Category Archives: Books
The national outpouring of gratitude and mourning over the death of Andy Griffith goes on. It has spawned a jillion tribute video clips on YouTube and endless comments below each one about the comfort and familiarity each one brings. So here’s one of my favorites.
I have been plowing through James Davison Hunter’s book, To Save the World, which isn’t about Andy Griffith, but about culture and faith. It is nearly 400 pages, and reads like a scholar summing up his work to me. Mostly it is about the misguided foray of the church into politics over the past few generations—but also a recognition of the reduction of everything in our culture right now to national politics. Davison laments this, for cultures hold together by so much more than elections and news cycles.
He argues that we misunderstand the deepest work before us—to move the culture toward the divine vision of a kingdom that comes not through weapons, kings and coercion but through the power of persuasive love in human lives, ethos and story. It is a vision large enough, rightly conceived, to make a place for those who disagree with us without the need to punish, coerce and control them. This life we talk about begins with a man named Jesus and the character and depth that resonates out of stories and teachings that keep stirring up our thinking 20 centuries later.
Those stories in the Bible, like all stories worth reading, and like good acting, convey something that leaps from the core of the speaker and connects to us, resonates deep inside and keeps speaking long after we read it or see it. There is nothing like a life lived with its energies concentrated to something good and meaningful.
One of the tenets of Christianity is that we gain life by resignation from the egocentric self. In other words, while an “ego” is a normal part of human life, an egocentric life, obsessed with its own security, safety and control, can be quite destructive to the person and the people around them. This lives out large in the Stalins and Hitlers of history, but also in everyday life.
David Mace, the found of marriage enrichment, said at the end of his life that after all those years of talking about communication, money and sex with couples that success in marriage came down to one key—the ability to deal creatively and redemptively with one’s own anger. After 33 years as a professional minister, counseling, listening to troubled people, and coaching young newlyweds-to-be I believe he was right.
There is one key about the anger we have—the capacity to step back away from ourselves and take ourselves with less than ultimate seriousness. “Getting my way” is second to “getting it right,” don’t you think? But the egocentric self says, “It has to be my way or all is lost!” And you know what comes next.
I am watching “Andy Griffith” reruns with my wife in the evenings. Since they are recorded you can watch one n about 18 minutes when you take out the commercials. So when the news looks repetitive (as in EVERY night) or so dreary, or when we just don’t want to watch one of our history or biography programs, we pull up an Andy Griffith from the DVR and soothe ourselves.
This week, we watched one of our favorite episodes, “Dogs, Dogs, Dogs.” It was written by Everett Greenbaum and James Fritzell, who wrote many of the great “Mash” episodes and for many great comedy shows (a great blog about them here by Ken Levine CLICK
Opie finds a stray little dog, who disappears and comes back with some doggie friends. Andy and Barney are expecting an inspector from the state, so they have to get the dogs out of sight. They try sending them home with Otis Campbell, the town drunk, but they come back with more. Finally Barney drives them out into the country and dumps the dogs in a field to run and play. Opie becomes anxious when a thunderstorm begins, worried about their safety. Barney tries to explain that they will be okay, and in the course of his explanation hits of my favorite lines of all time. Dogs are not like giraffes, Barney says. They take care of their own, and they are low to the ground. Not giraffes. “Boy, giraffes are selfish. Just running around, looking out for #1 and getting struck by lightning.”
A marriage, a neighborhood, a church or synagogue, a club or a nation can only abide a certain quota of giraffes. Now dogs? More the merrier. I’d say Barney was exactly right.
We prefer a safe mediocrity to a persuasive truth telling.
Baptist news wires recently carried the story about a successful protest by a Baptist preacher to remove a movie from Lifeway stores. The movie is “The Blind Side,” starring Sandra Bullock. It was based on the book by the same name by Michael Lewis, who also wrote, Liar’s Poker and Moneyball.
I happened to meet Michael Lewis years ago when he was writing the book, and he told me he was working on a “really interesting story.” It was about a young man from the meanest streets of Memphis who was adopted by a family and placed in a white private Christian school. The story is well known by now—Michael Oher went on to be a football star at the University of Mississippi and now plays for the Baltimore Ravens.
I bought and read the book when it came out, and went to see the film. Football movies are pretty well required viewing in Alabama. So I was more than amused with all the other moral problems at the moment—debt, wars, racism, the disintegration of families, and do I need to go on?—that a PG-13 movie could cause such an uproar. According to the report,
LifeWay Christian Stores will no longer sell videos of “The Blind Side” after a Florida pastor proposed a resolution for next week’s Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting protesting the sale of a PG-13 movie that contains profanity and a racial slur…[the stores decided to] pull the movie, an inspirational film starring Sandra Bullock that tells the true story of a white Christian family that adopted a homeless black teenager who went on to play in the NFL, to avoid controversy at the June 19-20 SBC annual meeting in New Orleans. [The pastor who brought the resolution] said there is much about the film to be commended, but there is no place in a Christian bookstore for a movie that includes explicit language that includes taking God’s name in vain.
I get it. It’s Baptist to speak your mind. I know language has become debased and misused. And, it’s the right of any store and its owners to sell or not sell what it wishes. Still, it stirred a few thoughts about the mostly non-existent tie between Christians, especially evangelical ones, and the world of the arts. And why fewer people want to be Baptists.
Walter Brueggemann once said that in the book of Leviticus, which for some odd reason has become a moral center for a lot of people today, there is an emphasis on holiness as “purity.” There are other forms of holiness in scripture—moral and ethical righteousness, for one, that sometimes comes into conflict with the notion of purity. Jesus encountered this among the Pharisees, who could not do the deeper right things for fear of disturbing their own ethic of remaining personally removed from what might compromise, taint and violate their ethic of purification holiness.
I have thought a lot about Brueggemann’s distinction since I first read it. Somehow, a fully biblical notion requires more than avoiding “impurities.” Yet purity is important. An obsession seems to lead always to a rather puny moral energy that dispirits more than it inspires. Inevitably, it ends up with an account of morality that is always boycotting, removing itself from sinners and sin, and circling the wagons.
“Blue Like Jazz” arrived at selected theaters this past week, an odd stepchild among usual movie fare of aliens, vampires, and things that go boom. Derived from Donald Miller’s book by the same name, “Blue Like Jazz” is a story of life and faith during a young man’s first year of college. Don, the main character, is son of a bible believing single mother who wants to protect her son and an atheist father who is emotionally disconnected, mostly absent, and religiously hostile.
Donald’s Dad wangles an acceptance from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, a school filled with intellectually brilliant and morally unfettered not-quite-adults. After struggling with it, he heads to Reed and Portland instead of the Baptist college his mother wants him to attend. Soon life is filled with Political Correctness, drugs, booze and moral haze. The professors challenge every aspect of life, and students engage in protest and outrageousness as an extracurricular activity.
From that point we follow Don as he struggles with the pain of the life he has left behind but the faith that won’t leave him alone. He is ashamed of that identity, and tries to fit in, but never really does. The church is an ambiguous presence throughout the movie. The childhood church that Don leaves behind is a stereotype of tacky children’s sermons and fear of the world. The youth pastor is glib, a know-it-all, self-assured, and, it turns out, secretly sleeping with Don’s mother, which brings a crisis into his life later in the story. Read the rest of this entry
Here in Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird is one of our great treasures. You can still go to Monroeville, Alabama and see a live re-enactment of the story every year by the local citizenry. You start out in the yard, then move inside the courthouse, and it is eerily reminiscent of the movie because Hollywood built a replica of it for the film. When I went with friends a few years back, I felt a flash of shame and pain when the n-word was uttered while African American locals up in the balcony were in our presence. I was embarrassed. So we’ve made some progress, I guess. As a child in North Carolina the word was uttered around me thoughtlessly, as a part of an unquestioned culture of resentment and vulnerable entitlement. Read the rest of this entry
I was reading about Hank Williams, went to hear Gillian Welch, and wound up thinking about Elvis Presley. Just finished the late Paul Hemphill’s wonderful biography of Hank Williams, Sr. This being “the Year of Alabama Music,” I have decided to do a study of some great Alabama musicians. It’s a pretty great list. Anyway, sometimes secular musicians, especially in folk, country and blues, are windows into what Stephen J. Nichols calls, “the gospel in a minor key” I call it, “the rest of creation that never finds its way into church.” We’re pretty long on the resurrection side of things, so that means we don’t often enough spend time down in the human soul and its perplexing alleyways.
Hank Williams knew all about those hard places of life. Dead of damage by drugs and alcohol by the age of 29, Williams was the first and arguably greatest country music star ever. A high school dropout from South Alabama who knew how to make people feel his pain and write about pain everyone feels. After his death, Williams’ popularity and legend grew, but about the time of his untimely death, Elvis arrived on the scene.
Hemphill says Elvis was almost the end of country music. Both he and Hank perfectly represented their ethos and time—Hank the rural and small town world that still lived inside most people raised in the Depression, and Elvis the bombastic musical fusion of the world that America in the 1950s began to aspire to be. Both sons of the South, about to blow wide open by the searing Civil Rights movement, all of its contradictions laid out where the whole world could see us exposed.
Last Friday, Vickie and I went with our friends Gay and Dan to hear Gillian Welch and David Rawlings at Workplay Theater on the Soundstage. If you don’t know her, you have probably heard her somewhere. She writes and sings a plaintive, almost “old time” style. Their concerts usuially only feature two guitars and an occasional frail or two on the banjo. Spare, haunting, perfectionistic, well- crafted songs and harmonies. Gillian and David joked a lot about how “down” their music is.
They write about hard times, pregnant teenagers and careless men, broken hearts and do it in a voice she described to NPR in an interview as a “stoic” voice. Surely she and Rawlings are the only duo to emerge from the Berklee School of Music with a sound like they have. They seem to have plopped down into the twenty-first century by mistake. They should have been playing on porches in 1946. Instead, they perform for middle class lawyers in jeans and t-shirts grooving on soul music of a world they barely remember.
That was August 12, a week ago as I write. Then, four days later, came the day Elvis died. Especially here in the South, August 12 is still considered tragic because the federal government didn’t declare it a national holiday. I still remember where I was—working as a carpenter in Dunn, NC, framing a house for a rich lawyer out in the country. We listened to radio all day, the only relief to the scortching Carolina summer. But sometime in that day, the news came. “Elvis Presley died this morning.”
I was nothing like Elvis, but he was one of us. His music filled our cars on long trips, helped us date, and was the background music at Myrtle Beach. The world never understood the part we all shared with him –a Southerner out in the wider world, never really at ease with it, overwhelmed by it, ashamed of ourselves in ways we could never explain, but still having something to say. Not unlike Hank.
Maybe that’s what keeps killing people like them, I don’t know. They carry something heavy about them, something they would sing about and live out, but never could quite exorcise it. Restless, haunted by hounds of heaven and hell, searching, adored and showered with wealth but never able to carry it off. And then they were gone.
So it was good, last week, before I even knew we were about to remember that it was August 16, 1977. Elvis was dead, and I was in Dunn, NC, putting up rafters. Thirty four years ago, the King was gone. Hank abdicated his throne and Elvis took it but it took him, too. What they lived, what they sang about, what finally killed them both, is too important for us to keep out of religion or life. So I mourn these two poets, storytellers, prophets of the broken heart, laureates of human longing. If you don’t realize that there is something spiritual about Hank’s “Cold, Cold Heart” and Elvis singing the old “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” the old Carter family tune that Elvis turns into a soul shiver, or the maudlin “Long Black Limosine:”
So Hank, Elvis, it’s been an oddly moving time to be with you both. You are the troubadors of where we come from and where we tried to go. We won’t forget you. Let me end with the song Gillian and David sang from their Time the Revelator album, “Elvis Presley Blues”. Rest in peace.
I was thinkin that night about Elvis,
Day that he died,
Day that he died.
I was thinkin that night about Elvis,
Day that he died,
Day that he died.
Just a country boy that combed his hair,
and put on a shirt his mother made and went on the air.
And he shook it like a chorus girl.
And he shook it like a harlan queen.
And he shook it like a midnight rambler, baby,
like you’d never seen, never seen.
like you’d never seen, never seen.
In the theater on Saturday to see “Tree of Life,” we watched the obligatory previews and saw with interest that a film version of “The Help” is coming in August. Allison Janney was one of the actresses I recognized, and heard enough to know this would be another butchered movie attempt to capture Southern accents. Anyone NOT from the South cannot hear the hundred subtleties in Southernspeak. We do not all sound like Foghorn Leghorn (“Ah, SAY-uh, ah sey-uh Miss Priss-ay”).
In the case of Mississippi, parts of Alabama and south Georgia you would be pretty close, but a little off is worse than way off, the linguistic equivalent of losing a baseball game on a balk in the ninth. You think, “they don’t know us, don’t know anything about where we live, who we are. What’s the deal? Most of ‘em still think we’re unchanged from the barking dogs and fire hoses and Atticus Finch. It’s as though the South is invisible.
According to Wikipedia: the movie “The Help” is about Aibileen, an African-American maid living in Mississippi in the early 1960s who cleans houses and cares for the young children of various white families.” There is a storyline about a campaign to get the white residents of Jackson to build separate bathrooms in their garage or carport for the use of the “colored” help. Characters with odd Southern names like Hilly and Skeeter are here, as well as Aibileen, another maid who has been through 19 jobs because she speaks out too much. A lot more develops, but pick up the book or see the film.
I started thinking about real life versions of “The Help” many times. As a minister you go and sit in people’s homes a lot, especially when things are going badly. Death, divorce, children run amuck, that sort of thing. You go as a holy man or woman and sit there, listening, trying to lend some presence to some terrifying absence. It can be anywhere: in nursing homes, assisted living or elegant suburban homes. The help, especially down south, some long-time worker for the family, inevitably comes in and brings me a glass of tea or says hello or dusts around us.
When my wife worked in welfare reform she got to know a lot of women who worked as domestics—cooks, maids, caretakers for the elderly, sitters and raisers of babies. Often they worked for more than one family to put food on the table. And if you wanted to know what was REALLY going on, talk to these women. It helps explain reality television, I think. Often I think, “Why on earth would you say that with cameras rolling? How can you be sincere and still know your being taped?” I suppose you just forget after a while and then, out it comes.
My wife Vickie used to say, “People forget and talk in front of their maids like they’re not there, and don’t realize that everything in their house is known.” Another way to put it is that these people become invisible. We stop seeing them, being aware of them, taking account of their presence.
I wondered recently as I thought about a really BAD immigration law passed by the Alabama legislature: “WHAT were they thinking?” At first I focused on the legal, financial and constitutional issues—how will we enforce it, who will pay for it, and so on. My question was, “Am I my brother’s Big Brother?” Absurdities occurred—will we build a wall like the Israelis to keep the Floridians and Mississippians out? But there were also somber thoughts—a lot of law enforcement may ignore it, but some might abuse it on people too scared and vulnerable to speak up. And also frustration that the federal government, whose real job it is, has failed to do their job. This is not a state issue. But let’s not go there.
Mainly I have been thinking about the help. The help are people who clean toilets and wash dishes and dig gardens and mow lawns and help build houses. They mop hospital halls and work long hours without complaining. And when they work their fingers to the bone for subsistence wages, we’re only too glad to let them do it. Then, when the bottom drops out of the Dow and we’re scared, we started passing laws that have a nice, authoritative sound to them. “Let’s stand up and do something.”
I called the governor’s office before this became law and told his staff I strongly opposed this law—unaffordable, unconstitutional, unenforceable. But mostly, if truth be told, I was thinking about the Old Testament and Jesus and all those passages in the Bible about the way we treat strangers and foreigners in our midst. There isn’t one passage in the Bible that says, “When they’re down and out, draw the line and shove ‘em out.” Find it if you can. No, it says, “You were strangers in Egypt. Don’t forget it. Don’t oppress widows and foreigners and orphans.” In other words, “Don’t tread harshly on people who can’t fight back.”
I am embarrassed by this law. We can do better. Nothing in it about the people already here or treating them with respect and hospitality or how to go from where we are to where we could be or even a mere way to authorize those already here to stay as guest workers. We didn’t even offer them a ride home. Just jails, fines, and, worse, the rest of us being tattlers to pull it off. It’s not that hard, it seems to me, to figure out. But that didn’t seem to get in this law.
A lot of our newcomers pretty soon become business owners and contractors themselves. They work hard and pull themselves up. I’ve met people who were doctors or dentists in their former country but work in menial jobs here because they are not “qualified” and they don’t complain. It’s a familiar story—like the 24 million immigrants who came into this country between 1860 and the 1920s—some of whose descendants sit in nice homes griping about immigrants.
Most of all, I feel like we got in the living room and made a decision affecting our maids and yard workers and day laborers and restaurant workers and lots of women and children. Many of them are legal and sometimes their families are not. It’s a mess, I admit. But we got in the living room and came up with a half-baked solution that, like those bathrooms in the garages in The Help will look absurd a few years down the line.
We committed the two great sins for Southern Christians. We were rude to strangers and we talked about things that affected the help’s lives as though they weren’t even there. And now our teachers and law enforcement folks and business owners are asked to fix it by becoming an enforcement bureau, ratting out first graders who don’t know anything about why they are here.
I’m for homeland security—career criminals don’t belong here, terrorists need to be stopped. I hate the ocean of drugs pouring over our borders as much as Mexico hates the avalanche of guns pouring over theirs. But maybe if we stopped talking about our help like they aren’t even there we could make distinctions between people who make us better and those who don’t.
We had the wrong kind of discussion and we ended up with a Rube Goldberg law. We can do better. We should do better. I pray we will.