Conversation with Conservative Pastor Joel Hunter, Spiritual Advisor to President Obama

I have interviewed many people over the years, but I don’t think any of those conversations has ever been as timely and important as this one with Pastor Joel Hunter, a theologically conservative Christian who for eight years was a spiritual advisor to the theologically liberal President Barack Obama. Now retired from full time pastoring, the former senior pastor of “Northland, A Church Distributed,” in Central Florida, stays as busy as ever building bridges and coalitions to help people who are in vulnerable communities.

His website, appropriately titled “Imitating Jesus beyond Church Walls,” where he also blogs, bursts with hard-won biblical insight and understanding that he’s learned both as a pastor for nearly five decades and through serving in challenging public contexts, regionally, nationally, and internationally. These are too numerous to detail here, so you really must check out Joel’s website for yourself sometime, especially if you’re meeting him for the first time here.

For some time now, we have been living in a fast-paced and significantly changing world in which inescapable demands have been placed upon us to gain a godly wisdom for such a time as this, and to live by it everyday. The last decade or so has been particularly demanding, socially, economically, and politically. Even our best efforts at public witness in America have often revealed how divided the church had become. The only consensus today seems to be that society at-large says that it is turned off by what public Christian influence there is. Both church and society have come out losers here. And then along comes Covid–19.

In Joel Hunter’s public life and ministry, we find not only a clear understanding but a biblical working out of the demands of Christ’s discipleship on us at a time such as this. He is a respected and important voice in Christian leadership. Of his long and varied callings, we could have talked for hours about a great many things. Instead, we took a hour by phone for a fascinating and insightful conversation about what he learned during eight years as President Obama’s lone conservative spiritual advisor. We then moved from those personal experiences to President Trump’s spiritual advisors. We also talked about Covid–19, as well as about the kind of pastoring that brings healing into congregations that are divided politically, and the importance of crossing boundaries to build relationships. Some of his answers may surprise.

Charles Strohmer: Let’s jump right in, Joel. We first met at a Christian conference in DC when Barack Obama was the President, and you got my attention when you spoke about being a conservative Christian pastor who was also a spiritual advisor to President Obama. What did that responsibility entail during those eight years?

Joel Hunter: Several things. I wrote devotions for him every week out of the Scripture. We prayed together periodically. Really it was a mutually encouraging relationship. I went through some tough times and he called me to make sure I was doing okay. And right after he was out of office, I was making a transition from being a congregational pastor (after almost fifty years) to being a faith community organizer in Florida, and he called me before my last sermon as a congregational pastor and asked, “What are you doing, Joel?” And I said, “I have no idea. I’m going to be a community organizer. What am I doing?” Because that’s what he was before he went into politics. So we’ve had a mutually encouraging relationship, and I have been quite honored to call him a friend.

Charles: When you sent devotionals or prayed with him in person, what kind of approach did you take? Was it personal, or about family matters, or political areas?

Joel: It was all personal. It really wasn’t a political relationship. He did call me a few times before making big announcements. For example, he had just come out for gay marriage, so he called me before that got into the news cycle because he knew that with my conservative Evangelical background I’d be beaten up over our relationship, which I usually was. But almost always our relationship was about personal issues. So when I would pray for him I’d say, “What do we pray about?” By the way, when I would ask him that, he would never ask me to pray for him. He was always asking me to pray for somebody else. He’d said, “I got this letter this week …,” or, “There’s this family that …” It was always about somebody else.

He was also that way in conversation. You could not maintain a conversation about him. He was always more interested in talking about somebody else. That came out of a genuine sense of compassion and humility and the understanding that I’m here to offer others some good. So let’s go to the Lord about that.

Charles: How were you as a theological conservative able to square being a spiritual advisor to a theologically liberal President? It must have been a struggle.

Joel: Yes, we came down on various sides of issues. But when you love and appreciate somebody, you give them the space they need and you trust God to take care of all that. I’ve never needed someone to agree with me in order to love them fully. I would have a very narrow band of relationships if I demanded theological agreement before I loved people. And that’s the way Jesus was. Jesus crossed all kinds of boundaries in order to love people who were not like him. So it sounds difficult, but it was really very easy. When you see somebody as a person who you know is trying to do others good, and you know that even if you disagree on the interpretation of Scripture, that both of you have a keen appreciation for Scripture, then the rest, well, you’ve just kind of got to let go.

Charles: How did you get that gig?

Joel: Early in 2008, I was featured in a New York Times article on racism. A few weeks later, Joshua Dubois, Senator Obama’s religious outreach person, called me and said that Senator Obama would like to have a conversation with me. So I said, “Great,” and about a week later Senator Obama and I talked for about thirty minutes on the phone. His basic question was, “How can the government and faith communities work together without violating the commission of each?” And I said, “Senator, probably the most unused resource for community healing and well being in this country are faith communities. We have the highest percentage of volunteers and we just want to make things white dovebetter.”

I was then asked to be on a couple panels that asked the presidential candidates, during the campaign, questions, in forums. So I had opportunities to ask questions to people like Hillary Clinton. After I had asked her a question during the second forum, I felt someone behind me tugging on my coat and saying, “Hey, would you come back and pray with Senator Obama before he speaks?” I said, “Sure,” and so I followed this guy down through the catacombs of the building, thinking I’m going to be one of fifty pastors surrounding him. But when I got there it was just me and him in the hallway. And that week the press had just beat him up something terrible. So I said something like, “Senator, you’ve had a rough week.” And he looked at me and said, which was typical of him, “No. The single mom trying to put food on the table had a rough week. I’m fine.” So I prayed with him before he went on, and after that we had a deep relationship.”

Charles: Did he have other kinds of spiritual advisors in his circle?

Joel: There’s an article in the March 15, 2009 New York Times that talks about five of us. I was the only white Evangelical pastor. But there were others in his circle of prayerful encouragement. A couple of times T. D. Jakes and I were with him together in the Oval Office. And sometimes, like on his birthday or special occasions, he would get on the phone with several of us, including people like Joseph Lowery and other great old African-American preachers.

Charles: Was it beneficial for him to have a circle of spiritual advisors who were different theologically?

Joel: Absolutely. He thrives on various perspectives. He’s incredibly smart. I can’t tell you the level of his intellect. So it’s easy for him to take in various perspectives and come up with his amalgamation of what’s just been said and go with that.

Charles: Since Donald Trump’s election, there’s been an avalanche of stories in the media and the press about his conservative and charismatic spiritual advisors. Do you know if he has other kinds of religious advisors in his Presidential circle?

Joel: No. I know many in that group. They are all of the same theological perspective. This President really puts a premium on loyalty and on agreement, so that’s his circle.

Charles: President Trump has quite a different method than, say, President Lincoln. I mean, in her excellent book Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin writes extensively about how Lincoln surrounded himself with advisors, including on his cabinet, who were different from him, including even some political enemies. But that method really paid dividends when it came to gaining the kind of wisdom needed back then to keep the union together, even through a civil war.

Joel: Yes. And that’s how President Obama was first elected. He had that team of rivals, a broad field of political friends and advisors. But the machinery of government always takes over. As the time went on, especially in his second term, it did become more consolidated into fewer voices and political agendas in order to get things done.

My mama used to tell me that I would never learn very much from people who think exactly like I do. You learn from people who have a different perspective or a different truth. So I acquaint differences with flourishing, or being enriched.

Charles: How did you process, internally, deal with, struggles you had, being a conservative Christian pastor, with some political decisions President Obama made that you clearly opposed?

Joel: Well, one time I was out driving with my wife, Becky, and I get this call, “The President would like to speak with you.” So I pulled off into a parking lot because I didn’t want to be talking to the President while I’m driving along. So he comes on the phone and says, “Joel, I just want to tell you about a decision I’ve just made. I’ve just had an interview (I think he said it was with ABC) to say that I’ve come out for gay marriage.” And my first response was, “Mr. President, I don’t see that in Scripture.” And his response was, “I know you don’t. But listen to how I arrived at that.” Then he talked about the difference between civil law, which is for all of the citizens, and moral or religious law, which is for the adherence of believers in that particular realm.

As I understood President Obama, you stick this guy and compassion comes out. If somebody’s being left out, it’s almost more than he can take. He made his decision on the basis of what he conceived as fairness, and compassion, and people being hurt unnecessarily as it translated into a law for all citizens. I understood that. When I was interviewed afterward and asked about it, I said, No, that’s not my definition of marriage. When I spoke about it to my congregation, I said you’ve got to be discerning between what’s fair for everybody and what’s right for those us who interpret Scripture in a certain way and our lives that way.

Charles: Over the years, I noticed that there’s a lack of understanding in some Christian circles about the difference between the purpose and function of civil law in American polity and that of moral or religious law. For one thing, I’m convinced that if you try to force a moral law on a people who don’t see the point of obeying it, you’re going to foster rebellion.

Joel: That’s right. Our natural human bent is to try to gain as much power for our POV as we can. Many Christians use politics for that. But there’s not a full trust of God in that process. We need to note this when we’re making decisions, as to why we are making decisions. Are we making them to keep in control and impose our views, or are we making them because we just want to do what we believe is right and then let the circumstances take care of themselves.

Charles: So President Obama didn’t track with your view on gay marriage, but do you know if over those eight years your prayers or wisdom for him influenced him policy-wise or personally or with his family?

President Barack Obama greets Dr. Joel C. Hunter, senior pastor of Northland, A Church Distributed, in Longwood, Fla., during the Easter Prayer Breakfast, Monday, April 14, 2014, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Joel: I think I know several ways that he took my perspective into consideration when he was making decisions. But I’m really not at liberty to talk about that. I can say that he invited my family to the Oval Office and told them that I had a profound impact I’d had on his life and presidency. He was very kind to say that.

Charles: If you got a call from President Trump’s Chief of Staff to ask you if you’d be his spiritual advisor, would you jump at the chance or would you beg off?

Joel: It’s the President, you know. Scripture tells us to pray for those in authority. I don’t think I’d last very long! But I would do everything I could to give my interpretation of Scripture as to what the subject was and be as supportive as I could while I was doing it.

Charles: Some years ago I participated in conference call with a number of religious and political leaders. We were talking about “learning wisdom from the other.” Which is a biblical idea. Tim Keller was part of that conference call, and when I asked him for his thoughts on this, he immediately located that kind of learning in the Bible’s teaching on common grace. I want to quote for you part of what he said and get your thoughts on it. All human beings, he said, “whether they believe in God or not, share gifts of wisdom, insight, creativity, and beauty because these gifts come to everyone. Christians call this common grace, because they consider these as gifts that come from God. If that’s the case,” he concluded, “then I could expect that my neighbor who does not believe anything like I believe might still have wisdom from God that I have to listen to.” You seem to me to have that kind of heart.

Joel: It’s how I’m wired. My mama used to tell me that I would never learn very much from people who think exactly like I do. You learn from people who have a different perspective or a different truth. So I acquaint differences with flourishing, or being enriched. I’m sure Tim, he’s a friend, must have had this in mind, that our full worship of God depends upon our full pursuit of truth wherever it is. “All truth is God’s truth,” as the saying goes. And as Kepler said, “I think God’s thoughts after him.” It’s so important for us, no matter where truth is coming from, whether from the realm of science, or philosophy, or even from other religions that have a sense of how God has created the world. I’m thirsty for it all. And I bring it all to Christ, because, as it says in Colossians, Jesus is before all things, and in Christ all things hold together. So I am always trying to learn all I can because I believe it will bring me closer to Christ.

Charles: Do you find people have sticking points when it comes to crossing boundaries to build relationships?

Joel: Yes. Our biggest enemy is inertia. We want to do what we’ve always done, and change costs. And that cost we can see. What we can’t see is the cost of not changing. And that’s a tsunami. It’s trying to say, Hey it’s worth changing to be more like Jesus. It’ll be more inconvenient and more uncomfortable, but boy will life be better.

People are driven toward ideology instead of to the harder work of relationship. Ideology has its appeal because it’s so simplistic, and it makes you feel self-righteous, and it gives you a sense of belonging that’s automatic but not real.

Charles: What can we do to break out of listening only to our own peer groups so that we can cross boundaries, be less self-focusing and more relationally open to people who aren’t like us?

Joel: What won’t work is argument and shaming. That works for maybe about a day. I had a professor who used to talk about how difficult change is. “It’s like pushing mush with a stick,” he would say. “The little part you’re pushing moves but the rest of it just stays the same.” But what does work is the general appeal, especially to believers, of what is right and what they could do that they could do fairly easily.

For example, years ago Becky and I created an initiative called Simple Help. You do one thing a day that takes less than five minutes and costs less than five dollars. There are thousands of us that are doing it, and incrementally the world gets better. When you do this it builds in you a mentality that says: I am making a difference. Most people think: I can’t make a difference. But if you don’t think “solve the world’s problems,” but you do think “I can open a door for someone,” or, “I can share with someone how I got through what they are going through, “ those little things make a huge difference. You just have to make the help concrete and accessible enough that people can act on it, and not feel like they’ve got to solve everybody’s problems all at once.

Charles: One ever-present stumbling block to learning wisdom this way can be social media, where a Manichean worldview is increasingly present, in which the world is said to be divided into two enemy camps that are eternally at war with each other. Christians are falling prey to this, too. It’s tragic. It’s further dividing the body of Christ. Using some of the principles you’re learned and applied over the years, how can we start to change that dynamic on social media, or is it hopeless?

Joel: Well, one thing is that I don’t do social media very much. I don’t have a Facebook account and don’t spent spend much time online trying to discuss issues. I’m on Twitter and Instagram, but mostly just to keep up with my friends. But what you’re pointing to is not just characteristic of social media. The whole country right now is becoming more and more polarized and politicized. There seems to be a choice, almost an ultimatum, that you’re either going to be a bridge builder or a wall builder.

You can have an approach that is Christ against the world, very adversarial, battle of light and darkness, which is not Christianity. So some Christians see this as a pitch battle between good and evil and we’re on the good side and everyone who doesn’t agree with us is on the bad side. To me, that is not at all resembling the life of Jesus.

Jesus had this philosophy and approach to life that all the world was God’s, and that even those who didn’t know him, those deemed unacceptable, need to be served and respected and reached out to with the love of God. It’s not about what’s in them. It’s about what’s in us. So I can’t help but hope that the voices that continue to make friends instead of create enemies will in the end gain more ground. But it is going to be a difficult slog with our present adversarial approach. .

Charles: All across America you can find all kinds of congregations filled with all kinds of people. They are ultimately united in Christ through the fellowship of the Spirit, but they still may have different if not conflicting social, economic, or political views within the same congregation, especially during the Trump Presidency, the difficult CV-19 period, and increased racial tensions and activism. You’re a pastor. How can pastors and ministers who are shepherding politically diverse congregations speak to these issues in their sermons, Sunday schools, Zoom groups?

Joel: First of all, put everything is a scriptural context, not a political or cultural one, because pastors need to be representatives of the healing and enlightening truths of Scripture. So whatever we’re talking about, we need to find the place in Scripture where this is a principle. It’s also very important that God made us for relationships. He himself is a relationship. When the Bible says that God created male and female, he created “them” in his own image [Genesis 1:27]. The word there for God is “Elohim,” which is a plural word used in a singular sense. In other words, God is a relationship. So if we’re made in the image of God we’re made for relationships.

How this applies to Covid-19 and also to the political divide in our congregations is that you won’t get very far in maturing your congregation by arguing issues or by trying to come down from the mountain with the answer. You will only get as far as you will build actual relationships with those in the congregation and empower or equip them to build relationships with those outside the congregation. Now, that doesn’t depend on a bunch of people assembling in a building. What it depends on is loving your neighbor as you love yourself.

So the answer is right there, dead center in Scripture, but we’ve become so accustomed to the paradigm of western Christendom; that is, we all gather inside a building, we listen for a while, and then we go back to our regular lives. That’s a very shallow version of Christianity. And that’s going to get wracked by both pandemic results and by the coming culture of a younger generation that has no appetite for institutional religion. So we’d better figure out how to build meaningful relationships that makes the world better. That’s what the first century church was. It was built on relationship, and the world came to Christ because those relationships were making the world better.

Charles: I’m thinking of Jesus’ heartfelt felt prayer for his followers in John 17, just hours before his death. Today we Christians seem so far away from anything even close to that kind of unity in diversity that Jesus wants of us through the fellowship of the Spirit. Instead, we seem increasingly divided by our rigidly held, conflicting ideological positions. That won’t hold the church together.

Joel: No, it won’t. People are driven toward ideology instead of to the harder work of relationship. Ideology has its appeal because it’s so simplistic, and it makes you feel self-righteous, and it gives you a sense of belonging that’s automatic but not real. The harder work of relationship is full of frustrations and ambivalence and “I don’t know if I’m doing any good here or not.” But it’s the only real work there is. Ideology is not a real-world comfort or strength. It’s just siding up with an idea, and getting mad that everyone isn’t going along with you.

Charles: To focus specifically on the rising division over race in our country, what are some creative strategies for helping white pastoral leadership who are resistant to, or even hostile to, discussions about racism in the current divisive crisis? Often the critical source for their hostilities comes from political perspectives.

Joel: One of the keys that Jesus talked about was that before you see the problem with your brother, notice the problem in yourself; before you would take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye, look at the log in your own. Self-examination is key to spiritual maturity. If white pastors will educate themselves, be brave enough to note the structures of privilege that they have because they’re white – the almost invisible systems of racism in which they were raised, designed for white people to keep power.

Part of the resistance is that automatically when we talk about racism people get defensive because they feel like they’re being accused of something that they didn’t intend. But this is not about accusation. It’s about education and self-evaluation. I think of the Psalm that says “create in me a clean heart, O God,” and the Scripture that says if a person says he has no sin, the truth is not in him. All of these call for the question that the disciples asked Jesus the night before he died: Is it me, Lord? Am I the one?

If we can encourage one another to ask that question, if we can say to ourselves and to each other that all of us have some complicity in the present problem – all of us have ways in which we could improve and walk closer to Christ – then we could say: Well, I guess they’re not trying to blame me. I guess they’re just trying to say that there’s something I need to discover that will make the situation better. I think that’s how to approach it.

Charles: Tell us a little about what you’ve been doing, publicly, since retiring a few years ago from pastoring full time. I know you like to regularly convene all sorts of people for regional conversations, with your Community Resource Network.helping hand

Joel: I went into the pastorate out of the civil rights movement, so I have always had in my heart a special place for people who were being left out. It’s important to me to spend my remaining days, and I hope they are many, to circle back a place where I can build bridges and coalitions to help people who are in vulnerable communities. So I’ve been trying to do less nationally and internationally and do more in my own region in central Florida. So I was chairman of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness, and right now I’m doing racial reconciliation with a lot of groups in our area. The more you can do in your own region, where you have the most influence, the more sustainable it’s going to be. So I’m working with a lot of people who have been left out and seeking biblical justice that is restorative and relationally reconciliatory. We have this ministry of reconciliation.

Charles: We’ve been talking about a pretty challenging kind of discipleship. It can be rough at times, learning from people who are not like us, building new relationships. But it’s a discipleship journey in which we get to know Jesus a little better all the time, understand more of his interests across the spectrum of life. So we need to see what Jesus is doing and partner with him for God’s glory and human flourishing. Your closing thoughts for us?

Joel: Well, the older you get and the more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know. But my grandmother used to say, “Leave a place better than you found it.” And Jeremiah 29:7 talks about seeking the well being, the flourishing, of the city, because in its well being will be your well being. So I would just ask people to be involved in doing whatever good they can for whoever they can, especially those who have been left out. And their lives will be filled with more satisfaction and more peace than they have anticipated.

Charles: Thanks very much for taking time for this conversation, Joel. Much appreciated.

Joel: Glad to help. Thanks for what you’re doing.

©2020 by Charles Strohmer

Images of Joel Hunter courtesy of Community Resource Network. Dove and Children images courtesy of Creative Commons.

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.

Past, Present, Future: Christian Belief, Life, Expectation

God’s Sabbath with Creation: Vocations Fulfilled, the Glory Revealed
James W. Skillen
Wipf & Stock Publishers
368pp

Reviewed by Charles Strohmer

During the 1970s, the combined influence of books by Francis Schaeffer, the presidency of Jimmy Carter (the first self-described “born again” Christian), and the rise of the moral majority motivated many Christians to start reevaluating what it means to live in the world. A longstanding pietism in which Christians had opted out from as much of “the world” as they could possibly afford to gave way to a focus on social and political activism. This rather ad hoc and inchoate period of Christian rethinking and engagement had, by the 1990s, grown more visionary. An entire industry had arisen in Protestant circles for educating believers about serving God in all of life – work, art, philosophy, education, economics, science, the environment, and all the rest of it. The troubling tension of how to be in the world but not of the world had become passe. Now it was simply a matter of discovering how best to engage.

Today it is easy to find biblically-grounded books, conferences, activist non-profits, and courses in Christian colleges and universities nourishing and training believers in well-thought-out ways to live in the world for the glory of God in their chosen fields. As one of many writing and teaching voices of this expanding universe, I’ve had to keep abreast of developments. Space and time constraints preclude saying more about that universe here. Instead, I want to focus on James Skillen’s remarkable book God’s Sabbath with Creation: Vocations Fulfilled, the Glory Revealed.

This is a book of exceptional importance. Rarely have I come across a work with weightier significance about what it means to live for the glory of God today, in the here and now. Of course this is a theme familiar to Christians. Yet familiarity can breed inattention. That would be a mistake with God’s Sabbath with Creation. For it is Skillen’s pioneering way of getting us to think about what it means to live today for the glory of God that marks this as a standout book. His subject is the great biblical drama from the creation to the future we anticipate in the age to come, and, importantly, human responsibility within that drama. For Skillen places how we live today not in some existential moment but within God-commissioned human responsibilities, which run throughout history from the creation to the age to come. Even seasoned public voices on this subject should find the book stimulating and memorable.

Begun in seminary and college and continuing irregularly afterward, this book was a long time coming; it is easy to see why it is Skillen’s magnum opus. In it, he steps back from the subjects of his many previous books, which enter into problems of contemporary politics and obstacles to just governance (domestically and internationally). In God’s Sabbath with Creation he offers invigorating insights from decades of hard-won wisdom as an elder statesman in the body of Christ and a respected public figure who has wrestled with the Scriptures about the meaning of both the creation and human life as they are related to the future that Christians anticipate in the glory of the age to come. He aims to show, and in ways that may surprise, essential connections between the creation, how life in this world is lived, and the future that God has promised.

To set the stage, he writes that two questions had been growing on him throughout seminary and college: “1) is the fundamental identity of humans their sinfulness?, and 2) is the fundamental identity of Jesus that he is the savior of sinners?” He eventually concluded that “the sin-and-salvation story is an insufficient abstraction from the larger biblical story.” Although sin and salvation are fundamental to his thought, the book’s thesis takes seriously the larger biblical view that Jesus is not first of all the savior of sinners, and that humans are not first of all sinners. Instead, he explains, Jesus, the incarnate savior, is first of all the one through whom all things are created and hang together, and humans, though sinful, are first of all the creature made in the image of God. Having set that stage, Skillen raises the curtain on “how the sin-and-salvation story unfolds within God’s seven-day creation order, culminating in the celebration of divine glory in God’s sabbath with creation” (his emphasis).

Because what we believe about the age to come is influenced by how we understand our origin, Skillen starts us on our journey to the anticipated future with a distinct interpretation of the seven days of creation. Calling attention to the Creator, he explains how and why Genesis chapters one and two tell the story “of God’s days, not sun-and-moon days, geological eons, or evolutionary stages.” In other words, “it is clear that the ‘time’ of God’s creation week does not belong to the time of our days and weeks under the solar-lunar order, which God establishes as his fourth creation day. God’s days constitute everything including the sun and moon days of God’s fourth day.”

Especially important, he continues, “is the way the days are defined by their content, that is, by what God makes. . . . The text does not say, ‘On the third day, God made this or that,’ as if a sequence of days already existed and the creator simply made different things on each successive day. No, the creation days are God’s days and they are distinguished by what God makes.” Skillen helpfully illustrates this by noting that it is one of the ways we talk about time when speak of dinnertime, bedtime, or harvest time. “Each of those ‘times’ is defined by an action or subject matter, not by a pre-determined number of minutes, hours, or days. God’s seventh day does not even have an evening and morning, yet, it, too, is called a day – the day when God’s creation reaches its climax.”

A full range of thoughts about God’s days and God’s time, and connected topics, are developed in Part 1, themed as “Created Reality.” Topics include the evening and morning phrases of Genesis one, human identity, creation as architectural wonder, cosmic temple imagery, and the male and female image of God. Skillen has much to say about God’s days as encompassing all of creation, from beginning to fulfillment, and that the full reality of God’s seven-day creation week entails both this age and the age to come.

The stage is now set for us to move from being mere onlookers at the biblical drama to commissioned participators in it. Skillen writes that human identity includes “the exercise of high-level responsibilities in God’s creation,” and the theme of “human responsibility” is  a central focus of the book. Skillen often discusses our many and varied responsibilities in this age in terms of our “sixth-day commission from God” – a commission that very much matters for the age to come. “The meaning and purpose of human life on earth has not yet reached fulfillment” because “men and women have not yet completed their sixth-day commission from God.”

Understanding human purpose on earth is essential to Christian thought. One of the invigorating insights Skillen makes to this is his way of including the nonhuman things of creation, which also very much matter for the age to come. For instance, “humans are unable to exercise their responsibilities without light from the sun, moon and stars, food to eat, water to drink, dry land to live on, plants and animals, and fellowship with one another and with God. . . .” Thus nonhuman creatures are made for distinctive purposes and functions. “Sun, moon, and stars govern the day and the night. Plants, trees, fish, fowl, and animals bear fruit or generate offspring.” Beyond that common understanding, every nonhuman creature, he writes, has its commission and reveals “something of God because they are constituted in their very identity to be revelatory in anticipation of the fulfilled creation.” The nonhuman creatures, then, “host humans as part of the creation’s hospitable welcome and praise of God. . . . That is why the psalmist [Psalm 148] can call on all of them to worship and praise God.”

Skillen’s emphasis on the nonhuman things of God’s creation is a key to his thesis of human responsibility throughout history. We live in “the arena of human generational development, a narrative that can be nothing other than the drama of sixth-day human creatures in their relations to one another, to all other creatures, and, above all, to God who orients the whole creation toward its seventh-day climax.” It is in this created context (nowhere else) that we have been given commissions to fulfill. “Humans are able to obey or disobey the creator, but they cannot sidestep or escape the responsibility inherent in their identity and commission from God.”

Throughout the book Skillen sheds fresh light on diverse responsibilities that we have – to God, to nonhuman creatures, to each other, and to all of life in the here and now – as we move through this world toward the future glory. These are responsibilities that include much more than practicing spiritual disciplines, such as faithful praying, or obvious moral behaviors, such as not flirting with the secretary and no longer cheating on your taxes. Human responsibilities are, he writes, “seemingly innumerable.” They are many and varied, multifaceted, vast in scope, and develop in ever-greater complexity over generations.

The book explores areas of responsibility that reach into the future, but that we may not have thought about, or that we may have decided to ignore as unimportant in the long run. Here is a sampling. Tilling and harvesting, animal husbandry, medical care, music-making, engineering, writing and speaking, exploring the microcosmic and the macrocosmic, economic development, public governance, clothing design, preparing food, working in the law courts, care for the elderly.

Since “none of God’s six creation days has yet been wrapped up,” Skillen argues that every human responsibility is always contextualized within the ongoing days of creation, from the beginning. “With the unfolding of the human generations and the historical development of their talents and capabilities, their responses to God’s commission diversifies into a vast array of responsibilities. Humans name the animals, begin to tend the garden, bear children, and in the course of their generational unfolding discover more and more ways to develop the creation and their own talents in exercising royal and priestly responsibilities. Humans make music, invent tools, nurture friendships, engage in commerce, and govern clans, cities, and nations.”

Skillen connects his appeal for increased human responsibility to the word “vocation,” which appears first in the book’s subtitle and provides another key to his thought. He is not limiting the idea of vocation to the sense of a religious calling, such as to the ministry, nor to one’s chief occupation, or career. He does not preclude those senses of the word, but he is employing “vocation” somewhat correspondingly to what some call the “cultural mandate.” In fact, however, he is opening that mandate up in a way that may be surprising, yet hopefully helpfully so, to many Christians.

Here I am thinking of the Christian circles where an understanding of the cultural mandate has been framed by what has been called the seven mind molders, or seven spheres, of Christian influence: family, church (religion), education, media (distribution of information), government (law), business, and arts (including entertainment). Although Skillen does not directly engage with this framework of understanding, he certainly includes the seven areas as in need of being transformed by biblical thinking. But he unfolds and diversifies human responsibility into aspects of life, and, significantly, a way of thinking about them, well beyond even the most sophisticated developments of the seven mind molders paradigm.

There is much solid food in this large book, which is helpfully organized in seven parts, each with several short chapters that shed light on the continuity between the creation, what we do each day, and the future glory. Part 2 considers the meaning of four of creation’s “revelatory patterns,” which Skillen names with the doublets: honor and hospitality, commission towards commendation, covenant for community, and revelation in anticipation, including insights about the revelatory nature of creation. For instance, he writes: “The Garden of Eden, the tabernacle, the temple, the people of Israel, the body of Christ – all these reveal something about, and point toward, the climatic, seventh-day fulfillment of them all. Every earthly expression of God dwelling with his people and the people with God serve as revelatory images of God’s larger, creation-wide building project. The architectural wonder of creation is that all creatures in their glory are made for God, for relationship with God, and fulfillment in God’s unending sabbath celebration.”

Part 3 provides biblical examples of the “covenantal disclosure of reality,” which, Skillen explains, is cumulative and multi-generational in purpose from the beginning, forward moving in time from simplicity to complexity. This “dynamic of an ever-expanding revelation of God with, to, and through the human generations keeps intensifying in anticipation of the culminating fulfillment of all that has been, and is being revealed. To underestimate or to miss the intensification of this mounting covenantal disclosure is to miss the revelatory and anticipatory character of God’s purposes for and with creation.”

Parts 4, 5, and 6 take up themes of lively debate in biblical interpretation today, to show how an understanding of creation as God’s seven-day week sheds light on those subjects. These three parts explore the relation of the first Adam to the last Adam, the biblical tension between the “already” and the “not yet” of God’s kingdom, and, relying on Romans 9-11 and Hebrew 4, the historically weighty questions of the relation of God’s covenant with Israel to the new covenant in Messiah Jesus, to the church, and to what Skillen calls “becoming Bethel.”

The book abounds with a mature, biblically-based practical wisdom for running the race that has been set before us in the here and now, as individuals, groups, institutions, and nations in anticipation of entering into God’s rest, the seventh day of creation. Part 7, in fact, includes much discussion about wisdom itself. There, Skillen has averred that wisdom is what parents need for nurturing loving families through many stages of development and unanticipated crises. It is what government officials need for conducting sound statecraft and to uphold justice. It is what responsible farmers, engineers, teachers, artists, entrepreneurs, and others of all sorts need “for the development and practice of their distinctive crafts, the organizing of interrelated disciplines, and for training apprentices who will eventually be able to go beyond their mentors in creative and fruitful achievements.”

When “humans conduct their affairs worthily, build sound institutions as well as trustworthy relationships, and do right by one another and other creatures, then they reveal something of the wisdom and glory of God that anticipates the full disclosure of the glory in the age to come.” In short: “Wisdom is not first of all a tool for survival, but the fuel for flourishing in God’s creation as we learn to know ourselves ever more truly in the process of knowing God ever more profoundly.”

The book’s aim, then, is broadly threefold, weaving together the creational, the teleological, and the eschatological. In these three areas, pastors, seminary and university professors, child reading a Bibleand students who work in the area of biblical studies will benefit from Skillen’s clarifying insights throughout the book as he engages with the views of prominent theologians, philosophers, and scholars. Among them: N. T. Wright, Jürgen Moltmann, Abraham Kuyper, Karl Barth, Craig Bartholomew, Meredith Kline, Herman Ridderbos, Eric Voegelin, Richard Gaffin, and Terence Fretheim. Skillen’s many generously footnoted, discerning outcomes with his interlocutors alone are worth having this book to-hand, as does its bibliography and extensive index.

Having said that, I should add that just about anyone with a serious interest in the Bible will benefit from the book, even those who run across an occasional page where they may be unfamiliar with an idea of one of Skillen’s interlocutors. The footnotes for any such moment may prove helpful, but if not, I would suggest just keep reading. You don’t need to grasp all of the more specialized ideas to benefit from the book’s overall wisdom. On the other hand, readers who hold to an eighth-day view of the age to come, or those with a prodigal exuberance for being transported to the streets of gold, may be particularly challenged.

All readers, however, even if meeting with new ideas at times, will journey through God’s Sabbath with Creation in the kind of rest that is classic Skillen, writing, as he does, with a humility and grace that gives readers room to make their own decisions. Even when he is critically engaging with his scholarly interlocutors, collegiality stands out. The spirit and tone of the book is a refreshing relief from the incessant viewpoint screaming on social media and the braying of absolutized social and political values and interests by so many pundits.

Skillen summons us to reach toward maturity in our many and varied responsibilities, to live a life worthy of the vocations we have received. Laurels are not to be rested on. Skillen has, through much experience, earned the wisdom to admonish us where that is needed. He points out, clearly and perceptively, paths whose means and ends, if we follow any, will prevent us from being all that we can be as the image of God in our world. We may, to note just one here, fall prey to a subtle reliance on the ideals of freedom and human autonomy. In short, “self-generated preferences” must go. Instead, what is required is our “attentive listening above all to God and to the reality of God’s ordered creation, a reality which we did not create and in which we are not the only creature.” We have “God’s promises of a reordered world,” he writes, ever mindful that “there are no cheap and quick answers for those suffering great harms.”

In rabbinic thought, there is an old parable that seeks to aid in understanding God’s call of Abram to leave home (Genesis 12:1). The gist of the parable is this. Abram has left Tehran, his home, and while traveling he is bewildered by all the injustices and evil he sees during his travels from place to place. Somewhere he becomes deeply distressed when seeing a palace in flames. If its owner went to all the trouble to build something so beautiful, he wonders, why isn’t he looking after it, why does he leave it to the flames? While pondering this evil, the owner of the palace looks out at him and says, “I am the owner of the palace.” Suddenly the penny drops for Abram and he associates the experience with God and God’s good creation. He now understands that God has not abandoned his creation, not left it to the flames.

Modern rabbis tend to interpret the parable as a calling for Abraham to instruct his children and posterity to fight against the moral disorder, bloodshed, and chaos of the world by keeping the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right (Genesis 18:19). In the words of Rabbi Shai Held, Abraham “and his descendants are called to embody a different way of being in the world, to present a living alternative to the horrors of the world as it is.”

James Skillen has given us a book about the meaning that Christian difference and presence can make in the world, today, in light of glory of the age to come. Like Abraham and the biblical prophets, we as Jesus Christ’s followers are called to embody a living alternative to the evil, injustice, and horrors of our day. Things are not currently what they should be. The creation is not yet what it is ultimately intended to be.

But the palace is not going to be destroyed. God’s Sabbath with Creation explores why, and how, maturing fulfillment of God-commissioned responsibilities play prominent roles in the great drama of what the creation is ultimately intended to be, when, as Skillen concludes, the time of God’s sabbath arrives – the seventh day creation – when human will rest from their labors in God’s rest.

©2020 by Charles Strohmer

Images: courtesy of Creative Commons, in this order: Sam Mac Entee, National Geographic Society, Samantha Sophia

The Songs of Christmas: An Encounter

Upon becoming a follower of Jesus after living for twenty-six years in darkness, I saw a great light, and it revealed many utterly surprising things to me during the next few months, as the process of transformation ensued. I had become a follower – by the saving grace of God, let me make clear – in the heat of the summer. By the time the leaves were turning brown and the weather was cooling in Michigan, where I lived at the time, I had been a recipient of so many astonishing flashes of insight about life (also not apart from the grace of God) that I would have been most foolish not to recognize what I was being taught: how darkened one’s understanding about all things could become in a life lived without the light of Christ.

Then came the week following Thanksgiving and it happened again. The general “it,” here, being another reminder of a cryptic statement from Jesus: if the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness! (Note: Jesus is not asking a question but exclaiming a fact). The specific “it” being the sudden gasp escaping from my lips when I heard Christmas music playing on my car radio one evening.

Of course I’d heard these songs before, in my dark days, and countless times, on the radio, at home while growing up, at every mass during Christmastime. Though old, they were enjoyable to listen to; though memorable, they were soon forgotten, even the ones whose lyrics I could recite by heart. It was merely seasonal music to me. It comes and it goes.

Then, as Thanksgiving weekend yielded to festive sights and deep snows of December, Christmas music suddenly became alive to me in the light of life. Variations on a theme – a world being offered peace and its peoples good will – their profound meaning hit me with unforgettable force. Never had I ever experienced that during any of the countless times I had heard these songs in the past, not even in church.

Now I don’t mean songs such as Jingle Bell Rock, Frosty the Snowman, Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), or any of that ilk. I mean sacred songs, Christmas carols of themes of Christ’s birth.

“Joy to the world, the Lord has come!” Indeed.

“Hark! the herald angels sing, glory to the new-born King!”arch in blue sky

“O holy night the stars are brightly shining / It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.” Amen.

“O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord / Sing choirs of angels, sing in exultation.”

What child is this, who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?” Yes, what child?!

“Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day, to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.”

“Go tell it on a mountain.” I will! I will! Such was their profound effect on me then, and now. Many others, too.

I hope that if you have not yet been ushered by God’s grace into the Meaning of the sacred songs of Christmas, that their utterly amazing “tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy” will soon be yours.

©2019 by Charles Strohmer

Photos: Creative Commons. Bottom image: Chris Hagood

 

Stranger at the Gate

The second time I saw the aged gentleman was at the gate where my wife and I were waiting to board our flight back east. He had been pushed there in a wheelchair by a muscular sheriff, equipped in full gear and accompanied by a social worker. I could understand the social worker’s presence, but a sheriff’s? Law enforcement did not fit the scene I had witnessed the first time I saw the fragile but well-dressed figure, an hour earlier, standing unsteadily in the queue at the airline’s check-in counter, just ahead of me and my wife.

He was alone and should not have been. Shrunk down with age, he was standing alongside a rolling walker as if he were balancing on thin ice. He would inch a tentative step or two closer to the walker and then slightly stoop to grab support from one of its handle grips. The walker sometimes wiggled on its small wheels as he moved like this. Then as if having second thoughts, he would release his grip and stand as straight as his frail frame allowed, for as long as possible – never for long.

He wore the pained expression of a helpless person deeply disturbed about something. But what? He regularly alternated his gaze toward the check-in counter and then to the nearby, large plate glass windows and sliding doors that offered a view of the drop-off area at the curb. He seemed to be searching for an explanation to come from either counter or curb. But none came.

Although it was 9:30 in the morning, there was hardly a soul in the small airport on California’s central coast. Four ticket holders had arrived before me and my wife, and we had all arrived too early to check in; there were no airline personnel at the counter. The third in the queue was the elderly gentleman. One of the ticket holders talked briefly with him from time to time, but he spoke softly and I couldn’t catch what he was saying. When I mentioned this to my wife later, she explained that he was agitated and kept whispering, Where is she? Why did she leave me here? When is she coming back?

Around 10am, he seemed to give up expecting any help to arrive from the counter or the curb. I was a mere two arm-lengths distant, but by the time I had quit arguing with myself about whether to assist him in the effort, he had labored himself down upon the rolling walker’s padded seat. As if on cue the check-in crew appeared. My wife rushed to assist him and to ensure that a flight attendant got the picture.

In a matter of minutes we had been checked in for our flight to Dallas and ushered uneventfully through the TSA scanners. In the waiting lounge near our gate–an hour to fill, and eager to finish an engaging book–I promptly forgot about the man I would soon know as “David,” whom I had last seen talking with a flight attendant at the check-in counter. A half-hour passed and suddenly there he was. The sheriff had left him with the social worker at a convenient spot near the gate. The two were sitting next to each other but not talking. I had a good view of his downcast face. When we made eye contact, he looked sorrowful.

They boarded him first. My wife and I were among the last. A ticketing issue and a full plane prevented us from sitting together. Never mind. We had been given window seats. As we boarded I followed her profile up the narrow aisle with my eyes until she found her seat, then I looked for mine. And there he was again, in a bulkhead seat on the aisle, the window seat next to him empty, no social worker in sight. He was clutching a wad of papers and a prepackaged sandwich in his right hand. He looked preoccupied and I hated to interrupt him.

Excuse me, I said. He looked up and turned sideways as best he could to make room as I bent to squeeze past him–banging my head sharply on the low overhead compartment–to occupy the seat next to him for the three hour flight. On planes I often argue with myself about whether to engage the person next to me, or to pretend invisibility and disappear into a book. This time I favored the book I hadn’t finished in the lounge. (Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, if you’d like to know.) I pulled it out of my carry-on bag and made sure my seatmate knew what I had planned. I wondered about the sheriff, but felt it wasn’t my place to pry.

Before I could get back into issues of prose structure and style, however, the joke I made about banging my head had brought a smile to his face. We introduced ourselves and made some small talk. He carried a gracious, almost dignified, manner, and seemed keen to tell me something. But I wasn’t getting it. At times he spoke in complete thoughts and was easy to follow. Sometimes he fell silent, leaving a thought uncompleted. Other times he jumped from topic to topic sans any segues that I could detect. Even when I leaned in, it was hard to hear his softly spoken words above the engines. I thought I caught the words “her daughter,” “kidnapping,” and “two women,” but I wasn’t sure, so I let it go.

Do you live in Dallas? I asked. I’m going to Connecticut, he said. Oh, you must have been visiting someone in California, I said, wondering why anyone had allowed this fragile figure to travel across the country on his own. No, he said, I’ve been living in California with my wife.

helping handA hostess locked her cart next to us at the bulkhead and handed out pretzels and drinks. I accepted a cranberry drink and took a protein bar from my carry-on. Papers and sandwich still clutched in his hand, David folded the papers out of the way and began slow work on the sandwich.

Man, you’ve got a long day ahead of you, I said after he’d finished eating what he could of his sandwich. You’re probably not going to get to Connecticut until midnight. My children are in Connecticut, he said. They want me and my wife to live with them there. I’m going to make arrangements. Then I clearly heard “her daughter” and “kidnapping,” and also “two women” and “one-year-old boy,” but for no apparent reason. I wanted to ask why he said this but decided not to.

My wife had a stroke in Florida last year, he said, emerging from silence. She can’t walk. Her daughter got her to move to California. Said she would take care of her. So we moved. But I’m done with her now. Who does he mean? I wondered, now more curious. [Unclear] we never should have done that, he added. [Unclear] worst decision we ever made. We lost everything.

As we flew on, I learned that he was eighty-six and that for thirty-two years he had been an assistant to the headmaster of a large boys’ school in the Midwest, and that afterward he had retired to Florida. That long career accounted for his gracious, disciplined deportment, but it could not hide his distress whenever he returned to “the kidnapping.”

This put me in a dilemma. The journalist in me wanted to probe, question, conduct an interview, get the story. The Christian in me wanted to be a listening ear, to befriend the stranger, to reach out somehow with grace.

I carefully slid from my seat and walked the long aisle to the toilet. Earlier in the flight, David and I had talked about our churches, and discovered we were brothers in Christ. When I got back to my seat, I said I was sorry to hear about his wife and that I would pray for her and the move to Connecticut. Thank you. I’ll say a prayer for you, too, he said. We had a nice house in Florida, he added after a pause. We should have stayed there.

I was learning something. But what? Even though he occasionally repeated himself, I was still missing many of his words. Whatever story he was telling, I wasn’t getting it. Afterward, it reminded me of trying to understand a movie you had walked in on in the middle of. I did catch that the kidnapping had taken place in California. It clearly pained him to talk about it, but talk about it he did.

When he asked if I’d seen the Amber Alert on the news in California, I explained that I’d been on vacation and tried not to listen to the news. They kidnapped a one-year-old boy, he said. Can you believe it? A one-year-old. It was on the news for days. When? I asked. A few days ago, he said. The boy was in protective custody. But they caught them. Her daughter put a knife to the social worker’s throat. Told her she’d kill her if she didn’t let them take her son. That’s terrible, I said, words failing me. They kidnapped him, a one-year-old boy, he said again. Can you believe that? That’s so terrible, I said again. David fell silent, and I wondered who he was talking about.

Will you have to fly back to California to bring your wife to Connecticut, I asked? No, he said. The social worker is arranging that. We’ve lost everything. After my wife had her stroke, her daughter convinced her to move to California so she could look after my wife. So we moved there from Florida. But we found out that she only wanted my wife’s money. Her daughter spent it on herself and her daughter. The social worker told me that after they caught them. Caught who? I blurted out.

My wife’s daughter and her daughter, he said. They caught them in Los Angeles. The social worker told me they think they were headed for Mexico. Kidnaping, attempted murder. Can you believe it? They’ll go to jail for a long time, won’t they? I guess so, I said. My wife is heartbroken, he said. When I told her about her daughter she cried. But the little boy is safe now. But can you imagine him growing up with them?

I could not.

But I could reflect on our conversation, and I had plenty of time for doing that during the four-hour layover after my wife and I deplaned in Dallas, before our flight home to Knoxville. As we said our goodbyes, David warmly shook my hand, said Thank you, and added: Say a prayer for my wife. He was wheelchaired to the gate where he would connect with a flight to LaGuardia. There, his family would pick him up for the drive to Connecticut. I kicked myself for not having asked him for his number so I could follow up. Many times I almost asked, but it never seemed appropriate.

I found a comfortable chair in a quiet area of the large terminal, where I pulled a pen and a small spiral notebook from my shirt pocket and scribbled pages of notes about the last three hours. Who would’ve thought this likable person was suffering so much? I spent days afterward thinking about him, and whether I’d been the right kind of seatmate.

God and AdamThen the penny dropped. He was heartbroken and needed to talk with someone other than with social workers, the police, or even his family about what had just happened to him and his wife. Talking with them, as necessary as that had been, had not been a means to the emotional distance he needed from so much anguish. Perhaps our long, off-and-on conversation had been that means of grace. David had seemed seem calmer, more at peace, when we said our goodbyes.

In a gentle, beautiful book, The Shape of Living, David Ford notes that people who suffer from severe evil and injustice are overwhelmed by it; they suffer alone and need to be held in non-physical ways that bring divine grace. But how do you hold a stranger that way in the middle of an airplane—on a flight across the country?

As I reflect on my hours alongside this kindly African-American gentleman, I remember one of the many things I learned from reading Abraham Joshua Heschel. It’s a line from God in Search of Man: “Something sacred is at stake in every event.” As a Christian, I’ve come to interpret this to mean that when I come into the presence of another human being, especially a suffering one, I can enter into the presence of Christ and it’s no longer about what I want, it’s about what Christ wants.

If I could talk to David again I would of course ask how life was going now for him and his wife, but I would also ask him if he was checking me out early on in our conversation to determine how much he could say to this stranger at the gate. Then I was glad that, by God’s grace, I’d leaned away from the journalistic me and instead leaned in as a listening ear.

©2019 by Charles Strohmer

Images courtesy of Creative Commons: Richard Lehoux; Mandajuice; Waiting for God

This essay as first published on Foundling House, Sept. 2,2019.

Re-enchanting the Star of Bethlehem

It’s no surprise to Christians that the star of Bethlehem and the wise men who followed it occupy a prominent place in the Nativity. My childhood memory is typical of many. Our family Christmas tree was topped off every year by a large star. Below it on the carpeted floor near the tree was our nativity scene, peopled by Joseph, Mary, baby Jesus in the manger, shepherds holding their staffs, and several winged angels and tiny white sheep. And of course three colorfully dressed wise men stood at a respectful distance gazing toward the newborn child.

But this might surprise. Around Christmastime every year, the phenomenon of the star of Bethlehem and the mission of the wise men interest millions who would not consider themselves Christian. Every December you will find them reading magazine articles or listening to current affairs stories purporting to explain the true meaning of the mysterious star. These explanations, however, typically lean heavily on naturalistic interpretations, particularly from the field of astronomy, ignoring important details from the narrative provided by Matthew’s Gospel. The net effect is the de-enchantment of the mysterious star. This approach may sit well within the larger cultural zeitgeist of secularism but it does not square with Christian belief.

A solely naturalistic or materialistic interpretation of the star ignores its revelatory nature. This is a serious matter, much more so than the historical inaccuracies commonly depicted in nativity scenes. A careful reading of Matthew 2 with Luke 2, for instance, suggests that the wise men, or magi, were not present at the birth manger. Apparently they arrived many months, if not a year or more, after the birth, and at a house in Bethlehem where Jesus was then staying with Mary and Joseph. Also, there is no biblical reason to limit the magi to three in number, despite their gifts being three (gold, frankincense, myrrh). And there is no mention that the magi were kings, as was popularized by the nineteenth century Christmas carol “We Three Kings.”

Such historical conjectures are small change when compared to accepting purely naturalist or materialist conclusions, which bankrupt the Nativity of its divine otherness. The star of Bethlehem is then robbed of its mystery, the magi are reduced to being clever astrologers, and Christ’s birth loses its revelatory meaning. Here’s how that occurs and why we don’t have Christmas when it does.

The problem with naturalistic explanations of the star
Solely naturalistic or materialistic views of the starry visitor that led the magi are many and varied: nova, comet, meteor, supernova, or the sighting of a new star. There is astronomical evidence for some of these stellar occurrences, any one of which could have produced a bright phenomenon in the night sky to set the ancient world abuzz. A new nova, for example, was discovered about 125 years before the birth of Christ by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus. According to Ptolemy, this nova was visible to the naked eye until decades after Christ’s death. Within naturalism, the shepherds (see Luke’s account, chapter 2:8-15) must have mistaken the bright nova for the angelic visitation that appeared, saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” Daft, lonely shepherds. Spending so much time with sheep – stars don’t talk!

Another natural phenomenon was the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, the two largest planets of our solar system, around the time most scholars place Christ’s birth (4 BC). There is a consensus among astronomers since Kepler that this planetary conjunction occurred around 7–4 BC. It would have been a prominent sight on a clear night in the ancient Middle East. Modern astrologers typically assume that the magi interpreted this planetary conjunction as an astrological sign indicating the birth of such a significant person that it warranted their arduous trip from the East to Jerusalem.

Comets, too, were not unknown in ancient times. The famous Halley’s comet, originally discovered in 240 BC by Chinese astronomers, was also visible in 12–11 BC. Another comet appeared around 4 BC. If the star in Matthew was a comet, as the early church theologian Origen assumed, its dramatic appearance in the night sky would have quite the attention-getter. And its linear movement across the heavens would more closely approximate the account of the star in Matthew than would the movement of a planetary conjunction. Even so, the meaning of star of Bethlehem cannot be reduced to any purely naturalistic interpretations; nor can the way the magi followed the star to the Christ child be justified astrologically.

The star has a mind of its own
Significant non-natural characteristics of the star as it is described in Matthew cannot be explained by the science of astronomy. Fair enough. Any scientist worth his or her salt will admit that science cannot explain any phenomenon to complete satisfaction. That attitude is not being questioned here. At issue is the naturalism that explains away the divine otherness and meaning of the star of Bethlehem as silly religious nonsense or superstitious belief.

Also at issue is the occult method that astrologers claim the magi used as a kind of road map to follow the star from the East to Jerusalem and then on to Bethlehem. As someone who once practiced astrology, I have some sympathy for what astrologers are trying to achieve by this. Like many sensitive people they refuse to allow themselves to be suffocated within the metaphysical box of naturalism, philosophical materialism, or scientific rationalism. Their way out, when it comes to the star of Bethlehem, is to accept astronomical evidence for the conjunction but then to claim the magi among their number by introducing a tincture of occult otherness to the nativity narrative.

Mindful of potential audiences likely to include high numbers of rationalists and spiritual seekers, many Christmastime magazine articles and current affairs segments on radio or television will combine elements astronomy and astrology in their stories about the star and the magi. A close reading of Matthew chapter two, however, tells a different story. Here are the essentials.

The phenomenon that is called the star of Bethlehem seems to have acted with a kind of life and intention of its own. According to the text – and as Walter Brueggemann is fond of saying, “Stick with the text” – the star “appeared” at a particular time and it “went ahead of them [the magi]” … “until it stopped.” And it did not stop randomly anywhere; it “stopped over the place where the child was.” In other words, the star is not governed only by the laws of nature any more than a human being is. This “star” apparently has some sort of personal intention in its nature. As such, its meaning cannot be reduced to the laws of nature, whether by those of a nova, a planetary conjunction, or a comet.

If we set aside the bias of “silly religious nonsense,” the text of Matthew 2:1-12 seems to be revealing some sort of presence to the magi that is as supernatural as that of the angels appearance to the shepherds (see Luke’s account). The New Testament Greek language of Matthew’s account lends itself to this view. The word translated with our English word “appeared” includes meanings associated with a shining light and is occasionally used to describe the appearance of an angel, such as to Joseph (Matthew 1:20; 2:13, 19). The word is also used of Jesus when he “appeared” to his followers after his resurrection (Mark 16:9, 12, 14). It is a term, therefore, that can denote forms of luminous bodies other than literal heavenly astral phenomena, including stars.

The verb phrase “went ahead … until it stopped” is another case in point. The word “stopped” is used numerous times in the New Testament to describe people who have chosen to “stand still” (Matthew 20:32; 27:11; Mark 10:49). 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” or “precede.” So the crowds are leading Jesus into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:9) and Jesus is leading his disciples to Jerusalem (Mark 10:32). Curiously, the construction is used once about prophecies being fulfilled (1 Timothy 1:18).

The text does not report that the star spoke to the magi (as the shepherds heard the angels). Pretty convincingly, however, the text does allow for the idea of personal intention and purpose in the nature of the phenomenon called the star of Bethlehem. This cannot be said of inanimate objects (comets, planets) obeying natural laws only.

The magi, their method, the true meaning
This brings us to the magi, to their careers and to the actual way they got their leading to Bethlehem and the child, and to the revelatory message and meaning of the Nativity.

The word “magi” (singular: “magus”) originated centuries before the time of Christ to describe a caste of very learned priests and scholars among the ancient Medes and Persians. Like Her Majesty’s Privy Council today, magi were the go-to advisors for kings of the time, for taking decisions domestic and international. They were educated in the literature and languages of surrounding nations and in the equivalent of a world religions curriculum that included studies in divination, esoteric wisdom, magical practices, dream interpretation, and the zodiac (astronomy and astrology for them a single discipline).

In the Bible they are first mentioned in Jeremiah 39:3, 13, where one of Nebuchadnezzar’s officers is called “Rabmag” (AV), or “chief of the Magi.” In the Book of Daniel, the Jewish young men Daniel and his three friends were put through an education in Babylon similar to that of the magi before they could enter their careers as the king’s counselors (Daniel, chapter one) . The Greek word in Matthew 2:1, often rendered “wise men,” is magoi (magi), and “Simon the magician” (Acts 8:5-25) is known traditionally as Simon Magus.

The magi of the Nativity, however, do not resort to astrology or to any other esoteric art or method to make the long trip to Bethlehem. Matthew’s Gospel indicates that these magi knew the Hebrew/Jewish scriptures and took their cues for the journey from that source. So, upon seeing the mysterious star in the East, they referenced it to Balaam’s prophecy in the Book of Numbers about the coming Messiah, which was prophesied 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). This verse was usually treated as one of Israel’s messianic prophecies about the divine Ruler to come. Taking their cue from Scripture, the magi head for Jerusalem, the heart of Israel’s religious life, to seek further instruction.

In Jerusalem, the magi’s determination to learn the whereabouts of this new king of the Jews raises havoc throughout the city and enrages King Herod, who interrogates the city’s rabbis. They crack the books and tell Herod that any fool knows where this ruler will he born: Bethlehem; and they show him a prophecy in Micah: “And you, O Bethlehem of Ephrath, least among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth to rule Israel for Me – one whose origin is from old, from ancient times” (5:1; The Jewish Study Bible). With murder in his heart, Herod secretly questions the magi and sends them off to Bethlehem, several miles south of Jerusalem. Again, the magi are following Scripture not astrology.

But on the outskirts of Bethlehem the magi get stuck. “Where do we go now?” I can hear them saying. “We’ve got the right town but now we need Jesus’ address.” Here, the otherness of the star may again be noticed. It “went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.” Thrilled to bits with this personal guidance from the “star”, the magi, “on coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him’ (Matthew 2:9-11).

Finally it’s time for the arduous trek back to their own land. But earlier in Jerusalem, Herod had lied to the magi. He had told them to report back to him from Bethlehem so that he, too, could go and worship the child. But he wanted to know the address so that he could have Jesus murdered. The magi, unaware of Herod’s plot, are warned by God in a dream to return to their country by “another way.” Which they do.

This little phrase – “another way” – is for me a key to the revelatory nature and meaning of the Nativity. It speaks a phenomenon (the “star”) that cuts across the grain whatever esoteric knowledge and learning the magi may typically have relied on, whether for their personal guidance or their counsel to kings. In this sense, the Matthew narrative of the star carries a message for us that is, in fact, like that of the Genesis 1 narrative, where we learn of God’s creation of all things. In that narrative, God’s creation of the stars is mentioned but, as important as stars are, the text merely states that God “also made the stars.”

In the context of reading the entire detailed account of creation, this brief mention of stars appears almost as an afterthought. There is no mention that stars, or any other part of God’s creation, is to be used as a system of esoteric knowledge and learning. Yet that is precisely how neighboring cultures (of the ancient Hebrews) such as Babylon and Egypt used the stars (the sun and moon, too). And there is a consensus among Bible scholars that the afterthought mention of stars in Genesis 1 is an implicit warning to those ancient cultures, and to any today, not to employ the stars as a means of esoteric or occult knowledge, but to instead rely on God for guidance. Which brings us full circle back to the star of Bethlehem and the message of the magi.

To conclude, conjectures may be made, and many people have made them, about the nature of the astēr (the Greek word translated “star” in Matthew 2), but it is not possible to make a solid conclusion about its nature. If you were standing in my backyard on a clear night, I could point out to you any number of planets or stars by name. “There’s Venus, there’s Mars, there’s Vega, there’s Sirius.” No such solid conclusion can be made about the astēr of Bethlehem.

I don’t doubt that there may have been a conjunction, or a comet, or even a supernova during the period of Jesus’ birth. I just don’t think that the astēr of Bethlehem refers to any of them. Instead, it seems meant to indicate a miraculous star. And the appearance of that, my friends, would certainly have gotten the profound attention of the magi, who were well-skilled in knowing what the appearance of the night sky should look like to them. This astēr was something other than that. And they knew it. This is why I say that it cut across the grain of their esotericism.

Any meaning of the Nativity that leaves the seeker of Christ boxed in by naturalism, philosophical materialism, or scientific rationalism ends up with a God whose greatest claim to glory is being able to time historic events, like the birth of Jesus, to coincide with natural phenomena. This may be Immanuel Velikovsky’s god, who cleverly times the Exodus to occur during an earthquake that parted the Red Sea. It may be Curt Vonnegut’s god, who presumes that there was a small but effective electric power-plant in the Ark of the Covenant to strike down any who touched it. Or it many be the god behind the anti-supernatural current affairs stories and magazine articles about the Nativity. But it is not the God of Creation, who by his mighty power can and does use all sorts of natural and supernatural means to reveal Christ the Savior to those who seek him. Just ask Matthew and Luke. Or the magi.

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

(A shorter version of this article appeared at Premier Christianity, 14 December 2018.)

Images: courtesy of Texas Monthly, National Geographic, Dave Morrow photography respectively

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

Prophetic Wisdom?

From 40 years ago:

“Without the self-restraint derived from a common moral ideal, a nation becomes ungovernable except by tyranny. Unless our nation has a spiritual awakening soon, we will probably have little freedom at all to debate Christian attitudes. The trouble is, there isn’t that much time. Revival doesn’t guarantee results that fulfil all its possibilities. An expanding church might still fuss about a few obvious moral problems in society but be unable to relate its faith to the basic problems. Indeed, it might not even be able to handle its own problems. If God’s people propagate a Christian faith without proliferating a Christian mind—a Christian philosophy of life, or way of looking at the world – then there may follow a vengeful reaction from a society deprived of truly Christian insight into its problems; a society driven by spiritual ignorance into despair, despotism, and persecution.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about those words lately. They are from the late John Peck, Christian theologian and philosopher, writing in 1978 about his country, England. Quoted in: Uncommon Sense; God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, John Peck & Charles Strohmer; The Wise Press, 2000; SPCK, 2001; p 10.

The book was written to both English and American Christians. We included those words in Uncommon Sense because as we were writing the book (it took 4+ years) we felt their relevance also to America. The book is not a polemic. It actually offers a way ahead. Just saying.

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

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

The Fourth of July: Religion and Politics in America

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

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

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

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

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

START OF BBC RADIO TEXT

“God bless America.”

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

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

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

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

Song – God Bless America

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

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

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

Reading from – The Declaration of Independence

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

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

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

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

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

Song – America the Beautiful

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

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

pause
God permeates much of everyday American life today.

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

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

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

Reading – Pledge of Allegiance

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

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

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

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

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

Reading from – The Mayflower Compact

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

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

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

Reading from – John Winthrop’s 1630 speech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Song – The Battle Hymn of the Republic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Song – Swing Low Sweet Chariot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think there are many reasons for this.

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

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

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

Reading from – Walt Whitman’s Prayer of Columbus

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

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

Song – America, America

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

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

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

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

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

I think that most of the time they do.

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

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

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

I think that would be an inaccurate picture of America.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Song – Amazing Grace
END

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

Images courtesy Creative Commons.

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