Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Link: Practical Theology for Women: Wisdom vs the Law ...

Observing the contrast between wisdom literature and the law is something I've been stumbling on to in the last five years. I'm neither married nor a parent but it does seem as though in our eagerness to avoid relativism and antinominianism we as conservative Protestants can transform the wisdom literature, but especially Proverbs, into a new kind of law that goes beyond what scripture itself advises. The older I get the more I appreciate that we get not one but two books in the wisdom literature that provide different warnings against a misuse of proverbs. Both of these correctives reveal the ways in which proverbs aren't laws. Job shows us a personal case study of a godly man who meets disaster.

A friend of mine once taught a course on Job at a church and he explained that Job's friends had the correct theology, the correct theodicy but that at the end of the day they were still told by God that they had not spoken the truth about Him. The right theology applied at the wrong time to the wrong person for the wrong reasons is still wrong theology about the Lord. Too few Christians realize the staggering implications and ramifications of this, particularly when we are tempted to pass judgment on other Christians for going through suffering or experiencing failure. Then, of course, there are proverbs that have contrasting observations. Your friend's observations intrigue me because, well, I have been concluding that Christians need to read proverbs as riddles rather than rules, riddles that allow us to examine the mysteries of living rather than as checklists to ensure that we won't meet disaster (ergo what I said earlier about Job's friends and their mistake of universal application of what was given, as you noted, as situational wisdom).

If Job presents us with the personal history of a godly man who faced disaster permitted by God then Ecclesiastes reveals that a lifetime of wisdom does not necessarily yield the happiness a person would expect. A believer can treat the proverbs as rules for living a great life and then still find himself or herself looking back on a life lived by rules that do not bring fulfillment.

One of my favorite observations about Ecclesiastes is that in the epilogue we're shown that in addition to being wise the Preacher collected and weighed many proverbs. Ecclesiastes can be seen as the Preacher approaching the end of his life and realizing that amassing all that wisdom did not bring the kind of success or fulfillment he assumed would be his. Why, then, had he been so very wise? Ecclesiastes looks at the limits and problems of attempting to live life as though proverbs were rules for success. It is not merely an example of how "earthly wisdom" reveals our need for Christ. Ecclesiastes predates Christ so, obviously, we won't be pointed to Jesus.

What we are pointed to is that even the divinely inspired scriptures we get in the form of wisdom literature through Proverbs was given to give us wisdom but that wisdom will reveal conflicting priorities. What happens when a father and mother approach an adult child about taking on their debt? A blunt application of the ten commandments might advice the child to handle his/her parents' debt while Proverbs 6 would warn against taking on anyone's debt for any reason. As Tim Keller put it, wisdom is what we need because there are many decisions that are not forbidden by the Bible and are not really immoral but are, finally, still not wise. Attempting to reduce wisdom to a checklist of moral or immoral actions can cause us to forsake wisdom while thinking we are attaining it.

This is perhaps best summed up in the otherwise inexplicable "Do not be too righteous and do not be a fool." This is not necessarily a warning against self-righteous religious pride or we wouldn't see the Preacher say that no one is blameless just a few verses later. The most self-righteous people in the world are frequently the first people to say "I'm not perfect" before condemning you for not being them. We know this even without having to consult the scriptures!

If no one is righteous because no one can fail to avoid sin then the admonition to not be overly righteous as a reference to religious self-righteousness makes no sense. It's pointless to warn people to avoid doing something they can't do. Clearly it is impossible to live without sin. Conversely, advising people to not be wicked and die before one's time is pedestrian by itself. That the overly righteous man dies early like the overly wicked does not suggest that this is a case of religious self-righteousness. It makes far more sense to read this passage not as a reference to piety but as a reference to the stance rather than the actual wisdom of the wise person.

In a useful cross reference to the JPS Tanakh the reading goes roughly as follows--"In my short life I have seen everything. I have seen a wise man die despite his wisdom and an evil man prosper despite his wickedness. So don't overdo goodness and don't act the wise man too much or you will be dumbfounded. Don't overdo wickedness and be a fool and then die early. It is best to grasp the one without letting go of the other because the one who fears God will account for both." Let me propose that the problem with Job's friends was that they had the affectation of wisdom rather than actual wisdom. In the end they were dumbfounded by the Lord while Job, who asked questions that went unanswered was, strangely, vindicated not by any answers but by a visitation from the Lord.

If balance in avoiding the extremes of Ecclesiastes 7 is the measure of the one who fears God then it can't refer to either sin or to self-righteousness. The godly person knows sinlessness is impossible but does not as a result embrace sin. It makes more sense to say we are warned against the affectation of wisdom rather than some kind of false piety or religious self-righteousness. Why, because if it weren't then why are we warned that there are wicked who prosper in their wickedness while there are wise people who die early in their wisdom?

When God said He would confound the wisdom of the wise it was not merely the pagan wisdom He was confounding. Christ is a stumbling block to both the Jew as well as the Gentile. In fact I may as well be so bold as to point out that you will not see Christ in the wisdom literature. Christ Himself is the wisdom of God that the wisdom literature aspired to comprehend but cannot comprehend. Let us not forget that Proverbs is a collection of axioms and observations and riddles collected by people attempting to live in light of the fear of the Lord. Ecclesiastes is a reflection on the limits of those observations and the depth of those riddles. Job is a series of speeches in which orthodox friends of Job misapply orthodoxy to the issue of Job's suffering at the hands of God. Depending on who we talk to Song of Songs is a typological reflection on God's love for His chosen people or a manual of sex positions and communication techniques. But none of this necessarily points us to Christ.

Look at the life of Christ in light of Proverbs, particularly if you would like to interpret Proverbs as a set of rules or laws. Did Christ receive a wife that would be a sign of blessing from the Lord? Did He have an inheritance to leave to his children? Oh, well, no, He didn't. What about not taking up the debts of others? Wasn't there that coin that was miraculously provided for Peter to pay his tax? Sure, Jesus was sinless but consider that what Christ did in going to the cross was not just foolishness to the Greeks, there was a great deal of it that would have to be considered foolishness even by the measure of Proverbs. It is not for nothing that Paul wrote that the foolishness of God is better than the wisdom of men, and that would even include the wisdom of men compiled for our benefit in the canonical book of Proverbs or Job or Ecclesiastes.

Scripture tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and this is beyond dispute. What I am learning as I go is that, given the riddles explored by the wisdom literature, that the fear of the Lord is also the GOAL of wisdom. We can't just tell ourselves that if we consider ourselves reverant enough toward the Lord that we will then get wisdom. That often doesn't happen! It often leads to nothing more than the affectation of wisdom. In my life that has manifest in the form of married guys assuming they have more wisdom than single guys because they are married. It manifests in the form of liberals or conservatives assuming they have more wisdom than their idiotic alternates. None of that is wisdom, the fear of the Lord is wisdom. If there is more hope for a fool than for a man who is wise in his own eyes then we must not only be cautious about how wise we think we are but about the scope and usefulness even, dare I say it, of the wisdom tradition in general. If we construe the aim of the wisdom literature as living a successful life then we are in danger of distorting the real goal of the wisdom literature which is the fear of the Lord. Yes, if you get wisdom you will have more odds at success but no guarantees of it.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

and another link, just because--xkcd, "Significant"

Link: Alex Ross in the New Yorker touches on J.S. Bach and death

I spoke too soon if I said that 2011 was at least not a year that included as much death around me as 2011. I don't mean death in natural disasters such as the tsunami in Japan, but death that touches at a personal level. My sister lost a baby she was carrying recently and today I learned that an old friend from my Mars Hill days has died. Learning of two deaths in a single day is ... grim. When I was young I appreciated Bach for the genius of his approach to musical thought and his mastery of counterpoint. I still love those things about his work but I have also come to appreciate how comprehensive his range of emotional expression is and how he composed as a Christian. Plus Bach dealt with more death than any emo or grunge or death metal sort has probably actually had to deal with in this American life.

What Alex Ross describes in summary could be a life's work I am not capable of writing at the age of 37. My life's work, whatever it may be, shall not likely be a treatise on how Bach's cumulative work in sacred choral music can be construed as a meditative live-out reflection on the warnings of Ecclesiastes that life is short and unstable and that we shall all die. Besides, Bach's music itself is so suffused with the realization of the reality and brutality of death I have nothing I could add in writing about it. Good artists and bad artists alike can spend their days grappling with what it means to be human and what it means to live. Good artists and bad artists alike can confront what it means to die and what the daily reality of death surrounding us means.

The difference between a Pixar and a Disney film in which death is in the stakes is that in a Disney film death tends to come only to the villain, who at any rate we see deserves death. In pixar films death is what threatens to rob the protagonist of love and friendship and action. The figurative facing down of the endless fire of the trash heap in Toy Story 3 is affecting because, as with so many of Pixar's best films, the reality and, for us, immutability of death most directly confronts us in the narrative. Death is averted by a providential intervention but death is still one day going to come. As many works of art on grief and death and loss have revealed, the great pain of death is for the living who have lost those they have loved. In childrens' entertainment even being so bold as to confront the reality that such loss can happen can be profoundly affecting and even unnerving for us. As one reviewer put it so pointedly about TS3, "These are pretty fricking existential toys!" Not existential, so much, but aware of the reality of death.

It may be a mistake of our era in terms of art and thought to imagine that simply confronting the reality of mortality involves existentialism. Existentialism as a philosophy was hardly the currency of Bach's day and yet he certainly lived a life full of the death of those he loved. As a man who lost his parents, his first wife, and no less than ten children to death, Bach was, dare I say, almost terribly qualified to reflect in his art on the brevity and frailty of human life. What makes Bach work special is that, as a Christian, he reflected not only on the pervasiveness and depth of death but explored in his music how Christ Himself lay in the bonds of death, broke the bonds of death, accepted death for us, and conquered death for us. Bach has hardly been the only composer to have reflected on these things.

Other composers have done a great job of using music to reflect on how Christ embraced death on a cross for our salvation and Penderecki's harrowing and, yes, melodramatic Luke Passion is a sturdy 20th century example. But arguably without Bach Penderecki's masterpiece would not really be what it was. Furthermore, while I respect Penderecki's use of the techniques of the avant garde to depict the suffering of Christ Bach's music is adept at plumbing beneath that into what scriptures reveal, ultimately are the motives of Christ. Christian choral music would be impoverished were either of the works of these two composers not with us but, obviously, the absence of Bach would lead to the greater poverty. Fortunately that possibility is utterly moot.

Link: 1 year anniversary of death of Internet Monk

Of course I couldn't help but notice this. Last year Internet Monk died and a month or so before a woman I used to know in my days after graduating from college was murdered by a man who had been stalking her for years. Months later last year one of my cousins died of skin cancer. 2010 was a year full of death for me. I don't really have much to add to that.

It wasn't all death, of course. I wrote a lot and some of what I wrote included "Toy Story as a trilogy of heroic repentance" over at Mockingbird. But today I remember that had it not been for Michael Spenser linking to Mockingbird and writing so warmly about their work I wouldn't have known about the blog, wouldn't have made comments on it and wouldn't have gotten the wonderful invitation from David Zahl to write for Mockingbird about my favorite movie trilogy. So, really, Michael, though you're not here with us to read this I owe one of my favorite writing projects in the last year to the long-term effects of your ministry.

Not much else to say right now so I'll leave it at that.