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.

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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.

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 have been writing about themes that stood out to me when I read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Most recently, I discussed the importance and challenge of being genuine with oneself and others. Why do the characters in the book find it so difficult to be genuine? As I read IJ, it seemed to me that one reason for this difficulty was that characters were uncomfortable with being a self, at least a reflective, internally aware self. I wrote in the last post about Hal Incandenza’s lack of genuine inner experience. What causes him to shut himself off from his inner life to such an extent? Possibly because he recoils at what he sees within:

“One of the really American things about Hal, probably, is the way he despises what it is he’s really lonely for: this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pules and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia.” p. 695

It’s tempting to skate on the surface, pretending we are just the image we project, with none of the struggles or shadows of the inner self. As Kierkegaard explained in The Sickness Unto Death, we want to be a self, but don’t want to be the self we are. As with Hal, to many of us that inner self seems hideous.

What makes Hal’s reaction “really American,” though? Kierkegaard was of course talking about a universal discomfort with the self, not an American one. DFW might agree that such discomfort crosses cultural lines, but he seems to think that aspects of American society make it particularly difficult to be a genuine self. Sometimes that connection to the American context is made explicit, as in the following discussion of American involvement with “recreational substances:”

“Like who isn’t, at some life-stage, in the U.S.A. and Interdependent regions, in these troubled times, for the most part. Though a decent percentage of E.T.A. students aren’t at all. I.e. involved. Some persons can give themselves away to an ambitious pursuit and have that be all the giving-themselves-away-to-something they need to do. Though sometimes this changes as the players get older and the pursuit more stress-fraught. American experience seems to suggest that people are virtually unlimited in their need to give themselves away, on various levels.” (p. 53)

Giving oneself away is probably not quite the same thing as trying to escape oneself, but there’s certainly overlap between the two. The “virtually unlimited” need to give oneself away is apparently a particularly American experience, associated with “troubled times” as well as with “stress-fraught” endeavors.

There are two types of giving oneself away alluded to here: via the pursuit of excellence and via substance abuse. DFW seems to see both of these avenues as endemic in the U.S. Regarding the first, an entertainment cartridge by Mario Incandenza (like his father, Mario was interested in making films) about the daily routines of E.T.A. students includes the following narration:

“Here is how to avoid thinking about any of this by practicing and playing until everything runs on autopilot and talent’s unconscious exercise becomes a way to escape yourself, a long waking dream of pure play.” (p. 173)

Turning oneself into a tennis playing robot is one way to get away from oneself. Viewing films or videos, often referred to as “entertainments,” is another. This viewing is done mostly at home, in private, via “pulses, storage cartridges, digital displays, domestic decor–an entertainment market of sofas and eyes.” (p. 620)  It is “A floating no-space world of personal spectation.” Immersion in this world is a way both of avoiding others and avoiding oneself. One of the book’s plots has to do with an entertainment cartridge so enticing that those who have viewed it will do nothing (even eat) except view it again and again. It is the next-to-the most-radical way of  escaping from oneself.

The ultimate escape from the self, both extreme and permanent, is suicide, referred to paradoxically as “that most self-involved of acts, self-cancelling.” James Incandenza killed himself, as did Eric Clipperton, a junior tennis player. As mentioned in an earlier post, Joelle Van Dyne attempted suicide to escape from her addiction to cocaine. Kate Gompart, another Ennis House resident who, like James I, is clinically depressed, has had three suicide attempts and continues to have suicidal thoughts.

Unless the person actually dies, it’s impossible to completely escape the self. For example, immersing oneself in competitive tennis may be a way of giving oneself away, but, from the perspective of Schtitt, the head coach, this exit will lead right back to what the player is running from:

“The true opponent, the enfolding boundary, is the player himself. Always and only the self out there, on court, to be met, fought, brought to the table to hammer out terms. The competing boy on the net’s other side: he is not the foe; he is more the partner in the dance. He is the what is the word excuse or occasion for meeting the self.” (p. 84)

Similarly, substance abuse only allows temporary escape. Eventually the user has to quit in order to stay alive, at which point the self intrudes more intensely than ever. One thing learned in recovery is that the addict will “find yourself beginning to pray to lose your mind, to be able to wrap your mind in an old newspaper or something and leave it in an alley to shift for itself, without you.” (p. 201) I think the mind here is pretty much the same thing as the self that the user has been trying to evade all along.

To sum up, then, there is a general tendency among Americans–represented in IJ by the residents of E.T.A. and Ennet House–to try to escape the self. DFW seems to be suggesting that this desire to escape is exacerbated in American culture, and that that culture provides a variety of strategies that seem to promise relief from one’s inner self. Ultimately, though none of these strategies deliver on that promise. I think Wallace’s cultural critique is as valid now as when he penned it. Does Wallace offer any hope for accepting oneself rather than being driven to escape from it? As I’ll discuss in a later post, I think he does.

Competitive tennis, a way of escaping oneself. Image from http://www.brickjest.com.

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.

I recently began a series of posts reflecting on David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. As I noted in the first post, I’m particularly interested in Wallace’s perspective on the difficulty modern-day Americans have in living meaningful and genuine lives. The first post looked at the tendency of many of IJ‘s characters to be driven by powerful desires that can’t be adequately satisfied. This post is about another feature common to many of the characters, namely that they live inauthentic lives. One of the few characters who is open and authentic, Mario Incandenza, notices how difficult it is for others at the Enfield Tennis Academy (one of the two main settings in the novel) to be real with each other:

“The older Mario gets, the more confused he gets about the fact that everyone at E.T.A. over the age of about Kent Blott finds stuff that’s really real uncomfortable and they get embarrassed. It’s like there’s some rule that real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn’t happy.” (p. 592)

Mario, who is developmentally disabled, disfigured, and quite unsophisticated, experiences life richly. His honesty and straightforwardness contrasts dramatically with his brothers. [I should note that some of what I write here could be a spoiler for those who are reading IJ and prefer not to know what happens.] Orin, the oldest, devotes most of his efforts to seducing women. He has developed a wide variety of facades that he thinks the “Subject” of his efforts will find convincing. He’s successful at getting women into bed, but, since he hasn’t been honest or vulnerable with them, there’s no prospect of intimacy. Thus, the aftereffects are disappointing at best:

“Rarely a feeling of outright unalloyed sadness as such, afterward–just an abrupt loss of hope. Plus there is the contempt he belies so well with gentleness and caring during the post-coital period of small sounds and adjustments.” p. 596

Mario’s younger brother, Hal, one of E.T.A.’s top tennis players, is highly intelligent and is literally a walking encyclopedia, having read and memorized the Oxford English Dictionary. Yet his inner self is impoverished:

“Hal himself hasn’t had a bona fide intensity-of-interior-life-type emotion since he was tiny; he finds terms like joie and value to be like so many variables in rarified equations, and he can manipulate them well enough to satisfy everyone but himself that he’s in there, inside his own hull, as a human being–but in fact he’s far more robotic than John Wayne [a tennis player who is mechanically efficient]…. [I]nside Hal there’s pretty much nothing at all, he knows.” (p. 694)

Hal has progressively more difficulty functioning as the novel progresses, to the point that, when he attempts to speak in what is chronologically the last scene (but is placed at the beginning of the novel), all that others can hear are shrieks. What has happened to him? The DFW Wiki reports readers have theorized that Hal is suffering the delayed effects of mold he ate as a child or had a hallucinogenic drug put on his toothbrush. I’m inclined to a more psychological interpretation: Hal is a hollow shell, someone who has avoided having an interior life for so long that has lost touch with himself. His humanity is attenuated, and his speech is correspondingly compromised.

Gately and the Wraith. From http://www.brickjest.com, a site that retells Infinite Jest in Legos.

Don Gately, a staff member at drug rehab facility Ennet House, is visited by a “wraith” who is apparently the ghost of James Incandenza, Hal’s father. The wraith describes actors in TV shows like Cheers who fill out the bar’s crowd. These characters, called “figurants,” sit at tables with each other, their lips moving but “always having utterly silent conversations.” Only the stars could speak audibly. The wraith laments that he, “when alive in the world of animate men, had seen his own personal youngest offspring, a son, the one most like him, the one most marvelous and frightening to him, becoming a figurant, toward the end.” (p. 837)  So years earlier, when he was alive, James Incandenza had already seen Hal, his youngest child, as a peripheral figure, appearing to interact like other humans but really a figurant, someone without a voice. It’s no surprise that Hal’s lack of an authentic voice eventually became evident to those around him.

Over at Ennet House, there is a corresponding lack of authenticity. Residents enter claiming that they will do whatever it takes to get better, but usually act contrary to this professed goal, all the while denying the inconsistency. For example, here’s new resident Geoffrey Day:

“Day is scanning the room for somebody else to engage and piss off so he can prove to himself he doesn’t fit in there and stay separated off isolated inside himself and maybe get them so pissed off there’s a beef and he gets bounced out, Day, and it won’t be his fault. You can almost hear his Disease chewing away inside his head, feeding.” (p. 275)

Residents regularly lie to one another or to staff. They also are quick to make excuses. They often see themselves as victims, blaming others for their substance use and terrible life choices rather than taking responsibility. In contrast, authenticity requires radical honesty, as with a speaker at one of the AA meetings who tells her story of  freebasing cocaine throughout her pregnancy, having a stillborn infant, then denying the child was dead and carrying around the rotting corpse as if it were a living baby:

“When she concludes by asking them to pray for her it almost doesn’t sound corny. Gately tries not to think. Here is no Cause or Excuse. It is simply what happened. This final speaker is truly new, ready: all defenses have been burned away.”  (p. 378)

Persons attaining such total honesty have achieved authenticity. This is where healing can start. But so few of the characters either at Ennet House or E.T.A. reach this place of vulnerability and openness, and thus they remain captive to their desires. They, like Hal, are figurants, people hollowed out by their persistent avoidance of their true natures. Their mouths may move, but nothing real comes out.

I recently finished reading Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s mammoth novel about the near future. It took me nearly four months, and would have taken longer if I had not had extra time on my hands as I recovered from surgery. Reading the middle third of the book was like wandering through a wilderness; I kept going out of sheer determination, but it seemed like I was getting nowhere. There’s some satisfaction at having persevered to the end, but mainly there’s relief.

One of the reasons I initially decided to read the book was that I had seen the DFW interview movie The End of the Tour (2015) when it was first released, and that movie (which I discussed here) had made me curious about DFW’s analysis of the struggles those of us living in modern (or postmodern) USA have with living meaningful and genuine lives. As I read IJ, I paid attention to anything that shed light on this issue. There is of course much more to the novel than this, and I don’t want to suggest that DFW wrote primarily to offer advice about how to live with American entertainment, excess, and irony. I do want to focus on that issue in giving my thoughts about the book, though.

Just a couple of caveats before I begin. I have no particular expertise at literary analysis and only limited knowledge of DFW’s life and works, so readers are likely to find more astute information about IJ elsewhere. I’m merely sharing some of the thoughts the novel prompted in me. Also, I haven’t taken especial care to avoid spoilers, so if you’re reading IJ and don’t want to know what happens, it may be best to wait until you’re ready for such information before you read what I have to say.

To start, then, this post will focus on one feature that stood out as I read, namely that IJ portrays a world in which human desire is prevalent and problematic. Pretty much everyone is pursuing something they yearn for, usually something they hope will make them whole, or at least better. These desires aren’t a sufficient guide for life, though. In fact, they are likely to make life worse. In one of the two main settings for the novel, the Enfield Tennis Academy, the pre-adolescent and adolescent students all begin with a desire to make “The Show,” the professional tennis circuit. Not reaching this goal is problematic, but achieving it is even more fraught with danger:

“It’s possible that the only jr. tennis players who can win their way to the top and stay there without going bats are the ones who are already bats, or else who seem to be just grim machines….” (p. 437-8)

Thus Schtitt, the head coach of the academy, is as interested in helping his charges avoid the perils of success as he is in helping them succeed. As one of the staff explains,

“The point here for the best kids is to inculcate their sense that it’s never about being seen. It’s never. If they can get that inculcated, the Show won’t fuck them up, Schtitt thinks.” (p. 680)

In the other main setting, Ennet House–a halfway house for recovering drug addicts–the residents had desired what they thought drugs could provide, be that pleasure or escape or peace, but eventually they were always disappointed. More than this, they became trapped. For example, one of the residents, Joelle van Dyne, attempted to kill herself by overdose just because she had been imprisoned by her addiction. Here’s where she found herself:

“It is the cage that has entered her somehow. The ingenuity of the whole thing is beyond her. The Fun has long since dropped off the Too Much. She’s lost the ability to lie to herself about being able to quit, or even about enjoying it, still. It no longer delimits and fills the hole. It no longer delimits the hole.” (p. 222)

Desire is dangerous; it’s likely to become our master. DFW sounds almost as pessimistic as philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer here, sharing with him the idea that what motivates human beings is primitive, illogical desires that can never be satisfied. Many of the characters in the book are caged in some way; typically this is the result of having pursued desires that seemed to offer bliss but end up causing harm.

Schopenhauer thought all we could do to mitigate the force of desire was to lead very constricted lives; fortunately, Wallace is more hopeful. I’ll discuss where he finds hope in a later post; let me close here by noting that for him at least one path to release could be found in addiction recovery organizations such as AA or NA. That this approach works is a surprise even for those in recovery. At one point, Don Gately, a staff member at Ennet House, reflects:

“Substances start out being so magically great, so much the interior jigsaw’s missing piece, that at the start you just know, deep in your gut, that they’ll never let you down; you just know it. But they do. And then this goofy, slapdash anarchic system of low-rent gatherings and corny slogans and saccharin grins and hideous coffee is so lame you just know there’s no way it could ever possibly work except for the utterest morons…and then Gately seems to find out AA turns out to be the very loyal friend he thought he’s had and then lost, when you Came In.”  (p. 350)

We all could use a little help; the trick is to figure out what will genuinely provide assistance and what promises to do so but ends up harming us instead.