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A Christian’s Introduction to David Foster Wallace, Part 1

When I read the Parable of the Sower, I often feel like the young plant sown among thorns. I am beset every day precisely by the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches, not so much the “trouble or persecution” Christ refers to in the same parable. Everyday I desire “other things:” things other than God and His plan–It’s more than a plan–to remake my life–and the universe and all of history–in His glorious image. I would be greatly imperiled by these weeds that enter in and choke the word, but for the fact that Christ gives more grace. He opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble, and I hope to be counted among the latter. Reading about the young plant sown among thorns hit me like a sucker punch because it gave me a moment of heart-stopping spiritual clarity: This is the defining spiritual battle of my life, between the Word of God and the things of the world.

I don’t think I’m alone here. For those of us who live with all the trappings and comforts of this unbelievably opulent age, this is our besetting sin. While I don’t believe we should move into the caves and leave the luxuries of our lives totally behind, we shouldn’t ignore the stark warnings of the Bible. I’d like to focus on one area of our lives where we need to make hard choices: the different entertainment media.

We are presented with a vast array of entertainment choices, something to tickle every one of our senses at any time. And these things are designed to be desired. We listen to hit songs are written to be catchy rather than good, to be caught in our heads; they become ineradicable parts of the mental furniture. We watch television dramas of the new variety, like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, that are designed to keep us guessing (and watching) through multiple interminable seasons while we wait for key plot points to be revealed. I have to admit that I love television and popular music (and not as reflectively as I would like), but I realize that on some level they are thorns. Most of them are designed to turn our desires to worldly things, and thus to make the dark glass of our faith darker and fainter. The perfect consumer (what a telling word) of hit music and popular television will become a mere automaton of cultural consumption.

The writer David Foster Wallace saw the truth of this and portrayed it vividly. Though not a religious writer, Wallace was able to skewer our culture of endless and inescapable entertainment, particularly in his magisterial 1996 novel Infinite Jest, the most trenchant and frightening prognosticatory novel since Brave New World.

I think Infinite Jest, and the writing and thought of Wallace more broadly, can help us understand why our generation’s condition is so similar to the seed that is sown among thorns in Jesus’ parable. As an aside, this isn’t merely a theme in Mark; we see it in the vapor or vanity of Ecclesiastes, or, perhaps most clearly, in the stark language of 1 John:

Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever. – 1 John 2:15-17

1 John gives a pragmatic reason for avoiding the lusts of the world: they will kill you. Only the love of the Father, allowing us to do the will of God, brings with it the promise that we will abide forever with Him. David Foster Wallace, perhaps surprisingly, also understood this. In his novel, the titular “Infinite Jest” is a film that makes its viewers desire it so strongly that that forget to eat or drink and thus slowly die. On p. 34 of Infinite Jest, Wallace even explicitly links The Entertainment (as it is commonly called in the novel) with things that we know can kill a person from too much enjoyment: alcohol and drugs.

Wallace, the former addict (to alcohol, marijuana, television, and more), had a substance-user’s suspicion of anything that created dependency or addiction. Infinite Jest juxtaposes the lethality of “The Entertainment,” with more prosaic addictions, portrayed chillingly well from the inside.

I believe that David Foster Wallace, particularly in Infinite Jest, but also in his essays “E Unibus Pluram” and “On the (Nearly Lethal) Comforts of a Luxury Cruise,” was able more than almost any writer of his generation to capture the real reason for the Christian prohibitions on worldliness. Worldliness kills, the Bible tells us, and in the sphere of entertainment, David Foster Wallace portrayed this chillingly, even prophetically.

In my next few posts, I’d like to explore David Foster Wallace’s thought and writing in more detail. I see him as an avatar of our age, an addict and a genius who moved in exalted literary circles while living, at the time Infinite Jest was released, in a prosaic 60s ranch house in the painfully normal town of Bloomington, Illinois. His work can be read in part as a jeremiad against the (sometimes fatal) dangers of endless and ubiquitous entertainment, and I think this matches up well with the dire language that the Bible uses to describe worldly desires and the lust of the flesh.

Was David Foster Wallace Ecclesiastes’ Preacher for our latter days? How can we cultivate a healthy appreciation for Good Things and the Good Life while also heeding the Bible’s calls to avoid the love of the things in the world?  Don’t miss the next installment to find out!

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