All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.
When I graduated from graduate school, I told myself that for a year I wasn't going to read anything written in the last 50 years. That put my cut off point around C.S. Lewis, whom I allowed to nourish my soul still. That's because in seminary I always had to read the newest research, the newest books on ministry innovations, and the newest commentaries. One would think after graduating seminary I would have actually read Luther or Barth. But I didn't. I read new authors who talked about Luther and Barth, but I was never required to read them. So, for a year, I read Luther (though not Barth) and Chesterton and Calvin and Agatha Christie (one of these things is not like the other one).
And even still, after several years, I grow weary of re-invention and innovation and the clamor for newness. The great American myth of newness has even infiltrated the church. For instance, music must always be newer. Music texts must always be newer. Sermons must be fresh and meaningful and entertaining. As one who works in the church, believe me when I say it's hard to compete with YouTube and television for a congregation's entertainment.
In light of my rumination of the shadow of things which are past, I found some amusing reading this past week. I'm reading Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a book put together after his death, and of which only recent history has given us a thorough and authoratitive version of it. The irony is that Bonhoeffer speaks to his friend of his relationship to his fiancee:
Unfortunately, I am not yet of one mind with Maria in the area of literature...Most likely our age difference also shows in these literary matters as well. Maria's...generation has unfortunately grown up with very bad contemporary literature, and it is much more difficult for them to connect to older literature than for us...Do you know of one book from the best literature of the last fifteen years that you think will endure? I don't. It's partly wishy-washy, partly striking various poses, partly self-pitying sentiment- but no discernment, no thought, no clarity, no substance, and almost always a base, unfree use of language. On this point I am quite consciously a laudator temporis acti.
This last phrase in Latin means "one who praises the ancient time." He might as well have been writing about our contemporary literature.
The reason for such judgment is that time itself is the ultimate judge. The hymnbook has mostly good hymns because time has weeded out all the bad hymns written centuries ago. The reason classic literature is so good is that no other literature has really endured from it's milieu. Time has judged that which is bad. There is a lot of bad music and books being written today, just like in any age, but we haven't had the patience to let time do it's work.
We should therefore care more about older things than various fads. It's the love of the things of the past that help us determine what in our own time is ephemeral and kitsch versus what is lasting and significant. The Arab Spring mattered. The Grammys do not. Usually what's trending on Twitter does not. After all, isn't what's trending only a matter of minutes usually?
With all this clamor for newness, like the writer of Ecclesiastes, I join the chorus of "Vanity!"