Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Pale King and the Apostle Paul

The sixth chapter of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous, unfinished novel “The Pale King” features a character wrestling with the consequences of his actions at the same time his mind keeps summoning up quotations from Paul’s epistles.

Lane A. Dean Jr. sits with his girlfriend Sheri by a lake in a park. They appear to be clean, well-scrubbed kids in a wholesome setting, but something unspoken hangs in the air. By indirect language over the course of the chapter, the reader is left to assume that Lane has gotten Sheri pregnant. The couple met in “campus ministries,” and Lane has been praying, chewing on the moment. The idea of a child in their future forces Lane to realize that, while he likes Sheri, he doesn’t love her enough to want to marry her, or even perhaps to see the child born. Over seven pages, no dialogue is ever directly quoted. The two sit side-by-side, with the narrator wholly in Lane’s mind. Even when we hear Sheri, we must be conscious that this is Lane’s projection of what she might say, what he hopes she will say, what he fears might happen. He is contemplating an abortion for her.

But his larger fear - even more than an abortion, or the fact that he doesn’t love her - is that he might be, in fact, a hypocrite:

“He was desperate to be good people, to still be able to feel he was good. He rarely before had thought of damnation and hell, that part of it didn’t speak to his spirit, and in worship services he more just tuned himself out and tolerated hell when it came up, the same way you tolerate a job you have got to have to save up for what it is you want.”

Lane reveals himself as a little more self-centered than he wants to admit, not as careful as he would like to believe. And while he doesn’t necessarily believe in hell, he suddenly understands why what some might feel are archaic Biblical rules of sexual conduct suddenly make sense. Yet he still wonders if he is a hypocrite “who repented only after, who promised submission but really only wanted a reprieve.” He keeps thinking, the narrator tells us, of I Timothy 6 and “the hypocrite therein who disputeth over words.”

What he is referring to is an extended discourse in Paul’s letter to Timothy which deals with how “the Man of God” must conduct himself in a sinful world. Paul is warning, specifically, about false teachers within churches who stir up controversies out of their own conceits. False teachers, he is saying, create strife and constant friction because of their corrupted minds, displaying an obsession over terminology instead of truth. Paul’s contention is that this is godlessness, a self-centered delusion that makes the other person feel their false gospel is more true than the real kind. He goes on to warn of those who use the Gospel for financial gain, leading to the summation that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” Considering that “The Pale King” deals in part with the Internal Revenue Service, there is a flash of irony.

So what is Lane saying? Considering that his lack of belief in hell is, in fact, heresy, is Lane a false Man of God? Of course the dispute in this chapter of the novel isn’t doctrinal on the face of it, but having more to do with his behavior. However, the Apostle Paul would state categorically that one goes with the other - that you can’t have a watered down Gospel without making other compromises in your life which eventually catch up to you. Lane may believe in a “living God of compassion and love” and not of a burning lake of fire, but even he sees the hellish vision of “two great and terrible armies within himself, opposed and facing each other, silent.” The reality of hell is only a whisper, but enough to make him realize what he carries within.

Still later, though, he imagines that Sheri will tell him that she cannot go through with an abortion, that she will carry the child to term, and that he need not worry because she will make no demands on him. In a vision, Lane has seen them both, and himself not as a hypocrite but as just another foolish fallen man. Don’t worry, he imagines her telling him, but he also imagines that even this is a lie, a desperate lie she might tell him to force him into caring for her, that within herself she knows she cannot care for a baby or put her family through the shame. She is gambling, in this imagined scene, that he really is the good man she believes. But his imagination, which has brought all of this out, quotes half of Galatians 4:16: “Have I now become your enemy?”

In this letter, Paul is appealing to the Galatian church against what he sees as the corrupting influence of what has come to be called the Judaizers - a sect believing that one must first become Jewish and observe a Jewish diet and cultural customs as part of, and as a prelude to, becoming a Christian. Paul, who previously had been an observant Jew and a well-educated one, had particular invective for the Judaizers, appealing instead to a Gospel of grace and faith instead of one of supposedly earned salvation through works.

But the full quotation is telling - “Have I now become your enemy because I tell you the truth?” Paul is reminding this church, which he helped create, that God’s salvation cannot be earned through works. We were once together and one, Paul says, so why are we now at odds? You trusted me once with the Gospel, so why have you changed into believing I am dishonest?

This is an interesting juxtaposition when we fold it back on Lane and Sheri. Lane wants grace - in that he wants to not have to face the consequences of his choices with Sheri. Sheri has faith - faith that Lane is not the kind of man who would get a woman pregnant and then abandon her, all the while talking of Jesus. Neither of them have earned any kind of salvation through their works, unless by salvation one means love. And yet it’s obvious that the love they share isn’t really love at all, but the fading colors of a passing and passionate lust. And lastly, they are both struggling against the truth - that they have many troubling decisions to make, not just about their circumstances, but about who they are, or who they might think they are. Will they become enemies if they are simply honest with each other?

The truth, Wallace’s narrator leaves us believe as the chapter closes, is that Lane only lacks courage to be able to confront the issue at hand and trust that his heart will make the right choice. One can see that God working in catastrophe forces upon us our truest and most terrible reflections. And as the Apostle Paul knew, that is when we not only are ready for forgiveness, but we long for it, with all our hearts.

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