ABC building blocksAll cultures have developed out of the same “basic ingredients.” In fact, cultures do not develop unless their peoples learn mastery over the basic ingredients. As noted in a previous post, the most advanced mathematician began by learning the simplest calculations and the international concert pianist began with five-finger exercises. If the most elementary principles are not mastered, then a severe limit is set on how far one can cope with new demands.

Of course this is a well known fact of life and hardly needs mentioning, but I’m reminding us because when we are confronted with something new and unfamiliar that we want to make sense of, as often occurs in these changing times, it is a sound instinct to see it in terms of its basic ingredients. Most adults read words and even phrases in whole units, but if they have to read out some unfamiliar word, they will revert to the childhood method of dealing with it syllable by syllable.

The Bible uses the same principle. As we saw in another post, it deals with the ABCs of human culture, its fundamentals. It introduces us to God’s dealings with people in respect of the basic elements of human culture, under conditions in which they can be perceived most clearly – in the simpler forms of human society. Scripture deals with the issues of life, then, we may say, in its primary units. It shows us the beginnings of the historical process that leads on to the present day.

In the development of human history, the basic features of human life are seen most clearly in elementary types of society, and then they become combined and complicated in ways that make the result as different as a cake is from the ingredients that make it up. If you don’t like your cake, or if you want to improve it, you go back to the cookbook recipe, where the basic ingredients and original instructions are set out. No cook, however, would expect the cookbook to describe in detail every possible variation and refinement of the recipe that there might ever be. Rather, enough information is given about “the raw materials” and “the process of cultivation” to be able to vary the recipe or to make intelligent experiments from the basic features.

In Scripture we are presented with cultural life in the history of ancient Israel and her neighbors, and we are shown the way that some early historical processes and responses led to certain results. By faithfully identifying those basic ingredients, processes, and responses we can learn wisdom for addressing and dealing with things in today’s complex and changing world.

Sometimes cooking requires a thorough mixing of the ingredients (as in baking a cake). At other times, as in a meringue, it requires a division of the ingredients (“separate the yolk from the white…”). We can expect to see such processes in Scripture history and in our own history.

In a previous post I gave an example of how the “what is it?” question, when asked of one of today’s complex issues (foreign policy), is a good way to discover its basic ingredients, which we were able to trace to Scripture to learn wisdom from in ABCs applied to foreign policy today. This means that we need not fret when we cannot find today’s complex technical language in Scripture (socialized  medicine, geopolitical structures, free market economy, common core state standards, particle physics, multilateral diplomacy, the Web, iPads, whatever) for we will most likely find the basic ingredients.  Here’s two more examples, briefly .

What is a business corporation? What is this thing? To answer this properly will involve asking other basic questions, like “What is its purpose? What is its basis? What special characteristics distinguish it from other human activities or institutions?” We will also need to understand it by breaking it up into its component parts, what we normally mean by “analysis” – what the Hebrew language of the Jewish Bible calls bîyn.

Some elements of a business corporation will be fairly obvious, such as work and working with others, and the latter, we can say, is, in part, about human relationships within a social unit. It also involves the economic aspect, such as the use of capital and earning money to keep the bills paid! Now we would find quite a bit of wisdom about these “basic ingredients” of life in Scripture, and that wisdom would come into sharper relief by asking more “what?” question, such as what does the bible say about work, spare wealth, social relationships in the context of work, as so on?

Therefore, although the Bible does not use the term, or even the concept of “business corporation,” it does carry instruction about its basic ingredients. Given the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court’s major decision (Citizen’s United) that corporations are persons and its radical implications on political campaign spending, I’m waiting for some enterprising soul to tackle this problem biblically.

What is a state? If ever there was an influential institution today, the state is one. It is difficult to detect anything in Scripture that quite corresponds with it, but if we ask our basic questions – what it is; what goes to make it up – then things get a bit easier. For instance, one key element in the state is centralized governmental authority, which gets a prominent place in Scripture. The state is also about territory and nationhood, both of which are significant dimensions of human life in the Bible.

It is also about what today we call politics, which is not a word you can look up in a Bible concordance! But is you ask any good dictionary “what is politics?”, you’ll see that it is about guiding and influencing government policy, and the Bible has a lot to say about that. And when unpacking that you soon come on to bureaucracy, which is another element found in Scripture. For instance, the growth of bureaucracy under Solomon, or the way it functioned to quite a high pitch of sophistication in the Persia of Daniel’s experience, are fascinating matters for study.

suprised lookOf course, much more is involved for the state and the business corporation. I merely wanted to introduce these illustrations, and the one about foreign policy, as perhaps a fresh and exciting way of closely reading and using the Bible to think Christianly about today’s complex and changing world. I hope these recent posts, begun here, will be of some help to you in seeking wisdom for daily life. I may introduce a few more such themes next year sometime.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

The above article was adapted from Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, by John Peck and Charles Strohmer (SPCK, 2001).

Images by Artful Magpie & George Thomas respectfully (permissions by Creative Commons)

Beyond the Mysterious Star of Bethlehem

star in blue skyI forsook casting horoscopes many decades ago when I became a Christian. Never once have I regretted that change of life, which began the day that I was transformed from being a worshiper of the stars to a worshiper of the God who made the stars. As a Christian, however, I took a serious interest in one star, the star of Bethlehem. Astrologers have all sorts of esoteric views about that star. So as a Christian who accepts the authority of the Bible, I made it a point to try to understand from Matthew’s Gospel just what was going on with this star.

Many people, including many Christians, typically seek to understand the star from strictly naturalist theories, which we considered in the previous post. But naturalism, we saw, is not enough. Theories to explain the star of Bethlehem that depend solely on novas, comets, conjunctions of planets, or on any other natural phenomenon, do not and cannot account for the faith to worship Christ the King that explains the experience of the magi.

But something else often niggled me and I could not put my finger on it. Then it occurred to me. From a close reading of Matthew chapter two, it became clear that naturalism cannot explain the ontology of the star itself, which seems almost personal. It seems to have a mind of its own. In other words, any strictly naturalistic explanation is inadequate because it cannot account for certain “unnatural” characteristics of the star.

In Matthew 2:7-9, for example, the star “appeared” at a particular time to the magi while they were in their homeland (probably Persia). Later, while the magi were on the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, the star “went ahead” of them “until it stopped.” And it did not stop randomly anywhere, like a car running out of fuel. It “stood over “ (AV) “the place where the child was.” Within the story of the miraculous birth of Jesus, it seems reasonable to conclude that this kind of behavior cannot be attributed to a strictly natural phenomenon. Here is a kind of personal agency, one that sets the star off as something quite “other” than any heavenly phenomenon governed exclusively by natural laws. As described in Matthew, the star seems as supernatural as the angels who appeared to the shepherds at Christ’s birth (Luke 2:8-15).

Personal agency of the star can also be deduced from the original language quoted in the above paragraph. The New Testament Greek word for “appeared” includes meanings associated with a shining light and, occasionally, for the appearance of an angel, such as to Joseph (Matthew 1:20; 2:13, 19). It is a term, therefore, that can be used of forms of luminous bodies other than literal stars. The word is also used of Jesus when he “appeared,” seemingly from nowhere, to his closest followers after his resurrection (Mark 16:9, 12, 14).

The verb “went ahead” is a peculiar construction in the Greek, used only a half dozen times in the New Testament, usually for “to lead” in a deliberate way. For example, a crowd is leading Jesus into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:9) or Jesus is leading his disciples to Jerusalem (Mark 10:32). And the word “stopped” is used numerous times in the New Testament to describe people who have made a conscious decision to stop whatever they were doing to stand still (Matthew 20:32; 27:11; Mark 10:49). All of this is to say that the idea of personal intention and purpose is implied in the nature of the star.

Just as faith is part of the magi’s experience, so is the personal ontology of the star of Bethlehem. Both are necessary aspects. Both are keys to making sense of the story, from first to last.

The star appears in the East and gets the magi going to Jerusalem. It is probable that these wise men knew, or had access to, the Hebrew scriptures, and upon seeing the unusual star they referenced it to Balaam’s prophecy about the Messiah, recorded in the book of Numbers, hundreds of years before Christ’s birth: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel” (24:17). Traditionally, this was treated as one of Israel’s messianic prophecies about the divine Ruler to come. (See also Jeremiah 23:5-6.)

Arriving at Jerusalem – the heart of Israel’s religious life – the magi receive further biblical instruction, as their announcement about a new king of the Jews having been born raises havoc throughout the ancient city. Eventually, in King Herod’s presence, the rabbis tell the magi that anyone knows where this king is to be born. Why, what’s the big deal, they ask? Well, we saw his star in the East, they reply, and we’ve come to worship him. But we don’t know where to find him.

Mdina streetSo the rabbis crack the books and point out a prophecy in Micah: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from old, from ancient times” (5:2). From the Bible they now have the name of the town, which is just several miles south of Jerusalem.

But there’s a huge problem. They don’t have the address. A close reading of the story seems to indicate that Jesus may not have been at the birth-manger by the time of the magi’s arrival. It could have been days or weeks, if not months, or even a year or two, later. There is not scholarly consensus on this. So who knows where Jesus is? The star knows. From a close reading it also seems likely that the star had disappeared for a while and now appeared again to lead the magi to the very place where Jesus was. And there they worshiped him.

Another often overlooked important point is that to get to Jesus the magi are following Scripture, not the stars. They followed Balaam’s prophecy to Jerusalem. They followed Micah’s prophecy to Bethlehem. And then after they find Jesus they take instruction directly from God. Which brings us to a final thought.

Having been warned by God in a dream that they should not go back to Jerusalem to see Herod, they return to their country “another way.” This little phrase – ”another way”– is for me a third key on the ring, with faith and the star’s personal ontology, to the mystery of the message. The message of the magi and the star of Bethlehem is that of “another way” (AV), the way of Christ. To enter that way, faith and divine revelation are required. The wise are no exception.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Riccardo Francesconi & M. Peinado respectively (Permission via Creative Commons)

The Star of Bethlehem + Faith = Worship

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAStories about the magi and the star of Bethlehem (Matthew’s Gospel, chapter two) have fascinated people for two thousand years. Theories have abounded since the rise of modern astronomy in the seventeenth century. It was a very bright light – a supernova, or a comet, or a meteor, or a rare conjunctions of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces. Whatever it was, the magi saw an unusual heavenly phenomena and interpreted it to mean that Jesus Christ, the King of the Jews, had been born.

Is it just me, or does there seem to be more interest in the star this year than ever before? There are even some documentaries on the Web making the rounds, dedicated to the “science” of the star. Speaking of which, I just read a news story in Christianity Today (Dec. 2014) about yet another astronomer, Michael Molnar, who claims to have really figured it out. Molnar is also a coin collector who had only a mild interest in the star until he was investigating the symbolism of an ancient coin he had purchased, minted in Antioch in the early first century.

After sussing the coin’s symbolism, Molar had a hunch that a serious rethink was needed about the star of Bethlehem. The research then spun him off into both the astronomical and the astrological heavens, where the star, it seemed to him, was not any sort of bright heavenly light or a conjunction of planets. Instead, it was a much more modest phenomenon, albeit a rare one: The moon, viewed from Earth, was passing in front of Jupiter in the astrological sign of Aries. Molnar concluded that the magi, upon seeing that and knowing that Jupiter symbolized royalty, and knowing Micah 5:2 – out of Bethlehem a ruler of Israel will come – pulled all these threads together to mean the birth of Christ, the king of the Jews. They then set out on their arduous journey, far from Jerusalem, to worship him.

I’m not knocking astronomical theories. After all, it is the job of astronomers to investigate heavenly phenomenon; someday a consensus may emerge on the science of the star of Bethlehem. Who knows? But even if that consensus is reached, it will not be the science that accounts for the experience and actions of the magi. Science cannot account for the “Aha!” moment of divine revelation that awakens a person to the recognition of who Jesus Christ is.

star in blue skyEven the best of science will leave us at sixes and sevens about Jesus’ identity. Even when Jesus himself was present on earth – when he was heard, seen, and touched – when his doctor could examine him – even that to-hand physicality was not what revealed his identity, about which all sorts of views abounded. Who do people say that I am?, Jesus once asked his disciples. Some say you’re John the Baptist, they said. Some say Elijah. Others say Jeremiah or another prophet. Ask people today and they will say he was a good man, or a wise man, or a teacher, or a healer and miracle worker.

“But what about you?” Jesus asked them. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter, having one of his better days, answered: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 16:15-17).

It was this divine revelation about Christ’s identity to the magi that explains their experience and actions upon seeing the “star of Bethlehem.” Divine revelation was part of the mix. Apart from that, the star, or whatever it was, would certainly have been a fascinating phenomenon to the magi, but no way do they make the arduous journey hundreds of miles to Jerusalem to worship Christ (Matthew 2:2).

It takes that revelation of God to worship Christ the King, as people have discovered for themselves down through the centuries in countlessly varied contexts in which the physical science is secondary. Rabbi Saul of Tarsus, on the road to Damascus. St. Augustine, in a garden in Milan. John Wesley, in a church meeting in Aldersgate. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, while imprisoned in the Gulag. C. S. Lewis, in his digs at Magdalen College. Mine, in a hotel room in southern California.

Where are you, physically, today, in this season of the star? Worshiping Christ the King or unsure of his identity? If the latter, the experience and actions of the magi awaits you through faith. I invite you to pray for that divine revelation.

Concluded in the next post

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by withrow & Riccardo Francesconi respectively (permission via Creative Commons)


learning musical scale (Peter Dedina)In this current series of posts we are thinking about ways of reading Scripture to learn wisdom that will enable us to cope with our complex and changing world in a consistently godly way in daily life. The problems is that the Bible does not often give us direct and explicit information about how to think and act regarding today’s issues. It is not a handbook with a ready Index for that. This is because our era is, well, at least two millennia and more down the road from Bible times. Nevertheless, the Bible’s wisdom for “secular” interests and concerns can be interpreted for our time.

One method that I have for helpful is to dig around in the jargon of contemporary culture to see if the areas of life represented by that language is in any way addressed by the Bible. To say it another way, the Bible “talks” in the language of what might be called ABCs, “the basic ingredients,” of today’s complex issues and ideas.

In the previous post, I briefly mentioned things such as climate change, socialized medicine, geopolitical structures, free market economy, common core state standards, particle physics, multilateral diplomacy, the Web, and smart phones. We may wonder what on earth the Bible can possible have to say about any of that.

Nevertheless, the most advanced mathematician once began by learning basic arithmetic; the concert pianist began with simple five-finger exercises. In the same way, the Bible introduces us to God’s dealings with human beings in respect of the basic elements of human culture under conditions in which they can be perceived most clearly: in the simpler forms of human society. These “basic ingredients” have a direct relationship with the complexities of Western life.

Here’s an illustration from my own work. If you have been following this blog for any length of time, you know that one of its chief aims is to offer U.S. foreign policy decision makers a wisdom-based alternative to the ideologically driven ways in which international events are analyzed and policy responses are prescribed. Now that sentence itself carries some “technical” language you won’t find in Scripture – you aren’t going to be able to look up “foreign policy” in a Bible concordance. So one of the immediate challenges to me as a Christian thinker was: Does the Bible have anything to say about foreign policy?

So I started asking “what?” questions, beginning with: What is foreign policy? Well, simply put, it’s about the kinds of relationships that exist between what today we call states, what the Bible calls nations. For instance, are the relationships peaceful, tense, or adversarial? So foreign policy is about international relations. And the Bible has a lot to say about nations and the status of relations with one another. Also, foreign policy is about diplomacy and negotiations, and the Bible has a lot to say about that as well, including how negotiations are conducted and what the goals are. And if you keep digging you discover, in the context of what I was doing, that the wisdom tradition plays a huge role. And along the way I was unearthing what the ABCs of the Bible regarding foreign policy.

This method – the Bible in one hand, a contemporary topic in the other, and asking “what is it?” questions as I went along – assisted me greatly in the development of my thesis on wisdom-based foreign policy as an alternative to ideologically oriented foreign policy. I’m not going to say more about that here, except to say that with a little practice, that method of asking questions about today’s complex issues and ideas, whatever your interests, can help you access the ABCs of the Bible as they relate to today’s realities.

Here are a few more illustrations of this method.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

The above article was adapted from Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, by John Peck and Charles Strohmer (SPCK, 2001).

Image by Peter Dedino (permission via Creative Commons)


thinking sculptureOkay. So I’m arguing that we should learn to use the Bible to gain wisdom for our “secular” lives. I admit that for many people such a claim can put stress on the system, and I get why others will feel a bit groggy and unclear about it. Others will, quite naturally, want to “search the Scriptures” to see whether it’s true.

Does the Bible address aspects of life that are not noticeably religious or moral? In other words, to use some common language of today, does the Bible concern itself with secular matters? Does it deal with socio-economic and geopolitical questions? What about issues surrounding art, law, business, science, linguistics, ecology, and communications? Or how about justice, racism, abortion, and marriage? In other words, does the Bible have any secular literature? The strange thing is, once you start looking for it, there is so much, and it is so obvious, it is a wonder we ever missed these present-day secular interests.

Take the Book of Deuteronomy, for instance. If our Lord could be said to have had a favorite biblical book it would be Deuteronomy. If put on the spot and asked to say what was in this book, many of us would typically know this as a book where one finds the Ten Commandments and the famous declaration of faith made by Jews everywhere in worship, the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (6:4).

We might also recall Deuteronomy as one of the great basic texts for the teaching of the prophets, and that chapters 10-11 carry a higher concentration of language specifically about love between God and people than possibly anywhere else in the Old Testament. And there is also some overt religious instruction,such as about sacrifices, festivals, and the priesthood. But then our knowledge of the book probably tails off.

And yet Deuteronomy includes provisions about everyday life – ranging from nesting birds to digging toilets. The text also addresses issues of war, finance, politics, eating habits, jurisprudence, and public health and safety, not to mention the treatment of criminals, children, wives, slaves, and the poor. We may have ignored such passages because they are not concerned with the overt religious, moral, or devotional areas of our lives.

But there is another reason, which I want us to spend some time with. We may have ignored such passages because the topics they address can seem non-germane to the complexities of our Western world. So what can we possibly learn from issues and interests that were the “secular” concerns of people who lived 3,000 years ago? Good question.

Our complex and specialized societies think and talk in terms of technical language, and we’re used to that: socio-economic indicators, climate change, socialized medicine, geopolitical structures, fiscal control of inflation, free market economy, multilateral diplomacy, common core state standards, particle physics, the Web, smart phones, iPads – you name it. I once heard someone describe the person who came to get rid of the mice and termites as a “certified pest control technician.” And I once had a job as a “petroleum transfer engineer” – I worked at a gas station! Well, you get the picture. Everything seems to be getting more complex.

nesting birdsWe have grown so accustomed to our culture’s highly technical language that we cannot see how it could possibly relate to the many secular matters dealt with in Deuteronomy. But we should not let today’s technical jargon confuse us. It is frequently about the same basic elements of everyday life as are dealt with in Deuteronomy. The Jubilee, for instance, was an institution whose significance was chiefly socio-economic. The laws against cutting down fruit trees in war (20:19), or taking a mother bird (22:6), or mixing seeds (22:9), as well as a reason given for the delay in conquering Palestine (7:22), are plainly ecological in nature. The laws about body fluids, quarantines, and sanitation (23:1–14) address practical health care concerns.

This brings us to what we could call the ABCs of Scripture, its basic ingredients. We can learn wisdom by understanding ways in which the ABCs of Scripture relate to our “secular” lives today. I want us to look at that in the next post.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

The above article was adapted from Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, by John Peck and Charles Strohmer (SPCK, 2001).

Images by Davide Restivo & Victor Berzkov respectiviely (permissions via Creative Commons)


Bible studyThe ability to form and use theories is a gift from God to us. It often is ignored or misused, but it is still as much a gift as human affection or natural beauty, and to be used for God’s glory. It doesn’t matter whether we realize it, or even whether we like it, we are using theories all the time, as a humorous story in the previous post made clear.

If we do not use godly theories, and if we do not develop a means of finding out which are godly and which are not, we will be using whatever comes along. Since we have no right to presume on God for the things that he has left it our responsibility to do, and since sin influences the intellect often quite unknowingly, the likelihood is that any theory uncritically adopted will be ungodly.

Here’s a simple illustration from law-making. Good laws, in part, liberate people to be loving.  So what are we to think of a law that makes medical professionals, who happen to be first on the scene of an car wreck, afraid to help the injured parties because they could get sued? This is not a law that liberates doctors and nurses (who could be quite loving in such a situation) to be loving. There is a bad theory behind such a law, which Christians working in the area of jurisprudence could seek to correct.

In the previous post I called attention to the relationship between our wisdom and the theories we use that help us cope with life, and I said that the way to better theories is through acquiring a wisdom that is becoming increasingly biblical. Here are a few tips along the way.

Begin with humility of mind. You are entering a process of change. Yes, on becoming a Christian a radical change is introduced into one’s outlook. Yet it would be unscriptural, besides being extraordinarily naive, to think that your entire wisdom on life changes completely straightaway and with it any wrongheaded theories. The Bible, after all, would not speak of the need for our mind’s ongoing renewal if that were so (Romans 12:1-2). And we ought to keep in mind the apostle Paul’s complaint that Christians may fail to let the process keep working itself out (1 Corinthians 3:1-3; Galatians 3:1-3; Colossians 2:20-3:2).

Prepare to hit resistance but press on. People, including even our ministers, may raise bewildered, even disapproving, eyebrows at our questions. Christian friends may struggle to understand what we are talking about and asking of them. Group discussions, even among those who do understand, may feel like a pooling of ignorance. Temptations may arise to become impatient, to fall for simplistic or dogmatic answers, or to wallow in self-pity (“nobody understands me”). But whoever said Christian discipleship was going to be easy? So press on but proceed humbly – that’s where the grace is.

Learn to read and study the Bible as a “secular” book. There is a lot of biblical wisdom for daily life to be gained through such an approach. Traditionally for many of us, the Bible slides past our eyes with a “stained glass window effect.” That is, we read the Bible as a “religious” book only – for instructions about prayer, worship, doctrine, church activities, moral behavior, evangelization, and so on. Certainly religious instruction must not be downplayed. Yet that alone leaves us ill-equipped to study and apply Scripture with reference to the many “nonreligious” issues and aspects of daily life.

Sure, many Christians can quote from the Book of Proverbs, say for business principles, relationship taboos, or parent–child environments. But I’m talking about a much wider horizon. When it comes to immigration laws and health insurance, for instance, or to medical debates and  economic development, or to government subsidies of the arts and US foreign policy, it usually does not occur to us to check out the Book, for we assume that it has little or no distinctive wisdom for such “secular” matters.

But that is not how Jesus, or the apostles, or God’s Old Testament people saw Scripture. They had a God who was involved in the whole of life and they had a Scripture to match. The knew that Bible was not relegated to “religious” affairs only; it held instruction for what today we often call secular life.

In the next post I want us to look at that way learning wisdom from Scripture.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

The above article was adapted from Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, by John Peck and Charles Strohmer (SPCK, 2001).

Image by Steel Wool (permission via Creative Commons)


bowlsDuring one of my countless conversations with John Peck about “wisdom,” he told me a funny story about the leisurely British game of “bowls.” Since most Americans will find that game unfamiliar, I should first describe it so that John’s story, below, will make sense.

Bowls is usually played outdoors on a long rectangular patch of short-cut lawn called a green. A player – a bowler – starts the game by standing at one end of the green and rolling a small but fairly heavy and solid white ball, the jack, down the green to the other end. The jack is not rolled again during that game. A lot of sportsmanship ensues as bowlers take turns rolling their much larger and heavier black balls down the green to see who can get closest to the jack.

Sounds easy enough, but the larger balls are biased (with interior weights) and so do not travel in a straight line – they follow various degrees of arcs when bowled toward the jack, not unlike American fingertip bowling balls en route to the pocket. Once all the balls are bowled, the direction of play is reversed. To get points, bowlers must to get as close to the jack as possible by the end of the game, and to do that they employ various strategies, such as trying to knock an opponent’s ball out of the way.

Okay. Got it? Here’s John with the story:

Once as our family was driving through a park, one of the younger kids amused us by looking out of the back of the car and shouting, “Look, Dad, cannonball races!” Everyone looked around and saw a green with a leisurely game of bowls in play.

As my young son did, we all interpret any new phenomenon in terms of what we already know. So let’s pull the car into a parking space, watch the game closely, and imagine a discussion between me and my son.

I remark on the skill of a player who has rolled his ball just short of his opponent’s ball and so got nearer the jack. My son is puzzled by my statement, but that doesn’t stop him! He naturally responds, “What sort of a race is it where people only try to get even and not ahead?”

So I explain the concept of “getting close rather than getting ahead.” Rather dubiously he accepts the notion but suggests that the players start aiming better. “After all, Dad, the cannonballs are going all over the place. One almost went round in a semi-circle.”

So I try again. But by the time I get through explaining the concept that these balls have a bias in them, he’s now impatient with me and explodes, “Well, no self-respecting gunner would use ammunition that wouldn’t go straight!”

So I reply (fully assured and ever the expert!) that the bias is deliberately put into the balls during their manufacture. At this point my son gives up and mutters, “I can understand them using unbalanced ammunition if they have no choice, but actually making cannonballs like that…. They must be mad!”

You can find this story in our book Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World (Chapter 7), and John’s point was to call my attention to the importance of the relationship of wisdom to theories.

People, however, can be terrified by the word “theory,” or they can’t be bothered with it because it doesn’t seem practical. It’s about ivory tower intellectuals, who never have to deal with Pampers, flat tires, or flu shots. But even diapers, radials, and injections have theories behind them. In other words, theories can be quite practical indeed. And if you bring a faulty theory to an experience or an issue, something is going to go wrong. Here’s how John put it in the book:

You could hardly blame my young son. I failed to address his basic assumption that these were cannonballs, and that this mistake resulted in a different theory about the game of bowls and its rules. Because I had a different theory about the game and failed to acknowledge that, he could not understand the game or my explanations of it.

What is more, in his attempt to make sense of what he was seeing in this new experience, his faulty theory meant that he asked the wrong questions. My answers, therefore, even though they were from the correct theory, were not helping him in the least, for they were not answering the questions that formed in his mind using the faulty theory.

It is, of course, a parable. In Uncommon Sense, John and I went on to discuss this at some length, such as to show how dad’s neglect of, or possibly ignorance of, the son’s faulty theory made communication and progress on the issue impossible. Of course, the problem in that situation was a trivial one and easily resolved in terms of the father and son’s common culture.

blastertheoryYet the form of the problem is similar for all of us with respect to bigger and crucial issues, such as come up in science, education, religion, politics, and elsewhere. In such areas, a new problem will not be easily defined or practically resolved when people bring different theories to it. And when contradictory theories are brought to it, you have a huge mess.

The form of the problem also exists in varying degrees between an ethnic minority and the dominant culture, or liberal and conservative Christians, or labor and management, or left wing and right wing politicians, or American Christians and Muslims in the Middle East – the list goes on.

As a culture increasingly fragments, as its structural problems present themselves more  intractably and its conflicts become more wide-ranging and more common, if they are not corrected, a culture ends like the Tower of Babel, if not in a civil war. And the principle holds true also for the international scene.

What we need, then, is a wisdom – a way of seeing life and living in it – a way of making sense of the creation and living in it effectively – that makes sound theories possible for coping with and communicating about life’s problems. What we are talking about is having theories that correspond, as much as it is humanly possible, to rightly understanding and stewarding the many and varied aspects of God’s world.

Lacking that, life goes terribly wrong. Therefore, seek wisdom. In the next post I want to share some clues from the Bible about that kind of seeking.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Peter Labourne & Neural respectively (permission via Creative Commons)