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October 2018 Show Reflection

The trinitarian doxology, says Jurgen Moltmann, “is paralleled by the social analogy of the triune God. The perichoretic unity of the divine Persons”—that is, this loving dance and communion, “for one another,” “in one another”—“finds its correspondence in the true human communities which we can experience—experience in love, in friendship, in the community of Christ’s people which is filled by the Spirit, and in the just society.”

We looked for just such social analogies as those indicated by Moltmann in our most recent episode was entitled “Bread. Wine. Water.” William Stringfellow, the great late 20th century social critic, lawyer, and theologian would speak of the task of theology in terms of looking for tokens of the resurrecting power of God in the world, and he would speak of bread and wine and water as just such tokens of this resurrecting power of God. We let all sorts of melodies and lyrics roll over us, inviting us to participate in the sorts of beautiful human communities of which Moltmann speaks.

So with a glorious rendition of “Down in the River to Pray” lead by The Orchardist, we were off and running. But it’s important to see that allusions to baptism are not mere “religious” ideas, mere privatized spirituality. In fact, Will Campbell in his great classic Brother to a Dragonfly, as I recollect, tells how William Stringfellow caused a great offense during a rally in Chicago during the American Civil Rights movement. At an inter-faith gathering concerned with the fraying social fabric, Stringfellow audaciously claimed that the real problem was baptism.

Undoubtedly his claim in such a context caused offense. But there is something profoundly true about Stringfellow’s claim: his point, I suspect, was not some sort of imperialist claim about the superiority of or need to impose Christianity, a sort of throwing a theological hand grenade into the midst of an inter-faith gathering. I suspect instead that it was a sort of humble claim that what we desperately need are social practices—more, graces of God—which can transcend the hostilities which threaten to destroy us.

This is one of the great challenges to those of us who practice the likes of baptism and eucharist: to refuse to compartmentalize them, but to ever be taken again by their beauty and possibility. Even that old 19th century song “Down in the River to Pray” with which we began the evening may have been not merely a moving song for a baptismal service, but a song about slaves finding their way to freedom.  And this is the beauty of it—that we need not choose one meaning over the other, for they are but different facets of the same proclamation by the triune God who is forgiving, setting right, and freeing, all in our midst.

This means, among other things, that we must see baptism—this is precisely, I suspect what Stringfellow was getting at—as that which allows us to transcend our hostilities, not the religious fiction of hostilities, but the socio-political fact of our hostilities. And on this score, Buddy Greene beautifully led us to another century old song, written in the decades following the continued division of American culture, which pointed precisely to baptism as a social practice transcending hostility:  “In Christ there is not east or west, in him no north or south.”

Then Liz Vice made her first—and I hope not her last—appearance on Tokens Show with a Rosetta Tharpe-esque performance of “Down by the Riverside.” Tharpe was the child of a Church of God in Christ Pentecostal preacher, and took to singing gospel songs in night clubs among scantily clad backup vocalists. The backlash from the pious illustrate the irony: it would appear they could miss the radical socio-political implications of the baptism songs we sing, because of the manner in which moralism has co-opted the faith. So Liz brought it all back, letting us hear in a new, even groovy way, “ain’t gonna study war no more, ain’t gonna study war no more.”

My colleague Dr. Lauren White followed with the first of two helpful interviews with Prof. Bruce Morrill of Vanderbilt Divinity School. Bruce is a Jesuit priest, and an accomplished organist, scholar and delightful conversationalist. Among other things, he and Lauren discussed baptism and eucharist as profound social practices, the one as the womb of the church, converts thus immersed in literal nakedness; and the other as a leveling of social stratification and hierarchy.

In fleshing out themes of forgiveness and reconciliation, I was grateful to get to perform Tom Waites’ “Down There by the Train”—a masterful, even shocking lyrical depiction of the deep longing and need for forgiveness. That left us with the need to hear from Andrew Peterson share Don Henley’s classic “Heart of the Matter.”  Always a delight to have on the show, Andrew’s performance captured Henley’s non-sentimental, deeply matured, even suffering awareness that forgiveness becomes one marker of what it means to live well.

With that much beauty and seriousness, it was time for Brother Preacher to make his appearance. He had clearly had some time to fuel up since his last appearance on the show; and he brought the fire. Perspiration broke out on my upper lip and forehead. It feels a bit like having all your friends for a great feast, and then the one person you’re sure might undo everything starts talking. We (mostly) all laughed more than we had in quite some time; and it’s always a (slightly) guilty laughter, not sure if we should be laughing or not, because Brother Preacher is just so wrong in so many ways.

But this, of course, is one of the gifts—and deep challenges—posed by Brother Preacher. “Satire,” I’ve heard Buddy Greene say numerous times, “is wasted on the church.” Satire, says the dictionary, is: “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.” Satire must never be taken literally, but always and only at a slant; which means it is quite possible (and understandably so) to be offended by it, and offended at numerous levels. But its social agenda is to hold up some common practice and ask if there is a certain level of stupidity in it, some stupidity to which we might otherwise be unaware unless we go through the sweaty work of hearing satire.

My major flub for the night, or so I think, was my failure to sufficiently frame Greg Lee’s performance of Randy Newman’s “Political Science.” This Newman classic satirically lyricizes his desire to “drop the big one, and see what happens.” After all, “we give them money” but they “don't respect us.”  So just “drop the big one, and pulverize them.” All of Asia, Europe, Africa and Canada are dismissed as, well, losers. Drop a few bombs, and we’ll have more room for ourselves.

I realized how thoroughly I had failed to provide cues that we were listening to satire when even the line “we’ll save Australia, don’t want to hurt no kangaroo” evoked no laughter. But that was not our only offense with our humor. A pun employing “#MeToo” seemed insensitive to a few, and engendered honest hurt; I felt honestly dismayed hearing the offense it had caused to some. Hearing of the hurt has prompted yet again a good deal of reflection about the function of humor, and the dangers entailed therein. Of course we meant no more dis-respect to women’s experience by the pun than we meant to take nuclear war lightly by including Newman’s song; consequently the sense of some that we had done so grieved me.

The Orchardist closed out the first half with a delightful and rousing “All of Me,” which one friend told me was worth the price of admission. The second half of the show was filled with yet more abundance of delights: Andrew Osenga’s performance of a track from his new album entitled “Mercy,” a poignant thanksgiving for the innumerable small mercies which make human communion possible; Buddy Greene’s classic delivery of Vince Gill’s “Bread and Water”; Lexi Cummings house-rousing rendition of “If I Can Help Someone”; Erin and Patrick Rickleton’s lovely new arrangement of an old classic in “There’s a Fountain Free”; and Liz Vice outstanding performances of “Blood Red Wine,” and “Let Your Kingdom Come.”

Anchoring all this beauty and goodness was our Most Outstanding Horeb Mountain Boys, comprising Josh Hunt, Brian Hinchliffe, Gabe Scott, Matt Combs, and Jeff Taylor; our writers Greg Lee, Kevin Colvett, and Lauren White; BGV director Fain Spray; along with the outstanding management staff of Bragg Management led by Christie Bragg; the stellar production staff of Stonebrook Media led by Phil Barnett; the hospitable and helpful folks at Christ Community Church; and our wonderful hosts at the Hutchmoot Conference, with special thanks to Pete and Andrew Peterson.

We’ll be releasing segments of the show on our YouTube channel. Subscribe by clicking here.

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