July 8, 2016
Tokens Show will be visiting the Stuart Auditorium at beautiful Lake Junaluska, NC, on August 24th, 2016 at 7:00 pm. Special guests include Buddy Greene, Odessa Settles, Jenny Littleton, and, for her first Tokens Show appearance, Ms. Sierra Hull.
We’d be honored by your company. There are two ways to purchase tickets:
Option 1: Tickets available online for $5.00 + small transaction fee using this link: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2569808
Option 2: Tickets available for $5.00 at Bethea Welcome Center at 91 N. Lakeshore Drive, Lake Junaluska, NC 28745 (phone: 1-800-222-4930).
Tokens Show is from Nashville, TN and is recognized for its “grass-kicking,” “genre-bending creativity.” The Tennessean calls it “one of a kind” and a “virtuoso ensemble.” “They integrate music, humor and scholarship into something so seamlessly entertaining,” says Peter Cooper, Nashville music critic. You will sing, laugh, and be entertained for the evening.
It’s a wonderful show open to the public. We look forward to seeing you all there. Tell your friends![Read More]
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March 29, 2016
We were saddened by the death of our friend Mr. Pete Huttlinger in January. Pete was a friend, a brilliant guitarist, a gentleman; one who bore more than his fair share of difficulties and did so with gratitude and gentleness; who cared about the genuine good of others, his community, and his friends; and who sought to live life well and beautifully.
We watched Pete courageously face his health difficulties, and come back again and again without complaint, always a self-effacing joke, and an ever present and gentle smile. One such moving moment was at our first Tokens Show at the Ryman Auditorium, November of 2010. Pete had a stroke two weeks prior to the show; and was not only at the show, but on stage, and had the opening guitar strains in what I, to this day, think was one of the most beautiful instrumental performances in our eight years of shows. You can listen to it below.
Pete was a regular in the Most Outstanding Horeb Mountain Boys on the Tokens Show from the very first episode in 2008. It was a privilege to watch him work and hear him make his magic. We have grieved with Pete’s wife and our friend, Erin Morris.
We do, and will continue, to miss Pete.[Read More]
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December 10, 2015
by Tokens host Lee C. Camp
A friend recently told me about a spot on the Cumberland Plateau I had never visited, called Collins Gulf; it was a gorgeous Tennessee winter day, not a soul in site for 4 1/2 hours. The Collins river and the tributary creeks up on the sides of the gulf all full of water from recent rains. So for today, a poem I wrote, and some pictures I took, along the way.
The laurel hums the beauty
The water sings the praise
The gulf sits quiet, undaunted
Humility from countless days.
The cypress like Pentecostals,
Arms thrown, to the skies
Branches broken, blown aside
No pity, no queries why.
The moss, it kneels in silence
Mute, but, shouting glory
The river runs white and heedless
Its path long trod and hoary.
Day to day still pours forth speech,
Boulder, and winter smell of pine,
The precipice weeps, the limestone laughs,
And all for joy, for–joy.
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December 4, 2015
by Michael T. McRay
“I find it ironic on this Thanksgiving Day—a day of sharing, hospitality, and welcome—that our nation is divided as to whether we should extend hospitality to those seeking refuge in our borders.” Such was my dad’s opening remark as he welcomed dozens of family and friends into my parents’ home in Murfreesboro. Thanksgiving is indeed a peculiar holiday, with more than one irony—and too much convenient collective forgetfulness.
While pausing amidst busyness to remember that for which we should be grateful is an important—even essential—exercise, the national myth surrounding Thanksgiving is deeply problematic, and terribly ironic. Schoolchildren decorate crafts of European pilgrims and Native Americans celebrating the first Thanksgiving, with smiles as plentiful as the food. We preserve a lovely story of friendly meetings between pilgrims and natives, where pleasant conversation must surely have accompanied laughter and sharing. Perhaps we tell ourselves that the native peoples of North America then graciously relocated to make room for the light-skinned foreigners arriving on ships.
But that isn’t true—the European invaders killed them. They chased them, burned them, beat them, raped them, evangelized them, tortured them, and displaced them. Many natives call Thanksgiving “Thankskilling” or “Thankstaking,” and indeed, they’ve remembered that era of American history far more accurately.
Consider the Pequot Massacre of 1637. Five time Plymouth County Governor William Bradford had this to say about it:
Those [natives] that escaped the fire were slain with the sword; some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so that they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire…horrible was the stink and scent thereof, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they [the Europeans] gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them.
Not only did the European invaders wreak havoc on the natives of this land, those invaders often attributed their victories to God and gave thanks. Thus, the more accurate (though still admittedly simplistic) narrative might sound quite similar to our current fears: Immigrants with strange tongues and strange beliefs arrived from across the sea, many with fervent religious ideologies, and then conducted genocide. Before Columbus arrived, the Native population living in now-U.S. territories is estimated to have been around 10 million; by 1900, it was 300,000.
This Thanksgiving, it is indeed ironic then that so many people this country fear the arrival of Middle Eastern refugees, claiming that ISIS may have infiltrated their ranks and could bring religiously-motivated terror to this country. But to paraphrase John Oliver, only once in American history has a group of immigrants arrived on these shores and wiped out the current residents—and we celebrated that last Thursday.
For those of us who claim Christianity, our resistance to welcoming refugees presents theological problems. According to biblical text, after Moses leads the Hebrew people out of Egypt and they arrive to Canaan, God consistently reminds them to be kind and fair to the stranger and foreigner among them, “for you were once foreigners in Egypt.” Jesus talked later about doing to others as we would want others to do to us. A great many people in our history came here looking for opportunity, freedom, and new lives. Then, a great many of them killed the people they found here and kidnapped and enslaved darker-skinned folks from Africa to do their labor for free. It seems we might be wise, even if only in penance for our unspeakable national sins, to extend a welcoming embrace to those seeking the same refuge here that we believe our predecessors sought. The engraved poem on the Statue of Liberty boasts these words: “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free / … Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.” Perhaps, to match popular sentiments today, we should chisel in “unless they are brown, Muslim, and from the Middle East.”
But we are now in Advent season, the beginning of the Christian year. We are awaiting the birth of Christ, Emmanuel, God With Us. Not long after this brown-skinned Christ is born into an occupied land in the Middle East, his life is in danger, and his family flees, traveling across borders to find refuge in Egypt. The significance of this narrative must not be lost. If we proclaim Jesus as the incarnation of God—God with skin on—then we must also proclaim that God was a Middle Eastern refugee.
Advent is not just about anticipation; it’s about preparation. We don’t just wait; we get ready. This season, let’s remember that the brown-skinned, Middle-Eastern refugee Christ is arriving soon.
Are we ready?
Michael T. McRay (M.Phil. Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation, Trinity College Dublin | at Belfast) is the author of Letters from “Apartheid Street” and the forthcoming Where the River Bends: Considering Forgiveness in the Lives of Prisoners (Cascade, 2015), with a foreword by Desmond M. Tutu. He is the new Community Outreach Coordinator at the Tennessee Justice Center, founder and co-host of Tenx9 Nashville Storytelling, and an adjunct instructor at Lipscomb University. You can follow him on his blog, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.[Read More]
November 24, 2015
by Craig D. Katzenmiller
“Are you all right?”
“Of course, are you all right? It’s the middle of the night there.”
“Yes, we’re fine, but we wanted to make sure you were all right.”
“Well I’m all right. Why are you calling?”
“Terrorists just bombed the Tube.”
Such was the exchange I had with my mother, who called me early in the morning on July 7, 2005. Terrorists had indeed bombed four trains in the London Underground as well as a double-decker bus in Tavistock Square. My workmates and I—I was serving an internship in an archive in Westminster—found out about the attack only because an American audience found out about it immediately.
And the American media immediately began calling that attack “London’s 9/11.” Fearsome stuff for American audiences.
Back in London though, I was struck by how ho-hum everyone was about it. We turned the TV in the archive’s conference room to the BBC and watched the updates coming in in real time. And, unlike the small group of us nervously huddled around the TV in my high school library on 9/11, everyone just calmly watched.
“It’s certainly not the Blitz, is it?” said one of the archivists there.
And that comparison immediately contextualized the events for me. To Americans, lives of innocent thousands were in harm’s way, as they were on 9/11; to Englanders, it was a small event, unlikely to repeat itself daily for months and months on end, as the Blitz had done a generation earlier.
We Americans now, for better or worse, view everything though the lens of 9/11, thinking that that event somehow changed things.
Our 9/11 lens has thus tinted the way we view the most recent Paris attacks—most notably, in the days since, in the way we view asylum seekers.
Donald Trump, one party’s current front-runner presidential candidate, said, as reported by the New Yorker, that if he’s elected, these asylum seekers are “going back.” He continued, “They could be ISIS, I don’t know.…This could be one of the great tactical ploys of all time. A two-hundred-thousand-man army, maybe. Or if they sent fifty thousand, or eighty thousand, or a hundred thousand, we got problems, and that could be possible. I don’t know that it is, but it could be possible, so they’re going back. They’re going back.” It is important to note, as the article points out, he decided not “to cite a source” for his numbers.
At any rate, that’s simple fearmongering, playing off post-9/11 fears so as to stoke his own candidacy on the one hand and our desire for security on the other.
Surely, goes Trump’s “logic,” these brown-skinned Syrian refugees are likely terrorists just like the 9/11 brown-skinned terrorists were terrorists. After all, brown-skinned folks, whether Mexican, Syrian, or American, are the greatest threat to a certain portion of the voting-public’s xenophobic version of the American Dream.
It’s no wonder Trump’s so popular among such a voting-public.
Fear then, the great underwriter of xenophobia, makes mass deportations sound reasonable. And in the fearsome wake of 9/11, Americans are all too happy to allow a threat to be exaggerated. Yet while the notion of mass deportations in the name of security, in the name of safety, is gaining popularly, the blind eye has been turned to the deadly violence already in our midst (to gun violence, for example). It’s easier simply to scapegoat.
And so the notion of deportation, the notion of exclusion, the notion of sacrificing the scapegoat.
That scapegoats would be sacrificed for personal security perhaps betrays the fact that there is a deep idolatry at play here also.
For us Christians, especially, the plight of refugees must seize our attention. We must attentively remember our spiritual roots and how God cared for the alien Israelites in Egypt and how God demanded that Israel likewise, after the Exodus, care for aliens, orphans, and widows. We must be attentive to the flight that the Holy Family took centuries later back to Egypt, fleeing the murderous conditions in their homeland. We must be attentive to the Fathers and Mothers of the Church who, in the very earliest centuries, defended Jesus’s messiahship—the notion that in his role as messiah, Jesus united all peoples and turned the powers’ swords into ploughshares—by showing how Christians did not recognize political boundaries, nor did they fight in the empire’s wars. We must be attentive to the fact that ever since St. Benedict penned his Regula in the sixth century, monastic folks have been going to bed every night having just uttered the phrase from Psalm 4 which claims that “I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.”
But more than merely giving our attention to these things, we must live into them. We must name the xenophobic rhetoric of safety and security as idolatrous; we must bear witness to Jesus’s lordship over our lives by rejecting the myth that nationality divides humanity; we must reject wars; and we must care for the widow, orphan, and alien in our midst. Like Egypt welcomed the Holy Family, we must welcome refugees fleeing from a very real threat of death.
All of this, of course, requires that we make ourselves incredibly vulnerable. Nonviolence and hospitality require that we rid ourselves of the desire for safety. Being a new father myself, this for me is difficult to imagine at times, but we have to take seriously the notion that our safety comes from God, not fences and so-called smart bombs. We have to take seriously Matthew’s counsel: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” There are other planes of fear to which we are beholden: “rather,” Matthew continues, “fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Such rightly ordered fear demands that we reorient our lives, that we repent. Therefore, to the sin of scapegoating, we must repent; to the sin of xenophobia, we must repent; to the sin of deportation, we must repent; to the sin of inhospitality, we must repent.
And we must turn to the God whose fearsome identity is in fact love and rest in the security such Love gives. For “perfect love casts out fear.”
Being freed from fear of the stranger and, moreover, from the fear of death, we are enabled to offer welcome even to the brown-skinned stranger, trusting that he who is Love will draw both self and stranger into the cruciform bond of precisely that Love.
In the end, we must rid ourselves of the lens that 9/11 presents our eyes. For, as Stanley Hauerwas so rightly said immediately after 9/11, “Our response is to continue living in a manner that witnesses to our belief that the world was not changed on September 11, 2001. The world was changed during the celebration of Passover in AD 33.”
Craig “Dusty” Katzenmiller is Social Media Editor at Tokens and a newly ordained stay-at-home dad.[Read More]
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November 19, 2015
by Jeannie Alexander
My mind and heart are still raw from the day. Do I try to speak of the little ecstasies, the hunt I have been on, or do I choose to let the events and the images of the day steep in my mind, to stain my perceptions and memories like tea, and only then to write? We are taught that God is all powerful, but what fragile momentary beauty our encounters with the holy. The day moved in slow motion, and even now in the breeze I hear the bones of a horse clattering in the tree softly outside my window, a presence drifting across the land, touching the dreams of boys. These bones, long driftwood ribs lost by the horse, and then found again many years later in a grove by a woman searching.
We walked through the horse pasture, let to grow wild with rabbit tobacco, sweet annie, and burr. I had just taught my future nephews, 8 and 10, that an ankle length skirt is no impediment to scaling a fence and hopping a gate. A horse approached us, deep brown like the velvet peat waters of the lake, breathing her hay breath into our noses and open mouths the pneuma of the fields. Beneath the reflection of a cataract sun, we walked through the copse of trees, now christened “Bone Grove” (little boys continue Adam’s work of naming and renaming all of creation) and followed the horse trail into the shadows until we came upon the bones I had left sleeping a year ago still slumbering now. The boys excited to a high pitched chatter began to gather up the thick stout leg bones, and we built a temporary cairn of them. Deeper we walked through a low tree tunnel, where we found fresh evidence of a recent horse’s sojourn to the trickle creek. I looked for the slave graves my beloved spoke to me of, but aside from an intentional piling of stones at the base of a tree I found no other indication of a possible place of rest.
The boys are mad about creeks, and I am mad for their love of each other and the inevitable competition between the two set in their own bones from birth. We follow the creek for a bit until I refuse to cross through the tunnel under the road. Isiah waits by my side as his brother, pretending to be just slightly braver, walks another 20 feet ahead. I turn to go back and the youngest pleads for me not to leave his brother, I look into his serious brown eyes and promise never to leave either of them. The three of us walk back to the cairn and carry out more of the horse whose ribs sing in the dogwood now. Isaac complains briefly that he will get dirty, and I tell him of course he will, he’s carrying great green bones caked with mud and bugs, and what does he think water is for anyway? We approach the gate and toss our bones over and ready ourselves to climb, but first I break off a branch of rust brown sweet annie and tell them to smell. I tell them that this is one of my favorite smells and that their uncle loves it dearly. The elder brother focused and about the business of life already, sniffs quickly and he is over the fence.
And then it happens, and I am there watching God pause and emerge before me, breaking through as the clouds part and golden light seeks out the curves of Isiah’s face as he inhales deeply, eyes closed, and replies, “I love this, this is one of my favorite smells.” Oh child you have now participated in a memory, the haze of a haunting, and the continuation of the sacred knowing of a particular land by a particular people. You will remember but perhaps for a long time you will not know why.
Later driving back to Nashville, I talk with Dean for an hour, Dean with whom I share a soul of common substance, Dean who never struck out violently against another human and yet has completed 18 years of exile in the desert wasteland of Tennessee prisons serving an impossible three life sentences without possibility of parole. As if the machine of prison death could take his future lives when it cannot even own his heart and mind in this one. We share the familiar greeting now: “How are you?” “Somewhat dying.” and laugh easily in each other’s presence. I tell Dean that a gallery has recently taken three pieces of my art and he understands my anxiety at letting the pieces go.
Each photograph a scrambling, fleeting, flailing effort to interpret and project a sacred blink of suspended desire and fulfillment before paradise is lost again. And if I let these images go, do I let the moment go, must I surround myself with such totems? Forgive my idolatry, I was only chasing you.
Dean too is an artist, my twin soul chasing God’s ecstasy. Because that’s just it for freaks like us, chasing the addiction of that moment when you first felt the Presence moving inside of you. We build our walls and listen as Paul tells us to put on the full armor of God, when the whole time we should have been stripping naked in the field.
Aquinas asked God “when?” and God opened God’s arms, and Aquinas having learned compassion said he allowed himself to stay. But don’t believe it. We do not exist in such moments for prolonged periods of time. It’s too much; the intensity is too much. And so we look away and release the embrace, just as Aquinas did. At best we can commit to staying raw, naked, and awake; waiting for God to come in punctuated events like a slippery eel in cold waters that we can only grab long enough for the shock to knock us on our ass, gleeful to suck in the water and drown again. God would be a constant lover if only we could stand in the moment and truth of the “when?” What would the world do with such mad men and women, stepping into ourselves, stepping into God, locked in the embrace, and releasing the grief and fear? What would such men and women do with the world, and how long could we burn?
Rev. Jeannie Alexander is the co-founder and director of No Exceptions Prison Collective, a legal and educational advocacy organization on behalf of prisoners and their families, aimed at dismantling the reality of mass incarceration in TN. She served as the Head Chaplain at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution for three years until September 2014. Prior to that, she was the volunteer chaplain for two years. As chaplain, she facilitated the creation of an unprecedented number of programs for insiders, both in minimum security and on “death row.” Before this, she worked as an attorney, but left the practice of law to become a community organizer and to complete a graduate degree in Religious Studies with a focus on Mysticism and Christian Ethics. As an educator, she’s been a professor of Philosophy, Ethics, and Religion. As a pastor, she’s served and developed interfaith communities in prison based on a model of liberation theology, as well as served as co-pastor to Mercy Community Church, a congregation where 85% of the members experience homelessness. She is the co-founder of Amos House and Open Table Nashville and was a writer for and sat on the board of The Contributor for four years. Two of her essays are published in And The Criminals With Him, and she features significantly in the documentary Tent City, U.S.A. She lectures and preaches frequently on the topics of mass incarceration as slavery, economic justice, Christian anarchism, transformative justice, and mysticism. She understands the Gospel as a manifesto for radical liberation now on earth and an invitation to experience God through the living presence of others and creation. She is also a lover of bees, bogs, and all things wild.[Read More]
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November 11, 2015
by Lee C. Camp, Tokens host
My lovely wife Laura and I have celebrated this fall our 25th wedding anniversary. Beyond the practice of Christian faith, which certainly has waxed and waned and had its own seasons of prosperity and famine, I don’t think I’ve done anything else for such a long time. I find myself up very early this morning, having just come off our anniversary celebration—a “stay-cation,” in which we did the likes of breakfast at the Loveless Café, viewing a bit of autumn foliage on the Natchez Trace Parkway, perusing the galleries in Lieper’s Fork, lots of eating and drinking, as well as enjoying other perks of having the house to ourselves for the weekend without any offspring around spoiling any sort of romantic interludes.
These days I often do not sleep through the night. But these early morning hours provide good time for reflection for a top ten—or at least ten, as I probably am not willing to claim they are the top ten—list of things I’ve learned about marriage in these twenty-five years.
1. The romance myth is bunk. “They lived happily ever after” should be seen as five of the most damaging words ever spoken and stupidly repeated. I say this not because my own marriage has lacked romance and the best kinds of high drama: we’ve earned graduate degrees together, traveled far and wide, lived abroad, given birth to three beautiful sons; we have hiked the Ngong Hills in Kenya, enjoyed an amorous outing in the Andes Mountains, and enjoyed ardor intensified by an outrageous thunderstorm while in an inn perched on the coastal bluffs of Cinque Terre, Italy. But to carry any sort of expectation of “they lived happily ever after” denigrates the beauty of these memories, because:
2. Marriage is a “people growing institution.” Or so says one marriage therapist whose work I’ve found helpful. This means that difficulty and hardship in a marriage is not to be equated with a “problem marriage.” Marriage entails difficulty and hardship, because we are all still maturing and growing; put two people who are still maturing and growing in a committed relationship, and you necessarily get difficulty and hardship. My wife’s beauties and strengths and gifts and industry and talents, which are many, contribute more than I can catalog to the good of our sons, the good of our household, the good of our community, and the good of me. But it may be that her character defects, those things about her that annoy me, anger me, frustrate me, that these have been just as important in my growth as a human being. Her character defects have made occasion for me to face my own character defects. “Dross is removed by fire.” “Count it all joy whenever you encounter various trials…” I find myself almost contemptuous of these sayings; but my despising does not make them less true.
3. My wife’s job is not to make me happy. Conversely (or inversely?): my job is not to make my wife happy. “If momma ain’t happy ain’t nobody happy” is dangerous conventional wisdom, and sets a context in which growth and maturation will be harder to come by for everyone in that family. (And the saying is also sexist; “daddy” can be just as responsible for the unhappiness of the family as “momma.”) And while we are not “responsible for” another adult’s happiness or emotions, we are “responsible to” contributing what we can to a context in which one another, and the marriage itself, can flourish.
4. Memory is an art: and it is an art much susceptible to one’s state of mind and disposition of heart. Take any particular life episode, belabor it with heavy doses of self-pity or resentment, and the take-away memories will be heavy. Take that same life episode, spice it up with gratitude or a refusal to take oneself and one’s expectations too seriously, and the memories taken away will become a sweet lightening of the soul for many years down the path. Laura and I can have different memories of a given life episode, hers more light and joyous than mine, because I can recollect that in that given instance, I was in a place of anger or pettiness. To collect good memories (and I do not say this in the maddening consumerist manner in which “making memories” is often sold to us these days) is a fruitful endeavor, a gift to a marriage.
5. Things will not always stay the same; seasons come, and seasons go. Are you happy, with all things as they should be: enough in the checking account; enough in the pantry; enough in bed; enough friends; enough festivities and fellowship? Things will change. Are you unhappy, with all things disordered: not enough in pantry or bed or checking account? Things will change.
6. Take two: things will not always stay the same, unless they do. If there are things that seemingly ought to change, but have not, it may be because I am (we are) continuing to do the same things. Change occurs only when something changes. There are some things over which I have control, and some things over which I do not. To obsess about other people changing is an exercise in futility; it is more productive to examine what I need to change, or what I may change, that can contribute to a changed dynamic. The Serenity Prayer is helpful here: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
7. If you are conflict averse (as I have been), practice saying things you know might cause trouble, if they are true (even if you are only sure that they are “true for you”). If possible, say them with graciousness; but even if not, still say them. Speak your truth, even if your voice cracks. Speak your truth, even if you cannot say it in a gracious way. Kind speech is only learned on the other side of truthful speech. What looks like kindness may in fact be deception if it is motivated by conflict avoidance.
8. Looking the other way does not help solve any problems in marriage or family. But harping on the problems does not solve them, either. There is a place of wisdom to be found somewhere between saying too little and saying too much, and wisdom always requires courage and prudence.
9. “Sometimes simply keeping your promise simplifies things. Sometimes it becomes impossible to keep one’s promises. But when possible, simply keeping them makes life much simpler.” So said a friend to me over lunch; and so said he well. We made vows. It has been important for me simply to do my duty even when, especially when, I did not feel like it.
10. Grow up. The best thing I can do for my marriage, my sons, and the various communities of which I am a part is first to work on myself: to grow as a human being, to face my own defects and learn better ways, to become fully alive, and practice authentic freedom in all things. Thus says Thomas Merton: “He who attempts to do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love, will not have anything to give to others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressivity, and his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions…” (Contemplation in the World of Action).
Thank you Laura for these twenty five years together: for the times we have been richer and the times we have been poorer, for the times of sickness and those of health, for the times that have been worse and the times that have been better; until death do us part.[Read More]
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November 5, 2015
The spirit and spirituals of Fisk University saved the school and inspired the world and are celebrated each fall.
by Douglas T. Bates III
NASHVILLE, Tenn., Oct. 28, 2015 — On the evening of Oct. 5, 1871, a group of young Americans of African descent gathered in Nashville with a Union Army veteran who had fought at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. They had come to a chapel to pray God’s blessing on a desperate gamble they were making, a courageous tour upon which they were about to embark. Little could any of them know they were about to accomplish their meager, yet, forlorn, dream in a way which would stir the world, or that they were starting a music tradition that would be thriving 144 years later.
They were and still are revered as the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
The story begins as the shame of slavery ended in America. But how could a race, of albeit noble and industrious people, become full citizens without education? They could hardly look to the Southern white establishment, who had fought to keep them enslaved and now certainly did not wish them to be educated. So schools were formed to educate black teachers who would then educate children of their race. One of those schools was first named Fisk School, then quickly Fisk University, still located here.
Fisk began her work in 1865 amidst the throng of newly freed slaves who had come to Nashville to join a substantial member of freedmen who called Nashville home. In order to teach these future teachers, it was often necessary to teach them to read. White missionaries came from the North to begin this monumental task, but by 1871, Fisk was broke.
On the credit side of Fisk’s ledger, there was approximately $1,000 in cash. On the debit side, there was approximately $15,000 in obligations.
A BIG, BOLD GAMBLE. So that Union veteran, George White, the school’s treasurer, suggested a “Hail Mary pass” of breathtaking proportions: they would take all of the money the school had and fund a concert tour through the North.
The performers would be nine Fisk students, and their songs would be a genre which were encoded hymns of hope, set to haunting melodies created by American slaves. They’d be strange songs to strangers, and this is what they gambled the entire existence of their school upon.
Why did they offer such a humble stake? It was all they had.
So, on that long-ago October 5, who could blame their timid prayer: “Oh, Lord, if this thought comes from Thee, prosper the going out of these young people.”
Or who could not comprehend the tears and misgivings of those who sent these young people off the next day—none of them even had winter clothes. They had each been through many personal trials; they were all of deep faith; still…
Who could know that they would even donate the entire earnings of their first concert in Chillicothe, Ohio, to the victims of the great Chicago Fire which took place that very week? And who could know that when they returned five months later, they had raised the $15,000 to pay their school’s debts? Who could know in a year they would raise enough money to build the most beautiful building in Tennessee, Jubilee Hall, which still stands? Who could know that in three years they would perform for President Grant, Queen Victoria, British Prime Minister Gladstone, and the Austrian composer Johann Strauss?
CREATING A HUGE LEGACY. They indeed toured America and Europe, encountering and conquering racism, giving the world the most beautiful Christian music ever sung. The melodies of these “slave songs” still echo in Gershwin and Copeland, can be picked up in Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. The lyrics of their songs would give their progeny hope for their struggle for full citizenship a century later. They are still sung in churches worldwide. Who could have known?
Or who could have known on that Oct. 6, 1871, morning when the Fisk Jubilee Singers headed North, that three years and hundreds of thousands of miles later, they would have raised $150,000, securing the future of their school, which still stands proudly today.
Yet, if they could have known all of that, surely they would have been astonished to also know that well over a century later, Fisk’s sons and daughters would gather every Oct. 6 to remember these heroes.
This year they were joined by a gray-haired old white pilgrim.
Well, there are stories so powerful that they live every moment in the hearts of their heirs, and I like learning about those stories—and feeling them myself if I get the chance.
Every Virginia Military Institute graduate, and my son is one, carries with him the “Battle of New Market,” where those young students were victorious in an 1864 Civil War battle. No Mormon ever is far away from “The Trek,” where their ancestors walked bravely across the Midwest to Salt Lake City. And so it is that within the first hour of setting foot on campus, a Fisk student learns of the Jubilee Singers.
COURAGE, HOPE, AND PRIDE. The story of those young students who toured the world with their music, first saved, then prospered, their school still sweetens every breeze stirring on Fisk’s campus. It gives every student, teacher, and administrator courage and hope and pride. And, like the Battle of New Market and the Mormon Trek, it can do the same for any pilgrim who wishes to partake of its inspiring ethers.
So, on Oct, 6, 2015, I journeyed to Fisk for her annual “Jubilee Day” on the 144th anniversary of when those students boarded a train and eventually saved their school and forever changed the world of music. My wife Molly was tending to dental woes, so I went by myself, though, I would not be alone for long.
I arrived an hour early and was graciously welcomed by Lynnwood Berry, who seemed to be the official host. Being an hour early, I sat on a rock wall to watch my fellow pilgrims stream into the lovely Fisk Chapel.
“You look lonely; may I join you?” asked a lovely lady. She asked me who I was, and then I asked her.
“I’m Robyn Sims,” she said. “I am an alumna of Fisk. So was my mother, and my husband is the president of Fisk.”
So for the next 30 minutes or so, she would be greeted by arriving dignitaries and she would summon me to come meet them. I met the director of the Jubilee Singers, Paul Kwami. I met many—maybe all—of the current singers. I met her husband President Frank Sims. I met the day’s speaker, Rev. Leslie Dowdell-Cannon, a Fisk graduate now senior pastor of Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington, D.C. And I met Vincent Leal, president of the Fisk Alumni Association.
And then Robyn Sims looked into my eyes and said, “You will sit with me on the front row.”
And so it would be that I had a front row seat in a worship service which would move me to the marrow of my bones. It was conducted by my new friend Vincent Leal, a distinguished and urbane man, a proud son of Fisk. The speaker Rev. Dowdell-Cannon gave a homily which was a masterful combination of history, comical memories of her student days at Fisk, and an inspirational charge to go forth as did those young singers in 1871.
We were then treated to the current Jubilee Singers performing two spirituals. Words fail in describing the day, but they especially fail in trying to capture the exquisite beauty of those songs. Queen Victoria was moved to tears when she heard them long ago. So was a humble pilgrim from down the road in Centerville, Tenn., on this day.
We then joined hands and sang, “The Gold and the Blue,” the gorgeous Fisk Alma Mater. I sang it from memory, for I have known the words by heart for two decades. (By the way, here is a challenge—go on the Fisk campus and ask any student to sing their song. ANY student. You will hear it, I promise.)
VISITING SOME OF THE ORIGINAL NINE. After the service in the chapel, we joined a 20-car procession behind a shuttle bus and went to three cemeteries, where the current Jubilee Singers sang one of their songs as they stood by the graves of six of those original nine. But before they sang, a student of Fisk would tell about the one whose grave we were visiting. Their stories were of unfathomable hardship and of glorious perseverance. And the story always ended with these words, “An Angel on the Altar.”
I have since spoken at some length with Vincent Leal, president of the Alumni Association. He was raised in New Haven, Connecticut, in the shadows of Yale University. He graduated from Fisk in 1976 and has had a distinguished career as a federal bank examiner. He lives now in Texas and coordinates the work of Fisk Alumni Associations all over America.
“Our main mission is to recruit students to come to Fisk,” he told me. (I thought back on the three students who rode with me to the graves—they were all from the West Coast).
“And when they leave,” he said, “we expect them to make the world better.”
No one back in October of 1871 could have been so bold as to charge those Jubilee Singers with such a commission. They were trying to merely save their school. But they did more. Praise God, they did more. They did what Leal insists all Fisk’s children do when they leave, to “make the world better.”
For the stirring words of the Fisk Alma Mater ring true:
Hurrah and hurrah for the Gold and the Blue
Her sons are steadfast
Her daughters are true.
THE SONGS OF THE JUBILEE SINGERS
While we know them now as “spirituals,” the Jubilee Singers called their songs “slave music,” even in the advertising material for their concerts. Their melodies were probably those composed as they worked in the field, but their words often had double meaning. “Pharaoh” was the code word for the “white master.” The “Jordan River” often was understood to be the Ohio River, where on the northern side freedom could be found. The “chariot” often meant the Underground Railroad which took the slaves to freedom.
As their words literally, also, spoke in terms of hope amidst hardship and of ultimate salvation in heaven, they became favorites of all religious people who looked for better days ahead.
Examples: “Walk Together Don’t You Get Weary,” or “What Kind of Shoes You Going to Wear,” “The Gospel Train is Coming,” “Steal Away,” “Good News, the Chariot’s Coming.”
A PORTION OF THE “JUBILEE DAY PRAYER”
As delivered by Derrick W. Dowell, Fisk ’76, at this year’s Jubilee Day convocation on Oct. 6: “O Lord, we ask that you hear our prayer of Thanksgiving for the treasured gift of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers, who set out from this place, faced with uncertainty, carrying their songs of hope into an unfriendly world. As your children, they walked together, not giving in to growing weary. Though their faith in Thee, their collective sacrifice saved their beloved, yet beleaguered school from financial hardship.
“We ask Your blessing upon the current Fisk Jubilee Singers. Allow them to fully understand their inherited legacy: to sing the Spirituals before a world that seems to have steered away from the compass of dignity, respect, decorum. May they find inspiration in knowing this special place measures success by Your standard, by how well it cares for even the least of these. May they grow fully, responsibly.
“To her sons and daughters scattered throughout the world, the Jubilee Songs will forever be a source of hope, spiritual testimonies of Your goodness, Your grace and Your mercy that has brought us this far.”
FISK UNIVERSITY TODAY
Fisk continues today as a private, liberal arts university with an enrollment of about 750, primarily African Americans. The 40-acre campus is located a mile directly north of Vanderbilt University and a half-mile east of Tennessee State University, all about two miles west of downtown Nashville.
It has long been a center of civil rights advocacy and study, led by such early leaders and faculty members as W.E.B. DuBois and Ida B. Wells. Among its students who changed Nashville in the civil rights campaign of the late 1950s and ’60s were Diane Nash and John Lewis, the latter who went on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives from Atlanta.
Like many small predominantly African American colleges in the U.S., Fisk has struggled financially in the last 25 or 30 years. During that time, there has been increased competition for black students from larger private and public universities across the South and beyond.
Fisk still has an affiliation with the United Church of Christ.
The author, Douglas T. Bates III, is a semi-retired attorney in the central Tennessee town of Centerville, about 60 miles west of Nashville.
The Tokens Blog is grateful for the kind permission of the author to re-publish this piece here. It originally appeared on Offenburger.com.[Read More]
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October 30, 2015
by Lee C. Camp
That medieval Saint Thomas Aquinas insisted that Christian life was ultimately about happiness. This is an odd assertion, perhaps, for us Protestants and free-church folks, who have been so prone to focus upon the rigors of discipleship and taking up the cross as the fundamental measure of following Christ. To be happy?! Such an assertion sounds suspiciously like indulgent self-centeredness.
I suspect we should pay more attention to Aquinas’ contention in this regard. He’s not alone in such liberating summaries of the meaning of God’s work among us in the world: the second century church father Irenaeus, for example, insisted that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.” And of course before Irenaeus, the New Testament proclaims the practice of joy as a hallmark of Christian life.
Note that phrase: the practice of joy. To practice joy seems counter-intuitive on the one hand: it is conventional wisdom, for example, that the more one sets out seeking happiness, the more likely one is to find misery. And indeed, it does seem that any sort of deeply rooted joy cannot be pursued straight on. Emily Dickinson is famed for having said, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” The pursuit of joy seems in this way similar: it cannot be directly accomplished, must be something sought at a slant.
Like all the fruit of the Spirit, really, joy cannot be manufactured. It is, after all, fruit and not an artifice.
Yet on the other hand we humans have an indispensable role in cultivating fruit. There are complex and multi-layered processes of cultivation and care and stewardship that makes fruit, makes joy, possible. But even still, it remains the gift of God.
This duality—awareness that our joy is always a gift from God, while simultaneously requiring on our part the hard and careful work of its cultivation—points us toward the role of gratitude and thanksgiving.
These practices of recognizing, naming, the fundamental giftedness of our lives, our existence, our days—these are something like the tilling the soil of our souls so that the fruit of a deep gladness might, at the right time and by the gift of God, spring up in our lives.
The year we began our annual tradition of doing a Thanksgiving Tokens Show at the famed Ryman Auditorium, one of the managers gave me a pre-show tour. I’m no entertainment professional; I get giddy still listening to a good musician who is good at her craft, so wandering around my first time backstage at the Ryman felt to me like being a kid again in the Woolworth’s in my small hometown when I had enough money in my pocket to buy whatever I wanted at the candy stand. I could hardly contain the wonder of it.
As I recollect, he said to me with all seriousness, something to this effect: “The room likes good music and people doing good work; it’s like the spirits of all those who have played here through those many years, like they are paying attention, and they want you to do well, and they are cheering you on.”
There does, indeed, seem to be such a spirit about the place: a deep gladness at the wonder of voices, the sweet strains of melodies, and the vibration of strings on fiddles and guitars and cellos, and the percussion from the thumping of the old stand-up bass and the striking of the strings on the Yamaha grand piano which sits on that hallowed stage.
I get to sit stage left over by the podium, whence I do my hosting and story-telling, watching world-class musicians and some of Nashville’s finest vocalists spin their musical tales, and when the lights are low on stage, I will let my gaze wander out over the audience, following the graceful lines of that old wrap-around-balcony which hovers over the space, subtly illuminated. My heart will jump with gratitude as I watch the faces of friends and strangers enrapt in the experience. Though the gathering is a fundamentally different sort of experience than when old Tom Ryman had built the Union Gospel Tabernacle for the preaching of Sam Jones, the effect is nonetheless the same: a spirit of gratitude which suffuses the place, reminding us that we humans are given the possibility of tasting the glory of transcendence, and that deep gladness of having been given the sweet gift of life, even with all its struggles and pains.
And the songs that I’ve heard spun on that stage are enough to nourish the soul for another season to work and labor and love: the song Vince Gill sang one night that he wrote about his brother, who lived on the streets for years, afflicted with addiction, who wandered into an old mission where he is welcomed to a table and a bed. I just laughed, and tears ran down my face, when I realized that this country music super-star had intuited something about the gifted nature of existence, and the manner in which the sacraments are but token reminders of this giftedness:
It’s bread and water, man that’s all you need
Bread and water, and a place to rest your feet
If you ain’t too proud to get down on your knees
The bread and water’s free.
Or the night sweet little Lennon and Maisy, new young Music City phenomena, sang what has become the sort of “Nashville” show theme song:
Sittin’ here tonight,
By the fire light,
it reminds me I already have more than I should.
I don’t need fame, no one to know my name,
at the end of the day,
Lord I pray, I have a life that’s good.
It turns out, of course, that the psychologists and sociologists, have discovered the importance of that old hymn we sing, to “count your many blessings.” Unfortunately, some of them are also telling us that it is, counter-intuitively, the glut of choices offered by western consumerist society that actually undercuts happiness and joy, which is to say that the more we insist on having it precisely our own way, the more unhappier we are becoming.
Our Thanksgiving show the autumn of 2013 was the start of a very hard season in my life, and I found myself grieved for a variety of reasons. Trying to lean in to the sort of stuff I tell my students they should do—“practice gratitude!”—I tried to take some of my own medicine, and found myself with a lyric and a melody that in time I got to sing that night on that beautiful old stage:
Hungry in riches,
Bondage in greed,
Chains in our freedom,
Deep want in no need.
Oh give us hearts that are grateful,
Hearts that are free.
Hearts that are lovely,
Delighted in thee.
Stranger to neighbor,
Unknown to our friends,
Overwrought in much nothing,
Thus our hearts contend.
Oh give us hearts that are grateful,
Hearts that are free.
Hearts that are lovely,
Delighted in thee.
May the God of all good gifts, whose mercies are new every morning, grant that we all might have hearts that are free, and lovely, and delighted in the One who has given us life.
Listen to “Hungry in Riches” below:
October 29, 2015
by Lauren Smelser White
I rarely enjoy looking back at something I wrote several years ago. I’d compare it to hearing my voice on a video recording, which, if you’re like me, is a semi-grotesque experience that makes you wonder, “Do I really sound like that to people?”
I recently had the “did I really sound like that?” experience when I revisited some blog posts I wrote four or five years ago—back when I had taken the advice for folks with academic aspirations that solo blogging is a good way to “get your name out there.” My blogging fun came to a halt once I began doctoral work and realized how demanding it was, coupled with my realizing how much work regular blogging is if you truly do it in a way that “gets your name out there.”
But I digress.
On revisiting the old posts, one of the things that made me cringe/chuckle is the fact that out of the nine posts I wrote, three of them revolved around themes of theology and horror. Seems kinda over the top? And within those posts, I often worded things in a way that I would now advise someone against. (What kind of snob says things like, “Really? Is your spiritual imagination that myopic?”)
Proper amounts of self-loathing aside, however, sometimes looking back at old writing can also be an exercise in finding grace for yourself, by recognizing some decent work that you once did and have since forgotten that you had the capacity to do back then. The fact is, there are some points I made in those posts about theology and horror that I believe are still worth thinking about. And what better time of year to dust them off than just before Halloween, when our collective fascination with the macabre is so evident?
What made me revisit those old blog posts in the first place is a conversation I caught on the radio the other day about why people enjoy scary movies. The talk show hosts’ consensus was something like, “Horror films give the audience a satisfying sense of control because they aren’t the ones in danger.” Now, there is probably something to that theory, but I think that there are other layers to our long-standing interest in horror stories—layers that have to do with our deep-seated need to confront the reality of evil that darkens our lives.
With that in mind, below I will copy (with slight amendments) some of the material from one of those old blog posts that I think is worth repeating on the topic of horror’s theological implications. I will do so in four points for the sake of keeping things straightforward, and as a fifth point, I will copy the “horror film analysis” that I had invited my film buff brother to contribute to my blog. It’s good stuff, and just might motivate you to watch one of the horror movies he recommends from a renewed, theological point of view.
1. It is naïve for people automatically to assume that because something is scary or horrific, it has nothing to do with God.
Russian theologian Vladimir Lossky doesn’t make this assumption. He talks about Moses’ assent of Mount Sinai as an analogy for the disarming experience of encountering God: first, Moses meets God in the burning bush, at which point he encountered God as light. Later, when he climbs Mount Sinai, Moses “enters the darkness, leaving behind him all that can be seen or known; there remains to him only the invisible and unknowable, but in this darkness is God. For God makes His dwelling there where our understanding and our concepts can gain no admittance.”
God is cloaked in darkness. This means that God dwells in places where our words and concepts fail us…which is, indeed, frightening. As one of my favorite Harding Bible professors John Fortner is known to say, “God will eat your face off.” Not a particularly comforting image.
2. “In this darkness is God.” Does this mean that God is in all darkness? In a sense, yes. It is nonsensical to affirm that God is the creator and sustainer of all, and yet is somehow absent in the horrific aspects of existence.
But of course, this affirmation brings up all of the disturbing questions that we confront when we affirm God’s omnipotence but also face the why of the Holocaust, genocide, natural disasters, despair, cancer…all of it. There are a lot of solid theological and philosophical resources out there for wrestling logically with how it could be that evil exists and that God is both omnipotent and good. However, biblical wisdom dictates that it’s generally best for us to maintain silence when we sit with those who are on the brink of the gulfs of suffering. “Mourn with those who mourn” is what Christ recommends.
In our speechlessness in the face of such darkness, we can remember a key part of the cosmic Christian story—that God is not indifferent to our suffering but rather enters into it as pointedly as the Word who becomes flesh and is eventually crucified. This knowledge doesn’t divinize suffering or make it easier; the point here is not to present an answer to the question of “why does a good God allow evil to occur?” Any human answer to that question is going to remain unsatisfactory. It’s just a way of affirming that in this sort of darkness is God too.
3. However, there is another sense in which we will not find God in darkness—namely, in the darkness of evil. Evil is unique; it is what some theologians have called “the nihil,” nothingness: the absence of anything life-giving or purposeful. It is made real by forces that work towards destruction, emptiness, nothingness. There is no saving the nihil; there is only redeeming us from it.
So, if we’re going to attend to God, we need to figure out where and how God dwells in darkness. This means that we have to learn how to identify evil too, especially as it works in and around us, to figure out what leads us away from God.
4. There are a lot of angles we could take on the topic, but I want to look at a theological resource that goes largely untapped in our discussions: the art form of the horror film. Admittedly, it’s hard to dig up a good horror movie. I think the abundance of bad horror films has something to do with the fact that humans are so uncomfortable with facing and presenting the nihil in its true subtlety, although we’re haunted by its presence, so we fantasticize it in a multitude of ways. Looking at evil for what it really is and how it actually invades our lives is uncomfortable, frightening, yet worthwhile work. And that’s what I think good horror movies accomplish.
5. For the following piece of this post, I asked my amateur-film-critic brother Luke to write up an analysis of three of his favorite horror films, attending to how they present evil as it subtly infects us. If you can handle it, Luke may convince you that one of these prophetic films is worth your watch this weekend.
Alien (Evil is empty)
Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien attains a rare cinematic achievement in that it is considered a standard in not one, but two different genres: hailed as a science fiction masterpiece, Alien is also considered a highly innovative horror film due to its framing within the expanse of outer space. The film cleverly blends many age-old science fiction motifs with the tension and brooding atmosphere of a classic monster horror film.
While at first glance the obvious villain is the rarely glimpsed alien, the coldly objective programming of robots and the indifferent mentality of the ship’s mainframe persona play equally important roles in the demise of the crew. Technology, an age-old antagonist, maintains an overbearing presence in the film, accentuated by the heavy use of metal-laden imagery. Even the story of the film centers around a generation symbolically birthed and nourished by technology. The crew is dependent upon the proper functioning of the their ship, dubbed the Nostromo, for their very survival while traveling through space. They aptly refer to the Nostromo’s mainframe personality as “Mother,” further symbolizing their reliance on the machines around them.
Ironically, it is “Mother” and the Nostromo, the very technology that the crew depends upon for survival, that are ultimately responsible for the introduction of the monster aboard the ship and the subsequent demise of the crew. The film’s protagonist, Ellen Ripley (portrayed by Sigourney Weaver), is beset on all sides by nefarious mechanical plots, ranging from “Mother’s” dispassionate betrayal to the revelation of a robot secretly posing as a human. Even the iconic alien closely resembles an elaborate conglomeration of sleek metal bulkheads, dark cords, and gracefully curved rods.
The primary attribute of evil remarked upon by Alien is that of emptiness. This emptiness is not only portrayed by the overabundance of and eventual betrayal by technology in the film, but is also visualized by the empty void of space within which the film is set. Space is here the definition of emptiness: uninhabitable, cold, and lifeless. The character of technology also serves as an effective allegory for evil; there are no moral considerations to be had, no conscience to be pricked, no logic to appeal to within machines.
One character Ash’s affectionate admiration for the alien creature is a concise commentary on the empty nature of evil at play in the film:
Ripley: How do we kill it?
Ash: You can’t. You still don’t know what you’re dealing with, do you? A perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility. I admire its purity. A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Evil is chaos)
It is unfortunate that when the title The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is mentioned these days, most people assume that the film being referenced is the blood-soaked, garish 2003 remake starring Jessica Biel. This seems especially regrettable due to the fact that Tobe Hooper’s original 1974 film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is not merely a classic, trend-setting horror film, but is, more importantly, a groundbreaking mastery of cinema with an intensity rarely achieved by any other film.
If there has ever been an instance in which the use of the clichéd critique of “gut-wrenching” is warranted, it is in reference to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. What makes this film so unbearably intense? There are a number of factors contributing to its masterfully agonizing quality, ranging from exceptional performances by Marilyn Burns, as the prototypical lone virginal survivor, and Gunnar Hansen as the crazed Leatherface, to the minimalistic home-video style of the film itself, conveying a certain nightmarish quality stemming from primitive violence and a deluge of nerve-wracking chaos.
However, the true brilliance of this film (and any other truly great horror film) lies not in what is seen, but rather what is implied. While The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is initially perceived as extremely violent, there is actually very little gore and only a minimal amount of blood underscoring the violence. Unlike its modern counterpart, the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre uses this “dry violence” to further enhance the terror felt by its viewers, allowing their imagination to paint the gruesome effects of such carnage.
The aspect of evil at play in this film is that of chaos, or rather the absence of order. If hell is equated to the absence of God, it follows that such a godless dimension would be one of pure chaos, devoid of any semblance of reason or order. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre deftly captures such a dimension, never offering an explanation for any of the calamities that befall the characters, which is why I question any viewer who can deny experiencing even the slightest pang of primeval horror on watching this film. Even Leatherface himself is almost pitiable, grunting and squealing aloud as he hysterically searches his dilapidated house for another unannounced visitor. This leaves viewers wondering if there is any rhyme or reason to Leatherface’s actions, or if he perhaps is no more than a frenzied maniac, whose actions are as senseless as his thoughts. Therein evil is personified: it is senseless, chaotic, and relentless.
Rosemary’s Baby (Evil is insidious)
While Polish director Roman Polanski’s Oscar-winning horror film Rosemary’s Baby is an eerily convincing tale of the idyllic American Dream turned macabre nightmare, perhaps more disturbing was the misdirected and brutal murder of Polanski’s pregnant wife and unborn child by members of the Manson Family the following year in 1969. This gruesome event bolstered the notion set forth in Rosemary’s Baby that the evil inherent within the world is indiscriminate and may come calling, regardless of its subject’s innocence. Much of the horror of Rosemary’s Baby is implied and is rarely direct, as is true in life.
The film paints a disturbing portrait of the paranoia and dread experienced by a young pregnant woman, Rosemary Wodehouse (portrayed by Mia Farrow), who fears that her unborn child may be the coveted object of a plot contrived by her cultic neighbors. Although Rosemary’s Baby deals with the subjects of witchcraft, curses, and satanic cults, the film is remarkably subtle in its handling of these classically sensationalized topics: there are no green pea-soup fountains spewed, scatological demon-children to be restrained, or murderous nannies to be seen. Rather, there is only an overwhelming sense of dread that slowly takes root.
The gnawing sense of paranoia is achieved by an assault of the sensations, ranging from the unsettling sounds of shattering glass in an underground laundry room and the pungent odor of tannis root, to a chalky undertaste of the chocolate mousse supplied by the intrusive neighbors, to Rosemary’s excruciating cramps that are almost nauseating to witness. Furthermore, the aftermath of evil is relayed by the discovery of an empty closet barricaded by a large dresser for no apparent purpose, or by a brief glimpse of a message scrawled onto a shred of paper stating, “I can no longer associate myself…”
The evil shown in the film is smothering, enveloping all aspects of Rosemary’s life, reaching from her seemingly frail and overly friendly neighbors, to her highly acclaimed obstetrician, and even so far as her husband with his proverbial soul-swapping deal with the devil. However, the real irony is that while Rosemary is concerned with the wickedness surrounding her, the greatest evil of all is slowly growing inside of her. Rosemary’s Baby portrays evil for what it is: pervasive, indiscriminate, and insidious.
It is for this reason that the scene where Rosemary catches a glimpse of herself instinctively devouring a raw piece of liver resonates so effectively with the viewers: when Rosemary witnesses the ghastly transformation she has undergone, she is revolted, much as we are when we perceive the horrific consequences of the sin we harbor within. Rosemary’s condition serves as a relevant allegory for the pervasive, indiscriminate, and insidious evil that we humans nurture: we rarely comprehend the toll that evil has taken on and in us until we are confronted with the horrific transformation we have undergone.
1. Vladimir Lossky, Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976) 35.↩
2. See for instance Herbert McCabe’s essay “On Evil and Omnipotence” in Faith Within Reason (London: Continuum Books, 2007) 67-93.↩
Lauren Smelser White is a Ph.D. student in Theological Studies at Vanderbilt University. Her doctoral work in Christian theology focuses on human participation in the trinitarian event of revelation. Lauren is a fellow in the Program for Theology and Practice, which seeks to form scholars who connect their academic work to the practice of ministry and will be outstanding teachers of people preparing for ministry.