Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Last Minute Gift?

I have a book recommendation for you. This book might be especially helpful for friends who are troubled this time of year. The book is called A Table in the Mist: Meditations on Ecclesiastes. Yeah, it's my book.

You can order A Table in the Mist here or here or here.

Here's the Preface I wrote for the book a few years back at this time of year:

As I sit in my quiet basement study writing this preface the world outside is buzzing with commotion. It is Christmas time. With less than a week of shopping left before the big day, there is a great whirl of activity everywhere. Everyone is franticly making preparations. Businesses are throwing parties. Families will be gathering for annual feasts. Dazzling decorations have been strewn over buildings, homes, and even doghouses. Bright lights, evergreen boughs, multi-colored bulbous ornaments, glittering silver strands of garland, and more garnish windows and doorways all up and down the street. It would seem, from all outward appearances, that everything is right in the world, that peace and joy reign supreme.

But, as everyone knows, colorful Christmas decorations often mask dark depression for many people. Even though the feast of Christmas ought to be a time when even those who have much to be troubled about experience a ray of divine joy and happiness around the table with relatives and friends, oftentimes the season itself exacerbates people's problems. How can this be?


The Christmas holiday season has been increasingly cut loose from its foundation in the Bible and Christian tradition. Modern Christmas seasons provide us with little more than sentimental, syrupy niceness. Nice thoughts about a mistily glowing baby Jesus. All we are left with is the commoditization of vague religious sentimentalism. There is no spiritual power in this. What's worse, because of this the Christian faith seems to many in our culture to be little more than an attempt to stir up comforting religious feelings to mask one's real troubles in the world. But this is so far removed from the Bible and genuine Christian tradition that it has to be considered another religion, one that plays make believe with the dirty realities of this life.
What does all this have to do with Ecclesiastes? Simply this: when the true faith is robustly biblical it will also honestly narrate and confront the intractable evil and misery of this life. Solomon records his observations with shocking candor: "Everything is vapor." Trying to control your life is like "shepherding the wind." "What is twisted cannot be made straight." "No man has power of the day of death." Solomon's frank meditations are not at odds with the Gospel story. The biblical Christmas story has the eternal Son of God take on our dilapidated flesh and enter our fallen world as Savior. There is no sugarcoating the bitter social, political, and economic troubles of the world that Jesus enters. Just read the birth narratives in the Gospels. Matthew and Luke were wise like Solomon. Which means they were honest about the world. Indeed, the coming of Jesus teased out the worst in humanity. After all, in the end the world conspires to murder the innocent Son of God.

What may be surprising to some who are not familiar with the story of the Bible as a whole is that Solomon's lively faith also commends dancing and feasting with exuberance, rejoicing in the good gifts that God has provided for his people. "God eat your bread with joy and drink you wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. . . Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vaporous life." For Solomon one can do nothing better than drink wine, enjoy the woman God has given us, and sing and dance with the revelers at the feasts of Yahweh.

Back to Christmas. The problem, then, of course, is not with Christmas, not even with Christmas decorations. It's not that people are too happy or feast with abandon. We should celebrate Christmas with wild, joyous abandon, as Solomon himself would surely endorse. But we must be careful not to allow our feasting to blind us to the reality of the curse. "Joy to the world," we sing because we believe that Jesus has come "to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found."

Christmas season is wonderful, pure joy. I even love what some derisively lament as "the commercialization" of Christmas. I say, let the brilliant lights multiply and beautify every home on the block. But none of this is meant to deny that the world is dark and cold. Christians must be realists about the world and life. The Bible is. The church celebrates Christmas season in the dead of winter season for good reasons. Faith does not mean ignoring the "living death," as Augustine put it, of our cursed world; rather, it means trusting God while confessing our own bafflement and impotence to change our death-stamped existence in this world. This is where Solomon's Ecclesiastes can help us modern Christians. As we shall see, biblical wisdom does not give us the power leverage the world to insure our own health or success. Death in it various forms is everyone's future. Nevertheless, we can genuinely enjoy life. Joy and curse. Not one or the other. According to Solomon, he wise man will affirm them both.

And what better way for a Christian to rediscover the spiritual power in honest evaluations of our twisted world and life than to read and mediate on Solomon's Ecclesiastes? In Bradbury's classic Fahrenheit 451 the reclusive professor Faber explains to the curious Guy Montag the "magic" of books. He is holding a very rare copy of the Bible brought to him by Montag.

Do you know why books such as this are important? Because they have quality. And what does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. This book as pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You'd find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more "literary" you are. That's my definition, anyway. Telling detail. Fresh detail. The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies. So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless. We are living in a time when flowers are trying to live on flowers, instead of growing on good rain and black loam (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenhiet 451 [New York: Ballantine, 1953], p. 83).
I can't help but think of the book of Ecclesiastes when I read Faber's description of a good book. Of course, he is holding the Bible as he makes this little speech. And Ecclesiastes is quoted in the story more than once. Solomon's book is the perfect example of literature that shows the pores in the face of life. The son of David is so honest about the difficulties in life that it scares many Christians. And he trusts God so much he has a bit too much fun—he drinks wine and actually enjoys sex with his wife! This is way too much "fresh detail" for some Christians.

I am convinced that this is one of the reasons why so many commentaries and sermons series are, in effect, massive efforts to domesticate Solomon's wisdom. His observations, maxims, and advice, we are sometimes told by pious commentators, are the desperate ramblings of a hopeless pagan soul, not the wisdom of a faithful believer. How could a believer be so pessimistic? How could a believer condone such pleasure? So the mantle of a pagan sage is forced on Solomon and the book then becomes simply an apologetic tool to show us that life apart from God is meaningless. But this is a lot like modern escapist Christmas celebrations. It ignores reality. It is a childish and immature way of handling the harsh realities of life. But I'm getting ahead of myself. I invite you to join me in hearing Solomon as he fulfills his vocation as shepherd king of Israel by faithfully communicating the wisdom of the divine Shepherd through delightful words, words of truth (Eccl. 11:9-14). The mature king invites us to a feast at a Table in the mist. At that table we are called to enjoy wine, woman, and song—all gracious gifts of God to be enjoyed by faith.

Jeffrey J. Meyers
Fourth Sunday in Advent
December 18, 2005

5 comments:

The Goldman Family said...

Our pastor preached a series of sermons to us on Ecclesiastes, and much of his info was from your book. It was very enlightening and I would suggest the book to anyone.

BTW, I'm the guy who was posting on your Christmas Redux post. Just wondering if you were going to come back to that one and continue the discussion or not?

God bless,
Steve

Jeff Meyers said...

Thanks for the encouraging word. And as far as the Christmas issue goes, I thought I'd let you finish the series and see if your questions were answered. Looks like that happened on one issue at least. What else (briefly) do I need to address?

The Goldman Family said...

I'll try to be brief, just don't think I'm being punchy. ;) One point at a time.

In your post "Isn't Christmas rooted in a pagan holiday," you point to the early church to prove that Christmas was celebrated on Dec. 25th. Point taken. But this same early church discouraged and frowned upon people decorating with evergreens, especially mistletoe, during the Advent/Christmas season due to it's attachment with pagan festivals during that same time of year. You seem to be taking one aspect of the early church to prove your point, but are ignoring the rest. Aren't you treating history like a buffet line, just taking from it what suits you?

AJ said...

I love your commentary, and I also enjoy Enns', which is from a perspective of a different author. What do you think of Enns' Ecclesiastes commentary? Do you think one can benefit from a Ecclesiastes commentary even if it posits a non-Solomon authorship?

Jeff Meyers said...

AJ,

Thanks for the encouraging words. I'm glad it helps. Enns's commentary was published 6 years after mine. I've got it sitting here in my study, but I haven't really looked at it much at all. There's always something to learn from different commentators, even if they don't line up with everything I believe about the book.