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A Good Book

My renewed apologies for the late arrival of this BTW. This time I was ill rather than simply forgetful. Nonetheless, I am sure you will be relieved that my stint is now over. I’ll try and be more organized when my turn next comes up.

 

This week’s Good Book is the latest to appear in the Grove Biblical Series: Ecclesiastes, a Peculiarly Postmodern Piece, by Doug Ingram, who teaches Old Testament at St. John’s College, Nottingham. Readers who work through this helpful booklet will learn a lot about Ecclesiastes, and will also be left with some interesting questions to follow up for themselves.

 

What is postmodernity? It is many things to many people, no doubt; but in this context we can define it as a recognition of the ambiguity of our world. In contrast to modernity, associated in many people’s minds with a certainty that science would lay bare the secrets of the universe, advocates of postmodern thought stress that many questions about human existence cannot be answered, and are likely enough incapable of a definitive answer: our perspective is too limited to yield full understanding, and different viewers’ standpoints are so different that agreement on disputed issues seems impossible.

 

So far so good? So far, so vague and fuzzy, more likely. But this is where Ecclesiastes comes in. For Ecclesiastes is an ambiguous book, or at least, it has yielded an extraordinary range of interpretations. It has been described as ‘the quintessence of piety’ and ‘the quintessence of scepticism’; as a book of ‘joy’ and a book of ‘despair’; and so on. In the first half of his discussion Ingram explores different features of Ecclesiastes which make it ambiguous: key terms can be translated in many different ways (e.g., 1:2; 2:11 – is it ‘vanity’, ‘meaningless’, ‘temporary’, ‘unknowable’, ‘breath’ or…?); whole sections of text can be understood differently depending on how one weighs the significance of individual words and even on the tone of voice one decides to read them in! Are passages such as 1:4–11 and 3:1–8 positive in tone (the world is going somewhere; everything takes place at its appointed time) or negative (nothing really changes; you can never know the right time for anything)? Key concepts are equally hard to pin down or evaluate: what are human beings? Is work a blessing or an evil? Does wisdom bring benefits? How should we view death? And so on.

 

It cannot be an accident, argues Ingram, that Ecclesiastes generates such different interpretations. Even among biblical books Ecclesiastes stands out for the range of ways in which it has been understood. Most likely, the book is ambiguous because its writer meant it to be so; that is, because he intended his book to include elements of paradox, contradiction and mystery. Why might he have done this? For many reasons, perhaps. Certainly, the result is a text that is ‘true to life’ (not least in that it is as hard to understand as life itself), that confronts complex and painful realities head on (there are passages as bleak and pessimistic as any in the OT), and that seems designed to stimulate (not to say provoke or irritate) readers to further reflection – an effective, if unconventional teaching method.

 

But, granted that Ecclesiastes recognizes, indeed mirrors life’s ambiguities, is the book simply a ‘morass in which readers wade around grabbing onto any “meaning” they happen to find floating by’, as Ingram puts it (p. 19)? No for some features of Ecclesiastes are clearly at odds with postmodern thought, most notably the insistence that there is a God who exists, who gives, who acts, who judges, and who is to be worshipped. Admittedly Ecclesiastes speaks about God somewhat differently from other parts of the OT. Further, some of what Ecclesiastes says highlights the difficulties in speaking about God’s action in the world: there are texts which suggest that God does not seem to give equally to all; and the book is apparently contradictory on the question of judgment (on the one hand, it is clear that the righteous and the wicked are not treated as one would expect in this life, but on the other, Ecclesiastes does not seem to believe in a life after death). But nonetheless God is the foundation-stone of the writer’s thought, and there other things that the writer goes on to affirm on that basis: that our power and understanding are puny compared to God’s; but that what we do with our lives does in the end matter; that faith in God is possible, even in an ambiguous world.

 

In the last section of his study Ingram asks a series of useful and necessary questions, which balance the earlier, exploratory parts: Did the author of Ecclesiastes really intend to write such an ambiguous text? How should we read the book? How should we respond to it? To what extent should Christians emphasize certainty over ambiguity? How can we cope with a world full of ambiguity and uncertainty? You may find that earlier parts of this study seem to overplay the ambiguity of Ecclesiastes, but this section acts as a welcome corrective, addressing questions raised by the author’s approach and asking the crucial question What follows? Ecclesiastes, Ingram concludes, is not simply a postmodern tract out of time, but a book which, because it confronts the ambiguity of the world within a theistic framework, is particularly well suited to address postmodernity, which is, after all, an important part of the contemporary scene.

 

I commend this short and readable study.

 

[PES]

NEWS BITS

  1. Congratulations to Edward and Lee Pin on the birth of their  first child, Josephine T. Jacob, on 1 June 2005.

  2. Logos Bible Software - Academic Discount Program for BGST Faculty, Staff and Students. Logos is offering Biblical Graduate School of Theology the deepest discounts possible on the Series X Libraries:  50% off the normal price!  This discount is only available at the website from May 20  - July 31, 2005. Thereafter the Academic Discount Program offer twice a year will be set at 40%. For more details, please email to Kok Weng at leongkw@bgst.edu.sg. To watch an online DEMO, go to :  www.logos.com/demo  

  3. Dr Aquila Lee's new book From Messiah to Preexistent Son published by Mohr Siebeck is already out and a copy is available in the library. The book has been included in WUNT 2 series, a prestigious publication for New Testament scholarship. More details of the book can be found at http://www.mohr.de/t/n4220_e.htm

 

A Blessed Birthday to ...

Mdm Tong Mee On  6/6

Mr Peter Yee  7/6

Mr Albert Lim  7/6

Mr Wong Kam Weng  9/6

Mrs Jocelyn Chng  10/6

Mr Lim Thou Tin  11/6

Dr Tan See Seng  12/6

Ms Sandra Heng  13/6

Ms Rebecca Lee  14/6

Dr Quek Swee Hwa  15/6

Ms Bernadette Jesu  15/6

Dr Cheng Ching Keng  17/6

Mr Gordon Goh  18/6

Mr Yong Pin Yoon  18/6

Mdm  Eva Fong  18/6

Mr Loke Mun Tai  18/6

Mr  Lawrence Ng  22/6

Dr John Lim  23/6

Mdm Tricia Yeo 23/6

Mr David Yap  24/6


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