Shakespeare, David Foster Wallace, and Jesus: Intimations on Death and the Afterlife (Part 1 of 2)

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  1. Lasting meaning
  2. Lasting meaning only makes sense if God exists.
  3. Jesus’ historicity and the historical record

No, this is not an article answering the question about whom I’d like to have as dinner guests. Rather, I want to examine a famous literary scene and ask the question, what worldview of these presented here most accurately corresponds to our intimations of death and the afterlife (if there is one)? That is, whose portrayal of the questions about death, and what comes after (if anything), seems most credible?

First, in full disclosure of some of my literary biases, I’m more than fond of each of these people’s works. I earned a B.A. and M.A. in English years ago. I’m a literary geek by, surely, anyone’s standard. Other literary bibliophiles out there understand. Imagine walking down an unfamiliar street and glimpsing a bookstore new to you. From the street, you can see quotes from Bunyan, Dickens, or Hemingway on placards through the store’s windows. Before you’ve blinked again, you’re inside for a cup of coffee and scouring the store’s shelves for your favorite reads.

I read Shakespeare out of sheer marvel at his linguistic genius and his accurate portrayals of human experience. As to Wallace, I’m a newcomer to his writings. I eschewed postmodern literature for many years because I thought it was self-defeating (more on this theme in subsequent articles), but I’ve come to respect what Wallace was grappling with, even though I may disagree with his intimations regarding God.

When it comes to Jesus, though he is not recorded in history as having written anything other than what he drew/wrote on the ground (as recorded in John 8:6b-8), few intelligent people would argue that anyone else’s life has engendered more change, been investigated more, or is more crucial to deal with than his. Jesus was not a writer, per se. He either was/is God in the flesh or he wasn’t/isn’t. He either was/is the savior of sinners or he isn’t. Say what you will, he never came to write a great novel (like Wallace’s Infinite Jest) or to pen some of the world’s noblest tragedies (King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, etc.). No, Jesus addressed death and the afterlife in distinctive ways.

Second, I concede that volumes could be written about the question being asked. I take that to mean this question is thereby a question worthy of thoughtful discussion. I am simply interested in gauging each man’s worldview concerning this question, as evidenced by one famous scene in literature.

For the sake of briefly addressing the question of which person most accurately portrays our intimations of death and the afterlife, consider the scene in Hamlet where Hamlet is walking with Horatio, and they come across the Gravedigger and his burial of Hamlet’s former friend, Yorick:

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath

borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rises at
it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one
now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen? (5.1.181-89)

Admittedly, it is dangerous and premature to judge a writer’s/thinker’s oeuvre by cherry picking one scene from an entire life’s work. For the sake of the question I’m addressing here, will we at least consider the question in light of this scene from Hamlet since it (the scene) contains both the phrase for which Wallace entitled his masterpiece and, second, the scene illustrates the issue of mortality and the question of the afterlife?

Since this is to be (at least) a two-part article, may I suggest that Shakespeare is putting before us the question of lasting meaning? Did Yorick’s life matter? Sure, to Yorick, right? And obviously to Hamlet. After all, Hamlet is lamenting the loss of Yorick to the grave. Yet, Shakespeare is illustrating more. He’s asking, what is anyone’s life worth if the grave is all there is? If Yorick was just material, then he’s reduced to material again via death. This would be the consistent position of a naturalistic worldview. In a naturalistic worldview, Hamlet’s lamentations would be folly. Why lament death of material when you, too, are just material? But was Yorick just material? Is Hamlet just material? Are you and I just material? It does make sense to even speak of material that laments. Shakespeare illustrates the question, but is not overt in answering it.

For Wallace, I think, he sees death as the final scene, but only if there’s no transcendent Creator (God). Death is the end if we jest or if are in earnest. If there’s no God, then all we have is distraction, entertainment, and isolation. We’re exiled east of Eden, like Cain, but there’s no God to give us a mark to keep us from being avenged by other lost souls. We can jest, but not infinitely. In the end, we end like (perhaps) Yorick did, only dust to dust. Our jesting would be more rightly turned to lamentation, if God is absent and there’s no triumphing over the curse of death.

With Jesus, however, he promised that if we’re united to him via genuine faith, we’d conquer the grave. He said he’d prepare a place for us (Jn 14:3a), that he’d come again and take believers to himself (Jn 14:3b). Was he lying? If so, then he wasn’t trustworthy, and we are cast back upon the inevitability of death and how to address the afterlife (if there is one). In sum, if Jesus did rise from the dead, that would change the playing field. Several thousand years of church history have attested to Jesus’ resurrection. Pharisees who originally persecuted Christians became evangelists and apologists for Jesus and the Christian worldview. The true disciples were martyred or exiled for their convictions that Jesus was the resurrected Lord. No one has produced the body of Jesus. Surely, these claims are worthy of thoughtful investigation. If Jesus conquered death, that changes everything in the cosmos.

If you’ve not done so, I suggest reading through Hamlet again, and reading Wallace’s fiction, too. If you’re willing, read the gospel of John. Ask honestly if Jesus is trustworthy and see if he’ll reward your earnest search. Thomas, too, was a skeptic, so you’re neither the first nor the last. Genuine inquiry after the truth is worth our energies.

Who best addressed this issue? Shakespeare, it seems to me, merely highlighted the question for dramatic effect. How we answer the dilemma posed reveals our worldview. Based upon DFW’s writing that I’ve read (I’ve not read all of his material, yet) man lives in a closed universe (where God’s non-existence is presupposed). This seems a much more difficult world in which to make the case for moral law. In the absence of the eternal reference point (God) who conquered death, relativism seems the inevitable deduction.

However, if Christ conquered the grave, then the way we view the “Yoricks” in our lives is revolutionized. No small amount depends on whether Jesus was trustworthy and if there’s historical evidence to substantiate his claims. More to follow on that question in part two.

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