The Thin Line Between Life and Death: William Eggleston’s Dilemma

He Must Keep Drinking Toxins to Live, yet if He Stops Drinking, He Will Die

What if the thing that helps you live is also the thing that will get you killed? This is the question posed in the Beauty Pill’s 2020 song, “The Damnedest Thing.” The official music video narrates a surreal anecdote about photographer William Eggleston whose alcoholism became so acute that his doctor had to prescribe him a daily portion of the substance just to sustain his health. The video references a 2016 New York Times interview that sheds more light on this enigmatic figure and his creative process.

I initially expected the interview to reveal that alcohol enhanced Eggleston’s creativity, but his narrative instead defies the stereotype of the prolific artist finding inspiration via drug abuse and addiction. On the contrary, he literally couldn’t take photos after having had a drink. In his own words, “The thought of it goes away.” 

Eggleston’s body needed liquor to stay alive, but his artistic impulse could only thrive while he remained sober. Something had to give. So he was eventually prescribed a rationed dose of alcohol. The thing that could kill him was also the thing that saved him. While a steady diet of the poison could destroy his liver, the right (read: law) dosage is allowed to keep him alive.

Eggleston’s predicament is a microcosm of our lives is so many different ways. Navigating the ultimate balancing act between flesh and spirit, he must keep drinking toxins to live, yet if he stops drinking, he will die. Such a dilemma calls to mind Paul’s words in Galatians:

For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God,  because “the righteous will live by faith.” The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.” (3:10-12)

In other words, if you are going to “do” the law, you’d better be prepared to do the whole damned thing … or perish. Or put differently, once you start down the law path, you must continue or suffer death. There is some measure of law to which we all must adhere in order to practically function. As Martin Luther comments in his lectures on Galatians, “Life cannot go on without some ordinances.” If you don’t feed your kids, they will starve. If you don’t go to work, you won’t get your paycheck. If you don’t obey the laws of the land, you’ll (in some instances) go to prison, etc. Yet these very controls on which we rely for civic order are killing us: the law always accuses sooner or later. The dynamics of the law are inescapable, alternatively bringing life or death.

We feel the weight of this in every dynamic of life “on this side of heaven.”  Parents can never do enough to feel like we’ve parented perfectly. The other night, I literally wept as I reflected on Moses’ prayer to “teach us to number our days” (Ps 90) while I considered the years when my children were toddlers and agonized over why I didn’t give them 100% of my undivided attention. I enjoy hearing commendation from my supervisor, especially amid the myriad challenges of working from home, but I’m burdened by the reality that I have to continuously perform in order to maintain good standing with the boss and the company. As fulfilling as community outreach is and as thankful as I am that the job keeps food on the table, there’s no unconditional acceptance flowing from the workplace. 

Eggleston’s story also implies that even the most mundane rhythms of daily life have the capacity to facilitate gross idolatry, as we tend to corrupt the good gifts of God into avenues of self-justification. His body became so accustomed to strong drink that he physiologically couldn’t live without it. He ingested the idol until it in a sense became him. The psalmist alludes to this phenomenon when he writes concerning our penchant for replacing God with created things, “Those who make [idols] become like them, so do all who trust in them!” Following the law’s promise of life can readily become another venue for self-justifying idolatry.

Every day, I discover idols I didn’t know I was depending on for dear life. I used to think the Christian life was such that I would eventually arrive at a point where I had purged myself of all my Jesus-substitutes adequately enough to really trust God wholeheartedly and get on with the business of real Christian living and sold-out obedience. I have since come to understand that sanctification entails instead a sobering realization that the depths of our mistrust of and ingratitude toward God’s goodness cannot be plumbed or known. I actually don’t want to know the places in my heart where I’m not trusting God as I should. At this point in my life, I have adopted so many sullied attitudes, subtle dispositions of heart, unsanctified frames of mind that, much like Eggleston’s alcohol, have literally become “my members” (cf. Col 3:5). To lose these precious fig leaves would be to lose “me,” and I’m terrified to even entertain that prospect!

It’s not inconsequential that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addresses the “how” and “why” of ordinary aspects of what is assumed to be a part of our daily regiment: fasting, charity, and prayer. The evil against which Jesus warns has nothing to do with the action necessarily, but rather the motive. “When you fast … when you pray … when you give to the poor, do so in this manner, so as to glorify God and not yourself.” The first humans messed up over the issue of something apparently arbitrary and amoral, namely eating. Or what about the incident in the book of Numbers where God instructed Moses to kill a man because he was merely gathering sticks on the Sabbath! How unconsciously and inconspicuously the banal can become a means of justifying ourselves. The idols keeping us alive will eventually kill us.

But in Christ the thing killing us is keeping us alive, namely himself. Again, Paul is helpful, particularly as he reminds the Corinthians about God’s counterintuitive direction of bringing life out of death, ironically in the midst of daily living:

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. (2 Cor 4:8-11)

This is how grace works! The law which we expect to bring life, works death in our members, but through the gospel, a better death is working righteousness in our mortal bodies. Ultimately, God is the One killing us, yet keeping us alive. Not by a daily dose of prescribed liquor, but through an eternal measure of unqualified grace. I don’t pretend to understand it … it’s the damnedest thing.

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4 responses to “The Thin Line Between Life and Death: William Eggleston’s Dilemma”

  1. Paul Walker says:

    Wow, this is good.

  2. Adam Morton says:

    One of my favorite pieces of recent months.

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