A treatise on vanity. This is basically the book of Ecclesiastes. What a depressing book. How is a book like that ever to be read and enjoyed, especially with our modern sensibilities? We need stuff that will make us feel good even if it is not the truth, right? Isn’t that what we need? That, at any rate, is what much of society would have us believe.
At first glance, it seems that the book of Ecclesiastes is a book that would throw you into nihilistic depression just short of suicidal. So what use has it in Scripture? Or, what, at least, use do we have for it today?
Well, it does no good to build upon a shoddy and cracked foundation. We can build all we want but all we do is for naught if the building will never truly stand. If we are to truly build something that is worth anything we must start anew. We must strip it down to the bedrock. To say that all is vanity is to say that all is cracked, you cannot build upon it. That is not to say that these things are inherently bad, they are not. But for us to understand these things, whatever they may be for you, we must first know they are desperately cracked. They can never hold anything of substance. They can truly never be built upon. They can’t hold the weight. Thus, if we experience discomfort from Ecclesiastes it is the doctor’s scalpel. It is the necessary pain for the healing of our life.
As part of our book diet, C.S. Lewis reminds us to not leave out old books. “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones” (C. S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books”).
Lewis is wise to also say that,
“People were no clever then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction” (C. S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books”).
So, what is art? That is a difficult question. Let’s look at some examples I’ve gathered. Art is…
…according to a dictionary:
The quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance
You cannot define electricity. The same can be said of art. It is a kind of inner current in a human being, or something which needs no definition.
~Marcel Duchamp , French painter and sculptor
…imitation or creation
Art is the unceasing effort to compete with the beauty of flowers – and never succeeding.
~Marc Chagall, Russian-French artist
…creating beauty or harmony
Filling a space in a beautiful way. That’s what art means to me.
~Georgia O’Keefe, American painter
Art is harmony.
~Georges Seurat, French painter
…an expression of our innate desire to decorate
The intrinsic decorative urge should not be eradicated. It is one of humankinds deep-rooted primordial urges. Primitive people decorated their implements and cult objects with a desire to beautify and enhance… it is a sense emanating from the urge for perfection and creative accomplishment.
~Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Swiss multi-media, applied arts, performance artist, and textile designer
…something that reveals the essential or hidden truth
Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.
~Paul Klee, Swiss painter
…a blessed mistake, a misfiring
Art is like the feathers of a peacock; there is no ultimate reason for it. It is nothing more than a leftover impulse from our distant ancestors. It is a mere signal to potential mates that we have enough time, resources, and leisure to be able to waste time on extravagance.
~This seems to be the Darwinian view (cf. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 253)
To give a body and a perfect form to one’s thought, this—and only this—is to be an artist.
~Jacques-Louis David, French painter
…a source of calm in a chaotic world
What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.
~Henri Matisse, French artist
Art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos.
~Saul Bellow, American novelist
…self-expression or autobiography
What is art? Art grows out of grief and joy, but mainly grief. It is born of people’s lives.
~Edvard Munch, Norwegian artist
All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.
~Federico Fellini, Italian film director
…communication of feelings
To evoke in oneself a feeling one has experienced, and…then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling—this is the activity of art.
~Leo Tolstoy, Russian author
Art has to move you and design does not, unless it’s a good design for a bus.
~David Hockney, British artist
Art begins with resistance — at the point where resistance is overcome. No human masterpiece has ever been created without great labor.
~André Gide in Poétique
Above all, artists must not be only in art galleries or museums — they must be present in all possible activities. The artist must be the sponsor of thought in whatever endeavor people take on, at every level.
~ Michelangelo Pistoletto in Art’s Responsibility
…according to my favorite definition:
“One individual personality has definite or special talent for expressing, in some medium, what other personalities can hear, see, smell, feel, taste, understand, enjoy, be stimulated by, be involved in, find refreshment in, find satisfaction in, find fulfillment in, experience reality in, be agonized by, be pleased by, enter into, but which they could not produce themselves…
Art in various forms expresses and gives opportunity to others to share in, and respond to, things which would otherwise remain vague, empty yearnings. Art satisfies and fulfills something in the person creating and in those responding…
One person’s expression of art stimulates another person and brings about growth in understanding, sensitivity and appreciation.
~ Edith Schaeffer in The Hidden Art of Homemaking
“When we are at play, or looking at a painting or a stature, or reading a story, the imaginary work must have such an effect on us that it enlarges our own sense of reality.”
~Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water
“Students value literature as a means of enlarging their knowledge of the world, because through literature they acquire not so much additional information as additional experience.”
~Marie Rosenblatt, Literature as Exploration
“Literature… serves to deepen and to extend human greatness through the nurture of beauty, understanding, and compassion. In none of these ways, of course, can literature, unless it be the literature of the Christian faith, lead us to the City of God, but it may make our life in the city of man far more a thing of joy and meaning and humanity, and that in itself is no small achievement. Great literature may not be a Jacob’s ladder by which we can climb to heave, but it provides an invaluable staff with which to walk the earth.”
~Roland M. Frye, Perspectives on Man: Literature and the Christian Tradition
“Art is one of the means by which man grabbles with and assimilates reality.”
~Ralph Fox, The Novel and the People
“The primary job that any writer faces is to tell you a story of human experience—I mean by that, universal mutual experience, the anguishes and troubles and gifts of the human heart, which is universal, without regard to race or time or condition.”
~William Faulkner, Faulkner at West Point
“A poem… begins in delight and ends in wisdom [and]… a clarification of life… For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew… There is a glad recognition of the long lost.”
~Robert Frost, “The Figure a Poem Makes”
See Leland Ryken, The Christian Imagination
Spoiler alert. If you don’t want to know the resolution to all the twists and turns of the plot line of the Bible do not read on!
Jesus is the hero of the story. He saves the day. As Michael Emlet says, “If you read the Bible from cover to cover you realize that it narrates (proclaims!) a true and cohesive story: the good news that through Jesus Christ God has entered history to liberate and renew the world from its bondage to sin and suffering.”[i] He goes on; God “pursues the restoration of his creation at the cost of his own life. He is making all things new (Rev. 21:5)! That’s the simple and yet profound, life- and world-altering plotline of the Bible.”[ii]
The Bible is chiefly a story about God’s glory being displayed through the recompense of all things wicked, redemption of those made righteous, and finally, the reconciliation of all things in Christ.[iii] The Bible is a true story about God making the world, man messing it up, and God becoming a man to fix the world by not messing up. It is a story of Eden—exile—repeat. It is not until the true Adam, the true and righteous Son of God comes that this process is put to an end. All of Christ’s predeceases fell short; Adam, Noah, Abraham, Saul, David, Solomon, and the lambs, priests, and prophets could not fill Christ’s role.
From the beginning of time and the beginning of God’s word, the Word has been a prominent character in the script (Gen. 1:1; John 1:1). At first, the promised offspring (Gen. 3:15) is vague, in fact, Eve rejoiced because she thought she had the offspring (4:1) but it was all for naught for Cain was of the offspring of the serpent and killed his brother. However, now we have seen that which even the prophets longed to look (Matt. 13:17), we know that all Scripture finds its fulfillment in Jesus who is the long awaited Christ (2 Cor. 1:20).
When Jesus came the first time, He had no beauty or majesty. When He comes again His face will shine like the sun in full strength (Rev. 1:16). We were cast out of the garden in the beginning but as Jesus said to the thief on the cross, we will be with Him in paradise in the end. Jesus is the linchpin among all the cogs of Scripture. “The trajectory of the arrow shot from the Hebrew Scriptures finds its target (fulfillment) in Jesus of Nazareth.”[iv]
The storyline of the Bible can be understood as creation, fall, redemption, and new creation. We can see the gospel in the storyline of the Bible. God loves us even though we have rebelled against Him. He has provided forgiveness for us through Jesus Christ and if we repent of our sin and trust in Him we will enjoy Him forever in heaven.
Through the creation part of the narrative we see that God made everything (Gen. 1:1; John 1:1-3) and it was good (Gen. 1:4; 10; 12; 18; 21; 25; 31). There was no sin, no death, and no problems before man sinned. Man had perfect fellowship with God.[v]
However, the plot thickens. A cosmic problem is introduced. Through Adam’s fall, we see the collapse of the creation, which explains why everything is no longer good. Man disobeyed and rebelled (Gen. 2:16-17; 3:6) and this brought spiritual and physical death (Gen. 2:17; 3:19), pain (3:16-17), difficulties (3:18-19), and separation from God (3:23-24). This is the bad news. We deserve death and hell.
But there is good news. This is not the end of the story. Even at the beginning of the story God promised that He would send someone (that is, the Messiah/Christ) to defeat the “bad guy” (that is Satan) of the story (cf. Gen 3:15). In a similar scene, seen throughout the Bible, man’s nemesis is once again at it with him. Satan is tempting not Adam but the second Adam in the wilderness (Luke 4). However, unlike Adam in paradise the second Adam does not give into the serpent’s temptation although He is in the desert. Jesus was tempted in every way that Adam was, and we are, yet He did not sin (Heb. 4:15) and still He bore our sin upon Himself.
Jesus became man so “that through death he might destroy the one who has the power over death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14). Jesus’ heel was “bruised” at the cross but through that same cross, where He received the bruising, He struck the serpent with a definitive death blow to the head (cf. Gen. 3:15). From the cross, Jesus cried out, “It is finished!” In Jesus’ death, the devil, and death are defeated! He has delivered us from the domain of darkness (Col. 1:13). He disarmed the demonic rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them through the cross (Col. 2:15).
Jesus is the promised one (Luke 24:27, 44-46; Acts 13:23, 27; 17:3; Rom. 1:2-4; 1 Cor. 15:3-4;) who brings the redemption of all things (cf. Rom. 5:10; Col. 1:20; Titus 2:14; Gal. 3:13; Eph. 1:7, 10). He secures for us an eternal redemption by means of His own blood (Heb. 9:12). Jesus Christ is the solution to the problem; He takes our sin, our problem, upon Himself on the cross. This is the good news; Jesus is the good news! Jesus reversed the curse of sin by becoming a curse for us (Gal. 3:13). Jesus was cast out of the garden so that we could be welcomed back in. Through the one man Adam we all have condemnation yet through the one Man Jesus Christ the grace of God has abounded for many (Rom. 5:12-21).We deserved to be crushed under God’s wrath because of our sin but instead Jesus was crushed in our place (Is. 52:13-53:12). Jesus is the solution to our problem of sin, the sole solution (Jn. 14:6; Act. 4:12). Jesus is the Lamb of God, without blemish, that takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29; Heb. 9:14)!
Jesus is the good news but the good news is not static it goes on and on and on; those in Christ live happily-ever-after. In contrast, God “will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers” (Matt. 13:41) and cast them into the pit of eternal fire (Rev. 20:14-15). “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thess. 1:9). However, for those in Christ the story of history will have a happy ending (Rom. 8:29-39).
I concur with what C.S. Lewis says in The Last Battle,
“We can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”[vi]
I believe we, upon arrival to the new Eden, will exclaim with Lewis’ Unicorn:
“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it to now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia [“old creation”] is that it sometime looked a little like this.”[vii]
Through Jesus the Christ we have the unwavering hope of a new creation (2 Peter 3:13). “The creation was subjected to futility” in Adam (Gen. 317-19) but in Christ “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:20-21). As Isaac Watts put it in “Joy to the World,”
“No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found.”
The problem (all of them!) will be fixed and there will be no more sin (Rev. 21:27; 22:3; Matt. 13:41). Everything will be more right than it was ever wrong. We will see that God did, in fact, work all things together for good (Rom. 8:28). Christ will make a new creation and we will be like Him (1 Jn. 3:2; Rom. 8:29; 2 Peter 1:4). “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Cor. 15:49). God will fulfill our deepest desires and we will finally love the LORD our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength when we receive our glorified bodies (Deut. 30:6; Jer. 31:33-34; 32:40; Phil. 3:20-21)! There will be no more pain or problems and God will wipe away all our tears (Rev. 7:17; 21:4). We will once again be in Paradise, the New Jerusalem, and we will have fellowship with God (Rev. 21:3)!
However, this story by its nature, by the fact that it claims to be true, does not leave us alone but calls for a response. We can receive this story or we can reject it outright. God can rewrite us, as it were, into His marvelous script or He can cast us, the unruly “cast,” into hell. We must respond to this story, will we respond rightly? Will we strive to obey the God who reveals Himself?
This is the gospel, the story of all the woes of existence finding there solution in Christ.
[i] Emlet, CrossTalk, 41. A true and cohesive story contained within sixty-six books written by numerous people (with one divine author) in various languages (Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic) over thousands of years! God’s word about the world being reconciled through the Word is truly amazing!
[iii] James M. Hamilton Jr. says that “in the broadest terms, the Bible can be summarized in four words: creation, fall, redemption, restoration” (God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 49) but the “ultimate end” of everything is “God’s glory in salvation through judgment.” He goes on to say, “The created realm (creation) is a spectacular theater that serves as the cosmic matrix in which God’s saving and judging glory can be revealed. God’s glory is so grand that no less a stage than the universe—all that is or was and will be, across space and through time—is nescessary for the unfolding of this all-encompassing drama” (Ibid., 53). See also John Piper’s book The Pleasures of God and Jonathon Edwards’ The End for Which God Created the World.
[iv] Emlet, CrossTalk, 47.
[v] Perfect in sense but not like it will be in the new creation; Adam and Eve related to God as creation to Creator and we will relate to God in the new creation as the redeemed to the Redeemer. So we will enjoy a consummated perfect fellowship with God.
[vi] C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle (New York: NY: Harper Collins, 2002), 228.
[vii] Ibid., 213.
This is a gripping book in many ways. I think every American should read it. It has brought me to tears on more than one occasion. History is an important teacher. It can smack you in the face with past realities so that you don’t get smacked in the face by present ones. We, as Christians, must be discerning, and realize that the same foil may come in a different guise.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin reminds us that Scripture is often interpreted in the darkness of cultural situations without the light of a clear and unbiased perspective. As soon as society changes so will the interpretation of the text. Where are the Harriet Beecher Stowes who will stand up for what the text is saying however unpopular it may be? As Stowe said, if the cotton trade was no longer needed people’s understanding on slavery would be changed, there previous “understanding” would no longer be needed.
Of course, the issue then was slavery but Stowe makes a valid point for any day. Hermeneutics (i.e. the science of interpretation) seeks to understand what the text means. However, we often view the text in light of our own context instead of the original context. We interpret texts many times to mean what we want them to mean and not what they really mean. We put a spin on things to suite ourselves. It is much like what the media can do with a sound bit. If you look at words out of their context, you can make them mean almost whatever what you want. We should take hints from history and seek to not make the same blunders.
What texts or issues do we dismiss outright or misinterpret to our benefit? Who or what are you avoiding listening to or reading? I am inclined to think that our (my!) use (or ill use) of money is one area where we tend to reinterpret Scripture. Or what about God’s command for us to be holy? It’s pretty easy to knock that command down to moral, isn’t it? We think: other people watch this movie, even other “good” people. Yet, did you see where the thinking went wrong? We are not merely commanded to be good, moral, or culturally acceptable; we are called to be set apart as God’s own people. God’s holiness is our standard. Not our neighbors.
 Which implies application. You don’t truly understand something until you understand how it applies… further, you might say you don’t truly understand something until it is applied. At least, I think this is the case with Scripture.
 I realize that there has been a lot of harm done in this area by people laying legalistic blanket commands that are neither helpful nor biblical. Yet, the Bible and Jesus do speak much of, and strongly about, wealth and the stewardship that we have of it. So what I am saying is we must make sure that we are not just dismissing texts on wealth and the right use of wealth but honestly evaluating what God is calling us to. It is too easy, as history demonstrates, to be blinded by the now. This applies to wealth, it applies to many things.