I have been writing about a trip I took in February to Biblical archaeological sites in Turkey. The first-century religious structures that we visited were not Christian churches but pagan temples, since Christianity had not yet achieved the societal status that would make dedicated Christian worship spaces feasible. I wrote earlier about pagan temples, where the gods of Greece, Rome, and Egypt were worshiped. Worshiping the Roman gods was considered a civic duty and necessary to maintaining good order. It was also a way to try to get the blessing of the god being worshiped. Many gods specialized in a particular type of blessing, and thus were sought out for that purpose. Most notably, one god was thought to provide insight into the future, and a related one was associated with healing.

Apollo was who you consulted if you wanted guidance concerning future plans–should you marry, take a journey, make an investment, or whatever. Our tour guide said that, besides the oracle at Delphi, there were three other main oracles in the ancient world, including the one we visited at Didyma. Here’s an article on the history of that site. The final temple to Apollo there (the Didymaion) was begun soon after a visit by Alexander the Great in 313 BC and was never completed, though work continued for hundreds of years.

The Didymaion

A Sacred Road led from Miletus, about ten miles away, to Apollo’s temple. Pilgrims coming to the Didymaion would offer a sacrifice at the altar at the foot of the temple steps. Then they waited until an opportunity was provided to ask a question to the oracle–or rather, ask a priest, since pilgrims weren’t allowed access to the adyton, or inner sanctuary. The Didymaion was unique among ancient temples in that the adyton was open to the sky and contained a sacred spring that was thought to be the source of the oracle’s power.

The Adyton

The pilgrim’s question was written down and carried to the oracle–one of several women who gave answers. It’s believed that the oracle would inhale fumes or chew some substance, inducing a trance that would facilitate communication from the spiritual realm. Whatever answer was given was then taken back to the pilgrim. The answers were sometimes subject to multiple interpretations and thus did not always provide clear guidance. I don’t know of any list of pronouncements by the oracle at Didyma, but here is a compilation from Delphi.

Healing was also associated with Apollo, but was even more associated with one of his children, Asclepius. Asclepius was said to be a demigod, having a divine father and a human mother. While he was in utero, an unfortunate love triangle developed, which Apollo resolved by killing his human lover and removing the baby from her womb, the first Caesarian section. As the myth goes, baby Asclepius was then raised by the centaur Chiron, who taught him the healing arts. He became a great physician–too good, in fact, for his ability to raise humans from the dead (with the aid of Medusa’s blood) evoked Zeus’ ire. Zeus killed him with a thunderbolt, but he subsequently became a god. Asclepions–places of healing–were established in several cities, and pilgrims came to these to be cured. The most prominent Asclepion was at Epidaurus in Greece, but there was also a major center in Pergamum, in Asia Minor. It was begun in the 4th century BC and reached its height in the 2nd century AD, when Galen was the chief physician there.

The Sacred Way to the Asclepion at Pergamum, looking back towards the Acropolis.

Pilgrims came to the Asclepion in Pergamum along the Sacred Way, a colonnaded street leading from the acropolis to the healing complex. They arrived at a courtyard containing an altar to Asclepius, where they made offerings to the god. They would stay for weeks or months awaiting healing. A library and theater were located in the complex.

From the top of the theater at the Asclepion, looking over the healing complex.

Our guide indicated that the books in the library and the performances at the theater were all designed to create an attitude conducive to healing. There were pools for bathing and for mud bath treatments. There was also a sacred spring, whose water was thought to have curative effects. Nearby there were sleeping rooms, where the pilgrims slept in expectation that Asclepius would appear in their dreams. Such a nocturnal visit would sometimes result in immediate healing, but in other cases the dreamed-about healer would prescribe some sort of treatment–baths, exercises, mud baths, massages, ointments, and the like. In the treatment center, there were tubes through the ceiling down to where the pilgrims sat or slept. Speaking into these, the priests offered words of encouragement, such as “Asclepius has heard your prayers.”

In the treatment center.

Ancient pagans believed that, by means of the oracles of Apollo and the priests of Asclepius, prominent gods concerned themselves with the affairs of humans. They did so in a way that wasn’t malicious or cruel, unlike the purported behavior of many other Olympian deities. (Not that Apollo always treated humans well; just ask Cassandra). This is not the same as having deities that actually care about the welfare of humans, though. Apollo and Asclepius both got something for their beneficent acts–the sacrifices made by those who came to them. Thus, it was an exchange relationship, not one based on affection or compassion. That’s one of the ways in which the Christian God and the pagan deities differed. And, as I’ll suggest in my next post, such differences in the nature of divine favor may have been a major advantage for Christianity.

In February I traveled to Turkey to visit the sites of several early Christian churches. I’ve been posting since then about those churches and their cultural context. Most recently, I wrote about the ways in which the churches to whom the book of Revelation is addressed were pressured to compromise with the surrounding culture. This post will look at how other first century churches responded to societal pressures. In Divine Honours for the Caesars: The First Christians’ Responses, Bruce W. Winter reviews the challenges and the church’s response in several local situations, as revealed in the New Testament and in contemporaneous historical sources. I’ll briefly describe three such situations.

When the apostle Paul first visited Corinth, the Jewish leaders opposed him and tried to bring a criminal case against him before Galio, the procounsul of the province of Achaea. However, as described in Acts 18:12-17, Galio indicated that this was an internal Jewish matter. That response meant that the Christian assembly in Corinth was considered a Jewish gathering. That matters because those who lived in the area were expected to participate in the cult of emperor worship. Jews were exempted from participation in veneration of the emperor, and Galio’s ruling extended that exemption to Christians. Still, some Corinthian Christians apparently participated in feasts at the imperial temple; this seems to be what Paul is talking about in I Corinthians 8. They were tempted both to enhance their social standing and to eat well:

“It is understandable, given the prestige and the sheer extravagance of such celebrations, that some Christians whose social status entitled them to participate rationalized their participation…” Winter, p.225

Compromise isn’t always due to persecution; carrots as well as sticks can motivate it.

Winter also describes the situation in Galatia, a region of Asia Minor visited by Paul during his first missionary journey. He later wrote a letter to the Galatians to challenge a group within the church–the Judaizers–who were trying to convince Gentile converts that they needed to be circumcised and follow ceremonial aspects of the Torah. The dispute between legalism and faith was a theological one but also had practical implications for living in the local setting. Whereas in Achaea Christians were considered to be Jews and thereby were granted an exemption from the requirement that they perform ritual sacrifice to the Roman gods and the emperor, the status of Christians was more ambiguous in other provinces, and thus there was more risk of persecution. This seems to be what Paul was referring to when he wrote in Gal. 6:12 about the motivation of the Judaizers:

” As many as are wanting to make a good showing in the flesh, these are attempting to compel* you to be circumcised, only so that they will not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.” (LEB)

Winter suggests that circumcision would make a “good showing in the flesh” in that those circumcised would be seen by society as having become Jewish–after all, they had acquired the fleshly mark that distinguished Jewish males. And if all the male Gentile converts underwent circumcision, the church as a whole would be insulated from legal sanctions:

“The results of this masterful solution proposed and so strongly promoted by some Galatian Christians, if accepted, meant that all Christians in Galatia had a legal status in the eyes of their fellow citizens. They would be considered Jewish either by birth or by proselytisation. They would be exempt from having to give divine honours to the Caesars and participation in other events that Rome had so skilfully linked into cultural events.” . Winter, p. 248

The problem was that this strategy for avoiding persecution was in effect a denial of a core component of the gospel message–that salvation doesn’t come through obedience to the law but by God’s grace extended to those who put their trust in Christ. It must have taken considerable courage to reject the false teaching of the Judiazers when doing so made one vulnerable to being prosecuted by the Roman authorities.

Agora in Perga, a city Paul visited after founding churches in Galatia

The book of Hebrews also alludes to ways that the surrounding culture created hardship for Christians. Again, the issue is that, by not expressing veneration for the gods and the emperor, the Christians aroused suspicion that they were subversive. David deSilva explains the public’s view as follows:

“Worship of the deities was something of a symbol for one’s dedication to the relationships that kept society stable and prosperous. By abstaining from the former, Christians (like the Jews) were regarded with suspicion as potential violators of the laws and subversive elements within the empire.” (Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle “to the Hebrews,” p. 12)

In the past, this attitude toward Christian converts had resulted in harsh measures being directed against them. The sufferings they had endured are catalogued in Heb. 10:32-34:

“Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.”

Winter indicates that the public insult the author refers to typically occurred at the local theatre. The person or persons to be so exposed would be put on stage and subjected to degrading comments from the audience. The purpose would be to shame the victims into complying with societal expectations. Such episodes also provided entertainment for the crowd. The “persecution” here could well have been public floggings. For some, humiliation was followed by imprisonment. Roman prisons didn’t provide the inmates with any sort of provision, so the situation of an incarcerated Christian was dire unless their faith community came to their aid. Finally, their property could be seized by the authorities. Roman law stated that “the property of those who ought to be accused, or have been caught committing a crime, or who have killed themselves should be confiscated.” (quote from Winter, p. 274)

Christians could be charged with the crime of not participating in ritual worship of the emperor. They could also be charged with meeting together regularly. Legislation under Augustus had forbidden all associations from meeting more than weekly. Jews were granted exemptions from both these laws, but it was under the discretion of the local governor as to whether Christians were considered Jews. The prohibition against frequent meetings puts the author’s admonition that they not neglect to meet together (10:24) in a rather ominous light!

So the consequences that the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews faced as a result of their faith were worse than those faced by the Corinthian Christians, and probably also than those faced by the Galatians. Still, there hadn’t been any martyrs yet in among the recipients (12:4). They endured their initial persecution. Would they continue to endure the hardships that come with being members of a reviled minority, though? Winter thinks that another, even more shameful and disruptive threat may have awaited some of them–exile. That might be the meaning of the suggestion that the hearers go to Jesus “outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.” (13:13) Persevere, says the writer of the letter, and you will receive your reward. That is a message that heartened the followers of Christ throughout the ages. It’s by God’s grace that enough managed to persevere despite the terrible cost they bore.

 

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.

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.