The Strangeness of Scripture

suprised lookIn a tribal area in Asia, a group in the tribe were shown pictures of four objects: a hammer, a saw, a hatchet, a log. They were then asked to say which did not fit together. We Westerners would typically put all the tools together, because we have been taught to analyze and classify things in abstract categories. So to us the log is the odd one out. Because oral societies like this Asian tribe tend to think in concrete-functional terms, this group placed the saw, the hatchet, and the log together, because you could make something with them. The hammer was did not fit because it was no good without a nail.

I heard that illustration years ago from a Westerner with a Ph.D. who worked as an educator among Asian tribal groups. Pamela had been explaining to me about some of the worldview differences she had to consider, between herself and the tribal peoples, if she hoped to teach effectively there inside their worldview for their good.

The illustration, of course, reminds us of obstacles that must be overcome for effective understanding between different peoples in the field of cross-cultural communication. As I noted in a recent post, when we are confronted with the wisdom (the way of seeing life and living in it) of a different culture, it may seem so alien to us that we cannot imagine how any reasonable person would think and act like that.

This is also a huge issue for anyone encountering what to them are foreign-sounding places in the text of Scripture. Some (if not much) of the Bible, of course, is pretty straightforward. Only the most self-serving of adults would pretend to have trouble with: do not steal; do not kill; do not commit adultery; love your neighbor; turn the other cheek; forgive those who sin against you; and many other obvious statements or narratives.

But, truth be told, there are places where the Bible does speak strangely to us. They are puzzling: why did so and so say that, or what’s that all about? I think most people would assume that this occurs because the Bible was written thousands of years ago and by people whose culture was very different from ours today. Of course. But there is more to it than that.

It is not just that the Bible is an ancient text from foreign culture. The Bible also has a way of seeing life and living in it (a wisdom), which includes how I think and reason, and at times its way can be quite different from our way. When I encounter that strangeness in the pages of the Book, I take it as a sign that my own way of seeing, thinking, and reasoning (about God, life, myself, others, my theology, whatever) probably needs a course correction.

woman and childrenTake, for instance, Jesus’ parable of the wages. Crowds had been following Jesus, and because he had been healing people’s sicknesses and teaching about the kingdom of God, they interpreted it as sure sign “that the kingdom of God [the Messianic age] was going to appear at once.” I don’t we think should  judge them for this, unless we Christians today want to first judge ourselves for more than a hundred years of failed attempts to pinpoint the time Jesus will return.

Knowing that they were thinking this way, Jesus tells them the parable of the wages. Because this is one of Jesus’ longest parables, I’m not going to cut and paste it here in a short post. But do read it (Luke 19:11-27). What I want to offer is this. If asked today about the coming of the kingdom of God, or the Messianic age, or what Christians typically refer to as the imminent return of Jesus, many Western Christians would trot out their preferred eschatology about the end times, or the rapture, or a sophisticated millennial view, or perhaps some homespun theory in a book they had just read or a film just seen. But not Jesus.

Jesus tells a long and involved story about what today we would call people making capital investments and earning their livings from them. In other words, Jesus responds to their faulty “religious” view about the Messianic age with a story about the importance of one’s stewardship in economic life. Let’s face it, to us that’s an odd way of reasoning. What in the world does earning a living have to do with the coming kingdom of God?

Where you find the Bible speaking strangely to you like that, it is speaking much more than because it’s old and cross-cultural or as a mere curiosity. Like Pamela, who had to get inside the worldviews of the various tribal groups she taught, we have to struggle with the strangeness of the worldview out of which the Bible came to us if that strangeness is to teach us for our good. It is indispensable to the renewal of our minds and to our discipleship to ask questions like: “Why is it given to us in that particular way, and does it have an interpretation for today?” Of course, it’s not often easy to puzzle it out. But we must not collapse mentally in the face the Bible’s wisdom: its way of seeing life and living in it.

The parable of the wages, apparently, is meant to knock in the head a faulty view the crowd held about the coming Messianic age – which they assumed would make life easier for them – that it was going to appear immediately. After all, two of the king’s city managers in the parable do not retire when they get huge raises from the king. They are then placed in charge of additional cities. So now they’ve got more, not less, work to do! Jesus seems to be saying: don’t conclude anything about when the kingdom of God will appear (see also Acts 1:6-7). Instead, get on with earning your livings and be faithful to your employers as you do.

electron microscopeThat is as far as I have gotten in puzzling out the parable, and it leaves much else about the parable foreign to me, even after consulting some good commentaries, which did not deal with the why of the economic answer from Jesus in the context of the coming kingdom of God. (If anyone has any insight about this, I’m all ears.)

The strangeness of Scripture arises from the wisdom (the way of seeing life and living in it) out of which it came to us. Struggling to gain gaining insight about the hows and the whys of a text when we encounter its strangeness would enable us to be more fully taught by God’s Holy Spirit. We would then see, think, and act more clearly and consistently biblically and to relate more effectively and communicate more believably to those who hold to different wisdoms. For those concerned about the changes and challenges we face today as individuals, as churches, and in society, it’s worth the struggle.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Top image by George Thomas, middle image by The Iglesia’s, lower image by EMSL, (permissions via Creative Commons).

Related posts: The series of Jesus as a teacher of wisdom, which begins here, and this post on the hard but necessary work of thinking.

A personal note from Charles Strohmer: If you want more of the perspectives that seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Simply click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address just above that button, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I publish a new article. And, hey, if you really like it, tell some friends! Thank you.

Floating Like Jellyfish with the Tide

Chagall WindowsOn my way to something else this morning, I unearthed a gem from Miroslav Volf that lay buried in a long-forgotten meditation on capitalism that I had published many years ago. While reading that gem today, I immediately remembered what Walter Brueggemann recently wrote about capitalism. Together, their ideas merged in my mind with the previous post, which is not about capitalism. It’s funny, is it not, the alchemy of independent and seeming disparate ideas meeting as if guided by, well, shall we say, an invisible hand to give birth to the Aha! moment of a new and important connection.

The birth this morning was the thought that capitalism is one of the love affairs we have that sidetracks us from a more consistent practice of the kind of Christian identity and subsequent relevance in society that Jürgen Moltmann’s words in the previous post remind us of. See if you too get the connection.

For some time now I have been troubled by the seeming disappearance of any robust alternative to the pervasive culture of late capitalism, whether in the church or in the society at large. We are drowning in floods of consumer goods and are drenched in showers of media images. We live a smorgasbord culture in which everything is interesting and nothing really matters. We have lost a vision of the good life, and our hopes for the future are emptied of moral content.

Instead of purposefully walking to determinate places, we are aimlessly floating with random currents. Of course, we do get exercised by issues and engage in bitter feuds over them. But that makes us even less capable of resisting the pull of the larger culture, a resistance that would take shape in formulating and embodying a coherent alternative way of life….

If we can neither state what the gospel is nor have a clear notion of what constitutes the good life, we will more or less simply float along, like jellyfish with the tide. True, a belief in our ability to shape the wider culture is woven into the fabric of our identity. So we complain and act. But in the absence of determinate beliefs and practices, our criticism and activism will be little more than one more way of floating. (The Christian Century, April 5, 2000)

The liberal U.S. state has morphed into a predatory economy of unfettered freedom for the powerful. (Walter Brueggemann’s shot across the brow, warning about the deep and unreserved affimations of the liberal state that come from some theologians. From The Christian Century, March 5, 2014.)

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Photo: Chagall Windows, by Benjamin (Google Images)

Identity and Relevance

Gruenwald's Isenheim AltarpieceThinking lately about God’s solidarity in Christ with the suffering, the poor, and the marginalized, I ran across these words from Jürgen Moltmann, which I had made margin notes alongside, until today long-forgotten, in my copy of his book The Crucified God. While considering his words again today I realized why I so infrequently walk this path.

The Christian life of theologians, churches and human beings is faced more than ever today with a double crisis: the crisis of relevance and the crisis of identity. These two crises are complementary. The more theology and the church attempt to become relevant to the problems of the present day, the more deeply they are drawn into the crisis of their own identity. The more they attempt to assert their identity in traditional dogmas, rights and moral notions, the more irrelevant and unbelievable they become…

[In] these specific experiences of a double crisis, reflection on the cross leads to the clarification of what can be called Christian identity and what can be called Christian relevance, in critical solidarity with our contemporaries…

As far as I am concerned, the Christian church and Christian theology become relevant to the problems of the modern world only when they reveal the “hard core” on their identity in the crucified Christ and through it are called into question, together with the society they live in.

Faith, the church and theology must demonstrate what they really believe and hope about the man from Nazareth who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and what practical consequence they wish to draw from this. But what kind of theology of the cross does him justice, and is necessary today?

To return to the theology of the cross means avoiding one-sided presentations of it in tradition, and comprehending the crucified Christ in the light and context of his resurrection, and therefore of freedom and hope.

To take up the theology of the cross today is to go beyond the limits of the doctrine of salvation to inquire into the revolution needed in the concept of God. Who is God in the cross of Christ who is abandoned by God?

To take up the theology of the cross further at the present day means to go beyond a concern for personal salvation, and to inquire about the liberation of man and his new relationship to the demonic crisis in his society. Who is the true man in sight of the Son of Man who was rejected and rose again in the freedom of God?…

[To] realize the cross at the present day is [to move] beyond a criticism of the church into a criticism of society. What does it mean to recall the God who was crucified in a society whose official creed is optimism, and which is knee-deep in blood?…

Jesus dies crying out to God, “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ All Christian theology and all Christian life is basically an answer to the question Jesus asked as he died… The issue is not that of an abstract theology of the cross and suffering, but of a theology of the crucified Christ.

(Jürgen Moltmann, beginning his book to disillusioned visionaries, The Crucified God, his emphases.)

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Painting: Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece

Our Children’s Wisdom: Some Questions for Parents

joys of homeworkThe search for wisdom is so highly valued in the Bible that Christians, others too, often ask, “How do we get wisdom?” It’s a perennial question and a particularly urgent one in the context of raising and educating children (see, e.g., the book of Proverbs). It occupied the minds of baby boomer parents (maybe not as many as it should have!) and it is now pressing in on millennials with kids.

Of course we know two answers right away, that we can get wisdom from the Bible and through prayer. But not everyone prays or reflects on Scripture. And even if the do, there is also an overlooked way in which everyone gets wisdom, even those who don’t pray and read the Bible. Here is some food for thought on this, which may help parents prime the pump.

We get wisdom from childhood, through a process as simple as it is profound. That is, for the most part early on, our wisdom simply grows up with us and in us. We don’t manufacture it or study it as a school subject, and we don’t spend much time thinking about it. We absorb it throughout childhood. It develops in us, and we in it, as a singular part of its development in the history of the family, community, and culture in which we live.

Perhaps the best analogy for the way we “get wisdom”(Proverbs 4:7) in this sense is found in the way we come to speak our mother tongue. We simply “pick it up” as we go along, by hearing, by imitating, by others correcting us. Long before we go to school to “learn English” from textbooks we are already using it with considerable fluency. By the time we begin to study it from books it is such a second nature to us that the way it comes across as a subject to be learned makes it seem strange, like algebra.

We develop in our wisdom in the same way. We pick it up, we absorb it, as we go along. Yet the analogy goes further. When we come across products of other wisdoms – Indian music, African medicine, Chinese architecture – our initial response is commonly like hearing a foreign language for the first time. We say, “How peculiar!” We take it for granted that our products are the normal ones and that the others are odd or even abnormal. This feeling can persist long after we know that the other people naturally regard their products as normal and ours as peculiar or abnormal.

So in the normal course of our formative years, we do not formally learn our wisdom; we absorb it, more or less uncritically, as we go along. It develops in us largely within our homes and through various significant others and authority figures with whom we interact: fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, older siblings, baby sitters, and perhaps Sesame Street and other sources. It’s not long before we are absorbing it from friends and neighbors, our teachers, rivals and enemies, sports and religion, radio, television, film, the Web, social media, the blogosphere, and much more.

chinese architecture (Nidhi M)But there are two things I want to point out about this process. One is that, although these sources have their own spokespersons and expositors, we are not absorbing each source’s wisdom in its entirety. Nothing even close to that. Instead, it’s done piecemeal. Each of us, from childhood, takes whatever we do take and we give it a particular imprint from our own individual circumstances and personalities, just as we all have our own handwriting. Slowly, what we have absorbed becomes a part of us – from here, there, and elsewhere.

The eyes of our minds are continually and imperceptibly gathering additional tints to their lenses, so our own wisdom – our own a way of seeing life and living in it effectively – is developing in us. Eventually, this absorption process gives us highly developed instincts for responding selectively to the world around us, such as in determining what is important or unimportant. It is our wisdom.

And we notice its distinction from that of others. For instance, by the time we are confronted with the way of seeing and living (the wisdom) of a different culture, much of it may seem so alien that we cannot imagine how any reasonable person would think and act like that. Some of it just gets explained away as being archaic or special or aberrant, or it is ignored or overlooked because there is no place in our minds to put it.

The second thing is this. And it’s as crucial and it is vital. The process of absorbing wisdom from childhood is not just about being taught and relying on obvious facts (don’t touch a hot stove; don’t play in the traffic) or overt moral values (don’t lie; say you’re sorry; be honest). The process is also subconscious. In fact, it is the absorbed, subtle influences and attitudes, the non-taught ones, that can be the most powerfully influential in the long run, and thus the most difficult to identify and change if they are wrong, for they come to us in childhood like the Gibeonite embassy, as if from far away, in disguise, unnoticed until it is too late.

An illuminating illustration, and one with far-reaching ramifications across the spectrum of everyday life, is how children get wisdom from parents subconsciously; that is, the parents don’t realize what hidden values, ideas, and attitudes they are imparting and the children don’t recognize they are picking them up.

Are the children, for instance, raised in a home where they get to see their parents arguing, or do the parents hide their fights from the children? If the former, do the children get to see the parents make up afterward? If so, how that is done will also influence the children. Or are the children left hurting and further bewildered because the parents kissed and made up privately, so the children don’t know that a reconciliation took place or how that was accomplished? And if the parents hid their fights, what has that said to the children as they get older and their own arguments arise?

We are not talking about one-off incidents but patterns of various kinds of parental behavior that betray hidden values, ideas, and attitudes that are rubbing off on the kids. So, to continue. Is an atmosphere of honest questioning fostered in the home, or do the children see in the parents an unapproachableness here? Or if a child pushes it questioning too far, in hopes of a satisfying answer, is he or she then impatiently fobbed off: “Just do what I say!” Or: “That’s just the way it is.” Or: “You’ll understand when you grow up.”

human eyeWhat topics are discussed at the dinner table? What topics are taboo? Does the family ever eat together? What do the children see their parents regularly spending money on, and how much money do they see them spending on these things? What kind of entertainment do the children see the parents enjoying on a regular basis? Is there any pattern of activity in which a child gets involved with a parent in helping the poor, the needy, the aged? Do mom and dad ever admit their mistakes to the children? What is the parental attitude toward religion, politics, the children’s friends, school teachers? How are people of different races treated?

I remembered growing up working alongside my dad in his auto repair business. He was known as “the car doctor,” and you won’t believe me when I say that he began to teach me about cars and car repair starting when I was nine or ten years old. But it’s true. And by the time I was sixteen I was glad of it, for I was earning lot of money as a mechanic! But that’s not what I want to call attention to here. I just needed to say that to get to this.

Year after year of working with my dad in a very public and busy auto repair shop in Detroit, I was able to watch how he interacted with people of different races. I put a lot of hours in at that shop, many days a week, especially during school breaks and the summer months, and I can’t recall ever seeing even a hint of racism in my dad. What I absorbed was his respectful manner of talking to and getting along with all sorts of people. He ended up with regular customers of different races, and in Detroit. Although I can recall my mom saying, “We try to get along with everyone,” neither of my parents ever sat me down to talk about “race issues.” I simply absorbed his peaceable values and attitudes about race throughout my teenage years. What if he had been a racist?

Again, absorbing wisdom is not just about what children are taught. The questions posed above are just several of many that parents need to struggle with for their children’s sakes. Subtle influences are loaded with powerful implications for the shaping of a child’s wisdom. Parents whose children are not home-schooled may not have as much influence over what goes on inside the classroom as they might like, but they do have control over what the children absorb in the home.

(Part of the above was adapted from Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, by John Peck and Charles Strohmer, chapter six.)

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Cayusa, Nidhi M, and Cesar, respectively (permissions from Creative Commons)

Think About It

thinking sculptureNot long ago I was nervously seated near the front of a church listening to myself being introduced as the guest preacher for that Sunday morning. Even though I’ve been there, done that many times in many churches, and arrive over-prepared for my talks, I’m never at ease in that introductory moment.

But that Sunday my nerves intensified when the host added that I was an “intellectual.” Nooooo. What do I do with that? I groaned. Sure, he’d said it amiably and as a compliment, which I appreciated, but intellectual? How do I undo that? I don’t see myself as one, and this wasn’t a university classroom. Mind you, the millennials in that space were probably jazzed to hear it. But what about the others? I’ve been around. I could almost hear the congregation, friendly as they were, suddenly wondering if there wasn’t a better way they could be spending their time that morning.

In hopes of trying to get the audience back, I opened with an impromptu joke. “I’m glad to be here this morning as an intellectual with all of you intellectuals. After all, who among us doesn’t use our brains?” Okay. Okay. I knew it was a naff as it was coming out. I’m not your man for spontaneous jokes. But I had to say something!

Flash forward to today. Perusing a stack of files in my office, I ran across a transcript of a short radio talk given some years ago in Detroit by my dear friend, the British pastor and writer John Peck. I read it and immediately wished it had been on my lips that Sunday morning. With a slight wave of the editorial hand and John’s permission, I’m able to share it with you here. I hope it inspires you as much as it does me.

“Jesus in Mark 12 told one man that he was not far from the kingdom of God because he spoke, as the original Greek word indicates, ‘thoughtfully.’

“Thinking is hard going. Some people give it a bad name by using it as a substitute for action, which is a pity because we can’t do without it. Odd thing is, we take it for granted in areas like business or science, but when it comes to faith we often switch off the mind, and when we do, substitutes for thinking take over, such as emotion.

“A favorite substitute is rhetoric. We are inspired by a powerful preacher who has the art of getting us excited about the gospel. He makes us feel it’s true. And in the midst of a world that is constantly pouring cold water on our faith, we need that. But that’s not teaching. It doesn’t have anything to do with the way we think. In fact, the rhetoric may even use the world’s techniques of persuasion – some preaching sounds like an extended TV commercial, in spite of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 2:4.

puzzled“Christian teaching is about understanding the meaning of the gospel. And don’t confuse inspiration with teaching. Inspiration is God motivating us, and it is aroused by emotive words and vivid images. Teaching is God’s way of working us through the problems that arise in applying the gospel consistently in everyday life. It is about changing our thinking to something more like the mind of Christ.

“Paul says to the Philippians, ‘Let love be with discrimination.’ By this he does not mean bigoted sterotyping or naive innocence. He wants love to exercise wisdom in deciding what is the best thing to do, rather in the way C. S. Lewis said, ‘It is not a question of “be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever, [but] be good … and be as clever as you can.”’ Writing to the Ephesians, Paul says that mature Christians don’t get blown about by every wind of doctrine.

“Thinking, therefore, is not just about going to college. It’s about growing up. Some people are called to heavy theoretical intellectualizing; most of us aren’t. But either way, we are all called to use judgment, discernment. If we don’t, our laziness will keep us immature.

“We need to think at least as hard about our faith as we do about business or our hobbies. Some say this ruins spontaneity: thinking makes you inhibited, calculating, unemotional. Unfortunately, it often does. There are special reasons for this, to do with the influences at work in our Western culture. But it doesn’t have to. Paul was an intensely passionate person. But he was also a profound thinker. He spoke in tongues more than anyone in the Corinthian church; yet he treasured one word spoken “with understanding” more than all that.

“How could he let himself go like that? Because he had thought through the issues beforehand, so he could trust his instincts. Understanding brings safety. And he taught this to everyone: don’t just listen to me, he told the Corinthians, judge for yourselves. Don’t just swallow even the greatest preacher’s message whole. Listen to the arguments, keep asking questions. Think.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer and John Peck

Images by Davide Restivo and Daniel, respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)

Going Steady

on road to EmmausSome years ago a man told me that he had never read the Bible cover-to-cover. Normally that wouldn’t have struck me as odd, but this guy had been a church-going Christian for twenty years. Puzzled, I asked for an explanation. I don’t recall his exact words, but what came through was well, like, you know, I’ve read enough of the Bible to know what’s in it.

It was around this time when another Christian asked me if I would pray for her to have enough discipline to stick with a “through-the-Bible-in-a-year” reading schedule she had begun. “I’ve never done this before,” she said, “and I’ve been a Christian twenty years.” There it was again. I commended her for her decision to go steady with the Bible for a year; but doing that for the first time in twenty years? I just didn’t get it. And I couldn’t help but wonder where this gal and guy were at, after twenty years, in their “walk with the Lord,” as we used to call it.

Maybe it’s just me, but their comments seemed odd because during the first few years after becoming Christian I found myself devouring the Bible from cover to cover many times. I use “devouring” deliberately, because in my before-Christ history I had the exact opposite experience. A nonChristian spiritual teacher whom I had been following told me that I “owed it to myself” to read the whole Bible because it had a lot of wisdom. I took his advice and read it. I think it took me several months. But the Book was as dry as shoe leather. Yet as a new Christian, I feasted on the Bible continually, as naturally as if I were enjoying my favorite prime rib dinner.

I can’t prove this, but I suspect that if you haven’t embarked on a relationship with the Author of the Book, you’ll be chewing on some very tough shoe leather. I don’t blame anyone who doesn’t have an appetite for that, for the problems arising from that diet will of course be fatal. But problems also exist for those who have been given a personal relationship with the Author but who also have a now-and-then, here-and-there diet with His Book.

stack of BiblesGoing steady with Scripture means more than doing intermittent inductive, topical, or word studies; more than learning doctrine; more than playing Bible roulette to land on a verse to direct your path. It means more than discovering nine-foot giants with hands studded with six fingers, or finding “pagans” serving the Lord, or having hopes of becoming God’s end-times prophet.

It means more than treating the Bible like one might read the newspaper on the train to work or play around in the evening on the Web. It means more than engaging in a critical scholarship that reduces the story of Esther to a farce, the life of David to a fictional character, and the resurrection of Jesus to a myth. Even more than using the text to lead people to Christ.

Going steady with Scripture engages us in more than what meets the eye. It means spending regular time with the Author of the Book in His Book. It means a recurring opening of the Book with an unrushed, prayerful, and reflective attitude in hopes of dwelling in the secret place of the Most High. And you never know what will occur when the Presence meets you in that secret place of the Life behind the text, there in an encounter with the living, true, and merciful God. Or how you will be afterward: at peace or afraid, healed or hurt, elated or in tears, confirmed or challenged, with answers or with puzzles, with insight or with questions, with forgiveness or with guilt, in hope or despair, in joy or sorrow. We don’t know what we need. But the Author of the Book does.

Going steady with Scripture means settling in over the course of one’s life with God’s Book open humbly in our laps. There, God’s Spirit graces us to participate in a deepening personal relationship with the Author, in the ongoing rebuilding of our lives, in increasing of love for others, and in absorbing a godly wisdom for our ministry or our work in the world. Who doubts the ongoing, Christlike fruit that this steady process of transformation will produce?

I’m not nearly as steady as I want to be, as I know I should be. I fluff off. I make excuses. I think  I know it all. And I fear some rude awakenings in that day when God opens the books of our individual lives before Him, mine too, and points out how much more like Jesus our “walk with the Lord” could have been if we had gone steady with His Book. And I wonder if God might be easier on those who had no Bible than on those of us with a stack of translations we rarely open.

I’m done preaching here, except to report these words from the New Testament of two persons who knew where shoe leather belonged, under foot, as they walked with the Author of the Book: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scripture to us?” Any takers?

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Art from wikimedia commons and photo by J. Mark Bertrand.