catapult magazine

catapult magazine




Jan 25 2005
01:39 pm

The poem Rob posted on his blog today reminded me of some of the themes in Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes remains one of my favourite books (of all books, not just the ones in the bible). I think that a thanksgiving service IS an appropriate place to hear the “time for everything” passage. I’m just disappointed that that is the only passage from the book that most people know. I’ve heard vague grumblings about the “ironic” nature of the book by people who were offended by its bald, existentialist tone. There is definitely a lot of irony in the book as “the teacher” reflects on a life mostly spent in pursuit of the wrong things, but the book is not defined by its irony. Rather the irony is transformed into wisdom. The teacher moves from the ironic perspective to a better understanding of the role of human life in “the big picture”, that our knowledge is nothing compared to God’s wisdom. A Samuel Beckett fan like you, Norbert, should love the book. Think of Vladimir’s lines:

Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. [i:009208ddd5][He listens.][/i:009208ddd5] But habit is a great deadener.

I’m a firm believer that every key idea expressed in literature is present is scripture in some way. The difference between Beckett and Ecclesiastes is that Beckett leaves us mired in irony, while Ecclesiastes helps us to face it honestly, then conquer it through the knowledge that while our perspective is limited, God’s is absolute. I’ve always been drawn to the Faust myth because those stories express some of the same ideas about the vanity of human knowledge.

Northrop Frye is a brilliant literary critic, and every Christian with a passion for literature should read him (especially “The Educated Imagination” for teachers). Here are some excerpts from his book “The Great Code” about Ecclesiastes:

The center of the conception of wisdom in the Bible is the Book of Ecclesiastes… Koheleth transforms the conservatism of popular wisdom into a program of continuous mental energy. Those who have unconsciously identified a religious attitude either with illusion or with mental indolence are not safe guides to the book, although their tradition is a long one… the main author’s courage and honesty are not to be defused… He is “disillusioned” only in the sense that he has realized that an illusion is a self-constructed prison. He is not a weary pessimist tired of life: he is a vigorous realist determined to smash his way through every locked door of repression in his mind… As soon as we renounce the expectation of reward, in however refined a guise, for virtue or wisdom, we relax and our real energies begin to flow into the soul. Even the great elegy at the end over the failing bodily powers of old age ceases to become “pessimistic” when we see it as part of the detachment with which the wise man sees his life in the context of vanity… The statement “There is nothing new under the sun” applies to wisdom, but not to experience, to theory but not to practice. Only when we realize that nothing is new can we live with an intensity in which everything becomes new.