At the school where I teach, we believe in the power of books. Every year, we order enough books for our literature classes that every student will receive a brand new copy that will be theirs to have after we have finished studying.
This does a couple of things. First, it emphasizes to the students the importance of words and how much we value the written word. I tell them to put their name in the front cover, or on the front, or the back, or somewhere to mark it as theirs! It shows them that this is important enough and special enough that we believe it is worth giving you a copy rather than recycling books year after year until they are so tattered and worn that you can’t tell if it is, in fact, Lady Macbeth who is trying feverishly to get out that spot!
Second, it allows students to interact more intimately with the words on the page; I encourage them to annotate, highlight, underline, make notes in the margins, dog-ear pages, and quite simply to love their books!
Of course, there are more than just a few students who are absent-minded or forgetful who wind up losing their copy of Hamlet or Dante’s Inferno. When that happens, they do have to replace their copy at personal cost. But for the most part, most students manage to hang on to their books for the whole year.
But at the end of the school year, which we are now actively engaged in with final exams this week, something inevitably happens: the collection of lost books grows. Some of these are simply lost by their owners because they failed to listen to my directions to put their name in the book. However, the majority of the books left behind after the last day of school are simply left because the student had no interest in keeping it, and this saddens me.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not so obtuse as to believe that everyone is the bibliophile that I am; I who value and love books as much as I will love my own children (okay, maybe not that much!); I who continue to buy books even though I have entire shelves that continue to go unread (I call that my “eventual reads” shelf). Instead, what I mourn when I watch these stacks of books grow, is the dismissal of knowledge that this probably represents in the minds of my students. Yes, maybe they’ve gotten everything out of their copy of The Old Man and the Sea, and simply do not have space on their shelves at home for it. Yes, maybe they see books as something to move through and then move on from.
But what I try to instill in my students is that the books we read are constantly changing as we change. Hamlet can speak to us in different ways at different times in our lives. Beowulf can teach us new things after a fourth reading that we probably missed on the first. So a book left behind represents wisdom discarded.
In Proverbs, we hear directly from Wisdom herself. Throughout the Poetic and Wisdom writings of the Bible (which include Job, the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon), Wisdom is personified as female, often being referred to as ‘Lady Wisdom’ or ‘Woman Wisdom.’ It is “in her [that] humanity finds all knowledge, insight, and truth” (Webb).
What is unique about this text, is how Lady Wisdom speaks directly to humanity, “calling out to all people from the places of human interaction and discourse. She calls from the centers of economic and juridical exchange (the ‘crossroads’ and the ‘gates’ in verses 2-3), as well as from the ordinary spaces of societal life (‘On the height, beside the way’ in verse 1). Wisdom cries out to ‘all that live’ (verse 4)… [She] is a prophetess, a preacher, who stands amidst the people and demands attention. She does not work quietly, behind the scenes, but she is to be the guiding force in all human affairs” (Webb).
The relationship between Wisdom and God is an intriguing one. The poet has her tell of how she was created by God “at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.” We are drawn back to the beginning, before God even says, “Let there be light.” So Wisdom is set up as one of three possible relations to God: “is Wisdom God’s laborer, an attribute of God, or God’s partner in creation?” (Webb).
Wisdom’s relationship with God helps us to understand the relationship between God and God’s creation, particularly human beings. “In verse 30, Wisdom describes herself as beside God at creation, either, depending on the translation, ‘like a master worker’ or ‘like a little child.’ The former translation” Elizabeth Webb points out, “is in keeping with a depiction of Wisdom as God’s helpmeet in creation, a craftsperson who assists God in the formation of the world. The latter translation reflects the delight that God takes in Wisdom, and that Wisdom takes in humanity in verses 30 and 31” (Webb).
Perhaps the ambiguity of the translation is meant to allow both to be true at the same time. All of creation speaks of the Wisdom of God at its core; “Wisdom is the creative power of God that is embedded in the world” (Webb). Wisdom is God’s very delight, the joy of God that profoundly calls all of creation, human beings particularly, into that delightful and special relationship with God.
Writing for Sojourners, Walter Brueggemann points out “three relationships that are crucial to the working of the world.
“First, wisdom has a peculiar relationship with the creator. ‘I was beside him’ from the beginning. Wisdom was a ‘master workman’ who did the work of the creator. Wisdom brought delight and joy to the creator. Wisdom is the one in whom the creator is well pleased. This reflects a durable companionship between wisdom and the creator.
“In the Christian tradition, this claim of wisdom has morphed into Trinitarian theology, so that wisdom from this text appears as the ‘word’ (logos) in John 1:1-18, or in other texts as God’s generative ‘spirit,’” an appropriate follow up to Pentecost Sunday! (Brueggemann).
“Second, wisdom describes its relationship to all the creatures who come after and in the wake of wisdom. Not only are all the other creatures after- they are created in and through the work of wisdom. Thus, before wisdom, no deep seas, no springs of water, no hills, no fields, no ‘bits of soil.’
“Third, wisdom has a practical connection to human beings who live in God’s created, well-ordered world. Thus this entire speech of wisdom is a summons to humanity.
“The wisdom tradition is famous for lacking all ‘sectarian’ interest, so that no specific group or community or nation is addressed. The truth of wisdom pertains to all human beings without exception. Wisdom summons human beings- all of them! – to ‘learn prudence, acquire intelligence’- that is, pay attention! And in the coda to this passage, verses 32-36, wisdom assures us that those who heed wisdom are happy and have life. Conversely, those who miss wisdom injure themselves and love death” (Brueggemann).
Turn on your television or browse the news on the Internet, and it sure doesn’t seem like we are living in an age of wisdom. Our present Presidential campaigns have given us plenty to groan about. We seem to be stuck with would-be leaders who exhibit foolishness and mock wisdom (Brueggemann).
“Thus we get a great deal of careless speech. We get assaults on the poor. We get indifference to hopeless debt that is evoked by history and guaranteed by policy. We get illusions of technological fixes to relational problems, as though some technical solution can effectively assuage global warming that is grounded in unbridled greed.
“So much of the political campaign is conducted without attentiveness to any moral coherence, even though there is a great deal of cheap religious talk. Indeed it is as though there is a correlation between cheap religious talk and practical foolishness that does not understand that serious faith concerns the connectedness of all human beings and all creatures, so that society cannot be safely divided between the indifferent rich and the needy poor” (Brueggemann).
Over the past fifteen or so years, there has been a wave of anti-intellectualism that seems to be attempting to draw us away from Lady Wisdom.
Take the issue of climate change for example. On May 19th in Rajasthan, India, it was “51 degrees Celsius. Which is 123.8 degrees Fahrenheit. Which is not only the hottest temperature ever recorded in that country- it’s not all that far off from the safe internal temperature for a cooked chicken” (March). Now just because it is incredibly hot in one place on one day does not prove global warming to be true. “Single extreme weather events can’t prove or disprove global climate trends. What can prove them is actual long-term data” (March).
According to reports, January 2016 was the hottest single month on record…
Until February smashed that record.
Of course, March was even warmer.
And then April took the crown, which was actually the 12th consecutive hottest month of all time, with 2016 on track to be the warmest year on record since… last year.
While we here in Eastern Pennsylvania are going to be experiencing some of the effects of global climate change, we are hardly going to be the worst affected. Yes, we will see more extreme and violent weather patterns, from larger blizzards in the winter, to more intense thunderstorms in the summer, and those can be dangerous, damaging, and costly. However we live lives of privilege, and while storms like those I described can have deadly consequences, we have the benefit of public services and basic infrastructures that support emergency services. Yes, our energy bills may skyrocket, but how does that compare to the many places in third-world countries that will be wiped out by rising sea levels?
As temperatures increase, the spread of tropical diseases will become more prolific, and those who lack access to medical care will suffer the most. We are seeing the results now: The enormous wildfire in Alberta is a direct result of global warming. The migration crisis coming out of Syria is partially driven by drought, a result of a changing climate. The world has responded poorly to that crisis, just imagine how critical the situation will be when the numbers of people driven from their homes increases by a factor of 3!
Yet candidates for the highest office in the land deny global warming as a conspiracy. They decry the scientists who publish the research as “alarmists” and on the payroll of their opposition. The refusal to acknowledge that it is the greed and corporate cronyism that has its talons so deeply imbedded in our culture and government has led us to a precipice. We ignore wisdom in favor of foolishness- name-calling, bullying, and grandstanding.
It is “wisdom, not foolishness, [that] delights the creator. When we pursue wisdom, we find ourselves drawn to morality, almost in spite of ourselves. “Foolishness is alive and well among us, promising short-term greedy solutions to big neighborly issues” (Brueggemann). Brueggemann points out that “the moral coherence that wisdom assures is generative. That is, it is guaranteed that good choices will eventuate in shalom for the choosing self and choosing community.“ It is for that reason that good choices sometimes surprise with good outcomes that one could not have reasonably anticipated. Wisdom is not a moral code, but a force that is creative, and willing creation to its true fulfillment. ‘Being wise’ is brining one’s life, conduct, and policy into coherence with that generative resolve for shalom” (Brueggemann). The other choice is that foolishness she warns us against, where we assume that power and money and influence, left unchecked can lead us to joy, when it only leads to death (Brueggemann).
But wisdom came first. It is rooted in all of us, whether we acknowledge it or not. She calls to us with urgency, laughing with joy in the life-giving, life-affirming love of God. So pick up that book, dust off your reading glasses, and follow her voice away from all that misleads. Amen.
Brueggemann, Walter. “The Urgency of Wisdom.” Sojourners. Sojourners, 16 May 2016. Web. 21 May 2016.
March, Eric. “India Just Set a Scary New Heat Record. It Should Be a Warning.” Upworthy. N.p., 20 May 2016. Web. 21 May 2016.
Webb, Elizabeth. “Commentary on Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31.” Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 Commentary. Luther Seminary, 26 May 2013. Web. 21 May 2016.