The Bread of Life: Lessons from David Foster Wallace

Another great piece by Alex Sosler. Appreciative for his words of wisdom and ability to connect David Foster Wallace’s work to the realities we face in the day-to-day trenches of life in the modern world.

In Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, journalist David Lipsky interviews David Foster Wallace towards the end of Wallace’s book tour for his iconic Infinite Jest. One of the shining moments of the interview is when the conversation pivots towards a topic Wallace always enjoyed; the seductiveness of commercial entertainment. He says, “There’s nothing sinister, the thing that’s sinister about (television) is that the pleasure that it gives you to make up for what’s missing…it’s a kind of…addictive, self-consuming pleasure.” Entertainment can fool us by temporarily filling the hole of discontentment so we don’t have to wrestle with what’s going on in our soul. It always demands more.

For Wallace, this insatiable desire focuses on a pleasure ruled by distraction. Without sounding like a broken record; there’s nothing inherently wrong with devices that vie for our attention. But what Wallace alludes to is tried and true; the pleasure that entertainment can be an illusion of momentary healing for the brokenness and void that sits in our gut. And yet the sinister cycle continues and demands more and more distraction to maintain it. In another place, David Foster Wallace compares entertainment to candy. He says when you binge on candy you know why. It tastes good for a moment, but after you have your fill, you can point back and say, “Oh yeah! The candy! Tasted good. But now I regret it.”

Wallace goes on: “So TV is like candy in that it’s more pleasurable and easier than real food. But it also doesn’t have any of the nourishment of real food.” So we appear to have relationships on Facebook but no physical, personal connection. Instead, we have likes and comments, which makes us feel known for a moment. We reveal what others want to know about us but with none of the vulnerability that real connection requires. We binge on Netflix and at the end of our sweet tooth fix, there’s still a strange hunger and uneasiness we can’t quite pin down. It provides a faux-productivity: We finished something! And we did nothing. The longing we feel satiates for a moment but leaves us oddly bored.

This malaise occurs in the church when mission is sacrificed on the altar of entertainment. This can be a bewildering experience. The church is founded on the Word of Life, but it’s turned into a candy effect: momentarily tasty but with no nourishment. The place meant for purpose, wisdom, and meaning turns into a vacated space of emptiness and sadness. We sing songs that are meant to sink deep into our bones, but they sound a lot like the poppy Taylor Swift song on the radio. We have an aching sense of guilt and shame that acquiesce for a sense of “fun” and “excitement.” Confessing, after all, is an uncomfortable business; a rocking tune I can clap to will fix that. Five years down the road we find ourselves stuck with some people who we may see every Sunday but who have no clue how much I am hurting. “Relationships? I came here for the music!”, so we thought. There are entertaining things going on that attract consumers where the soul is influenced by consumeristic showmanship rather than formed by the bearing of broken souls to one another., To this end, church can’t ask anything of us; commitment is unnecessary. We can just show up and passively observe the show.

On the other side of the cultural spectrum is the “meat and potatoes guy”. None of that namby-pampy candy stuff. Or to switch analogies, “the chest and biceps guy.” No need for the legs. These folks gorge on the theological and heady works of old, white, dead guys, but they don’t know how to pray or how to apply what they’re theoretically reading to their actual life. Theologically robust but relationally absent, they don’t have anyone to shepherd, but by golly, they would know what to say if they did. This person has the right answers, values the right things, but is missing the essential ingredient: love. Instead of singing worship songs that are meant to affectionally engage and sink deep into our bones, we find ourselves critiquing the phrase that’s just not quite right. The enlightenment runs deep: we’ve been sold the lie that if we just know the right things, we are mature. The “meat” they are craving usually is the “candy” of feeling superior.

On the one hand, entertainment and TV teaches the viewer he is dumber than he really is. People are more than just bystanders that consume passively; we are shaped by the purposeful activities and daily practices we engage in within, and certainly outside, the church. On the other hand, theology can puff us up into thinking we are smarter, wiser, more mature than we think we are. Knowledge puffs up, so the scripture says, but love builds up. If you have all the knowledge in the world but have not love, the apostle Paul says you are a banging cymbal. No one wants to be around a toddler with a drum set.

The vision of ministry that should pull us along is not children who binge on candy or the intellectual elites who gorge on delicacies. Rather, the goal of ministry is much simpler. We don’t need shallow entertainment or the polished philosophical masterpiece. We need a simple meal.

What if, instead of candy or meat, we offered the bread of life?

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