Street Smarts

Michael Metzger

Streetwise people…
Faith communities aiming to change the world ought to pay attention to how streetwise people are doing it. For instance, look at three reasons the Democrats did so well in the recent 2008 elections. Then consider how they apply to us.

After the Democrats’ debacles in the 2000 and 2004 Presidential elections, party leadership became more streetwise by listening to Cal Berkeley professor George Lakoff. He told Democrats that no matter how much they presented the facts about having values and believing in God, most of the electorate imagined them as anti-both. Lakoff said Democrats were “under the illusion that if only people understood the facts, we’d be fine. Wrong. The facts alone will not set us free. People make decisions about politics and candidates based on their value system, and the language and frames that invoke those values.”1 The Dems’ first streetwise move was to reframe their message.

You might have noticed that Barack Obama published two books framed in the language of faith and family values. This played a part in the number of “values voters” who switched parties. A frame is a way of “changing the way the public sees the world,” writes Lakoff. “It is changing what counts as common sense.”2 Faith communities ought to pay attention, since the gospel no longer counts as “common sense” for many Americans. The solution is reframing the message with new language and images, rather than continuing to rely on our typical fact-based approach to faith. We’re too often guilty of believing that if only people understand the facts about our faith, we’ll be fine. Wrong.

The second streetwise move came right out of the Republican’s playbook. After the Republican debacle in the 1964 election, party leaders developed an overlapping network of academics, translators, and practitioners. Academics such as William F. Buckley Jr. provided the intellectual horsepower. Institutions like the Heritage Foundation translated research for practitioners like Ronald Reagan, who changed the game for the Republicans in the 1980 election.

The Democrats have been playing catch up, launching academic institutes such as the Democratic Leadership Council in the mid-1980s. They’ve become savvier at translating than the Republicans, disseminating their ideas through institutes and the Internet. The Wall Street Journal reported how, in September 2008, left-leaning political web sites finally overtook traffic at right-leaning competitors. Of course, there were other issues in the 2008 election including the war, the economy, and the fact that McCain was inextricably linked to President Bush. But polls indicated that the Democrats’ new networks of academics, translators, and practitioners won more “values” and evangelical voters. Faith communities ought to pay attention to this model, since it provides practitioners (think people of faith who are in business, education, the arts, etc.) with a muscular network (think academics and translators) to change the world. Too often, we imagine faith will flourish in the public square without these networks. Wrong.

The third streetwise move was to adequately fund academic and translator institutes. For years, Republican think tanks had been beating the Dems by getting large block grants and endowments. “Millions at a time,” writes Lakoff. “They are very well funded. The smallest effective think tanks have budgets of four to seven million dollars a year. Those are the small operations. The large ones have up to thirty million dollars a year. Furthermore, they know that they are going to get the money the next year, and the year after that.”3 The Democrats have finally caught up, pouring serious money into institutions, endowing professorships, and capitalizing think tanks.

Faith communities ought to pay attention, since we tend to fund “pins on the map” – missionaries represented as pins in places on the planet – in the belief that overwhelming numbers will change the world. Wrong. Changing the world is not measured by the number of pins on a map, but by the extent to which our definition of reality is realized in the social world – taken seriously and acted upon by actors in the wider world. This isn’t happening today in most places, and making it happen would require serious money to fund serious academic and translator institutes. If you want to see how funding this kind of network changes the world, look no further than Friedrich Nietzsche.

Friedrich Nietzsche was an academic who announced the death of God in 1882. But his profound influence came posthumously. It began with a network of translators, including Ernest Theil, who translated many of Nietzsche’s books so that they gained political capital among practitioners, including the Nazis. Theil was also a wealthy Swiss banker who provided financial capital to the network along with the German Count Kessler. In 1908, Theil granted a huge endowment to the Nietzsche archives that allowed Nietzsche’s sister, Elizabeth to further translate and disseminate his writings on a massive scale. The rest is, as they say, history. Just ask six million Jews. Or ask Jesus.

Jesus lamented that “streetwise people are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way” (Luke 16:8).4 If streetwise politicians recognize the wisdom of reframing, networks, and funding, why aren’t faith communities as astute? Maybe we’ve forgotten that Jesus urged us to be street smart.

1 George Lakoff, Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2004), Page xiii.
2 Lakoff, Elephant, xv.
3 Lakoff, Elephant, p. 27.
4 Adapted from Eugene Peterson’s The Message.


The Morning Mike Check

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  1. Again, another insightful piece and the need for us to be more strategic in our approach and thinking. With all our spiritual insights, we need to also be savvy in all the ways in which we invest in our fellow human beings.

  2. Mike, how exactly would you reframe the bad news that if you reject Christ, God’s wrath stays on you which means that you will end up in hell, a place of everlasting punishment and torment, and the good news that Christ is the only one who can make you escape this wrath and he promises everlasting life of joy in a luxurious heaven?

    Also how would you reframe God’s expectation of repentance from our sins and that all our good deeds mean dittly squat when we come to God?

    I’m not averse to ‘reframing’. I do it all the time in the corporate world where I work. When I write a business case for our executives and it gets knocked in the head, I re-write it by reframing my proposition.

    I know there is more than one way to skin a cat. But how do you do this with the naked truth of the gospel? Do you ‘dress it up’ in less offensive jargon to make it more palatable? Is it not the simplicity of the gospel message that hits home the hardest?

    Not all of NT terminology is out of date. If Peter had to plead with his contemporaries to ‘Save [them]selves from this corrupt generation’ how much more we, who live in an age where corruption abounds far more than in Peter’s days?


  3. I so heartily agree with “John from Down Under.” As I read the piece, I thought of all of the seeker friendly churches and every failed program devised to win the youth in churches. God’s love expressed through us wins the lost. I will have to reread that scripture reference in Luke though since I just began writing without looking that up. Thank you for this “head tilting” piece to the writers from the Institute.

    Jesus strengthen all of us!

  4. Very smug. Nietzsche is not responsible for the atrocities of the Nazis. But I would not expect any preacher on earth to care about the truth. If you would like to learn about the sin against dear old Fritz that you committed here, read the actual scholarship by actual scholars on the question of Nietzsche and the Jews, Nietzsche and authoritarianism, Nietzsche and mass movements, and Nietzsche and religion.

    As a matter of fact, the inner circle of the Third Reich detested Nietzsche because he so thoroughly rejected religion; while religion was the foundation of their authoritarian state. There was nothing Nietzchean about Hitler or his state. It was modeled on the Catholic church. The Furhrer priciple was just the priest principle applied to a new organization.

  5. Hi John From Down Under:

    You asked about reframing bad news – I’d point you to notables such as C.S. Lewis. Bad news is bad news – I have no qualms about that. But most of my friends imagine it as bad because they believe it’s unfair. This is why I reframe. It’s bad, but it’s not unfair. Reframing prepares people to receive the truth.

    J. Gresham Machen wrote: “… it would be a great mistake to suppose that all men are equally well prepared to receive the gospel. It is true that the decisive thing is the regenerative power of God. That can overcome all lack of preparation, and the absence of that makes even the best preparation useless. But as a matter of fact God usually exerts that power in connection with certain prior conditions of the human mind, and it should be ours to create, so far as we can, with the help of God, those favorable conditions for the reception of the gospel. False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion. Under such circumstances, what God desires us to do is to destroy the obstacle at its root.” Reframing is re-rooting a dying plant.

    John, if I understand you correctly, you provide another reason to reframe. Too many of us rely on the “naked” truth. God never intended truth to be naked. It was to be clothed in beauty. Telling your spouse straight up that her pot roast is yecch is not exactly being shrewd or loving. John, this isn’t putting lipstick on a pig or “dressing up truth” in less offensive jargon to make it more palatable. It is understanding that people frame facts in order to weigh them in the imagination… unless you frame them first. Just “letting the facts speak for themselves” is reductionist and naive. If that’s the case, God wasted a great deal of paper (and trees) to simply say, “I love you.” He could tell us the truth in far more economical means and be a better environmentalist.

    Last, I’d urge you to reconsider simplicity. The Apostle Paul said our love for Christ should be simple and pure. But the lens and language we use to describe Christ and his kingdom will be unavoidably complex because it mirrors the contours of a complex and convoluted world. C.S. Lewis said it best: “It is no good asking for a simple religion. After all, real things aren’t simple. They look simple, but they’re not. The table I’m sitting at looks simple: but ask a scientist to tell you what it’s really made of – all about the atoms and how the light waves rebound from them and hit my eye and what they do to the optic nerve and what it does to my brain – and, of course, you find that what we call “seeing a table” lands you in mysteries and complications which you can hardly get to the end of.”

    Hope this helps!

    Mike From Up Topside

  6. The point of reframing is not to dilute, but to communicate what one actually intends to say. A false frame will distort all facts however harshly or winsomely communicated. It does little good in a conversation with someone who looks at the world through another frame to pile up the facts. (The rhetorical equivalent of speaking slower and louder in a foreign land.) The frame itself has to be addressed, not for the sake of being seeker sensitive, but simply clear in what one intends to say.

    In my freshman year of college, a blonde coed wearing a Young Life T-shirt in English class one day was sharply confronted by the professor. “I do not believe in God. I hate Christians. Am I going to hell?”

    “Yes, you are,” she said bravely and then burst into tears and ran out of classroom. The professor then went on a tirade about the judgmental nature of Christians and the evils of religion.

    Was what she said true? Yes. Effective communication? Obviously not.

    We thought for a long time afterwards about what might have been said that would have stated the truth in a manner that the professor could hear. This is what we came up with in our early efforts at reframing.

    “Sir, if you choose to live your life independent of God, God will honor and respect that decision forever. He respects you that much and so do I.”

    No devils. No pitchforks. No judgmental Christians. Same truth, simply reframed.

  7. Ok, so I work in a church filled with well-educated professionals and I am not finding that people are looking for deep philosophical reasons to believe. They are slugging through life as best they know how, and it ain’t working. They are very broken people. What I have seen time and time again is how these people respond to loving care that then prepares them to hear the beautiful Gospel. The most powerful tool we have is the love of God. Yes,we need to be prepared to ask and answer questions. However, there is no substitute for the living Christ loving people — this is reality. My friend Doug (not his real name), a scientist, needed to experience the love of Christ firsthand and this was the bridge to faith for him. Yes, yes, he was a scientist, but what he really needed to know was could God forgive him for his addictions and his broken marriage. The Holy Spirit wooed Doug — there was no strategy with Doug. I must be meeting different nonbelievers than the audience you have. I’m not saying I shouldn’t be streetwise because that would be disobedience. However, there is also the very important component of the Holy Spirit, which I know you totally agree with. Zechariah 4:6 — “It is not by force nor by strength, but by my Spirit says the LORD Almighty.” It just seems to me that the First World Church has lost the burning heart and presence of the Spirit of God.

  8. PAM BUSH you said: “m not saying I shouldn’t be streetwise because that would be disobedience.”. What did you find in your Bible that tells you that if you’re not being streetwise you’re being disobedient?

    JOHNNY SEEL. The professor posed a provocative, antagonistic, leading and direct question, that deserved an honest and direct answer, otherwise we’ll sound like those politicians who say a lot that means very little. It’s horses for courses or “adjusting your language to your audience”. People who ask questions with such “bring it on” attitude are mentally and emotionally prepared for a direct answer, in fact they’re looking for one. You don’t get in the ring with Hulk Hogan wielding a feather duster. Jesus spoke gently to the woman at the well, but was very direct with those who were asking questions to trick him.

    MIKE FROM UP TOPSIDE what can I say? I respect your views but I disagree with them. I’ll assume the part of the lowest common denominator so I can follow your thinking. We probably have an agreement overlap but it’s hard to tell from your first reply.

    Nothing inherently wrong with “framing” or “reframing”. Paul did it often and he addressed the Athenian literati differently than Peter addressed Jews on the day of Pentecost. I’m all for finding common ground with the unchurched to “build bridges” etc But where this premise becomes problematic (in my opinion) is when “reframing” becomes a MUST to present the gospel. I’m in no way suggesting a one-size-fits-all carbon copy approach. Common sense needs to prevail. Obviously you wouldn’t be presenting the gospel to a prostitute as you would to an investment banker.

    But the core message needs to stay the same. I can hang our family picture in ten different frames, but the picture is exactly the same. Likewise, the message needs to be identical (this is the part we probably agree on…I think!) The frame makes you focus on the picture differently but the picture is the same.

    The problem I have is when the frame (our persuasive rhetoric) gets more attention than the picture. Then it becomes more about the cleverness of the pitch and less about the message of the gospel. Let’s think this through for a moment (happy to be accused as a reductionist).

    “framing” is an intellectual skill that very few can master
    If “framing” is a MUST then we have to train people really well how to be good framers.
    “framing” invites open-ended subjectivity, i.e. a person who doesn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings will reframe the concept of sin to “mistakes”, like making the wrong turn at the traffic lights. How does one decide where to draw the line between non-negotiables and peripherals open to discussion?
    “framing” makes good sense but is not a biblical imperative

    Here’s what I can’t get away from with this concept. Paul makes a categorical statement in 1St Corinthians: “The man without the Spirit DOES NOT accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, FOR THEY ARE FOOLISHNESS TO HIM, AND HE CANNOT UNDERSTAND THEM, because they are spiritually discerned” This doesn’t require hermeneutical science. Man in his naturally fallen state is totally incapable of receiving the gospel and can’t come to the Son “unless the Father draws him…” and he is born “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” The Lord opened Lydia’s heart to respond to Paul’s message etc. Regeneration and salvation are the work of God’s sovereign grace through His Spirit (false alarm! I’m not a Calvinist in case it crossed your mind)

    If people’s chance of getting saved depends on how cleverly we frame the message, then their salvation is at the whim of the clever presenter. In this context Paul also said this: “My message and my preaching WERE NOT WITH WISE AND PERSUASIVE WORDS, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, SO THAT YOUR FAITH MIGHT NOT REST ON MEN’S WISDOM, but on God’s power.” The most clever, persuasive rhetoric in the world is woefully inadequate to make the simple truth of “I am a sinner who needs to repent” obvious to someone. Only God’s spirit can make a sinner see that.

    You said: “God never intended truth to be naked. It was to be clothed in beauty” I think you are being philosophical. Which parts of the truth exactly Mike? Because when I read the words “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” I don’t see any beauty in them, I see dread. I am meant to! You can’t put a positive spin on ALL truth. Some of it has beauty, surely, but other parts of it are doing anything but give us a warm and fuzzy. “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” Nothing beautiful about an image of severed limbs!

    Finally, your analogy about not hurting your wife’s feelings with the burnt pot roast is a little……incongruous. A better analogy would be “The weather bureau detected a tsunami. Should they tell me “the naked truth” so I can escape, or not because they don’t want me to panic?” The beauty of the gospel cannot be presented apart from its undeniable sense of urgency. If God is going to judge the world for its wickedness (the bad news) and Jesus is the escape plan (the good/great news) we OWE them the warning.

    As for J. Gresham Machen’s quote, I’m not sure what his point was amidst his homiletical swamp. Can you reframe it for me? (Ok some irresistible Friday morning pun. It’s Friday already over here)
    Thank you for the opportunity to participate.

  9. Geez… you guys down under have a lot of free time on your hands!

    OK, we do enjoy a great deal of overlap – so I’ll comment on when you sound reductionist to me (believe me, I’m not trying to sound philosophical – even though it means the love of wisdom).

    Yes, the core message always is the same. But you’re mixing apples and oranges. In our basement hangs a drawing of Dave Matthews. After I reframed it, people began to notice the red in the drawing. Same picture – never changed. That’s essentially what I mean by reframing. It’s not a question of what gets more attention. C.S. Lewis said frames (or what we imagine) is where we find meaning. Facts, such as the gospel, give us truth. We need both. This isn’t about being clever but being coherent. It’s not being “intellectual” but using your mind to be clear (I hope you aren’t pooh-poohing the intellect). it isn’t a skill for a select few, since everyone intentionally or unintentionally frames everything all day long, whether they know it or not. How many times have I come home after a hard day and grumbled, “What’s for dinner?” and my wife thinks I’m mad at her? Frames beat facts to the punch every time. Framing is a matter of being wise, or shrewd.

    But, my friend, it is reductionist to suggest that anyone’s salvation depends on framing. If I came close to that, forgive me. Second, no one would see beauty in the single verse you cite, since God never intended that we single out verses. That’s reductionist. I’m not into “positive spin” but I do believe we hold this truth in tension with his love, or his grace – and that there is beauty in the whole context of scripture that is somehow connected back to this single verse you cite. Might be beyond me in this life how it all works out. God is terrifying and tender – and in some way the angels see this and worship it as beautiful and holy. I think we’re called to catch a glimpse of this and see if we can pass it on.

    As for tsunamis, I believe that the better examples are the more common ones. But please don’t swing the pendulum all the way to the other side and infer that I’m cavalier about souls. Of course there is an urgency to the gospel. But tsunami examples would make it hard for you to justify getting up and going to work today – why the hell are you doing this with the Big Wave coming? Jesus is more than simply escape… and life is more than the Big One Coming. It’s a both/and.

    Machen? He simply meant that salvation is a divine/human enterprise. God doesn’t need us, but he has privileged us to partner with him. We don’t affect the ultimate number, but somehow, some way, we can contribute to a person’s qualitative experience of Christ (unless you believe we are radically individual). We are a body, and if one suffers, we all suffer. If one does well, others do well. This seems to indicate that we all play a part in experiencing the fullness of salvation here and now.

    No need to say thanks for participating – I hope that more people like you do this. We don’t need polite people, we need people who give a rip and get engaged in making the world a better place.

  10. Hey, not so much ‘too much free time on our hands’, just fast typing and some creative time management. Better doing this during a break than reading about Mischa Barton’s cellulite problems!

    OK now it seems we’re driving in the same lane (see…now I’m getting addicted to this reframing business!).

    I agree, in isolation some passages create horror, others instil comfort and others let us delve into the divine mystery. Overall though, the blood stained story of redemption IS beautiful and the fact that the redemptive drama includes finite mortals like us, makes it GREAT NEWS!

    And not for a minute am I suggesting that Jesus is simply an escape (I’m permanently stained with this reductionist tag now aren’t I? It’s almost become my middle name). What I am suggesting is that the ‘great escape’ is a major part of the redemption narrative. In my frame of the story, it helps me appreciate what I’ve been saved from, so I can follow Him in grateful obedience. In the frame/picture on the wall analogy, the ‘great escape’ is the hook the picture is hung on. Without it, it falls. I’m not asking you to acquiesce, I’m simply describing the perspective that helps me relate to it.

    If I lose sight of the fact that Jesus absorbed the full extent of God’s wrath so I wouldn’t have to, then all other perspectives of Jesus become trivial (the modern list of which would include, problem solver, life coach and one who helps me improve and gives me moral makeovers)

    Again, MY opinion, MY frame, no need to agree.

    Mike, I continue to enjoy your articles which is why I subscribed to the Clapham Institute. Keep up the good work!

    From the antipodean reductionist

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