One of the things which most impressed me when I first read the Bible as an unbeliever was that so much of it seemed familiar to me. "What an extraordinary thing," I thought to myself. "I've never read this book, yet so much of what I'm reading I seem already to have heard."
That is because the Bible, as even honest unbelievers sometimes admit, is the bedrock of Western civilization. For example, in The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, E. D. Hirsch, Joseph F. Kett and James Trefil have as chapter one, "The Bible." Any claim to cultural literacy is empty without a knowledge of Scripture. The pervasiveness of Scripture in our language, arts and sciences likely contributed to my having read the Book with a deeper respect than would otherwise have been the case.
Imagine my delight, then, in discovering that many of our Urban Nations students, when asked to tell us proverbs from their native lands, gave us (recast) Scripture! Consider these "proverbs," given to us by South American (indicated by "S") and Russian ("R") students:
If you get slapped on the cheek, turn the other (S- cf.Mt. 5:39).
Don't dig a hole for your neighbor; you may fall into it (R- cf. Pr. 26:27).
No one is a prophet in his own country (S- cf. Mt. 13:57).
If you live by the sword, you die by the sword (S- cf. Mt. 26:52).
The good you have in your heart is known by the words you speak (S- a spin on Mt. 12:34 and 15:18).
You cannot see a large beam in your own eye, yet you plainly see a speck in the eye of another (R- cf. Mt 7:3-4).
They did offer some nuggets that are not found in Scripture. "Don't worry about your hair if your head is cut off" (R). "With seven baby-sitters, the baby loses an eye" (R- in other words, if it's everyone's job, it's no one's job). "Show me your friends and I'll show you who you are" (R- certainly consistent with various Scripture proverbs). "If you try to catch two rabbits, you'll miss both" (R). "Measure seven times before you cut" (R). "Words aren't birds; once loosed, they cannot be retrieved" (R). "A drop of water can grind a stone" (R).
And they told us some which surely lost something in translation: "Love is not a potato; you can't throw it out the window" (R). "Don't open your mouth for someone else's loaf" (R). "A wolf feeds himself with his legs" (R). And we're still trying to figure out if this student had us in mind when he said, "The more people I know, the better I like dogs."
We also collected proverbs from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Korea and Turkey. All in all, it was a fun time collating the wisdom of the world, especially when we saw that lots of it emanates from the word of God. But our goal is not to have people rest in their cultural wisdom, however much it may have been influenced by Scripture. Rather, we would have them rest in Christ, who has become for us wisdom from God — that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption" (1 Cor. 1:30).
What we want is to have them realize the full import of these words of Jesus, words which, for me, were the first which impressed on my heart the fact that the Bible is not just a collection of influential sayings: "Whoever hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a fool who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and great was the fall thereof."
It is the fear of the LORD that is the beginning of true wisdom. Let the world learn that.
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- Steve M. Schlissel
Steve Schlissel has served as pastor of Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, since 1979. Born and raised in New York City, Schlissel became a Christian by reading the Bible. He and Jeanne homeschooled their five children and also helped raise several foster children (mostly Vietnamese). In 2003, they adopted Anna (who was born in Hong Kong in 1988, but is now a U.S. citizen). They have eight foster grandchildren and fourteen "natural" grandchildren.