An Evangelical Pilgrimage
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Category — Pilgrimage

Guiding Myths


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


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