Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Proverbs and Garth Brooks

Tomorrow for Wednesday Vespers I'm offering the first in a series of meditations on Proverbs and the wisdom of country music. I happened upon the idea of doing a Lenten sermon series like this because many commentaries indicate that Proverbs itself is a collection that manifests an interest in comparing and evaluating different collections of wisdom. In other words, Proverbs aren't just a collection of sayings, but as a collection of sayings it is designed to teach you to read wisdom sayings better.

The book we're using for our Sunday bible study that emphasizes this theme is title, appropriately, How to Read Proverbs .

So, first of all, here are the lyrics to the song we're singing and comparing to Proverbs tomorrow night, Garth Brook's "Standing Outside the Fire":

We call them cool
Those hearts that have no scars to show
The ones that never do let go
And risk it the tables being turned

We call them fools
Who have to dance within the flame
Who chance the sorrow and the shame
That always come with getting burned

But you got to be tough when consumed by desire
'Cause it's not enough just to stand outside the fire
We call them strong
Those who can face this world alone
Who seem to get by on their own
Those who will never take the fall

We call them weak
Who are unable to resist
The slightest chance love might exist
And for that forsake it all

They're so hell bent on giving, walking a wire
Convinced it's not living if you stand outside the fire

Standing outside the fire
Standing outside the fire
Life is not tried it is merely survived
If you're standing outside the fire

There's this love that is burning
Deep in my soul
Constantly yearning to get out of control
Wanting to fly hiher and higher
I can't abide standing outside the fire

Repeat Chorus(twice)

The wisdom of this song can probably be summarized by two lines of the refrain: "Life is not tried it is merely survived
If you're standing outside the fire." Life isn't lived unless you take risks.

When you bring this wisdom into comparison with the Proverbs, the first thing you'll notice is that there isn't much in Proverbs that sounds like this. At the heart of Proverbs is a somewhat different sensibility. Something more like: "Life is not wise unless it includes the fear of the Lord." The "fire" for Proverbs is the challenge of learning the wisdom of God.

However, there are a few verses in Proverbs that compare. Consider Proverbs 13:4:

The appetite of the lazy craves, and gets nothing,
while the appetite of the diligent is richly supplied.

Or 13:12:

Hope deferred makes the heart sick,
but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.

Overall, Proverbs is more concerned with idleness and laziness rather than a lack of risk-taking:

Laziness brings on deep sleep;
an idle person will suffer hunger. (19:15)

And overall, Proverbs is more concerned with living righteous lives "in the fire" rather than whether we take risk or not:

Laziness brings on deep sleep;
an idle person will suffer hunger. (20:3)

There is, however, another book in the Sayings of Scripture that compares more clearly with Garth Brook's song. That book is Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes has a different life philosophy and motif than Proverbs. Where Proverbs emphasizes right living and learning to be wise, Ecclesiastes is a bit more philosophical, wondering whether there is any meaning, per se, in living wise lives and getting wisdom.

The author writes:

For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow. (1:18)

So there is a dialectical tension within Scripture itself between these two books. What Ecclesiastes notices (and what Proverbs seems not to notice) is that although getting wisdom is a good thing, and it is better to be wise than to be a fool, nevertheless the same fate befalls both, and so one might as well learn this lesson.

"There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God" (2:24; also 5:18)

Qoheleth concludes with this statement, which seems similar to Garth Brook's song, and yet is also quite different:

"Rejoice, young man, while you are young, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Follow the inclination of your heart and the desire of your eyes, but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. "

And the reason it is different is because behind the encouragement to live life is a sense of a fearful judge, God, who we to fear (as Proverbs also notes). So Ecclesiastes concludes:

Eccl. 12:13   "The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil. "

These are some of my summary notes preparing for the sermon and song tomorrow. I covet responses from readers.

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