David Foster Wallace on Atheism and Worship

In 2008, at the time of his untimely death, the Los Angeles Times declared that David Foster Wallace was “one of the most influential writers of the last twenty years.”[1] He was an award-winning, bestselling postmodern novelist, who loved to push boundaries in his storytelling.

Although Wallace was an agnostic, he made some profound statements about atheism and worship in his now famous commencement speech, which he gave to the graduating class of Kenyon College in 2005.

Here’s what he said:

webdavidfosterwallaceYou get to choose what to worship. Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually 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 the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god … to worship … 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 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.

Worship power, and you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they are evil or sinful; it is that they’re unconscious. They are default settings. They are the kind of worship you just gradually slip into day after day … without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. [2]

Wallace, although not a Christian, understood and communicated a very profound and very biblical truth: everyone worships, but anything you worship other than God will “eat you alive.”

Romans 6:16 tells us that there is no such thing as not worshiping, and that anything we worship other than God will enslave us.

Rebecca Manley Pippert puts it this way:

“Whatever controls us in our lord. The person who seeks power is controlled by power. The person who seeks acceptance is controlled by it. We do not control ourselves. We are controlled by the lord of our lives. (Pippert, Out of the Saltshaker, p. 53)

Whether we call ourselves religious or not, all of us have a lord, a master, and we are all worshipers.

The only way to be free, is by having a lord and a master who will not crush you, but who will liberate you – and in Jesus we have exactly that: one who came not to crush us, but to liberate us from all that enslaves us and to fulfill our deepest longings.

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:10,13)

What a tragedy it would be to know this truth and not come to the fountain of living water and drink in order to be liberated and fulfilled!

Here is a recording of Wallace’s speech. The part about worship begins at 17:50.

“All That is Gold Does Not Glitter”

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.

J.R.R. Tolkien – The Fellowship of the Ring

I remember as a kid, discovering my parents’ record collection, and listening to their albums on the turntable in our basement. My favorite album was Led Zepplin IV: the one which had all the symbols for the title.

In that album there were several references to J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, particularly in The Battle of Evermore and Misty Mountain Hop, and of course the opening lines of Stairway to Heaven: “There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold, and she’s buying the stairway to heaven.”

That is a reference to a poem from The Fellowship of the Ring, a riddle which is found in Gandalf’s letter to Frodo, which he left for him at Bree. Frodo only realizes later that the riddle is about a person: Strider, AKA Aragorn, the true king – who is the Christ figure in the story.

Yesterday was Tolkien’s 125th birthday. Born John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, the Oxford don never actually aimed to be a fantasy writer, but the fantasy literature he wrote led to a subsequent surge in fantasy writing. Tolkien did not consider The Lord of the Rings to be his greatest achievement. Tolkien’s main passion was linguistics, and he created multiple working languages over the course of his life.

As I have written about before (see: Addison’s Walk), Tolkien was very interested in the topic of what he called “fairy stories,” and why it is that they captivate people the way they do, especially in an age of science and reason. He believed that the reason is because the characteristic features of all the great stories reflect the deep human longings – and as such, they point to an underlying reality which is more real that reality as we experience it.

Upon further reflection Tolkien recognized that all these key elements are also present in the gospel story of Jesus. His conclusion was that the gospel is not just one more story which points to this underlying reality, but that the gospel isthe underlying reality to which all the stories point.

The movies that move you to tears. The stories which you can’t get enough of, even though they contain the same elements as all the other stories: heroic self-sacrifice, life out of death, love without parting, good overcoming evil, victory snatched from the jaws out death, etc… The reason we can’t get enough of these stories is because they point to THE STORY which is written on our hearts. Tolkien was the master story teller precisely because he understood this.

When Tolkien wrote “All that is gold does not glitter,” he was not only referring to Aragorn, but to a fundamental and biblical truth: that some of the most precious and truly valuable things in this world are not monetary or even material at all.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you,”

“…your faith which is more precious than gold” (1 Peter 1:3-4, 7)

Addison’s Walk

I took my family for a walk the other day down a path called Addison’s Walk: a mile-long footpath around an island created by the river Cherwell in Oxford, England. The island and the path are part of Magdalen College, one of the 39 colleges that makes up Oxford University.

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It was there on Addison’s Walk that CS Lewis and his friend Jack, AKA J.R.R. Tolkien, had a conversation late one night after dinner, which Lewis later said was a turning point in his journey from atheism to Christianity.

Tolkien and Lewis both taught at Oxford and they were both part of the Oxford literary society known as “The Inklings”. The Inklings would meet regularly at two pubs in Oxford: the Eagle and Child, which they nicknamed “Bird and Baby”, and the Lamb and Flag. Both pubs are still there today, on opposite sides of the same street. At their meetings, the Inklings would discuss literature and share their writings with each other. It was at the Lamb and Flag that Tolkien read his first drafts of The Lord of the Rings.

Lewis and Tolkien shared a love for stories. They both felt the power of stories, and Tolkien had written a book titled, On Fairy Stories, which discussed how even in a scientific age, an “age of reason,” for some reason, people still desire to hear and to read fictional stories, even stories which talk about a supernatural world. The reason for this, he said, is that the characteristics which make up all the stories which people love: good overcoming evil, escaping time, overcoming physical limitations, interacting with non-human creatures and other-worldly beings, etc.; these reflect the deep longings of the human heart.

The reason we can’t get enough of these stories, Tolkien argued, is because deep down we believe that this is the way the world SHOULD BE, even if it’s not the way it currently is. The reality of life is that good doesn’t always win, that eventually we are separated from those we love, and so on – but even if this is how things are, it’s not how we believe that they should be. And so we love to read stories which describe life the way we believe it should be.

CS Lewis agreed with Tolkien on this point, and believe that this was indeed the power of stories. However, Tolkien took it one step further that night on Addison’s Walk: he told his friend CS Lewis to consider the gospel story of Jesus Christ. This story, he said, contains all of the elements which make every great story great: love which overcomes death, life out of death, victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, overcoming physical limitations, the promise of a world where things finally will be the way they should be… Lewis agreed.

Then Tolkien went one step further: he said, the gospel story of Jesus Christ is not just one more good story which points to the underlying reality, it is the underlying reality to which all other stories point.

The gospel story of Jesus Christ is not just one more good story which points to the underlying reality, it is the underlying reality to which all the other stories point.

CS Lewis then asked how he could be sure, to which Tolkien encouraged him to look at the historical facts surrounding Jesus’ resurrection.

It was that conversation which CS Lewis credited with leading him back to Christian faith. He went on to be one of the most effective apologists for CHristianity in the 20th century, partly because he was so intelligent, partly because he had been an atheist and was personally familiar with the arguments against Christianity, and partly because he was a layman and not a Christian minister.

I walked with my kids along Addison’s Walk, along the River Cherwell, and I told them the story of how Clive Lewis and Jack Tolkien had taken that walk along the same path, and I told them how Tolkien had shared with his friend this message of the gospel, and how all the things which cause us to love the stories we love point to “the true story of the world” – the story of Jesus and what he did for us.

As I did, my voice cracked a little bit as I tried to hold it together; you see, my heart has these deep longings as well. The promise of the gospel is that these things will not only remain longings, but one day they will once again be true, because of what Jesus did for us.

Changes to The Longmont Pastor Site

As of a few days ago, The Longmont Pastor has changed addresses – it is now located at nickcady.org

One of my long-term goals is to write books, and so I plan to use this address as more of a hub rather than just a blog.

For those of you who subscribe to this blog, this shouldn’t change anything for you – you should continue to get posts delivered to you as usual.  The old address  (longmontpastor.wordpress.com) will still continue to work, but will redirect you to the new address.
For those of you who don’t subscribe yet, go on and do it! You can subscribe via email using the form on this page, through WordPress or RSS, or by following me on Twitter.

Additionally, I’ve made a few aesthetic changes to make the site look better and be easier to navigate. I also plan on posting more frequently, creating a schedule to make sure that posts are more regular.

Thanks for reading! See you soon.