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Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Getting Back to Normal After COVID-19. Maybe. Maybe Not.

covid-19

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

We all react to COVID-19 in our own way. Some hoard, some hide. Some fear for their own safety and the safety of loved ones. Some are exhausted by little ones at their feet, some are craving human contact beyond social media.

However we respond to the new normal, this virus has cramped our style. And now it looks like things won’t be back to semi-normal until (optimistically) early May or so (who am I kidding . . .). 

And we all want to get back to normal, to the way our lives were before. We want to visit whom we want when we want, buy food or eat out, start the %@&#! baseball season, not cancel weddings and graduations, and basically not catch a potentially life-threatening virus because someone 4 feet away from us cleared their throat.

I’m down with that, but all this is putting me in a rather pensive, Ecclesiastes-like train of thought, namely:

  • What exactly are we so rushed to get back to? 
  • What were we doing that was really so deeply significant on the grand scale of things? 
  • Or were we just amusing ourselves—kidding ourselves—that anything we do “under the sun” is really all that worth it when we stop to think about it?

Yes, this post is taking a sharp turn to despair, but not really. Give me a chance.

I am thinking about my life now and my life “BC” (before coronavirus), and although they are so very different, are they really that different on the deeper level of meaning? 

The book of Ecclesiastes takes on the question of meaning the way only a tortured soul can—with the kind of honest “prove me wrong” clarity we rarely get to when things are going well for us. 

The anonymous writer, whose pen name is Qohelet, is obviously working through some issues, and concludes that “normal” is at the end of the day meaningless—or “vanity” as some translations have it. 

Our “normal” is for Qohelet of no lasting consequence. His line of argument, which he repeats throughout the book, goes something like this:

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Everything, absolutely everything is utterly meaningless, and trying to find some meaning amid the absurdity of life is about as productive as chasing a gust of wind.

(Seems like a ball of laughs. I wonder if he does kids’ parties. It gets worse.)

Why do I say that everything is absolutely, absurdly meaningless? Because, if you think about it, nothing that we do—none of our frenzied toils and labors—actually benefit us in any lasting, meaningful way in the final analysis. 

(Surely you can’t mean that, Qohelet. I have all sorts of things I can point to in my life that tell me I’m getting a lot out of benefit from my work. . . like that screw and nail organizer I just bought, this blog post I’m working on, or . . . )

If I may interrupt, the reason none of our labors amount to anything is because, in the end, we lose—we all die. And not only do we die, but we will be quickly forgotten by those who remain just as we have forgotten those who have died before us.

(Why do you have to bring that up?)

That is the inevitable end of us all. We all die. Fool and sage, rich and poor, the industrious and the lazy, the righteous and the wicked. The same fate awaits us all, and what we do—our daily frenzied rushing about—cannot change that one bit. That’s the way the world works. That’s the way God has set it all up.

(OK, but don’t you believe that after you die you. . . ?)

We don’t really know, do we, what happens after death? We die just like animals, and who is to say that our spirits continue and theirs do not? All we can really be sure of is that, at the end of the day, the end will come for us all. 

(You’re so depressing.)

And here’s the thing: we’re only able to come to this conclusion because God has given us humans a sense of time; we ponder what has come before and what might come in the future—and yet that very ability also shows that nothing we do can make a difference at the end. The best that we can do, therefore, is to live our daily lives and find as much happiness as we can during the few years we have.

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You might be wondering how this book made the cut to get into the Bible. And you might also be wondering where I’m going with all this.

As I said, I’ve been thinking lately, as many of us are, about what I actually do to use up the minutes of my life and why I do them. 

“Normal” is no more, and never will be again. We are in a new world, and—taking some inspiration from the I-just-tell-it-like-I-see-it Qohelet—I want to be more intentional in how I live, to be more aware of how I “chase the wind” (one of Qohelet’s favorite expressions for useless activity). 

I want to not want to just slip back into “normal,” but interrogate my notions of what “normal” is. Rather than give the old normal a free pass and simply yearn for it, I want to take this time to ponder new beginnings—even small ones.

Maybe “normal” isn’t all that. Maybe it was pretty ridiculous, a scam to keep us in a fog. And maybe this tragic, Qohelet-like existential crisis we are facing will help us to be more intentional with our lives.  

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