Iron Sharpening Iron

“Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend” (Proverbs 27:17). This iron-sharpening-iron metaphor, when illustrated pictographically, reveals the various images it conjures in peoples’ minds. A Google image search of “iron sharpens iron” produces pictures such as clashing weapons, red-hot metal being pounded, or a conflict of some sort. When images such as these appear in conjunction with metaphorically sharpening another person, the iron-sharpening metaphor can become skewed and the results disastrous. These images demonstrate a misunderstood process, misidentified purpose, or misplaced prominence regarding the roles of the sharpener and what is being sharpened in the context of an ancient iron-sharpening-iron procedure.

The Old Testament reveals that iron was used for such things as a bed (Deuteronomy 3:10-12), chariots (Joshua 17:16-18; Judges 1:19; 4:3), rods (Psalm 2:9; Daniel 2:40), fetters (Psalm 149:8), and idols (Daniel 5:4). However, Proverbs 27:17 is better understood in the context of iron tools (Deuteronomy 27:5; Josh. 8:31; 2 Samuel 12:31; 1 Chronicles 20:3; Isaiah 10:34; Amos 1:3), weapons (1 Samuel 17:17; Job 20:24), an engraver’s pen (Job 19:24), and nails (1 Chronicles 22:3; Job 19:24) because these are items that needed to be sharp in order to be useful. These iron implements needed proper sharpening, sometimes repeatedly, or else they were useless.

Understanding the Process
When iron sharpened iron, one piece of iron did the sharpening while the other piece was being sharpened. Some have contended that iron cannot sharpen iron because they are both of a like substance. This may be true, unless one piece of iron is in some way different than the other. The source of the iron, its composition and shape, and the temperature to which it had been heated affected its hardness, usefulness, and purpose. During the sharpening process, one piece of iron was in a form different from the other and was being used differently than the piece of iron that was being sharpened. If both pieces of iron were used in the same way toward each other–such as the clashing of two swords in battle–the result was that both became dull. Two iron swords hitting or scraping against each other did not have a sharpening effect. Sharpening was accomplished when two pieces of iron were of a different quality, shape, and purpose. In order for that sharpening to occur, the tool or weapon first had to be taken out of service.

Continuing to work or fight with a much-used and battered piece, or putting back into service a seldom-used tool or weapon, did not sharpen that implement. Using it did not sharpen it. It had to be taken out of service in order to be sharpened because it could not be in use and be sharpened simultaneously. Therefore, an axe while being sharpened was not at the same time felling a tree. A sickle while being sharpened was not also cutting grain or grass. Swords and daggers while being sharpened were neither attacking nor defending as if in a conflict. During the sharpening process the axe was still, the sickle idle, and the dagger out of commission. There was a time and place for those things to be used for their intended purposes, but that was not while they were being sharpened. Likewise, the piece of iron doing the sharpening was not being used to chop, slice or cut.

The sharpening iron was not used in the same way as the iron implement it was sharpening, nor did it become like the sharpened piece. If the piece of iron being used as the sharpener was wielded like an axe or sword it ceased to be the sharpener and became a very ineffective tool or weapon. Imagine trying to chop wood with a file, clear brush with a whetstone, or stab someone with a grinding wheel. The sharpener was not like what it was sharpening; it was not used in the same way, nor did it have the same purpose. In the sharpening process only one piece of iron became sharper, and it could only become sharper if it was not in use. The only purpose, then, of the sharpening iron was to improve the piece of iron which it was sharpening.

Identifying the Purpose
An iron implement used for its intended purpose eventually needed to be sharpened. If neglected, misused, or left idle, it also needed to be sharpened. It was not available for use while being submitted to the sharpening process. The purpose of this process was to get it back into service in a better condition than when it was taken out of service. However, this sharpening was not necessarily an eye- or ear-pleasing process. Iron-sharpening did not draw a crowd. Sometimes it even put a person at the mercy of another (1 Samuel 13:19-22). Another con to the sharpening process was that when something was sharpened in the wrong way with an improper sharpener, or by an unskilled person, it became damaged, bent, or even broken–sometimes beyond repair or recognition. Sharpening was a purposeful, yet delicate, process that when done skillfully effected a change for the better in the iron implement.

When rust was being removed, some of the iron came off with it. When nicks and blunt edges were being sharpened, some surrounding iron was removed. If one could measure or calculate the amount of iron in an implement before and after the sharpening process, those two numbers would be different. The amount lost might have been miniscule, but something was left behind nonetheless. The implement paradoxically ended up in better condition than before being sharpened yet with less of itself than it had before.

Even though there was some rubbing of the two iron pieces and some filings were left behind, the purpose of the sharpening process was not to produce friction for friction’s sake, nor was the purpose to reduce the implement to a weakened, puny state rendering it useless or less intimidating. The purpose was not to demean the sharpened piece, but to help it look and perform better.

Placing the Proper Prominence
It was the iron implement–not the sharpening iron–that improved and became sharper during a proper sharpening process. A higher value was placed upon the outcome of the iron being sharpened rather than on the piece of iron used for sharpening. However, just as one skillfully used an iron tool or weapon in order for it to be most effective, the one using an iron sharpener had to be skilled in the use of his iron piece as well.

The skill of a sharpener was revealed by looking at what he had sharpened. He could not be known as a skillful sharpener if he had never successfully sharpened anything. He may have tried to sharpen many things, but unless those things were in a better condition after leaving his hands than before he touched them, he would not be considered skillful or even worthy of working on other iron implements. He perhaps produced a lot of friction, sweat, noise, and filings, but unless the iron implement improved, he failed. In order to be successful, his beveling had to be accurate, motion purposeful, and method precise. His utmost concern had to be the improvement of the tool or weapon being sharpened. The result of the proper use of the sharpening iron was that it brought the sharpened iron into better service, making it look and work better than before.

Some Bible versions and commentaries render the word “countenance” in Proverbs 27:17 as “face” thus implying that the person who was metaphorically sharpened by his friend–not enemy–had undergone a noticeable improvement. He was in a better condition than he was before and others recognized this enhancement of character.

There are people who, through their criticism, fancy themselves as sharpeners of others. However, more often than not, their criticism serves to demean the very people they claim they are sharpening. They fail to understand that a sharpener assumes the high responsibility of being a selfless, skilled, and careful artisan who neither wields the axe nor draws the sword. Likewise, those being sharpened often fail to understand that in order to be sharpened they need to take themselves out of service. Paradoxically, the sharpener has the sharp blade of another applied to himself, but responds to it in such a way as to remove the spoiled parts of the blade, so that it becomes better.

The sharpening process is not a time for slashing, stabbing, or skewering. There are other venues where those activities are necessary. During a proper sharpening process forests are not cleared, fields are not harvested, and battles are not fought. It is a time to be sharpened and to sharpen others.

What did Gunnar hear?

In the 1950s, Gunnar Urang heard something troubling within Christianity in America: the wedding of popular music styles to Christian lyrics. Others heard it too. However, not all were troubled to the same extent and many were not troubled at all. At that time, churches, youth organizations, and youth leaders desperately wanted to attract young people to Christ and Christianity. One of the means used in their efforts to achieve this end was to mimic the music of popular culture. Gunnar Urang saw this as a troubling development and expressed both problems of and solutions for this growing musical practice by Christians in churches and para-church organizations.

The Problems

Urang understood why these musical styles were being adopted, and he realized they were attractive to many. However, the end did not justify the means and the means inadvertently, yet adversely, altered the message. At that time, Youth For Christ (1957) magazine published an article by Urang in which he likened the use of “sensual harmonies and frenetic rhythms” by Christian musicians to preachers using a “smutty story” and justifying it by saying they were speaking “the language of the people” in order to appeal to them and attract them to the message. What message was this music attracting people to and how did it alter that message?

According to Thomas Bergler, in his 2012 book The Juvenilization of American Christianity, the message being proclaimed in Gunnar Urang’s day was that Christian teens “could have fun, be popular, and save the world at the same time” (148, 158, 162). Bergler observed that this “harnessed the appeal of youth culture to the cart of revivalism” and “once harnessed, this horse began to dictate where the cart would go” (157). Proponents of this harnessing attempted to allay concerns by declaring that pop culture forms were neutral. Bergler discovered that there was “little awareness of the way that a change of medium can change the message it communicates” (158). In addition, there was little concern if or how a medium might alter the message as long as that “medium could be used to get the Christian message to more people” (161). However, Gunnar Urang recognized that music (referring to tune or style) molds religious thought to a considerable extent.

In his book Church Music for the Glory of God, Urang explained that tunes used with children and young people not only mold their taste, but also characterize “the person of the Lord” (108, 109). He proposed that young people should be provided with “proper vehicles for expressing worship of God so that what stays with them through life will not be musical cotton candy but solid food” (123). When music used for the worship of God mimicked certain musical styles, Urang admitted, “Try as we may to close our ears, the feverish rhythm and raucous melody of the world filter through” putting us “on dangerous ground when essentially spiritual words are rendered impotent by an essentially worldly tune” (148). He observed that some music “carries certain worldly associations” that “cancel out the spiritual impact of the words.” He explained that “something is wrong with church music” when musical associations “suggest the music of the world” and “bring to mind the feverish syncopation of jazz and the sensual cloying harmonies of the popular love song” (7, 147).

In Urang’s observation, the styles he heard being adopted and utilized by Christian recording artists seemed to indicate that sometimes they were “more interested in advancing their careers than in carrying on a truly spiritual ministry of song.” He recognized and understood that in order to successfully “sell” music – in what he called “this gospel tin pan alley” – artists had to “reach the lowest common denominator of ‘sanctified’ taste, no matter what that does to the value of the song as worship or instruction” (iv). Many viewed this lowered accommodation as a positive thing, but Urang perceived and expressed the negative aspects of doing so while also proposing solutions.

The Solutions

One of his proposed standards for judging music was to determine if it had a suitable tune because “serious words” are “rendered ineffectual” if the tune does not fit the text (66). One of the questions for determining the suitability of music was to ask, “Do the associations which cluster about the melodic pattern, the rhythm, and the harmony reinforce the meaning of the words?” He saw this as important because “Certain rhythmic arrangements and certain harmonic patterns . . . symbolize for us mental or emotional states” giving it a musical meaning all its own that conflicts with the text. Urang observed that “Some of our songs attempt to translate the Christian message with the wrong musical vocabulary. We ask our young people to sing words of surrender and consecration to dancing rhythm or hand-holding harmony. We ask our children to sing praises to our loving, omnipotent God in music which they recognize from grade school experience as ‘skip’ music.” He asked, “Is the music suitable? Do the associations which cluster about the melodic pattern, the rhythm, and the harmony reinforce the meaning of the words?” (111-112).

Another question he proposed for determining the suitability of a tune was to ask, “Does it add its own authority to what has been expressed by the words or does it defy the text and cry out its own meaning by means of . . . associations?” (8). He saw this as an important question because some music “carries certain worldly associations which tend to cancel out the spiritual impact of the words.” He observed that “The syncopation or off-beat rhythm . . . often suggests the music of the modern dance. And certain kinds of melody and harmony equally . . . carry similar musical connotations” (147). The problem with this, as expressed by Urang, was that when an unsuitable tune was linked with doctrinally weak or wrong words, it could contribute “to a low level of Christian living” (11). He explained that this was possible because “The doctrine in the hymn . . . sings its way into hearts” (51). He concluded that if a congregation “is brought up on a musical diet of vague religious sentiment” or “sloppy theology” then the words of those songs that are sung over and over again become part of people’s memory and vocabulary to the extent that “they will find their brand of religion influenced considerably by the content of the words and the spirit of the music” (69).

As a partial remedy for this problem, Urang proposed a song test: “Having already passed judgment on the words and accepted them, try to take in their full meaning. Recite them aloud; master the emotional tone of the text. Then try the tune. Ask: Does it add its own authority to what has been expressed by the words or does it defy the text and cry out its own meaning by means of distressing associations?” (8). He wrote that churches needed “both better spiritual judgment and higher musical standards, the latter reinforcing the former” (11).

So just who was this Gunnar Urang fellow? Was he a hyper-fundamentalist or a musical ignoramus? No, he was neither of those. When he wrote his book Church Music for the Glory of God in 1956 and his article for Youth For Christ Magazine in 1957, Dr. Gunnar Urang was an evangelical ministering as the Choir Director at an evangelical institution: Trinity Seminary and Bible College in Chicago. In 1958 he became Dean of the College and later the school was renamed Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Trinity College. Urang’s book was endorsed, and the forward written, by an evangelical ministering as music director at another evangelical institution: Don Hustad of Moody Bible Institute.

Gunnar Urang was an evangelical who perceived, understood, and voiced problems and solutions regarding a musical trend occurring within evangelicalism and fundamentalism in the 1950s. He communicated that form matters in music and his writings regarding the effects of a medium on a message preceded Marshal McLuhan’s The Medium is the Message by ten years.

But Gunnar Urang’s arguments fell on deaf ears. According to Thomas Bergler, this was because teenagers “agreed with their youth leaders that most cultural forms were neutral vessels that could be filled with Christian content” (163).

Some arguments similar to Urang’s in the 1950s meet with the same fate today, although it is no longer just the youth leaders who encourage ignoring and dismissing them.

Elmergantrycalism Today?

Before Sinclair Lewis completed Elmer Gantry, Methodist minister William “Big Bill” Stidger boasted that he was the person after whom the book’s main character would be patterned. After seeing advanced sheets of the book, Stidger attempted to distance himself from the Elmer Gantry character and tried to discredit it by announcing that Lewis was drunk the entire time he wrote Elmer Gantry and that the book contained “fifty technical errors in its account of church practices” (Mark Schorer, Sinclair Lewis: An American Life, 470). When challenged to name at least one of those supposed errors, Stidger was silent.

In several of his books, Lewis criticized religion with a destructive rather than constructive motive and manner. He did so in Elmer Gantry by using certain characteristics of popular preacher Bill Stidger. There were enough similarities between Stidger and the fictional Gantry that the description for his 2002 biography Evangelism’s First Modern Media Star: The Life of Reverend Bill Stidger (written by his grandson Jack Hyland) states “Bill Stidger was the most famous preacher in America in the 1930s and the model for Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry.” The book’s description also claims that Stidger “changed the way we worship in America.”

Do 21st century American churches demonstrate Stidger’s influence? Consider that question in light of the following synopsis of Stidger’s personality, practice, and philosophy in the early 20th century.

In November, 1929, The Methodist Review hailed Rev. Stidger as a “revolutionist” because of the methods he employed. In each of his churches attendance figures skyrocketed and other pastors, desiring the same results, copied his ideas. Stidger encouraged this mimicry. In two of his books, Standing Room Only and That God’s House May Be Filled, Stidger documented his ministry successes tested in what he called “the laboratory of his own experiences” and showed other pastors how they, too, could get the same results (Standing Room Only, xiii). Stidger was popular, persuasive, and promoted himself. These characteristics attracted the attention of Sinclair Lewis.

In August, 1922, Lewis was passing through Terre Haute, Indiana. At that same time Rev. Stidger was also in Terre Haute and staying in the same hotel as Lewis. Stidger noticed Lewis’ name on the hotel registry and decided to pay Lewis a visit and express his dismay at how Lewis had negatively portrayed clergymen via the fictional Rev. Dr. Drew character in his novel Babbitt. During the course of his conversation with Lewis, Stidger suggested that a new novel be written to better portray clergymen (Schorer, 440-441).

About three years later, Lewis decided he would write a novel about American clergymen. Remembering the minister he met at that Terre Haute hotel, Lewis contacted Rev. Stidger. By this time Stidger was pastor of a Methodist church in Kansas City. In 1926, Lewis arrived in Kansas City and briefly stayed with Stidger before settling into a local hotel. Lewis was introduced to area clergymen who subsequently met with him for what became known as “Sinclair Lewis’s Sunday School Class” (Schorer, 448). In addition to these meetings, Lewis visited various churches, including Stidger’s. What did Lewis observe at Stidger’s church?

Practice (Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes in this section are from Stidger’s Standing cross adRoom Only.)                            Stidger’s first aim was to attract people to his church and his second goal was to keep them coming back. One of Stidger’s claims to fame was the use of a lighted, revolving cross adorning his church exterior. He invented this idea and first implemented it while pastor of a church in California. It attracted people to his church and he had a similar cross installed during his subsequent pastorates (141). Those familiar with Elmer Gantry will recall that at several points Lewis inserted a lighted, revolving cross into that novel.

Stidger also experimented with various advertising schemes and marketing techniques to draw people into his churches. This was done through ads, signs, and slogans. He wrote, “the use of plenty of money, carefully spent in publicity, actually pays in dollars and cents, and will always pay, and never fails to pay. . . . Careful advertising pays in dollars, in attendance, and in getting folks into the Kingdom” (150, 161).

Another of Stidger’s innovations involved the institution of programs that appealed to the masses. He solved what he called “the Prayer Meeting problem in a great city” by renaming it “Food, Faith, and Fun Night” in order to increase attendance (35). The evening began with an hour-long, family-style meal, followed by an hour-long, age-segregated time of testimony and “spiritual message,” (88) and concluded with two hours of recreation in the church’s gymnasium. He justified this approach by claiming that they were “enacting all over again, in a modern American city church, that scene on the shores of Galilee where Jesus fed the five thousand and then preached the eternal life to them” (35).

One of the ways Stidger drew people to the Sunday evening service was through music. Because he wanted to appeal to those who “were not interested in the church at all” (56) he began the service with popular, secular songs. According to Stidger, this “wins their hearts” (62). The singing portion of the service gradually transitioned to more sacred songs before ending with softly sung hymns. He referred to this method as the “Big Sing” (62) and admitted to using a hymn story “to get people into the mood for prayer” following the “excitement” produced by the music (81-82).

Stidger also initiated non-preaching programs and events with the goal of making the church “a community center” that is “useful to folks, in order to get folks” (163). His goal was to help people feel comfortable in his church building in hopes that they would eventually attend services. He claimed that not only did he get people into church, but he gained their souls as well. He wrote, “In one church in the first year I saw 325 people kneel at the altars of the church; in another I watched them come at the rate of fifty a month” (33).

During church services, Rev. Stidger tinkered in various ways to achieve desired moods from the congregation. He unapologetically admitted to borrowing ideas and methods from secular society in order to achieve his desired end. During corporate prayer, per Stidger’s instructions, they would “turn all the lights of the church off gradually, just as they do in the theaters” in order to create “an effect of twilight with darkness gradually approaching.” After prayer, the lights were turned back on “producing an effect like that of the dawning of the new day.” Stidger wrote that doing so “gets the hearts of the folks ready for the sermon in a way that no single thing that we have ever tried has done” (78-79).

Stidger also tried new preaching styles involving “dialogue, drama, poetry, and action.” He claimed that doing so made the gospel “alive, real, saving and modern” (34). He based some of his sermons on popular books of the day and claimed this was the best way he had found to make Christ “winning,” conversion “fascinating,” and sin “horrible” (34). He justified his innovations by claiming he was simply dressing the “old Gospel” and the “old truths” in “new clothes” (xiv).

Rev. Stidger was considered a popular, successful preacher in his day. Thousands packed his churches, hundreds read his books, and many copied his tactics. In his book That God’s House May Be Filled he justified his methods with the phrases “It’s pragmatic” and “It Works.” At one time he asked, “Why should not we preachers, as well as the artist, apply the laws of subtle emotional and spiritual psychology to our church services?” (Standing Room Only, 83). In the May, 1929, issue of The Methodist Review, Stidger advocated that a “wise preacher” attend the theater in order to “enrich his preaching” by learning “dialogue that will thrill his congregations as it has thrilled theatrical audiences.” In that article, Stidger surmised that doing so might “result in making church congregations once a week as large as theatrical audiences are seven times a week.” He concluded with “Who knows the value of this experiment? At least it is very well worth trying.”

Stidger admitted, “I do not claim to be an authority on great preaching” (Standing Room Only, 23). Also, The Methodist Review described him as “not being much versed in theology” but justified his “homiletical innovation” by extolling him as “a revolutionist with genius, who is often misunderstood” (November, 1929).

In October, 1925, the Reformed Church Review pointed out that Rev. Stidger “resorted to sensational topics and novelty methods to draw an audience” and conceded that it is possible for anyone to fill a church through those means, but warned that a church doing so “would hardly be filled with worshiping people.”

Churches that tinkered with lights, music, programs, and preaching began doing so before the 21st century. Is there evidence today of tactics in American churches similar to those instituted by Rev. Stidger in the 1920s? Do churches today employ practices or philosophies that resemble those introduced by Stidger decades ago? If so, consider the question posed by the Reformed Church Review (October, 1925) in response to Stidger’s ministry: “How far are all of these modern methods from the methods of the Head of the Church, who bade man to seek first the Kingdom and the righteousness of God?”