Everybody Worships: David Foster Wallace on Idolatry

David Foster Wallace world copyright Giovanni Giovannetti/effigie 
Sin is not easy to talk about. At least I don’t find it easy. I have struggled to find ways of explaining it that make it understandable to people who aren’t inclined to recognise the concept, without dumbing it down and taking the sting out of it.

Tim Keller’s Counterfeit Gods makes a great case for sin essentially being idolatry – putting anything in the place of priority designed solely and specially for God; worshipping finite things as if they were infinite things. But I must confess, I’ve never found this to be an especially easy concept to explain either. Not in such a way as to help those who are not Christians understand it and see themselves in it (or rather see it in themselves).

But I recently preached on Luke 14:25-33, Jesus’ challenge to his potential followers, “if anyone who comes to me and does not hate his own mother and father and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” To my mind this passage is about worship; exchanging potential idols for true worship of God. Jesus is not asking us to detest/feel disgust towards/do away with/destroy our relationships and possessions – after all, the Bible also tells me I’m meant to honour my parents and love my wife as Christ does the church! Jesus is asking us to love those things less than we love him. It’s a challenge to get our worship lives in order: him at the top, and everything else beneath.

As I thought about how to express this, I remembered this quote from the brilliant American author David Foster Wallace. It’s not clear, as far as I’m aware, what DFW’s final faith position was (a quick Google search shows that both Christians and Atheists seem keen to claim him as their own!) but it is certain that he was deeply attuned to spiritual questions. And this quote, from a talk he gave in 2006 called This is Water, expresses better than any other quote I know, the inescapable nature of worship. You really should read the whole thing in full (or at least this edited transcript), but here’s the quote I used, in all its brilliantly-written glory:

Here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things – if they are where you tap real meaning in life – then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already – it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power – you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart – you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation.

This is not only a profound observation about the nature of man, the fact that we are hard wired to worship, and the danger of worshipping non-ultimate things, but also a brilliant primer for what Jesus claims about following him. Discipleship is about an exchange of kingdoms; our skull-sized ones for his ever-expanding, ever-lasting one. It’s about exchanging our worship of things that eat us alive, for worship of the one who nourishes our soul.

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