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Inherit the Wind: Tennessee, Fundamentalism, and Liberalism

Our friends in the College of Entertainment and the Arts at Lipscomb University have teamed up with the Nashville Repertory Theater to stage the American classic Inherit the Wind. Tickets are available here.

I’m particularly fascinated with Inherit the Wind given our foray a few years ago into the waters of science and religion and the evolution debates here in Tennessee.  Inherit the Wind presumes to depict the famed Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925. The play exhibits a narrow-minded and mob-fueled ignorant fundamentalism being soundly defeated by a coolly-reasoned and science-loving tolerant humanitarianism. The authors of the play were not interested in actual history, nor did they intend to fairly depict the historical figures who played into that trial.

They were, instead, much more interested in presenting an artistic shot across the bow of 1950’s-era McCarthyism, that mean-spirited and mob-fueled political fundamentalism which found communists under every rock. Ralph Waldo Emerson once suggested that a mob is “a society of bodies voluntarily bereaving themselves of reason.” And against such mob-mentality, Inherit the Wind artistically condemns the foolishness and dangers of such.

It’s important to note the significant differences in this work between art and history. The actual history of the Scopes Trial was much more interesting and complex than one might know otherwise. William Jennings Bryan, somewhat of a mindless buffoon in Inherit, was a fascinating character: one might never know, for example, that the reason this Christian fundamentalist was so distraught over the ideological spread of evolutionary theory was precisely because he was a social liberal.

Bryan was no early fore-runner of the “Christian Right.” Instead, his form of Christian fundamentalism insisted that the teachings of Jesus be taken seriously socially as well as personally.  The closest thing to a pacifist ever having run a serious campaign for President of the United States, Bryan believed that an ideological embrace of evolutionary theory, and its corollary of “survival of the fittest,” would (and in fact appears to have in serious respects) undergirded German militarism.

In other words, precisely because he believed Christians (and non-Christians) should take seriously the counsels of peace taught by Jesus, he thought the teaching of evolutionary theory should be challenged because it appeared to pose a grave threat to world peace. More, he was a great critic of unmitigated free-market capitalism, and saw laissez-faire economics as survival of the fittest writ large in the world marketplace.

I might say, in other words, that though Bryan got his biblical interpretation wrong, he seems to have gotten a lot right in his Christian ethic. The world is often funny that way. We must ever be astute to break down those false and generalizing false dichotomies that lead us to overlook such fascinating ironies.

In something of a parallel, Inherit the Wind gets its historical interpretation wrong, but its social questions right.

The dangers of mob-mentalities are increased surely a hundred-fold since 1925, with the black-box social media algorithms and echo chambers serving up whatever appeals to our prior convictions. So any opportunity to get us questioning ourselves ought not be missed.

So go check it out.

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