For Sunday February 28, 2016
Third Sunday in Lent
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)
1 Corinthians 10:1–13
This Tuesday marks the 20th anniversary of the original publication of the novel Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace on February 23, 1996. To celebrate the occasion, the publisher Little, Brown is releasing an anniversary edition with a new cover and a new foreword by Tom Bissell (below).
Why a new edition, especially since there was a 10th-anniversary edition? Michael Pietsch, the CEO of Little, Brown and Wallace's editor, put it this way: "The book’s main ideas — that too much easy pleasure may poison the soul, that we’re awash in an ocean of pain, and that truly knowing another person is the hardest and most worthwhile work in the world — are truer now than they’ve ever been."
Amen to that. Truly, this is the stuff of Lent.
I read Infinite Jest as a modern reprisal of an ancient question that the prophet Isaiah asked 2,800 years ago in this week's lectionary: "Why do you spend money on what is not bread, / and your labor on what does not satisfy?"
That's our perennial temptation in our culture of ambition, entertainment, and indulgence, and it's the subject of our Lenten disciplines. Consider one of my favorite scenes in Infinite Jest.
About half of the novel takes place at the Enfield Tennis Academy, an expensive boarding school where kids hone their skills in the hopes of making it to The Show — the professional circuit. At the ETA, accepting a tennis scholarship to college is an admission of failure.
One of the kids, LaMont Chu, is already obsessed with tennis fame at his tender age. He imagines pictures of himself in tennis magazines, television announcers analyzing his stroke in hushed tones, and corporations paying him to wear their logos. He's so obsessed he can't eat, sleep, or even pee. His performance is suffering. Ambition is eating him alive, and so he goes to Lyle, the ETA guru.
LaMont admits his rabid ambition to Lyle. He's ashamed of his hunger for hype. He feels lost and lonely.
Lyle is the perfect listener: "the supplicant feels both nakedly revealed and sheltered, somehow, from all possible judgment." Lyle never condescends, but he also never candy coats the truth.
"Trust me," he tells LaMont, "the pros whom you envy do not feel what you burn for. They are trapped, just as you are."
"Is this supposed to be good news?" asks LaMont. "This is awful news."
"LaMont, are you willing to listen to a Remark about what is true? The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you. You have been snared by something untrue. You are deluded. But this is good news. You burn with hunger for food that does not exist."
"This is good news?"
"It is the truth."
"The burning doesn't go away?"
"What fire dies when you feed it?"
"Would I sound ungrateful if I said this doesn't make me feel very much better at all?"
"LaMont, you suffer with the stunted desire caused by one of the oldest lies in the world. Do not believe the photographs. Fame is not the exit from any cage."
"So I'm stuck in the cage from either side. Fame or tortured envy of fame. There's no way out."
"You might consider how escape from a cage must surely require, foremost, awareness of the fact of the cage."
In Luke's gospel this week, Jesus compared his audience to barren fruit trees. Unlike the victims of Galilee and Siloam who had suffered sudden death in freak accidents, they still had a future with choices. If they let tragedy speak to them, they could rearrange the furniture of their lives, adjust their priorities, and make changes while life was left.
But the window of opportunity wouldn't stay open forever, Jesus reminded them. Mere length of years was no guarantee of a fruitful life, just as premature death could not diminish it. Sooner or later the tree will be cut down.
And so Isaiah asks us this week, "Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?" That's spiritual deficit spending of the worst sort, accumulating depreciating assets that lose value every day. When the clock stops and time ends, Jesus said, your life will not consist of your possessions, the wealth you hoarded, the vanity you perfected, or the power you wielded.
There's a deep hunger and thirst in all of us, says the Psalmist (63:1), a palpable longing for human nourishment that no amount of power or money, no prestigious job, nor any gorgeous home in an upscale neighborhood can satisfy. My anxieties won't disappear by winning the lottery. A new lover will not bring true love.
Thank God for the season of Lent, in which Jesus warns us: "Unless you change, you will perish." This isn't a condescending judgment. As Lyle tried to explain to LaMont in Infinite Jest, it's a tragic statement of fact. At Lent we identify what Lyle called the cages that imprison us. Yes, this bad news is good news.
Lent also comes with Isaiah's invitation: "Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live."
For further reflection
See Tom Bissell's article on the 20th anniversary of Infinite Jest, "Everything About Everything," The New York Times (February 1, 2016).
For my own review of Infinite Jest, click here.