David Foster Wallace and the life-giving church

As I wrote earlier this month (though I didn’t say this in so many words), for the church to be healthy, we who make up the church need a lived knowledge of our own sin, and we need to confess that and wrestle with it each week in the context of our worship.  Michael Morgan recently offered an excellent reflection on that point, out of his reading of David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest.

At a meeting of the “Advanced Basics” Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) group in Boston [Wallace gives us] 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.

First, their empathy. . . .  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.” . . .  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.

This is the kind of community the church is supposed to be; this is how the New Testament calls us to live together.

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.

What prevents us from being that body?  Pride and fear.  The first of AA’s twelve steps requires you to admit you have a problem that’s too big for you to handle—and our pride won’t bend to that humble (and humbling) admission.  We refuse to believe we’re actually that bad and our sin is actually that big; we want to believe we have the ability to be good enough all by our own effort.  That, as I’ve written before, is why legalism is a constant and powerful temptation.

At the same time, our fear tells us that if we admit the true darkness of our hearts, everyone will reject us.  Our fear is not without reason, because there will certainly be many who will reject us if we’re that open and honest with them.  The honesty of the humble arouses the fear of the proud.  That’s the ministry of AA:  it’s a group self-selected for people who have been humbled into admitting their powerlessness before their sin (or at least one of their sins).  They are people to whom you can go and confess your deepest darkness and know you will be accepted.

That should also describe the church.  Our practice of life together should be rooted in a relentless commitment to individual and corporate confession of sin as a fundamental spiritual discipline.

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 façade or fakery.  Just a collection of poor debtors, all equally forgiven of an impossible debt.

I’ve been part of too many churches in that dangerous place.  Over this past year, I’ve been privileged to be part of a congregation “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.”  The difference is, literally, life and death.


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Posted in Church and ministry, Religion and theology.

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