Thursday, October 04, 2007

Ecclesiastes and Establishment Evangelicalism

One of the most misunderstood and often maligned books of the Old Testament is the wisdom book of Ecclesiastes. Many readers either dislike it or love it.

Those who resist it usually react to the alleged dismal refrain "Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!" Who needs a Bible book to tell us something like that? Just watch old Seinfeld TV episodes or listen to USAmerican political rhetoric. Why waste revelatory energy on a downer?

Those who like it are drawn to the "eat, drink your wine, enjoy your wife" refrain. We know "stuff happens," so make the most of the good times.

Did the author Qoheleth have a purpose in writing and/or compiling this fascinating book? I think so.

Not only was the Teacher wise, but also he imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.
The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one shepherd. --
Ecclesiastes 12:9-11

A few observations: 1) the Teacher (Qoheleth) is wise. He is not a cynic nor a skeptic. He is a skilled thinker in his biblical tradition. 2) Qoheleth reflected deeply and explored widely and wrote precisely. Ecclesiastes is not spontaneous graffiti. 3) Qoheleth was a word-smith and wrote dependable wisdom.

Using two metaphors (word pictures) in 12:11, Qoheleth (the Teacher) offers his two-fold purpose in writing. The first aspect of his (her?) purpose is to stimulate action. Wise words are like "goads." A goad was a long, pointed stick used by shepherds to provoke movement in animals. Wisdom is a pointy, if not sometime painful stimulant that expects a prompt reaction. "Move!" We could use the cliche' that one of wisdom's aims is "to afflict the comfortable." The second metaphor--"firmly embedded nails"--gives us the second aspect of wisdom's purpose: to create stability. The nails are tent-pegs used to secure the tents so that the desert winds do not blow them down. When the winds are strong, we want the nails to be firmly embedded and to hold fast.

Do you see the creative tension in these wisdom energies? To stimulate and to stabilize. To provoke movement and to prevent movement. Overall, these twin aspects of wisdom's purpose provoke us TO THINK!

I am sick of establishment evangelicalism's strident expectation that we believers simply accept evangelicalism's prevailing views. Don't think! Don't question! Don't dare get into a conversation about establishment doctrines and dare to emend, expand or perhaps, God forbid!, jettison some of them.

We need wise goads these days to get a lot of lazy, just-tell-me-what-to-believe-Christians off their mental butts and to start thinking, questioning, searching the Scriptures with fresh eyes and ears and to begin creating a robust gospel and theology big enough for the devastating global mess our planet is in.

You have heard it said unto you: "If it ain't broke don't fix it." But I say unto you, "The USAmerican evangelical gospel is broke, broke to pieces." The evidence: the sad cultural bondage of the church.

If you're interested in pursuing a robust gospel, I invite you to read and discuss with friends Scot McKnight's book Embracing Grace: A Gospel for All of Us.

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14 Comments:

At 10/04/2007 6:18 PM, Blogger Sue said...

Right on!

Great stuff, John - thanks.

 
At 10/04/2007 7:10 PM, Blogger John Frye said...

Sue,
Welcome to Jesus the Radical Pastor. Thanks for stopping by my discombobulated friend from "down under." I visited your web site. You have some startling art there.

 
At 10/05/2007 12:36 AM, Anonymous Johnny Brooks said...

You speak my heart in this post. In fact it is not just American evangelical church that needs to change but the evangelical church here in Kenya as well. I am so frustrated by the refusal of the church at large to realize that change is necessary and a good thing. In fact a God thing.

 
At 10/05/2007 8:36 AM, Blogger John Frye said...

johnny,
It's becoming clearer that there is an entrenched global evangelicalism that arrogantly refuses to think, explore and change. God bless your ministry there in Kenya.

 
At 10/05/2007 8:25 PM, Blogger Ted M. Gossard said...

John,
I agree that there needs to be that freedom to think and explore all the way around, within a commitment to the orthodox Christian faith. It is so much broader and richer than it is made out to be in so many of our churches. There needs to be an awakening to this, and your words are great along that line.

I love Ecclesiastes. It's enigmatic like life, really is about life. But it points us to God, faith and obedience. Good stuff.

 
At 10/06/2007 6:16 AM, Blogger brad brisco said...

John, well said brother. Good stuff.

 
At 10/06/2007 7:27 AM, Blogger John Frye said...

Ted,
I agree with you about the enigmatic nature of Ecclesiastes--it helps bring back some of the mystery of life. Evangelicalism tends to flatten everything out with some kind of pat, pious answer.

 
At 10/06/2007 7:28 AM, Blogger John Frye said...

brad,
Thanks for stopping by JTRP and commenting. God bless you!

 
At 10/07/2007 5:55 AM, Anonymous Susan said...

We went throught the book of Ecclesiastes at church-next-door earlier in the summer. It was among the better sermon series. Dr. Bruce Shelley gave the final, very engaging message, summing everything up. That one I had to get a copy of so I could listen to it over again.

 
At 10/08/2007 4:12 AM, Blogger thebluefish said...

I ♥ Ecclesiastes.
Fresh air for our souls, and fresh air for the church.

 
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