Tag Archives | death

Playing God | Tom Smail

We are often told that to intervene in the process of nature and especially in matters of life and death is to play God. But if we are made in the image of God, then to play God is exactly what we are invited to do.

—Tom Smail, Like Father, Like Son: The Trinity Imaged in Our Humanity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 162.

Our Dream of Life | Marilynne Robinson

Our dream of life will end as dreams do end, abruptly and completely, when the sun rises, when the light comes. And we will think, All that fear and all that grief were about nothing.

—Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York: Harper Perennial, 2004), 104.

The Dead Redeemed | Wendell Berry

I imagine the dead walking, dazed, into a shadowless light in which they know themselves altogether for the first time. It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned and redeemed. It is Hell until it is Heaven.

—Wendell Berry, A World Lost in Three Short Novels, 326.

Three Short Novels | Wendell Berry

A theology professor once mentioned to me that “land” is the one major theological category of the Old Testament that has no obvious analogue in the new covenant. Land was central to Israel’s plight. Slavery in foreign land, wandering in desert land, entrance to the promised land, exile from said land, and return. Everything hinges on that land.

The idea of land has captivated the mind of Berry just as fully as it haunted the mind of any ancient Israelite. Despite the fact that I’m a northern wilderness camper and Berry’s a Kentucky farmer, his tie to the land resonates through the fiction he writes, eliciting harmonic overtones within.

His Three Short Novels are all thoughtful works. He dives deep into the soul of his characters and brings their lives to life with an economy of words. Whether we’re watching Nathan Coulter grow up, feeling the frustration of Andy as the lone dissonant in a conference on “The Future of the American Food System,” or piecing together the lost life of a murdered uncle, the reader is beckoned to enter each life deeply.

The most poignant moment in all three novels was Andy’s vision of his town resurrected.

He sees that they are the dead, and they are alive. He sees that he lives in eternity as he lives in time, and nothing is lost. Among the people of that town, he sees men and women he remembers, and men and women remembered in memories he remembers, and they do not look as he ever saw or imagined them. The young are no longer young, nor the old old. They appear as children corrected and clarified; they have the luminous vividness of new grass after fire. And yet they are mature as ripe fruit. And yet they are flowers. (221)

None of Berry’s characters find their resurrection along an easy path, though. Everyone bears the marks of their journey—whether it’s a missing hand or the memory of an exploding bird on the wing. Maybe this is why Berry’s characters are so real. They’re created by their suffering.

That light can come into this world only as love, and love can enter only by suffering. (326)

Berry’s characters stay with you. His three short sketches are at the same time epic and concise. When you read Berry you feel a human connection with his creation and their connection to their beloved land.

Ecclesiastes | Peter Enns

Death makes life absurd.

This is the message of Ecclesiastes in four words. Enns does a great job clarifying and emphasizing this point in his Two Horizons commentary.

The book of Ecclesiastes is a sandwich:

  1. Frame Narrator (1:1-11)
  2. Qohelet (preacher) (1:12-12:7)
  3. Frame Narrator (12:8-14)

The Frame Narrator begins by summarizing the Qohelet’s words (Life is absurd). Next, the Qohelet himself, assuming a royal persona, reaffirms the declaration that life is absurd since death levels the playing field.

The message of Ecclesiastes can be clarified when we look at the phrase, “the end of man,” repeated four times:

  1. The end of man is to be happy and do good while he lives (3:13)
  2. The end of man is to enjoy the prosperity God gives (5:19)
  3. The end of man is to die (7:2)

In the end, the Frame Narrator picks up on this key phrase and gently reminds the reader:

  • The end of man is to fear God and to keep his commandments (12:13)

The Narrator doesn’t deny or undermine the observations of the Qohelet. Instead, he agrees. Sure, live is absurd and death robs life of its meaning. In light of this, what can we do but serve God?

Enns’ commentary is a paragraph by paragraph reading of the text. This style of commentary makes it easy for the important themes to shine through. It also helps to guard against false isolated readings. Perhaps the greatest example of a wrongheaded reading of Ecclesiastes is the “Time” meditation in chapter 3. The Byrds transformed a statement of hopelessness into zen-like tranquility. The Qohelet was far more frustrated than Pete Seeger was at life!

The commentary proper is only half of the book. After a thorough reading of the text, Enns reflects on in in the following ways:

  1. Theological Horizons of Ecclesiastes: Here Enns reflects on whether or not Ecclesiastes is Wisdom literature since the Qohelet has some negative things to say about wisdom itself. He also emphasizes the Qohelet’s negative view of God as well as how death makes life meaningless. “Ecclesiastes is a brutally honest book, and we will not profit from it if we tame it according to another standard, be it one gleaned from elsewhere in Scripture or of our own devising” (135).
  2. The Contribution of Ecclesiastes to Biblical Theology: Here Enns clarifies the relationship between Ecclesiastes and Job, Psalms, and Proverbs. Expanding outward from there, he reflects on Ecclesiastes as Second Temple theology—what if God himself is the problem? As the horizon broadens to the New Testament, Enns examines how Jesus embodies the one abandoned by God. The Qohelet’s words “give believers a glimpse—only a glimpse—of the hopelessness and despair of Christ’s passion” (171). Jesus also embodies the figure of wisdom himself.
  3. The Significance of Ecclesiastes for Theology and Praxis Today: Enns concludes with two ways that Ecclesiastes can influence theology and life today. The first concerns our understanding of the nature of Scripture. Ecclesiastes proves that contrary voices are welcomed by God. Enns evokes Brueggemann’s “countertestimony” to describe Ecclesiastes’ contribution. This welcoming of contrary voices is important for us to understand today. “If our model of Scripture is defined by too restrictive articulations of divine authority, infallibility, or even polyphony, we may run afoul of the contrastive power of books like Ecclesiastes” (198). The second contribution Ecclesiastes has to offer us is a renewed emphasis on honesty in the faith journey. If nothing else, the Qohelet proves that God honours honesty over propriety!

I’ve read Longman and Fox on Ecclesiastes. While they both have deep philosophical and linguistic insight, I found Enns commentary more helpful in understanding the overall force of the book. Enns allows the Qohelet to speak in all his quasi-blasphemous anger and frustration without trying to force him into a modern theological position. If you want one book to help understand the book of Ecclesiastes, this is it.

Loss and New Beginnings | Douglas H. Gresham

I am beginning to realise that every point in one’s life at which one loses everything is far more a beginning than an end, for one has lost merely the past, and one has yet to gain the future, and eternity itself.

—Douglas H. Gresham, Lenten Lands: My Childhood with Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis, 4.

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