I’ve been spending a lot of time lately rereading the Old Testament Book of Proverbs and let me tell you something – ol’ Solomon was a pretty sharp dude. Now granted, he was a long way from perfect, and as he grew older, he made the mistake of letting his many wives draw his heart away from the Lord, but when he was good, he was very, very good. And he is good in Proverbs.
A favorite verse of mine is Proverbs 27:17 – “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” One of the things I appreciate about this verse is that it reminds us that we are called to live in community, and it is through this community that we grow in our wisdom and maturity. As another favorite verse, Proverbs 13:20, teaches us, “Those who walk with the wise grow wise.” When our friends are people of godly character, they will challenge us to grow in our faith and hold us accountable for areas in which we fail. And they will expect us to do the same for them.
One of the ways that we cheat ourselves out of this blessing is by only associating with people who agree with us on everything and who tell us what we want to hear. Another way is by reading only books and articles that simply confirm what we already think. If we get all our news from a network that only reinforces our own prejudices and presuppositions, then how can we grow? How is our character being “sharpened,” to use the language of Proverbs?
When we stick our heads into the echo chamber of social media, we usually hear lots of our own opinions and points of view coming back to us, and it makes us feel good about ourselves. But it’s not making us any sharper. In the runup to the American Civil War, many churches in both the North and the South stopped communicating with congregations on the other side and would only listen to voices that confirmed what they already thought. As a result, their own beliefs on secular matters grew more entrenched and inflexible, and they saw anyone who disagreed with them on politics or anything else, not merely as someone with a different point of view, but as someone who was evil and stupid.
When I was helping lead a neighborhood program in North Abilene, one of my favorite annual activities we did was called “Abilene Dinner Table.” Different individuals would host a dinner in their home, for however many folks they could comfortably seat. In our case, we had room for about a dozen guests, I think. Those interested in participating would register with our office, and then our administrative staff would randomly assign people to a particular group. Then they would furnish some questions for the attendees to discuss during and after their meal. It was a wonderful time for everyone to come together, enjoy a good meal, meet some new people, and hear a lot of different opinions on various subjects. I remember that I learned a lot about people of different races, religions, and backgrounds, and it challenged some of the stereotypes that I had cherished.
It sharpened me.
There is a growing movement in this country, and particularly in this state, to ban certain books from school libraries. Some churches have even held “book burning” parties. The justification is that they disagree with the author’s point of view, or the book deals with a subject that they would rather not discuss. That’s unfortunate, because some of the books that they’re wanting to eliminate are some of the giants of American literature. Huckleberry Finn. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Grapes of Wrath. Even Fahrenheit 451, which is pretty ironic if you think about it, because that’s a book about – wait for it – burning books.
These books have helped mold and shape generations of young students, myself included. They have challenged us. They have made us think and sharpened us. And the fact that the author challenges our presuppositions or teaches us about a dark chapter in our nation’s history or causes us to think about things that make us “uncomfortable” in some way – that’s not a bad thing. It’s part of what education is supposed to do.
Iron sharpening iron.