An Evangelical Pilgrimage
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Posts from — August 2009

Songlines

familyofsouthwaleswilliamblake

Portland, OR :: It bothers me that I haven’t been able to summarize this project for the “About” page of the blog. No kidding, I wake up every morning worrying over what that might mean. I wrote a little in a previous post about what the project is not, but hardly anything about what it is.

When I am asked in person to describe OTNR, I ramble awkwardly for five minutes. I say something about growing up in the evangelical church, and something else about exploring our spiritual heritage; I go on about visiting churches and talking to people along the way, and then, when the person’s eyes glaze over, I say the only thing I know for sure, which is that I don’t know what to expect – that the the project will be shaped by what we find out there on the road.

“Do you know where you’re going to go?” is another common question. But we don’t really. We hope to spend October with my parents in Keizer, Oregon (just north of Salem), November in northern California, and December in southern California. We’ll spend January and February somewhere on the west coast, though we don’t have definite plans. Then in late February or early March we’ll start from Portland and point our camper van, RV, or trailer east. I’d like to head immediately to Lincoln, Nebraska to visit my old church. Who knows after that. “Do you know where you will go?” is a completely reasonable question. (It’s also, come to think of it, a question with two meanings for many of the people I hope to talk to on this journey.) But I can’t give you a good answer.

I feel a bit like the Australian Aborigine who, submitting to the call of the “walkabout,” sets out on a moment’s notice and follows the invisible paths of his ancestors. These invisible paths are known to indigenous Australians as “Footprints of the Ancestors” or “Way of the Law.” To Europeans they are called “Dreaming Tracks” or “Songlines.”

The great traveler Bruce Chatwin wrote in a book called “The Songlines” that “wherever men have trodden they have left a trail of song (of which we may, now and then, catch an echo).” Chatwin imagines that “these trails must reach back, in time and space, to an isolated pocket in the African savannah, where the First Man opening his mouth in defiance of the terrors that surrounded him, shouted the opening stanza of the World Song ‘I AM!’” This is the best description I have for the project. It’s not even mine, but it will suffice for now: we’ll be traveling along the songlines of American evangelicalism.

All this is to say, be patient, dear reader; stick with us. Hope with us that the details of the project will unfold as we submit to its momentum.

August 30, 2009   2 Comments

Happy Camper

happy camper plate

Portland, OR :: Kate’s mom bought this plate in California for Molly before we told her (Kate’s mom) about our plans to travel around the country. A lovely coincidence.

P.S. Portland, OR :: I cross-posted yesterday’s post about evangelical myths over at the BWC blog. There are sixteen great comments so far. Check them out.

August 28, 2009   2 Comments

Guiding Myths

nothernexposurethanksgiving

Portland, OR :: A couple months ago I started watching the television show “Northern Exposure” on DVD. “Northern Exposure,” which ran for six seasons on CBS starting in 1990, is set in the fictional town of Cicely, Alaska. One of the most fascinating themes of this quirky, funny, and sometimes deeply moving series is the way Cicely’s white and Indian residents co-exist in community. One of my favorite episodes in Season Four depicts the Thanksgiving celebration, which in Cicely has taken on elements of El Día de los Muertos. Indians ambush whites on the street, pelting them with tomatoes – and then they hug, friends. The holiday culminates with a parade down main street with the Indians dressed as skeletons and spirits. Then everybody gathers at The Brick tavern for a community feast.

I’m in Season Five now, and an episode I watched yesterday corresponds nicely with something I’ve been struggling with re: this project. A recurring character in the show’s later seasons is a local shaman (he prefers the job description “healer” to “medicine man”) named Leonard. Since he is taking on more white patients, Leonard decides to do some research. He sets up a table in the community center and invites whites to come in and tell him their legends. One white man tells Leonard the story of Paul Bunyan. “How often do you think about that story?” Leonard asks (I’m paraphrasing). The man replies, “Oh, I haven’t thought about that story in years.” Other whites tell him campfire stories like the one about the man with the hook. But these stories aren’t what Leonard had in mind. Toward the end of the episode, Leonard is talking with the white DJ of the local radio station. “I’ve failed, Chris,” Leonard says with a defeated sigh. “I’ve failed to locate the white collective unconscious.”

I laughed out loud.

I read somewhere recently that many pilgrims will prepare for their journey by studying the stories, legends, songs, and myths of the land and people they plan to visit. This is one way I want to prepare for my own pilgrimage through evangelical America. But I feel a little like Leonard in that episode of “Northern Exposure.” I have failed so far to locate American evangelicalism’s collective unconscious.

What are the guiding myths, so to speak, of American evangelicals? Do we look to stories of the Puritans and the Piligrims (speaking of Thanksgiving), or to a particular interpretation of America’s founding? Does the Left Behind series qualify? Those stories do act as a symbolic representation of a meaning system – the beliefs, assumptions, and organizing principles – of a great many people in this country. What about “The Purpose Driven Life” or books by James Dobson? My sociologist friend Matt suggested I may have to approach these questions from a regional perspective – reading Jerry Falwell, for example, to better understand evangelicals in Virginia.

None of these are particularly satisfying, and I am starting to wonder if I am looking for something that doesn’t exist. Is American evangelicalism so individualistic that the only guiding myth that matters to the average evangelical is his or her own testimony (conversion story)? If this is true, what are the consequences for the movement? What does it mean that we don’t have stories to bind us together?

What do you think? Do American evangelicals have guiding myths? Does the shortage of these stories (if in fact there is a shortage) say something about the individualistic nature of evangelicalism? or about its regional and denominational complexity? I’m lost in a morass of questions.

August 27, 2009   4 Comments

Welcome to Beaverton

CedarHillsCrossing

Portland, OR :: Today was supposed to be a productive day. Molly stayed overnight with my parents in Salem. Kate is visiting her dad in California where together over the next five days they will build a new shed on his property near Grass Valley. Since I will have Molly the first part of next week, today was a work day. But with my family out of town, I needed a change of scenery. Our house is too too empty, too serene without the sounds of Molly squawking and laughing and running across the floor above my basement office. I couldn’t possibly get any work done under those conditions. I decided to drive to the Beaverton Powell’s and check out a book recommended by my friend Ramón. Then I would set up my computer at the World Cup coffee shop connected to the bookstore and do some work.

Beaverton is a suburb of Portland. It’s not very far away – Google Maps puts the distance between my house and the Cedar Hills Shopping Center, where Powell’s is located, at a little over 14 miles – but the two cities are separated by sizable hills (in Nebraska we call them mountains), and only a limited number of feeder roads weave through the hills to connect the suburb to the city. The usual route from Beaverton to Portland is I-405 to Highway 26 West. This is the most straightforward course; it’s also the only one I know.

I didn’t know this when I set out today, but 405 is closed for construction. All northbound traffic is being detoured onto Highway 26, which involves rerouting the heavy flow of Beaverton-bound vehicles through downtown Portland. To make a long drive short, it took me two-and-a-half hours to drive 14 miles.

I am amazed at my ability to doggedly persist to do those things which are least defensible, if not plainly wrong – and my lack of perseverance in doing what I know to be right. The longer I waited in traffic the more important it became for me to get to Powell’s. The book I was going to look for, “The Last Word” by N.T. Wright, a book I didn’t know existed until last night, became more important to me with every pump of the brakes. The drive to Beaverton took on the significance of a grail quest.

Kate and I talked on the phone several times during my drive and she asked me why I didn’t take the traffic jam as a sign, turn around, and go back to Beaverton another day. “No,” I said, “I am too mad at the traffic to give up. I’ve already invested 90 minutes of my day in this pursuit. I will get to Beaverton even if I have to walk. No one in the world wants to be in Beaverton more than me. There is no where else in the world I would rather be than Beaverton.”

You know how the story ends. I get to Powell’s and the book is in the computer system but not on the shelf. The woman at the Info desk looks everywhere, in the warehouse, on the shelving carts, but the book has disappeared. At a party later that night I tell the story to my friend Matt, who lives nine blocks from my house, and he says, “Oh, I have that book” – as in, “You can borrow it, no problem.”

There are at least two possible morals here: The grail (in this case, the N.T. Wright book), which can only be seen by the pure in heart, was not available to me because venturing forth into the world I became sullied by the world. Sprawl, cars, interstates, construction, gridlock, fossil fuels, smog – these were obstacles to be pushed past, even as I was participating in and contributing to them. Or perhaps the moral is that the grail was never “out there” at all; it was closer to home the whole time.

I suppose the lessons aren’t mutually exclusive.

August 22, 2009   1 Comment

Bringing Portland With Me

hipster

Portland, OR ::
So this is unexpected.

Since moving to Portland in 2005 I have scrupulously avoided adopting certain styles and customs that might imply a desire to follow local conventions. The three characteristics that might identify me as a Portlander I have had since Fresno, which is the anti-Portland: beard, iBook, chunky glasses. While I do occasionally drink Pabst, in the last four years I have just said no to faux hawks, messenger bags, skinny jeans (this was best for everybody), The Smiths t-shirts, chains, sleeve tattoos, fedoras, Chuck Taylors, and mud wrestling. I have nothing against these things on principle – some of my best friends have flesh tunnels, ride fixies, go to pirate-themed parties, and are more likely to listen to Arcade Fire than, say, Willie Nelson. It’s just that I have this one particular neurosis: I can’t be perceived (and it is all about the perception) to be conforming. Accept me or don’t accept me, I’ll still wear my flip-flops and cargo shorts and brown t-shirt from the sushi bar in Chico. I’ll listen to Willie Nelson and ride my 21-gear bike.

It’s gross. I know.

But something interesting is happening. Now that Kate and I are leaving the city for a time, I have a strong desire to be recognized as a Portlander when we travel to Lincoln, Nebraska, and Dallas, Texas, and rural Mississippi, and Portland, Maine and everywhere in between. I want to go out and get t-shirts from all my favorite coffee shops, and plaster bumper stickers that say “People’s Republic of Portland” and “Powell’s Books” and “Support Native Oregon Beer (SNOB)” on my laptop. Tomorrow I am going to pick out new glasses and I am seriously (seriously) considering getting some of those oversized black glasses like Elvis Costello wore on the cover of This Year’s Model – Costello and the guy who used to work at the Belmont Stumptown.

Kate and I have spent a lot of the last 20 months planning ways to get out of the city. Now that we’re leaving, I want to bring it with me. Is that called home?

August 20, 2009   9 Comments