faith


I have been posting recently about my recent trip to first-century archaeological sites in Asia Minor–modern day Turkey. I wrote most recently about the apostle Paul’s efforts to explain to the Jews living in that part of the Roman empire that Jesus Christ fulfilled the promises made in the Jewish scripture. Paul was also interested in bringing the Christian gospel to Gentiles. That means that he had to address not only Jewish concerns but those pertinent to Greek and Roman culture. This post will discuss that portion of his message.

Whereas Acts 13 shows how Paul spoke to Jews, Acts 17:22-31 shows how he approached a skeptical gentile audience. Paul is in Athens, where he has been conversing with the locals in the marketplace. Some of his hearers bring him to the Areopagus to hear what he has to say. Unlike his approach with Jews, he says nothing about Hebrew history and doesn’t quote scripture. He begins instead connecting to the world of his hearers, noting how religious they are and commenting on an altar that had been dedicated “to an unknown god.” He uses this to discuss religious matters with his audience. As Ben Witherington notes, “what we see here is not an attempt to meet pagans halfway, but rather a use of points of contact, familiar ideas and terms, in order to make a proclamation of monotheism in its Christian form.” (The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary).

The Athens Acropolis as viewed from the Areopagus.

God doesn’t live in human temples, says Paul with a good deal of temerity, speaking as he is in the shadow of the temple-studded Acropolis. God doesn’t need anything from us–contrary to the Greek myth that humans were created in order to offer sacrifices to the gods. And it’s wrong to think of God in terms of statues made of gold, silver, or stone. All this seems to directly contradict Greek and Roman religion. This was a fairly sophisticated audience, though, and as such they weren’t mindless adherents of the traditional belief system. Among his listeners are Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. He was expressing agreement with some of the ideas of each, and disagreement with others.

The Epicureans would agree with Paul’s critique of pagan sacrifices, for example, but not with his reason for the critique. As N.T. Wright says,

“For the Epicurean, the gods were far away and so didn’t want anything from us; for Paul, God is very close to us, the giver of everything to us, the passionate seeker who wants us to seek him in return—and therefore doesn’t want animal sacrifices from us.” (Acts for Everyone, Part 2)

As for the Stoics, Paul’s allusion to the oneness of all humans in verses 26-8 would have gotten their approval. In verse, 28, he quotes the Stoic philosopher Aratus on the subject of humans being God’s children: “We are his offspring.” For the Stoics, our kinship with God would have been understood pantheistically, but Paul would have meant something different: that God had created all of us in his image. Witherington, who discusses the above points, says this about what Paul was doing:

“Familiar ideas are used to make contact with the audience, but they are used for evangelistic purposes to bolster arguments that are essentially Jewish and Christian in character.” (The Acts of the Apostles: a Socio-Rhetorical Commentary)

Paul goes on to speak of a day of judgment presided over by a man that God raised from the dead. That was all that his listeners could stand, and they interrupt. Had he been able to continue, he probably would have continued his same strategy of repurposing concepts familiar to Greeks and Romans to explain what God has done in Jesus. In fact, such repurposing can be found throughout Paul’s writings. Here all some examples of concepts Paul repurposed; I’ve adapted ideas from essays by Richard A. Horsley, Dieter Geogi, and Helmut Koester in Paul and Empire, edited by Horsley (Biblical passages cited are illustrative, not exhaustive; my knowledge of Greek is quite limited and corrections by those who know the language better than I do are welcome):

  • euangelion (gospel) had been used in proclamations about the achievements of Caesar such as the Priene Calendar Inscription; Paul used it in I Cor. 4:15, 15:1, Eph 1:13, 3:6 to refer to what Christ accomplished in behalf of his followers.
  • soter (savior) and soteria (salvation) had been used to refer to what Augustus Caesar and his successors had accomplished; Paul used in Rom. 1:16; 10:11; Phil 1:28; 3:20 to refer to who Christ is and what he has accomplished.
  • pistis (faith or faithfulness) was used to describe the loyalty of Caesar, to be reciprocated by his subjects; Paul used in Rom. 3:3 and Gal. 3:23-25 to about God’s faithfulness and our response.
  • eirene (peace) had been used to refer to the quelling of conflict under Roman rule; Paul used it in Rom. 2:10, 5:1, 8:6, 14:17 to describe a state that God brings in the lives of believers.
  • parousia (arrival or visitation) was used to describe a visit by the emperor; Paul used it in I Thes. 3:13, 4:15, 5:23 to refer to Christ returning to earth in glory.

In the Roman context, such words were political in nature, but also religious, in that they were used in the cult of emperor worship. Paul, an astute observer of his cultural setting, appropriated them to refer to Christ and his accomplishments. Reading Paul today, we tend to limit them to their religious sense. But these words were political as well. Paul was announcing the reign of God, his rule over the powers of this earth. Roman rulers who heard him as challenging their dominion were probably understanding his meaning more clearly than we do today. “May your kingdom come, your will be done,” we pray, as Jesus taught. We might tremble were we to consider what that would do to the kingdoms now in place.

View of the Areopagus from the Athens Acropolis.

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I’ve been posting about a recent trip to Biblical archaeological sites in Asia Minor, discussing Roman religion, Roman influence, and Roman architecture. In this post, I’ll switch my focus to the Apostle Paul, who was a missionary to Galatia and Asia, two provinces in Asia Minor, as well as to Greece and Rome. The things I’ve learned (and discussed in earlier posts) about the cultural context in which Paul evangelized have given me a better appreciation of his strategy.

Sociologist Rodney Stark indicates (in The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History) that, as a new religion, Christianity appealed initially to those who were likely to be early adopters of cultural innovations. As he describes them, early adopters tend to be above average in income and education. They are attracted to new ideas and have the sophistication to understand those ideas and see the need for them. As Paul traveled, he encountered two groups that had such qualities: Hellenized Jews and upper-class Gentiles.

Jews had settled in Asia Minor well before the first century and thus had for decades or even centuries been influenced by Hellenistic culture.  They were often well-to-do and lived in the major cities in the region. Many had taken Greek names and had accepted some elements of pagan religious thought. At the same time, they continued to meet in synagogues and study the Torah. An example of such a congregation was located in Sardis; the remains of the synagogue there showed strong Greek and Roman influences, such as this altar flanked by statues of lions:

When Paul came to a city, he typically went first to the synagogue and spoke to the congregation there about the gospel of Jesus Christ. Mark Strauss, the New Testament scholar who accompanied our tour, pointed out an example of this strategy recorded in Acts 13. Paul had come to Pisdian Antioch, went to the synagogue, and was invited to speak. He began with a recitation of the history of Israel–the stay in Egypt, the exodus, the conquest of Canaan, the judges, and the start of the monarchy. All this would have been familiar to his listeners. He paused when he got to David, describing him as not only royalty but as obedient, a man after God’s own heart. Paul used David as a springboard to leap over the next thousand years, to Christ:

“From this man’s descendants God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised.” (v. 23, NIV)

His hearers would know the promise Paul was alluding to: that God would raise up a descendant of David who would establish an everlasting kingdom. That person would be the savior of Israel. In his commentary on Acts, N.T. Wright explains why a first-century Jewish audience would recognize the need for a savior:

“…Israel, though God’s people, were not living in freedom, were not being much of a light to the nations, and were often finding it difficult to keep their own law, whether because of pressure from pagan society or laziness within the Jewish community. All was not well: when would God’s purposes finally come true, when would Israel be rescued from her continuing plight? That is the implied question, a corporate as well as an individual problem, to which Paul offers the solution of Jesus the Saviour.” (Acts for Everyone, Part 2)

Paul went on to describe selected events of the gospel, culminating in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. “We tell you the good news,” he adds. “What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus.” (v. 32, 33a) He supported his argument by quoting from Psalm 2, Isaiah 55, and Psalm 16. He was speaking to them as fellow Jews, recipients of the promises contained in scripture. At the same time, his description of what Christ has accomplished has more universal appeal:

“Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin…” (v. 38,9)

Stark describes the appeal of the Christian message to this Jewish audience:

“Christianity offered twice as much cultural continuity to the Hellenized Jews as to Gentiles. If we examine the marginality of the Hellenized Jews, torn between two cultures, we may note how Christianity offered to retain much of the religious content of both cultures and to resolve the contradictions between them.”

But this raises additional questions. Paul’s appeal in Acts 13 seems to focus almost entirely on his listeners’ religious roots in Judaism. How did his message appeal to the other main cultural influence on Hellenistic Jews, the Greek and Roman view of the world? And how did it resolve contradictions between them? To answer that, have to look at how Paul spoke to followers of Greek and Roman religion. I’ll consider that in my next post.

Entrance to Perga, another city where Paul preached.

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?

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.

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.

In a previous post, I wrote about one theme David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, namely the desire many characters have to escape themselves. Social realities in the U.S. intensify this desire. DFW seems particularly interested in exploring aspects of American culture that interfere with living a healthy and authentic life. In the book, the most detailed critique of American culture is offered by a character from a rather different culture, albeit still North American. Rémy Marathe is from Quebec; he is an agent  (he’s actually a quadruple agent, when you sort out who he is betraying and pretending to betray) of the Wheelchair Assassins, a violent separatist group that is seeking to acquire the lethal “entertainment” named Infinite Jest V to use as a terrorist weapon. He complains to his contact Hugh Steeply, agent for the North American government’s Office of Unspecified Services, about the failure of Americans to live for any purpose larger than themselves:

“You U.S.A.’s do not seem to believe you may each choose what to die for. Love of a woman, the sexual, it bends back in on the self, makes you narrow, maybe crazy. Chose with care. Love of your nation, your country and people, it enlarges the heart. Something bigger that the self.” (p. 107)

He thinks that Americans “choose nothing over themselves to love, each one.” (p. 318) As a result, they are particularly susceptible to the lure of the lethal entertainment. They will “die for this chance to be fed to the death of pleasure with spoons, in their warm homes, alone, unmoving.” Exclusive self-love prepares us for self-indulgence, nothing more. The effect of the lethal entertainment on its viewers seems just a more intensified version of what the American entertainment industry does to all of us every day. When DFW wrote IJ, we were entertained mainly through television, VCR tapes, CDs, and DVDs. Now packaged entertainment also infects our laptops and cell phones, enticing us everywhere we look. It deadens us, it tempts us to give our lives to it, one cat video at a time.

And it isolates us. Though the characters in IJ are often physically present with each other, they mostly fail to forge meaningful connections. The pioneering developmental psychologist Jean Piaget coined the term “collective monologue” to describe the way in which young children talk to each other: though they take turns talking, each is carrying on an independent stream of speech, not listening to or responding to what the other is saying. Many of the conversations in IJ come close to being collective monologues–Hal and Orin, for example, or the residents of Ennet House with each other. Hal asks his Little Buddies (the younger students at E.T.A. that he mentors) “Even if we all live and eat and shower and play together, how can we keep from being 136 deeply alone people all jammed together?” (p. 112) The question can be asked more broadly: how can we keep our way of living from isolating us, even if we are sitting in the same restaurants or offices or living rooms with others? Hal thinks connection is possible because the students are united by common hardship, but this hypothesis isn’t borne out in the rest of the book.

Isolation is an issue at Ennet House as well. One of the things that residents are said to learn early in their stay is “That loneliness is not a function of solitude.” As with the E.T.A. students, they aren’t alone very much–they room together, go to meetings together, and spend almost all their time in each other’s company. There is little solitude, but a lot of loneliness.

Marathe and Steeply. Image from http://www.brickjest.com.

Marathe tells Steeply, “You are what you love.” Unlike what we desire, what we’re tempted by, or what intrudes into our lives, we have a choice about what we love. Marathe later tells Kate Gompart, a depressed Ennet House resident, what (or whom) he chose to love. As a young double amputee who belonged to a suppressed minority, he felt empty. Everything changed one day when he saw a woman about to be hit by a truck. He quickly rolled down the hill he was on, arriving just in time to sweep her out of the way.

“It was this frozen with the terror woman, she saved my life. For this saved my life. This moment broke my moribund chains, Katherine. In one instant and without thought I was allowed to choose something as more important than my thinking of my life. Her, she allowed this will without thinking. She with one blow broke the chains of the cage of pain at my half a body and nation.” p. 778

His betrayal of the Quebecois cause was for the sake of getting medical treatment for Gertraude, the woman he rescued who subsequently became his wife. He of course had told Steeply earlier that a nation was a sufficient cause to give oneself to, but a woman wasn’t. Thus he wasn’t living according to the ideals he espoused. Despite his own inconsistency, Marathe’s critique of the U.S. raises interesting questions that the rest of IJ explores in depth. Though Marathe’s views weren’t identical with those of DFW, I suspect that Wallace used Marathe to express concerns about American culture that he thought had some validity.

Most of us have felt at times that entertainment or social media is playing too big a role in our lives. Most of us have been halfhearted at best in our efforts to keep these forces in their proper place, though. St. Augustine talked about our disordered loves; for many of us, our love for our entertainments is disordered. Thus, it will never fully satisfy. Choose what you love, says Marathe. Then follow through and give your time only to that which is worthy of your love.

I recently read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance. The hillbillies referenced in the title are white, working class Americans of Scots-Irish descent whose ancestors settled in Appalachia. Though raised in Appalachian culture, Vance didn’t grow up in Appalachia proper; a few decades before he was born his grandparents had migrated from Jackson, Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio, attracted by the good-paying jobs at the steel plant there.

As with many other rust belt cities, the Middletown factory has been in decline for decades. The conventional explanation for the crisis among poor working class whites is economic: there aren’t enough good-paying jobs available. Vance, however, thinks that “this story of economic insecurity is, at best, incomplete.” (p. 13; all page numbers are from the large-print edition) He draws on the example of a summer job he had at a tile distribution center in Middleville. Though the work was stable and the pay was decent, the managers couldn’t find minimally reliable workers to fill open positions. Why the lack of decent workers in an economically depressed community? Vance wrote his book in order to explore “what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” (p. 16)

In what follows, I’m not going to summarize Vance’s memoir; for those looking for such a summary, consider reading the review in the Washington Post. I’m more interested in exploring one aspect of the crisis, namely the difficulty those from working class Appalachia seem to have in finding a suitable master narrative.

The term ‘master narrative’ comes from narrative psychology (which is described well in this article), a branch of psychology which holds that our identities consist largely of the life stories we construct. Master narratives are like blueprints or templates we follow in constructing our life stories (and thus, in constructing our lives). Cultures typically provide one or more master narratives that a young member of that culture can use to structure her self-concept and guide her choices. In my case, I followed the master narrative that I had seen demonstrated by my father and grandfather: diligent at school, then a hard worker; family oriented; my meaning and purpose found in the Christian faith. Though the broad strokes of our enacted narratives were similar, there were differences in the details: unlike them, my story didn’t include service to my country as a citizen-soldier but did include a commitment to the intellect and life of the mind that wasn’t important to them. Neither they nor I authored the template we used for thinking about ourselves or living our lives; all the elements were drawn from our cultural setting.

So how have the working class poor lost a master narrative? Vance’s story includes numerous ways in which the master narrative that once held sway lost its relevance. For example, he tells of his grandmother (“Memaw”) and her brothers reacting violently towards anyone who threatened family possessions or honor–Memaw at twelve shooting a man who stole the family’s cow, for example, or Uncle Teabury making a man who insulted his sister eat her underpants. Vance reflects, “…these were classic good and evil stories, and my people were on the right side. My people were extreme, but extreme in the service of something–defending a sister’s honor or ensuring that a criminal paid for his crimes.” (p. 30) Defending personal and family honor was a component of their master narrative.

But what happens when you work in a factory and are expected to let minor slights to your honor go by rather than disrupt the workplace? Even worse, what happens if what threatens your honor is not some jerk talking about your sister but elites who look at you with contempt or corporations that cut your pay to the point that your family needs to rely on food stamps? You lose the ability to defend your honor and that aspect of the master narrative is no longer available to you.

Here’s another example. Vance’s grandparents both believed fervently in hard work and personal responsibility. Papaw labored at the steel plant every day, proud that he earned much more than did the relatives back in Kentucky. Mamaw told J.D. “Never be like those f*cking losers who think the deck is stacked against them. You can be anything you want to.” (p. 56,7)

But what happens if you grow up and the steel mill has stopped hiring? And you’re told that you should go to college, but no one in your family ever has and you have no idea of how to get there? Then, you’re likely to lose hard work and personal responsibility as part of the master narrative; you may give lip service to them, but you no longer live according to them.

Besides losing elements of their master narrative pertaining to honor, responsibility, and the value of hard work, the working class whites described by Vance have lost their master narrative regarding who or what they adulate or worship. Vance notes that “As a culture, we had no heroes.” p. 273) This is significant, for heroes are exemplars–people whose lives are worth imitating. Those without heroes are likely to drift through life with little sense of direction.

Regarding worship, Vance makes this striking assertion:

“Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.” p. 275

I suspect this is an overstatement. A good portion of Appalachia is in the Bible Belt, and even casual Bible readers learn that the God of the Bible forbids his followers from worshiping anything besides him. Thus, at least the more devout in the culture would be motivated to avoid the idolatry of in elevating the nation to the point where it is a source of ultimate meaning. Even so, Vance has identified a real problem here: the master narrative of national pride has been lost. He notes that ” much of my family’s, my neighborhood’s, and my community’s identity derives from our love of country.” (p. 234) The country that they so loved let them down:

“Nothing united us with the core fabric of American society. We felt trapped in two seemingly unwinnable wars, in which a disproportionate share of the fighters came from our neighborhood, and in an economy that failed to deliver the most basic promise of the American Dream–a steady wage.” (p.. 273,4)

The master narrative associated with love of nation and with the American Dream no longer seems viable, and no other story has come along to take its place. Vance’s book has been seen by many as providing insight into the Trump voter. If this is so, perhaps it would be fair to see the Trump voter as someone desperate to reclaim a master narrative by which to live his or her life. Success at this project won’t be accomplished by deporting immigrants, repealing Obamacare, or enacting protectionist legislation. Ultimately it’s about restoring honor and making it possible for those who were disillusioned to have heroes again. It’s about lower class working whites being able to stitch together lives they are proud of.

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