Archives For Ecclesiastes

While there has been a lot of diversity in style and approach, every Arcade Fire album has, to a significant degree, been about one thing: disorientation and alienation in the modern world. They had put out four incredible albums around this theme, and then a few weeks ago they released their fifth. And I love it.

Though Pitchfork gave a weird, negative review, Everything Now holds its own amidst Arcade Fire’s impressive catalog. It’s not their best album, but it doesn’t need to top its predecessors to be an excellent album in its own right. (Feel free to skip the rest of this paragraph, but I want to address the Pitchfork article. The aspects of the album with which the reviewer takes issue are seriously bizarre: He’s mad that Win Butler is monotone on a song or two (why is expansive range a requirement for every song?), he mocks the use of synths throughout (I think it’s cool, it’s a nice development from earlier offerings, and it fits the overall project, which I’ll unpack in a minute), and he unilaterally decides that it’s in bad taste for Butler to list the days of the week in a song  (I dig the way it sounds and works with the song). I’ll just take the liberty of upgrading Pitchfork’s 5.6 rating to an 8.0. Boom.)

In some ways, Everything Now’s message is a bit on the nose: we demand everything, and we demand it now. Our Amazon-addicted society is alienating us from each other, and destroying our souls in the process. But in typical Arcade Fire fashion, the album goes beyond the lyrics. Song after song unpacks the disorientation we feel today, but the music itself is a huge part of the critique and indictment (Pitchfork somehow misses this).

Here’s how it works. Lyrically, Win Butler critiques our constant need to fill our ears, eyes, and minds with “infinite content.” He concedes that this makes us “infinitely content,” but calls out the inevitable result: “all your money’s already spent on it.” But here’s the thing: he’s singing this as part of a song that you purchased! And musically, the album itself is conspicuously upbeat and dancy.* The listener finds himself being entertained by infinite** content that simultaneously calls you out for your addiction to infinite content. It’s brilliant. And the effect is so much more powerful than a mere spoken statement. The reader is implicated in the critique. We’re all guilty as charged, just by virtue of our enjoying the thing that’s accusing us.

All of this makes the album fascinating in itself, but there’s also this: Arcade Fire has just made—probably unintentionally—a shot for shot remake of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. It’s seriously like Ecclesiastes: The Musical.

Watch how this works. The intro and first song (“Everything Now”) explore the endless journey of accumulation: music, movies, possessions. Butler sings: “Every room in my house is filled with shit I couldn’t live without” and “Every inch of space in my heart is filled with things I’ll never start.” Now jump back a few thousand years to “the Preacher” of Ecclesiastes: “Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil” (2:10). The Preacher also notes that all of a person’s hard work stems “from a man’s envy of his neighbor” (4:4—how’s that for a critique of capitalism, by the way?). And again, “All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied” (6:7).

Then we step into “Signs of Life.” Butler sings, “Looking for signs of life, looking for signs every night, but there’s no signs of life. So we do it again.” This is the pursuit of meaning through experience, but it’s an unending, unsatisfying expedition. And it’s exactly what the Preacher seeks (and finds elusive). In 2:8, he talks specifically about seeking satisfaction through people—singers, concubines (the sexual overtones should not be overlooked). But there’s no better summary of this than his opening poem:

“All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.” (1:7–9)

Let’s do one more song just for fun. On “Creature Comfort”—the musical highlight and a lyrical gut-punch of a song—Butler sings about boys hating themselves, girls hating their bodies, people begging God to make them famous or to at least keep them from pain. It’s a song about meaninglessness, suicide, giving up, and the futility of life. It’s tough, and the compelling viby drive of the song adds some tension to the enjoyable music and devastating message. But once again, this is actually the whole point of Ecclesiastes. The Preacher returns to this theme throughout. Here’s how he says it in 8:16–17:

“When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep, then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out.”

The high points in Arcade Fire’s search are found in love—not rom-com love, but fought-for, struggled-through love between doubt-filled people. This is also one of the Preacher’s realizations in Ecclesiastes. Honestly, there’s so much more to be said, but you get the point. I’m not suggesting that Arcade Fire was trying to preach Ecclesiastes in song, but I do think they were on a common journey. The Preacher set his course millennia ago, and human beings have followed in his steps ever since. I personally find Arcade Fire’s musically documented journey compelling (and convicting), and maybe you will too.

And real quick, lest there be any doubt, I want to provide the Preacher’s conclusion to his journey, lest you come to the end of Arcade Fire’s hopeful yet inconclusive final song and want to know the answer:

“The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” (12:13)

__________________________

* Let me be clear: it infuses this stylistic shift with enough fascinating elements to keep it interesting on multiple listens. Classic Arcade Fire on that count.

** The album uses song titles, style, and the intro and outro to make the album into a perfect loop. Put it on repeat and you won’t even notice the seams.

For the last fifteen years, I’ve pretty much had only one answer to the question, “How are you doing?” It’s always: “Tired.” Or maybe, “Busy, tired. But good!” As far as I can tell, this is the standard answer to the question.

How are Americans doing? They’re tired.

When I started college in 2000, I became acquainted with “busy.” It was a lot of work. And I was always tired. Then I started seminary and realized I previously had no idea what “busy” was. For much of seminary, sleep was like a hometown friend that you gradually lose contact with. And then I graduated and entered the real world and discovered, yet again, that “busy” always has added dimensions and “tired” is essentially a lifelong companion. Then we started having kids, and well, I’m looking forward to sleeping in again when I retire.

Life is good, but it’s hard. Life is rewarding, but I’m exhausted. I know I’m not the only one.

So why are we so tired? Sure, we’re tired because we work too hard, we go to bed too late, we book our schedules too tightly. But those are just the practical reasons. I’m interested in the theology of it. The theology or rest, and also the theology of tiredness. In this short post, I’ll just offer two biblical reasons for our constant tiredness.

Tired 1

The primary reason we get tired is that God designed us that way. He actually built it into the fabric of his world. God created everything in six days, then rested on the seventh. And that becomes the pattern in Scripture. Just as God rested, we human beings are called to rest as well.

This implies that even before sin entered the world, human beings needed rest. We needed sleep. This only makes sense: Could something as obviously divine as sleep be a mere side effect of sin?

So our need for rest is actually good. It was modeled by God himself. We were designed to put in a good day’s work and then to need rest, to finish off a solid work week and then to need to relax. Rest is good, and so is tiredness.

Next time someone answers your “how are you” with “I’m tired,” maybe your response should be: “Good!”

But another major reason for our tiredness is the fall of humanity into sin. This world is broken. Every aspect of this world has been tainted by the reality of sin. This makes the world dysfunctional, disorderly, and actually: tired.

The Preacher in Ecclesiastes declares all things “vanity,” which is his way of calling life a huge enigma, a stubborn puzzle that frustrates humanity at every turn. And in that context, he says,

“All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it” (1:8).

It’s a tired world. Worn out. Full of weariness to an unutterable extent. Sin bogs us down, trips us up, and quite literally pulls us toward the grave.

We are tired from living in a sin-stained world. The exhaustion of this world will eventually overcome us all. In the final chapter of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher reminds us to pursue God while we’re young, before this weary world exhausts our bodies so fully that they come to a grinding halt (12:1–8).

Our own sin contributes to this exhaustion as well. As Paul makes clear in Romans 1, human beings are worshipers by nature, and while we are designed to worship God, we often turn our ultimate pursuit to idolatrous ends.

For many Americans, our idols are our careers, our reputation, our financial stability, and our carefully purchased world of comfort. This means that we often work harder and longer hours than God intends because we are pursuing much more than we need. Our greed forces us into cycles of achievement that wear our bodies down. We believe in the myth of the self-made man or woman, so we expend more energy than we have to create our own kingdoms.

But God created us to be dependent. You’re tired because you need rest. That feeling of exhaustion is God’s reminder that you need him, that you can’t do everything yourself, that there are not enough hours in the day to build his kingdom and yours at the same time.

So go ahead and be tired. Don’t be ashamed of it. Enjoy that satisfied exhaustion that comes at the end of (and all throughout) a job well done. But if you find yourself feeling exhausted and realize that you’re wearing out your body in idolatrous pursuits, then take God’s gift of fatigue seriously and rest. He made you human for a reason; he designed human beings to need rest for a reason.

Our goal should not be tired-free living, as though we were professional vacationers. Our goal is to be tired for the right reasons, to enjoy a godly exhaustion our whole lives, and then to finally enter that blessed rest of God for all eternity (see Hebrews 4).

Wisdom LiteratureIn talking about “Wisdom Literature,” I’m referring to Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon. These books focus less on giving us direct commands and instead give us wise sayings to live by. Wisdom Literature pushes us to reflect, and in doing so it forms our character.

Each of these four books plays a different role in the overall body of Wisdom Literature. Proverbs, for example, gives us the norm for biblical wisdom. These sayings hold true in general. Now, as soon as I say that, you might notice that I’m hedging a bit. The sayings are true in general. Consider, for example, the following two proverbs:

“Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.” (Proverbs 26:4–5)

So which is it? The truth is, both are wise statements that we should allow to form our character. Taking a cue from verse 4, if we engage a fool in his argument, we’re just playing his game and showing ourselves to be fools. But when we consider verse 5, it’s also true that if we let a fool continue making his argument, his view will prevail and he won’t see the stupidity of it. Therefore we ought to engage the fool in argument so he (and everyone else) can see how foolish he is.

These proverbs set the norm. They tell us how life works, and how to live wisely. There are exceptions to many of these proverbs, but they give us the normal point of view on how the world works.

The other books of Wisdom Literature fill in this perspective. Job, for example, provides us with an exception to proverbial wisdom. Though Proverbs tells us that the righteous prosper (Prov. 3:33), Job gives us an example of a righteous man who does not prosper, precisely because he is a righteous man! Job’s friends use proverbial wisdom in “counseling” him, but they use it foolishly.

Ecclesiastes relays one man’s (“the Preacher”) pursuit of meaning in life. He lays his observations of life, considered apart from God’s presence (this is what the phrase “under the sun” is getting at), alongside traditional proverbial wisdom. He finds life perplexing and meaningless all along the way, until he finally reaches a godly conclusion.

Song of Solomon gives us a collection of love songs that simply delight in the goodness of marital love.

Together these books give us wisdom. Here are some tips for navigating this biblical genre:

 

1. Feel the imagery presented.

When you’re told that it’s better to live in the corner of a housetop than with a quarrelsome wife (Prov. 21:9), you should imagine both scenarios. What would it be like to live in the corner of a housetop? What would it be like to live with a quarrelsome wife (I sincerely hope you have to use your imagination)? Wisdom Literature makes use of vivid imagery for a reason.

 

2. Consider the wisdom offered and the benefits of being shaped by it.

Don’t move through the Wisdom Literature too quickly. Let the wisdom offered sink in. Appreciate it. See the depth of each statement. As you read through Proverbs 5, consider how profoundly wise the warning against the “forbidden woman” truly is. Imagine what your life would look life if your character was formed by these wise sayings. It’s one thing to scamper through a list of brilliant sayings. It’s another to weigh and ponder the depth of their wisdom, and to let that wisdom become a part of you.

 

3. With Proverbs, look for life direction rather than blank check promises.

As I said above, Proverbs offers us the norm. But there are exceptions. Consider, for example, Proverbs 10:3:

“The LORD does not let the righteous go hungry,
but he thwarts the craving of the wicked.”

This is a wise saying to live by. It should shape our character. And it’s often true to life. But do Christians experience crippling hunger? All the time, yes. Do the wicked receive what they “crave”? Very often.

As you read proverbs like this one, let the wisdom of the saying set the direction for your life. You should read this and be motivated to pursue righteousness. But you can’t hold this promise over God’s head like some kind of blank check promise. Paul was content to go without (Phil. 4:11–13). Christians do indeed die of starvation. God isn’t promising you unwavering material prosperity in exchange for good behavior. He spoke these words in the form of Wisdom Literature to shape your character, not to give you grounds for complaint.

 

4. With Ecclesiastes, walk with “the Preacher” on his journey.

As you read this enigmatic book, follow the “Preacher” as he searches for meaning in life. Experience his journey and resonate with his frequent observation that “all is vanity.” See the futility of life apart from God and feel the weight of the many exceptions he finds to proverbial wisdom (e.g. Eccl. 7:15). And then see the brilliance of his conclusion to this fascinating book (12:13–14).

 

5. With Job, accompany this righteous man in his unjust suffering.

As you read through this sad story, feel the bitterness of the unpredictability of life. Feel the foolishness of offering wisdom in a foolish way, as Job’s friends do for chapter upon chapter. Finally, come to the realizations that God offers to Job at the end of the book.

 

6. For Song of Solomon, delight in the romantic side of love.

As you read through this beautiful book, don’t try to spiritualize it, as Christian scholars have done for much of church history. Nothing in this book indicates that these songs are to be taken as allegories of Christ and the church. They give every indication of being love songs written between lovers. So read them that way. And appreciate the value and beauty of romantic love.

 

How Nietzsche Killed God

Mark Beuving —  August 22, 2012 — 3 Comments

On a bright nineteenth-century morning, a madman lit a lantern and rushed into a crowded marketplace in a German town. “I seek God!” he exclaimed. No self-respecting townsperson in the post-Enlightenment world believed in God, so the madman’s cry was met only with laughter.

“I’ll tell you where God is,” returned the madman. “God is dead! God remains dead. And we have killed him.” At this, the townsfolk grew silent. The madman went on to explain the ramifications of this murderous act, but still no response from the crowd. Throwing his lantern to the ground, the madman cried out, “I have come too soon! The deed has been done, but news of it has not yet spread this far.” From there, the madman went into church after church, singing a funeral dirge to God and declaring the churches to be nothing more than tombs to the divine.

Friedrich Nietzsche told this parable of the madman (loosely paraphrased above, you can read the whole text of this short parable here—I’d definitely recommend reading it). The story is provocative, to say the least. What exactly did Nietzsche mean when he said that God is dead? How is this possible?

Nietzsche’s parable is brilliant. His observation is incredibly astute, even if you don’t like what it’s saying. Before Nietzsche came on the scene, humanity had indeed killed God. Or the notion of God. With the Renaissance, gifted individuals recovered something of the ancient Greek way of thinking, which set aside myth, superstition, and revelation and focused on what a person could learn for himself. Beginning with myself alone, how can I use my brain and my senses to decide what is true and what is false?

This return to autonomous human reason picked up in the Renaissance, came to a head in the Enlightenment, and then continued to grow bolder and more absolute. By the time Nietzsche came on the scene, people no longer needed God. Science was explaining away the mysteries of the world, and Darwin had finally developed an alternative explanation for the origins of the world.

And so Nietzsche entered the proverbial marketplace declaring the death of God. God had been killed, yet people didn’t seem to be aware of the implications of their unadulterated faith in scientific naturalism.

But Nietzsche’s parable isn’t as hostile toward religion in general as it might appear. Nietzsche had a huge problem with Christianity as an institution, but he kind of admired Jesus (sound familiar?). Nietzsche wasn’t trying to get people to stop believing. To the contrary, he recognized that some sort of spirituality was necessary to find meaning in life.

In The Madman, Nietzsche rightly emphasizes the significance of losing faith. The people in the marketplace did not believe in God, but to a large extent their lives would have been shaped by a memory of this belief. Nietzsche warns us that if God is dead—really truly dead, entirely discounted—then everything will change.

What Nietzsche is saying in The Madman is not that God is dead so let’s throw a party, he is saying that God is dead and he must be replaced with something. In the post-Enlightenment world, faith in God had been replaced with faith in science. But Nietzsche, himself an atheist, insists that a person cannot live a faith-free life. God is dead, so what must we do to find meaning for our lives in his absence?

“What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

Here is why I bring all of this up. Even a bitter atheist like Nietzsche knows that life is meaningful. He understands that life cannot be lived apart from some sort of spiritual pursuit. What “festivals of atonement” or “sacred games” must we develop in order to replace our old, dead religions? Even an atheist fills her life with liturgy. If we deny the existence of a transcendent God, we are the only possible replacements. Prepare yourself, you’ve got some huge shoes to fill.

Nietzsche’s spiritual alternative to God was a fascination with the world around us. We will find meaning for our lives precisely by rejecting false notions about God and jumping into the world around us. For Nietzsche, vitality itself was the meaning of life.

What I find fascinating is that this is exactly the approach that the Preacher tried in Ecclesiastes. He, too, supposed that meaning could be found by throwing himself into life. But what the Preacher found is that all of life is meaningless apart from God, yet overwhelmingly meaningful with God.

This world is a certain type of place, and regardless of what we choose to believe, the world itself does not change with our convictions. As Francis Schaeffer would say, people can choose to believe what they want, but they still have to live in the world that God made. It’s a meaningful world, a world that is badly broken yet still overflowing with glory, and a world in which God is anything but dead.

 

The word Hippie has a lot of connotations. Most of them are bad, but I suppose that depends on your perspective. If thinking about Hippies automatically makes you break out in hives, however, let me assure you that Hippie culture is not all bad, nor is it all good. (Which means, of course, that it’s like every other culture in the world).

Yesterday I talked about two values that destroyed modern civilization. Francis Schaeffer identified these values as “personal peace” and “affluence.” As a generation in the midst of the twentieth century embraced these two values, they became apathetic about most everything. To them, there was nothing wrong with this. To their children coming of age in the 60s and 70s, however, this was revolting.

This generation looked at their parents and wanted nothing to do with their sugary Leave-It-to-Beaver lifestyle. What that saw was fake. Plastic. What they wanted was real. Genuine. They didn’t want pretenses or the appearance of having it all together. They wanted to let it all hang out and find out what was real.

So they acted out. They pursued ideologies in ways that their parents never had. They aggressively experimented with drugs, sex, and alcohol. They threw themselves into rock n’ roll. Plenty were just going along for the ride, but many pursued these things ideologically. They were searching for meaning, for some experience that would validate their lives and give them a sense of reality. In fact, even those who were just after the pleasure often did this as a means of finding a philosophical experience through the pleasure itself.

Here’s the thing. We can look back at the Hippies and mock them for Woodstock. We can call them stoners and look down on them for being so rebellious and out of touch with their parents. But Schaeffer insists that this generation was doing something right. They were searching for something. They saw their parents’ values of personal peace and affluence for what they really were: bankrupt. They wanted nothing to do with these values, so they rebelled and tried something different.

Steve Jobs in 1976

The problem is, they didn’t find what they were looking for. In the tradition of Ecclesiastes, they looked everywhere for meaning and found nothing. So what did they do? They fell in line. They stopped acting out. They got jobs, moved a few steps up the corporate ladder, and started families. The only remnants of their rebellion were the closet pot smoking and their continued fascination with Dylan and the Beatles.

But most importantly, they ended exactly where their parents had been. They too embraced personal peace and affluence as their highest values. They dressed differently and still couldn’t quite relate to their parents, but in this area they were identical. Many looked at this mellowing out and rejoiced. The Woodstock generation is behind us! Our children are normal again! But Schaeffer says that he could have cried. At least they had been passionate about something! Now their lives were devoted to the same impoverished values their parents had settled into.

So what about us? What do you really care about? What drives you? What are you pursuing? Does your subculture make you feel unique? In touch? Are you a passionate type of person?

As I said yesterday, don’t assume that being passionate in general is enough to carry you through. What you want to see is action. Devotion. You want to see your beliefs making a difference in your life and in the people around you. If all you have is a rebellious passion, it doesn’t matter whether your ideology is drug taking or evangelizing.

At the end of the day, if your highest values are personal peace and affluence, you’re still just sitting on the sidelines. Too much of the church today looks no different than the world in this respect. They wear Christian t-shirts and attend Christian services, but these are mild forms of rebellion that eventually fade back into the pursuit of personal peace and affluence.

See these values for what they are and let your commitment to Christ and his kingdom transform you and the world around you.