This is one in a series of posts about a recent trip to visit Biblical archaeological sites in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). I’m well along in the series; I’ve already written about Roman architecture, Roman religion, the exercise of imperial power, and the apostle Paul’s message to Jews and Gentiles. There are a few more topics I want to reflect on, including why Christianity appealed to the populace and how early Christians responded to oppression. This post will be about the second of those topics.

I’ve previously discussed the expectation throughout the Roman Empire that everyone offer sacrifices to or in other ways venerate the Roman gods, among them the emperors, who were typically awarded divine status posthumously, and sometimes when still alive. Adherents of Roman and Greek religious cults had no difficulty with this requirement; the person who worshiped Zeus on Monday could worship Aphrodite on Tuesday and the emperor on Wednesday without dissonance. Monotheists worship only one God, though. If they are being faithful to that one deity, they will refuse honoring all others. This was an issue for Jews before there were any Christians. After Palestine had come under Roman rule, in the days of Augustus, they were granted an accommodation. They didn’t have to make sacrifices to the emperor. Instead, it was considered sufficient that sacrifices were made for the safety of the emperor in the Jerusalem temple. Throughout most of the empire, first-century Christians were considered Jews, and so they benefited from this exemption.

There was some persecution of Christians by Romans even when they ostensibly had the benefit of the Jewish loophole. In particular, Christians were persecuted by Nero in Rome in the 60s. Both Peter and Paul were martyred there. Rome’s understanding with Judaism was strained when temple sacrifices for the emperor were suspended in 66 A.D., shortly before the Jewish revolt. Jews also became more concerned about losing some from among their number to Christian conversion and became determined to not allow those converts to continue to identify with synagogues. “The Curse of the Minim,” found in a Jewish document written around 90 A.D., was intended to end the practice of Christian converts associating with Judaism.

Thus, toward the end of the first century, Christians became less able to depend on the Jewish exemption to the expectation that they worship the emperor. That was also when emperor Domitian intensified efforts to get the entire populace to participate in emperor worship. In his commentary on Revelation, Paige Patterson, after summarizing the above history, indicated that “Christians, especially Jewish Christians, found themselves facing the unhappy alternatives of either denying Christ and embracing Judaism entirely or else preparing themselves for serious persecution at the hands of both the Romans and the Jews.” (Revelation)

The book of Revelation was probably written in the 90s, and the letters to the churches in chapters 2 and 3 address the increasing likelihood of persecution or at least hardship because of their faith. Thus, the church at Smyrna referred to “the slander of those who call themselves Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” (Lexham English Bible) This may sound like anti-Jewish sentiment, but, as N.T. Wright notes, “this was essentially a struggle within Judaism, not against Judaism.” (Revelation for Everyone, p. 16) The church had Gentiles in it, but also had a fair number of Jews who believed they were the ones who were properly worshiping the God of the Hebrews. Those in the synagogue disagreed, and were probably telling the Romans that followers of Christ were not true Jews. John, the writer of Revelation, warned that the outcome would be persecution:

“Do not be afraid of the things which you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and you will experience affliction ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Rev. 2:10)

The last phase seems to suggest that some in Smyrna would be martyred. We don’t know whether the believers there remained unswerving in their faith, but it’s fairly clear that in some of the churches there were believers who compromised when faced with hardship. This seems to have been the case in Pergamum, which had major temples to Zeus, Asclepius, and Athena and was becoming an important center for the imperial cult.

Base of altar for sacrifices to Asclepius, Pergamum.

Remains of temple to the emperor Trajan, Pergamum.

A believer named Antipas had been martyred in Pergamum. John commends those who remained steadfast despite the danger: “you hold fast to my name and did not deny your faith in me….” Yet there were others who weren’t to be commended:

 “But I have a few things against you: that you have there those who hold fast to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat food sacrificed to idols and to commit sexual immorality.” (Rev. 2:14)

John is referring here to an episode during Israel’s exodus from Egypt in which Balaam, a prophet hired by Balak, the king of Moab, instructed Balak to send Moabite women to entice Israelite men to sin. Those in the church who hold fast to Balaam’s teaching have apparently decided that it is acceptable for Christians to compromise with the surrounding culture in a manner similar to how the Israelite men acted in response to Moabite seductresses. G. K. Beale gives the following explanation of the temptations that were present in Pergamum:

“In particular, what may be included are trade guild festivals involving celebration of patron deities through feasts and sometimes immoral activities. Refusal to participate in such activities could result in economic and social ostracism (cf. 1 Pet. 3:11–21). Therefore, there was much pressure to compromise. And just as Israel was influenced to fornicate both sexually and spiritually, the same was true of Christians in Pergamum.” (The Book of Revelation, p. 249)

We tend to think that early Christians were regularly being thrown to wild beasts or being told to recant or die. Though such things did happen, what was probably more common was the kind of social and economic pressures found in Pergamum. Membership in one’s trade guild, and with it one’s livelihood, depended on participating in an occasional festival honoring a pagan deity. It would be easy to rationalize such compromise. Yet John makes it clear that Christ wouldn’t tolerate such betrayal of the faith among his followers. All this makes me wonder whether there are compromises I’m making that Christ finds equally distasteful. We Westerners are in a culture that doesn’t erect statues to Zeus or Athena, Still, there are abundant idols for us to worship–fame, money, power, pleasure, self. It takes considerable discernment to recognize whether we’ve been bowing the knee to any of these. Reflecting on the situation in Pergamum has made me more attuned to this issue in my own life.


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.

“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’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

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.

I don’t watch many movies, so over the past fifty years there have been quite a few highly influential films that I’ve never seen. Until recently, Pulp Fiction was on that list. The film’s elaborate, mobius-striplike narrative structure has been widely imitated, as has its hipness and the sort of characters that inhabit it–apparent stock figures who in fact have complex psyches. The dialogue is rich, and some scenes have achieved pop-culture fame. Recently, I broke down and saw the film for the first time. There are lots of fun scenes, such as hit man Vincent taking the boss’ wife out for a night on the town; his attempts to make it a low-key evening bereft of drama are thwarted at every turn. What struck me the most, though, was that characters who seem amoral at worst and morally compromised at best spend much of the film trying to deal with moral dilemmas.

Take Vincent, for example, happily employed as a thug. He has recently returned from Amsterdam, where he indulged in libidinous pleasures of various sorts. We see him visit his dealer to pick up some heroin prior to the dinner engagement with Mia Wallace, the boss’ wife; he apparently uses drugs frequently. He doesn’t plan on trying to bed Mia, but, as he originally explains it, that’s not because of any compunctions about shacking up with a woman he barely knows. Instead, he simply wants to not give offense to Marsellus Wallace, the sort of boss who has hit men on his payroll. In Kierkegaard’s characterization of three modes of life–the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious (see a brief summary of these here)–Vincent lives in the aesthetic mode, characterized by pursuit of pleasure, subjectivism, and lack of a framework of meaning. It’s not that he can’t engage in moral reasoning–he does so rather adeptly in arguing with fellow hit man Jules that giving a woman a foot massage is morally equivalent to having sex with her. He just doesn’t use such reasoning to fence in his own behavior in any way.

Mia and Vincent at Dinner

Or so it seems. We learn differently when he finds himself attracted to Mia. He excuses himself and goes to the bathroom in order to fortify his initial plan to resist temptation. Here’s the pep talk he gives himself:

“It’s a moral test of yourself, whether or not you can maintain loyalty. Because when people are loyal to each other, that’s very meaningful–So you’re gonna go out there, drink your drink, say ‘Good night, I’ve had a very lovely evening,’ go home and jack off. And that’s all you’re gonna do.”

So he’s not simply an aesthetic whose behavior is constrained only by self-interest. He’s ethical; he believes that he should live according to a standard, that of loyalty to Marsellus, who trusted him to behave honorably. Betrayal would not only be unwise, it would be wrong. His moral standards may be unconventional, but they are firmly held.

The second of the movie’s three subplots features another morally compromised character who seems to be living in the aesthetic mode. Butch is a boxer who is first seen accepting a bribe from Marsellus to take a dive in his next fight. Unlike Vincent, he doesn’t hesitate to betray; he not only fails to lose the fight, he boxes with such ferocity that he accidentally kills his opponent. An accomplice bet heavily on him, and Butch stands to profit handsomely from the double-cross. He anticipates that Marsellus will seek vengence and prepares to flee, but Butch and Marsellus unexpectedly encounter each other before he can get away. There’s an accident, Butch limps away, Marsellus pursues. Both end up in a pawn shop where they are captured by the proprietor, who, along with a buddy, plans to sodomize and possibly kill them. Marsellus is their first victim. Butch manages to free himself while their captors are distracted and is about to make his escape–but he stops at the door. It would be in his self-interest to leave.. But how could he leave Marsellus to the fate that he narrowly escaped? He turns back and, after considering and rejecting several possible weapons from the pawn shop’s inventory, he settles on a samurai sword. The choice is significant; the samurai were not only fierce warriors, but lived by a stringent code of honor. By rescuing Marsellus, Butch is not only making restitution for his previous betrayal; he’s also restoring his own honor.

Butch as Samurai

Vincent and Butch are seemingly immoral people who, when confronted with ethical dilemmas, prove that they do try to live according to a moral code. Jules, another hit man in Marsellus’ employ, seems equally lacking a moral compass. It’s true that he quotes from the Bible early on, but does so right before he and Vincent murder someone. We later learn that the passage he quotes–supposedly Ezekiel 25:17, though he doesn’t quote it accurately–is something he memorized because he thought it was a sufficiently coldblooded thing to say before offing somebody. Here’s a transcript:

“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who in the name of cherish and good will shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness for he is truly his keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.”

Almost immediately after the murder, an accomplice of the victim bursts out of the bathroom with a gun and shoots at Jules and Vincent from close range. Amazingly, they aren’t hit, and soon dispatch the gunman. Jules immediately decides that a miracle occurred and they survived only because of divine protection. Vincent argues with him, saying it was just something that happens in life. The disagreement crops up later, and Jules eventually appeals not to the improbability of the event but to how it affected him:

“Whether or not what we experienced was an According to Hoyle miracle is insignificant. What is significant is that I felt the touch of God. God got involved.”

Jules has made the transition to the third mode described by Kierkegaard: the religious. This involves a reorientation of one’s life in light of the divine, and Jules almost immediately begins such a transformation. He makes plans to leave his employment with Marsellus. Later that day, in the movie’s last scene, he and Vincent are in a diner that is robbed. Jules gets the better of one of the robbers and, while holding the man at gunpoint, says that normally he would kill him but that he’s going through a transitional period and wants to help him instead. He quotes the Biblical passage and says he has been thinking about what it means. Here’s what has come to him:

See, now I’m thinking: maybe it means you’re the evil man. And I’m the righteous man. And Mr. 9mm here… he’s the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean you’re the righteous man and I’m the shepherd and it’s the world that’s evil and selfish. And I’d like that. But that shit ain’t the truth. The truth is you’re the weak. And I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m tryin’, Ringo. I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.

This is what Scripture does: it opens our eyes to who we are. And it teaches us how we should change–who we should strive to become. Jules isn’t the shepherd yet, but he’s trying. That’s all any of us can do.

Jules Explaining Scripture.

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