USING THE BIBLE TO THINK part 4 of 4

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)

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