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The Forest for the Trees

Think of the Bible as a forest. As you explore its groves you will find many different ‘trees’; massive oaks, stately pines, weeping birches and other species both exotic and plain. Each tree is quite different from the others but each makes an important contribution to the overall vitality of the forest.

Throughout the ages people have enjoyed walking beneath the trees. They loved to talk about each one and the gardener who planted them. Many songs were sung about the trees and the forest was the backdrop for many dramatic performances. People would often gather in the shade of one of the trees and drink in its beauty together.

But as time moved along a more modern approach to the forest developed. New professional foresters appeared on the scene. These people had a great appreciation for the beauty of the trees but they believed that the natural beauty would be greatly enhanced if they could discover all the connections between the trees and map the overall system of the forest. They firmly believed that by rational study and a solid scientific approach they could completely understand the forest.

They began at those places in the forest where the branches of the trees reached out and touched each other. These connections were analyzed and labels hung from the branches to describe the nature of the connection. It was exciting work. New ideas were formed as smaller and smaller connections were dissected out of the living forest.

To assist the intellectually stunted lay people to see the beauty of the tiny connections and dissections, the modern foresters devised a system of strings to guide people through the forest. People arriving at the front gate could choose a label and follow its corresponding string throughout the forest. It felt like they were discovering a greater depth to the forest, finding hidden meanings that had been missed in the simpler approach. The “words in red” string was particularly popular, at least for a time.

People were attracted to this system but it was getting harder to move about and to bask in the glory of the trees. Some of the old paths that had always been used for quiet contemplation were soon covered over in the drive to conquer the forest. As the tangle of strings and labels increased it was suggested that perhaps the trees should just be cut up into their component parts and arranged in a more logical and scientific manner, at least chronologically so the lay folk could understand the forest better. The deed was never accomplished but many of the books referred to the forest as if it were already cut to bits.

Of course it was not long before arguments began to break out on the proper way to label a branch and the correct way to attach the strings. Foresters with radical new ideas would come along and attach contradictory labels. Some tried adding neon colored strings to clearly bring out what they believed were the main ideas. Other strings suddenly appeared in the middle of the groves connecting branches in ways that made no sense at all. Their proponents would stay below and preach their idea to any that would listen, and many did or they were confused and looking for anyone who could lead them through the forest. Soon new groups were founded solely on the basis of strings tied willy-nilly throughout the forest or based on a connection between one or two small twigs.

Before long the guiding strings were cast aside and people visiting the forest began to show up carrying their favorite forest guidebook. Now instead of looking at the forest they would check the marginal notes first and often just observed the forest from its fringes. Contemplation and celebration gave way to debates and the formation of like-minded groups who believed that they had the correct map of the forest. Some even claimed divine revelation on the exact location of the underground rivers that ran beneath the forest floor. Their goal was to settle all claims on who really understood the forest but it only ended in more arguments and groups continued to splinter into smaller and smaller factions.

I still remember my first trip into the forest. I was a young lad and those showing me around paid little attention to the strings and signs. I suppose their system still influenced how they guided me along the paths but for the most part they just told me stories from the trees. It was inspiring. I felt a definite connection to the gardener through their personal accounts.

Later in life I decided that since I loved the forest so much, I too should study to become approved as a forester. For many years I labored over the system of strings and signs. I rarely had time to actually walk through the forest during those years. Most of my time was spent reading the words of other foresters. I learned to give speeches on the connections of the forest, although I was warned to not make more than three connections per speech, as the average hiker in the forest could not grasp more than that in the 20 minutes allowed for speeches.

Over time I lost interest in all this study. The endless discussions had plunged my forest into an endless dormant winter. I began to tune out all the speeches for they only added to the bitter cold. But one day I went for a long walk by myself and found a small tree in a hidden valley, deep in the forest. There were no strings attached to it, only a few labels identifying it as non-indigenous species that was not worth studying. I examined the tree carefully. Why would they say this one did not belong and should I trust their judgment? I decided I would make this tree my special project. Perhaps if I could find out why it was here and why it was ignored by the foresters I could re-discover my original appreciation for the forest.

I returned every day to study that tree and found myself drawn in by its strange beauty. It was not a very pleasant looking tree for it was gnarled and its branches stuck out at odd angles without any overall shape or reason. Sap oozed from cracks in its bark and the branches were covered in long thorns that made it almost impossible to climb. But I refused to give up on my study of this fascinating specimen and despite the jabs from the thorns, the sticky sap on my clothes and an odd scent of decay around its roots, I finally managed to get up into its branches where I found a place I could relax and study the tree more closely.

Over the next months I was so intent on studying that tree that I did not notice that spring had come to the valley. The tree that I was told was dead, sprouted leaves, blossoms and in time I tasted its fruit. It was hard to reach past the thorny branches but the fruit was sweet, not bitter as I had been led to believe. I have come to appreciate this tree and now see it is not a foreign species but indeed one of the oldest and first trees to be planted in the forest. It has been our systems of labels that have made it appear as if it does not belong. The problem is with how we look at the forest and how we try to conquer it.

I have been walking through the forest again and it has been good to get back to enjoying the trees as living organisms and not as a system to be conquered. On my walks I have regained the appreciation I had for the intrinsic beauty of the trees. At times I have laid on my back in the shade of a tree and been in awe of the way the sunlight has played through the translucent web of green leaves above me. Lately I have met many others who desire to see the forest in a fresh way. We agree that we will always have some labels and strings to contend with but have decided that we no longer agree with the goal of trying to systematize and conquer the forest. Instead we feel the pull of supernatural beauty before us and want to enjoy a stroll through the groves in the cool of the day. Perhaps the gardener may feel pleased to join us.

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  1. C. S. Lewis and Kohelet - The Art of Work : The Art of Work | May 23, 2014
  1. Jason Leo says:

    Great perspective on how we’ve complicated a book that was meant to be understood by the masses, not just a select few.

    • Vance says:

      Very true. The language Kohelet uses is inclusive and he talks consistently about “mankind” in general terms. He wrote for everyone under the sun who is asking, “Why do I have to work so hard and what do I gain from all my labor?”

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