“Such is Life!: A close encounter with Ecclesiastes” by Lloyd Geering, Pollbridge Press (2009)
Reviewed by Peter Turner
New Zealander Lloyd Geering is a familiar figure to those of us exploring the boundaries where Christianity meets atheism. Although an ordained minister in the Presbyterian church, he has been charged by them with doctrinal error and disturbing the peace of the church (the church lost the case). A 2008 TVNZ documentary about him – The Last Western Heretic – can be seen on YouTube.
Long known as the heretical book of the bible, Ecclesiastes is a good choice for Geering’s analytical approach. He evidently sympathises with the anonymous author of this little -known Old Testament book, whom he claims sees ‘God’ as equivalent to ‘Mother Nature’, rather than Jehovah the god of the Jews. For the author of the book, life’s ups and downs are due to chance: there is no supernatural being controlling things. Good people are not necessarily rewarded for their good deeds and the wicked often go unpunished, indeed they may well thrive. Geering immersed himself in Ecclesiastes for 2 years and decided upon a most unusual format for his book:- the interview. He pretends to travel back 2300 years in time to discuss such topics as What do you mean by God, Is life unfair, Is death the end of us, and Chance or purpose. I think this novel approach works well, and I couldn’t help smiling as Geering introduced his imaginary interlocutor to the ideas of Plato, Marx and Jesus.
I didn’t realise until I had nearly finished Geering’s book that it includes his own translation of Ecclesiastes at the back, so you don’t need to have a bible to hand while reading it. (Geering has taught Old Testament Hebrew for 16 years.)
Geering places Ecclesiastes in context, explaining clearly how the Old Testament came into being, and how it is divided into sections of which the Cinderella ‘Wisdom’ books, of which Ecclesiastes is one, are now coming back into their own. Indeed it has long been Geering’s contention that Jesus was a sage in this same Wisdom tradition.
For me the Afterword was the best part of the book. In it Geering makes the case for the author being a freethinking humanist who was over 2000 years ahead of his time.
“(He) remained a lone individual and found little to relieve his solitariness. He was forced to reflect on what it means to be a human individual living in an unfair and uncaring world. Though he searched for wisdom he found nothing that would stand the test of time. We live in a period that has some similarities to that in which Ecclesiastes was written. Thanks to the Enlightenment all the traditional verities are once again open to question. The words of Ecclesiastes not only manifest the same kind of critical thinking that we engage in today, but they speak to the same basic concerns that challenge us when we do so.”
Geering sees Jesus as a sage too, rather than prophet, priest or king. Indeed he complements Ecclesiastes in a most important and positive way. “Jesus fastened on what it is possible to make of life in the here and now, while it does last.” You might say that for Ecclesiastes the glass was half empty and for Jesus it was half full. Jesus’ dream of a coming kingdom strongly influenced men like Martin Luther King. He had a dream because Jesus had a dream. “Jesus had an understanding of the essential importance of communal living that Ecclesiastes lacked. As we face the coming world crises, little could be more relevant than the words of these two Jewish sages, Ecclesiastes and Jesus of Nazareth.”
This is an easy read, and succeeds in being both amusing and thought-provoking. It may change the way you see the whole bible. Definitely worth reading whether you’re a believer or not.
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697: Sages #3: Quoheleth (Ecclesiastes)