Sunday, July 31, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Book of Ecclesiastes

Poor Solomon. King of Israel, son of another legendary king, gifted with supernatural wisdom, blessed with insane amounts of riches, and then he turns around and writes Ecclesiastes, an ode to ennui and sameness. All that Solomon had didn't satisfy him, and that seems to be related to the way he fell away from loving and serving God in his later years.

Solomon starts off his book by saying that everything in life is "vanity" or futility. Nothing is worthwhile. What good is it to work hard at your job when you're just going to die and be replaced by a generation of people doing the exact same thing you used to do? The earth is unchanged by humankind's constant efforts--the sun, wind, storms, and rivers keep on going without end. So far, this could be the subject of some 19th century French poetry (Charles Baudelaire had some choice things to say about the misery of boredom), but Solomon goes on: "the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing" (1:8).

This makes me think of how, even though we always try to please our senses, it can never be done properly. We even talk about this unfulfilled state when we compliment the things we enjoy--we'll mention an excellent meal or book or movie and say "it left me wanting more". All the enjoyable experiences we can possible give ourselves can only sate us temporarily, and even after the best dinner we'll want breakfast the day after, and after hearing the most beautiful song we'll soon be browsing iTunes for the next big find. And I don't think that this is a bad thing, this built-in design flaw we have of being unable to permanently satisfy ourselves. It demonstrates that we're creatures that can't be filled up with anything we find in our own world.

Solomon is so frustrated over the futility of life, he goes back and forth a few times with his positions. In 1:18 he says "For in much wisdom is much grief: he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow" and in 2:13 he says, "Then I saw that wisdom excelleth folly, as far as light excelleth darkness". Well, which is it? Is wisdom a burden or a blessing? Both, I suppose. Wisdom comes from God, but it's also very uncomfortable to have a lot of wisdom if you don't also have joy from the Lord, too. Solomon concludes in Chapter 2 that "There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labor." Enjoy whatever you obtain, and work hard at your assigned tasks. Sound good enough to me.

Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes begins to list a famous litany of things that happen in their own particular time and season. Most people know this passage of Scripture through the lyrics of a 1960's song famously covered by The Byrds: "To everything (turn, turn, turn), there is a season (turn, turn, turn) and a time to every purpose under heaven." Except for the "turns", the song is a word for word transcription of some verses in Ecclesiastes. I find it interesting that just when Solomon seems to have established his main argument--"what's good for a person to do in life", he continues talking for 9 more chapters after that, most of them very gloomy.

Solomon's book may be a tremendous exercise in frustration for some readers, but at least it points out one thing--whatever it is that your heart needs, you're not likely to find it here on Earth.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Book of Proverbs

Proverbs is often attributed to King Solomon the son of David, though at least some of the individual proverb chapters have other authors.  The chief subject of the whole book is wisdom--mostly subdivided into discussions of why wisdom is important and how people can obtain it. Wisdom is something ordained by God, Proverbs says, because "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge" (Prov. 1:7). The fear of the Lord doesn't mean being terrified of God and haunted by what he might do to you if you mess up; it's more about respecting and reverencing the Lord, which involves doing what he says. 

Here are a few of the themes and repeated elements I see in Proverbs:

Openness seems to be a big key to getting wisdom. You have to be willing to listen and take advice to heart:. "A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels" (Prov. 1: 5). We'll never learn to be wise if won't listen to people who have the knowledge we need. It's harder than it sounds to admit that we're wrong and to pay attention to wise instruction.

Foolishness is mentioned a lot in Proverbs, too, because you can't really have a good discussion about wisdom without noting some foolish behavior for contrast. Chapter 1 talks about a bunch of guys getting together for criminal activities, thinking that they won't get caught or suffer any consequences for harming others, and it advises young men to stay away from these guys. "My son, walk not thou in the way with them; refrain thy foot from their path: For their feet run to evil, and make haste to shed blood" (Prov. 1:15-16). These verses are addressing the issue of peer pressure and the intense desire to belong to a group. None of the crimes that the "sinners" in the verses are talking about sound good or appealing, but the "son" character might be tempted to join them simply because they advertise their shady activity as being a secret act of unity, like their own private club. Just like wisdom can be gained by listening to others, foolishness is a communicable disease that we can catch by being influenced by people who want to harm others and serve their own greed.

Short wisdom snippets: A ton of the verses in Proverbs are basically stand-alone quotes with a "This AND That" ("A lying tongue hateth those that are afflicted by it; and a flattering mouth worketh ruin." prov. 26:28) or a "This BUT That" (A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger. 15:1)

structure. There are many short proverbs that cover most any kind of moral problem and how it should be addressed, and I have several favorites among them. One that readily comes to mind is Proverbs 3: 27, "Withhold not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in the power of thine hand to do it." This reminds me that if it's possible for me to do good for a person, even in a small way, that's exactly what I need to be doing. Benefitting another person isn't just a matter of my feeling friendly and generous--I'm hurting that same person if I don't give them that small piece of help or encouragement that I'm able to provide.

Proverbs has 31 chapters of counsel and advice, all of them well worth reading. Proverbs is one of the cornerstone pieces of wisdom literature in the Old Testament, and it's the sort of jam-packed book that contains an immense amount of helpful information in a small space--it's readable within a few sittings, if you're in the right mindset.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Poetry Review: "The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower" by Dylan Thomas

I love Dylan Thomas' work. He was an early 20th-century Welsh poet, and I'm very enamored of his verbal style with its big emphasis on sounds and images. His most famous poem is probably "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night", but I like some of his slightly more obscure work, like "The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower". I'll try to explicate/critique it a bit.

"The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my shroud sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman's lime.

The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather's wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.

And I am dumb to tell the lover's tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm."

Technical breakdown: We've got 4 stanzas of 5 lines each, plus an ending couplet. The middle line of each stanza if half-length, for emphasis, and the closing couplet reminds me of a sonnet's ending. "The Force" has an ABABA rhyme scheme, but it's loosely done--"flower," destroyer," and "fever" only sorta-kinda rhyme. The long lines are basically iambic pentameter ("The FORCE that DRIVES the WAter THROUGH the ROCKS").

Thematic breakdown: The poem is mostly talking about life, death, and the way time connects the two. Nature and humanity are also compared and contrasted a good deal.

Stanza 1, Explosiveness: Time is the "force that through the green fuse drives the flower", but time doesn't just nudge or push the flower into the open--it forces it. Time is aggressive in this poem. Also, the flower's middle is a "green fuse"--not a stem, stalk, or tube, but a fuse as if it were a stick of dynamite. Flowers+dynamite=Dylan Thomas' poetry. Time also "blasts the roots of trees", which could mean that it makes them grow or that time sends tree roots slamming through the dirt like shrapnel. Time destroys by pushing life along at such a pace that the living things are worn out and broken by the pace of their development--at the end of stanza 1, the speaker tries to talk to a "crooked rose"and mentions how his own youth is "bent".

Stanza 2, Currents, Drought, and Draining: Time moves the waters, too, in the same rough way that it produces plant growth. The water doesn't flow on its own power over the rocks; it is driven right through the rocks. The running water is compared to the speaker's own bloodflow, but the same force of time that makes water and blood burst along their paths, also dries river beds and solidifies human veins. Creeeepy. The speaker feels time draining him like a vampire, like it drains the mountain springs.

Stanza 3, Divine Destruction: For the first time, the speaker address the role of the Divine in the processes of Time. Unfortunately, though the divine presence can heal and can avert destruction, it also brings about death eventually.  "The hand that whirls the water in the pool" is a Biblical reference to the healing waters of the pool at Bethesda mentioned in John 5:4 --"For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had." The same supernatural intervention that heals some people of their diseases also stirs the quicksand of time, bringing about the speaker's death. I'll be honest and admit that I have no idea what "the hangman's lime" line means. Obviously it's something to do with death, but if you Google "the hangman's lime" you'll find Wesleyan's poetry magazine, and if you try to do other hanging-related web searches, you get disturbing results. So. Draw your own conclusions on this one.

Stanza 4, Scattered Meaning: This stanza is a puzzler, because while time is leaching "at the fountainhead" of something--life?--love is dripping something and easing it's own sores with fallen blood. The blood of what? Of life? Time drains Life, and Love is satisfied by the bits of Life that fall upon it? Dylan Thomas loves his lyrical complexities, and this one is a doozy.

Final Couplet, Love and Death: Well, we've got lovey words like "lover" and "sheet" in these two lines, but both romantic images are directly tied to death. The lover is in a tomb and the sheet seems to be a funeral shroud that the speaker envisions for himself.
What a devastating poem. It's absolutely beautiful, but it doesn't offer even a smidgen of hope about the future. Death is eminent. Time will drive you, force you, and explode you in a direction you don't want to go--straight toward the grave. And along the way, the speaker notes his own loss of choices and his loss of speech, since he can barely convey his sense of growing panic and inevitable doom.
On an unrelated note, Happy 4th of July!

Scripture Sunday: The Book of Psalms

Psalms is the longest book in the Bible, and it's one of the most-read and most-quoted books, as well. That's because Psalms is full of praises to God and encouragement for people--it has a reputation as a book you can open up and instantly find something powerful that speaks to you. But while Psalms is known for its comfort, the book isn't focused solely on encouragement. As a matter of fact, there are a lot of dark, depressing moments in Psalms, but they're all there for a reason. It's difficult to say anything cohesive about such a lengthy multi-author, multi-subject book, but I'll highlight a couple of things about Psalms that have come to my mind lately.

Note: Most of the psalms are attributed to King David of Israel, but there are several other authors of psalms.

Psalm 1: The first verse of the first chapter goes like this-- "Blessed is the man that walketh not in the council of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful." I like to pay attention to the opening lines of books, and this is a particularly important opening line. It warns us not to listen to the advice of ungodly people, or to become partners and friends with sinful, scornful people. "Scornful" is one of those slightly old words that we don't hear much anymore, but I always like to read this verse to remind myself that it's not wise or godly to be one of those people who is known for their scornfulness and disdain for others. Psalm 1 uses a lot of parallelism and keeps contrasting godly people with the ungodly, and the comparisons are very stark: "For the Lord knows the way of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish." I notice that this verse doesn't necessarily say that the wicked will perish, but that their way will perish, their whole lifestyle and mode of operation is something worthless and not built to last.

Oppression and Enemies:  King David had a lot of enemies, so naturally the psalms written by him would deal some with the heartache of being oppressed and the longing for God to save him. But I was surprised at how much these psalms that mention "enemies" might still apply to readers today. When we're in trouble, we often realize that we're not going through any uncommon suffering. It hurts us, but we know it's not personal--more people than just us have lost jobs and more people than just us have been victims of diseases or disasters. But where do we turn when we have an outright enemy, when somebody is actively out to hurt us? When you're the victim of a very personal enemy, you need a very personal friend to counteract the damage, and God is just that, both for David and for anyone else who calls out to him. It's that kind of reassurance that allows David to say in Ps. 3:6 "I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people, that have set themselves against me round about."

Psalm 23: This is the single most well-known psalm. Even people who are not familiar with the Bible at all have seen bits of this psalm used in movies or heard it read at funerals.

1-The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

2-He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3-He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4-Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5-Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6-Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

This psalm is pure comfort. It's also very relationship-focused, emphasizing the love between God and the speaker. The speaker also changes the way he refers to God--it's all "he" does this and "he" does that until verse 4, where God is addressed directly as "thou". That's kind of sweet, having the speaker talk about God in the third-person, followed by a direct address. The theme here is so beautiful: the people who love God are guided by him and ultimately get to be with him forever. The Psalms are full of these assurances, and they make for excellent reading at any time.