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Thanks to Our Presenting Sponsor – AGAPE

November 22, 2014

We at Tokens are very grateful to share the following information about our Presenting Sponsor for Sunday night’s Tokens at the RymanAGAPE.

For 48 years, AGAPE has been a trusted source for building strong families.
Adoption, foster care, and family preservation have been the cornerstones of their existence since 1967. They are also one of the largest Christian professional counseling and psychological services organization in Tennessee, providing children, adolescents, and adults with guidance through many difficult life circumstances.

Professional Counseling and Psychological Services
AGAPE’s counseling department has grown significantly in the past 35 years and consists of Christian professionals licensed as psychologists, psychological examiners, clinical social workers, marriage and family therapists, and professional counselors.
From preschool children to mature adults, we address life issues such as relationship problems and grief, to more serious clinical issues like depression, anxiety, ADHD, or eating disorders. We are also a source for support groups for children and adults. Counseling offices can be found all across Middle Tennessee.

Crisis Foster Care
Sometimes, parents may be faced with the critical choice of how to care for their children due to substance abuse rehabilitation, need of medical or psychiatric care, job loss, or homelessness. Knowing that children are being cared for and nurtured is vital to recovery and that is how AGAPE can help. We provide temporary, out-of-home placement for children with fully trained and approved foster parents who are backed by our staff of professional social workers. A stable home for children and temporary assistance with parenting may be the best step toward restoring families.

Adoption Services
With the belief and conviction that every child deserves a family, AGAPE provides homes for newborn infants as well as older children. More than 85% of our adoptions are children who are older, have siblings or are of minority race; some are physically or mentally handicapped. A “forever family” is our goal for each of them.

Maternity Counseling
We provide a safe, caring place for an expectant mothers to turn to when facing an unplanned pregnancy. Our professional staff works closely with each mother, helping to make a life plan for the child, whether through parenting or adoption.

In addition to the information above, it is important to note that in its history, AGAPE has served over 5,000 children in placement services. Over 1,000 have been adopted into forever homes.  In 2013 alone, AGAPE conducted over 13,000 counseling sessions serving more than 1,700 counseling clients.

Location and More Information
AGAPE’s main campus is located at 4555 Trousdale Drive, Nashville, Tennessee 37204 (615-781-3000). Information about all their services, as well as contact information, can be found on their website, AGAPENASHVILLE.ORG.

Their missions statement sums it up well: AGAPE exists to serve the needs of families, children, and adults in Middle Tennessee with an unconditional agape love through Professional Counseling and Psychological Services, Adoption Services, Crisis Foster Care, and Maternity Counseling

We at Tokens are mighty thankful for the wonderful work and ministry performed by the most outstanding folks at AGAPE. And we encourage you to seek more information if they can be of service to you or someone you love.

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The Welcome Table: A Thanksgiving Reflection – Revisited

November 19, 2014

This is a revised version of a piece Michael McRay wrote after attending the 2010 Thanksgiving Tokens Show “The Welcome Table.”

For some, tolerance is a noble endeavor. Many speak of the need to tolerate other religions, other viewpoints, other orientations, other cultures, or maybe even simply other denominations. But for others, and hopefully for Christians, tolerance does not go far enough. Tolerance merely allows the other to speak without actually taking the time to listen and understand. Tolerance says the other can stay but just so long as we don’t have to genuinely engage one another. Tolerance, itself, is not a Christian discipline. Christianity teaches hospitality.

Hospitality takes tolerance to the next level. It is inviting, welcoming, and gracious. Hospitality encourages the other to speak, and then listens, and engages the other in their story. Tolerance says, ‘You may stay, but on your side of town.’ Hospitality, though, is an open door. It means inviting the Muslim, the Arab, the enemy, the poor immigrant, the former prisoner, the stranger, the friend to come inside and be at home. Hospitality invites everyone to the welcome table, to break bread and fellowship.

Since the creation of the Church, eating together has been a central component of Christian practice. The book of Acts tell us that the disciples met in each other’s houses for the ‘breaking of bread; they shared their food gladly and generously’ (2:42). Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is constantly seen participating in meals, eating with those that mainstream society claimed should not be welcome at the table: tax collectors, debtors, prostitutes; in short, the ‘other.’ Many of the parables Jesus told describing God’s kingdom centered around the image of a feast table where the poor and outcast are ushered in off the street to share in the King’s celebration meal. The Gospels record Jesus performing two miracles pertaining to food: the feeding of the 4,000 and the feeding of the 5,000. For some scholars, particularly referring to the Gospel of Mark, the miraculous nature (or at least emphasis) of these stories is not the multiplication of the food, but rather the fact that there was enough for everyone. This is God’s kingdom. All of people’s basic needs are met. No one has more than he or she needs, and no one has less. There is simply enough. The meal was a microcosm of this reality, but the disciples translated this ethic into all areas of their lives, sharing all they had so that all were provided for. As Ched Myers writes, the disciples, in keeping with the example set by Jesus, created an economy of enough within a cosmology of grace.

At the welcome table, everyone is disarmed, and society’s classes are destroyed. As ethicist and theologian John Howard Yoder notes, equality is present at the table as the meal provides the space for the ‘condemnation of economic segregation’ (Body Politics, 22). At the table, host and guest are made one as everyone eats together. Power structures do not exist at the welcome table, only relationship and fellowship. The powerful are dethroned, and the poor are exalted – all by the sharing of a meal.

During my time serving as a volunteer chaplain at Riverbend maximum security prison—before the warden banned me—I often shared a meal with those working in the chaplain’s department. Prison at its very core is a place of segregation, physically, relationally, visually, etc. Prisoners all wear the same attire, always with a white stripe down the leg that reads, “Department of Corrections.” One Friday, before a chapel service that night, a few other inside friends joined the chaplain’s department for dinner. We all gathered in the office and handed out plates of rice, salad, and enchiladas, compliments of the head chaplain, Jeannie Alexander. Some of us sat on bookshelves, others in chairs, others on tables, and still others stood. There was laughter; there was conversation; there was silence; and there were second helpings—but there were no stripes. There were no insiders and outsiders. There was just “us.”

The night before Jesus was killed by the powers of his day, he broke bread with those closest to him, those with whom he had shared his life of ministry: essentially, his community. The welcome table is the lifeblood of true community. We come together with those among whom we live and work so that we might encourage and strengthen one another in our vocations. The meal provides the opportunity for everyone to break from life’s hectic routines (except for maybe the cooks!) and be reminded of the presence of God and the vitality of community. During the holidays, the meal is often the central point of the seasons’ events. For many families, the meal is a chance to regroup and reconnect after a long day, or for extended families at the holidays, after many months. The meal is a place to be renewed and rejuvenated, and perhaps even to reconcile offenses. In my family, the table has always provided the occasion for laughter, tears, and storytelling. Some of the most important lessons and conversations of my life have occurred around the meal table.

Hospitality and the welcome table are central components of many cultures. Within Islam, for example, one of the names for God is hospitality. In Palestine, many families, especially the poorer ones, share a meal sitting in a circle, whether at the table or on the floor, and everyone eats from a single dish laid at the center of the circle. Here there is equality. No one sits above or below anyone else, and no one has greater access to more food. Everyone is the same. If inequality exists at all, then it is in favor of the guest, who is honored and cherished.

Jesus describes and incarnates God’s kingdom as such an event. All are provided for, all are welcome, and no leaves wanting. There is enough for everyone. Today, regardless of the origins or transformation of this holiday, this community of generosity and jubilee can be celebrated. As we gather as family and friends, we both rejoice in the hospitality and fellowship that we experience but also are mindful of those who are alone. As Dickens so profoundly notes in A Christmas Carol, this season of the year is one where ‘want is keenly felt and abundance rejoices.’ May we always and in all ways extend the welcome table to those who so intensely feel this want and are left in the cold of despair and involuntary isolation. And may we also celebrate this economy of enough, fellowshipping in the breaking of bread, as we both literally and paradigmatically participate in God’s beloved community.

Michael McRay (M.Phil. Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation, Trinity College Dublin | at Belfast) is adjunct professor at Lipscomb University, lecturing in forgiveness and reconciliation, international conflict resolution, storytelling, et al. He is the co-founder of No Exceptions Prison Collective, organizer and host of Tenx9 Nashville Storytelling, and author of Letters from “Apartheid Street” and the forthcoming Where the River Bends: Considering Forgiveness and Transformation in the Lives of the Incarcerated (Cascade, 2015), with a foreword by Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu.

As of the time of this post, tickets are available for the Tokens at the Ryman 2014. Visit our Tickets page for details.

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Eulogy for Grandmother Camp

October 23, 2014

Digging around in some old archives I was pleased to discover this eulogy for my dear grandmother Camp, who died at age 97, on 24 October 2004. May she rest in peace.

Eulogy for Grandmother Camp, 26 October 2004, Talladega, Alabama. Died 24 October 2004.

1 Thes. 4:9-11: “Now concerning love of the brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another; and indeed you do love all the brothers and sisters…. But we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more, to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you.”

Foremost among my memories of my grandmother is her front, screened in porch, at the house on Highland Circle. It was above the door-sill on that porch where Grandmother and Granddaddy kept the key, a symbol of the hospitality they extended to all. It was that porch to which I would run as a small child to see the trains when they would pass by, down at the bottom of the hill. It was on the porch I recall her teaching me to tie my shoe laces, and there where I recall her reading to me on summer afternoons.

There was a quietness and a security about that screened-in-porch. The quietness was not due to the squeaky aluminum frame furniture, but to Grandmother’s presence. And there on that porch I shall always remember her reading to me the story of the “Little Engine That Could.” Without preachy commentary, she read the story a great number of times, emphasizing with an approving tone of voice the little engine’s determination as he faced the hurdle before him, “I think I can, I think I can,” and almost celebrating with the little engine as it rolled ever more quickly down the back of the mountain, “I knew I could, I knew I could.”

This was, in so many ways, the philosophy of her life: she faced life with quiet determination. In my recollection she never complained, ever, and moved ahead, trusting that what would be needed would be provided. This was true even, perhaps, to a fault; so eager never to complain, it seems, she found it difficult to discuss the hardships of life; she found it difficult to draw near, emotionally, to the burdens and hills and challenges she had faced in her own life. I had no idea, as that child who loved his grandmother, what those hills were that she had faced. I did not know that she and Granddaddy had married the last year of the Great Depression, and the economic hardships that her generation faced. I did not know then that her father had taken his own life; that she had had three sons, not two, that third son having died at birth in their home. It was a source of great sorrow to me that dear Grandmother still thought “every day,” she told both my brother Conrad and me at different times in the last two years, about her father’s death, wondering what it meant, wondering what guilt she bore, wondering why he did it.

After I left her the day she told me that, I cried. I cried because I wanted her to know, deep in her soul, that of course she bore no guilt, and that she could allow herself to be free of such guilt; and that she did not have to bear that heavy burden alone, that there were many around her who would help her carry that burden, if she would allow them. This was her only weakness I knew—to carry these burdens alone, unable to talk about the things that caused her discomfort, without asking for help. It was not part of her consciousness to realize that the little engine with determination—“I think I can, I think I can”—can be all the greater when hooked together with others, so that the chorus becomes, “we think we can, we think we can,” by God’s help and power.

But in the way she knew how, in the way taught to her generation, she faced the hurdles before her, and she did so in an incredible way. Her sorrow never became self-pity; her life-long questions never gave way to self-obsession. Instead, she set a course of life that was, in so many ways, the embodiment of the apostle’s instructions to the believers at Thessalonica: she minded her own business; worked hard throughout her life; she quietly and simply lived and loved. (I should qualify: she minded her own business with two exceptions—guts and facial hair. She was not unknown to pat someone’s belly and remark, “you’re getting a little gut,” or in response to one of us having grown a beard, “have you lost your razor?”)

When I asked Daddy what remarkable memory stood out in his mind, he said that she was simply what anyone could ever want in a mother: she always put their interests first, loved them, and let them pursue their dreams and interests. It would seem a psychologists wonder, it seems to me, that this woman who had experienced tragic loss of a father, brother, and child, could still let her sons do all of the things they did, wandering unaccompanied and unsupervised through the hills and creeks of Munford, the caves around Cheaha mountain, hunting, playing, and roaming in a way that gave way to [my uncle] Bill’s getting run over by a car on one occasion, and receiving a shotgun blast to his abdomen on another—that anything of fun and play her sons wanted to do, she allowed, with the exception of Daddy’s request to go camping by himself somewhere up on Cheaha.

Her life with Granddaddy was one of rhythm and quietness, a rhythm that had place for work and play, productivity and entertainment, spiritual disciplines and naps. Granddaddy’s work ethic was undisputed, and Grandmother always sought to be helpful alongside him, howsoever she could. And yet alongside that work ethic was a joy in life that gave rise to their particular way of taking vacations: that when we would ask them, “where are you going,” they typically responded, “we don’t know.” And so they would take off with bro. and sr. Fields, with bro. Kermit driving, wheresoever the mood or the Spirit led them; or Granddaddy would drive Grandmother with many of the women in her family—Faye, Thalia, Jewell, Rene and Snook—to see the fall foliage Grandmother loved, or wherever the women wanted to go.

This kind of characteristic joy in life was undergirded by a quiet rhythm—lunch was always followed by some quiet time reading or just being still in their living room; and [my cousin] Jeffrey recalls how, no matter how late to bed, that the mornings had time before breakfast for Bible reading, which typically took the shape of listening to recordings of scripture on 78’s. Every Thursday was highlighted by fried Chicken Day at Tebo’s, every Saturday night was marked by Lawrence Welk, and every Sunday and Wednesday characterized by church attendance. Many afternoons gave opportunity for Grandmother to watch her “shows,” and time for Scrabble or Dominos. (It is a dear memory, which I wish every boy could know: me taking a nap on the sofa after we had eaten fried chicken for Thursday lunch, while Grandmother watched her “shows,” the sofa where I dozed next to her rocking recliner; the grandmother holding the hand of the boy, the boy waking sometime later to play Dominos, or read a book, with his grandmother.) And every Christmas was characterized by ambrosia, sausage balls, fudge, the “money tree,” and the old bell that hung from the dining room door-way, playing “Silent Night” at the pull of the string.

Grandmother worked not only at the office but at home; there were so many wonderful family meals at the dining room table, with Jeffrey, Conrad and [my other cousin] Andrew often throwing Grandmother’s parkerhouse rolls across the table to anyone who said “please pass the rolls.” Their home was a place of great hospitality, whether for meals or for spending the night, so that Grandmother said she often would not know how many boys might come up from the basement on a Saturday morning, never knowing how many friends [my father] Jim and [uncle] Bill had invited to spend the night. And before the preachers for the Gospel Meetings would be housed in motels, they would often be housed at Grandmother and Granddaddy’s.

As they loved their children, so they loved their daughters-in-law, Gayle and Betty-Lou, and their grandchildren. Their white Datsun was always at the ball games or tennis matches; Conrad recalls them honking their horn whenever he would make a hit or field a ball. They were always in the stands at Jeffrey and Andrew’s football games. And they were always present to [my sister] Kathryn’s and mine piano recitals, with that sole granddaughter having a special place in their hearts, which showed itself simply in the cinammon toast that Grandmother always made at Kathryn’s request for breakfast. And Grandmother had the opportunity of loving many great-grandchildren. And as Conrad put it last night, “you know you’ve lived a good, full life when, at age 97, you can play Dominoes with your great-grandchildren—competitively!”

Grandmother’s life was a job and joy well-done. We will miss her immensely. But our lives will always carry her with us, for we are, in so many ways, who we are because of who she was. We give God thanks for the gift of her life to our lives.

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2014 Ryman Show ON SALE Now

September 8, 2014

Click here to buy your tickets to our 2014 Ryman show.


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AGAPE – What we like about our sponsors

September 3, 2014

Hello friends,

We’re delighted to have AGAPE’s support this year. AGAPE was formed in 1966 when several members of the Otter Creek Church of Christ realized that homeless children and orphans were being housed in institutions and were denied the opportunity to experience a home or a family. Today AGAPE exists to serve the needs of families and children in Middle Tennessee through adoption, foster care, unplanned pregnancy support services, and faith-based counseling and psychological services with an unconditional agape love.

This year the agency will conduct over 12,000 counseling sessions in seventeen locations across the region, and at any given time will be serving fifteen to twenty families through adoption, foster care, and maternity support.

We’re thankful to have such most outstandingly wonderful partners.

The 2014 Tokens season continues Tuesday, September 9, 7:30 p.m. at the Collins Alumni Auditorium, Lipscomb University, Nashville, Tennessee. Ellie Holcomb will be joining us as our special guest

Buy tickets via our tickets page, or by calling 615.966.7075.

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Climb Nashville – What we like about our sponsors

September 3, 2014

Hello friends,

We’re most delighted to have the good folks over at Climb Nashville joining us as a Presenting Sponsor of the show this year. Climb Nashville, in addition to being the finest indoor rock climbing facility in town, is one of the largest in the whole of the south-east. Climb Nashville’s a safe, family-friendly environment. And, good news for those of you living in East and West Nashville, they’ve got two locations – one at 1900 Eastland Ave. and one at 3600 Charlotte Ave. Indoor rock climbing’s fun for the whole family, so grab your sons and daughters, your grandmas and grandpas and head on over to Climb Nashville for a fun-filled outing.

The 2014 Tokens season continues Tuesday, September 9, 7:30 p.m. at the Collins Alumni Auditorium, Lipscomb University, Nashville, Tennessee. Ellie Holcomb will be joining us as our special guest

Buy tickets via our tickets page, or by calling 615.966.7075.

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David Dark and Sarah Masen being awesome

August 13, 2014

Grateful to have received an invitation last night to the A Rocha singer-songwriter retreat dinner, and saw friends the likes of Sandra McCracken, Julie Lee, Britt Norvell, Andy Gullahorn, Jill Phillips, Buddy and Vicki Greene. Then after dinner, Sarah Masen interviewed her husband David Dark. Was a treat. I once heard David say that one of his ways of writing is to be a curator of quotations, and then after getting sufficient material, he edits and writes. So, here are quote-worthy quotations from David and Sarah. Or at least they are my interpretations, and likely not exact wording.

“‘It is what it is’ is the new ‘shut-up’,” says David. “That is, it is to say, ‘I’ve gone as far as I want to go with this conversation.’” To which Sarah added, “and it indicates that there is a deep hurt there.”

“Wendell Berry calls us to ‘pre-emptive sympathy.’”

“Try to go a week without using any labels, such as ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’–because we tend to love our labels as we love ourselves. Jesus teaches us not to call our brother a ‘fool,’ lest we be in danger of hell-fire, and our use of labels [of whatever opposing party] often functions in the same way that ‘fool’ functions in Jesus’ admonition.”

“You can’t get to the bottom of someone, sum up who someone is, by the use of any adjective.”

“I see ‘Christian’ as a public verdict instead of a self-descriptor.” [As indicated in the book of Acts: it was a term used by outsiders to describe this odd group of people. So perhaps we should not use it of ourselves, but see if anybody else would call us that.]

Playing off the great activist and poet and Catholic Daniel Berrigan: let us use language that “re-members” instead of “dis-members,” lest we fall into a spiral of self-justification.

Playing off Wendell Berry: “Economy” is derived from the Greek oikos, the word for “household.” So, says David Dark: “When someone says ‘it is good for the economy,’ it’s a fair question to ask, ‘whose household are you referring to?’”

“Art is a feat of attentiveness,” says Sarah, quoting someone whose name I forget.

“Hurry up and matter” is a psychological/cultural powers that is opposed to the imposing of a sort of stillness of Sabbath rest; and that Sabbath rest, according to some economies, is perverse.

“We are all trying to live meaningful lives,” closed Sarah: “that’s something to celebrate in each other.”

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Down in Dayton

July 25, 2014

We had a Most Outstanding time in the delightful town of Dayton, Tennessee last week.  The judge decided to be in no hurry letting us get into his courtroom to tape a show, so we had a bit of a scurrying about starting at 2:30 that afternoon to get all things set, which led to a bit of tardiness in our desired start time.  Nonetheless, all proceeded beautifully.

Two notions, intellectually, stood out to me:  Prof. Ed Larson’s contention that without the 1925 Scopes trial, it is likely that the American cultural landscape–having to choose between “faith and science”–would have not been so nearly divided.  The issue was on the cultural landscape, but it did not carry the sort of divisive weight it would carry thenceforward.

Similarly, Rachel Held Evans, in remarking upon her being raised in Dayton, indicated–without coaching from me, I’ll have you know–that she believed being raised in Dayton, under the shadow of the trial, had created in her a “false dichotomy,” being told she had to choose being the atheists with their evolutionary theory and the young earth creationists with their Bibles.  She narrated briefly how that sort of false choice had been eliminated, slowly, from her convictional toolset.

Other great fun: Ruth from Palmyra called in; the Tokens Radio Players depicted what the Scopes Trial might have been like had Nancy Grace been on the scene; and Wm Jennings Bryan, Clarence Darrow, and Brother Preacher held the Great Quote-Off.  We were delighted to have for the first time Hoot Hester on fiddle, and Sam Levine on clarinet and horns and whistles of varying stripes.

Our thanks to all of you who made the beautiful drive down from Nashville.

We currently anticipate airing of the show in mid 2015 on public television.

Pictures below, as well as on our Facebook page at Facebook.com/TokensShow.

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The Prophetic Imagination
of Bruce Springsteen

June 23, 2014

Grateful today for a contribution from Stephen Lamb. Stephen is regularly in the ranks of the good folks at our Tokens gatherings and, as a professional in the music world, has done some strings arrangements for Tokens that were Most Outstanding. Enjoy. — LCC

The first time I heard Wrecking Ball, the new record from Bruce Springsteen, I was driving through the middle of Kentucky on winding country roads, windows down, stereo cranked all the way up, wind whistling through my hair. I was on my way to the Abbey of Gethsemani—where Thomas Merton lived for most of his life—two days after my 30th birthday, looking forward to the time away to read, write, and reflect. With books by Merton (a first-edition copy of his memoir, Seven Storey Mountain, loaned to me by my friend Ian), Walter Brueggemann, and Wendell Berry in my bag as companions for the weekend, I found myself listening to Springsteen’s lyrics through the lens of Brueggemann’s and Berry’s words.

I wondered about the tension that I sometimes feel between the prophetic message of Walter Brueggemann and occasional romanticism of Wendell Berry. “God is always on the side of the poor and oppressed,” Brueggemann is fond of saying: the way he reads scripture and applies it to today’s world flows from that conviction, born from a lifetime of study and writing on the Hebrew prophets. Meanwhile, Wendell Berry’s work yearns for a simpler time and advocates a return to valuing neighborliness over consumption, and this can tend to romanticize the past. It seems willfully ignorant, or perhaps naive, about what it means to be a good neighbor in a global community, a world where your choices affect not only your neighbor across the street or the next town over, but also the individual made in the image of God who resides halfway around the world. One friend tells me that when he reads Wendell Berry, it all sounds like an old man yelling at the neighborhood kids to get off his lawn.

In a review of Wendell Berry’s What Matters?: Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth for Books and Culture, Alissa Wilkinson and Robert Joustra argue against the way that Berry’s writing seems to disregard the ways people seek justice outside of the model of a small community, how it can ignore the ways that the world has changed over the last hundred years, in ways good as well as bad. “This is why his poetry (and to some degree, his fiction, in its less didactic moments),” Wilkinson writes, “can ultimately teach us more than his prose. Poetry alludes where prose can merely preach.”

Still, maybe we need Berry’s prose, for in those moments where he uses the prophetic voice—a way of speaking that says nuances be damned, there’s a problem that needs to be addressed—he provides a wake-up call that cannot be ignored.

In his essay “Words Addressed to Our Condition Exactly,” essayist and novelist Scott Russell Sanders remembers reading Wendell Berry for the first time, when he was 26 years old. “Even back in my twenties,” he writes, “eager for a clear diagnosis of the world’s ailment, I realized there were more than two ways of relating to nature; yet I relished such decisive proclamations. . . . In an age of cynicism, here was an Ohio Valley neighbor who spoke with utmost seriousness about principles, virtues, and spiritual ambition. In an age of irony, here was a man who spoke with the solemn indignation of the Hebrew prophets.”

Tyler Wigg Stevenson, in his book Brand Jesus: Christianity in a Consumerist Age, argues that starting in the 60s, “The American story—which says you can shake off the bondage of your heritage—changed from a statement of possibility to a mandate: your parents’ generation cannot define you.” Indeed, Wendell Berry’s writings offer a prophetic challenge to the temptation to define oneself in this way, while Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics interrogate the struggle implicit in this statement, particularly in the context of the American Dream. They doubt whether it’s true, how you were told things would work if you followed a certain path. “My work has always been about judging the distance between American reality and the American dream—how far is that at any given moment,” Springsteen said in one interview before the record released.

While delivering the keynote address at the South by Southwest music festival earlier this year, Springsteen played the chorus to The Animals’ “We Gotta Get out of This Place” before declaring, “That’s every song I’ve ever written.” The search for a better life, built around the possibility of packing up and hitting the road, of casting off all restraints and starting a new life elsewhere is, in Springsteen’s catalogue, necessary because of the hopelessness permeating every crevice and back alley in your hometown. The future has been ravaged by the “fat cats” and those “up on Banker’s Hill”—the outside forces that destroy a community—which he writes of so often in his new album.

Wrecking Ball kicks off with “We Take Care of Our Own,” the first single from the record and the song that opened the 2012 Grammy Awards, lyrics sung with tongue firmly planted in cheek. “Wherever this flag’s flown / we take care of our own,” Bruce sings over and over in the chorus, articulating the promise of the American Dream, while the verses lament “good hearts turned to stone / the road of good intentions . . . gone dry as a bone,” and wonders “where’re the hearts that run over with mercy,” the “love that has not forsaken me.”

In the story Springsteen tells on Wrecking Ball, one finds a progression from anger—as told in “We Take Care of Our Own” and “Wrecking Ball” to, in its most explicit form, “Death to My Hometown,” anger over injustice, over the circumstances that lead to the loss of hope in the small towns of America—to hope for a better future, as in “Land of Hope and Dreams.” A song that, along with several other cuts from the album, is brimming with eschatological language. In this case, the song is built around lines from Curtis Mayfield’s song “People Get Ready”: “People get ready / there’s a train a-comin’ / you don’t need no ticket / just get on board.”

The metaphor of a train is one Springsteen has returned to frequently during his career. On the opening track of Magic, “Radio Nowhere,” a song that finds the narrator desperate for some kind of connection, he sings of “driving through the misty rain / yeah searchin’ for a mystery train,” hoping to “make a connection with you.” Important to understanding that track, I think, is the lyric change in the outro that is almost indistinguishable. “I just want to feel some rhythm,” he sings over and over before changing the line to “I just want to feel your rhythm,” with the sss sounds from the hi-hat obscuring the lyrics change from “some” to “your,” a change that has everything to do with everything Springsteen is trying to say, a line that embodies that desperate hope for some kind of personal connection, something that will make the future matter and help one make it through the night.

Last month, Wendell Berry delivered the 41st Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. He introduced his lecture by making it clear that, “In what I will say here I speak for myself, insofar as I must take full responsibility for what I say. But I know, as the diversity of helps in the making of this lecture has informed me again, that I speak also for predecessors and allies, without whom I could not speak at all.” In “We Are Alive,” the last track on Wrecking Ball—a song built around the riff from “Ring of Fire,” one of the many musical quotations on the record—Springsteen acknowledges a similar debt to those who have gone before, to those who have fought for and served as reminders of our need to pursue justice. He reminds us of touchstones in three centuries of our history—the first major rail strike (and general strike) in our country, the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., and of the experience of some immigrants today searching for a better home: “A voice cried I was killed in Maryland in 1877 / when the railroad workers made their stand / I was killed in 1963 / one Sunday morning in Birmingham / I died last year crossing the southern desert / my children left behind in San Pablo.” All of these voices, and many more, join in the chorus Springsteen is leading, becoming part of what the scriptures call the great cloud of witnesses. “Our souls and spirits rise / to carry the fire and light the spark / to stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart.” Wendell Berry ended his Jefferson Lecture similarly, after enumerating the ways that we, as a country, have privileged profit and consumption over love for our neighbor: “We do not have to live as if we are alone.”

After the thunderous applause had died down, after Berry had left the stage, the night ended with the master of ceremonies thanking Berry for “presenting a thought-provoking perspective on the importance of love and affection and the social life of our country,” but he went on to say, to amused laughter from the audience, “But as an official of the United States government, I’m obligated to note that the views are those of the speaker and do not reflect that of the United States government or any agency thereof.”

“We do not have to live as if we are alone.” One would not be hard pressed to interpret a large percentage of Bruce Springsteen’s extensive catalogue of songs over the last thirty-something years as attempts to communicate the same message. The role of an artist in our world today surely includes, among other things, the task of expanding our moral imagination, a phrase first brought to my attention by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. “The shrinking of imaginative identification which allows such things as shared humanity to be forgotten always begins at home,” Marilynne Robinson writes in “Imagination and Community,” an essay collected in her newest work When I Was a Child I Read Books.

When we become too self-focused, too intent on looking out only for ourselves, the artist can help us remember who we are and what our place is in the world. “There is at present a dearth of humane imagination for the integrity and mystery of other lives,” Robinson writes in another essay, “Austerity as Ideology.” “In consequence, the nimbus of art and learning and reflection that has dignified our troubled presence on this planet seems now like a thinning atmosphere.” It is into this climate that Springsteen’s new album has arrived, as the best-selling album in 16 different countries the week it was released. Into this “dearth of humane imagination,” he sings lyrics like these: “The hurricane blows, brings the hard rain / when the blue sky breaks / it feels like the world’s gonna change / And we’ll start caring for each other / like Jesus said that we might.”


After the seas are all cross’d (as they seem already
After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d
their work
After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist,
the geologist, ethnologist,
Finally shall come the poet worthy of that name,
The true son of God shall come singing his songs.
—Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

These are the words with which Walter Brueggemann opened (and titled) his now classic work Finally Comes the Poet. In the introduction, under the heading “A subversive fiction,” Brueggemann wrote that “to address the issue of a truth greatly reduced requires us to be poets that speak out against a prose world. . . . Poetic speech is the only proclamation worth doing in a situation of reductionism.” He addressed pastors there, primarily regarding the text of scripture, but I don’t think it stretches his point too far to extend this to artists, and to the work that Springsteen accomplishes with Wrecking Ball.

When Springsteen tries to tie together the stories he tells in these eleven songs, looking forward to what follows, he turns to religious imagery, his Catholic education having shaped his imagination in ways he cannot escape. The “land of hope and dreams” he sings of on the penultimate track, the arrangement built around “People Get Ready,” is reached by a train that carries saints and sinners, losers and winners, whores and gamblers, lost souls. It carries the broken-hearted, thieves and sweet souls departed, fools and kings. It’s a place where “dreams will not be thwarted,” where, finally, “faith will be rewarded.” That sounds remarkably like the New Jerusalem promised in scripture, where everything will be made new.

After quoting a number of passages from the prophet Jeremiah, passages that promise something in the same vein as what Springsteen sings about, Brueggemann, further on in Finally Comes the Poet, wrote about what this anticipation for the day when human life is restored looks like: “When the text comes to speak about this alternative life wrought by God, the text must use poetry. There is no other way to speak. We know about that future—we know surely—but we do not know concretely enough to issue memos and blueprints. We know only enough to sing songs and speak poems. That, however, is enough. We stake our lives on such poems.”

The songs, poems, and prayers I hear from Springsteen, Berry, and Brueggemann—these lines and melodies that allude to and speak of this alternative life—are part of what keeps me returning to their work. I welcome these reminders to pursue justice, because in this way we love God, by loving “even the least of these.” The stories they tell are surely enough to stake our lives on.

Stephen Lamb lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where he works as an arranger, composer, and copyist. When he’s not writing a string arrangement or printing out another thousand pages of music for a studio session or a symphony orchestra somewhere, you can usually find him hanging out at a local coffee shop or beer garden, book or journal in hand, or enjoying conversation with friends. Sometimes he dreams about being a writer. He blogs at Rebelling Against Indifference.

This post originally appeared on the Art House America Blog.

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Breaking Down False Dichotomies in Dayton

June 20, 2014

Our next Tokens episode is July 17. Concerned with the topic of Christian theology and the theory of evolution, it will be held on the site of the famed Scopes Trial of 1925, in the Rhea County Courthouse.

As evidenced by the recent developments at Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee, and as evidenced by my email inbox, we are not, in fact, beating a dead horse. So why stick our foot into this mess?

It’s a fair question. Here are a few of the reasons:

First, truth matters. Unless one is the greatest cynic, or a convinced nihilist, then ignoring hard questions about what we believe to be true is moral cowardice. Everyone must make pragmatic decisions about when and where to have given conversations, and the pragmatic, or strategic, decision to hold off on a conversation until a more helpful time is prudent and virtuous; but to refuse to engage a question because one is fearful of the backlash is cowardice and a great vice. This is so simply because truth matters.

Second, questions matter. I recall raising a question one day in my Critical Introduction to the Old Testament course in seminary, and the gray-headed professor replied with an observation: “Sometimes our questions assume things that should not be assumed.” That is, the particular questions we ask demonstrates what we think we already know.

Precisely because questions often assume things that should not be assumed, we have, both playfully and seriously, insisted that Tokens is about “breaking down false dichotomies.”

A dichotomy—presenting an either/or set of options—can be true or false. In some cases we must in fact choose either (a) or (b). However, oftentimes the dichotomies that are presented to us in popular culture are false dichotomies. “Do you believe (a) or (b)?” one asks, as if one has to choose. If the given question assumes things that should not be assumed, then it is a “false dichotomy.”

I do believe that there are many false dichotomies purported to be gospel truth in the arena of human origins. Well then, that just makes it a ready-made Tokens show, you know. Allow me to explain.

It is undoubtedly the case that American culture remains deeply divided over the issue of origins, creation, and evolution. It is also true that, in many ways, the division in American culture can be traced back to the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925, where a young high school teacher was criminally charged with teaching evolution in the public school—and found guilty and fined.

So, why take a Tokens show on the road to Dayton, Tennessee? Why stick our foot into these swamp waters, teeming with all sorts of as-yet-unseen critics vicious as any Tyrannosaurus Rex, ready to consume any who threaten their orthodoxy?

Here’s a major (set of) reason(s). (It may be of interest to some of you that this is, in brief, an outline of a closing lecture I gave to a class of undergraduate students this past semester, as we spent the semester studying Christian theology and the theory of evolution in Chile, where Darwin spent a great deal of time on his famed travels.)

(a) Many Christian scientists say that the evidence is indisputable that evolution is the means by which we have the variety of species we have today, including the human species.
(b) On the other hand, there are some Christians who say you cannot uphold the authority of the Bible, or any sort of traditional Christianity, and believe in the theory of evolution. Some of these further assert that the earth is only 6,000 to 10,000 years old.
(c) I am not a scientist, and my job is not to convince people of the rightness or wrongness of scientific theories. There are many people much better equipped than I to have public conversations about the various interpretations of the data garnered from geneticists, geologists, biologists, and so forth.
(d) As a theologian, my job is this: to listen carefully and fairly to the Christian scientists who are evolutionists, and to see that it is in fact possible to uphold traditional Christian beliefs (such as the Nicene Creed or the Apostles Creed) and believe in evolution. And in doing so, it is fascinating, as I recently experienced with my undergraduate students in Chile, to watch the ways in which coming at the Bible with a different set of assumptions opens up new possibilities for understanding not only what, say, the Book of Genesis is about, but what the very meaning of being human might be—and not in a way that threatens Christian faith, but deepens and broadens it.

But still, why stir the waters on this topic? Why is it important to listen to the Christian evolutionists, when one can be fat and happy in the Bible Belt without ever having to do so?

Because there is increasing evidence—anecdotal so far as I know to this point—that those represented by (b) above are in fact doing a great disservice to Christianity, all while claiming to be the only true defenders of it.

The great irony lies here: these partisans are actually leading good-hearted people to reject their faith, precisely because these partisans have convinced these good-hearted people that they must accept a false dichotomy. We have too many students going to college and taking Intro to Biology, where they encounter all the evidence amassed for evolution, decide they cannot with any intellectual integrity reject the theory of evolution, and then remember that their preacher told them that they had to choose between Christianity and evolution. So, they decide for evolution, and reject Christianity. This is an unnecessary tragedy, and it is a tragedy for which I think the preachers and teachers who teach (b) are responsible.

Of course the partisans represented by (b) are not solely responsible for the false dichotomy here under review. The H. L. Menckens and the New Atheists, who treat people of faith as if they were backwoods yokels who don’t own shoes and can’t read or write, they have done their grave part to develop an unnecessary animosity. We might even suggest that they have done as much as anyone to develop the sort of entrenched hostility to the scientific community: in one breath they deride it, and in the next breath they enliven it. So we shall have a few comedic, dare we even say critical, things to say about them as well.

So we are headed down to Dayton to see if we might break down some false dichotomies. And, I must say, there are some, so I take it, even more fascinating false dichotomies in the tale of the Scopes trial and the unfolding of the theorizing about evolution in American culture that we shall be investigating.

Come join us. A few tickets remain for the upcoming show in Dayton. For more information, click here.

Peace be unto thee, LCC

The upcoming episode in Dayton, Tennessee is being filmed for public television and is made possible through the support of a grant from The BioLogos Foundation’s Evolution and Christian Faith program. The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of BioLogos.

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