Our Children’s Wisdom: Some Questions for Parents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

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

Think About It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2015 by Charles Strohmer and John Peck

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

The One-explanation Syndrome

wisdom traditionIt’s easy and comfortable to live with the “one-explanation syndrome.” Here are some simple illustrations. A broken marriage is explained with the statement: “That happened because the wife had an affair.” A teenager’s jail sentence is explained by: “That happened because the kid got in with the wrong crowd.” A church splits and someone says, “When that church’s pastor resigned, it was all over for that church.”

Such comments are typical, and their language implies that one reason explains what is really a complex event. The marriage failed because of an affair. The church split because the pastor left. The United States went to war in Iraq in 2003 because of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. The great recession of 2007-2008 occurred because of the widespread failures in financial regulation.

Of course we now know that there were many reasons for the great recession and the war about Iraq. And if asked around, you would discover that was true for the church split, the teen’s jail sentence, and the broken marriage. But we like things to be kept simple. We seem to have a natural preference for one explanation. Events, however, are complex. Any one explanation can seem plausible enough, at least for a time, but the wise understand that it takes more than one ingredient to bake a cake or to go to war.

Here, I am trying to get at what we could call “multiple parallel reasons” for an event that are all true. This is a normal way the Bible itself looks at events. So let’s conduct a little thought experiment.

“Why did it take so long for the Israelites to occupy all of the Promised Land?” If you asked that question to most Christians who know the Old Testament, it is quite likely that you would get one, possibly two, scriptural reasons for an answer. Yet the Bible provides no less than five. Four are in Judges; the other in Deuteronomy. Fascinating for their sheer variety, one does wonder how they can all be true at once.

The first reason (Judges 1:19): they did not have sufficient armament. This explanation is very straightforward: although the Lord was with the men of Judah, and although they took possession of the hill country, they were unable to drive the people from the plains because they had iron chariots. This is a technological reason concerning the military and the armament. In the plains, the iron chariots would be free to attack en masse and to maneuver adequately. Israelite infantry might be able to evade them, but it could never keep rank in the face of a chariot attack or mount an effective counterattack afterward.

The chariots were made of iron rather than of wood, which made them formidable armament. The Israelites were late on the scene with iron technology. They had not mastered it even in Samuel’s time, which was one reason why the Philistines were so much trouble to them. Even as late as the time of Elisha, the loss of an ax head was a serious matter. So, although there may have been occasions when God intervened in battle, in terms of military technology alone the Israelites had no chance of competing with the Canaanites. Scripture recognizes this.

The second reason (Judges 1:28–2:3): Israelite treaty arrangements with their enemies. In the remainder of Judges chapter 1, it is clear that the peoples whom Israel did defeat were taken into their social order, albeit as slaves. As a consequence, treaty arrangements were taboo at this time of Israel’s history. Israel had been warned that if it entered into treaties even with its defeated enemies, the gods of those enemies would be a snare to Israel. This is the backdrop to the second reason, which today we might call a sociological one. History is full of examples of how a subject people have eventually radically modified the lifestyle and values of their conquerors, from the Greeks of the Roman Empire to the black slaves in North America.

choicesLike technology, the societal aspect of life is taken seriously by Scripture. The book of Proverbs, for example, concerns itself extensively with societal life. In the New Testament, the same concerns are recognized. “Don’t be misled,” says Paul, “bad company corrupts good character” (1 Corinthians 15:33; see also 2 Corinthians 6:14-18). First Peter, which seems to be a sort of follow-up letter for new converts, has some fascinating insights into the societal interaction between the Christian and the world outside (2:11-12; 3:3-4; 4:2-11). So in Judges, the judgment pronounced by the Angel of the Lord was not against Israel’s disobedience to some arbitrary divine ruling. It was explicitly stated to be based upon Israel’s failures to follow principles of social interaction that had been set down for it.

The third reason (Judges 2:22–3:5): to teach battle experience. This reason is peculiar on the face of it. It argues that the Israelites failed to drive out the Canaanite nations, so the Lord did not drive them out either in order that the Israelites would learn how to fight them. But if the Lord had driven them out, they would not have needed to learn! Of course there is more to it than that. This reason belongs to what we might call educational psychology.

Apparently, Israel’s morale was degenerating into that of the loser, perhaps because the Israelites’ compromises with the indigenous peoples affected their social and religious life, with their will to fight being undermined in the process. The determined attitude needed for struggle and resistance was being lost and had to be relearned. If at that point God had given them the whole land by a succession of miracles, they would not have appreciated it enough to make good use of the resultant peace. Further, for the next three centuries the land was under threat from invasion, and Israel, in a continued state of loss of morale, would have been thoroughly defeated. They could not have survived in such a state except by a succession of miracles, which in the nature of the case would have to be unending. In other words, a serious motivational problem had to be addressed.

This is not an isolated biblical example of this reason. The Israelites wandered for forty years in the desert, not only as a punishment but also to learn obedience through testing, to toughen them up for the rigors of invading Palestine. In the same way, the Exile, centuries later, had an educative significance. In the New Testament, the educative ideas of training and learning become dominant notions in the word “discipleship.” Learning, of whatever kind, has its own principles of operation. One such principle is the necessity of controlled experience: testing. People learn by being exposed to situations in which they may discover the limitations of their skill without the results being too irrevocably disastrous.

The fourth reason (Judges 3:7): the failure of faith. That “the Israelites did not trust the Lord” is of course the most frequently cited explanation Christians give for the Israelites failure to occupy all the Promise Land immediately (see also: Judges 10:10, 13). But it was not a failure of faith in the miraculous. After all, immediately after the Israelites in the desert had accepted the discouraging report of the ten spies, but then realized that they were losing their chance of conquest, they went ahead and attacked the Amalekites and Canaanites anyway. Clearly they were expecting divine help. The unbelief, the lack of faith, went deeper than that. This is a religious reason.

wisdomThere was a shift of religious loyalties, a hankering after other gods. This occurred frequently throughout the history of ancient Israel, and the insidious thing about it was that it was often disguised as a worship of the Lord while having the kind of devotion that was only appropriate for a heathen god. One God for the Temple or synagogue, another for daily life. That shift of religious loyalties resulted in a shift of commitment to a different kind of law, for different gods have different laws.

The Persians, for example, reckoned that their only hope of bringing down Daniel was concerning the law of his God (Daniel 6:5). Other gods, they knew, had other laws. Queen Jezebel also knew this. Her politics, based on the “fear of Baal,” entailed different kinds of property laws than those of Israel, which were based on “the far of the Lord.” This is why Jezebel cannot understand why her husband, the Israelite’s King Ahab, doesn’t just take Naboth’s vineyard for himself after Naboth refuses to sell it to the king (1 Kings 21). Religous loyalties  and their consequences are taken seriously by Scripture.

The fifth reason (Deuteronomy 7:22): to preserve the balance of nature. The overall picture so far is of an initial military failure through lack of heavy armament alongside treaty  arrangements that resulted in integration and intermarriage with consequent loss or weakening of religious loyalty to the Lord and a community at times characterized by a lack of fighting morale.

All of those reason, then, can be more or less harmonized as a pattern of causes and effects in which the operation of some may bring others into play. But this fifth reason (see also: Exodus 23:29–30) is a quite different animal. It is an ecological reason. As such, and this may be its most distinctive feature, it is not concerned just with the specific needs of the Israelites.

If the conquest were too rapidly decisive – if, in fact, the Israelites had been fully obedient to the Lord! – then there would have been more territory under their control than they had manpower to deal with, and the ecological balance of man, plant, and beast would have been upset to the detriment of all the inhabitants. (This is a typical concern of Deuteronomy.)

The writer does not envisage any miracles coming to deal with it. On the face of it, this explanation does not seem to fit in with the others. The chain of causes and effects that the others are working with does not seem to apply here. In fact, this one seems contradictory to them. Nevertheless, it fits with the others within a biblical way of seeing life and interpreting events.

So, why did the Israelites not occupy all the Promised Land immediately? How can all five explanations be true? This is a way in which the Bible thinks about life. It is part of its wisdom. As we get to grips with it, we will gain more wisdom about how the world works and what is behind the events that we so often want to simplify.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

(An extended treatment of “multiple parallel explanations” can be found in chapters 11-13 of Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, by John Peck and Charles Strohmer.)

Center image by Lauren MacDonald (permission via Creative Commons)

Wisdom for Our Children’s Children

children's tug of warChristian families today are a rope stressed in the relentless tug of war between competing forces. On one side is the pull to be family as God intends; on the other side is the pull to be family as  culture and society intends. Each side has its own wisdom concerning what families ought to be, and Christian families get pulled one way and then the other.

In this tug of war it is easy for Christian parents to assume that their prevailing family wisdom is biblical by default – by the mere fact that they attend church, read the Bible, or rely on Christian books and radio programs. And yet, assumptions may need to be examined here.

Take our “ideal of family life” for instance. Insofar as the Bible speaks of ideals at all, the ideal of family is one in which the immediate family (today’s “nuclear family”) is firmly set within the extended family in a way that is covenantal (what today we might call contractual). So, for instance, kin outside of the nuclear family had clearly defined duties and responsibilities to act on behalf of the nuclear family should the need arise. The Bible calls this the role of the “kinsmen redeemer.”

Simply put, the attitude of God’s people of old was one of lifelong determined caring for one another within the entire family. In other words, family members considered it normal to be seriously involved in each other’s lives from birth to death.

Haven’t we lost ground to the pull of this biblical idea on us today? How about in the attitude of many young people who date and get engaged and married often with merely a token nod to what the parents think or the family needs? And the parents don’t really know what to do about it. Or, afterward, how about the way in which the resultant family may evolve with only the most tenuous links to the nuclear families of the new parents. Or what about the way we treat our elderly relatives? The pull of society is strong, and its direction would have been anathema to God’s Old Testament people.

Lifelong determined caring for one another among God’s families of old did wonders for helping them keep together and stay sane. For instance, it meant that many of a family’s internal tensions were eased out among the circle of relatives who were close at hand, and it guaranteed contexts for members of the extended family to step in to help shoulder heavy stresses that might come along and crush an individual or a small and very poor family. Today, families under huge stressors often break down and fall apart when everyone in the family is doing their own thing (insurance, government checks, and retirement income go only so far).

joys of homeworkWhen we’re pulling in all directions, we’re pulling apart. When the immediate family no longer eats together, or takes holidays together, or discusses important decisions together, there’s no rhyme or reason for including members of the extended family. Such familial distance was unthinkable in days of yore. Discoveries like this can come as a shock, and we may need to ask ourselves how has it come about that we have assumed a notion of the family that may not be all that biblical?

The tragic answer is that we may live isolated from our families but not from society. We can be, and often are, influenced by the wisdom of our culture – no matter how much we don’t want to be or how much we argue that we are not. In America, for instance, the pull of selfish individualism, or the idolatry of rights, or personal peace and affluence is strong and the biblical pull of honoring father and mother, duty toward family, and caring commitment of the extended family is weak.

The notion of family that was so normal to God’s Old Testament people may not fit comfortably into our way of being family today. Honest family self-examination, repentance, and change required. If it is too late for boomers to do much about this – I’m looking in the mirror here – it may not be too late for the younger generations to do the kind of biblical homework necessary for creating alternative lifestyles that are more conducive to godly and lifelong determined caring of family. And to move in that direction for the sake of their children and their children’s children.

(The kind of homework I am suggesting means gaining wisdom by engaging with what I call the ABCs of Scripture. This post was adapted from Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing  World, by John Peck & Charles Strohmer.)

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Jennifer L. Sovanski (permission via Creative Commons)

“AMERICA SHALL BE SAVED”

SunsetThe evangelist Reinhard Bonnke recently ran a full-page, color advert in Christianity Today. He’s going to be preaching the gospel at a large stadium in Houston, and a headline for the ad read “America Shall Be Saved.” More gospel preaching across our land? I, for one, welcome this counter to the winds of unjust change that blow in. But I had to ask: Can “America” be saved? Advertising can be deceptive, promising what it cannot fulfill. An advert for the gospel should not do that. But this advert is misleading. Here’s why.

Years ago, when my wife and I were hosting a well-traveled British evangelist and his European wife in our home, Alan (not his real name) and I stepped outside into the warm air, where we wandered the yard and caught each other up on our doings. I heard about his evangelistic work in Africa and the modest success he was having there getting people saved. He heard about the “worldview and wisdom” teaching and writing I was doing those years. Eventually, as can happen with old friends on a lazy sunny day, we got to solving the world problems, and the conversation turned beefy for both of us.

I had been complaining about injustice and corruption in politics and went off on a rant about some law or other Congress had passed. “Not much anyone can do about it now,” I said. Sensing his moment, Alan had the answer: “I’d love to preach the gospel in Washington, DC. Just think how cool it would be to get all those guys saved.”

“But that wouldn’t solve the political problems,” I said. “Leaving aside the fact that we can’t save anyone, sure, what a miracle if suddenly they all got saved tomorrow! But let’s think about this for a minute. Let’s say that one Friday evening you held an evangelistic event for a full session of Congress, had an altar call, and everyone there now had their fire insurance. My question is: What do these pols do on Monday?”

“They go back to work.”

“Right. And what do they go back to work with? Pretend you had been preaching to all the teachers and principals of an entire school district or to all the journalists and editors that work for a corporate news network. They all got saved. Next day they would return to work in the same school system or the same broadcasting organization as the day before. What would have changed in either system?”

Here’s the dilemma. In our thought experiment, the pols themselves would have been changed deeply morally as individuals but the political system itself would have remained largely untouched. Sure, most likely some moral transformations in some of the characters would have resulted in some immediate changes. The Speaker of the House might have repented of adultery. A Senator might have resigned after confessing he stole campaign funds. A legislator might have stepped down because he suddenly felt a call to the poor.

But personal individual moral transformations, crucial as they are, do not remove corruption or injustice from the existing system that is its seedbed. So the pols in Congress would simply return to work with the same old system – the good, bad, and ugly of it – that was previously in place. What else is there? God forbid the government should come to a halt and force us to rethink it! No. No. A thousands time No. Just throw more money at it. Keep it going.

Congress in sessionIn an article he wrote many years before I was thinking about this issue, Jim Skillen nailed it: “Just laws and good public policies will not automatically flow from a renewal of individual ethical concern, and public justice will not automatically take care of itself if we simply concentrate hard enough on our families and schools and churches.”

Gospel-shaped moral transformations of individuals must lead to degrees of moral recovery not only of our homes, schools, and news rooms but of all aspects of society. If not, godly obedience is found wanting and the winds of corruption and injustice will blow into every quarter with increasing strength. In other words, a gospel-shaped wisdom will only influence society “by way of dedicated, purposeful action fit for each arena” – including law and politics.

“A republic,” Skillen concludes, “cannot be reformed apart from action by citizens prepared to serve their civic neighbors through laws and policies that do justice to all. Political renewal requires political action. Legal reform requires wise juridical acts and judgments. No shortcuts are available. Nothing human automatically cares of itself.”

Those saved school teachers and journalists and pols would have to move on from individual moral change to the long hard work of going back to the Book, and finding other wise resources as well, for helping to make the systems less corrupt and more just for all. But especially back to the Book.

Scripture, of course, doesn’t carry encyclopedic knowledge for answering every question that will come up. Not even close. But as a professor friend of mine likes to say: “Scripture may impinge on whatever is being tackled, so the right way to begin any investigation is to start by seeing what God might have to say about it.”

Will America itself be saved? Not just its people? Not by what takes place in Houston. Get everyone saved night after night there, and the song remains the same: “What happens the next day when?”

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

USING THE BIBLE TO THINK part 4 of 4

ABC building blocksAll cultures have developed out of the same “basic ingredients.” In fact, cultures do not develop unless their peoples learn mastery over the basic ingredients. As noted in a previous post, the most advanced mathematician began by learning the simplest calculations and the international concert pianist began with five-finger exercises. If the most elementary principles are not mastered, then a severe limit is set on how far one can cope with new demands.

Of course this is a well known fact of life and hardly needs mentioning, but I’m reminding us because when we are confronted with something new and unfamiliar that we want to make sense of, as often occurs in these changing times, it is a sound instinct to see it in terms of its basic ingredients. Most adults read words and even phrases in whole units, but if they have to read out some unfamiliar word, they will revert to the childhood method of dealing with it syllable by syllable.

The Bible uses the same principle. As we saw in another post, it deals with the ABCs of human culture, its fundamentals. It introduces us to God’s dealings with people in respect of the basic elements of human culture, under conditions in which they can be perceived most clearly – in the simpler forms of human society. Scripture deals with the issues of life, then, we may say, in its primary units. It shows us the beginnings of the historical process that leads on to the present day.

In the development of human history, the basic features of human life are seen most clearly in elementary types of society, and then they become combined and complicated in ways that make the result as different as a cake is from the ingredients that make it up. If you don’t like your cake, or if you want to improve it, you go back to the cookbook recipe, where the basic ingredients and original instructions are set out. No cook, however, would expect the cookbook to describe in detail every possible variation and refinement of the recipe that there might ever be. Rather, enough information is given about “the raw materials” and “the process of cultivation” to be able to vary the recipe or to make intelligent experiments from the basic features.

In Scripture we are presented with cultural life in the history of ancient Israel and her neighbors, and we are shown the way that some early historical processes and responses led to certain results. By faithfully identifying those basic ingredients, processes, and responses we can learn wisdom for addressing and dealing with things in today’s complex and changing world.

Sometimes cooking requires a thorough mixing of the ingredients (as in baking a cake). At other times, as in a meringue, it requires a division of the ingredients (“separate the yolk from the white…”). We can expect to see such processes in Scripture history and in our own history.

In a previous post I gave an example of how the “what is it?” question, when asked of one of today’s complex issues (foreign policy), is a good way to discover its basic ingredients, which we were able to trace to Scripture to learn wisdom from in ABCs applied to foreign policy today. This means that we need not fret when we cannot find today’s complex technical language in Scripture (socialized  medicine, geopolitical structures, free market economy, common core state standards, particle physics, multilateral diplomacy, the Web, iPads, whatever) for we will most likely find the basic ingredients.  Here’s two more examples, briefly .

What is a business corporation? What is this thing? To answer this properly will involve asking other basic questions, like “What is its purpose? What is its basis? What special characteristics distinguish it from other human activities or institutions?” We will also need to understand it by breaking it up into its component parts, what we normally mean by “analysis” – what the Hebrew language of the Jewish Bible calls bîyn.

Some elements of a business corporation will be fairly obvious, such as work and working with others, and the latter, we can say, is, in part, about human relationships within a social unit. It also involves the economic aspect, such as the use of capital and earning money to keep the bills paid! Now we would find quite a bit of wisdom about these “basic ingredients” of life in Scripture, and that wisdom would come into sharper relief by asking more “what?” question, such as what does the bible say about work, spare wealth, social relationships in the context of work, as so on?

Therefore, although the Bible does not use the term, or even the concept of “business corporation,” it does carry instruction about its basic ingredients. Given the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court’s major decision (Citizen’s United) that corporations are persons and its radical implications on political campaign spending, I’m waiting for some enterprising soul to tackle this problem biblically.

What is a state? If ever there was an influential institution today, the state is one. It is difficult to detect anything in Scripture that quite corresponds with it, but if we ask our basic questions – what it is; what goes to make it up – then things get a bit easier. For instance, one key element in the state is centralized governmental authority, which gets a prominent place in Scripture. The state is also about territory and nationhood, both of which are significant dimensions of human life in the Bible.

It is also about what today we call politics, which is not a word you can look up in a Bible concordance! But is you ask any good dictionary “what is politics?”, you’ll see that it is about guiding and influencing government policy, and the Bible has a lot to say about that. And when unpacking that you soon come on to bureaucracy, which is another element found in Scripture. For instance, the growth of bureaucracy under Solomon, or the way it functioned to quite a high pitch of sophistication in the Persia of Daniel’s experience, are fascinating matters for study.

suprised lookOf course, much more is involved for the state and the business corporation. I merely wanted to introduce these illustrations, and the one about foreign policy, as perhaps a fresh and exciting way of closely reading and using the Bible to think Christianly about today’s complex and changing world. I hope these recent posts, begun here, will be of some help to you in seeking wisdom for daily life. I may introduce a few more such themes next year sometime.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

The above article was adapted from Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, by John Peck and Charles Strohmer (SPCK, 2001).

Images by Artful Magpie & George Thomas respectfully (permissions by Creative Commons)

USING THE BIBLE TO THINK part 3 of 4

learning musical scale (Peter Dedina)In this current series of posts we are thinking about ways of reading Scripture to learn wisdom that will enable us to cope with our complex and changing world in a consistently godly way in daily life. The problems is that the Bible does not often give us direct and explicit information about how to think and act regarding today’s issues. It is not a handbook with a ready Index for that. This is because our era is, well, at least two millennia and more down the road from Bible times. Nevertheless, the Bible’s wisdom for “secular” interests and concerns can be interpreted for our time.

One method that I have for helpful is to dig around in the jargon of contemporary culture to see if the areas of life represented by that language is in any way addressed by the Bible. To say it another way, the Bible “talks” in the language of what might be called ABCs, “the basic ingredients,” of today’s complex issues and ideas.

In the previous post, I briefly mentioned things such as climate change, socialized medicine, geopolitical structures, free market economy, common core state standards, particle physics, multilateral diplomacy, the Web, and smart phones. We may wonder what on earth the Bible can possible have to say about any of that.

Nevertheless, the most advanced mathematician once began by learning basic arithmetic; the concert pianist began with simple five-finger exercises. In the same way, the Bible introduces us to God’s dealings with human beings in respect of the basic elements of human culture under conditions in which they can be perceived most clearly: in the simpler forms of human society. These “basic ingredients” have a direct relationship with the complexities of Western life.

Here’s an illustration from my own work. If you have been following this blog for any length of time, you know that one of its chief aims is to offer U.S. foreign policy decision makers a wisdom-based alternative to the ideologically driven ways in which international events are analyzed and policy responses are prescribed. Now that sentence itself carries some “technical” language you won’t find in Scripture – you aren’t going to be able to look up “foreign policy” in a Bible concordance. So one of the immediate challenges to me as a Christian thinker was: Does the Bible have anything to say about foreign policy?

So I started asking “what?” questions, beginning with: What is foreign policy? Well, simply put, it’s about the kinds of relationships that exist between what today we call states, what the Bible calls nations. For instance, are the relationships peaceful, tense, or adversarial? So foreign policy is about international relations. And the Bible has a lot to say about nations and the status of relations with one another. Also, foreign policy is about diplomacy and negotiations, and the Bible has a lot to say about that as well, including how negotiations are conducted and what the goals are. And if you keep digging you discover, in the context of what I was doing, that the wisdom tradition plays a huge role. And along the way I was unearthing what the ABCs of the Bible regarding foreign policy.

This method – the Bible in one hand, a contemporary topic in the other, and asking “what is it?” questions as I went along – assisted me greatly in the development of my thesis on wisdom-based foreign policy as an alternative to ideologically oriented foreign policy. I’m not going to say more about that here, except to say that with a little practice, that method of asking questions about today’s complex issues and ideas, whatever your interests, can help you access the ABCs of the Bible as they relate to today’s realities.

Here are a few more illustrations of this method.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

The above article was adapted from Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, by John Peck and Charles Strohmer (SPCK, 2001).

Image by Peter Dedino (permission via Creative Commons)

USING THE BIBLE TO THINK part 2 of 4

thinking sculptureOkay. So I’m arguing that we should learn to use the Bible to gain wisdom for our “secular” lives. I admit that for many people such a claim can put stress on the system, and I get why others will feel a bit groggy and unclear about it. Others will, quite naturally, want to “search the Scriptures” to see whether it’s true.

Does the Bible address aspects of life that are not noticeably religious or moral? In other words, to use some common language of today, does the Bible concern itself with secular matters? Does it deal with socio-economic and geopolitical questions? What about issues surrounding art, law, business, science, linguistics, ecology, and communications? Or how about justice, racism, abortion, and marriage? In other words, does the Bible have any secular literature? The strange thing is, once you start looking for it, there is so much, and it is so obvious, it is a wonder we ever missed these present-day secular interests.

Take the Book of Deuteronomy, for instance. If our Lord could be said to have had a favorite biblical book it would be Deuteronomy. If put on the spot and asked to say what was in this book, many of us would typically know this as a book where one finds the Ten Commandments and the famous declaration of faith made by Jews everywhere in worship, the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (6:4).

We might also recall Deuteronomy as one of the great basic texts for the teaching of the prophets, and that chapters 10-11 carry a higher concentration of language specifically about love between God and people than possibly anywhere else in the Old Testament. And there is also some overt religious instruction,such as about sacrifices, festivals, and the priesthood. But then our knowledge of the book probably tails off.

And yet Deuteronomy includes provisions about everyday life – ranging from nesting birds to digging toilets. The text also addresses issues of war, finance, politics, eating habits, jurisprudence, and public health and safety, not to mention the treatment of criminals, children, wives, slaves, and the poor. We may have ignored such passages because they are not concerned with the overt religious, moral, or devotional areas of our lives.

But there is another reason, which I want us to spend some time with. We may have ignored such passages because the topics they address can seem non-germane to the complexities of our Western world. So what can we possibly learn from issues and interests that were the “secular” concerns of people who lived 3,000 years ago? Good question.

Our complex and specialized societies think and talk in terms of technical language, and we’re used to that: socio-economic indicators, climate change, socialized medicine, geopolitical structures, fiscal control of inflation, free market economy, multilateral diplomacy, common core state standards, particle physics, the Web, smart phones, iPads – you name it. I once heard someone describe the person who came to get rid of the mice and termites as a “certified pest control technician.” And I once had a job as a “petroleum transfer engineer” – I worked at a gas station! Well, you get the picture. Everything seems to be getting more complex.

nesting birdsWe have grown so accustomed to our culture’s highly technical language that we cannot see how it could possibly relate to the many secular matters dealt with in Deuteronomy. But we should not let today’s technical jargon confuse us. It is frequently about the same basic elements of everyday life as are dealt with in Deuteronomy. The Jubilee, for instance, was an institution whose significance was chiefly socio-economic. The laws against cutting down fruit trees in war (20:19), or taking a mother bird (22:6), or mixing seeds (22:9), as well as a reason given for the delay in conquering Palestine (7:22), are plainly ecological in nature. The laws about body fluids, quarantines, and sanitation (23:1–14) address practical health care concerns.

This brings us to what we could call the ABCs of Scripture, its basic ingredients. We can learn wisdom by understanding ways in which the ABCs of Scripture relate to our “secular” lives today. I want us to look at that in the next post.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

The above article was adapted from Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, by John Peck and Charles Strohmer (SPCK, 2001).

Images by Davide Restivo & Victor Berzkov respectiviely (permissions via Creative Commons)