Monday, May 15, 2006

A canon within a canon?

We're having a challenging time reading Ecclesiastes in our evening services at the moment. I know it's challenging when one of my members told me after last night's episode that she'd not got any of it!

It's certainly the case that ecclesiastes is a demanding read. That's why Christians don't read it much and churches don't teach it.

It raises an issue that scholars wrestle with, namely are some biblical texts more important and authoritative than others? Is there a canon within the canon? OT critics in particular argue over this one. Walter Brueggemann in his seminal Theology of the Old Testament talks in terms of Israel's core testimony and it's countertestimony and, just for good measure, Israel's unsolicited testimony. He doesn't use the language of canon within canon but this could be the outcome of his intriguing and suggestive division.

Ordinary church members do it by default. There are some parts of scripture they read and some they don't. And so their faith is based not on the whole counsel of God but on those parts they find convivial or at least comprehensible.

Ecclesiastes is a case in point. It's a difficult book, a demanding read - not just because the language and structure are tricky (though they are) but because it appears to be a challenge to orthodox understandings of God and the life of faith. But maybe that's precisely why it's in the canon.

Ecclesiastes was written late - maybe 350BC - and yet was included in the canon probably by the time of Jesus or soon after. It is one of the five books attached to the five Jewish festivals - ecclesiastes is read at the fabulously joyous feast of tabernacles.

It's inclusion and use indicates that it touches on something vital about faith, something believers need to take into account as they give shape to their faith in a world of contradictions and trouble. The danger of canons within canons is that it enables us to marginalise inspired texts - they are not quite as much the word of God as other texts that we take more seriously - and so our faith is distorted by default.

The challenge is to integrate this troublesome voice into our understanding of our faith. Otherwise we risk suggesting that Ecclesiastes is not as inspired as Deuteronomy or Romans, something evangelicals can't be comfortable with. But we also risk missing the insight and inspiration that Ecclesiastes brings to our faith and witness in the world. If we need help with this, U2's Zooropa album - opening with the title track exploring who makes the world we live in and ending with Johnny Cash singing the Wanderer, a song based on Ecclesiastes - is an excellent dialogue partner.

5 comments:

fernando said...

The tendency towards a canon within a canon is so widespread, it is staggering. Sometimes, it is planned, but often it is by default, especially when it comes to the ommission of OT texts.

I agree fully with you on the importance of reading Ecclesiaties within the church community. It can be (in my experience) a powerful experience.

Mark said...

Simon, this is fascinating, not least because we are about to start going through Ecclesiastes on Sunday evenings too.....I'd be intrigued to know how much of it you've taken at any one time? We've decided to go for 2 chapters at a time, a sort of broad brush approach I guess, but homing in on key sections each time. And, yes, I'm expecting it will be a challenge all round!

simon said...

Hi Mark,
We are doing Eccelsiastes in three Sunday evenings so I have taken themes rather than chapters. I started with chapter 3 and looked at the key themes in the book - especially the meaning of the word translated vanity or meaningless. yesterday, I looked at the author's view of God and basic response to God centred on chapter 5. Next time, we'll look at Qoheleth's faith. A study guide for our home groups will be on our church website later this week I hope if you're interested.

Catriona said...

This fascinates me too! I have just been asked to use a bit from Ecclesiastes 4 for a marriage sermon by a couple in their 20's.

I always think of Eeeyore when I read Ecclesiates - thistles!

Mark said...

Thanks again Simon - like the Zooropa thoughts too...a more contemporary musical reference than The Byrds in any case...