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Feasting with the dead for the sake of the living

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

Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader's Guide to a More Tranquil Mind

Alan Jacobs

Penguin Press

W. H. Auden once wrote that "art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead." In his brilliant and compulsively readable new treatise, Breaking Bread with the Dead, Alan Jacobs shows us that engaging with the strange and wonderful writings of the past might help us live less anxiously in the present--and increase what Thomas Pynchon once called our "personal density."

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. 

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