John Shortt Interviews Charles Strohmer

I was recently contacted by John Shortt, a gifted British educator who also works educationally in Europe and further afield. Would I be willing to be interviewed for his blog? I was. Originally published on John’s blog, it has now been included right here on my blog. The interview was wide-raging and thought-provoking — for me at least! And conversational (my preference) rather than formal. It is partly the story of how I came to faith and partly about my life since then as a writer and public Christian. Some of it may surprise even those who know me well. I hope some of it speaks to you. (The interview was conducted via Skype, but only the text, not the audio, is being published.)

John Shortt: Charles, you and Linda live in East Tennessee in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. It sounds a great place to live but you were brought up way up north in Detroit, Michigan, weren’t you?

Charles Strohmer: Yes, we’re pleasantly ensconced here in the foothills of the Smokies but Detroit is about 550 miles north of us, a lot of real cold winter weather up there. It’s the Motor City, so it’s the big three auto makers plus the Motown sound, and a lot of rock ‘n roll came out of Detroit.

I was personally caught up in both of those worlds. I was a car mechanic for a long time and I got into the music scene deeply, not just into the Motown sound which I really like but mainly into rock ‘n’ roll, hard rock, heavy metal.

JS: In Odd Man Out, your great book about your life in the sixties and seventies, you say you began to search for “Truth with a capital T”. What set you off on that search when it seemed you had everything going for you?

CS: Now, that’s interesting! Yeah, I suppose it does seem like I had everything going for me. I was living the American Dream on the one hand and then, off of that, I was playing this counter-cultural hippy thing.

But inside of me a lot of things affected me in a very disturbing way. I was totally unhappy with how things were going in the American system. In the 1960s there was the assassination of President Kennedy, then a few years later the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., then, a couple of months later, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy when he was running for president. There was the Vietnam War et cetera and I was, for some reason, really affected by those injustices and evils.

I got this deep desire to know Truth with a capital T. That’s how I talked to myself about it. I said to myself that if I could find Truth with a capital T, no matter what it cost or where it led, then Truth would do two things. It would tell me what was wrong with the American system and perhaps even with life itself or the world and my own life. And number two, it would help me and others to solve some of the problems, correct some things that have gone wrong.

JS: And you got into astrology around that time. It was the time of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius or soon after it, wasn’t it? How did that come about?

CS: I thought astrology was a path to Truth. It came about innocently enough. A friend of mine and I were both into race cars, but we also used to meet at Dunkin’ Donuts and talk about life and spiritual things. At the time, he was the only friend I could talk to like that. One day he put this book on the table in Dunkin’ Donuts and said, “Here. This is pretty cool. I’ve been reading about this.” I picked it up and said, “Oh, this is about astrology. That’s a load of rubbish, that’s the occult. I don’t want to have anything to do with that.”

And that was that, until it wasn’t. A few weeks later, he put another astrology book down in front of me and said, “You’ve got to read this. This is good stuff. It says we’re the same sun sign. That is why we get along so well.” So I took the book and read it. I liked what I was reading. I didn’t understand a lot of it, but it set me on this course of studying astrology and learning how to do horoscope readings for people. I also thought I was learning about myself and helping others by interpreting their horoscopes.

JS: And by this time you had become a roadie for a rock band as well?

CS: Yes, I had moved to Chicago from Detroit and I was working in a Chevy dealer there selling car parts, and I liked it. It gave me some money to head out and go to music clubs and so on. I had very long hair and a Fu Manchu moustache then. It’s a funny story, but there was a girl who worked in the office at the Chevy dealer. We liked each other. But she didn’t like it that I came to work with my hair in a ponytail stuffed down my shirt to hide it, so that the bosses and customers wouldn’t be offended by it. She used to tease me and say, “You gotta let your hair out. You look so good with it long like that. Stop hiding it.” So one day to get on her better side, I arrived at work with my long hair hanging out all over the place. That went on for a couple of weeks, until the general manager took me aside and gave me an ultimatum: “You can either quit today or be laid off.” So I was suddenly out of work.

Then, long story short, a few weeks later I was partying at a music club and heard a great band, called Marcus. It was an American rock ‘n’ roll band and they were in the process of cutting their first album, which would eventually be produced by United Artists in California. We got on famously and I started travelling on the road crew with them. I eventually became the stage manager and worked with them for over a year, travelling in the Midwest.

JS: Yes, so they went off to California then and after a while – a short time back home in Detroit – you set out to drive to California?

CS: Yes, an interesting period in my life. When the band signed their contract with United Artists, they had to move to California to record the album. So the roadies were without work. I went back to Detroit and stayed in my parents’ house for a while.

But I wondered what I was going to do with my life. And I was getting deeper involved in occult practices beside astrology. I had a little room in my parents’ basement. I had a cheap desk there and all my astrology books and my other occult books. I’d sit there for hours a day with a pot of jasmine tea, trying to interpret horoscope readings and then talk to clients afterwards about that. I even got paid a little bit for doing it.wave curl

Eventually I decided I had to get to California, so I loaded up my car and began driving to California, where I hoped to work with the band again.

JS: And you drove through the Badlands of North Dakota?

CS: I did. By the way, that was interesting that you included that word in the title of your blog. I thought, “This is lovely. I wonder if John knows about the Badlands of North Dakota”. So this was the spring of 1976. I drove to Chicago, where I owed somebody a horoscope chart, dropped that off there, stayed a couple of days, and then drove across the top of the United States through the Badlands of North Dakota to Washington State and then came down the coast highway through Oregon to California.

It was in the Badlands that I started to have really strange spiritual experiences that undid my life and completely dismantled my occult worldview. I used to rely on a lot on occult beliefs, and some eastern religious beliefs – karma, reincarnation, spiritual evolution. I had a lot of really disturbing spiritual experiences all the way to southern California. They left me broken and in tears and living like a hermit on my own.

JS: And you bought a Bible and began to read it?

CS: Yes. It had been about six or eight weeks since I’d left Detroit. I was now living near a beach in southern California, in a little hotel room with a small stove, a refrigerator and some cupboards. I was now also a strict vegetarian – nuts, grains, fruits and vegetables only. And I was doing this unusual kind of fasting that I had been taught by an occult teacher. It was supposed to help me evolve spiritually. But I kept having these very disturbing, and sometimes frightening spiritual experiences. I was at my wits end and didn’t know what to do.

So about a week before my twenty-sixth birthday I bought a Bible in a Bible bookstore. I had read the whole Bible when I was an astrologer, but it didn’t communicate to me. I was in Costa Mesa, which was one of the sources for the Jesus revival that was going on during that period.

JS: That was the time of the Jesus People!

CS: Yes. But I didn’t know that. Had never heard of them. I felt really weird going into this Christian bookstore to buy a Bible and being the only longhair with the Fu Manchu, but there were longhairs there! It kind of shocked me, and nobody bothered me.

I bought a Bible and started reading it back in the hotel room. Again I couldn’t understand it. That was the last straw. One night I just broke down completely and started sobbing alongside the bed in this little room. I started crying to God, saying simply, “God I’m sorry, God I’m sorry, God, I’m sorry. I’m just a sinner”. I was sobbing and crying out to God like that for a long time that night. But after a while I began to feel deeply peaceful and I sensed the presence of Jesus in the room with me. I felt forgiven, and the terrible spiritual experiences ended. And I no longer felt like a dirty guilty person.

It was late at night when this happened. I was alone and I didn’t know what else to do so I crawled into bed and went to sleep. I woke up the next morning, and I remember laying there in that bed and everything looked different. Even the air looked different. I remember walking around that small room and looking at all the astrology books and the occult literature and all the charts I had laid out. I thought, “I’ve been duped, I’ve been duped”. It was like the Holy Spirit was already teaching me that the way that I’d been going for six or seven years with the occult was leading me the wrong way in the search for Truth.

And then I saw the open Bible on the table from the night before. Why not? I thought. So I started reading it again and I could understand it! It was amazing. And I couldn’t stop reading it. And that’s where we come back to the vow I had made years’ earlier, to find Truth with a capital T. Because I then read in scripture some weeks later that Jesus said, “I am the truth”. He says that in John’s Gospel. “I am the way, the truth and the life.” When I read that Jesus Christ was the truth, well, more blinders came off. Oh, Truth is a person, that’s astounding! That completely transformed my thinking about the source and nature of Truth.

JS: And you went back home to Detroit after that and you got into church life?

CS: Yes, I finally drove back to Detroit, but I didn’t know what to do. I was like burning out of control for Jesus. I was stopping to get gas along the road and I just had to tell the guy in the gas station about Jesus. “Can I tell you about Jesus?” I didn’t know what I would say if someone said yes. And some did. My first pastor in Detroit once joked with me about this. “Charles, new believers like you should hide out for six months because you’re doing more damage than good! You’re telling everybody about Jesus but you don’t know what you’re doing half the time.”

But he was a great pastor, and I was part of his church in the inner-city of Detroit, where I lived for a year. It was a wonderful church, a mixed congregation of blacks and whites. We served the inner city. We did a lot of Christian ministry there. We had a resale shop, we did radio broadcasts and ran concerts, we had three church services a week, we prayed a lot and had a phone counselling line. That was in 1977, and it was where I began to get my Christian legs.

JS: And for the next few years you were in Detroit and then you began to travel and you even came to the UK?

CS: I did! Another interesting period of my life. The Lord called me out of that inner-city ministry and “back into the world” – as we used to say – to work. So I went back to selling car parts and eventually landed a job in a Chevrolet dealership in downtown Detroit. I liked working there among so many different kinds of people, and I eventually became a parts manager there.

I was also supporting an American gal who was a missionary in Paisley, Scotland, with YWAM. She was an educator and she cofounded a preschool in Paisley with YWAM, called ‘The Wee Friends Preschool’, which became a template for the founding of similar other schools. She came back to the States on a short furlough, and at the time I was just a supporter of hers, but she visited me and a girlfriend of hers in Michigan, and by the end of this visit we were getting serious about each other! Linda and I got engaged, and in June of 1986, I moved to Scotland and we married in Paisley. I lived there for a few more years, and the Lord was gracious to me and began opening doors of ministry in the UK.

We moved back to the States in late 1989, and Linda returned to teaching first grade in the public schools here. Her forte is children’s literacy. She was an award-winning Teacher of the Year in Tennessee for children’s literacy.

I was being invited back to the UK. It was mind-blowing for me that churches and parachurch groups wanted this American bloke to come to teach on Christian worldview and biblical wisdom. And I learned so much from Christians I met everywhere. Some became my best friends. For ten to fifteen years I travelled all over the UK. I remember that you and I met for the first time during one of those trips, when you invited me and the lovely Pam MacKenzie to do some teaching for the Association of Christian Teachers.

JS: Yes, it was for a weekend for teachers on a Christian response to New Age philosophy! During the nineties you had become a writer as well as a speaker.

CS: Yes, that was my entry into the world of publishing. My first couple of books were about a Christian point of view on astrology and a major book on communicating the truth to New Age seekers.

Then I felt the Lord nudging me to get more and more involved in the wisdom tradition. That’s become a key in my ministry for twenty, twenty-five years now. I was an apologist for quite a while and published frequently in that field. But the field of apologetics for me was no longer getting me where I believed the Lord wanted to take me. Its organising principle tends to make as wide as possible the gulf of dissimilarities between different theologies and belief systems, and I saw the need for that. But it wasn’t satisfying my growing interests in helping people to come together on common ground in mutuality.

It was actually through a mutual friend of ours, the inimitable John Peck, whom I had met in the States a decade earlier, who began to mentor me further along in this, in biblical wisdom development. He was a godsend.

Of course, John had his hand in a lot of things in the UK, like the Greenbelt Festival and College House in Cambridge. He had done a lot of thinking about how the biblical wisdom tradition seeks to bring people who are different, even those who have different core beliefs, to bring them together on common ground to try to solve problems, work together for justice, and so on. And John relied on help from the biblical wisdom tradition for this.

I saw this as a missing jewel in Christian worldview teaching and development. Unlike the traditional apologetics paradigm, the wisdom tradition, simply put, seeks to bring people together on mutual ground, yet while acknowledging difference. This really lit my fuse. For the last twenty-five or thirty years much of my published works and talks have been trying to build on what I call a wisdom-based gospel-shaped way of engaging all of life, its art, its politics, family life, and much more, and especially, for many years now, the field of international relations, foreign policy, and diplomacy.

JS: And yes, talking about the international situation, you mentioned the assassination of President Kennedy. Most of us can remember where we were when we heard the news that he had been assassinated. And the nine-eleven attack on the Twin Towers 2001 is like that because we can all remember where we were when we heard the news of that. But in your case, Charles, it was particularly powerful, wasn’t it? Where were you when you heard about it?

CS: I have a funny way of understanding that to myself. I’m pretty sure that I was one of the last people on earth to hear about it. I had boarded a plane in Gatwick that morning before it happened. I had just finished a three-week book tour with John Peck about our book Uncommon Sense which had just come out with SPCK.

We were about two hours out of London over the Atlantic headed toward the States when the captain — I’ll never forget his announcement. Through his deep Texas drawl he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please. Your serious attention.” And he went on to explain that there had been an international incident in the United States and we had to land in Halifax, Nova Scotia. But he wouldn’t say what had happened.

So three hours later, we’re landing in Halifax, circling the airfield, and we see this very long queue of planes, dozens and dozens of jumbo jets and L1011s that have landed ahead of us in this little international airport. We passengers still didn’t know what was going on. After we had taxied to our place at the end of the queue, our captain then explained what had happened. We were like, “What?!” We were all stunned. Passengers on our plan were bussed to an air force base, where we lived for four more days. Those days and that event affected me deeply.

JS: Yes, when you were back home, you became passionate about developing what you call “wisdom-based inter-cultural relations between Christians and Muslims and wisdom-based international relations between the United States and Muslim Middle East states”. You set up the Wisdom Project and you have a blog entitled “Waging Wisdom: Uncommon Sense for a World in Conflict”. Tell us more, Charles.

CS: Thank you for that question, John. I really appreciate being able to say a few words about that. It’s a long story, but I’ll try to be brief. I slipped into a mild depression after I got home. I was praying a lot, and I concluded I could get out of it in one of two ways. I could completely ignore the significance of the nine-eleven attack or I could do a little research and study to learn what had happened. So I choose the latter option, because it was obvious that the attack couldn’t be ignored.

So I turned to the experts, but the experts in Washington were saying, “We don’t know why it happened.” To their credit, it was good to hear some humility from experts. And even from Christian leaders, who were admitting the same thing. But that was a huge disappointment, because I wanted somebody with some wisdom to explain to me why it had occurred, how to respond wisely, and how to prevent it from happening again. Well, if nobody knew, Strohmer was going to find out! Some kind of pride thing in my life!

I began some research, naively thinking that after several months of study I would learn all I needed to know about this. Then I’ll write an article or two, maybe do a couple of seminars about it, and that will be that. Well, that turned into a two- or three-year research project into the broad field of international relations, foreign policy, and diplomacy in which I was learning all sorts of new and crucial things from different points of view, especially the different American ones and many of those in the Middle East — the different ways that different capitals had of analysing and responding to the attacks.

JS: What did you do with all that research?

CS: Well, I had learned a lot about what many people would call a secular view of U.S.-Middle East foreign policy. But that wasn’t nearly enough. I thought, “What would the biblical wisdom tradition have to say about this, if anything?” After a real struggle, by the grace of God I began to be able to get under the skin of the wisdom tradition and understand how the sages who gave us that tradition understood foreign policy and diplomacy. I don’t take credit for it, but a wealth of material began to open up to me, from both the Old and New Testaments. So over time I was able to lay my understanding of the wisdom tradition alongside that of the “secular” views and then develop and offer a way of foreign policy, diplomacy, and negotiations based on biblical wisdom norms, ideas and principles.

That led to founding the Wisdom Project and to becoming a visiting research fellow for the Christian think-tank in Washington called the Centre for Public Justice. That too was a godsend, thanks to James Skillen, its then president, and its board of directors. The project grew into a major book project which has yet to be published. InterVarsity Press looked at it seriously for six months but then decided not to publish it. The book is based on what I call the five norms of wisdom and how they can help people who are different to work together, whether on a local community project or a national or international problem, be they Muslims, Christians, Jews, secularists, whoever.

It’s been a rewarding journey, and a lot of work, but the Lord has opened doors for me to talk about this with key people and groups on many different levels, including at the State Department and the Council on Foreign Relations. You know, when you get to talking with “experts” who are open to new ideas, and you sit with them and learn from them and they learn from you about ways to use the principles and norms and ideas of the historic wisdom tradition in their analyses and policy decision making, to defuse adversarial relations and suchlike, well, it’s not only exciting. It also, importantly, helps to make life a little better for any number of people. Jesus spoke of “blessed peacemakers.” Diplomats and international negotiators, among others, are tasked with fulfilling that calling.

JS: Yes, you must be looking at international relations in the present global pandemic situation and thinking what does the biblical wisdom tradition have to bring to this?

CS: I would say that there’s different levels. One is that we are now in the age of social media where there’s too much polemics going on. One of the purposes of the wisdom tradition is to help us shake free from rigid ideological thinking. But on social media you have countless people entrenched deep inside their fortresses with contradictory ideological viewpoints. They only come out to shoot polemics at each other from behind their fortress walls. That is just dividing the country, dividing people. The wisdom tradition offers us biblical norms and principles and ideas that will help out of our fortresses, let down our drawbridges, walk across our moats, and start talking with each other civilly about how we can work together to help our countries. So that’s one level.

Another level is at city-wide, regional, and state levels. Here in the States you’ve got the fifty states. In your country and in Europe you’ve got your own levels of government. But whether we are talking about cities or counties or countries, the wisdom tradition can help politicians, medical people, and other kinds of COVID-19 decision makers to be more on the same page helping us ordinary citizens to get through this difficult season with less divisiveness, in order to work together for the good of our countries. And, mind you, this is not some idealist pipe dream. The wisdom tradition is utterly realistic about what is possible in our fallen world.

And then there is international level, where these days you’ve got the United States playing off China and Russia, and vice-versa. The wisdom tradition has a lot of, well, wisdom for those who work internationally, which affects us all. Take, for example, a friend of mine, Chris Seiple, who was President of the Institute of Global Engagement in Washington DC. He has a whole paradigm that’s just lovely. It’s called “relational diplomacy,” very wisdom-based. We’ve had many conversations about how it has helped him and the IGE teams with some amazing breakthroughs in difficult situations in the Middle East to ease adversarial relations and help bring about some good changes, including when ISIS was running rampant there.

And Chris is not shy about letting his interlocutors know up front that he is an evangelical Christian. But he knows the potential of the wisdom tradition. It’s my belief and hope that if more organizations like IGE tap the potential of the biblical wisdom tradition, then parliaments, and congresses, and White Houses, and Downing Streets around the world could be more equipped to deal wisely, together, with all sorts of injustices and help make the world a better place for us ordinary folk to live in.

JS: Well, let’s pray that it will be so.

CS: Amen!

JS: Now Charles, I reckon that you’re round about three score years and ten. For a lot of people, there’s a word ‘retirement’ that comes in at that point. But in your neck of the woods, Dolly Parton came from there and she sang about “working nine till five”. Are you going to sit back? What are your plans, brother?

CS: Dolly Parton, yes, she’s still going strong. She’s quite a philanthropist, you know. We live near where she grew up. My wife retired from teaching a few years ago, but she is busier than ever, giving grace and offering wisdom in a lot of areas. But I’m not retired. I spend much of my day researching, writing, a bit of advising, and seeking advice, too. When you’ve been doing what I’ve been doing for three or four decades, you have a lot of ideas! They can overwhelm you and you think, “I’ll write about this, I’ll write about that”. I joke to myself that I want to clone myself at least three times so that I can assign projects to myself and trust they get done.

The tricky part for me is that if things come together to begin a certain project, then I’ve got to try to do it. When I worked on an assembly line decades ago, if I was sick, someone else could fill my spot on the line that day. But I have a different calling now. The onus is on me to see a task through to completion. It’s a strange responsibility. I’m always praying to try to understand just what it is I should be getting done!

A focus these past months has been trying to determine, “Lord, what are you saying about COVID-19?” I don’t want to be spinning my wheels. So I haven’t said much publicly yet because I want it to be wisdom-based, and the penny hasn’t dropped yet. So maybe I could take this opportunity to ask your readers to say a prayer about this. I would like to get some traction on making some wisdom-based communications about this difficult season that we’re all in. I’ve got ideas floating around but I need an “Aha!” moment.

JS: Charles, bless you and thank you for all that you’ve been sharing. It’s been great to talk!

CS: Thank you so much, John. Any time.

©2020 by Charles Strohmer

Creative Commons photos: Badlands, by Destination360. Wave, by Sunova Surfboards. Other photos: the two of me, by Jeremy Daley. Charles & Linda, by Diane lee.

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