So we will be reflecting on two of the most unusual and difficult books of the Hebrew Bible. Nothing scholarly; nothing pious; more of a kind of orientation to dealing with these texts. At first I was going to spend a separate posting on each one, but then both practical matters and just wanting to “move on” to other things inclines me to this more shortened version. Both texts do present us with some of the issues that we discussed earlier: the very nature of the Bible, how we read it, etc.
What an unpleasant book!! At least that is the opinion of this writer. I suppose you can try and salvage it by quoting some “nice lines” from it–because it does have them–some of which even formed the lyrics of a famous folk-rock song from the early 1960s. But I think you seriously miss the point if you pick and choose your “nice phrases, pleasing lines, and positive stories” out of that whole morass, but that is what so many people do with the whole Bible. Nowhere in the whole Christian Tradition at least does it say that ONLY the “nice parts” are “inspired” and the rest is “throw-away” material or filler. No, it says the whole text is “inspired” and this of course leads us to all kinds of headaches! Now of course all this hinges on what we mean by “inspired” and if by this we intend to say that God “writes” this text, then, yes, we are in trouble. But there is a more subtle, more nuanced, much deeper sense of “inspired” that we want to appeal to. The text then becomes a kind of a privileged paideia and a pedagogy of our identity in God. We read the text as we learn and unlearn our misreadings of our own lives in God.
It is hard to summarize the thematic content of this work. “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” Some have pointed to its “Buddhist flavor” and indeed there are certain passages that have an interesting resemblance to primitive and fundamental teachings of the Buddha–but certainly not to the later metaphysical elaborations of Indian and Tibetan Buddhism. Consider lines like this:
“The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing”(1:8).
“I have seen everything that is done under the sun; and behold all is vanity and a striving after wind”(1:14).
And so on. The emptiness of it all. The futility of desires that fill our being. We are driven by desires that ultimately lead to more frustrations and then more desires. We cannot not only satisfy these desires but we cannot overcome these desires. The desire to transcend desire is simply another project doomed to futility. You might say that this is the central koan of Buddhism–what do I do with my desire to transcend desire. (How do I get the goose out of the bottle without breaking the bottle and without harming the goose!?)
Some of these sentiments are echoed in the Gospels by Jesus as he points out the futility of wealth and its pursuits. But here even the pursuit of virtue and knowledge is lamented as futile. There is this intense almost morose focus on the “emptiness” of human activity. And by emptiness we don’t mean it quite in the Buddhist sense which actually has a more positive quality. Here the author drills home the utter futility and vacuity of all human endeavors. And the key to getting a “handle” on the “message” is the really cranky, dismal persona who is venting all his dark feelings here. Not a happy camper to say the least!! The fact is that this whole text is a testimony and witness to how life looks like from the standpoint of the ego self when that is the only sense of identity that we have. Yes, this ego self can be “very religious” as in the text–this grouchy persona has constant reference to God and “religious values” as it were. He is commendable in his clarity; that is, if you only recognize the ego self as your identity, this separate hard core of self and God “Over There” somewhere and the world as this stage for this ego to act on, well, then this dark, dismal view is what you are really left with. There is none of that “rosy delusion” of modern consumerism with all its gadgets to entertain you. It’s all vanity after all!!
But of course our ego identity with all is desires and hang-ups and fears and frustrations is not all there is to us. Who are you if you are not simply the sum total of all these? Who are you in God? There is No-name for that, and here we would have to leave this book and move on.
Another difficult work, but much simpler and more straightforward. It is unrelenting in its grief and despair. Historically it appears to be a communal lament over the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians around 586 B.C. The darkness of the book is not everyone’s cup of tea! Hardly anyone reads this work except as a kind of historical document. For many Christians the sentiments of this book are “inappropriate” for “Resurrection People.” However, the New Testament itself quotes this text in several places. It is also the liturgical text of Good Friday and you really can’t have Easter Sunday separate from Good Friday. Jesus knew Lamentations from the inside and he was One with God. So it’s ok to have these feelings, this level of grief, this depth of sorrow, even this awesome despair. Events and circumstances can really hit hard and you are allowed to “cry on God’s shoulder” as it were.
Speaking of which, not too long ago there was a remarkable story about Pope Francis that was mostly neglected by the larger public. It was from his trip to Asia, and the headline read: “If You Do Not Learn to Weep, You’re Not a Good Christian.” Here is the link to it:
Here he is not referring to “weeping for your sins,” but the weeping that comes from seeing totally unexplainable suffering and misery befall even the truly innocent like children. The Pope encountered a child, a young Filipina girl, who came to him straight out of Lamentations with a question: Why? And to his credit, the Pope did not give some theological lecture or mouth some pious platitude but pointed to the simple fact of weeping in the face of the unexplainable. Here is the author of the article:
“As a young, inexperienced priest, I remember walking into a hospital room with a mother caring for a dying child. I wanted to help, but felt totally inadequate with nothing to say.
Yes, I had learned all the canned explanations: It’s God’s will; God has a plan; she will be happy in heaven; we have to bear the cross God gives us. I was smart enough not to inflict such trite responses on a grieving mother, but I did not know what to say.
Glyzelle Palomar and so many children suffered through the devastating typhoon that hit the Philippines last year. “Why did God let this happen to us?” she asked the pope, covering her face with her hands as she sobbed.”
And: “The pope did not respond with a theological lecture on the mystery of evil. Rather, he affirmed her tears, saying, “Only when we are able to weep about the things that you lived can we understand something and answer something.”
And finally: “The mystery of evil is beyond my comprehension. The answers that I have heard I find unsatisfactory. I don’t find any words in the Bible that explain it. I have concluded that since it is beyond our comprehension, Jesus came not to explain suffering but to weep with us and to suffer with us. I prefer to see the cross not so much as reparation for our sins, but as God’s way of joining us in our suffering. Instead of preaching from the sidelines, he gets down in the dirt and suffers with us. That is real love.”
No religion, none of them, has an “answer” to this mystery of evil. And what Lamentations tells us and what Jesus tells us is that weeping may be the first step in recognizing the Reality of God within our own suffering and the suffering of others. With that we are way beyond any “answers.”