The UMC & The Which Way Tree

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photo by Victor Zambrano via Unsplash

Preacher Dob, the Mexican horse thief, and two young teens were at a standstill.  They had lost the trail of the panther they were hunting, the one who had killed the girl’s mother and on whom she had sworn vengeance.  Zechariah, their panther dog, had gotten the worse of an encounter with a skunk, and was unlikely to pick up the scent again, smelling like he did.  Preacher Dob and the boy were ready to head back.  Mr. Pacheco, a good man despite the horse incident, and the girl wanted to push on down the canyon.

“We are at cross purposes here,” the preacher said.  “We have consulted the wishes of all, and fallen to disagreement, and found ourselves at an impasse.  There is but one amongst us who has not yet been called on nor heard from, and that is the Lord.  We would do well to call upon him.” (180)

I’ve got a full review of Elizabeth Crook’s great new novel of 1860s Texas, The Which Way Tree, coming soon, but this passage in particular struck me as a United Methodist who often feels that our denomination is stuck in a blind canyon at an impasse uncertain about what to do next.  As we hear about competing plans for unity and corresponding plans for exit, the elusive way forward on questions of human sexuality is contested and unclear.  We, too, have stopped to pray, including a new Phase III of the Praying Our Way Forward beginning June 3 in which the bishops have asked United Methodists to do a Wesley fast from Thursday night to Friday afternoon each week.

umc_prays_logo_final-690x380In his prayer, Preacher Dob, sets the question before the Lord completely, acknowledging the reasons each party believes as they do.  He also expresses his anxieties and fears and his ultimate trust in God.  In effect, it’s the method of our Commission on a Way Forward, which has done enduring work in helping us hear one another completely.  It’s a fine prayer, but Sam, the determined girl, thinks he says too much.  “You did not say it fair,” she says.  “Fair is to say Lord, let us know if we is to go on, or turn back.  Amen.” (181)

Sam, like many of us, just wants to know the bottom line.  So Preacher Dob amends his prayer.  “Lord, do show us the way,” he says.

Something happens in the night.  The lingering prayer, the campfire burning down to embers, the cold wind blowing through—they all have their effect.  Benjamin, Sam’s half-brother, thinks about going back home to a house where he and his sister have been trying to make it without parents:

“I felt the presence of winter coming, and possibly rain on the way, and a certain dread in my bones with the thought of long nights before me stoking the fire of our broken-down house, and watching the door, and listening to every snap of a twig beyond it, and wondering if the panther might be watching and waiting from the far side….it was a place I had already been in my life, and knew well, and I was not sure it was any more safe than where the canyon might take us.” (181-2)

I feel the same about the thought of going back to a UMC in which we are still “dealing with the panther at the door,” by which I mean not only the questions of human sexuality but the concept of a church that has lost its focus and its mission.  I dream, as our District Mission Plan says, of a place “where clergy, congregations, and communities are freed for edge-walking action on behalf of the gospel of Jesus.”  

Some will say we can’t do that unless “our side” prevails on the questions before us.  But I venture the radical notion that this may be a case where the substance matters less than the act of releasing the UMC to God’s future.  A UMC that goes “where the canyon might take us” will be transformed.

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photo by rawpixel via Unsplash

This does not absolve us of the hard work we should do to prepare for next February’s called General Conference where votes will be taken and decisions made.  I have no doubt there will be losses.  But those of us who have been formed by this expression of Christ’s church will retain the sensibilities and the gifts that the UMC has given us.  And we will have companions in those who have been on the journey with us.  When we wake up the day after General Conference, there will still be a story of God’s grace ahead of us.

How does the story end?  I’ll let you read the book to find that out.  But I will tell you that when the group awoke the next morning they made a startling discovery.  Mr. Pacheco discovered, in a half-eaten porcupine and a fresh pad track, that the panther had been watching them all night from a towering tree.

“The Lord has now spoke,” Preacher Dob said.  “He has told us to complete the journey.  He has reminded me that journeys will not often be of my choosing.  We stand in a crossways place, and he gave us a Which Way tree…He has shown us the way we are to go, and it is onward.” (183)

Lord, I pray for a Which Way tree.

Small Towns as Moral Communities: A Review of The Left Behind

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photo by Jamie Mink via Unsplash

Here’s the plot: a ragtag group of survivors suddenly discovers that people who have been a significant part of their lives have moved on leaving them in a desperate moral quandary as they try to piece together what has happened and work for a better future.  No, it’s not Tim LeHaye’s rapture series, Left Behind.  It’s The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, the latest book from Robert Wuthnow, a Princeton social scientist and Kansas native.

Wuthnow, like a lot of us in the aftermath of the 2016 election, has been taking a hard look at what’s happened in rural America.  I have lamented on this site about the easy and dangerous caricatures we fall into in trying to understand what’s happening in the Heartlands.  On the one hand, there is a tendency for bluer places to see all of red America as a reactionary landscape of racism, misogyny, and economic resentment.  On the other hand, rural America sometimes adopts a stereotyped vision of itself, hanging on to symbolic grievances (like the “War on Christmas”) and denying its own complexity.

Wuthnow tries to get under the surface of the Great Divide in this book by putting the focus on something larger than individual perspectives. 

“My argument,” he says, “is that understanding rural America requires seeing the place in which its residents live as moral communities…a place to which and in which people feel an obligation to one another and to uphold the local ways of being that govern their expectations about ordinary life and support their feelings of being at home and doing the right things.” (4)

There’s a lot of familiar territory to be trod here.  Drawing on lots of research over the last 20 years, Wuthnow documents a familiar litany of rural challenges: population decline, a rural brain drain, teen pregnancy, drugs, lack of jobs, and the age-old friction between ‘born heres’ and ‘come heres.’  But he puts these perceived threats within a larger, unsettling framework. 

“Being part of a moral community, even when it sits lightly on people’s shoulders, means that sensing your community is declining and your young people are falling behind is a reflection in small measure on you…you are part of a failing community.” (78)

This almost imperceptible psychological burden can curdle into fear and anger—fear that a way of life is slipping away and anger that, as it does, it is “being discredited and attacked from the outside.” (79)  

 

Robert Wuthnow

Robert Wuthnow

Even though Wuthnow talks to a lot of fearful and angry people in this book, his larger point is that the realities of rural life are not dependent on emotions.  There are systemic things eating away at old certainties, as well.  Small communities have depended on an ethos that believes that “when problems arise, we can fix them.”  The flotilla of small boat rescues after Hurricane Harvey last fall represents an ideal of what rural America believes about its potential.

Systemic problems are harder to pull out of the floodwaters, though.  Real change involves being part of regional, state, and federal organizations who bring resources, but also bureaucratic intricacies and arcane policies that don’t make sense.  When economic development happens in small towns, it often means that a new company comes in that needs expertise and skills that also have to come from elsewhere.  

“If rural people are susceptible to appeals that blame others—Washington, minorities, immigrants—for their problems, we must recognize clearly the psychological toll that seemingly insurmountable problems take on rural people themselves.” (91)

RELIGION AND CHURCHES IN RURAL AMERICA

Throughout the book, Wuthow notes the role that religion plays in rural life.  He sees the struggles churches are having.  Herb and Linda Tobias attend a Baptist church in the Midwest, but they “admit to being disgruntled because it’s been hard for their small community to attract good preachers and the one who came last year leaves them shaking their heads sometimes.” (92)  

colin-maynard-280700-unsplashDenominational churches struggle as well, although they play an interesting role in forcing some conversations that might not happen otherwise.  For instance, United Methodists and other mainline churches have asked their local congregations to discuss the issues of gay ordination for clergy and same-sex marriage.  “That meant people who quietly supported one side or the other had to make their positions known.” (134)  The result has been a few church splits while other congregations find ways to stay together despite disagreements.

“There’s a paradox in all this, though,” Wuthnow says.  “On the one hand, the conversations about gay rights and marriage equality wouldn’t have happened in rural communities…if there hadn’t been prompting from outside…On the other hand, it was precisely these outside promptings that rural communities disliked, just as they did Washington telling them to purchase healthcare and quit reading the Ten Commandments in school.” (135-36)

The Left Behind leaves the reader, (or at least this reader), longing for more.  Wuthnow makes the curious decision to turn his three principal research sites (small towns in the Midwest, New England, and the Deep South) into generic communities with names like Gulfdale and Fairfield.  The individual stories, which could have added more vivid interest, remain in the background, but perhaps that is best for a broad sociological look.  

The idea of small towns as moral communities is useful and helps keep the individual perspectives in context, but there is much more to be said about the ways the moral narratives that bind communities together are being manipulated by larger forces, like national media and institutions.  Wuthnow downplays the work of Arlie Russell Hochschild in her Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right because he feels it focused too narrowly on the Lake Charles, Louisiana area, (which, at 200,000 people, he feels is too large to be rural).  But Rochschild, as I noted in reviewing her book and in a subsequent interview, is mining a similar deep story that feels more visceral.

The land is crumbling in The Left Behind.  It’s all burning down in Hochschild’s book.

This is a good addition to the literature on rural America in the Age of the Great Divide.  It describes the landscape I know, which feels so distant from the shiny, globalized cities on the television screen.  Wuthnow sees that, while no one has been raptured, a whole lot of the country feels left behind.

**Princeton University Press provided me a copy of this book for review.

Living in the Pages of The Sarah Book: A Review

IMG_6558If I didn’t know Scott McClanahan, I’d be worried about him.  In fact, I’d go up to him and ask, “What is wrong with you?”  That’s a less profane version of the question his wife, Sarah, asks him near the beginning of The Sarah Book when he burns their wedding Bible after getting a series of Taco Bell receipts that total $6.66.

Burning Bibles isn’t the half of it.  If Scott McClanahan’s life was a head of hair it would be coming out in huge handfuls.  Drinking gin out of a water bottle as he drives his children down the interstate.  Marriage coming apart.  Living in the Walmart parking lot.  Smashing up a computer containing his kids’ photos.

Like I said, I’d be worried.  But who really knows Scott McClanahan?

I discovered McClanahan, the writer, in his 2013 book Crapalachia: a Biography of a Place.  It was 120 proof West Virginia lunacy from the first chapter, which managed, in the course of 5 pages, to squeeze in a mountain family with 13 kids, 5 suicides, cockfighting, and an outhouse in which McClanahan’s grandfather does something unspeakable with a letter from the coal mines denying his pension.

Don’t call his books Appalachian Minstrel Show Lit, though.  As McClanahan says in Crapalachia’s appendix, this is not Mary Lee Settle’s tamed and simple folks made gauzy by the blue haze of their mountains and the purity of their dulcimer-soundtracked lives.  This is drunk-crying when you fall in the hole left from where you pulled up a stump and didn’t fill it in while you’re trying to storm off to get beef jerky because your wife won’t participate in a day of debauchery with you—that kind of honesty.  

“Sarah said, ‘Well, why are you crying?’  I walked back to the house and I told her it was true.  I’d fallen in a hole and lied about it.” (The Sarah Book, 91)

Like the car crash he shoulda had in the first chapter of The Sarah Book, you can’t look away from this kind of writing.  It’s so raw and real that you can’t help but marvel at its authenticity, even as you gasp at the appalling and belly laugh at the absurd aspects of such a show.

Except what’s real here?  What presents itself as memoir turns out to be an imaginatively-constructed life of a character who shares the author’s name.  The Crapalachia appendix undoes many of the assumptions piled up over the 158 pages preceding.  Author McClanahan reports that Uncle Stanley was actually his dad, he never lived with his grandmother Ruby and Uncle Nathan, and he never poured beer into Nathan’s feeding tube, (among other confessions).  The Sarah Book doesn’t include such a post-script, but it’s clear the same sort of alchemy of life and story has happened here.

Which is not to say that either book is untrue.  I believe it when McClanahan says he called his dad Uncle Stanley “because I wanted to bring Stanley back into the family,” [Crapalachia, 162].

I believe in-the-book McClanahan when he complains about his English class because “all the students wanted to do was talk about whether the characters in the stories were good people or bad people or whether the writer was a good person or a bad person.  Like this even existed.” [The Sarah Book, 135]  I believe him when he says:

“That night I dreamed we were all magnets.  I dreamed all living things were magnets and from the moment of our births we were being drawn together by some invisible force.  I was a magnet and Sarah was a magnet and books were magnets too.  We had finally found one another.” [The Sarah Book, 207]

“I never look at a painting and ask, ‘Is this painting fictional or non-fictional?’,” McClanahan says.  “It’s just a painting.” [Crapalachia, 165]  And that’s ultimately why I’m not worried about McClanahan.  Because he’s not trying to shock you with the extreme behavior of in-the-book McClanahan.

Well, OK, he is.  He absolutely is.  (“I wanted to punch the reader in the face. Literally punch them in the face [with the opening chapter]” he told an Electric Lit interviewer about The Sarah Book.]

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Scott McClanahan

But what he’s also doing is trying to create something desperately alive within the pages of a book.  In his writing, his lost and distant family is vivid and unmistakable, his marriage is epic and his divorce is a “sacred wound,” his suffering “is a hug from God,” if he believed in God [Sarah, 206], and West Virginia is not a place to be pitied or distorted into being something its not—it just is in all its humiliating humanity.

I’m here to tell you, he succeeds.  This is some of the best writing of our day illuminating some of the most neglected corners of our world where the cobwebs of our soul collect.  Reading Scott McClanahan, you’ll feel the dense thrill and tragedy of being human in this place and time.  And like the author himself, you won’t want the last page to be the end when the summative judgement is delivered.  As in-the-book Scott says, cribbing David Copperfield, “Whether I shall turn out to be the villain of my own life…these pages must show.” [Sarah, 37]  What incandescent pages!

* Tyrant Books provided a copy of The Sarah Book for my review.  I bought Crapalachia myself!

Looking In on Lookout Mountain: A Review of I Want to Show You More

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photo by Sharon Christina Rørvik via Unsplash

There’s a lot going on up on Lookout Mountain.  The battle of Chickamauga is not really over.  89-year-old Eva Bock braves traffic to walk up Lula Lake Road to deliver snail mail to President Bush protesting the war.  A mainline church takes Corbett Earnshaw’s abrupt confession of disbelief as a sign and demolishes their building in order to move into a cave on the side of the mountain.  A woman leaves her family one night and runs down into Chattanooga to find a makeshift communion in a homeless shelter.  Oh, and there’s a whole lot of cogitating about infidelity.

Such is the world in Jamie Quatro’s collection of short stories, I Want to Show You More.

I came to Quatro’s collection after reading her most recent novel, Fire Sermon, a book that mystically-inclined readers like me will find impossible to put down.  That book featured a 40-something writer from Tennessee struggling with God and a long-distance lover with whom she has broken off an affair.  Those three—writer, God, and lover—are all present in these stories as well.  Quatro is exploring this theme from every angle.  But you’ll also find meditations on isolation, mortality, parenting, physical & psychological frailty, and healing.

Online reviewers seem to feel that much of Quatro’s writing is autobiographical.  After all, she, like many of the characters, lives on Lookout Mountain, is a runner, has children, spent time in Arizona.  Because of the transgressive edge of these stories, some evangelical readers are worried about her soul.  Quatro herself complains about this perception in a recent Paris Review article and a lecture at the Festival of Faith and Writing in which she talked about an all-men’s book club that shifted uncomfortably when she came to visit until one of them blurted out, “What did your husband think of this book?”

Behind that question is a fear of the writer’s freedom to explore the traces of desire and embodiment.  In her FFW lecture, Quatro quoted Richard Rohr who calls such fear more Plato than Jesus.  Flesh cannot be bad, as it is the ongoing hiding place of God,” Rohr says.  Quatro is determined to mine the wisdom of the God-haunted flesh for all that it can reveal.

In one of the most affecting stories, “Sinkhole,” a teenaged cross-country runner with a debilitating fear that a hole is opening up in his chest has a transformative experience with a girl whose own physical story is marked by cancer and a colostomy.  Quatro handles the inner lives of the two with sensitivity but holds back on a potential happy ending.  Despite their close encounter which will mark both of them, there is still isolation and a ‘not quite’ consummation.

In another story, “The Anointing,” a wife brings in a team of church elders to anoint her depressed husband with oil only to be incapacitated herself by her inability to truly save her family.  In yet another, a woman’s lover becomes a decomposing wax figure that comes to dominate the relationship with her husband.

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Jamie Quatro

There’s more than a little Flannery O’Conner here.  Characters come in at angles and seem motivated by strange spiritual quests.  But Quatro is paying attention to every plane.  Like the state line that runs invisibly between the Tennessee and Georgia sides of Lookout Mountain, (and which characters occasionally note, especially in the story ‘Georgia the Whole Time”), there are boundaries not seen with the naked eye.  If you do have eyes to see, what you find may be disturbing.  Ugly even.  But “the flaw beneath the flaw is the failure to notice.”

That’s how Quatro put it in her FFW lecture.  The book’s title is in earnest.  She wants to show us more.  And the virtue of these tales is that if we could just pause long enough with her to notice the fulness of this human thing with its yearning, god-like fire, we might be overcome by something beyond the bounds.  Something more like…wonder.

Rebelling Against King Jesus

Enjoyed this conversation with Taylor Mertins, pastor and podcaster extraordinaire.

think and let think

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alex Joyner about the readings for the Day of Pentecost – Year B (Acts 2.1-21, Psalm 104.24-35b, Romans 8.22-27, John 15.26-17, 16.4b-15). Alex is the District Superintendent for the Eastern Shore in the Virginia Conference, and he regularly blogs on his website Heartlands. Our conversation covers a range of topics including bad puns, living off the map (literally), church birthdays, faithful diversity, the connections between Babel and Pentecost, the impermanence of land, giving voice to the voiceless, and the community in the Trinity. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Rebelling Against King Jesus

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The Cold Aftermath of A Wrinkle in Time

28-wrinkle-in-time-book-club-storm.w710.h473It’s not solely because of A Wrinkle in Time that I’ve come to this conclusion, but…science fiction leaves me cold.  

We’re in a mini-boomlet of renewed interest in Madeline L’Engle’s children’s classic thanks to the Ava Duvernay movie and Sarah Arthur’s upcoming biography, A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madleine L’Engle.  So, I tried to do what I failed to do in middle school—get to the end of Wrinkle.  Thanks to Suzanne’s encouragement (“I’ll keep driving if you’ll finish that book”), I accomplished at least that.  

Suzanne also questions my thesis.  “You like Douglas Adams.”  Yes, but The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is more humor and philosophy than sci-fi.  “You like sci-fi movies,” she said.  Do  stranded astronaut movies even count?  I think my conclusion holds and my disappointing experience with Wrinkle is only the latest piece of evidence.  

So let me hate on science fiction for a moment.

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photo by Mimi Garcia via Unsplash

L’Engle was clearly enrapt by Einstein’s theories when she built a universe for Meg, Charles Wallace, Calvin, and her long-lost physicist father.  But the scenarios she creates, like so many sci-fi plot lines, seem entirely arbitrary.  There’s always a novel power or mode of transport to appear out of nowhere making the tension of the moment before seem silly.  

To wit—watching the end of the latest Avengers movie, which has been noted for its somber slaughter, we know its not forever.  No great tragic moment will be allowed to endure.  Events that signal endings in our reality are merely plot twists in the sci-fi world.

There is some strong Christian symbolism in the Trinity of “witches” that guide the children through Wrinkle.  Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which are entertaining presences.  The Black Thing and IT are effective manifestations of a Christian view of evil (and the mid-20th century specter of totalitarianism).  The ultimate power of love that saves the day—I get that.

But too much of the plot seems like unnecessary complication.  The characters wobble in tone and never really become three-dimensional.  Despite the empowered female characters, this is still a patriarchal world where little girls are frightened and have to be comforted while boys get/have to be brave and reckless.  (And just how did the witches get a Mrs.?)

In her Newbery Medal Acceptance Speech in 1963, Madeline L’Engle proposed that books, like stars, are “explosive material, capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly.” If A Wrinkle in Time is that for new generations, I am content.  I’m also happy to own that I’ve got a permanent blind spot with regard to science fiction.  L’Engle and I have met each other.  Nothing exploded for me.  So, I’m going to tesser on over to that Appalachian fiction book I’ve been eyeing on my nightstand and stay earthbound for awhile.

Two Big Reasons for Churches to Talk About Race

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Bishop Greg Palmer

These are dangerous days to talk about race.  If you try to raise the subject in polite company you’re likely to face some averted glances or rolling eyes.  In impolite company, well, who knows?  For some, talk of race is a pretext for a political agenda.  For others, the failure to talk about race is an admission of darker motives.

It’s time to talk, though, and I’d like to think the church is the best place for us to have this discussion.

Why?  First, because the Christian story has always been about overcoming the walls that divide us. 

Ruth, the Moabite woman, crosses into Israelite society and restores a family’s fortunes.  Jonah reluctantly brings good news to Ninevites.  Jesus sits with a Samaritan woman.  The Holy Spirit bursts into an international gathering on Pentecost and creates a new community.  Paul declares that “Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us.” (Ephesians 2:14, CEB). 

We shouldn’t be afraid of an honest encounter about race.  When we confront it in Christ, it generally means good things are going to happen.

Secondly, the church is a place where we don’t have to pretend we’ve got it all together.  We are broken people living in a broken land.  A people of unclean lips.  That’s what Sin does to us.  And one of the manifestations of that Sin is Racism, the demon who haunts everything that happens in our scarred nation.

I’ll confess that I have avoided discussions of race for fear that I’ll do it wrong.  I’ll say the wrong thing.  Cause unintended hurt.  Expose myself as less than I want to be.  I don’t want to be racist.

But as a white man living in a society and a church still deformed by racial ideologies, I don’t have the luxury of being pristine.  Racism is in me.  Dealing with that means a lifelong confession, awareness, and commitment to crossing boundaries to begin relationships that can emerge despite the awkwardness of our limited vocabulary around race.

I’m writing this from a conference sponsored by the United Methodist Church’s General Commission on Religion & Race called Facing the Future.  Clergy from around the country are here talking about their experiences in cross-racial and cross-cultural ministry settings.  The theme is “In the Midst of the Storm.”

There is realism and hope here:

 “The paradigm of white racism is already dead,” Bishop Greg Palmer said in the opening worship.  “But there are still a few minor rebellions against the reign of King Jesus.”  

That sums it up.  Racism doesn’t have a future because Christ has “broken down the barrier of hatred.”  But there are still a few minor rebellions and they still cause pain and real injury.  And some of those rebellions are within us.

I’m grateful for the steps that courageous lay and clergy folks on the Eastern Shore have taken to help us acknowledge what racism has done to us,  I’m grateful for the places on the Shore where clergy and churches are living out cross-racial and cross-cultural ministry.  And I know there is more to do.  Why shouldn’t it start in the church?

Your Civil War Is Too Easy: Looking for The Thin Light of Freedom with Ed Ayers

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Freedwoman –Juneteenth Memorial Monument, Austin, TX  By Jennifer Rangubphai – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51616286

Who starts a story of the Civil War in the middle?  By the time Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia marched up the Shenandoah Valley into Pennsylvania in July of 1863, the war had been going for more than two years.  The twin Confederate defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg on the 4th of July usually mark the beginning of the end for the South and the two remaining years of conflict move inevitably to Appomattox, full emancipation of enslaved persons, and the reunion of the nation.

Edward Ayers, (the correct answer to the question above) is not having your easy narrative, however.  The eminent historian and co-host of the BackStory podcast knows that the Great Dates theory of history is as shaky as the Great Personage theory.  Something significant happened in 1863 (and in 1865) but a whole lot was still undetermined and conflict was still going to be necessary to preserve a “thin light of freedom” for those whose sought real racial equality in the United States.

51kX8OoXrAL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Ayers new book takes its title from this phrase.  The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America is the kind of history Ayers has specialized in—extensively researched, sympathetic to its subjects, discontented with simple narratives, progressive, eyes wide to the trauma but ultimately hopeful.  This book also throws uncomfortable light on the conflicts of our own age.

In covering the war and its aftermath from 1863 to 1902, Ayers chooses two of his frequent haunts as touchstones for his story—Augusta County, Virginia & Franklin County, Pennsylvania.  The two counties, despite being on opposite sides during the Civil War, share a common geography in the long Valley stretching behind the front line of the Appalachians, some common demographics, and a similar agricultural economy.  They have also been the focus of a long-term digital archiving project conceived by Ayers—the Valley of the Shadow, which has been collecting diaries, letters, newspapers, Freedmen’s Bureau reports, soldier’s records, and photographs from the period from the 1850s to 1870.

Ayers calls this “history on a human scale” (xx) and he regularly checks in with characters, black and white, who are living through the destruction and disruption caused by the war and then the dangerous uncertainties of Reconstruction.

Twelve-year-old Cate confronts a northern soldier looking beneath the beds of her Augusta County home “for rebels” by telling him “We are all rebels…I am a rebel too & I glory in it.” (171).

A northern Democratic newspaper editorializes vociferously against arming formerly enslaved men: “It was wrong to place ‘these poor devils in the army to be shot down like dogs, knowing that they had neither the physical nor the moral courage requisite to make good soldiers.’” (314)

Meanwhile, Franklin County men write back from their service in the newly-formed US Colored Troops with contradictory evidence: “Mi Dear Jest let Me say to you if it had Not a bean for the Culard trips Wiy this offel Ware Wod last fer ten years to Cum.” (317)

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Edward L. Ayers

Interspersed with this documentary evidence is Ayers’ interpretative account of what is happening.  Military actions are conducted with an eye to northern political struggles.  Northern Democrats develop a vicious racial narrative as a strategy to return to national power.  Republicans build a quasi-religious language that demands of the defeated Confederates shame, repentance, and moral regeneration.  In response, whites in the South retrench and we see in the early post-War years the building blocks of the narrative of the Lost Cause and eventual institutionalized segregation between the races.

As a boy who was raised in a Southern town steeped in the Lost Cause and as a student of Ayers in his teaching days at the University of Virginia, I have had the Civil War period much on my mind as the nation goes through this current period of Great Divide.  It’s hard not to be reminded of the political disintegration of the 1850s when the national story broke down and new, rigid narratives developed.  There are ominous parallels between our times.  Is a crisis similar to the Civil War on the horizon?

In this book, Ayers offers a different lens.  By downplaying the myth of the epic moment (Gettysburg, Lincoln’s assassination, 13th Amendment, etc.) he points to a more enduring reality.  Political conflict didn’t end with the Civil War.  If anything, the political environment of the North was more vicious than before and Lincoln’s achievement in holding even that part of the Union together seems all the more miraculous.  The achievements of the Reconstruction period seem similarly improbable given the resistance of northern and southern parties.

“Reconstruction, it turned out, moved by counterpoint and reaction as well as by intention and fulfillment,” Ayers says.  “Just as white Southerner’s secession made emancipation possible, so did their resistance to basic civil rights for black people create the possibility for votes and office-holding for black people.” (450)

Ayers is not making the case for continual conflict as an unqualified good, but he has a native confidence in the possibilities that emerge from the clash between mighty forces:  “At every step, those who would advance freedom found themselves challenged and defeated.  As this history shows, however, black freedom advanced faster and further than its champions had dreamed possible precisely because the opponents of freedom proved so powerful and aggressive.” (xxii)

There are echoes here of Martin Luther King’s famous arc of the moral universe, long but bending toward justice.  Ayers lets the question of an invisible hand in history hang in the air.  In the meantime he’s going to introduce us to the people who are actually moving though that history as agents of change, however provisional and tragic.  People like Serena Carter, a Staunton African-American leader who died in 1898 at the age of twenty-nine.  With her spouse, Willis, Carter began a school for black children, worked with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union to improve the lives of women and children, and took a leading role in an economic improvement program for the black community.  At her death the Staunton newspaper headlined her obituary: “Useful Colored Woman Dead.” (491)

Is hers a story of triumph?  Ayers, I believe, would say, ‘yes.’  You just need the right frame.  And the chronological frame of a life, like the dates of a war, is just not big enough.

Look for my interview with Edward Ayers coming soon to Heartlands.

Order The Thin Light of Freedom.