Book Review

Feasting with the dead for the sake of the living

A review of Alan Jacobs’s "Breaking Bread with the Dead"

February 25, 2021

If you are like me, you are probably tired of hearing people use the phrase “These are unprecedented times, but we are going to get through it, somehow.” From zoom meetings to social media posts and endlessly repeated by cable news anchors, the phrase “unprecedented times” became the standard method of describing just how chaotic the past year has been. And make no mistake, it was made chaotic by a presidential election in a divided and polarized nation; an unforeseen pandemic that caused economic, social, and medical catastrophe; protests over the unjust killings of unarmed African American men that were the largest in American history;  and not to mention the wildfires that raged across the country and globe and threats of nuclear warfare in January, something I had forgotten until I was reminded by one of the endless “year in review lists.” Unprecedented. Unpredictable. Chaotic. Deadly. Heartbreaking. To look around this past year, the punches just kept coming with no relief in sight. 

What I would have given for some more precedented times. I wanted some normal stability and tranquility. So, it was with some hope that I read the new book by Alan Jacobs,’ professor of English literature at Baylor University, Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind. Don’t think this is a morbid volume; this is a book of hopeful method to guide readers (and all of us really) toward a better way of engaging with the world around us. However, in contrast to those who tell us to be present in this world or to “be in moment” Jacobs points out that this is the very thing that is sapping our souls. We are slaves to the present moment, to constant notifications from our phones or social media feeds, and an endless buffet of choices. Not that we are absent from the moment, but we are much too plugged in. Jacobs calls the reader to step out of their context, and instead, through the time machine that is literature, step into the world of the author. Only by doing so can we develop the personal density necessary to not be tossed about by each chaotic event in our present. 

Personal density and temporal bandwidth

The terms temporal bandwidth and personal density, borrowed from fiction, are Jacobs’s way of describing how much a person is consumed by the present moment. As temporal bandwidth increases, so too does personal density. And what is temporal bandwidth? It is just how much an individual exists in both the past and future, as well as the present. This sounds very ethereal, and in one sense it is—for the future which lies ahead in the vague time of “not yet” and past which lies in the equally foggy mists of time and memory—but it is also practical. Are you consumed by the moment, or do you see the broader story and sweep of history? For the Christian, there is an obvious connection here. Are you consumed by the controversies of the moment, the fleeting images on the screen in front of you, the endless fleeting distractions or do you meditate on the giant sweep of history? Now, Jacobs is not calling us to abandon the present, but rather to step outside of our own time and look at it from the outside, a practice we can do best when we interact with the literature of the past. 

Why does this matter? Because by expanding our temporal bandwidth, our sense of “now,” we are less likely to be rocked by every controversy that comes along. We become more stable. And Jacobs is not the first person to ask us to look to the past for stability. In the exilic period of the Hebrew people, they returned to the promises of the past and the hope of the future to make sense of the present. The same God who had brought them out of Egypt (Ex. 20:2) and who would bring them home again (Ezra 1:1-5) was also the same one that told them to take root in the cities where they were planted and seek its welfare (Jer. 29:4-9). What if they were to think only of the events of the moment? A sense of despair would have been natural. By looking beyond their present moment to the wider story of what God is doing, they were able to know what tranquility looked like. It did not look like peace in their circumstances, but peace within their souls, something that only can occur when you have a vision that stretches back to Eden and into eternity. The promises of eternity are an anchor to the soul in the chaos of the temporary.  

How the past can teach us

As we journey into the foreign country past, and make no mistake you are a stranger and sojourner in that land even if you read from the comfort of your recliner, what can we expect to learn? Well, first we learn that the past is a foreign country for “they do things differently there.” And sometimes that difference is appalling. The land of Huckleberry Finn as written by Mark Twain is to enter a world where racial epithets are common and slavery is the norm. To read Aristotle is to hear of the inferiority of women and that some are made for slavery. And the same Shakespeare who wrote of love and beauty with eloquence also relied on anti-Semitic tropes for his depictions of Shylock in the “Merchant of Venice.” For modern readers, it is reasonable to object to these depictions of our fellow human beings. As Jacobs reminds us, we should not bracket our morality when we read. 

However, we should recognize the inconsistencies of the past and that should help us in the present. The human condition is one of contradictions and imperfect application. If I can recognize in myself a lack of full consistency, why would I not extend that to the literature I read, and those I interact with on a daily basis. If Thomas Jefferson, the defender of those inalienable rights endowed by our Creator, could fail to fully apply those to those closest to him, most clearly the enslaved African Americans at Monticello, why would we think that we are exempt from the same inconsistency? We don’t ignore the inconsistency, but we don’t give into the sense that we are defiled by it either. Our journey into the past is a journey to a foreign country, but one that occurs on our terms. Or, in the language of the breaking bread metaphor that forms the heart of the book, we can leave the table at any time. We have no obligation to stay at the table, but Jacob reminds us that we will be better if we choose to sit longer and chew the meat before, even as we leave the bones of the other time and place. 

In reading, we should seek to find what Jacobs calls the “authentic kernel,” the moment in a book that speaks to an experience that you can share, even amid the swamp of deplorable sentiments in which it is mired. For even as broken as you may think an author is, authors are human. They share in our inconsistencies, but also in our common graces. Just as we must not silence our morality, neither should we silence those moments of joy and shared experience. I cannot share in every experience that an author or her subjects has, but there are fundamental experiences common to all of humanity ranging from questions of identity, longing for community, fear of loss, joy in the midst of grace, or forgiveness for wrongs committed. In wrestling with the sins of the past, let us also rest in those moments when God’s grace breaks through, across the ages and across pages, to remind us that they, like us, are fellow image bearers. 

Communing with the dead as an act of neighbor love

It is in those moments of grace that breaking bread with the dead reminds us of our need to do the same with those around us. Jacobs writes, as have others, that we are often completely fine breaking bread with those like us, whatever that category is. Most of us are willing to extend grace to those who are so foreign as to be strange or only conceive of us as “out there” somewhere in the ether. But it is those who are not like us but close that pose the greatest conundrum for us, and provoke the most visceral reactions. The family member who voted differently than we did but who we meet around the Thanksgiving table or the friend from high school who has suddenly become “woke” evokes a stronger reaction than the random individual on the internet. What are we to do with them? 

Reading literature reminds us that when we are asking these questions of the past, we are also asking them of the present. To ask, “Is Shakespeare like me” is to ask it of the overly political uncle and be reminded that he is. To put it another way, it is to ask, just as the lawyer did of Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” As we gather around the table and break bread with one another—whether literal or figurative—we can’t help but note that all of them are our neighbors. 

For a reminder, look no further than that first Lord’s Supper with saints and sinners gathered around a table breaking bread with one another. We may not have the same animosity with Mark Twain that Simon the Zealot (a Jewish nationalist) may have previously held for the tax collector Matthew. But gathered around the table we are invited to break bread, drink the wine, and enjoy the community. And in that moment, remembering Christ and looking to the future when we will share it with him in person, our sense of the present is stretched just a bit more. When we read literature and don’t bracket our morality, but acknowledge the deficiencies of the past and see them also in ourselves in the present, we learn how to better love our neighbors. Our feasts with the dead and journey to their land being a step toward meals with those closest to us in our own country. 

Alex Ward

Alex Ward serves as the research associate and project manager for the ERLC’s research initiatives. He manages long term research projects for the organization under the leadership of the director of research. Alex is currently pursuing a PhD in History at the University of Mississippi studying evangelical political activity in … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24