I suppose graduation season has passed. In NY my kids would still have two weeks of school left in the year, so I’m still adjusting a bit. But graduation season brings up maybe my one brush with greatness. David Foster Wallace, the essayist and author, was in residence as a teacher at Illinois State University in 1993. Supposedly that was when he wrote Infinite Jest, his most famous work that vies for a place in the canon. That also happened to overlap with some of the time I spent there on full scholarship, while also in “He went to Paris, searching for answers” mode. I happened to bump into him at a church service at our little student mission. I’m not sure anyone else knew who he was.
You have probably not read Infinite Jest and that is not me being a pompous ass. I’m the weird one here. I once attempted to get my mother to read some of his essays which are my favorites. Because he was an Illinois boy who through his parents’ connections and his own precociousness had gained access to a rarified world. There was a bit of biographical overlap, and from my reading his love and fundamental goodness was clear. She of course was offended. Read where I saw love as scorn. (It was the Illinois State Fair essay if anyone has read him.) But, you might have heard his graduation address at Kenyon College. He gave it in 2005. And to this day it takes me right back to that church service, because I swear he must have been reading Luther. It usually goes by “This is Water,” and it does have the strong advice to know what you are swimming in. But for me the stronger portion is when he says, “Everybody Worships.” That is actually the meat of his advice to the graduates. You are going to worship something. And all the default deities are terrible. “They will eat you alive.”
That is almost directly from Luther’s Large Catechism on the first commandment. “Now, I say that whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your God.” And Luther runs down roughly the same default Gods: money, power, skill, favor, family, friendship. Even good things will eat your alive if placed as the ultimate source.
Luther’s words in that catechism explanation amount to the same thing as what DFW says. “The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.” Make sure you know what you are worshipping. Understand the water you swim in.
DFW got the law right. The great difference was in the gospel. For DFW it was your work alone to daily keep the truth before you. It was your work alone to continue to choose who to worship. Toward the end of his address he’d say, “That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think…the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness…your education really IS the job of a lifetime.” If you live under the law, you better choose the right god and have no other God’s before him. And if that is all on you, it will crush you. DFW took his own life in 2008. Luther would put it differently. “We cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to him.” We will never understand the water we swim in without the pure gift of the Holy Spirit.
The law is still good and wise. We need to recognize the water we worship. And we are all too dismissive of that. Too easily swept along by the strong currents of default. But it is the Spirit who ultimately “keeps us in the true faith.” Today his mercy calls us, again.