Another Week Ends

1. Awesome, awesome story about a funky gospel music guitarist in the Atlanta area named […]

Ethan Richardson / 10.14.16

1. Awesome, awesome story about a funky gospel music guitarist in the Atlanta area named Don Schanche, who also happens to be white. The Bitter Southerner published Don’s story, which gives a beautiful picture of racial reconciliation happening not on some abstract or systemic level, but interpersonally, on-the-ground, as a fruit of the gospel. The message which reconciled Don to his own faith is the same message of welcome and acceptance that he received from those within these little, nowhere churches where he played.

I learned how to find the key when a singer jumps into a song without warning, how to feel the changes in a tune I’ve never played before and get the hang of it onstage by the second verse. I learned where in Macon and Atlanta to find the little clothing shops still run by Middle Eastern immigrants who could sell me a sharp suit to match what the rest of the band was wearing. Not an expensive suit — but sharp. A band might spend as much time discussing what to wear as it does rehearsing music.I was walking around after a Macon performance one night when I ran into a black Milledgeville city councilman whom I’d known for years. Looking me up and down, he took stock of my white suit, purple shirt and purple shoes and asked, “Don, who taught you to dress like a brother?”

“The Emoni Gospel Singers,” I answered.

I have a gold suit, a white suit, a black suit, a brown-and-gold pinstriped suit, and even one that’s supposed to be peach-colored. In fact, it’s more of a Creamsicle hue, and I’m here to testify that a red-faced white man does not wear Creamsicle as well as a cool black brother. But I don’t care: I am in the number! I am part of the sound.

…To me, it means everything to be part of this gospel sound. To my fellow musicians, though, and to the pastors and the people, it doesn’t seem to be a huge deal to have a white member in the band.

Sometimes a visitor looks over in the musicians’ corner and asks, “Who’s that white guy on guitar?” My pastor tells me he replies, deadpan, “That ain’t no white guy; that’s just Don.”

I find it the coolest thing in the world to play gospel music, to be the white guy in a really tight black band, playing our hearts out, locked into a drive, deep in the pocket, tight like a ball bearing rolling around the polished steel shaft of a high-speed motor, getting a chance every week to back up singers who make pure soul music. And when I tell my friends what I do, they often agree it’s cool — sort of. Except that … well, it’s church. Most people I know, white and black, have bad memories of church hypocrisy, church prejudice, church money-grubbing. And even if they can put those aside, there’s Jesus, who confounds people on multiple levels. Besides all that, a lot of my friends believe in something else entirely, or simply don’t believe at all.

Here, I should mention something that should not go without saying, namely that I profess to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus. To say that is to risk being misunderstood, especially when what it means to be a Christian takes on ugly political overtones in this country. And my own understanding of what it means has shifted over the years. Suffice it to say I depend daily on someone who said the most important things in life are to love God and to love one another.

Along with [the pastor’s] willingness and the willingness of others to be inclusive, there’s also a way that believing in Jesus helps me. As I read the Scriptures, no one has a “right” to join Jesus’ church — not one of us sinners, black or white, rich or poor, young or old. We can enter only because he invites us, all of us. And as I thank God for saying yes, I thank my black brothers and sisters for not saying no. Only once in all these years has a pastor ever asked me, “Don’t you have your own church to go to?” — as I imagine she or someone she loved was asked that same question at some other time, in a church with some other color scheme.

2. While we’re on the topic of music, two other big ones to report. First of all, you may have heard that the Right Reverend Bob Dylan was handed the Nobel Prize for Literature this week for his “creation of new poetic expressions in the American song tradition.” (Understatement of the year.) There’s too much to link to in the archives, but go here to get your feet wet. Or here. Or here. And then there’s this quote, from a 1979 radio interview:

“Religion is repressive to a certain degree. Religion is another form of bondage which man invents to get himself to God. But that’s why Christ came. Christ didn’t preach religion. He preached the Truth, the Way, and the Life. He said He’d come to give life and life more abundantly. He talked about life, not necessarily religion.”

We could just close up shop now.

Okay, and then there’s the news of a never-before-published song fragments and poems from the Man in Black himself. Paul Muldoon has a review up at Poetry. This portion comes from Cash’s poem, “Don’t Make a Movie About Me,” about his reticence to fame and celebrity.

If they’re hot on a book called Man in Black Tell
’em I’ve got the rights and won’t give back If
you don’t know my tune you can’t get it right I
don’t talk about me in Man in White

As it turns out, Man in White is the title of Cash’s historical novel about the life of Saint Paul before and after his conversion. We’re reminded, of course, that Johnny Cash as the “Man in Black” is less gunslinger than psalm-singing preacher, the unapologetic nature of his Christian faith shining through in “He Bore It All for Me,” a piece that takes as its text Matthew 11:28, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

3. Election got your blood pressure up? You’re not alone. This one came out from Vox about election anxiety, in which 51% of Americans are reported to be “afraid of the outcome” of this year’s election, regardless of the side. So, hey, it’s a bipartisan issue. While every election seems to bring on a national spooked-out crisis, what’s interesting, though, is the purported “significance” of this election. Fewer people today say that the stakes are higher than they’ve been in previous years, which seems to me to indicate voter apathy instead.

Don’t know if you’ve noticed, there’s also a significant increase in anger and vitriol during this campaign. The Atlantic noted this trend of “cathartic indignation” in comedic environments, usually a much-needed buffer zone in times such as these. Samantha Bee’s spiel on Trump this Monday is exhibit A, a misfire in satire precisely because the anger and gracelessness that blinded her (and us).

The cliche about Trump is that he’s extremely hard to parody precisely because he so neatly parodies himself. There’s no work the comedian can add to make him funnier, no insight that can be added to make him more cartoonish or outlandish than he already is. But the corollary to all that might be that Trump also makes comedy hard precisely because comedy demands a certain emotional detachment on the part of both the comedian and the audience. You have to distance yourself from something to be able to laugh at it; and Trump, at this point, is very, very hard to laugh at.

But maybe your anxiety isn’t coming from political anger. Maybe it’s not the election at all, maybe it’s just generalized, you-being-you anxiety? This piece over at Quartz covers the hidden anxiety of American happiness, written by one of our favorites Ruth Whippman. She says that the pursuit of social, others-oriented happiness (as opposed to individualistic, self-oriented fulfillment) tends to bring about the individual kind.

Americans spend billions a year on mindfulness products and yoga, enough money in fact that savvy marketeers have even designated a whole new category they are calling “spiritual spending.” In a culture that loves consumerism, happiness has become the ultimate consumer product.

This is the American dream applied to the soul. The idea is that if you just put in enough emotional elbow grease, slog out enough hours of positive thinking, mindful coloring, gratitude-journal keeping, and self-help book reading, you will ultimately be rewarded with true happiness…

While real life socializing has taken a nosedive in recent years, with Americans spending less time with friends and neighbors than they were even ten years ago, there has been an explosion in the uptake of more solitary happiness pursuits. Many recent happiness trends, from self-help books to meditation, are designed to be carried out completely alone or in a group without interaction. The explicit aim is that each person stays locked in their own private emotional experience…But really this idea that we should each be plodding our own solo path to bliss flies in the face of everything we know about how happiness actually works.

4. In light of the rise of the religious Nones, a compelling argument over at Commonweal for the lost art of the sermon, and the power it has (and often forfeits) to speak into the lives of its hearers. Michael Peppard argues, from a Catholic layperson’s perspective, that a good sermon will fill the starving pews much more than a religious rite ever can.

Within minutes, you’ve lost us. But don’t just take my word for it. A recent study from the Pew Research Center demonstrates that the quality of sermons is the single most important factor in attracting people to church.

When they search for a new house of worship, a new Pew Research Center study shows, Americans look first and foremost for a place where they like the preaching and the tone set by the congregation’s leaders. Fully 83% of Americans who have looked for a new place of worship say the quality of preaching played an important role in their choice of congregation.

The good news about preaching the good news is that you don’t have to be a brilliant scholar or captivating orator to do it. The raw materials of the Bible and Christian history offer plenty to work with.

And while on the subject of Catholics, First Things ran a review of a documentary about the life of Flannery O’Connor, which was released late last year, the first of its kind. The director-writer Bridget Kurt, spent years uncovering photographs and stories from O’Connor experts.

As Uncommon Grace conveys, and Kurt emphasized to me in an interview: “Flannery knew that her suffering had meaning when united to the power of the Cross. She knew that pain was part of a greater mystery of redemption…

O’Connor would have taken no part in the “culture of death” warned against by St. John Paul II. As Kurt continued: “She believed in the dignity of each human being and in the principle that we are made in the image and likeness of God.” Influenced by Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil,” O’Connor’s work, said Kurt, “explores how easily human beings can engage in an evil act such as murder by first dehumanizing the stranger, the one who is different, the one who is inconvenient.”

Many readers are nonetheless shocked by the acts of violence that occur in O’Connor’s stories. But this was a technique O’Connor employed to awaken people from their spiritual slumber. O’Connor wrote: “My subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory largely held by the devil.”

5. On the TV front, the trailer for season three of Black Mirror have us here in the Mockingbird office very, very excited. It sort of seems like we could do a Technology Issue every year.

6. And can’t sign off for the weekend without telling you about the Barkley 100. The 100-mile ultramarathon that is begun by the ceremonial lighting of a cigarette, an ultramarathon that is so impassable that nearly all of the 40 runners who try it each year do not finish it. Set in the ragged terrain of Tennessee’s Frozen Head State Park, the competition is built for those who experience joy through the probability of their own failure. Quote of the article, from race founder Lazarus Lake: “I only regret you could not have suffered longer.” Takes the fetishization of self-improvement to a whole ‘nother level.

That’s it for now, folks. Bobby, take us out.

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