The Strangeness of Scripture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

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

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

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

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)

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 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)

USING THE BIBLE TO THINK part 1 of 4

Bible studyThe ability to form and use theories is a gift from God to us. It often is ignored or misused, but it is still as much a gift as human affection or natural beauty, and to be used for God’s glory. It doesn’t matter whether we realize it, or even whether we like it, we are using theories all the time, as a humorous story in the previous post made clear.

If we do not use godly theories, and if we do not develop a means of finding out which are godly and which are not, we will be using whatever comes along. Since we have no right to presume on God for the things that he has left it our responsibility to do, and since sin influences the intellect often quite unknowingly, the likelihood is that any theory uncritically adopted will be ungodly.

Here’s a simple illustration from law-making. Good laws, in part, liberate people to be loving.  So what are we to think of a law that makes medical professionals, who happen to be first on the scene of an car wreck, afraid to help the injured parties because they could get sued? This is not a law that liberates doctors and nurses (who could be quite loving in such a situation) to be loving. There is a bad theory behind such a law, which Christians working in the area of jurisprudence could seek to correct.

In the previous post I called attention to the relationship between our wisdom and the theories we use that help us cope with life, and I said that the way to better theories is through acquiring a wisdom that is becoming increasingly biblical. Here are a few tips along the way.

Begin with humility of mind. You are entering a process of change. Yes, on becoming a Christian a radical change is introduced into one’s outlook. Yet it would be unscriptural, besides being extraordinarily naive, to think that your entire wisdom on life changes completely straightaway and with it any wrongheaded theories. The Bible, after all, would not speak of the need for our mind’s ongoing renewal if that were so (Romans 12:1-2). And we ought to keep in mind the apostle Paul’s complaint that Christians may fail to let the process keep working itself out (1 Corinthians 3:1-3; Galatians 3:1-3; Colossians 2:20-3:2).

Prepare to hit resistance but press on. People, including even our ministers, may raise bewildered, even disapproving, eyebrows at our questions. Christian friends may struggle to understand what we are talking about and asking of them. Group discussions, even among those who do understand, may feel like a pooling of ignorance. Temptations may arise to become impatient, to fall for simplistic or dogmatic answers, or to wallow in self-pity (“nobody understands me”). But whoever said Christian discipleship was going to be easy? So press on but proceed humbly – that’s where the grace is.

Learn to read and study the Bible as a “secular” book. There is a lot of biblical wisdom for daily life to be gained through such an approach. Traditionally for many of us, the Bible slides past our eyes with a “stained glass window effect.” That is, we read the Bible as a “religious” book only – for instructions about prayer, worship, doctrine, church activities, moral behavior, evangelization, and so on. Certainly religious instruction must not be downplayed. Yet that alone leaves us ill-equipped to study and apply Scripture with reference to the many “nonreligious” issues and aspects of daily life.

Sure, many Christians can quote from the Book of Proverbs, say for business principles, relationship taboos, or parent–child environments. But I’m talking about a much wider horizon. When it comes to immigration laws and health insurance, for instance, or to medical debates and  economic development, or to government subsidies of the arts and US foreign policy, it usually does not occur to us to check out the Book, for we assume that it has little or no distinctive wisdom for such “secular” matters.

But that is not how Jesus, or the apostles, or God’s Old Testament people saw Scripture. They had a God who was involved in the whole of life and they had a Scripture to match. The knew that Bible was not relegated to “religious” affairs only; it held instruction for what today we often call secular life.

In the next post I want us to look at that way learning wisdom from Scripture.

©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 Steel Wool (permission via Creative Commons)

CANNONBALL RACES

bowlsDuring one of my countless conversations with John Peck about “wisdom,” he told me a funny story about the leisurely British game of “bowls.” Since most Americans will find that game unfamiliar, I should first describe it so that John’s story, below, will make sense.

Bowls is usually played outdoors on a long rectangular patch of short-cut lawn called a green. A player – a bowler – starts the game by standing at one end of the green and rolling a small but fairly heavy and solid white ball, the jack, down the green to the other end. The jack is not rolled again during that game. A lot of sportsmanship ensues as bowlers take turns rolling their much larger and heavier black balls down the green to see who can get closest to the jack.

Sounds easy enough, but the larger balls are biased (with interior weights) and so do not travel in a straight line – they follow various degrees of arcs when bowled toward the jack, not unlike American fingertip bowling balls en route to the pocket. Once all the balls are bowled, the direction of play is reversed. To get points, bowlers must to get as close to the jack as possible by the end of the game, and to do that they employ various strategies, such as trying to knock an opponent’s ball out of the way.

Okay. Got it? Here’s John with the story:

Once as our family was driving through a park, one of the younger kids amused us by looking out of the back of the car and shouting, “Look, Dad, cannonball races!” Everyone looked around and saw a green with a leisurely game of bowls in play.

As my young son did, we all interpret any new phenomenon in terms of what we already know. So let’s pull the car into a parking space, watch the game closely, and imagine a discussion between me and my son.

I remark on the skill of a player who has rolled his ball just short of his opponent’s ball and so got nearer the jack. My son is puzzled by my statement, but that doesn’t stop him! He naturally responds, “What sort of a race is it where people only try to get even and not ahead?”

So I explain the concept of “getting close rather than getting ahead.” Rather dubiously he accepts the notion but suggests that the players start aiming better. “After all, Dad, the cannonballs are going all over the place. One almost went round in a semi-circle.”

So I try again. But by the time I get through explaining the concept that these balls have a bias in them, he’s now impatient with me and explodes, “Well, no self-respecting gunner would use ammunition that wouldn’t go straight!”

So I reply (fully assured and ever the expert!) that the bias is deliberately put into the balls during their manufacture. At this point my son gives up and mutters, “I can understand them using unbalanced ammunition if they have no choice, but actually making cannonballs like that…. They must be mad!”

You can find this story in our book Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World (Chapter 7), and John’s point was to call my attention to the importance of the relationship of wisdom to theories.

People, however, can be terrified by the word “theory,” or they can’t be bothered with it because it doesn’t seem practical. It’s about ivory tower intellectuals, who never have to deal with Pampers, flat tires, or flu shots. But even diapers, radials, and injections have theories behind them. In other words, theories can be quite practical indeed. And if you bring a faulty theory to an experience or an issue, something is going to go wrong. Here’s how John put it in the book:

You could hardly blame my young son. I failed to address his basic assumption that these were cannonballs, and that this mistake resulted in a different theory about the game of bowls and its rules. Because I had a different theory about the game and failed to acknowledge that, he could not understand the game or my explanations of it.

What is more, in his attempt to make sense of what he was seeing in this new experience, his faulty theory meant that he asked the wrong questions. My answers, therefore, even though they were from the correct theory, were not helping him in the least, for they were not answering the questions that formed in his mind using the faulty theory.

It is, of course, a parable. In Uncommon Sense, John and I went on to discuss this at some length, such as to show how dad’s neglect of, or possibly ignorance of, the son’s faulty theory made communication and progress on the issue impossible. Of course, the problem in that situation was a trivial one and easily resolved in terms of the father and son’s common culture.

blastertheoryYet the form of the problem is similar for all of us with respect to bigger and crucial issues, such as come up in science, education, religion, politics, and elsewhere. In such areas, a new problem will not be easily defined or practically resolved when people bring different theories to it. And when contradictory theories are brought to it, you have a huge mess.

The form of the problem also exists in varying degrees between an ethnic minority and the dominant culture, or liberal and conservative Christians, or labor and management, or left wing and right wing politicians, or American Christians and Muslims in the Middle East – the list goes on.

As a culture increasingly fragments, as its structural problems present themselves more  intractably and its conflicts become more wide-ranging and more common, if they are not corrected, a culture ends like the Tower of Babel, if not in a civil war. And the principle holds true also for the international scene.

What we need, then, is a wisdom – a way of seeing life and living in it – a way of making sense of the creation and living in it effectively – that makes sound theories possible for coping with and communicating about life’s problems. What we are talking about is having theories that correspond, as much as it is humanly possible, to rightly understanding and stewarding the many and varied aspects of God’s world.

Lacking that, life goes terribly wrong. Therefore, seek wisdom. In the next post I want to share some clues from the Bible about that kind of seeking.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Peter Labourne & Neural respectively (permission via Creative Commons)

PERSPECTIVES: THE WISDOM OF TURNING THE HEAD

perspectivesI was recently with a group of friends and we were talking about how our perspectives limit our understanding of what we see going on around us everyday and in the news. Everyone in this room can experience the same event, one lady said, but we will all see it somewhat differently because of where we’re coming from. I will see something that “Tim” doesn’t see and he will see something that “Rick” doesn’t see. And I probably need to see what they see and listen to it, because I don’t see it all.

This of course is a fact of life that we are all aware of – just think of a traffic cop taking an accident report! But just as commonly we may not be aware of how much our individual perspective limits what we can imagine to be true. So someone says, You won’t believe what happened to me! And we may not believe it. Even if it’s true.

At the risk of oversimplifying this, let me say that our individual perspectives affect the way we relate to others and how we make decisions about things across the spectrum of life. How we vote. Where our children are schooled. What we think about the economy and our political leaders. The kind of entertainment we permit ourselves to enjoy. Who we turn to for counseling in crisis. Our views on spending and saving. What we think about climate change our nation’s foreign policy. The kind of church we attend, or why we don’t attend. What we drive, where we live, who our friends are. You get the picture. It’s your perspective on life and you are working it out all the time daily in the decisions you make.

The same principle holds true for how we experience the Bible and tell others about it. Just as I would tell that cop how I, myself, witnessed the car wreck, my perspective will also determine how I answer if someone asks What is the meaning of that Bible story? Of course, many people don’t experience the Bible at all. But even so, that is still a perspective. (A friend once told me that he had been talking to a guy who had never heard of Adam and Eve.)

For the past several weeks, we have been exploring the first half of the book of Daniel (chapters 1-6) through the perspective of the wisdom tradition. And here’s an important thing about that. That kind of engagement with the text has helped us to see a Daniel we may not have noticed before. Seeing Daniel through the lens of wisdom made possible insights into Daniel as a statesman/diplomat. Such insights do not emerge, in my experience, when one’s perspective is that of “Daniel the prophet.” You have to turn your head from looking at Daniel the prophet to see Daniel the diplomat.

As one recent commentator aptly said about the Daniel posts: They have “given me a great opportunity to look at him from a perspective that I have not considered. Our society and leaders could find a lot of value in the wise approach of Daniel.” To this I would just add that I hope it will also be of value to us lesser mortals every day, as we make decisions across the spectrum of life.

There is much more that can be said about Daniel the diplomat. But I want to move on now, to look further at what I often call “the diplomacy of wisdom,” as it is seen in other, perhaps surprising, places in Scripture. So let’s now turn our heads from “Ezra the priest” to see “Ezra the shuttle diplomat.”

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Aphrodite (permission via Creative Commons)