It’s a Howlin’ Shame

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Photo by Cristian Newman via Unsplash

Crawling under the skin of the present age is a reality, an anthropology so old that it infests everything we do.  I felt it as I read Arlie Russell Hochschild’s sociology of Tea Party Louisiana in Strangers in the Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.  But it’s there in liberal moral puritanism.  It’s in the narcissism of Trump and the pretension of a hipster coffee bar.  It’s shame, back from the never-dead to be reckoned with once again.

“We need to talk about Addie Mae,” the blues singer Adia Victoria growls in a reference to herself on the song “It’s a Howlin’ Shame.”

“Oh that girl is a ghost

Burnin’ in a hell that don’t nobody know

White flag twistin’ in the wind
And at her best she is witherin’
And she all set for death, she can’t be saved.”

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Adia Victoria

The song is a mournful, angry descent into the pain of a young African-American woman growing up in South Carolina.  “Being the other in the South meant that I was never afforded a complacency with my history that so many Southern white people live with,” Victoria told an interviewer from i-D. “I understand, and still feel, the reasons why my ancestor’s blood was spilled on the very same land I live on. I am bound to this injustice because it was never made right.”

But, of course, the effect of this is to feel that she was never made right—that there is nothing she could do to be made visible and worthy in an environment she considered “hostile to my very existence.”  So she howls:

“A murder of crows

They followed her home

And they didn’t leave much

Just a bed of bones

Get away, away

Away, away, away”

Then the title of the song twists.  The descriptive third-person voice sinks into the first person.  “I’m a howlin’ shame.”

Shame-based discourse does this.  It dehumanizes.  It takes behaviors and qualities and totalizes them into causes for disregarding the worth and dignity of a person or group.  Trump voters become an undifferentiated gaggle of racists.  Democrats are “not even people,” the president’s son says.

At its heart, shame is experienced as a profound lack.  When we are in touch with shame, we have a sense of being insufficient, defective, deformed, unlovable, incapable, and generally ‘not enough.’  “At her best she is witherin’/And she all set for death, she can’t be saved.”

There is a psychological component to shame.  My own time in therapy has convinced me of its awful power in my own life.  The thing that can’t be said, even in the safest company, festers and grows.  Partly because of the perversity of believing that I still have to seduce my therapist into accepting me and that the saying of the thing would bring the whole enterprise to ruin.  Partly because I don’t want to hear myself saying the thing.  Mostly because to give voice to it would cause masks to drop, walls to crumble, certainties to tremble, and worlds to change.

The last thing is certainly true.  But discovering that truth was one of the great liberations of that time.

Then, of course, there is the next layer down.  And the layer after that.  As John Donne puts it in puns on his name in one of my favorite of his poems, “A Hymn to God the Father”:

“Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun

         A year or two, but wallow’d in, a score?

                When thou hast done, thou hast not done,

                        For I have more.”

Eventually you know that no matter how deep the confession goes and how many “unforgivable” things you throw out to God/your therapist you will always have more.  It gradually becomes clear that there is no ridding yourself of the defects you imagine or cleansing yourself of mistakes.  The ones you bring to speech are blessedly defanged but, oh, there is always something else.  I have more.

So you come to understand that there is something more essential at stake here.  Wherever you go, there you are.  You, with your darkness and your pain.  You, with your perverse tendencies to seek affirmation in a funhouse mirror of your desire.  You, with your suspicions and your fears.  You, with your doubts that you could ever make yourself acceptable or be made acceptable.  Shame.  It’s a howlin’ shame.

The therapist, or pastor, or trusted confessor provides some relief.  He or she, by not turning in disgust for the door at your tentative honesty, can give you the gift of being seen.  Or as Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground put it in “I’ll Be Your Mirror”:

“When you think the night has seen your mind

That inside you’re twisted and unkind

Let me stand to show that you are blind

Please put down your hands

‘Cause I see you

I’ll be your mirror”

Except that inside we are twisted and unkind and we need to see that, too.  A good confessor won’t tell us we’re OK.  But she will clear the space for us to stand in dignity anyway and point out all the ways we are working, below the surface, against our interest, to erase that space.

51K+KMGhnwL._SX314_BO1,204,203,200_Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his Ethics, saw shame as elemental and relational.  It is the “ineffable recollection of [a person’s] estrangement from the origin; it is grief for this estrangement, and the powerless longing to return to unity with the origin.”  Like the nakedness of Adam and Eve in the garden, we are exposed as disunited, lacking something essential.

Bonhoeffer felt that shame had a role to play in the journey to God.  Though it leads us to put on masks, “beneath the mask there is the longing for the restoration of the lost unity.”  In human relationships, particularly our most intimate ones, we pull down those masks for another and risk being wounded.  In the spiritual realm, shame is the sign of a yearning for union with God.  “As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you” to quote Psalm 42:1.

It is unseemly to talk of such longing in our disenchanted world.  To speak, without irony, of dreams and hopes, desires and loves is to invite debunking, ridicule, and scorn—shaming, to be blunt.  And then it will not just be your words or your beliefs or your political views that will be held up to the klieg lights for interrogation, but your very self.  It is who you are that’s problematic.

We need to talk about Addie Mae.  She’s the victim of the distorted lens of the world that allows no place in the flesh for redemption and reunion.  And her howling is the deep cry of shame seeking some recognition and release.

Serving Time in Alabama: A Review of Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves

IMG_3258Breathe in rural Alabama circa 1925.  Take deep breaths, “great lungfuls of the scent-tinged air—grass and cornstalks and peanut plants, mulch and dung and mule hide” (159).  Feel the heat of July.  “This low sun turns every lick of water to steam, even the fresh-pumped drinks in our mess-issued bottles.  The sun bakes those metal canteens, boiling the liquid inside, and we chase our thirst with water so hot it burns our tongues” (167).

Are you here yet?  Good.  Settle in.  There’s a long prison sentence to serve.  Regrets aplenty to mull over.  Deaths to mourn: for an electrocuted man, for future children unborn.  Righteous indignation over injustices on simmer: for black men leased out by the state to work in deadly coal mines, for prisoners maimed and abused.

But even in the swelter there are graces aplenty.  A wrench of warblers will chirp outside the window.  A hound named Maggie will curl against your legs in the night when you are reduced to sleeping on the floor of an abandoned cottage.  Canned peaches spiced with clove and cinnamon will appear on your table.  There is beauty here and, beyond any expectation, a resilient capacity for tenderness.

511yqZyPs6L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_In Work Like Any Other, Virginia Reeves has written a gentle debut novel about difficult things.  It is a small novel in that it brings us into close proximity with one man, Roscoe T. Martin, and the incident that leads to his long incarceration at Kilby Prison.  A man fascinated with the newfound power of electrification, Martin tries to wire his way out of the dark cloud that is engulfing his marriage and the farm that he has been given by his father-in-law.

With the help of Wilson, an African-American man who has been faithfully working the property for years, Martin taps into the new Alabama Power lines crossing the property, an act, that despite its illegality, brings light to the house, productivity to the thresher, and new life to his previously distant wife, Marie, and their young son, Gerald.  When a power company worker stumbles upon the tap line and is electrocuted, Martin and Wilson are sent away.  Martin to Kilby and Wilson to the coal mines as a leased-out prisoner.

Roscoe’s perspective dominates the central part of the book as he deals with the indignities of prison life and the isolation from his wife and son.  Marie doesn’t respond to his letters or visit him, and we, along with Roscoe, aren’t sure why, until her voice finally appears some chapters into his prison term.

Time shifts as Reeves remembers how their relationship began.  Then, as his physical condition deteriorates, a young version of Marie begins to appear as an apparition that offers him unreliable counsel.  He worries as well about Wilson’s fate.  When he is finally released he is a broken man, sent home to try and uncover a future.

Marie’s sense of moral outrage at Roscoe’s act seems a bit overblown and her late 20th century sensibilities about race relations seem a little anachronistic.  She is not as fully-drawn as Roscoe, but the sections where we do get a chance to glimpse her inner life are among the best-written parts of this book.  To wit, this passage which captures the conflict she is feeling:

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Virginia Reeves, photo by Suzanne Koett

Marie missed her father.  She missed Roscoe, too, but only in isolated scenes—there along the Coosa River where they would walk, an afternoon here in the farmhouse in their shared bed, the kitchen of their village house, infant Gerald in his arms.  When she thought of him whole, though, she cringed.  As a whole man—full up of his past and his choices and his actions—she wanted nothing to do with him.  (85)

What is this book about?  The possibility and miracle of love.  The seduction and wonder of technology.  The history of Alabama prisons.  The social divisions and structures that infest our closest relationships.  The things that break us down and the hope that binds us together.  The deep longings that assure our endurance.  The mad ways marriage partners wound one another and the way reconciliation works and doesn’t between them.

Yes, all that.  But it is as much about the earthy fragrance and ambient noises of Alabama.  That which transcends is as particular and miraculous as a breath of mulch and dung and mule hide.  Reeves takes us there.

(And shout out to Deborah Lewis for sending me here, to this book.)

Work Like Any Other: A Novel

by Virginia Reeves

Scribner, 2016

262 pages

In Which I High-Five a Bishop

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Bishop Sharma Lewis, photo by Virginia UM Communications

If you had told me last week that I would get to high-five a bishop in the middle of his sermon at Annual Conference, I would have told you that you were dreaming.  Bishops don’t do that.  But bishops do do that and there I was last Saturday as the visiting bishop from Mississippi, James Swanson, wandered the floor of the Hampton Roads Convention Center preaching about the good news at the end of the book (the Bible) and telling us, “We win!”  When he looks you in the eye and says that, what else can you do but go up top?

Swanson preached twice, each time confounding the sign language interpreters who gamely tried to keep pace as he went gleefully off-script.  He spun in a circle to emphasize a point.  He thundered.  He engineered an impromptu altar call that brought hundreds to the front.

[Bishop Swanson] wandered the floor…telling us, “We win!”  When he looks you in the eye and says that, what else can you do but go up top?

Not that it was all about the theatrics.  Or even about Swanson.  Our own bishop, Sharma D. Lewis can unsettle your expectations about preaching, too.  (And she admits that she has learned a thing of two from her mentor, Bishop Swanson.)  She ended the conference by standing on a chair in the middle of the crowd calling out young people and old people and all people to join her in a mission.

No, the thing that was most impressive about this super-charged 235th session of the Virginia Annual Conference of United Methodists, was the way it embodied the hope of a new day with a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  We didn’t just hear about the Spirit’s work; we were invited into it body and soul.

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Bishop Lewis with her family

Bishop Lewis, presiding for the first time in her new role as Virginia’s episcopal leader, began the Conference by sharing that she has the gift of faith.  This sounds a little unusual.  After all, isn’t faith what we all should have?  Well, yes, in that faith is what restores our relationship with the One who made us.  But that faith comes as a gift.  If faith is just an exercise of the will it places too much confidence in our own ability to enact it.  It is a gift to trust that God has done and will do everything necessary in Jesus Christ to bring about God’s purposes. Bishop Lewis has that gift in abundance.

In her closing sermon, she cast a vision, which is “to be disciples of Jesus Christ who are life-long learners, who influence others to serve.”  We’ll be unpacking it for awhile.  It’s a deceptively simple sentence born of her many hours in Chat and Chew sessions across Virginia.  But in the context of what we saw in Hampton, it is clear that the vision is not just words – it’s a total immersion in the work of God in the world.

In the music, in the people she brought to participate in this conference, and most especially in herself, Bishop Lewis gave us the best of where she has come from.  What we saw is firmly rooted in the African-American tradition where she has been nurtured, but basic and universal enough to speak far beyond that context.

I have seen this dynamic in my bishop before.  She is always ‘on’ but when she is preparing for a big moment, there is a new gear.  It’s as if she is saying, “I know you’ve got doubts.  I know there are trials.  But I know Jesus.  So follow me.  Hop on my back if you need to.  We’re going with him.”  The Rev. Morgan Guyton noted this gear in a very insightful and personal reflection on the Conference: “All I could see was that she was all in.”*

She is.  We are.  So we go.  And I’ll high-five anybody who wants to go with me.

Talking to Anarchists – An interview with Arlie Russell Hochschild – part 3 of 3

By now you know the story, if you’ve been following since Part 1: Blue state sociologist goes to oil patch Louisiana to try and understand the environment and the people of this Red state.  Writes Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.  Talks with an Eastern Shore preacher about what she learned.  In Part 3 of this interview with Arlie Russell Hochschild we explore the possibilities of bridging the Great Divide.

hochschild_arlie_russell_paige_parsonsYou say liberals have their own deep story, just like the folks that you were talking to there.  And one of the things that I think about in terms of the Church is how–especially in the ’80s when the evangelical Christian movement became a real political movement–how our ‘deep story’ and the Christian faith felt hijacked to me.  I’m sure the folks in the evangelical wing felt the same about some of the liberal Christianity that came before and has been around since, too.  So, is there potential for stories to link up?  I don’t hope for a common narrative out of this, but I just wonder if there’s a way.  I mean, the fishing trip [discussed in part 2] sounds like a great way to do that.  You start building new narratives just by being in each other’s presence.

Yeah, and to see a search for common ground.  Check out the Bridge Alliance.  It is an umbrella group of some 70 or 80 different organizations that has just popped up.  This is just people-to-people kind of groups with names like Hi from the Other Side, or Living Room Conversations, or Read Across the Aisle.  These are all groups that are trying to get Left and Right together to see if they can find common ground in respectful ways.  I think we can do it.   It’s also something I’d like to see grow through the schools, through churches, unions (in the places where we still have them), to counter the divisive forces which are growing in this culture.

I had somebody from Lake Charles who was in the book.  She was a single mom with her two kids.  They were guests here in Berkeley, and we had a living room conversation here.  The last night, she said, “You know, I’m going to start a living room conversation back in Lake Charles.”  So it can be done.

So, what’s your next project?  What’re you working on now?

Well, I’m still dealing with the consequences, the aftermath of this book.  I’m still giving a lot of talks.

51b54MMSZnL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_I bet you got a lot of phone calls on November 9th, didn’t you?

Yes, exactly.  I did, and I’m still getting them, and actually talking to a number of church groups.  And people will say, “What do we do?”  So, I have some answers for that and some suggestions.  One of them is see if we can re-establish channels across these divides, because we’re living in a different economic geography these days.

The have and have-nots of globalization.  I think that underlies some of this Blue/Red divide, so that you have people in the South, people on the coasts, and each facing different economic fates.  I’m living in the San Francisco Bay area.  It’s a boom town.  It’s like a gold rush, and they can’t see problems, don’t feel a sense of decline, don’t fear for their fate.  They have problems, but it’s not systemic or global from their vantage point.  But in the rural hinterland, it feels very different.

Yeah, the West Coast and the Northeast Corridor seem farther and farther away from here [Virginia’s Eastern Shore].  The realities are so different.  That whole thing that you point out in the book of people looking at the success of economically successful areas, and feeling like that’s not a narrative for them anymore, is certainly true.

Right.  Right.

Do you see yourself as an advocate for the bridge, or do you see yourself as the self-described liberal that you are—a disciple for that cause?  Or both?

I’m focusing on bridging, very definitely.  I see three pillars of activism that I’d like to see engaged.  One is the defense of democracy and the very principle of checks and balances, an independent judiciary and press.  I think that’s pillar one, and we ought to do everything we can to defend those.  I do feel they’re being challenged now.  I do think that’s the first order of business.

The second pillar would be to totally renovate the platform of the Democratic party, which I think does not really acknowledge or address the anxieties of the people up to now.  I’m very critical of Democratic party.  That’s the second thing we need to do.

The third is to reach across the aisle.  We’ve got friends on the other side and out there, many values we share in common, and issues that we can find common ground on.  I think it’s important to search them out.  So, I’m really focussed on that third pillar, but I see it all as part of what we need as a coordinated effort.

I have been talking to some people that are anarchists here.  They’re violent and they’re terrible.  They’re giving us a huge black eye here in Berkeley.  I don’t know why they’re doing this, setting fires and stuff.  I’m appalled by it.  But there’s a woman who came up to me after I denounced violence at one talk, which I do routinely around here.  She said, “Oh, I have some friends through Facebook.  Would you like to meet them?”  The Black Bloc, they’re called.

I took a moment, thinking, “These are the last people I want to meet.”  And then thought, “No, they’re the first people.”  Yes, I would like to get to know them.  So, that’s another thing that I’m doing.  I’m trying to get them to not be violent.

Well, you’re a brave adventurer.  I’m really grateful for your willingness to bring us along with you in your writing.  So, thanks for the time.

Churches & Dysfunctional Government – An Interview with Arlie Russell Hochschild – Part 2 of 3

IMG_5610We are repenting from our assumption that government can be an adequate expression of our faith.  That’s one of the marks of these times for Christians on both sides of the Great Divide.  

When Arlie Russell Hochschild, the Berkley sociologist, went to Louisiana to try to understand the deep story of people on the American Right, she found that churches were a significant part of the story.  In the last part of my interview with Hochschild, we talked about her project which led to her book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.  Today we talk churches, dysfunctional government, and, O yes, a fishing trip across the Great Divide:

 

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Arlie Russell Hochschild

You evidently spent some time in a lot of churches down in Louisiana while you were there.  What was your impression of the role religion plays in this whole narrative?

Oh, it’s enormous.  I think this may be one source of the partition, between red and blue, but certainly not entirely.  The churches were hugely important as a source of community, and solace, and practical help for particular problems.  We were at a Baptist church, a Pentecostal church.  I didn’t make it to the Methodist church.  They’re known to be more progressive.  And the Catholic church less so.  But these large churches—I came to understand why they feel important.  People tithe to them very willingly and happily, so taxes to the government–which help the line-cutters and not them–are more resented, because they feel they’re already being taxed in a way, but for something they believe in.

A lot of social services are associated with these churches.  They’re filling in where the government is lifting out in a way.  So, there’d be a gym.  “Oh, my mother-in-law lost 50 pounds at the Baptist gym.”  Or, “Oh, when our marriage was in trouble, we went to the counselors at the church.”  Or, “There’s a teen area.  My 12-year-old likes to go with her friends there and to summer camp.”  It really had a surround sound kind of feel to it, like you weren’t just there an hour and a half on Sunday.  It was more a way of life.  There were several services during the day.  I kind of felt that it had absorbed the space that a dysfunctional government had left.

Yeah.  When you say ‘dysfunctional government’, which of the levels of government did you feel was the most dysfunctional, or impacted the people the most? 

The state.  There was big petrochemical development, and they proudly called themselves the buckle in America’s energy belt.  But oil was the dominant economic force.  The oil companies had really–I came to conclude–bought the state of Louisiana.  The environmental agencies that were designated the job of protecting people from pollution weren’t doing that.

51b54MMSZnL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_There was the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.  It didn’t even have the name ‘protection’ in it.  There were permit hearings [to determine] ‘Could Sasol lift out so many metric tons of water from Lake Charles, and disperse–they call it ‘produced water,’ well, it’s got toxic chemicals in it–back in.  Well, yes, the permit would go right through.  People would object, but it went through anyway.  That was the state department of environmental quality that was doing this.

So, people came to think, “Oh, goodness.  I’m paying taxes for the nice house for this officer for Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, and he’s not protecting me.”

If you step back three steps, you could say that the state was doing the moral dirty work of the oil company.  It works like this: Oil companies were given, by Governor Bobby Jindal and the state government, $1.6 billion in incentives money to lure them to Louisiana, (as if they would go somewhere else).  With that money, they had a lot of money to give out, which they did in donations to the Audubon Society and so on.

Meanwhile, the state government also made sure that its office of environmental protection, on the one hand, promised to protect people from pollution, and didn’t, so that the Louisiana Industrial Alliance could proudly boast that regulations were as swift and easily guided–easily bypassed, in essence–more so than in any other state.  I put it differently in the book, but that’s what it amounted to.

So, people felt the state isn’t doing its job, and that a federal government is just a bigger, badder version than this captured Louisiana state government.  That suggests that we really ought to find out: Are these Red states actually more corrupt, more bought by industry, than Blue states?  Are people actually responding very reasonably to the disappointments of living with a captured state?

Does that mean that they’re also being redirected—turning that anger towards the federal government and letting the state get off free?

Yes, right.  When I say ‘captured’, I mean captured by industry.  The state becomes captured by the industries that settle in it.  That’s because they actually pay the election fee; they pay candidates political donations.  They are a source of revenue for the mass media, so that radio bites its tongue on reporting on environmental disasters.  You just don’t hear about them.  Or ads to newspapers.  The American Press in Lake Charles never mentioned problems with the environment.

So, various branches of civic society have been bought, in fact.  I think that is a realistic worry.  I didn’t go in knowing that, but I came out thinking, “Well, I get it, why they’re so cynical about government.”  If they think all government works like this government, wow.  I’d think the same thing.

IMG_3306This Mike Schaff that you uncovered was a really interesting character.  He seems like a really rare flower, combining being an environmental activist and a Tea Party member.  Are there more like him out there? 

You know, there are more like him out there.  Right where he is, no, he remains a rare flower.  But in northern Louisiana, since the book came out, there’s a group of Tea Party people that say, “No.  Our water…the salt content is going up, because of…I think, fracking.”  And they want to stop that.  So, yes.

Actually, Yale University has an environmental polling data source.  There’s a center for research on attitudes towards the environment that has the latest and best data on that.  Renewable energy is a crossover issue.  The Right believes in it not quite as much as the Left, but it’s crossover, and we could really agree on that.  Donald Trump isn’t playing to that, but if you look at how right-wingers really feel, they’re very interested in it.

In fact, I took my son, who is a big environmentalist.  He’s a member of the energy commission here in the state of California—a big environmentalist and very interested in solar energy.  I took him down with me last time, after the book was published, to spend a few days with Mike Schaff.  I said, “Let’s just go out fishing.  I want you guys to see if you can come to some common ground on renewable energy.  I’m just going to hold the tape recorder.”  And they did.

In the end, Mike Schaff said, “Oil’s end is coming–we’re running out of it anyway.  I think solar energy–I’d love to have it on my roof, on my boat, everywhere.”  David, my son, pops up, “Well, and it would also mitigate the effects of global warming.”  Mike said, “No, no, no.  I don’t believe in global warming.  People around here don’t, but if you want to sell solar energy here in our oil country for right-wingers like myself, what you should say is that when you have a solar panel, you’re an independent producer and you are feeding clean energy into the grid and getting paid for it.  You’re independent.”  So, Mike Shaff was telling my son what to say to sell this idea to people like himself.

Part 3 – Talking with Anarchists.

The Empty Bench at The Book Bin – Remembering Kirk Mariner

3d11324a8832ade1a45c28b039485cf2The sofa bench in the back of The Book Bin was empty the other day.  The regulars by the coffee window are hesitant to sit there.  A sign on the door indicates that the staff knows that our local independent book store will be a place of mourning and memory for awhile.  The bench was Kirk Mariner’s, a place for reading the paper and sharing in the community that he was so much a part of and that he helped to build.  As the sign says, he was “a true cornerstone of the Shore.”

IMG_6376When the Rev. Dr. Kirk Mariner died, suddenly in the end, it caught us all up short.  The author, historian, preacher, and musician was woven firmly into the texture of this place.  Wines are supposed to reflect the terroir, the environment in which they are produced, and Kirk’s terroir was unmistakably Eastern Shore.  It is there in books that were so particular that they became universal.  If he had not been so identified as a local historian, a book like Slave and Free on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, would be justly recognized as one of the great studies of race and class in pre-Civil War America.

So what’s the best tribute to the man?  A well-done worship such as he fussed over.  An historical record that doesn’t overstate the case but is sure to include some telling anecdote and smiles.  A measured skepticism of schemes.  A lament over communities lost—ecclesial and geographical.  A glimmering-eyed ballad tweaking too-dearly-held nostalgias.  A warm love of the nurturing matrix of congregational song and the long line of Methodists who sang them before.

IMG_6377What will I remember?  The eye and ear for beauty.  The wind blowing through his impressive hair as he headed out to Tangier on the Joyce Marie II ferry.  The insatiable curiosity.  The generous spirit that wanted to see a young preacher do well.  The judicious ‘no’ to push said preacher on to initiative.  The contrarian’s slightly-jaundiced eye.  The off-hand remark that only later lands as the compliment it was.

The fullness of place embodied in a soul.  The trust in a story that began before he arrived and which claimed him as he told and retold it.  A lover in the arms of his Beloved, sung homeward by the Church he needled and cherished.  A sheep of God’s own fold.  A lamb of God’s own flock.  A sinner of God’s own redeeming.  A Methodist.

I give thanks to God for that wonder that is Kirk Mariner.

Obituary from Williams Funeral Homes.

Crossing the Great Divide: An Interview with Arlie Russell Hochschild – part 1 of 3

hochschild_arlie_russell_paige_parsonsCan a Berkley sociologist and a Louisiana oil patch Tea Party member find common ground?  That was the experiment Arlie Russell Hochschild (the sociologist) undertook when she found she was having a hard time understanding the forces that were shaping Red States.  

When I wrote a review of her book about the project, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, I was intrigued by the “deep story” she narrated, which she proposed as a way of illuminating the worldview of many rural white Americans.  It rang true to me in a way that feels more universal than the insights in that other popular book trying to explain the 2016 election, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.

The deep story Hochschild puts together is marked by a sense that, for the people she talked to, the American Dream of a materially better life is not working for them anymore and that they feel it is being impacted by a government that puts other people (immigrants, Syrian refugees, minorities) unfairly ahead of them.  The deep story also uncovers a resentment at being told how to feel by people “at the front of the line” who seem to have made it.

In this three-part interview, I talk with Arlie, (can I call you Arlie? – she’s very personable), about her journey, her interests, the church, and, because I just can’t help myself, Flannery O’Connor.

What made you undertake this experiment?

I was sitting in my office in the sociology department, U.C. Berkeley, six years ago, and it just came to me that many of the things that I’ve long been committed to and hoped would make a better world—especially for working families that aren’t getting time at home—none of this is going to come to pass in my lifetime unless we really look at a growing movement that feels threatened by the government itself, that isn’t thinking of good government [but instead] is thinking of evil, abusive government.  That’s the right wing, and I don’t understand it.

I decided, “I’m in a bubble.”  In a geographic bubble, in a media bubble—I read The New York Times, The Washington Post—and an electronic bubble.  If you look at the screen of your computer, it gives you yourself back in certain things that are advertised, blogs you read.

So, I thought, “I’m going to get out of here, and try and take my moral and political alarm system off and really permit myself a great deal of curiosity and interest in people that I know I will find deep differences with.  I’ll find an enclave that’s as far right as Berkeley, California is left, and go there and get to know people, and climb an empathy wall.”  It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.

Really?  How so?

I’ve been a sociologist a long time, but this really taught me a lot.

51b54MMSZnL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_You obviously met some interesting characters in the course of your study there.  How did you take those individual stories and work towards that deep story? 

I got to know people and they were very generous-hearted.  [They thought], “Here’s this lady from the coast and she’s in enclaves, and she’s writing a book, and she’s a retired teacher, and she’s worried about the divide.  Well, we’re worried about the divide, too.  So, come on, and I’ll take you to where I was born, take you to the school I went to, show you around town, introduce you to my relatives.”  That happened to me a great number of times.  It was absolutely fabulous getting to know people.

I was just listening all the time, and then putting together all that I was hearing.  I would hear it, I would get on a plane, I would come back here and sit in my study and try to think of how all those beliefs drew on what images.  How is it that we come to feel the way we do about a situation?  That’s how the deep story was born.  It’s basically translating all these different opinions and feelings that I was learning that people had, and translating them into an allegory, a story.

That was an act of my mental process.  Then, I went back and said, “Does this feel real?  Let me try this out on you.  Does this work?  Or does it not really capture what you’re feeling?”  Some people [agreed], just as is.  “Oh, you read my mind,” says Lee Sherman.  Or “I live your allegory,” emails Mike Schaff.  Others would say, “Well, wait a minute.  You don’t have that we’re paying taxes for the people that are cutting ahead.”

So, they would change it.  Madonna Matthews said, “Well, wait a minute.  We got a line.  We move to a different line.”  They would modify the ending, the middle.  So, I put that in, too.  Then, I began to think past the book, “Well, I wonder if other right-wing movements in Europe and elsewhere around the world have versions of this.  Is displacement, the fear of that, dread of that, a main motivation?”  Or does this same story have a different endings?

That’s where my mind is now.  I’m really interested in out-groups and in-groups, and how we develop them.  Then, of course, how do we undo them?

I’ll be really interested to see what you find out from that sort of research, because it does seem like the deep story you uncovered has a real American feel to it with the whole belief of “you work hard, you get ahead.” Some might think, “What’s interrupting that story for me as a traditionally powerful person within the South are these people cutting in line in front of me.”

Right.  I think in Europe, though, it’s not falsely entitled insiders that are cutting ahead [in the deep story], but aliens from the outside—Muslims, refugees.  It’s not an insider–it’s an outsider.  I think what’s feared in the South’s deep story are kind of upstart insiders.  So, the nature of the line-cutters can vary across national lines.

I was amazed, reading the book this Spring after the election, how you had the Syrian refugee in there as a character who’s one of the folks that’s a source of fear in the narrative.  That really feels recent.

And Muslims.  There are almost no Muslims in Louisiana.  There’s a tremendous fear of them, too.

Right.  You mentioned an allegory.  Have you ever read Flannery O’Connor’s short story, ‘Revelation’?

No.

It put that whole story in a new light for me, because–and she was writing in the 1950’s–it’s about a white woman who is coming to terms with the new status of her black neighbors, and feeling like she has been unfairly maligned and shamed in the midst of her story.  But she has this image at the very end where she sees this vision of a swinging bridge reaching up to heaven, and there are all of these folks that she would’ve considered unworthy climbing up ahead of her.

Her final way of dealing with that image and how disturbing it was for her is to say, “Put that bottom rail on top.  There’ll still be a top and bottom.”  And it just struck me that this is a very old narrative that you’ve uncovered.

Yes.  Thank you for flagging that for me.  I’m going to read that.

Part 2–Churches & Dysfunctional Government.

Newspapers, Food, & Churches: An interview with Ted Shockley, part 2 of 2

Version 3In the previous segment of this interview, I talked with Ted Shockley, publisher of Eastern Shore First, our new local paper, about his approach to his work and the way that the community is changing.  Ted has a preference for print (as opposed to online news) and I was particularly impressed with the way he sees a page layout as a visual representation of the community, with businesses existing side by side as they do in real life.  He’s also got an eye for the humanity of the people he covers in those businesses.

In this segment we talked about newspapers, food, and churches.  You know—-the essentials.

So, how has it been?  Working on your own, is that a good thing?

It’s exhilarating. It’s hard to describe, because I’ve always felt like when I worked for any publication, I worked for them like I owned it.  I always wanted to go home and say I put more into it than I got out of it.  I always felt that way until it was my publication.  I like it when it’s up to me to pass or fail.  I like that challenge.

I don’t want to be challenged in anything else.  I was never a great student, and I don’t want to do any chemistry, and I don’t wanna be challenged in any other area.  But I enjoy writing and communicating to a community. That’s been a fun challenge for me.  I like it coming down on my shoulders.

Fortunately, the reading public has responded very well.  It’s been very humbling that people responded the way they have.

Well, I think it was something we needed, right?  

Thank you for saying that.  It’s probably a bad analogy, but I think of this as food.  This is locally grown, organic, farm-to-table journalism.  There are not huge corporations.  There are no investors.

No antibiotics.

No antibiotics.  This is organic.  People want that in a dining experience, and I hope they also want it in a reading experience.  I think of it like delivering a food.

You do the photos?

I do the photos.  I’ve worked with people who are fantastic photographers.  I’m an adequate photographer,  just trying to catch moments.  When I go to an event, I really want to take pictures of the people there.  I might go and cover a concert, and never take a picture of the singer.  I might take a picture of everybody in the audience, because I really want smiling faces.

Yeah.  

FullSizeRender 2When I was a kid and worked at the Eastern Shore News, I would go to Assateague in the summertime.  I had a summer job there for three years, and they let me write summer stuff.  I would go to Assateague, and I’d take pictures of people, and I’d never get their names.  That’s like taking half a picture.   If you don’t get their names, you really don’t have much.

That’s really good.

I also want, whenever possible, when I write about somebody, I want to know who their parents are.

That’s an Eastern Shore thing.

I want to put them in the paper.  If you’re in the ESO ballet, and you’re one of the stars, I want to say you’re the son or the daughter of so-and-so, because nobody does that.

I am doing a story in next month’s issue on the Eastern Shore bakeries.  We have these wonderful bakeries.  I’m talking about an authentic bakery experience where you walk in and the smell.

All of them agreed to do it.  So, I walk in and I’m talking to Shirleen [at the Anointed Hands Bakery].  She looks at me and she says, “You don’t have on your green shoes.”  I said, “How did you know that I wore green shoes?”

She said, “You don’t remember writing about me?”  I said, “Well, I remember the green shoes.  I remember the year.  It must’ve been 2012.”  She said, “You wrote several stories when my son was burned to death.”  I said, “Well, I remember exactly talking to you.  I remember all of those stories.”

It’s good to talk to people three years later, four years later.  These people who you had covered during their worst moments of their life.  And now, they’re successful and happy, have found this great calling, and created this great business.  That was humbling to go talk to somebody who…you were there for their worst moment.  Now, you’re going to write about them in their best.  She’s a great person.

Those are neat stories.  I know that the mainstream news is important, and we need people to cover when things catch on fire, people die on the roads, and when there’s a shooting.  But I want to write about the new bakeries.

That was humbling to go talk to somebody who…you were there for their worst moment.  Now, you’re going to write about them in their best.

Okay.  

I’m glad to see that there are places [like the Crossroads Coffee Shop where we are meeting right now].  I mean, you can have a McDonald’s experience at any town in America, but we have places that can only be experienced here on the Eastern Shore.

My analogy for newspapers, in addition to restaurants, is that they were like churches.  You have these traditional, faithful readers and they are getting older.  What does this church do, what do newspapers do to bring in younger readers?  I don’t know the answer.

I started from scratch.  It’s a lot easier to start a newspaper from scratch or start a church from scratch than it is to change this 150-year-old tradition.  How do you change that without making everybody mad?  Because you’ll alienate the people who are your bedrock supporters.  And I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I see them playing out everywhere.

One of the movements within churches is to try to get outside the building; moving into places like this which are third spaces, they call them, which is not a private space.  It’s not a church space, but it’s a third kind of space where community can happen and where connections can happen.  

So, we’ve been encouraging people to take their Bible studies into restaurants and coffee houses, and make connections with people who you just meet incidentally.  Even  meetings.  I do a lot of meetings out now.  It’s a whole lot less of a barrier for somebody to walk into a place like this than to walk into a church if they haven’t been there before.

Right.  I’m always looking for these parallel roads.  That’s a good way to think about something like this.  It’s almost like a third space where, as you said, community happens.  Community is a hard thing to make happen.

And when you try to make it happen, it’s forced and artificial.

It’s not very organic.

IMG_6297

Ted’s Truck

When it rises up from relationships, that’s different.   Because we talk so much about needing to get younger and needing to reach people of different generations, sometimes older people hear that as an indictment against what they’ve done and who they are.

It’s all about finding the right words to make everybody part of it.  About finding the commonalities. It’s just fascinating, because it’s so easy to find the words that exclude and really hard to find the words that include, in my opinion.  What are the words to make people want to be a part of something?

It’s so easy to find the words that exclude and really hard to find the words that include…What are the words to make people want to be a part of something?

I hope it’s not sacrilegious to align my newspaper analogies with church, but if people leave and say that they’ve been bored, your church doesn’t survive, and your newspaper doesn’t either.

Back to the Cross: The Inclusive Vision of Fleming Rutledge

 

yY623rKO_400x400If the theology podcast Crackers & Grape Juice has any redeeming value*, (and Lord knows they have interviewed some questionable characters in their brief existence—primary evidence: their January interview with me!), it is the recurring “Fridays with Fleming” segments that have introduced the Episcopal priest and theologian, Fleming Rutledge, to a wider audience.  With her Tidewater Virginia roots resonating in her every word, Rutledge makes an enthralling and poetic conversationalist, touching as easily on literature and the arts as on theology.

Beneath the gentility and on the page, however, Rutledge is a lucid and systematic thinker who has a preacher’s knack for communicating difficult theological concepts.  That’s nowhere more present than in her 2015 book The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.  It is a massive tome filled with footnotes, but every page and every note is worth it for the comprehensive journey the reader takes with a gifted and entertaining author.

51EUda6wF3L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Rutledge’s primary conviction is that the cross of Jesus Christ stands at the center of the Christian story.  Her primary worry is that, in our efforts to divert our attention from the cross—its violence, the way that it has been captured by a narrow, individualized, evangelical message—we have lost the richness and fullness of biblical motifs that would help us understand why it is so central.  “No one image can do justice to the whole; all are part of the great drama of salvation,” she says.  “We need to make room for all the biblical images.” (7)  And so she does.

You will find here sacrifice and substitution, the themes that make many mainline theologians nervous, but you will also find a thorough-going apocalyptic vision that reclaims Christus Victor language, not as an exclusive lens for seeing the crucifixion, but as a dominant one.  Rutledge finds her way to this by reviewing Paul’s neglected language of the Powers and by taking seriously the cosmic conflict of God and the Devil.  “Most biblical interpretation in the modern age has been done as though there were only two dramas personae,” Rutledge says, “God and humanity—thereby demystifying the New Testament, which presents three.” (377)  Rutledge wants to have us be witnesses to the invasion that is taking place in the Incarnation as God confronts the powers of Sin and Death.

Rutledge has heavy-hitting theological partners on her side – Karl Barth and David Bentley Hart, but she has Flannery O’Connor and Ralph Ellison as well.  Her argument is for inclusion of voices and against the flattening tendencies of so much post-Enlightenment discourse.  “Much of today’s literal-mindedness is doubtless owing to the fact that fewer and fewer people read novels and poetry,” she says. (211)

So the authors and theologians mingle with the preachers in these pages, all seeking something more than a pristine plan.  There are no innocents in human history, Rutledge emphasizes frequently.  “An eight-year-old can see more clearly than some of the rest of us that well-meaning programs for improving the human species are not going to accomplish much besides making the designers of the program feel good about themselves.  We don’t need a program; we need deliverance from this whole cycle of violence and vengefulness.  Humankind needs to be saved from itself.” (308)

It is for this reason that Rutledge comes to an appreciative evaluation of the theme (biblical!) of substitution.  Surprisingly, she quotes a passage in Barth that brings home the implications of the motif with psychological insight:

“It is a constraint always to have to be convincing ourselves that we are innocent, we are in the right [and] others are in one way or another in the wrong…We are all in the process of dying from this office of Judge which we have arrogated to ourselves.  It is therefore a liberation that…[in Christ] we are deposed and dismissed from this office because he has come to exercise it in our place.” (519)

In a land and a time in which the greatest victory any one side of the Great Divide can claim is the marginal satisfaction of knowing how wrong the other side is, such an insight as this feels like a deep inhalation of the Spirit.  Freed from being innocent, we are capable of participating in a story that is ultimately not about us, or perhaps more accurately, far more than only about us.  It’s about a God who goes the distance, to Death itself, and thereby raises the dead.

In a land and a time in which the greatest victory any one side of the Great Divide can claim is the marginal satisfaction of knowing how wrong the other side is, such an insight as this feels like a deep inhalation of the Spirit.

There’s far more here.  Evil, hell, the wrath of God—she tackles them all.  But there is poetry and light and fodder for a hundred sermons and more.  This is equally important and lovely.  It makes this book great.

*There is actually much to recommend Crackers & Grape Juice and its 4-person hosting crew of United Methodist pastors – Jason Micheli, Taylor Mertins, Morgan Guyton & Teer Hardy.