And of course you can refuse the invitation.

stroytellingAs storytelling, a parable works by inviting the hearer into a hypothetical world where the outward appearances are different but the rules for making the decisions or judgments are the same as in the “real” world. So you are a Jewish religious leader listening to Jesus and you hear the story of a wounded man lying by the roadside, and only one person out of three bothers to look after him. You’re surprised at that, and you are drawn into the situation and begin to make relatively unbiased judgments about it because you are not the person directly involved. You don’t have to do anything about it in your own “real” world.

In Uncommon Sense, John Peck and I write: “The storyteller [Jesus] has for a time set you free in your imagination, free not just to understand some abstract idea about life but to enter into a situation and make fearless, cost-free decisions in it, the sort you know you ought to make in ‘real life’ if your heart were not confused by other interests. As a Jew you find yourself admitting the previously unthinkable: a Samaritan can be a neighbor.”

I’ll close with this final thought. Art in Scripture is meant to initiate people into what experiences of life under God can be like. When it comes to Jesus, wisdom teacher par excellence, what separates his stories from run-of-the-mill is that they are about the counter-kingdom of the God’s in-coming kingdom and rule. Jesus means for there to be a dialogue going on about this between his audiences and his parables. It is a dialogue meant to disorient, dislocate, us in hopes of reorienting, relocating, us to the in-breaking kingdom and rule of God and its effects on and in our lives. That is what makes his listeners, then and now, balk.

Jesus radically challenges traditional, accepted, well-established ways thinking about life, decision making, and human relationships. And he employees all sorts for concrete and universal, everyday images to do this, such as business dealings, finances, treasures, seed time and harvest, family matters, and much more. He is using the things of everyday life deliberately, to show that nowhere along the spectrum of life will the in-breaking kingdom of God not effect radical changes in our thinking and doing.

To those “with ears to hear and eyes to see,” Jesus is revealing the kingdom of God’s normative ways of living. The more we let the art of the Bible speak to us like this, the more discerning we will become of gospel-shaped principles of taste and judgment in art, of whatever kind and wherever we find it. And the more that kind of seeing and hearing constitutes our spiritual DNA, the more intuitive it will become for us to immediately know to reject the countless invitations of art sent our way today to oppose and seek to invalidate God’s wisdom.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Images via Creative Commons. Seamstress hands, by Hernan Pinera. Knot, by crosslens. Storytelling, by Shashi Bellamonda.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.