Month: March 2006
My short trip to the South has left me thinking about travel, which is one of the great privileges and pleasures of being alive at this time in history. We are on the cusp of a homogenizing of world culture driven by the relentless penetration of corporations into the farthest reaches of the earth. Anyone who traveled thirty or forty years ago, and travels again now, knows that the individual character of places is being dampened by the presence of multi-national corporate entities and the astonishing growth and availability of communications technologies.
I remember lying on a couch in a quonset hut in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska on the Arctic Ocean, watching WGN news out of Chicago. People tell me the same stories about being in Khyrgistan or small villages in Peru. Then, of course, there is the omnipresent cellphone and the horrifying reality of seeing KFC restaurants abutting the Great Wall of China.
Lament this as we might, it is the wave of the future. We happen to be at that most precious historical moment when the availability of travel allows us to see these places before they become so much like us that we have to excavate far beneath the surface to see their uniqueness in any meaningful fashion.
But the world does not exist to remain a theme park of cultural diversity for our entertainment and edification, so we have to accept this cultural flattening and learn to do that excavating in order to find the deeper truths that any place contains.
I was reminded of this as I traveled through the South of Nashville and its environs. I thought I should visit a plantation and make a quick dip into Civil War history, even though it would be so superficial as to be almost embarrassing. But I have managed, much to my chagrin, to get through life with only a cartoon historical knowledge of the Civil War: Gettysburg Address, Emancipation Proclamation, Monitor and Merrimac, Sherman’s March to the Sea, Harper’s Ferry, etc. You get the idea: disconnected snapshots, in dim focus, of primary historical events.
So when I pulled in to the beautiful little town of Franklin, Tennessee, and discovered that the battle that took place there in 1864 resulted in almost 10,000 casualties, I was both shocked and amazed. 10,000 killed or wounded, and I knew nothing about it? I was stopping in Starbucks, driving down strips of car dealerships and tire stores, and beneath my feet a battle had taken place that had been a pivot point in our nation’s history and had shed the blood of 10,000 men? What sort of cultural zombie was I?
Yet this is the nature of every piece of land we walk on. The last four years of my life have been spent trying to excavate the historical narrative of the journey of the Nez Perce people, so that others like me won’t have to drive down a highway and shrug disinterestedly when they pass signs that say, “Bear’s Paw battle site, 13 miles.”
And every inch of this land — every inch of every land anywhere in the world, has this depth of meaning, if only we take the time and expend the creative and imaginative energy to find the history it contains.
I remember with awe the time my wife and I spent in Oxford with our group of American students, watching our wonderful professor contextualize the landscape of England so that the kids could do more than walk around saying, “That’s cool” or “That sucks” or wondering where they would find the next McDonald’s. With the deft strokes of a master teacher he gave them the meaning and history of the canal network, significance and legacy of the religious divisions, the techniques of cathedral construction, and on and on.
To say he made history come alive is a cliche that only gets to the half of it. He made the land come alive with history. He became my mentor and model when I set out to write the Nez Perce book, and his passion echoes in my memory every time I try to bring that story alive for those to whom I speak.
It is imperative that we who have this privilege of travel not take it lightly. And it is imperative that we who hold the shaping of the children in our hands not take our responsibility as teachers and mentors lightly. Day by day, year by year, it is becoming ever more possible to skate across the surface of experience by moving from one familiar franchise to another, and filling our travel time with the pursuit of trinkets and bargains and souvenirs. But even such a place as Disneyworld has a history and a place in our cultural experience, not to mention a demographic, ecological, and economic significance for Florida, as well as a deeper history of peoples long dispersed or annihilated and a land once trodden by bootsteps of Conquistadors.
No small part of the challenge of the modern world is to fight for an awareness of the vertical nature of human experience in the places we have the good fortune to travel. We have a gift before us, as I was reminded once again on my recent southern visit. It is our duty and our privilege to be able to pass it on.
My entry on my quick visit to the South hit a few buttons. The responses ranged from the appreciative, “Y’all come back now, you hear?” to a somewhat scorching indictment of the South (by a Southerner)as a racist land of artificial smiles, intolerant Christianity, and beer-swilling good ol’ boys.
For the record, I will come back now, you hear? And for now, I’ll leave aside the artificial smiles and beer swilling good ol’ boys, because it is the intolerant Christianity I want to address.
This is a deeply rooted issue, and it is not confined to the South. I don’t even want to address it with the freight of the label of intolerance attached to it. I want to take the broader view, and that is one with which I have struggled since college, when one of my absolutely best friends, and one of the best men I have ever known, fell under the sway of Campus Crusade for Christ.
Suddenly, an ethical system, grounded in the miraculous and humanly improbable event of God designating a human to share his essence and being, became a monumental, instantaneous conversion experience. This particular distinction and tension was nothing new — it can be found in the Epistles, and, in some ways, finds its embodiment in the two people of Jesus and Paul. Jesus, after all, was not a Christian, but an illumined Jew, while Paul was a Jew who became an illumined Christian.
Those who find their Christianity in some form of Imitatio Christi, or the imitation of Christ, have always been at odds with those who find their Christianity in a Pauline conversion experience. You either try to live like Jesus in order to become more like him and to do his spiritual bidding, or you accept Jesus as a principle of immediate spiritual inhabitation, take him into your heart, and are changed.
This plays out in the Catholic-Protestant split over salvation by works versus salvation by grace, it has its echoes in the Gnostic controversies, and even shows up once removed and well-mixed with other belief modalities in the New Age ideas of developing Christ-consciousness.
But where I’m interested is the basic contemporary cultural-spiritual distinction between those who embrace Jesus and his teachings (with or without the claim of divinity) and those who see the acceptance of Jesus as an absolute change agent in their lives.
It is a very difficult and dangerous line. Jesus accepted whores and lepers, but he also said, “I am the way, the truth, and the light.” Does this mean that whores and lepers (metaphorically speaking, here) are embraced by Jesus’ all-encompassing love, or that they must “take up their cross and follow” him before they will be embraced? And, while we’re asking questions about interpretation, there is always the favorite issue of the rich man being like the camel trying to get through the eye of the needle. If we are to accept the literal interpretation, I’d say that a Humvee is about the size of a camel.
However, taken further, we in the empire of America are all the rich, so suddenly we are cast back into the currently unpopular world of the social gospel and libertation theology. It is a running stream that, once let loose from the dams of one’s comfortably built spiritual barricades and seawalls, goes almost where it will.
The real issue, as it plays out in the world rather than in our internal theological arenas, is whether we embrace the beliefs of others as an act of Christian openness and love or whether we seek to change those beliefs as a way of guiding them to a true understanding of God’s appointed way on earth. The former leads us to moral relativism where tolerance demands that we accept some things that are clearly not good, while the latter leads us to absolutism that moves rapidly toward spiritual blindness and imperialism.
Sadly, there are no easy answers. But the point is that Christianity, like all religions that posit a God somewhat in our own image, is fraught with complications and contradictions that our minds cannot easily address.
For myself, I’ll go hang out with William James, who said, in effect, that “when we try to understand God, we are like dogs and cats in our master’s library.” And I’ll listen to those two men I quoted in Small Graces: The Quiet Gifts of Everyday Life:
Confucius: “Bring peace to the old, trust in your friends, and cherish the young.”
The Old Testament prophet, Micah: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
You give me a bottle of good red wine and a couple of hours with those two fellows in William James’ library, and I’ll tell you what Jesus wants. Until then, I’ll just keep writing.
Y’all come back now, you hear?