Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Hevel Happens

My spiritual book “Sherpa” Sue, manager of the Columbia Seminary bookstore, steered me to a wonder-full new book by professor William P. Brown, Sacred Sense: Discovering the Wonder of God’s Word and World. For those who haven’t read a book on the Bible in a while, I recommend this refreshing revisiting of the scriptures.

An Episcopal priest once reviewed my book, Coming Out as Sacrament, “despairing” that yet another hermeneutic (method of biblical interpretation) had been applied to scripture: coming out, as I had described the Bible as God’s “coming out” story and applied the principal to the major microstories within its covers.

I was surprised by the biting critique because of my belief that the more hermeneutical tools we have to ferret out spiritual truths in the Bible, the better. And now Dr. Brown has given us yet another hermeneutical tool, seeing the Bible as if for the first time through the lens of wonder.

I had first tasted Bill Brown’s magic during his presentation to a spiritual immersion course I was facilitating in which he reviewed the Creation myth in Genesis, written around the time of the rebuilding of the temple after the Babylonian Exile. Brown explained how the story’s wonders paralleled the organization of a typical temple of its time and place, including the temple at Jerusalem. And that’s only the first chapter of this new book.

As I read on, I was so tempted to continually write “wow!” in the margins, I refrained from doing so at all. But there are plenty of underlines and exclamation points.

Yesterday I read the chapter on one of the most challenging texts in terms of wonder, Ecclesiastes, entitled “Mundane Wonder.” Though exquisitely written, Ecclesiastes’ ho-hum “there-is-nothing-new-under-the-sun” philosophical take on the repetitious nature of our lives and of the cosmos could lead the reader to shrug and say “what-me-worry?”, especially after the writer’s conclusion, that “All is vanity.”

But this is where it gets interesting: 
“Vanity” (hevel) is the book’s single-word thesis. … Frequently paired with the expression “chasing wind,” the word itself conjures the image of “vapor,” something ephemeral and insubstantial, perhaps even noxious. Nevertheless, hevel bears a host of nuances in Qoheleth’s [the “assembler”] discourse. The term can be translated in a number of related ways: futility, absurdity, nothingness, worthlessness, transience, ephemerality, delusion, insignificance, and shit all have been proposed… 
And with an example of Brown’s occasional dry wit, he continues: 
But regardless of its specific nuance…“hevel happens” (a good bumper sticker!), and death is the stellar instance of hevel happening. Put cosmically, hevel robs the world of meaningful coherence. Put personally, hevel drives a wedge between one’s action and expected outcome. In either case, hevel is the harbinger of systemic failure. 
But not to despair. In the face of hevel happening, we are advised to ENJOY life, (in Brown’s paraphrase:) “eating, drinking, and finding pleasure in one’s work,” which is “a divine gift and a human duty.” Divine judgment comes, according to Ecclesiastes, when we fail to do so, fail “to find suitable objects of desire”: 
To welcome mundane wonder also counters a world that is hell-bent on striving for gain ad infinitum, a world obsessed with the sensational and self-enriching. To an obsessive world the sage offers subversive advice. (Citing Ralph C. Griffin.) 
It was not lost on me that I happened to read this chapter on the morning that I noticed a spider had woven its intricate and shining web on our deck—surely, after the blustery storm later in the day, a lesson in both futility and mundane wonder. But a temple nonetheless, rebuilt the following morning, the day I write this.

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Copyright © 2015 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  


  1. Well, only almost 24 hours later than i usually get notice inbox.
    Chris, thank you. I like your sharing what you get from your studies and meditations. Today i have a new perspective of Ecclesiastes. Yea! And i have a new word to intrigue guys into discussions. "hevel". I did not "get it" for so long how there could be sooo much difference in interpretations of Bible. Now that i know many Hebrew "words" can (and not wrongly) be translated severeal different ways---i "get it". Thanks.

    1. Thanks, Chuck. And yes, it's interesting that the late delivery to subscribers by our delivery service simply confirms that "hevel happens"! ;)