Party at Jay Gatsby's

Party at Jay Gatsby's

A few weeks ago I found these words at the bottom of my ticket to George Fox's spring formal, a dance themed after the novel and fast-approaching film The Great Gatsby. I would say loosely themed, considering the DJ offered no tunes from the roaring twenties but instead pumped the standard Top-40-techno-dance-hip-hop fusion, but having now seen the movie it was actually pretty on the nose. In any case I initially found it a bit odd that my Christian college would theme its dance around the bacchanals described in F. Scott Fitzgerald's anti-tribute to classic American excess, but I made no large fuss about it and indeed had a splendid time cutting the rug with a few dear chums whom I will miss very much.

Nothing says "melancholy of the Jazz Age" quite like a bro-tank.

It was no party at Jay Gatsby's though. No, it couldn't even hold a candle to those raucous scenes depicted in the film, to the hyperreal colors, the impossibly shiny sequins, the manic, untethered energy, and no one in attendance at our dance was sorry for the fact. We realized, I think, that you can only party with such utter abandon once you've cast off most of the dignity that innately accompanies being human. We were content with our little Christian mixer which only played at being so naughty as one of Gatsby's get-togethers.

Ladies and gentlemen, in the spirit of the Roaring 20s, I give you FERGIE, BEYONCE AND LANA DEL REY!

Actually seeing the movie a few nights back really got me thinking though. All in all it was a spectacle of a thing, a beautiful and hypnotic take on the material, but if I have one complaint it's that Baz Lurhmann, the man at the helm of the project, seemed to depict these drunken orgy scenes with visual relish verging on outright celebration. And this is no small complaint, considering how such tacit endorsement is in pretty stark contrast with the novel's poignant critique of the moral hollowness of the whole jazz enterprise. At its heart the book expresses how all the status, money and unbridled indulgence in the world could never satisfy Jay Gatsby, and how those in attendance at his parties were lonely, drunken social climbers who'd sell their bodies and souls for a little money and a little pleasure. The inevitability that young movie-goers after seeing the film would itch to go out and let loose like its stylish, attractive characters is a symptom Luhrmann may have tragically missed the mark. We're not supposed to envy these people. We're not supposed to think Jay Gatsby is the man to be. His story is a tragic and hollow one, a cautionary tale against ambition and excess, and I wish the film realized it a bit more.

Well that's... that's better.

And this may seem like a trivial complaint, but I'd go as far as to say if you miss the truth behind the Party you miss The Great Gatsby by a mile. After all, one major reason Fitzgerald's story resonated so wholly with his contemporaries and virtually every generation since is that the Party is a timeless human anesthetic. Since we discovered old grapes can make the sad go away we've consistently gathered together from time to time to get loaded and make bad choices.

Certainly this is no less the case now than it was during the twenties, only now most of the particulars of party life take place among our adolescent friends (14 to 30 by some modern estimates). To be young nowadays is to be young, wild and (ugh) free, to smoke and drink, to dance and screw around. No judgment, that's just how it is. And I understand this is a broad generalization, that there are just as many young people who don't take part in any of this, but for the purposes of my point let's take a look at those who do, because it is their actions which have so captivated my attention. 

Why, I'm beginning to wonder, do we seek out the Party, and why have we always? Is it merely an expression of rebellion, a hedonistic surrender? Or are much deeper forces at work?

C. S. Lewis, in his uncomfortably profound Screwtape Letters, reminds us that the devil cannot create pleasure, only pervert those pleasures which God created and instilled in us at the moment of our creation. Lewis records a correspondence between senior tempter Screwtape and his nephew Wormwood in which the former counsels the latter:

“Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s [God's] ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is [God's] invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden. Hence we always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable. An ever-increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula…. To get the man’s soul and give NOTHING in return–that is what really gladdens [Satan's] heart.”

Poor devils, never to create, ever to twist and destroy.

So it follows, then, that the "pleasures" of sin can only superficially satisfy legitimate, God-given needs, and this begs a few questions: which need does the Party, the Gatsbian debauch, play at satisfying? And, as another point of curiosity, why do we participate in certain vices corporately rather than privately?

I don't have any solid answers but I do have an educated guess: people just don't want to be so alone. What we want is to reach out and connect, to experience life outside of the fear and ambition-driven, individualistic boxes in which we so often find ourselves. And the typical day-to-day does not allow for much legitimate human connection. Having just left school I know this to be especially true there, in the world of young people. We all feel desperately hurt and paralyzingly lonely in our hurt, without even the distant hope that someone might care enough about us to risk the vulnerability of genuine connection. We each build barriers to protect ourselves from the hostile world, but the tragedy is they really only serve to isolate us further. We are compartmentalized, celled off from each other, interacting through thick walls of expectation and mistrust.

It all changes, though, once the party starts and the beer begins to flow. Then everybody is everybody's best friend. We suddenly have permission to feel, to connect. We get wasted or faded, and the barriers come crashing down as we allow ourselves to be broken together. And there's something almost beautiful about that.

The trouble is, as far as living a meaningful story goes the perpetual party is a rather meaningless one. In the long run it will not answer life's big questions or provide any grander purpose, and will in fact yield nothing more than "an ever-increasing craving for an ever-diminishing pleasure." You don't have to take mine or Lewis' word for it either. Kid Kudi, widely famed for his anthems to the party lifestyle, lets a few haunting moments slip through the lyrics and video of this song, moments where he seems to lament the emptiness of it all, and the inability of those who constantly surround him to understand or tend to what deeply troubles him.

Warning: this is a rap video, and a gritty one at that. Not all the content and images may be suitable for younger viewers.

Kudi is the Jay Gatsby of his world. Surrounded by sycophants, by wine, women and song, he is no closer to fulfillment than if he were alone. Sure, we can drink together, he thinks, but what do you know about the intense, painful shit in my life? "Tell me what you know about night terrors. Nothing." And as the music fades, as the credits roll, he is left with nothing but regret, a hangover, and newly-intensified loneliness.

The connections we make under the chemical haze of the Party cannot fully satisfy the deep, legitimate need we carry in our deepest selves to know and to be known, to love and to be loved, to live in community with others who share in our brokenness. We were not made broken but we live in a world which breaks each one of us in turn; and we were made to live together, to connect deeply and profoundly. And we miss it. We know this world isn't how it ought to be so we self-medicate and try to forget. But at least we're trying to forget together. And that means something, I think. It has to.

The fact that brokenness, like misery, loves company may be a root cause of the impulse to party (sex, drugs, rock & roll and all that), but it also ought to be a driving force behind why and how we do church. We know the world isn't as it should be, we know that we are broken, but we are looking for something more. And we are looking for something more together. Church could, should, be more of an AA meeting, a collection of broken individuals healing together, rather than the dog-and-pony show we so often make of it.

The Party fulfills authentic human needs, those needs for community and belonging, for fun and adventure which brand each of our hearts, so there is no point in shaming those who seek refuge in it. We are all aswim in the same brokenness and cannot blame those who try for a season to heal elsewhere. We know, though, that these cheap facsimiles will crumble ere long. And we must be there for those we love when they do.

The only real fix, after all, is to remember we serve a God who legitimately offers us more. We have all become so satisfied with the empty promises of the Enemy and have settled for the small, inferior stories of drunkenness, promiscuity or indeed even legalism and self-righteousness, while there is a God, our God, telling a much grander story and inviting each and all of us to join in the writing and acting out of this story. We can and must create an environment in the church which facilitates entrance into this story, an environment wherein vulnerability is not only allowed but welcomed and encouraged. And so we, or God, can redeem the brokenness. For brokenness is redeemed only when it becomes the force which draws together the disparate part's of the Body to be truly reunited in common purpose and greater story.

"The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly."

~ John 10:10


  1. Nailed it. Sadly, F. Scott Fitzgerald understood the irony of his life story. He disliked the falsities of glad-handers, well-wishers, and the social leap-frogging that was the artistic life; yet to be anyone, you had to be seen. Scott created an image of himself that he later hated: the drunken exploits of the life-of-the-party guy. He never lived it down. It cost him his wife, her sanity, his career, his name, his daughter's respect, the industry's respect, and his own self-respect. He died near penniless and forgotten.

    At least his cautionary words lived on.

    Your words will live on. Good stuff again.

  2. Timothy Keller once wrote "Church was never meant to be a museum for the saints, but a hospital for the sinners"

    Well done brother! My favorite yet!


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