Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Postmodernism and Ecclesiastes

My home church, Maranatha Bible Church, is studying world religions in the adult Sunday School.  This past Sunday, I taught the lesson on Unitarian Universalism, basically telling what it is, giving the historical roots, and explaining the beliefs.†  I enjoyed looking at the historical underpinnings yet more so the beliefs since they are quintessentially postmodern—question reality; discover your own existence.  From past experience postmodernism is a large force in modern culture, even affecting evangelicalism.

Part of my research was to find how best to reach those with this mindset with the gospel.  One that surprised me came from a D.Min. dissertation entitled Chasing the Wind: Ecclesiastes as a Resource for Postmodern Proclamation (Brent Isbell, 2002).  The average, pew-warming believer will not read Ecclesiastes in its entirety.  If someone should get to the end, that same person will generally come away from the experience dazed, confused, and even sullen.  This describes how I once reacted.  No more.  I figured that if all Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable that the message and purpose must be elusive rather than nonexistent.  I now count it as one of my favorite books in the Bible, and here it is being touted as a tool for reaching the postmodern mind.  The author's premise is that any of the Wisdom Literature is profitable for the task since wisdom does the following according from Walter Brueggemann's In Man We Trust:
  • Emphasizes life in the real world
  • Affirms the authority of human experience
  • Holds humans responsible for their future
  • Believes in an orderly cosmos
  • Celebrates the human creature
I am not inclined to follow Brueggemann headlong in this.  He is, after all, a postmodernist himself.  But my own interaction with Ecclesiastes caused me to at least consider the usefulness.

A bit more research revealed the following from the New Bible Commentary:
There are three features of Ecclesiastes that are worth mentioning: (i) It makes use of a division of reality into two realms, the heavenly and the earthly, referring to what is ‘under the sun’ or ‘under heaven’ and what is ‘on earth’, e.g. ‘God is in heaven and you are on earth’ (5:2). (ii) It distinguishes between observation and faith. The Teacher says ‘I have seen under the sun … ’ (1:14) but goes on to say ‘but I came to realize … ’ (2:14). When he uses the verb ‘see’ he points to life’s hardships. When he calls to joy it is not in connection with seeing but it is what he believes about God despite what he sees. (iii) It brings us to face the grimness of life and yet constantly urges us to faith and joy.

What then is the purpose and abiding message of Ecclesiastes?

It is a reply to the unrelieved pessimism of much ancient thought. Yet at the same time it does not envisage a superficial ‘faith’ which does not take adequate account of the fallenness of the world. It is thus both an evangelistic tract, calling secular people to face the implications of their secularism, and a call to realism, summoning faithful Israelites to take seriously the ‘futility’, the ‘enigma’ of life in this world. It forbids both secularism (living as though the existence of God has no practical usefulness for life in this world) and unrealistic optimism (expecting faith to cancel out life as it really is). Negatively, it warns us that ‘faith’ is always a contrast to ‘sight’ and does not provide us with a short cut fully to understand the ways of God. Positively, it calls us to a life of faith and joy. Summarizing Ecclesiastes, J. S. Wright (Ecclesiastes, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 5 [Zondervan, 1992]) used to say ‘God holds the key to all unknown—but he will not give it to you. Since you do not have the key you must trust Him to open the doors’.  (Michael Eaton, New Bible Commentary : 21st Century Edition, D. A. Carson et al, ed.).
It appears this book is useful in evangelism after all.  Secretly hoping this would be the case, it means either I am on to something or have fallen into a hermeneutical trap of my own design.  Hopefully, the former is true.  The discerning people reading this will set me straight if this is too far afield.

Since any one postmodernist is different from the next, there would need to be some discernment of where to begin with sharing God's word.  My plan might be to begin here, then move to the gospel of John to help the person see how the apostle writes with the idea of proving that Jesus is who he claimed to be—Son of God and worthy to be believed, not simply as an add-on to a pantheon of beliefs (prevalent in postmodernism) but as a unique person with exclusive claims and demands.

Notes and PowerPoint slides are available.  The material is more introductory than comprehensive.  Much could have been added.

1 comment:

Glenn E. Chatfield said...

What a coincidence! I am putting together an introductory apologetics course for high schoolers. Yesterday I just finished writing the section on Unitarians. They really have no Christian beliefs at all!

Anyway, when it comes to how to witness to them, I think the "pre-evangelistic" option may be the best; demonstrating the reliability of Scripture to start with, for example. I'll have to consider that Ecclesiastes idea.