This week I bought a "smart phone." It's my first. The store manager accepted my old phone -- presumably a less-than-bright version -- as a trade-in. Apparently, if a portable telephone can only be used to call someone or to send text messages, it cannot earn the "smart" label. Who knew that my little Pantech -- an erstwhile and reliable companion, was a little slow?
In our culture, the words "smart" and "intelligent" are regarded as synonyms. They are used interchangeably and therefore, incorrectly. They are not the same. We ought to be careful with words, especially in applying the word "smart" to inanimate objects like cellular telephones.
The mid-20th century British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had a deep respect for language. In a story that may well be apocryphal, Churchill is quoted as saying that the difference between the right word and the wrong word is the same as the difference between lighting and lightning bug. We can employ the great U.K. politician's sensibility here.
To be "intelligent" is to have high cognitive ability (good short term memory, rapid reaction time, inherent problem solving skills, et al.) Intelligence tends to recognize the mental tools given at birth. To note someone's intelligence is to pay homage to the blessings given to him or her by God. To be "smart," on the other hand, is employing one's intelligence effectively. An intelligent person may not be smart; a smart person is always intelligent.
A delightful couple in my congregation enjoys watching TV's "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader?" The show tests the academic knowledge of adults on subjects such as geography, math, science, et al., against that of selected fifth-graders. As a viewer, the Jeff Foxworthy-hosted program is enjoyable to watch. Yet it betrays a bias. The premise is easy to surmise. A smart person is one with certain academic knowledge readily at your beck and call.
Some people are called "book smart." I've spent a lot of my life around such folk. Little definition is required here. Others are referred to as "street smart," which is a truncated way to describe people who have little or no academic ability yet function well in the so-called "real world."
Any casual reader of the New Testament knows that there is much about the historical Jesus of Nazareth that the Gospels don't reveal. The Gospel writers weren't interested in biography; their laser-focused goal was to reveal good news. Jesus was the incarnation of that good news, as God and humanity were reconciled by his person and his work.
Was Jesus book smart or street smart? The New Testament gives no indication whatsoever of any sort of higher education for Jesus. Raised in a carpenter's home, Jesus presumably followed Joseph into the same trade. How Jesus obtained his textbook knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, which he was able to display even as an adolescent, is a mystery unexplained. What is clear to this believer is that no person in the history of civilization employed his intelligence more effectively than Jesus. His "smart" quotient was off the charts.
Years ago, I told graduating high school seniors that the world is full of smart people but what it needs are better people. Jesus would not be the focus of worship the world over -- and in my heart -- if he were simply a fantastically smart individual. His compassion was endless and boundless, as his willing death on the cross proved.
We call Jesus the Savior not because of what was in his head but of the steadfast love of his heart. Recognizing that truth can make an intelligent person ... smart.
The Rev. Dr. Jeff Long is senior pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau.