Wisdom and the Arts of Scripture

seamstress handsToday concludes this short 3-part series on wisdom in Scripture for the natural world, in education, and in the arts. Having looked at the first two subjects, we’ll reflect on various kinds of art in Scripture, beginning with overtly religious art.

When a “people” become a “nation” – or as we say today, an “independent state” – all sorts of conditions must be met. It’s not as easy as Frank Zappa is purported to have said: all they need is a bear and an airline! Sorry, Frank. There needs to be, among other things, a territory, a government, and the ability to conduct relations with other nations. When those are in play, a new nation today usually seeks to join the United Nations – that’s big, when the UN recognizes you.

Besides those essential features, another that plays a significant role is the symbolism of national identity, which may be overtly religious or not. The symbolism of the United States, for example, is not overtly religious. Its Declaration of Independence, the language of its constitution, its bald eagle, the Liberty Bell, the design of its flag, its national anthem (“The Star Spangled Banner”), and the Great Seal of the United States (E Pluribus Unum: “one from many”) do not promote allegiance to any religion. Nevertheless, all symbolically suggest values and ideas that helped forge and establish “American” national identity.

This is unlike national identity rooted in religious belief. To give one example, the nation of Iran took on an overt religious identity in 1979. The Emblem of Iran, for instance, with its four crescents and a sword in the shape of a tulip, are meant to stand for the word “Allah,” and its five parts are meant to represent the five main principles of Shia religion. And the language of its 1979 constitution clearly identifies the state as an Islamic Republic.

Whether it is religious or not, a nation’s founding symbolism relies on artistic skill, and in such art we can see the silhouette of a nation’s wisdom. The Bible itself underlines the importance of this in the fascinating narrative surrounding the many and varied symbols representing the religion of Yahwism, which were crafted by the ancient Hebrews during the period of the founding of the nation of Israel.

Gordian knotThis story occupies most of the second half of the book of Exodus. In particular, chapters 28, 31, 35, and 36 acknowledge the aesthetic wisdom of the artisans and craftspeople, both men and women, that created this religious art. In various places, the text explains that Yahweh had told Moses that he (Yahweh) had given the craftspeople wisdom “to make everything” according to the plans. Some of the leading artisans and craftspeople are named, and the specific tasks of all of the artists are carefully delineated according to the areas of expertise.

Some Bible translations use the English word “skill” for the Hebrew word for wisdom (hakam) in these texts, to indicate the top-notch talent. The text identifies many of these men and women: artisans, builders, craftspeople, gold or silver smiths, jewelers, seamstresses, and others. The text leaves no doubt as to the religious meaning of what is under construction. It was to represent a “sanctuary” for Yahweh and a place for the people to come to with their sacrifices and to worship.

Of course there are many kinds of art. And a lot of art, perhaps most art, at least in our day, is what we would call non-religious art. This is true even in Scripture, where we find various kinds of art sans overt religious meaning. I’ll close by noting just several genres briefly.

Drama. Drama is meant to evoke emotions in an audience, feelings of tensions, for instance, of anticipation, of what’s going to happen, how is this going to end? A scene, the way the characters act, the language they use, their moods, and much else besides all contribute to good drama. For me, the story of King David awaiting news about his son Absalom is a very moving mini-set piece that conveys an important dramatic point in David’s loving but deeply troubling relationship with this son.

Literature. The entire book of Ruth tells a story so well written that it has inspired artists down through the centuries. See, e.g., Keats “Ode to a Nightingale.” Goethe has called Ruth “the loveliest complete work on a small scale.”

The play. In the book of second Samuel, chapter fourteen, you will find a carefully scripted one-act play, right down to the costume and make-up of the actor. It’s a piece of fiction, performed with such great skill before King David that it changes the king’s mind about a very sensitive family matter. What I find remarkable is the name of the playwright. It was written and directed by Joab, King David’s top military general.

The fable. Fables tend to be dressed up in images of the astonishing, the fabulous, the fantastic. Think Aesop’s Fables, for instance. Today, fables are not the great literary device they once were. You won’t find many fables in Scripture, but the one found in Judges chapter nine, which is set in a political context, is rather daring, given that it quite publicly, deliberately, exposes a newly crowned king to ridicule. In this, it seems to be appealing to a large constituency’s suspicions of monarchies. (Second Kings chapter fourteen has another fable.)

The riddle. Riddles, like fables, popular in the ancient world, are not so common today, although you will usually find them in great literature, such as in Shakespeare or those between Gollum and Bilbo in Tolkien. Riddles are word-plays that have to be opened up, and they are usually about making guesses to get at a truth, which one person hides and the other must discern. In Scripture they are sometimes called “dark sayings” or “hard questions,” such as those that the Queen of Sheba put to King Solomon to test the superiority of his wisdom. And the Prologue to the book of Proverbs explains that part of the book is understanding the “sayings and riddles of the wise.”

Allegory. This art form works metaphorically. A word, image, or phrase about one person or object is used in place of another to suggest an analogy. The Pilgrims Progress may be the most well known modern example. Augustine, the famous fourth-fifth century North African scholar, expounded Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan allegorically. In Scripture, the dreams of Joseph, and Pharaoh’s dreams, later on in the Joseph narrative, work allegorically and need interpreting. There are a couple allegories in the book of Ezekiel, and the Bible’s apocalyptic literature is typically allegorical.

Poetry. Hebrew poetry in Scripture is not unlike poetry today, with its uses of imagery, language (not unlike allegory), and rhythms, all variously and deliberately chosen and arranged, in hopes of creating for the reader or listener specific kinds of responses. The Hebrew poetry in Scripture is not like much poetry today in that writers of the former offer what life is like in covenant relation with Yahweh.

Also, poets typically want you, the reader or listener, to get what you can from a poem, almost as an “each to his or her own” interpretation. This can disturb the literalists among us. The genius of the poetic ambiguity, however, is that a good poem with its universal imagery speaks beyond its time and to any culture. The Psalms of Scripture, for instance, written 2,500 years ago, still speak to people around the world today. Anyone who thinks Scripture is boring or dated would do well to find a good book that discusses Psalms as the poetry.

The proverb. We may not immediately think of proverbs as an art form, but just try to write a pithy saying, such as a maxim, epigram, or adage – intentionally brief in length, compact in meaning, easily intelligible to their audience, memorable – and you’ll discover how difficult it is to do that.

The parable. The same thing is true about parables – very difficult to invent. In Scripture it is clear that Jesus was a master story-teller, which is the basis of a good parable. And as are most other art forms, parables are also invitational. You’re being invited into an imaginary world, to see and experience what’s going on there. It’s a world where you can make what we might call cost-free decisions about what’s going on, because you’re not directly involved. And of course you can refuse the invitation.

stroytellingAs storytelling, a parable works by inviting the hearer into a hypothetical world where the outward appearances are different but the rules for making the decisions or judgments are the same as in the “real” world. So you are a Jewish religious leader listening to Jesus and you hear the story of a wounded man lying by the roadside, and only one person out of three bothers to look after him. You’re surprised at that, and you are drawn into the situation and begin to make relatively unbiased judgments about it because you are not the person directly involved. You don’t have to do anything about it in your own “real” world.

In Uncommon Sense, John Peck and I write: “The storyteller [Jesus] has for a time set you free in your imagination, free not just to understand some abstract idea about life but to enter into a situation and make fearless, cost-free decisions in it, the sort you know you ought to make in ‘real life’ if your heart were not confused by other interests. As a Jew you find yourself admitting the previously unthinkable: a Samaritan can be a neighbor.”

I’ll close with this final thought. Art in Scripture is meant to initiate people into what experiences of life under God can be like. When it comes to Jesus, wisdom teacher par excellence, what separates his stories from run-of-the-mill is that they are about the counter-kingdom of the God’s in-coming kingdom and rule. Jesus means for there to be a dialogue going on about this between his audiences and his parables. It is a dialogue meant to disorient, dislocate, us in hopes of reorienting, relocating, us to the in-breaking kingdom and rule of God and its effects on and in our lives. That is what makes his listeners, then and now, balk.

Jesus radically challenges traditional, accepted, well-established ways thinking about life, decision making, and human relationships. And he employees all sorts for concrete and universal, everyday images to do this, such as business dealings, finances, treasures, seed time and harvest, family matters, and much more. He is using the things of everyday life deliberately, to show that nowhere along the spectrum of life will the in-breaking kingdom of God not effect radical changes in our thinking and doing.

To those “with ears to hear and eyes to see,” Jesus is revealing the kingdom of God’s normative ways of living. The more we let the art of the Bible speak to us like this, the more discerning we will become of gospel-shaped principles of taste and judgment in art, of whatever kind and wherever we find it. And the more that kind of seeing and hearing constitutes our spiritual DNA, the more intuitive it will become for us to immediately know to reject the countless invitations of art sent our way today to oppose and seek to invalidate God’s wisdom.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Images via Creative Commons. Seamstress hands, by Hernan Pinera. Knot, by crosslens. Storytelling, by Shashi Bellamonda.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

I’ll be brief

Have we Americans fallen into a condition in which it is now going to take catastrophic domestic events to bring us together? I don’t know. I hope not. What we can all see, however, is that the country pulled itself together to rush to rescue and aid tens of thousands who have been devastated by Hurricane Harvey.

I’m not talking only about government agencies but especially about the countless numbers of volunteers and groups, both those already in the region and those who came from around the country. People of all political persuasions and of all sizes, shapes, and colors are continuing to pitch in to help people of all political persuasions and all sizes, shapes, and colors. Apparently, the massive rescue and relief efforts have seemed so profound that even national news organizations that remain traumatized by the election of Donald Trump are putting out stories about “the greatness of America.”

But the succor and largesse we are witnessing in Texas and Louisiana, and that will continue, is not an exclusively American thing. It’s a human thing. It is a feature inherent in all of us as persons made in the image of God. It takes place around the world all the time, daily, and usually apart from tragedies and disasters.

Despite the bad and the ugly, the good in us is also on tap, and people everywhere listen to the better angels of their nature in acts of self-denial to serve others every day in ways large and small. We need to hear those stories all the time, whether they emerge from tragedies or from ordinary daily life.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The Difference Between Eve and Jesus

choicesWell, okay, of course there’s an obvious difference, and a bunch of others we could also consider, but here I just want to underline the different attitude that Jesus and Eve had toward the devil’s temptations.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:1-5).

Many sermons can be, and have been, preached from that passage. Many sermons can be, and have been, preached from another passage about the devil’s temptation:

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” (Matthew 4:1-10)

It often goes unnoticed in these two narratives that Eve tries set the devil straight, correct his theology. But Jesus does not do that. Jesus rebukes the devil with God’s word. It’s a radical difference with different outcomes we ought to take to heart.

Jesus had been given the perfect opportunity to be lured into a theological tête-a-tête with the devil. After all, the devil had left himself wide open, for he had taken Psalm 91:11-12 out of context. To his temptation: Jump, Jesus, Jump! For God will command his angels to keep you from dying, Jesus could have replied, following Eve’s example, by saying something like: “You’ve taken that out of context, for in Psalm 91:13, God also says, ‘You will trample the serpent.’ So take that, devil!”

But Jesus, our example, never goes there. Nor should we if the devil approaches. The different end result of each biblical narrative reveals why. In the one, the Lord God banishes Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden; they are driven out (Genesis 3:23-24). In the other narrative, the devil leaves Jesus and angels come to attend to him (Matthew 4:11). The path to defeat or the path to victory.

Eve often gets a bad rap in the story but, all things considered, I think she must have been an utterly amazing woman. The thing is, she was never cut out to dialogue with the devil. Perhaps, as we tend to do, she was relying on her own understanding. I don’t know. But that dialogue ended with her acting on a rationalization that it was okay to ignore God’s word. Jesus, however, whom I assume would have won any debate with the devil, nevertheless refused to debate with the devil and instead relied on God’s word.

One person wanted to straighten out the devil’s theology and lost; the other person rebuked the devil’s approach with God’s word and won. In the words of the inimitable Steve Brown: “You think about that.”

“God is faithful … when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out …” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Image by William Ward via Creative Commons permission.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will then 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 Prophetic Postman

I just pulled my 1985 copy of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death off my shelf and read there words:

“Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell [in 1984] warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision [Brave New World], no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions’. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.”

That is from the Foreword. This is from the last chapter::

“There are two ways by which the spirit of a culture may be shriveled. In the first – the Orwellian – culture becomes a prison. In the second – the Huxleyan – culture becomes a burlesque….

“What Huxley teaches is that in an age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch hm, by our choice. There is no need for wardens or gates or ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversations become a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, that nation finds itself at risk.”

Now, with ears to hear, re-read slowly.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
1984, George Orwell

From Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the top right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

“Odd Man Out” is Out

odd-man-out-cs-bk-coverAfter a year of steady writing and then several unexpected publishing delays, I’m glad to  say that Odd Man Out has now been published. You’ll find that its style is a departure from what you are used to reading from me. None of my previous books were autobiographical, nor are most of the articles I write, including what appears on this blog. Instead, Odd Man Out is a short, honest, true story of what was by far the strangest ten-year period of my life.

It begins in Detroit, my hometown, in the late 1960s, when I had lost all faith in the American Dream. In its place, I turned to the spiritual values and interests of what was then called the Age of Aquarius, becoming one if its staunchest practitioners and preachers. That lifestyle sent me into strange places of the spirit, where I made major life-decisions that seemed sweet but turned so sour.

I was often on the road those years, and by July, 1976, the month that Americans were partying big time, celebrating the nation’s bicentennial, I was living like a hermit in southern California and had only the flimsiest grip on reality. Odd Man Out recounts those years when I was an Aquarian dreamer and how that lifestyle eventually left me in bitter disappointment on the beaches of southern California where, to my complete shock, I found myself in the throes of a conversion that revolutionized my life.

Okay, Strohmer, enough of the sales pitch! I’ll shut up now and end here with this short bit from the book, which describes one of several turning point events that shaped big decisions I made. This event took place when I was nineteen years old and have decided to begin what I called “the search for Truth with a capital T.” Following that path over the next several years will take me far away from participating in the American Dream. But at nineteen I’m still waffling, considering certain costs. There was much less waffling after the morning I totaled the Corvette. From the book:

“It is the autumn of 1969. I now have six siblings, three brothers and three sisters, all younger, and my parents have recently moved the family to southern California. But there are two exceptions to the familial upheaval, myself and a sister; we continue living in Detroit. For several weeks following the big move, our gray brick house on Kinloch in Redford Township remains empty, and I still have my key to the place. One Saturday morning I meet a friend there.

“Rick is helping me cart off what remains of my possessions to my new digs, a cheap but roomy four-bedroom flat on Telegraph Road in west Detroit. The empty house is strangely quiet. Rick and I are upstairs in my bedroom, a long rectangular space with wood floors that is now empty. Almost.

“I find the car, thick with dust and cobwebs, stashed deep within the rafters behind a wall of the bedroom. I had forgotten all about it. I haul it out, along with other objects from my childhood, which, if memory serves, included a small wicker basket, a beat up old suitcase, and a shoe box containing kiddie Valentine cards, some baby photos, and whatnot. The heavy baseball bat I do remember.

What about this? Do you want to take it? Rick asks, shoving the car, which skids along the hardwood floor into the middle of the empty room.

I don’t know.

“Today, that large, scale model of a white 1953 Corvette roadster is a sought-after collector’s item, itself loaded with symbolic value of the American Dream. I had received it as a gift when I six or seven. The sleek white convertible with its red interior stretched about a foot-and-a-half long, from its big, toothy chrome grille to its two tiny round tail lights. At one time it had working headlights and other ‘real car’ features that made me the envy of childhood friends.

“I wiped the dust from Corvette with a piece of old cloth and pondered its fate. Clearly it is the one thing of material value of mine that remains in the house.

“We see the heavy baseball bat at the same time. Like some Old Testament prophet acting out a piece of performance art, I grab it from the doorway and walk back to the center of the room and stand over the car. The American Dream scatters into a million pieces on the hardwood floor.”

To see more about Odd Man Out, including the current Editorial Reviews, in the US, please go to this page on Amazon.com. In the UK and Europe, please see this page.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

“I Have a Vision”

child reading a BibleI Have a Vision
John R. Peck

    Of a church whose worship seeks out all the resources of its members and utilizes all their skills.

Where the hymns are sung with zest, perception, and expression, and accompanied by every instrument anyone can play, including hands, and feet, and smiles. And where the unfamiliar music of another generation is learned until it is loved.

A church witdiplomacyh liturgies that are never mechanical, and spontaneity that is never trivial.

Where the least of its meetings are conducted like royal appointments, and its greatest days are marked with solemn hilarity.

Where organisational efficiency is always at the service of caring love.

Where even poor efforts are done with painstaking diligence, and commended with tolerant hope.

Where brilliance of mind or skill only serves to light up Jesus Christ and His Gospel; where no one can hog the limelight, no one gets too much attention, and no one gets left out.

Of a church were outsiders get as much welcome as old friends; were no one stands alone unless they need to; where the awkward ones are accepted, and the pleasant ones are disturbed by hard realities.orange flower

Where the first to hear a complaint is the offender, and the last to air it is the sufferer.

Where people’s interests are worldwide, without being worldly, and personal without being petty.

I have a vision of a church which shares an invincible passion for learning and giving, whose life is energised by a glad acceptance of the Cross as a way of life.

Whose self-critical humor puts people at ease, and whose self-denials disturb and brace them.

flower starWhose sympathy is so warm and imaginative that no one has the nerve to indulge in self-pity; and whose ideals are so high that slightly soiled notions are shamed into silence.

Whose convictions are firm without being rigid; whose tolerance extends even to the intolerant; whose life is a admonition, whose love learns even from its opponents, and whose faith is infectious.

I have a vision of a church that is like that because from time to time it hears its John Peck smilingRedeemer’s voice speak with such authority that nothing will do but obedience, nothing matters but God’s love, and others coming in can only wonder, and wish, and ask. . .

John R. Peck, B.S., A.L.B.C.
March, 1979
Earl Soham, Suffolk, England

 

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Images via Creative Commons permissions. John Peck photo by Ann Horn.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here and then find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I post a new article. And, hey, if you really like this blog, tell a friend! Thank you.

“The Snow Forgives Us”

snow in backyardSeveral inches of snow blanketed the ground and it was still falling as I drove to the Wednesday evening fellowship. The forecast called for 8-10 inches by midnight, and I believed it. But suburban Detroit is virtually bereft of hills and S-turns, and the large fleet of salt trucks with their huge plows had cleared the main roads. So no one who grew up in Detroit, as I had, fretted about driving here in this weather. You learned to drive cautiously and pay attention. If you did, most likely you would get there, and back again, on the flat terrain. And you remembered the enormous salt mine under the sprawling city.

I expected the usual crowd at Jeannie’s spacious house, and wasn’t disappointed. She lived there with her very cute, precocious 4-year old daughter, Heather. Fifty to sixty people could worship and fellowship comfortably in the large basement. I parked my rusty old Chevy 4-door a block away and crunched along through deep snow that was everywhere sparkling at me from the ground.

Sometime during the worship or preaching – I don’t remember why – I left the basement and went back upstairs. Nobody was there. But as I crossed the dimly lit living room, I saw Heather standing in rapt silence by the large sliding glass doors that looked out into the backyard. I slid quietly alongside to have a look.

What a sight met my eyes! Twelve hours earlier while driving downtown to work, I had seen the world differently. Roads soiled by the traffic of cars that dripped oil. Fast food debris discarded along curbs. Lawns yellowed in dormancy awaiting their green spring. Sidewalks cracked through neglect. Cigarette buts stubbed out and flicked aside. But, now! Snow covered all the ugly. Man’s detritus – indeed, all earth itself – lay covered. And it was still being covered.

Millions of snow flakes were falling gently and quickly past the bright outdoor lights that lit up the yard. They glittered and twinkled like I imagine the wings of angels will sparkle with colors when I see them.

I too now gazed in rapture. This was another world. Not just covered but adorned.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” I whispered.

“The snow forgives us,” she said.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Image by David Pinkney via Creative Commons.

Puzzled About Making New Year’s Resolutions?

puzzled

Thinking about resolutions for the new year? Thinking: Nah, they never work for me?

Here’s a talk by John Peck that just might be your solution: http://revpeck.com/2016/12/29/good-resolutions/