Evangelicals swoon when people not affiliated with us speak truths we love. A potent example is David Foster Wallace’s assertion at Kenyon College that “[t]here is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” This quote entered the Christian bloodstream mainly through Tim Keller’s injection and boosted it like a little caffeine hit.
Wallace had a reason for not living up to Christ’s standard: he was not a Christ-follower. But us?What a rush to have a magnificent thinker support such an important piece of our faith’s foundation. So the irony was palpable when The Atlantic’s Megan Garber published “David Foster Wallace and the Dangerous Romance of Male Genius.” The piece, a part of the #MeToo corpus, exposes Wallace himself as a troublesome locus of devotion. He is a specimen, according to Garber, of the worship of human genius, the very worship he spoke of, a kind of worship that excuses evil. She writes,
A fealty to genius is its own kind of faith: in transcendence, in exceptionalism, in the fact that gods, still, can walk among us. And genius, itself, becomes its own kind of infrastructure. We have organized our art around its potential; we have organized our economy around its promise. We have oriented ourselves according to the light of its stars—and so when they flicker, even momentarily, we lose ourselves. And: We defend ourselves. We delude ourselves. We choose not to question the makeup of the firmament. It’s so much easier that way.
The easy observation is that even when we reject the true God, humans can’t avoid being drawn to his image. Broken bearers though we may be, the brilliance of the Creator still breaks through in the best of his creature-creators. Can anyone outside of Christ be blamed for gravitating towards what whispers of the godly? Certainly not.
But in the case of Wallace, and of many others, that moth-like pull to light can blind to egregious offense. He is documented as a stalker and abuser of the woman he supposedly loved, writer Mary Karr. The things he did were terrifying—following her five-year-old home from school, throwing a coffee table at her, trying to buy a gun. Garber cites an article in the Guardian by Wallace’s friend and colleague Glenn Kenny where he attests that Wallace fans seethe when these truths are brought back up. They claim that they distract from his literary glory and are beside the point. Garber relates this to similar responses she got from training the spotlight on another problematic creator, Roman Polanski, demonstrating that it is a broader phenomenon, not somehow limited to Wallace’s cult status.
Fans like these simply refuse to acknowledge the ugliness and evil in what they love, and as Garber says, they lose themselves.
Sadly, we can lose ourselves, too, just the same way.
See, it can be easy to cluck our tongues at the non-believers. Poor souls, misdirected. Looking at The Atlantic and other publications can stir up sympathy for those outside, or in some sad cases, schadenfreude. But this is a dangerous distraction.
As different streams of reckoning flow over the cultural landscape, leaving no topography untouched, we especially need to look to our own house. Sexism has washed over us in the church; perhaps, rather, it has had its own walled in fountain in our midst. Racism has been perpetuated like a favorite family tradition, to our shame. Writers and teachers of greater caliber and stature than myself are saying as much. Thabiti Anyabwile, Beth Moore, Russell Moore and others have all written persuasively—will the church listen? We need repentance, for we have sinned. When we see ourselves acting just like the world, should we not tear our garments?
I certainly don’t have all the answers for what to do with the reality that all of our human heroes, and institutions, fail us. There are so many genera of failure, so many species of fallenness, that no article length treatment could approach a taxonomy. Nonetheless, we need to encourage each other to have the conversation in healthy ways. That can be very difficult if we’ve never learned what that health looks like, indeed if we’ve never learned what deep repentance looks like. Are we able to learn those things, and humbly teach each other? It will require a willingness to examine, to really look—not to hide our eyes from our own failure, or that of our favorite institution.
Who has the words to grieve that Wallace could write what we believe and betray it constantly in his own life? Near the end of his Kenyon College speech he said, “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.”
We nod our heads with those lines, we feel the biblical rhythm of them. Who has words to grieve that we, that I, can every day still refuse them in action? Wallace had a reason for not living up to Christ’s standard: he was not a Christ-follower. But us? We have the Spirit, and the words of the prophets. If we enjoy being observers of culture, critiquing it as well as valuing it, then especially among us we need to watch the world and bring the lesson home.
We will not be spared, but godly grief remains open to us. Honesty and recompense remain open to us. Blood-bought forgiveness remains for us. Sisters and brothers, let us embrace them, refusing to be blinded by creature worship, and inspired to Christian action by Creator worship. To have that worship fuel the call Wallace made, but that Jesus embodied: being able to truly care about other people and sacrifice for them. That is real freedom.
(This piece appeared on Christ and Pop Culture)