Your two posts have paved the way for me to share a bit about what I've been wrestling with as of late. It feels like my mind has wandered to a thousand different places over the past few days. I had my Old Testament class all last week and now I'm preparing to head into a Multicultural class. By the end of this week I will have read something like 1400 pages in about 16 days. But despite the rapid pace necessary for the survival of my summer term in grad school and the information overload my poor mind is currently enduring, I am somehow still able to pinpoint where I'm being stretched and pulled in significant ways.
I have never claimed to be a biblically knowledgeable Christian. In fact I've always felt disadvantaged not to have grown up in the church where I would have inevitably been "forced" to memorize verse after verse. I still painfully remember what it was like to attend my first Bible study (a mere two days after becoming a Christian when I was 16) where I became very aware of just how ignorant. Heck, I didn't even know the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Oh, the shame I felt when it would take me four times as long to find the passage we were discussing (trust me, that is not an exaggeration...oh wait, you may actually remember those days). I made sure to buy some of those cheater tabs at the Christian bookstore before the next week.
Though I'm not sure how or if the importance of the Bible was ever communicated to me, but some how I knew that it was crucial to further my understanding of God. I began reading it as if there was no tomorrow. Now, after living through nearly 10 years of youth work, I recognize how abnormal this behavior actually was. Many youth seemed to rely upon the information passed on to them from others, but I've always been the type to figure things out on my own. I've never been one for simply trusting others (a strength and weakness of mine). My early bible-reading days still fascinate me. I don't think I understood what I was reading, but something in the story of Christ spoke to my heart. I became my own sort of amateur New Testament scholar and was eventually exposed to theologians who began to influence my reading of the text...and likewise, my reading of the text influenced my appreciation or disregard for various theologians. But for some odd reason, my love for the scriptures never carried over into a genuine engagement with the Old Testament. This could have been because of my association of the Old Testament with the right wing fundamentalists that I had major theological issues with. Or it could have been a result of my own fear of how I might reconcile the stories of the Old Testament with the radical, violently loving Jesus Christ (the irony is in the italics).
I have struggled with the Bible for the past few years. Though there have been many reasons for this strain my relationship with the text (which of course mirrors my actual relationship with God), it has primarily stemmed from the innumerable ways in which I have personally witnessed the use of this text as a weapon. Recently I have realized that I have held the text responsible for what people have chosen to do with it. The text itself is not the issue, and it never has been. Sure there are aspects of the text (especially in the Old Testament) that baffle me...and probably always will, but I'm open to the idea that it is our modern interpretation of the text that makes it difficult to ascertain exactly what God is trying to reveal about himself through that particular text.
Believe it or not, I did not intend for this blog to be a sermon about engaging with Scripture, but I needed to work through all of that in order to invite you into how this new perspective of the Bible (and especially the Old Testament) is working to deepen my understanding of God and this life. Ecclesiastes is one of those books in the Bible that has actually become quite popular even outside of Christian circles (thanks to the Byrds and their song "Turn!Turn!Turn!"). And I'm not ashamed to admit that it has been a book that I've never really understood. I'm fairly certain that I've only heard a single sermon on the text in the 13 years I've been a Christian. And now when I think about it, I'm afraid that the sermon was using the text out of context. So you can imagine that I was quite intrigued when my O.T. professor attempted to broaden our contextual and interprative understanding of this fascinating book.
Without going into the plethora of new ideas presented within class and within the extra reading we were required to do, I will attempt to deliver a brief summary (I'm laughing already at this thought considering how long this blog has now become). The genre we assign to this book significantly alters the way in which we read the text. My professor, Tremper Longman III (don't you just love that name?), suggests that we read this book acknowledging the two voices apparently present within the text. The first voice is that of Qoholet who essentially is repeatedly explaining how everything in life is meaningless. Or you could say that he is completely frustrated with the "hassles" he has endured throughout life, despite his intention to live a righteous life. Qoholet's theology is that a righteous person should not have to deal with the same sort of hassles as a wicked person, nor should a wicked person receive the blessings that only the righteous deserve. But reality has embittered Qoholet, because God doesn't seem to abide by Qoholet's own sense of justice.
The second voice in this book is that of the narrator who is apparently speaking to his son. The narrator frames Qoholets entire rant (which goes on chapter after chapter) with a rather simple conclusion. He essentially acknowledges that life under the son is as Qoholet has communicated - it pretty much sucks. Things don't always make sense. Suffering seems to be void of rhyme or reason at times and blessings are even more confusing. While acknowledging the reality of these difficulties, the narrator somehow never lets go of the hope he has of something far greater than this reality. He instructs his son: Fear God and obey his commands, for this is everyone’s duty. God will judge us for everything we do, including every secret thing, whether good or bad. He is standing in the middle of reality and hope. There are aspects of life that inexcusably suck and yet, there is a God who stands above, beyond, before and after all of this. Can we live in this tension???
Too often we want to let go of one in order to solely possess the other. Many attempt to disengage from this world and they live in some state of naivety and ignorance anticipating what is to come. But true hope dissipates if we live this way. How can you long for something more if you're not painfully aware of why this life sucks? Still others attempt to let go believing that life could be any more than it already is so their motto becomes Carpe Diem! Seize the day! Eat, Drink and be Merry! This distraction may work for a little while, but eventually they'll realize that eating, drinking and all other forms of pleasure can only distract us from the inevitability of death for so long. It seems that the narrator of Ecclesiastes is advising his son to live in the tension...to hold on to hope while living...really living... in reality. And I'm learning that this is the most difficult task of all.