“We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us,” said Winston Churchill. The power of architecture to shape is evident in the movie “Columbus” (2017), set in Columbus, Indiana, a small city which has numerous buildings designed by major modernist architects such as I.M. Pei, Cesar Pelli, Eero Saarinen, and Harry Weese. In the film, Jin, a resident of Seoul, South Korea, has been called to Columbus to be at his father’s bedside. Jin meets Casey, a recent high school graduate who is an enthusiast of the town’s architecture. Casey takes Jin around to her favorite buildings and tries to explain how living in proximity to them helped her deal with the hardship of having a drug-addict mother. Jin, who is estranged from his architect father, dismisses the effect that buildings have on us. “That architecture has the power to heal — that’s the fantasy architects like to tell themselves,” he says derisively. Yet the architecture that they walk and talk and sit by has a simplicity and stability to it that works on both of them.

Casey and Jin looking around.

The structures we frequent elicit reactions in all of us. A cozy cabin gives a sense of comfort, a quirkily painted house brings out whimsy, big-box stores and malls evoke consumerist trances. Following a recent trip to first-century archaeological sites in Turkey, I wondered how the citizens of ancient Greek and Roman cities were influenced by the architecture of those cities. I’ve written about some of the structures commonly found in those cities. In one post I wrote about agoras, baths, and theatres. In another I wrote about temples. The activities performed in each of these structures affected the lives of the local residents. What about the style of the buildings, though? What message was conveyed by their form, as opposed to their function?

I don’t have any definitive conclusions to offer here, but I do have a few ideas. Here are three features  Greek and Roman architecture that I imagine shaped the populace.

First, most structures were symmetrical. From whatever side it was viewed, the typical temple had rows of identical columns spaced (or at least appearing to be spaced) equidistant from each other. Colonnades used columns in the same manner. Theatres (such as the one at Aphrodisias, below) typically had seats in neat semicircular rows, each row looking just like the next. In many cases, platforms were constructed so that buildings could be built on perfectly flat, even surfaces. The message conveyed by such symmetry was one of imposed order. Chaos and confusion had been banished by the establishment of the Pax Romana. Subjects of the empire likely sensed that, just as slabs of marble had been tamed to create well-proportioned columns, arches, and pediments, so Roman ingenuity would insure order in all of life.

Second, cities for the most part eliminated nature from the architectural space. Most modern cities have green spaces included as an important feature of their geography. Urban parks are a welcome bit of nature in an otherwise man-made environment. Often, streets are lined with trees and homeowners landscape with bushes, flowerbeds, and lawns. Nothing in the Greek and Roman cities we visited was comparable. When visitors entered the gates of a city (as in Hieropolis, below), they often saw nothing but stone and the sky for blocks at a time. The only possible exception to this were agoras, open public spaces that served as marketplaces or civic centers. It seems that the only natural feature here was an expanse of grass in the middle. We saw trees in a few agoras; I suspect that they grew after the cities they were in were abandoned, but I may be wrong. In any case, the minimal presence of nature reinforced the notion that city planners had tamed and controlled even the elemental forces of the cosmos. Each city appeared to be a self-contained world, and the Romans made sure that cities were quite similar to one another (as discussed here; thanks to Cheryl Matthews for the link). Such control even over nature suggested that Roman power was limitless. This must have disheartened those who hoped to resist that power and reassured those who favored it.

Third was the grand scale of many buildings.  The bath/gymnasium complex in Sardis, for example, was huge. The stadiums were typically also mammoth (as was the one at Perge below), though they were probably given such scale not just to impress but also as a result of their function. Chariot races took a bit of space! Such large structures conveyed majesty and grandeur. This was particularly true of temples. Not only did many of them have a large footprint, they also extended upward. During my visit, I was amazed again and again by the sheer size of these places of worship. It must have taken thousands of workers laboring for decades or even centuries to build such mammoth structures out of marble!

A CNN article about the neuroscience of holy places talks about the feeling of “elevation” evoked by ancient and modern temples and cathedrals. Such a sense of elevation, awe or exultation comes from having our eyes drawn upward. The architect Louis Kahn remarked upon visiting the Roman Baths of Caracalla that “There’s something about a 150-foot ceiling that makes a man a different kind of man” (quoted here). To be specific, it makes a man (or woman) religious. The intense devotion to the gods prevalent throughout the Roman empire was certainly fostered by visits to the buildings that were dedicated to those gods. And, once temples were being built to worship emperors, it’s not surprising how quickly emperor worship became a powerful force in the society.

So the Roman political and religious systems were bolstered by Roman architecture. Yet Rome faltered, while a religious movement that had no permanent worship spaces for the first three centuries of its existence grew ever more powerful. How did Christianity spread so effectively? In my next post I’ll turn to the apostle Paul, who did more than anyone except Christ himself to disseminate the Christian message.



I’ve been writing about a recent trip to Biblical archaeological sites in Asia Minor (current-day Turkey). I’ve written about the architectural features of Greek and Roman cities and about Roman religion, including the cult of emperor worship. It wasn’t until I returned that I realized something was missing from first-century Asia Minor. This was occupied territory at the time but there wasn’t much evidence that there had been a military presence–no soldier’s barracks, armories, or other military installations. At the time, there was no Roman legion stationed in the area. The situation was quite different from Palestine, which had a strong occupying force. According to Richard A Horsley, who edited Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society, there wasn’t even a bureaucracy in place to ensure compliance with Roman policies. So what controlled the populace?

There’s no need to exercise control over people if those people are controlling themselves, and it seems that’s what happened. The historian renowned for explaining how this happened was S.R.F. Price; his thesis was described in Rituals and Power: The Imperial Cult and Asia Minor (1984). The highly civilized Hellenistic cities of the region had succumbed under the onslaught of Roman power. For centuries before, they had a tradition of venerating local rulers who had been benefactors of their cities. These royal cults were associated with religious worship–the honor given to benefactors was similar to the honor given to the ultimate benefactors, the gods. The emperor received the same sort of treatment, and it didn’t take much to go from ‘the emperor is like a god’ to ‘the emperor is a god.’ After all, in polytheism there’s always room for more divinities. And worshiping the emperor gave people a sense of meaning and identity that had been lost to them when they came under Rome’s control. As Horsley explains,

“Since the subject peoples cannot change the dominant order, they need to justify, perhaps even want to glorify that order and articulate their own place within it.” p. 24

Sites for emperor worship were typically located outside Rome, not in Rome itself. It was usually not the emperor who took the initiative in establishing shrines, temples, and festivals in his honor but the local elites, who had an interesting relationship with the Roman authorities. Roman power  was exercised not via administrators but through a complex web of patron client relationships. Your patron protected and helped you; you were obliged in turn to praise and honor him. The emperor was the ultimate patron; local cities and aristocrats were his clients. What better way to honor your patron than build a temple or conduct a festival in his name? The elites competed for the opportunity to underwrite such elaborate demonstrations of veneration for the emperor. Here, for example, are the remains of a large fountain building erected by Ephesian bigwig Tiberius Claudius Aristion and his wife in honor of the goddess Artemis and Emperor Trajan:

And religious activities such as worshiping the emperor weren’t cordoned off from the rest of life. Those of us familiar with the separation of church and state, or even those from nations that have a state church, can’t fully appreciate how intertwined religion was with public affairs. At the theatre there were statues to the gods, including the emperor. The same was true if you shopped at the agora or visited the baths. An excerpt from Prince’s book reprinted in Horsley’s volume points out how the upper square of Ephesus, redesigned during the reign of Augustus, was built so as to foster emperor worship. For example, between the magistrate’s office (where the sacred fire to Hestia burned) and the small auditorium where the city council met, there was a temple dedicated to Julius Caesar (or perhaps Augustus: scholars are uncertain):

Another example of the intrusion of the imperial cult in public spaces is a the large statue of Hadrian outside the baths in Aphrodisias:

It was a mark of divinity that Hadrian was portrayed naked and with an idealized male form.

There were regular feasts and festivals designed to give divine honor to the emperor. Spectacles were held in his name. Bruce Winter, in Divine Honors for the Caesars: The First Christian’s Responses, indicates that gladiatorial contests and animal fights were almost always organized by the high priest of the imperial cult. Winter also provides a calendar from the early first century giving the high and holy days to be celebrated by the populace. Most of the days listed called for some sort of veneration of the emperor. Here is the calendar for January:

January 7      On this day Caesar first took the fasces.

January 16    On this day Caesar was named Augustus. Supplicatio to Augustus.

January 30    On this day the altar of Peace was dedicated. Supplicatio to the imperium of Caesar Augustus, Guardian of the Roman Empire.

What will you do, then, if you’re a gentile convert to Christianity and your trade guild holds a feast in which the food has been sacrificed to the emperor? Or what if there’s a procession honoring the emperor going past your house and everyone along the route is expected to offer a sacrifice in the great one’s honor? What if you’re asked to proclaim that Caesar is god and lord? You can’t cite separation of church and state–there’s no such concept. Nor is there such a thing as religious freedom. It’s your duty as a good citizen to take part. The peace and stability of the empire depends on the devotion of its people, so to refuse is to undermine the well-being of society (or so everyone believes). What will you do?

I recently wrote about a recent group tour to Biblical archaeological sites in Turkey. The cities in which fledgling churches were planted by the Apostle Paul were under Roman rule, though many had been built by earlier kingdoms–Hittite, Lydian, Persian, Greek, Seleucid, Pergamene. Thus, we saw archaeological remains representing many nations, but the majority were Greek or Roman. Similarly, the temples and religious objects we saw were mostly devoted to the Greek pantheon of gods or their Roman counterparts. This post will be about that religious tradition and the challenge it posed for first century Christians.

According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, Roman religion was initially animistic but gradually added gods. From an initial triad of Mars, Quirinus, and Jupiter, the Romans added the Greek deities and others from conquered peoples, so that eventually there was a large collection of gods to be worshiped. Worship typically took the form of communal rituals. Cities would often adopt a patron deity that became a particular object of devotion.

Temples were seen as a home of the god, and building your favorite deity such a dwelling was a way to have him or her present among the populace.  According to Wikipedia, “Their construction and maintenance was a major part of ancient Roman religion, and all towns of any importance had at least one main temple, as well as smaller shrines.” Virtually every archaeological site we visited had one or more large temples. In many instances, virtually nothing remained, as with the massive temple of Artemis in Ephesus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world:

Others had sufficient remains to suggest something of their original grandeur, such as the Temple of Apollo in Didyma:

Here is another impressive site, the Temple of Aphrodite in Aphrodisias:

Most of the  temples were rectangular and were on a raised platform, with steps leading up to the portico and entrance. Sacrifices were typically offered somewhere on the temple grounds but not in the central room of the temple. That central area was reserved instead for a cult statue of the god. Here is such a statue of Artemis, now in the Ephesus Museum:

And here is an altar for sacrifice to Apollo in Didyma:

When the first Christian churches were established in Asia Minor, the believers had to decide how to interact with Roman religion. The Romans did not demand belief in their pantheon of gods, but they did expect that everyone would participate in civic feasts and festivals, which inevitably included homage to those gods. One aspect of Roman religion that put special pressure on the Christians was the imperial cult. Starting in the time of Augustus, many emperors were named as gods. Augustus himself wasn’t enamored of the idea, but that didn’t keep the Senate from deifying him upon his death. Often, an emperor would ask that his predecessor be declared divine. Some emperors decided in their lifetime that they were gods and should be worshiped. For example Domitian (r. AD 81-96) had a temple built to himself in Ephesus: only the elevated base still stands:

The monumental head and arm from the statue of Domitian that stood in the temple is now in the Ephesus Museum:

Domitian may have thought of himself as a god, but the population didn’t agree with him. After his death, the Senate condemned his memory to oblivion, and his temple was rededicated to his father and brother.

I didn’t have an appreciation of how important emperor worship was until we visited the ruins at Aphrodisias. There we saw the partly reconstructed Sebasteion, a first-century temple devoted to worship of emperors. There was a large courtyard flanked by three-story porticoes; this was no small enterprise!

The porticoes were covered with friezes celebrating the exploits of various emperors. Many friezes were recovered and are on display in the nearby Aphrodisias Museum. For example, here is Claudius about to apply the death blow to Britannia:

To the Romans, emperors weren’t just politicians. They were deities sent to bring peace and deliverance. Jennifer Greer, an adjunct professor at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary who was on the trip, read to us a translation of the Priene Calendar Inscription found on two stones in the marketplace of the ancient city of Priene. It called for the institution of a new calendar system starting with the date of Caesar Augustus’ birth. Here’s part of the text:

“Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him…”

A savior sent to benefit humankind. Christians who read this would have thought of someone else sent to save us, Jesus Christ. The question they faced was who to worship: who is the true savior of the world?  It’s a question for every age, just as pertinent now as it was then. In future posts, I’ll explore the Christian response to the claims made by Roman religion.

I recently went on a study tour that visited Biblical archaeological sites in Turkey. This entailed seeing the ruins of cities that were thriving during the mid-to-late first century CE, when Paul evangelized in what was then called Asia Minor and, a few decades later, when John wrote a letter, preserved as the book of Revelation, to several churches in the area. In the first century–and for some time before and after–the region was ruled by Rome. So the ruins we looked at were mostly Roman ruins, though some earlier (Greek, Persian) and later (Byzantine) ruins were in the mix as well. Thus, we spent a good deal of time considering what it was like to live in Roman lands, what might have attracted some of the population to the good news as preached by Paul, and what pressures were felt by those who converted.

Rome must have seemed beneficial to many of those under its sphere of influence. It was a civilizing influence, and brought peace and prosperity to millions. At what cost to those it ruled, though? In a BBC article on Roman power, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill summarizes  how the Roman world looks to modern eyes:

“[R]oman style conquest now seems not the solution but the problem. Centralised control, the suppression of local identities, the imposition of a unified system of beliefs and values – let alone the enslavement of conquered populations, the attribution of sub-human status to a large part of the workforce, and the deprivation of women of political power – all now spell for us not a dream but a nightmare.”

We can’t know exactly what it was like to live in Roman times, but Roman artifacts, ruins, and documents give us some idea. In this post, I’ll describe three types of structures found in most of the cities we visited. The prevalence of such structures reflect their importance in the culture. In subsequent posts I’ll reflect more on Roman society and on the Christian alternative.

So, in most cities we visited, we saw:

One or More Agoras

The agora was an open space where people assembled. The term is Greek; the Roman term ‘forum’ is a near equivalent. Often there were two agoras: a commercial agora, where business was conducted, and a state agora, devoted to matters of government. Here, for example, is the commercial agora at Ephesus:

And here is the commercial agora at Perge:

Notice the columns surrounding the central areas. These were part of covered walkways (known as stoas) onto which shops opened. Notice also the round structure at the center of the agora in Perge. This is thought to be a temple to Hermes, the patron deity of merchants. Our guide suggested that the merchants would gather there every day to offer sacrifices. Was this form of civic religion expected of all merchants? There was probably an early Christian presence here; how did Christian merchants handle pressures to worship Hermes?


Both Greek and Roman cities had large communal baths. These were not just places to practice personal hygiene, but centers of social and recreational activity. Baths typically had a series of pools. Bathers came into the apodyterium (changing room) then progressed through pools that were cool (frigidarium), warm (tepidarium), and hot (caldarium). For example, here are the frigidarium and the caldarium of the Baths of Faustina at Miletus:

The two statues beside the frigidarium are of a river god and a lion. Portrayals of the gods were everywhere, though many are no longer on site since archaeologists have relocated them into museums.

Sometimes the bath was combined with a gymnasium, as in the huge bath/gymnasium complex at Sardis:

The picture was taken from the far end of the palaestra (exercise yard), looking toward the bath. This complex and some of the other ones were huge. They depended on remarkable feats of engineering–besides the pools themselves, there had to be aqueducts to bring the water and furnace rooms to supply the heat. A modern-day practice somewhat similar to Roman bathing might be going to a spa. It’s easy to see that this amenity may have prompted both Romans and the others under their rule to think that the Roman way of life was felicitous.

The Theatre

The Greeks had a long theatrical tradition and by the 5th century BCE were building venues where plays could be presented. The Romans developed a similar interest in the theatre. The structures they built for this purpose were quite similar to the Greek model, though there were some differences. Often, a theatre was built into a hillside, with the orchestra and pulpitum, where the chorus and actors were, at the bottom of the hill. There was usually a scaenae frons, a two- or three-story backdrop to the stage that served as architectural decoration. The audience sat on stone seats in the auditorium, which sloped up from the orchestra and gave a good view of the stage. Here is the theater at Aspendos, built during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. According to the Lonely Planet guide to Turkey, it is considered the best-preserved Roman theatre of the ancient world:

The auditorium seats 15,000. Our guide told us that the rule of thumb is that the size of the city was about ten times greater than the seating capacity of the theatre. I doubt that any of our modern arts complexes have seats for 10% of the local population! And sometimes theatres were much larger than would be warranted by this ratio. Clyde Fast and Mitchell Reddish, in their Guide to Biblical Sites in Greece and Turkey, say that the town of Priene, in the hills south of Ephesus, never had more than 5,000 residents. The theatre there, shown below, seated. 6,500, more than the entire population. They must have been expecting out-of-town visitors!

Notice the large, elevated stone seats in the front row. Premium seating for dignitaries is by no means a new phenomenon!

Though theatres were mainly venues for plays, sometimes there were other activities scheduled. Theatres (as in Ephesus, shown below) that had an entryway beneath the stage and a high wall separating the orchestra from the auditorium were used for gladiatorial fights; the wall was to provide greater security for the paying customers.

There were many other architectural forms that we saw frequently–fountains, shops, stadiums, and temples, to name a few. The last of these were the focus of Roman religion, and I’ll turn to them in my next post.

This is the last in a series of posts about David Foster Wallace’s monumental novel Infinite Jest. Wallace details a variety of factors that make it difficult to live as an authentic self in twenty-first century America. I most recently posted about practices that characters in his book used to battle addictions and live more authentically. Much of what he said is similar to the approach taken by James K.A. Smith.

Smith, a philosopher from Calvin College, has written a series of books about the importance of our actions in shaping us. He refers often to DFW; Marathe’s comment that “You are what you love” is also the title of one of Smith’s books. Smith writes, “our most fundamental orientation to the world–the longings and desires that orient us to some version of the good life–are shaped and configured by imitation and practice.” (You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, p. 19) Like Wallace in his Kenyon College speech, Smith proposes that humans are creatures that worship–we can’t not worship. Our devotion is evident not only when we attend religious services but also when we engage in secular “liturgies” such as going to the mall. By our actions we are always giving ourselves away to something, and we are shaped thereby. Sometimes we give homage mindlessly, but we can also intentionally engage in liturgies in an effort to change. We can choose to engage in practices that with time will reshape our desires.

This same strategy for change–identify what activities will transform you and do those things repeatedly until they shape your desires and thoughts, not being overly concerned with how or why the change occurs–is an essential part of the program at E.T.A., the tennis academy that is one of the two main settings in Infinite Jest. Here is Jim Troeltsch, one of the older players, speaking to his Little Buddies:

“Boys, what it is is I’ll tell you it’s repetition. First last always. It’s hearing the same motivational stuff over and over till sheer repetitive weight makes it sink down into the gut. It’s making the same pivots and lunges and strokes over and over and over again, at you boy’s age it’s reps for their own sake, putting results on the back burner…” (p. 117)

Unlike the transformative practices at Ennet House and AA, which are also described at length in IJ, the practices at E.T.A. are mainly designed to make the students the best tennis players they can be. There’s also some attention given to preventing the successful players from self-destructing, but there’s no emphasis on shaping desires or becoming authentic selves. And, though the E.T.A. liturgies contain, as do those of AA, elements reminiscent of worship (I think that the human proclivity to worship is what DFW means when he talks about the impulse to give oneself away), this similarity isn’t discussed. This topic is probably one of those “real” matters that Mario, the novel’s ‘holy fool,’ has noticed embarrasses all but the younger players. When Mario visited the other main setting in the novel, the drug treatment facility at Ennet House, he liked it “because it’s very real; people are crying and making noise and getting less unhappy, and once he heard somebody say God with a straight face and nobody looked at them or looked down or smiled in any sort of way where you could tell they were worried inside.” [p. 591]

Mario’s brother Hal, one of the star players at E.T.A., has improved his tennis skills tremendously as a result of the practices taught at E.T.A., but these practices have done nothing to cure his inner emptiness. In contrast, over at Ennet House, Gately has followed the suggestions offered him by A.A. and his desires are changing. He’s also becoming a more complete self, one who cares about others and wants to do what is right. [The rest of this paragraph discusses the end of the book, so readers who don’t want spoilers should skip it.] Near the end of IJ, as Gately lies in his hospital bed, he reflects on his life while he was still actively using, especially his relationship with “Fackelmann,” with whom he committed crimes to support his habit. Fackelmann did something that put him in grave danger; rather than helping him, Gately took advantage of him. It’s not made clear why Gately relives this memory; my take is that by doing so he is mentally engaging in the liturgical practices of confession and repentance. As Christians have learned for centuries, these practices have tremendous power to shape us. Their power doesn’t stem from being embedded in a religious ceremony; they are effective even for those, like Gately, who practice them in the temple of the imagination. The book ends with symbolism that could be suggesting new birth; perhaps Gately receives forgiveness from the God he can’t sense and has trouble believing in.

Despite the hundreds of pages devoted to all manner of folly and failure, in the end IJ seemed to me to be a hopeful book. No matter how badly the characters behaved, no matter what trouble they got themselves into, redemption was possible. The route to wholeness is seen most clearly in the practices of AA, but the way of redemption is much more ancient than that, having been followed by pilgrims throughout the centuries. Recognize how far you’ve fallen, surrender your pride, and practice those things that will teach you humility, constancy, and patience. As the apostle Peter put it, the God of all grace will restore, establish, and strengthen you.

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues.

I recently saw The Disaster Artist, the movie about the making of The Room, one of the worst movies of all time. James Franco both directs and portrays Tommy Wiseau, the main force behind The Room. James’ brother Dave plays Greg Sestero, Tommy’s friend and collaborator.

Among other things, the film is about friendship, about the making of movies, about art, and what it’s like to live without self-awareness. Tommy’s inability to view himself accurately or imagine how others see him were major factors in his conceit that he could write, direct, and star in a major motion picture. Early in the film, he and Greg move to Hollywood to pursue acting careers, but he receives a uniformly negative response. In one scene, he accosts a famous director (I didn’t catch who it was) in a restaurant, bombarding him with lines from Shakespeare. When Tommy persists despite a polite rebuff, the director is unstinting: never in a million years could you become an actor. Slowed only a bit by this onslaught, Tommy pleadingly asks, “But after that?”

Through the second half of the film I kept wondering how someone so singularly incompetent and unqualified actually succeeded at making a movie that opened in a first-run movie theater. Why didn’t reality stop him early in the process? I don’t have the answer to that question, and I haven’t seen The Room, which might provide some insight. Reflecting on The Disaster Artist, though, I came up with three factors that may have played a role.

First of all, because Tommy couldn’t see himself through other’s eyes, he didn’t feel shame or embarrassment. Thus he is undaunted when doing things that make others quiver. Early in the film he and Greg are eating in a packed restaurant. Tommy insists that they perform a scene from a play right there, which they proceed to do at full volume. Greg is clearly uneasy, but not Tommy. The stares of others, their negative comments and thinly veiled derision have no effect on him. When I feel shame, I’m quite uncomfortable, and at times I wish I wouldn’t feel that emotion as easily as I do. Watching Tommy, though, I was thankful for the capacity to feel shame; it does provide information that sometimes steers me away from doing things that I would later regret.

Part of Tommy’s defense against shame is that he sees himself as an artist whose vision isn’t appreciated by others. This second reason for Tommy’s imperviousness to feedback comes up over and over again on the set of the movie, whenever anyone suggests a change to a scene. “You don’t understand my vision,” Tommy laments. The narrative of the misunderstood artist comes from Romanticism, one of the cultural metanarratives that affect how we see ourselves and live our lives. Unfortunately, not all artistic visions are of equal value, and probably none of them provide the kind of unerring guide to goodness and truth that the Romantics thought they would. For Tommy, the idea of artistic vision is a convenient way to deflect criticism and legitimize incompetence.

None of these factors would have been enough for him to complete the film, though, if Tommy hadn’t also been rich. He bankrolled the entire project; it’s estimated that he spent six million dollars making The Room. After several days of filming, we see script supervisor Sandy (Seth Rogan) trying to cash a check from Tommy. He is apprehensive, doubtful that the check will clear. The banker reassures Sandy that there are vast sums in Tommy’s account. Having learned this, throughout the filming Sandy tolerates Tommy’s rants and indulges his whims. The rich are treated more leniently than the rest of us. At the same time, they become blind to how others view them. As summarized in The Atlantic, several research studies have found that the powerful have more difficulty than the powerless in understanding what others are feeling. Money is a form of power, and can be expected to produce similarly diminished awareness of the reactions of others. There’s a wrenching scene near the end of the movie when Tommy learns how others view his movie; he squirms with discomfort. It might have been better for him had he been able to feel some of this uneasiness before spending a fortune.

Reflecting on The Disaster Artist, then, I’m grateful that I can feel shame, unpleasant as it is at the time. I’m glad, too, that I don’t lay claim to an artistic vision that elevates me above others. As a middle class American, I have enough wealth that I don’t empathize with the poor as well as I might. Still, I’m not flush enough that people cater to me–not as far as I can tell, at least. As confident as Tommy appeared, it must have been difficult to be him. I may have a more modest ego, but at least I feel comparatively little pain when it’s deflated.

I’m nearing the end of my series of posts about David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. As I read the book I was most interested in what DFW had to say about the struggles we in present-day America have with living meaningful and genuine lives. The first four posts provide some thoughts about what I take to be Wallace’s portrayal of those struggles. This post and the next one will focus on what he offers that might provide help.

As I noted earlier, one place that Wallace thinks provides assistance is in recovery programs such as AA and NA. Wallace was himself an alcoholic and was quite familiar with the 12-Step model of treatment. As he describes the recovery program at Ennet House, a treatment facility, he both repeats some of AA’s standard dogma and offers his own observations about the nature of this approach to recovery and how it works to bring about change.

As discussed back in the first of my posts, IJ describes a world in which most people have strong desires that can gain control over their lives. Pursuit of these desires seems to promise a better life–not only a life of pleasure, but also escape from pain. Unfortunately, with time the pleasure fades and pain returns. One of the first things that must be done in treatment is to face the inevitability of pain:

“[T]hey tell you how it’ll all get better and better as you abstain and recover: they somehow omit to mention that the way it gets better and you get better is through pain…. At least this pain means you’re going somewhere, they say, instead of the repetitive gerbil-wheel of addictive pain.” (p. 446)

There will be pain associated with growth, but focusing on the pain to come is counterproductive. Instead, the emphasis is on living with the present moment’s pain. It’s the AA slogan “Take one day at a time” broken into even finer portions, as in Ennet House staff member Gately dealing with the pain of withdrawal from opioids:

“He had to build a wall around each second just to take it. The whole first two weeks of it are telescoped in his memory down to like one second–less: the space between two heartbeats.” (p. 860)

Accepting the pain and the need to participate in meetings and daily routines that are associated with recovery (though these are always offered as suggestions, not as requirements), the addict is encouraged not to look for the causes of his or her addiction, but simply to remember that they are indeed under the influence of that addiction:

“The Boston AA ‘In Here’ that protects against a return to ‘Out There’ is not about explaining what caused your disease. It’s about a goofily simple practical recipe for how to remember you’ve got the Disease day by day and how to treat the Disease day by day, how to keep the seductive ghost of a bliss long absconded from baiting you and hooking you and pulling you back Out and eating your heart raw and (if you’re lucky) eliminating your map for good. So no whys and wherefores allowed.” (p. 374)

Recovery–Keep Going to Meetings. Image from brickjest.com

The new residents often think the program is simplistic; they have trouble believing that it will work. The staff encourage them to put aside their doubts and simply do the things that the program recommends. One aspect of the program that many residents resist is turning  to God. The agnostics and atheists especially have trouble doing this. However, Wallace offers the following wry observation in the list of things that new Ennet House residents are likely to learn:

“That God might regard the issue of whether you believe there’s a God or not as fairly low on his/her/its list of things s/he/it’s interested in re you.” p. 205

Several months into his recovery, Gately has been praying every morning and evening–and has found it helps him maintain sobriety through the day. Nonetheless, speaking at an AA meeting, he admits he still has no sense of God:

“He says but when he tries to go beyond the very basic rote automatic get-me-through-this-day-please stuff, when he kneels at other times and prays or meditates or tries to achieve a Big-Picture spiritual understanding of a God as he can understand Him, he feels Nothing–not nothing but Nothing, an edgeless blankness that somehow feels worse than the sort of unconsidered atheism he Came In with.” p. 443

After the meeting, one of the attendees, a biker named Bob Death, tells him “the one about the fish.” Wallace told this story in his well-known 2005 Kenyon College commencement address. An old fish meets two young fish and greets them, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” As the two fish swim on, one turns to the other and asks, “What the f*** is water?” Gately listens,

“And his dreams late that night, after the Braintree/Bob Death Commitment, seem to set him under a sort of sea, at terrific depths, the water all around him silent and dim and the same temperature he is.” p. 449

For Wallace, God is like the sea, surrounding and supporting all of us, his/her very pervasiveness preventing us from recognizing his/her presence. Our growth towards wholeness doesn’t depend on believing in God so much as on acting as if we did. Practice matters, ideas mostly tend to trip us up rather than help.

So, then, some strategies that characters in IJ find helpful in living meaningful lives relatively free from addiction include accepting the pain, acquiring (but not analyzing) regular habits that interfere with unhealthy attachments, and putting trust in God, whether or not you believe his existence. I’ll reflect a bit more on the reasoning behind this approach to life in my final post on the book.