Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Puff Of Smoke

I would highly recommend hopping over to Experimental Theology and reading through Dr. Beck's blog book Freud's Ghost.  Some may find his thoughts controversial, but they are certainly provoking.  In relation to Ecclesiastes, I find Dr. Beck's thoughts on winter Christians especially helpful (see Part 3: Withdrawal).  Here's just one excerpt from chapter 7, "Sick Soul."

[William] James moves on in The Varieties to describe the "sick soul." And it is with the sick soul where we find our first hint that an existentially non-defensive faith may be possible, contrary to what Freud's Ghost asserts. Specifically, according to James the sick soul is much more open to existential reality compared with the healthy minded counterpart. The sick souled are convinced that "the evil aspects of our life are of its very essence" (p. 125) and they ruminate on the existential condition of man's finiteness and vulnerability: "The fact that we can die, that we can be ill at all, is what perplexes us; the fact that we now for a moment live and are well is irrelevant to that perplexity" (p. 132, emphases in original).
 Without going into much detail to explain Dr. Beck's thinking up to this point, the author of Ecclesiastes falls heavily into the category of sick soul.  Vanity, life is vanity.  That is the one truth the author of Ecclesiastes can't seem to get around.  It is always in his way.  I like the imagery of the Hebrew better than the English "vanity."  In Hebrew, that word connotes a quickly evaporating vapor, a breath of air, a puff of smoke.  "Vanity" becomes the idea of something present for the blink of an eye and then gone.  Some have compared life with the flame of a candle...quickly blown out.  The author of Ecclesiastes says it is worse than that.  Life is more like the wisp of smoke that quickly disappears after a candle is blown out.

This obsession with the shortness and futility of life has understandably earned Ecclesiastes the reputation for being a depressing book, but ironically it has been a favorite of mine since middle school (Seriously, how many twelve year olds do you know that like Ecclesiastes?  I was a weird kid.).  I would consider myself a winter Christian, a sick soul, one who resonates more with lament than praise, so maybe that's why I've always been drawn to it.  Who knows?  Be that as it may, there is strength in being a sick soul.

To jump way ahead in Ecclesiastes, the epilogue has this to say.

The end of the matter; all has been heard.  Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. -Ecclesiastes 12:13

Many scholars have noted, and probably rightly, that this is a later redaction to the book.  It seems to stand in such stark contrast to the darkness and shadow that proceed it.  After a whole book of smoke puffs, the last word seems superficial and overly simple, but that isn't necessarily so.  As Dr. Beck points out in his post, the faith of the sick soul is not held as a denial of death, but in the face of death.  True faith has the strength to look death in the face and still say, "I believe."  That is no small feat, and I would argue, that is the faith behind the wisdom of Ecclesiastes.  "Vanity" and "fear God" go hand in hand.

Stopping point: Ecclesiastes 4

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