lifestyles


Entrance to auditorium, Ephesus. Cross on lintel shows it was converted into a church.

Following a trip earlier this year to archaeological sites in Turkey, I’ve been writing about the cultural setting in which the apostle Paul and other evangelists preached the good news of Christianity. I’ve looked at Roman architecture, religion, and politics, noting the forces arrayed in defense of the existing order. So why did what started out as a marginal movement located far from centers of power succeed at upending that order? Why, a little over three centuries after the first missionaries set out, was a majority of the populace Christian, while paganism was in decline?

We Christians are likely to respond that God was in it. Sure, but what means did he use? In The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (1996: Princeton University Press), Rodney Stark tries to answer that question. Trevor Wax has provided a helpful summary of Stark’s main points here.

The numerical growth of Christianity of course depended on a lot of people converting, and Stark offers some interesting observations on what prompts conversions. In particular, he notes the following:

  • Converts are typically those who have strong relationships with members of the movement to which they convert–“conversion tends to proceed along social networks formed by interpersonal attachments.” (p. 18)
  • Converts typically don’t have pre-existing religious commitments that would interfere; they tend to be “the religiously inactive and discontented, and those affiliated with the most accommodated (worldly) religious communities.” (p. 19)
  • Converts to new religions are similar to early adopters of other sorts of cultural innovations. They tend to be “well among average in terms of income and education.” p. 38
  • It is only when such more privileged members of society are discontented with the conventional religious options available to them that there is an opening for a new religion to flourish.

In line with these general principles, Stark suggests the following about Christian conversion:

  • Paul’s missionary efforts were most successful among the middle and upper classes, so the early church was largely a movement of the more privileged members of society.
  • The Christian message was particularly appealing to the Hellenized Jews of the diaspora. They were socially marginal, and thus were not likely to obtain the rewards available to those more integrated in the culture. At the same time, corresponding to the second point above, they were “relatively worldly, accommodated, and secular.” (p. 60) They were also likely to have interpersonal attachments to Jews who were already Christians.
  • The social and religious structures were periodically overwhelmed by epidemics. “The epidemics swamped the explanatory and comforting capacities of paganism and of Hellenistic philosophies.” (p. 74) Whereas pagans tended to abandon those of their number that were ill, Christians cared for their sick and also for some of the non-Christians who were ill. Thus, a higher percentage of Christians survived. Non-Christians who survived often lost many of the attachments that kept them from converting and were attracted by the Christian ethic of caring for those in need.
  • Women enjoyed much higher status in the Christian subculture than they did in the society at large. Infanticide of girl babies led to a shortage of females in the broader society but not in the church, where girls were raised to maturity. There was a low fertility rate in the society as a whole, but not among Christians. Women converts often brought their husbands with them into the church (secondary conversion); intermarriage between Christian women and pagan men probably also led to conversions.
  • The cities of the Roman empire were places of intense human misery. They were extremely overcrowded, much more so than even the densest cities today. Most people lived in tiny tenements lacking furnaces, fireplaces, clean water, or efficient sewers. Besides the periodic epidemics, “illness and physical affliction were probably the dominant features of daily life in this era.” (p. 154) Mortality rates were high, necessitating a constant stream of newcomers, resulting in deficient attachments and clashes among diverse ethnic groups. The typical city was vulnerable to “attacks, fires, earthquakes, famines, epidemics, and devastating riots.” (p. 159) All of this misery may have led residents to desire something better.

The desire for an improved lot may be most acute when a society is in chaos, but it is something common to humans of every era and social situation. What did Christians offer that was better? Stark makes a couple observations about Christian belief that probably were radically new. Christians maintain that God loves humankind and shows mercy to us even when we don’t deserve it. In contrast, Greek and Roman gods were mostly capricious or selfish, not loving. In fact, the ancient world thought mercy and pity were weaknesses, qualities to be avoided. Christians also linked a social ethical code with religion–believers were to love others and act out that love in their social interactions. Pagans did have their own ethical obligations; for example they were to worship the gods by offering sacrifices. This was mainly a form of social exchange, though, and one’s faith didn’t create much obligation to treat others well. Christianity introduced ethical obligations to everyone, ethical obligations that were to be followed whether or not there was an expectation of immediate earthly rewards.

Of course such ethical standards were a matter of imitating God himself, who sent his son to care even for those in rebellion against Him. God is love. Love him and each other. That’s still the core of the Christian faith. The world needed that message in the first century. The world needs that message today.

Christian symbol etched into pavement of a synagogue in Sardis, Turkey

 

 

We all know, or at least know of, some poor soul who encounters one misfortune after another. They give us pause, the unfortunate; we feel sorry for them, we wish we could help, and sometimes we can do a little something that makes things marginally better. Usually they don’t occupy our thoughts for long, though: we quickly shift our focus to something more pleasant. Before doing so, we may try to come to terms with what’s happened by blaming (“If only he hadn’t done that“) or glib truisms (“Life isn’t fair.”) It takes quite a bit to disturb us in a way that sticks with us for days. For me, Matthew Desmond accomplished that feat with his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Broadway Books, 2016).

Desmond, a Princeton sociologist, moved into a dilapidated trailer park in southern Milwaukee and later into a rooming house in the city’s North Side. In both areas, he encountered plenty of people on the edge–people who were having to spend 70 or 80 percent of their income on rent. That left them vulnerable, like riding in an overloaded boat that can be swamped even by small waves. Once that happens, choices become extremely difficult–whether to buy food, pay rent, or pay a utility bill when there isn’t money for all three, for example. It’s become more and more likely that poor renters will find themselves in this situation:

“Since 2000, the cost of fuels and utilities had risen by more than 50 percent, thanks to increasing global demand and the expiration of price caps. In a typical year, almost 1 in 5 poor renting families nationwide missed payments and received a disconnection notice from their utility company.” p. 15

“In 2013, 1 percent of poor renters lived in rent-controlled units; 15 percent lived in public housing; and 17 percent received a government subsidy, mainly in the form of a rent-reducing voucher. The remaining 67 percent–2 of every three poor renting families–received no federal assistance. This drastic shortfall in government support, coupled with rising rent and utility costs alongside stagnant incomes, is the reason why most poor renting families today spend most of their income on housing.” p. 303

Once tenants fall behind, they lose many of their legal protections. They can’t withhold rent if the property is dangerous or in disrepair, and court eviction if they make a report to a building inspector. As a result, renters in arrears often have to endure miserable living conditions. For example, Doreen and her children, one of the families Desmond introduces us to, have holes in the walls, a door off its hinges and clogged drains in the toilet, bathtub, and sink. Desmond describes the eventual effect on the family:

“Doreen stopped cooking, and the children ate cereal for dinner. Patrice [an adult daughter] slept more. The children’s grades dropped, and Mikey’s teacher called saying he might have to repeat, mainly because of so many missed homework assignments. Everyone had stopped cleaning up, and trash spread over the kitchen floor.” p. 257

The family had previously lived for seven years in much better quarters, but had been evicted because police investigating a neighborhood shooting had come to the door, saw the house was a mess, contacted Child Protective Services, who in turn called the building inspector, who cited the landlord. Doreen was behind in rent because volunteering in New Orleans after Katrina had cost her too much. Thus the landlord could retaliate for being cited by evicting Doreen, so he did. In another incident, a young woman named Crystal called 911 to report domestic violence occurring in the apartment above hers. The police responded, but later contacted Sherrena, the landlord, notifying her that they were called because of nuisance activity on her property and would charge her for future enforcement costs. Sherrena responded by taking out eviction papers on Crystal.

Desmond describes the details of the eviction process, from eviction court to the moving crews and sheriff’s deputies that spend all day every day evicting one tenant after another. Those being evicted were given a choice; have all their belongings stacked on the curb or have them taken to storage and pay a monthly storage fee until they could get them out. Some choice! Some homes were neat and tidy, others not so much:

“Sometimes renters had already abandoned the place, leaving behind dead animals and rotting food. Sometimes the movers puked. ‘The first rule of evictions,’ Sheriff John liked to say, ‘is never open the fridge.'” p. 114

Some evictions seem vindictive, as when Ned and Sue were evicted from their trailer and moved in with friends in another trailer; the landlord decided to evict the friends as well. Sometimes a child’s problems are the cause: Arleen’s teenage son kicked a teacher in the shin; when the landlord found out she told Arleen she had to leave or would be evicted. Whatever the cause of the eviction, it’s often tremendously hard for the evicted family to find new quarters. Arleen had been evicted before, and called 90 landlords before finding someone willing to rent to her.

Evictions disproportionately affect blacks and women. In the poorest black neighborhoods, “1 female renter in 17 was evicted through the court system each year, which was twice as often as men from those neighborhoods and nine times as often as women from the city’s poorest white areas.” (p. 98)

Those who are evicted are more likely to subsequently lose their jobs, experience other material hardships such as hunger, and be depressed. Not only those who are evicted suffer, but the neighborhood suffers as well: Desmond found that neighborhoods with high eviction rates have higher violent crime rates the next year. Some of Desmond’s subjects found themselves on the verge of eviction because of poor choices they made. Yet most poor Milwaukee residents had an incredibly small margin for error, and some ended up on the street when the choice they made was reasonable given the circumstances. For example, Arleen’s previous eviction resulted in part from having helped pay her sister’s funeral expenses. What sort of society is set up so that providing a little assistance for a funeral puts someone at risk for homelessness?

Besides those who actually experience eviction, there are many who manage to keep a roof over their heads but struggle to do so. Desmond indicates that 1 in 5 renting families in the US spends half or more of their income on housing. They struggle not just because of low and stagnant wages, but also because landlords can profit by exploiting the poor. In the poorest neighborhoods, housing is dilapidated or in disrepair but only costs marginally less than in other parts of the city. Our housing problem can only be addressed by major societal changes. Desmond mentions especially legal aid to the poor and a universal voucher program.

In the meantime I’m troubled. I’m troubled for Doreen, for Crystal, for Ned and Sue, for Arleen, and for everyone who has been evicted. I’m troubled that I live in a society that does so little to help those without access to adequate housing. And I’m troubled by my inability to help. Thanks to Desmond, I imagine that I’ll stay troubled. I hope his message troubles enough of us that together we can make a difference.

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?

Baths

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.

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