In Community Group with David Foster Wallace

After circling his writing for several months, I decided last fall that 2016 would be the year to delve into David Foster Wallace, starting with Infinite Jest, his renowned and only completed work of long, long fiction. It just so happens that this year is also the 20th anniversary of the novel’s first publication.

I knew nothing of the book when I cracked it open, but Wallace’s somewhat legendary ability to exposit the human condition certainly preceded him. For all the convincing you’ll need on that matter, take 20 minutes and look up his commencement address at Kenyon College from a few years before his death.

Now, Infinite Jest is a mammoth read, on par with the entire Lord of the Rings cycle, The Hobbit included. It doesn’t offer up a pat morality tale. Instead, it functions more like a long, patient observation. Woven into this intricately packed narrative is one scene in particular that is wonderfully evocative for the church, especially its community life.Lighstock

A major theme of Infinite Jest is the inherently self-destructive nature of consumerism—how people will, in various ways, entertain themselves to death. One of the lenses through which Wallace makes this observation is that of addiction and recovery. It is here, at a meeting of the “Advanced Basics” Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) group in Boston, that we find such a crisp—though finally inadequate—picture of what church could be like. The group is so compelling because of three fundamental dispositions of its people: they are profoundly empathetic, they are profoundly gracious, and they are profoundly consistent. 

Empathy, Grace, Consistency

First, their empathy. The entire meeting structure of Advanced Basics involves a series of alcoholics telling their stories to the rest of the alcoholics in the room. They all came to be in the same room because their addiction, once invisible, had steadily bubbled to the surface until it had thoroughly enveloped and ruined them. Right there, on the edge of a cliff between death and AA, they admitted their problem and sought help. This same basic story unfolds with variable particulars as the rest of AA listens or, more importantly, as they identify.

This remarkable empathy leads to graciousness. Nobody’s story is too broken, too “Out There.” It’s a testament to Wallace’s imagination that some of the stories he dreams up for these “dead-eyed and puke-white” people are astonishingly dark. Even so, nobody can confess their way out of this strange fellowship. This is because there’s absolutely zero pretense and therefore zero capacity for condemnation. Each person in the room has touched the void of their own helplessness, so they can be present with the darkness in others with the humility of one who knows what it’s like to be freed.

Last, the core members of the Advanced Basics group are rigorously consistent. Wallace writes that each member attends the meetings even if they “feel like they’ve got a grip on [their addiction] at last and can now go it alone.” For them, AA isn’t a break-glass-in-case-of-crisis option. They all realize they are never out of crisis since their disease is always prowling around, just waiting for them to misstep. Their need for healing is innate, not circumstantial, so they pursue healing religiously.

Calibrating Our Communities

Reflecting on Wallace’s depiction of community, I couldn’t help but think: Wouldn’t this be a great kind of church, a great community? One filled with listeners who identified your pain as part of their own. One of such un-pretense that even the most bottomless confession is received with grace by people who all count themselves as the chief of sinners. One of such consistency that the members live life together instead of merely gathering when they feel like they need it and scattering until their next crisis.

This sounds like a community that would give life. It sounds like the kind of community so thoroughly and humbly acquainted with themselves that they can see Jesus with magnificent, binding clarity. This is not I’ve-got-it-all-together suburban “Christianity.” This is a true fellowship of the redeemed.

So, how do we get there?

Well, as they say in AA, the first step is admitting you have a problem. Consider the words of Jesus: 

A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed 500 denarii, and the other 50. When they could not pay, he canceled the debt of both. Now, which of them will love him more?

It’s ridiculous to think any of us is the one with the small debt. We’re all in the deepest debt; we came to Jesus from the edge of a cliff overlooking death. It’s just a matter of whether we’ll admit it or not. When we can’t admit how far in the red we were, morally and spiritually, we are functionally saying that we can handle our failings, that we can foot the bill, that we can manage our addiction.

Pride lies at the root of this sort of thinking, and that same pride prevents vulnerability with other Christians, to the detriment of community health. But what if we acknowledged our desperate need for God and other people to help us? What if we were so humble, so dependant on his Spirit, so committed to his body?

A church full of people who struggle to confess sin—or even admit their easily masked vulnerabilities like hurt, frustration, or annoyance—is in a dangerous place. Why? Because sin, when it is full grown, leads to death (James 1:15). But a funny thing happens when we confess our sin and open our lives to other Christians. Our pride shrinks, our affection for Jesus grows, and life-giving community starts to form. When we’re honest with trustworthy brothers and sisters about our failures, the church is able to embody its calling to apply the Word of truth as a salve to actual wounds. No pretense, no condemnation, no gossip, for who could cast that first stone? No need for facade or fakery. Just a collection of poor debtors, all equally forgiven of an impossible debt.

This is the path to the kind of community David Foster Wallace depicted so vividly, but which can only be found, truly and finally, in Christ.

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