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)

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)

WHAT IS WISDOM? part 2 of 2

creation artWhat is wisdom? Is it reserved for old age? Is it about pithy sayings, such as proverbs? Or perhaps it is that touch of cunning which gives certain people a clever understanding of situations that others would not have in a million years – Solomon’s ruling about a prostitute’s baby comes to mind (1 Kings 3). Certainly, the Bible’s view of “wisdom” would include such ideas. And as we saw in the previous post, wisdom, like love, faith, and truth, has been one of the great objects of human search throughout history.

So wisdom seems to be something other than merely the one or two ideas that we typically like to nail it down as. Which brings us back to this. In the posts that began this blog – a blog dedicated to wisdom – I offered examples of a key fact: The more territory you explore in the biblical wisdom literature, the more you see that what you thought you knew about wisdom expanding considerably.

In other words, wisdom is not so easily defined as we may think. Instead, wisdom is rather like a person. I mean, you can, for instance, define a human being as one thing, say chemically; but if that’s it, most people know that’s a pretty unsatisfactory answer. It leaves many questions unanswered.

Look at it this way, a person cannot be reduced to one or two roles. An adult can be a mother, a daughter, a granddaughter, a grandmother, a wife, an attorney, a musician, and so on. In other words, there is more to any one person than meets the eye. You’ve just got to look for it. The agency of wisdom is like that. To try to pin it down to any one or two things is reductionistic. The question “What is wisdom?”, then, like “What is truth?” or “What is love?”, is one of those big questions that defies an easy way of nailing down.

The seeking of wisdom is a lifelong process. You get it as you go along and you keep getting more of it as you keep seeking it. Because there is an increasing knowledge of wisdom as we go along, we must be cautious about trying to nail down to reductionistic definitions. I want us to keep that in mind, here, because now I’m going to break the rule and  offer a definition!

“Wisdom is a way of seeing life and living in it according to how you see it.” Or you could put it this way: “Wisdom is a way of making sense of the creation in order to life in it effectively (and it will affect what you think is effective living too).”

This helpful understanding of wisdom comes from British theologian and philosopher John Peck, a leading specialist in the wisdom literature, and you can find more about it in chapter five of our book Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World.

I’m sharing this exception to the rule for at least two reasons. One, it seems to me that it is big enough to avoid being reductionsitic. Two, I’ve found it a handy tool for discerning different kinds of wisdom, which is a prominent theme in the New Testament – the wisdom of God and the wisdom of this world. In fact, I am so keen on this understanding of wisdom that when I teach about wisdom, I encourage people to take time to memorize it because I have seen the good fruit it can produce over time.

This Christian understanding of wisdom comes from a prominent way in which the Bible sees wisdom: as the way the world works. For example: “In wisdom,” says the Psalmist when speaking about the works of creation, “you [God] made them all” (Psalm 104:24). From the prophet Jeremiah: “God … founded the world by his wisdom” (10:12; 51:15). And in the wisdom literature itself: “By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations” (Proverbs 3:19).

building blocks (Artful Magpie)In other words, the whole universe functions by the wisdom of God. We see this emphasized in a peculiar passage in Proverbs 8:22-36, where “wisdom” is personified as if it where the very secret of the universe, as the craftsman at God’s side during the process of creation. (I wrote more about this here.) Therefore, says wisdom, “listen to me; blessed are those who keep my ways. Listen to my instruction and be wise.”

This text in Proverbs seems to be indicating, in part, that when God created the universe – with all its multifarious facets, with all the complex intricacies of its workings and its human beings – first of all there was a concept, or vision, that dominated and controlled, or made effective, that creative process. (This may be somewhat analogous to the vision that an artist has first, before putting paint to canvass.)

And the result is that the creation “stands up” as it were. It doesn’t exist like a cat and a dog fighting, which you can barely keep apart. It doesn’t exist like nitroglycerin, which, if you gave it a jar, might suddenly blow up, and you would never know when. Rather, the creation has stability, and this stability is orderly. There are rules on which it works. There’s a reliability and consistency to it, so that the same rules govern this earth which govern the farthest reaches of the galaxy.

That was in God’s mind as His wisdom, and it played a vital role in God bringing the world into being. “This means that when you look out on the world and touch it and use it, you are touching God’s own heart and mind. All the way through it you are touching a product of God’s character” (Uncommon Sense). Yes. It’s a gorgeous mystery. And the more we get into it, the wiser we become.

The problem is that there are other wisdoms, other ways, ways that are not God’s way of seeing the world and living in it. In the next post I want to share a funny story about the difference.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Helene Villenueve & Artful Magpie respectively (permission via Creative Commons)

JOURNEY TO CLARITY

vision glassesThe monstrous dose of reality that would soon become known by the iconic shorthand “9/11” plunged America and its leadership into a collective worldview crisis, and many individuals and families suffered terribly as well. Although I did not suffer like many people did, my own experience of 9/11 was so unusual that I felt as if I had experienced it too much but missed it completely. Strange inner dissonance, that. The attack had taken place but I did not know that for many hours. I must have been one of the last people on the planet to learn about it. And when I finally did learn about it, the startling way that happened, and the next four days encamped at Shearwater Air Force Base, made 9/11 seem too much to me.

Despite being well-cared-for at Shearwater, I found it difficult to think, and though I consider myself a person of faith, I found it hard to pray. I often found myself with barely a thought in my head. I was pensive and, back home, became disoriented and could not concentrate to work. I had to postpone a speaking engagement and push two article deadlines further into the future.

But knowing myself, I knew that my only way out of the molasses – my back to “normal” – would be by gaining a good understanding of what had occurred and what responses would be wisest. I had too many questions that I needed answered. To ignore getting the answers would be, for me, like trying to live as if 9/11 had not occurred. And I could not go there. I had to understand. And I wanted to get it right. That would take time, but that path, I knew, would deliver me from the dissonance.

So I set out. I suppose this was quite a natural direction for me to go, given that I am a writer and that writers research their subjects. As well, the timing could not have been better. My seventh book had just come out, a co-author job with John Peck, and I had been wondering what the subject of my next book would be. In the interest of full disclosure, however, I should say that I felt more than a natural compulsion. For this new research and writing project I felt a very strong drive.

I should also say that, at the time, I had little interest in international relations and foreign policy. And I will embarrassingly admit to believing that it would only take several months, perhaps a year, to conduct the necessary research. I was foolishly mistaken about that. The most frequent question I get asked is: What’s going on in the Middle East? Unfortunately, many who ask are impatient. They want sound bites, as if sound bites could faithfully answer the persistent questions that have arisen. It takes time to understand how we got here, and why, and what are some wiser ways ahead. Most people reading this blog don’t have time for that amount of study, so I have done the homework for you, and want to offer it to you here.

Today we do not live in a time such as during the Cold War status quo, during decades when, although the United States and the Soviet Union made life interesting at times, international relations between the two super powers were nevertheless static enough. You pretty much knew what was what. Today, the “war on terrorism,” the war in Afghanistan, and the war about Iraq have not – to put it mildly – fulfilled anything even close to either Western or Middle Eastern expectations.

War is a wretchedly incompetent and perverse agent of change. No West – Middle East status quo has emerged. Instead, unexpected major events continue to surprise, and new violent realities emerge so often that it is impossible to put your finger in the script and conclude, “Ahh, this is where we are at. This is the reality. Now here’s what we can do.” So many analysts talk about “the long war.”

And you can forget about what you have heard on the evening news, or talk radio, or the blogosphere. You are not going to get three minutes of “in depth coverage” in the following posts, or sound bites, or cliches, or stereotypical or polemical answers.

We live in a dangerous period. If we do not know why, really why, and if we do not learn from the missteps, then we cannot formulate wiser ways ahead. I don’t claim infallible answers, but over the course of the next several months I am going to be sharing with you on this blog what I have learned from more than a decade of research, including taking you behind the scenes to hear from key people I have talked with on my travels. The unlearning and relearning has been a surprising journey to clarity. I hope it becomes that for you too.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by katerha (permissions via Creative Commons)