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.

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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.

 

Site of the Temples to Roman Gods, Caesarea Philippi.

Site of the Temples of Roman Gods, Caesarea Philippi.

One of the places I visited on my recent trip to Israel was Banias, site of the ancient town Caesarea Philippi, formerly called Paneus and dedicated to the worship of Pan. Philip the Tetrarch built Caesarea Philippi as an administrative center early in the first century and named it after Augustus Caesar, his patron.  In Jesus’ time there were large temples to Pan, Zeus, and Augustus. According to Tim, our guide, the Romans called it the “rock of the gods” but the Jews called it “the gates of hell.” It was here that Jesus asked his disciples who others said that he was, and who they said he was. The city was not near where most of Jesus’ ministry took place, and he probably went out of his way just so that he could ask these questions in a site associated with the gods of the empire. Peter of course replied “Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God”. (Matt. 16:16). The ‘living’ part contrasted to the Romans’ gods of stone.

Jesus went on to say that he would build his church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (v. 18). Presumably he was referring to the “gates of hell” designation that the Jews gave this place. Thus, he was saying that his followers would eventually prevail over the religious system of the empire, to which everyone in that world except a few holdouts in the backwaters of the Levant had given their allegiance. Who would make such an audacious claim?

And yet. Within 300 years Christianity was the religion of Rome. Tradition has it that Christians had come to Caesarea Philippi much earlier that this; there certainly was a flourishing Christian community there by the fourth century A.D.

This wasn’t the only place we visited that was formerly a pagan stronghold but eventually became Christian. There were Christians in Sythopolis, a city of the Decapolis, even before the persecution of believers by the Roman Empire stopped. One early martyr from there was Procopius, later venerated as a saint. The Sythopolian church was important until the conquest of the city by Muslims in 634 A.D. There was also an early church in Caesarea Maritima, a seaport built by Herod the Great that was later the regional Roman capital. According to Acts, Phillip brought Christianity there in the years after Christ’s death, and the Apostle Peter went there to baptize a Roman military officer, Cornelius the Centurion. A few centuries later, Origen, one of the church fathers, founded a school there.

Sythopolis

Sythopolis

I have probably had too much of a top-down view of early church history, giving too much credit to the conversion of the Emperor Constantine for the success of Christianity. Visiting these sites and others made me realize that the cause of Christ wouldn’t have spread without the countless believers who lived out their faith in relative obscurity, in some particular place, like as not some backwater. When, during our final night in Israel, we were all invited to talk about what had most impressed us during the trip, my son Elliot said that he was particularly struck the activity of countless Christians whose names are hidden in history but who made an impact during the first century and beyond. I had been impressed by this as well.

Paul wrote to the church at Colossae “your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” In his book Joyful Exiles, James Houston elaborates on this passage as follows:

“…the apostle urged believers to remember that they had died with Christ, that they must now seek a selfless way of living. This is what ‘hiding’ is all about–denying the world’s ways, making choices that are incomprehensible to anyone seeking self-fulfillment. Indeed, it is refusing to accept Satan’s cosmic suggestion that ‘you will be like God'” (p. 35)

That’s the temptation–to want to be something more than what we are. In our current media-obsessed culture, where branding and self-promotion is ubiquitous, I need to be reminded from time to time that being hidden with Christ is immeasurably more important than satisfying what Martin Luther King Jr. called the Drum Major Instinct. The Christians of Caesarea Philippi, Scythopolis, Caesarea Maritima, and hundreds of other places may be forgotten, but their lives are a reminder to remain content with a life that is anonymous except to a very few, a life whose significance doesn’t lie in who praises me now or who remembers me when I’m gone.

I’ve been reflecting recently about my recent trip to Israel. As I’ve written, I gained  greater appreciation for the contexts which frame the Biblical story. Tim Keiper, who guided our tour,  talked extensively about the geographical, historical, and cultural contexts of various Biblical customs and stories. As insightful as his comments were, they wouldn’t have had the weight they did had he not carefully chosen the settings where he said what he did. In this post, I’m going to describe a few points he made, the settings where he made them, and the conclusions I drew.

We started the tour in the Shephela, the area of low hills between the coastal plain to the west and the mountainous region to the east. The Israelites occupied the mountains and the Philistines occupied the coastal plain. Battles between the two occurred mostly in the valleys that punctuated the hills and thus were the easiest routes for incursions by the Philistines or other peoples who lived in the plains from time to time, including the Egyptians and Phoenicians.

At the City Gate, Tel Gezer

At the City Gate, Tel Gezer

On our first day, we went to the Aijalon Valley and climbed Tel Gezer, site of several ancient cities that were occupied by various civilizations over thousands of years. One city constructed on the site was built by Solomon. From the top of the tel we could see both the Mediterranean to the west and the hill country to the east.

Early the next day, we climbed another tel (a tel is a hill made by layer upon layer of ruins, one atop the other), this time Azekah, guarding the next valley, the Valley of Elah. This was where the Philistines sent out Goliath, their champion, to challenge any Israelite who was willing to fight him. There were no takers until a shepherd boy named David decided that Yahweh would protect him against this mountain of a man. It took faith to accept the challenge of someone who seemingly  outmatched him so completely! “The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine, (I Sam. 17:37)” David told King Saul, and so it was.

Archeological Dig, Bet Shemesh

Archeological Dig, Bet Shemesh

What stuck with me most that day, though, was the next site we visited, Tel Bet Shemesh, which has both Jewish and Canaanite ruins. Samson’s hometown of Zorah was located across the Valley of Sorek; Delilah was “a woman in the Valley of Sorek (Judges 16:4).” Samson’s exploits occurred up and down this valley. Tim described both Samson’s mighty acts and his egregious failures to follow Jewish law. He didn’t excuse  Samson’s shortcomings, but he did note that it was more difficult to live in the Shephela, surrounded by temptations to immorality, than to live in the protection of the mountains. He said “the Shephela is the area of conflict and danger, and it’s easy to get tired when we are there.” He invited us to think of how that might apply to us.

I have always thought–simplistically as it turns out–that the Israelites and their neighbors were segregated by something like modern national boundaries and that conflicts between them occurred only during periodic military engagements. If there was instead an area of overlap where there was constant tension between different Weltanschauungs, or world-and-life-views, that provides a useful metaphor for our modern situation. We live in what Charles Taylor has dubbed “a secular age,” meaning not that everyone is irreligious but that religion is under constant pressure from the secular (and vice versa). In other words, our Shephela is not a geographical but a psychological region and, as Taylor explains, there is no moving away from it, though some try to do so by creating Christian enclaves. More than just a troubled figure driven by his passions, Samson may have been a victim of the struggles that accompany life in the Shephela.

Another example of how physical setting enhanced Tim’s teaching pertains to Herod the Great, ruler of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth. On our fourth day we visited Masada, a huge mountaintop fortress by the Dead Sea that Herod surrounded with a wall and equipped with mammoth cisterns to supply water (capacity 10 1/2 million gallons, per the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible). He built an opulent three-tiered palace there, complete with a swimming pool. I couldn’t help but wonder what it cost in terms of human life (slaves were pretty expendable at the time) to provide such luxury in an arid wilderness. Several days later we visited  Caesarea Maritima, another of Herod’s huge construction projects, complete with artificial harbor, hippodrome, theatre, and mammoth palace. Finally, two days before our trip ended, we visited Herodium, Herod’s fortress and palace atop the highest mountain in the Judean wilderness.  The palace consisted of four towers of seven stories each along with a bathhouse, a theater, gardens, courtyards, and extravagant living quarters.

 

Herodium

Herodium

So, by this point, I was impressed by Herod’s building projects. Which of us will produce anything that will be so imposing after two millennia? If being remembered by history was his goal, he certainly achieved it. Yet, what did Herod really accomplish? The stones of his fortresses and palaces remain, but two of the three Herod-built sites we visited were abandoned within a century of his death (Caesarea remained a prominent city until the 7th Century, and later was a Crusader port).

At Herodium, Tim talked about Herod’s end. He died in 4 B.C. after an excruciating illness featuring intolerable itching, abdominal pain, and gangrene of his privates. He died within a year or two of Jesus’ birth. The book of Matthew reports that Herod was disturbed when the magi appeared looking for the newborn king (Matt. 2:3). Why would Herod have been troubled, since he was unlikely to live long enough to be challenged by a newborn? Possibly because he had built a kingdom that he thought would last long beyond his death. The prospect of another king threatened his dynasty.

Now, here is where physical setting comes into play. Herodium is just seven miles from Bethlehem. Much of the modern city is visible from the fortress. Tim imagines Herod looking down from his palace during the slaughter of the innocents, watching as his soldiers tried to eradicate the threat this tiny village posed to his kingdom. Whether or not Herod was there at the time (it was a favorite site of his and he was probably buried there), he was deeply affected by what he had heard. Approaching death, he was a troubled man.

So, the question that comes to mind is what kind of kingdom is worth building? A political and military kingdom like Herod’s, the ruins of which still inspire wonder today? Or the kingdom that had its start just a short distance from the fortress Herod named after himself, the kingdom of a carpenter whose woodwork has long turned to dust but who continues to build something more impressive than any of Herod’s projects? Christ builds his temple in human hearts. May his construction project never end.

On a recent lengthy car trip I decided to get caught up on current pop music trends. I listened to most of the Sirius XM Weekend Countdown and a little of the Billboard Adult Top 40. Yeah, I’m too old for this sort of music. I listen to it because I’m interested in the themes of pop songs–they reveal much about the dreams, fears, and preoccupations a sizable segment of our culture.

As usual, there were plenty of songs about romantic relationships, ranging from lust (Selena Gomez – Hands To Myself) to yearning (Tryon – Somebody To Love Me)  to lovemaking (Zayn Malik – Pillowtalk) to disgust (Selena Gomez – Same Old Love). Justin Bieber apologizes to one mate (Sorry) and walks away from another (Love Yourself). What really interested me, though, was not the relationship songs but the ones that portrayed how the artist perceived him- or herself. Our self-concepts are key to our identity, and culture provides templates for possible selves (my grandchildren can choose to be sullen rebels or competitive achievers, but identities like gentleman of leisure or devotee of the goddess of reason are no longer in the catalogue of potential selves). From this listening, I concluded that contemporary songs contain views of the self ranging all the way from grandiose self-sufficiency to anxious inadequacy.

Grandiose self-sufficiency is represented by  “Me, Myself, and I” By G-Eazy with Bebe Rexha. Here’s the chorus:

Oh, it’s just me, myself and I
Solo ride until I die
‘Cause I got me for life (yeah)
Oh I don’t need a hand to hold
Even when the night is cold
I got that fire in my soul

The video shows G-Eazy at a party surrounded by adoring fans but miserable about his lack of privacy. He raps about what he needs–privacy, space, to be alone–and what he wants:

A Stella Maxwell right beside of me
A Farrari I’m buyin’ three
A closet of Saint Laurent…

He thinks he is a self-made man, a trendsetter who is reaping the fruits of his efforts, “swimming in money, swimming in liquor.” Yet  success has brought too much attention. There’s a segment in the video when he’s divided into three images, two of which are telling the third that he shouldn’t complain: he wanted success and adulation of the masses comes with the territory. Then, near the end, there is this:

Yeah, lonely nights I laid awake
Pray to lord, my soul to take
My heart’s become too cold to break
Know I’m great but I’m broke as hell
Having dreams that I’m folding cake
All my life I’ve been told to wait
But I’ma get it now, yeah it’s no debate.

The grandiose self is shut off from others, “too cold to break.”  In splendid isolation it knows it’s great–I thought here of Satan isolated in Dante’s deepest level of hell–but, paradoxically, at the same time it’s broken (the “broke as hell” here seems to refer not to lack of money but some sort of inner impairment). Some identity-seekers perusing the catalogue of possible selves might find grandiosity appealing. Wittingly or not, G-Eazy shows that such a self-concept won’t make you happy.

An elevated sense of self is also in evidence in Demi Levato’s “Confident,”; in which she sings again and again (ad nauseum):

(Ah ha) What’s wrong with being, what’s wrong with being
What’s wrong with being confident? (Ah ha)

And being confident is pretty much all the song is about. She’s responding to criticism:

(Oh oh, oh) So you say I’m complicated
That I must be outta my mind
But you had me underrated
Rated, rated.

But, like her confidence, the criticism she’s received is amorphous, unlike the comments that Taylor Swift was shaking off a couple years ago. So, should you define yourself via your high level of confidence? Sure, if that confidence reflects particular abilities or knowledge or effort. Otherwise, maybe not.

Another song asserting a strong sense of self (“Take or leave who I am/cause this is me.”) is “Pride” by  American Authors. The self in question is, not surprisingly, defined by a sense of pride:

I ain’t never giving up, I ain’t never ever, I ain’t never ever giving up my pride
I ain’t never letting go, I ain’t never ever, I ain’t never ever gonna sell my soul
I-I-I-I got this feeling
I-I-I got this feeling
I ain’t never giving up, I ain’t never ever, I ain’t never ever giving up my pride.

Why such insistence on holding onto pride? Has the singer done something to be proud of? The lyrics don’t mention anything. Instead, they portray a diminished self, one for whom things aren’t going well:

My home don’t feel the same
Last year flew by; goodbye to the good vibes
What we thought were the best times
Nights out with the people I love
Now I’m lost in the neighborhood

Why has life turned sour? Maybe it’s the booze (“Another drink down the drain/Ten more before I get on the plane”). Maybe it’s rejection by family (“Pushed out of the family tree/Upside down”). Somewhere around the edges there is a suspicion that he’s responsible (“Maybe I’m the one who’s changed or the one to blame,” “wish I was good enough for anyone”). I wonder if holding onto pride of this sort–not justifiable good feelings about one’s accomplishments, but pride in the service of stubborn defiance–is a defense against becoming too aware of our role in our problems. It’s a way of adapting, but not a particularly good one. This sort of self-concept isn’t likely to foster healthy relationships or emotional well-being.

There are other interesting songs that have implications about how to view ourselves–I like Panic at the Disco’s “Victorious,” which seems to be a tongue-in-cheek take on the glories of winning, subtly suggesting that victors aren’t that grand after all. I’m most fascinated with Twenty-One Pilots’ “Stressed Out.” Whereas most song lyrics portray the singer expansively or even heroically, these lyrics are about a diminished self who can’t seem to get anything right:

I wish I found some better sounds no one’s ever heard,
I wish I had a better voice that sang some better words,
I wish I found some chords in an order that is new,
I wish I didn’t have to rhyme every time I sang.

What’s the problem? The singer has left childhood behind but hasn’t yet figured out how to handle what comes next. He’s become even more insecure than he was as a child:

I was told when I get older all my fears would shrink,
But now I’m insecure and I care what people think.

He’s left reminiscing about the joys of childhood play:

We used to play pretend, give each other different names,
We would build a rocket ship and then we’d fly it far away,
Used to dream of outer space but now they’re laughing at our face,
Saying, “Wake up, you need to make money.”

Returning to the womb of parental protection sounds pretty good:

Wish we could turn back time, to the good ol’ days,
When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out.

This is the opposite of G-Eazy’s grandiose self–a self diminished, not expanded, by growing up, a self plagued by insecurities and perceived inadequacies. The video shows the members of the group riding tricycles, suggesting they aren’t even mature enough to drive cars. In the catalogue of available selves, this is not a model that anyone would choose. We are in an age of limited prospects for all but a minority of high-achievers, though, and this is a self that many people will be saddled with.