19 June 2008

Rolling and reading

Judy and I are in Lebanon, Indiana, on our way to Cincinnati, Richmond IN, and Indianapolis (and eventually Portland, Maine, and from there to Elektrostal, Russia). We have the television on, and are seeing vivid coverage of the floods here in the Midwest. But we don't need the pictures to believe the scale of this disaster; all along our journey here from Portland, Oregon, we heard first-hand details from railroad staffers and passengers. As we got off the train at the Minneapolis-St Paul station, one passenger said to another, "I hear that most of the water is out of our house. But my brother-in-law is still underwater."

The Iowa state government has a Web site with information for donors and for people affected by the floods.

Judy and I left Portland, Oregon, on the Amtrak "Empire Builder" train this past Monday. It's been nearly 20 years since our last long-distance ride on Amtrak, and the years have not been kind to the USA's passenger rail service. Years of politicking and financial uncertainty seem to have produced a corporate culture that seemed to me (with apologies to any of you who work for Amtrak) to be thin, amateurish, and slightly resentful. We could not blame Amtrak for the awful floods along the Mississippi River system, and the consequent need to substitute bus for rail between Minneapolis/St Paul and Chicago, but the lack of information to passengers, the last-minute confusions, the truly awful bus trip (despite a super driver), all seemed more about management than meteorology.

The on-board route brochure was not the best marketing. Its upbeat language described a level of service that cannot actually be reliably delivered; at the same time, nobody had edited the text, so that many paragraphs (for example) referred to photos that were simply not there.

However, let's be fair: During our forty hours on the train, we were safely and comfortably carried through scenes of indescribable natural beauty, with wonderful commentary from Park Service volunteers for the climactic stretch. Nobody confiscated our liquids and gels or asked us to take our shoes off; our seating areas were twice as large as those on airlines; we were allowed TEN pieces of luggage between the two of us; we could walk around or lower our tray tables whenever we wanted. We arrived in the Twin Cities two and a half hours late, but despite the flood-related transfer, our express bus to Chicago arrived only two hours after our original scheduled train arrival time.

"Country music is considered a highly traditional music, and train songs are at its heart." I was in our train's lounge car when I read these words from Rodney Clapp's book Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction: Christianity and the Battle for the Soul of a Nation. "These very songs, especially now that rail passenger travel is almost entirely a thing of the past, intentionally hearken to old ways. Yet even as they were written and sung at the peak of rail travel, most country train songs themselves lionized transience, not permanence, and times ahead, not those behind. These are apparently traditional and nostalgic songs themselves enamored with restless movement and progress."

The 48 hours we spent in Amtrak's care gave me a chance finally to finish reading and meditating on this excellent book. So many themes central to contemporary Quaker thought are touched on in this book--the struggle with elitism, the role of prophetic religion, the legitimacy of patriotism, the theology and spirituality of nonviolence, just for starters; I'd love to see lots of Friends reading and commenting on this book (as well as Clapp's earlier meditation on the discipleship of social presence and courteous, assertive dialogue, Border Crossings: Christian Trespasses on Popular Culture and Public Affairs). Friends who tend to dismiss evangelical Christian thought may never have encountered this kind of writing; Friends who embrace evangelicalism may be equally startled by Clapp's direct challenge to cheap grace.

In Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction, Clapp is, in part, measuring Johnny Cash's stature by showing how the great country musician both embodied and deliberately defied the contradictions inherent in being a Christian performer, a Southerner and a patriot. But Clapp's primary purpose is not to cause us to admire Johnny Cash, although he succeeded in that (for me, anyway); it is to ask us as Christians to consider the hard intellectual and spiritual work inherent in advancing "democracy for grown-ups." If we can see "contradictions" as occasions for dialogue rather than for distress that we can't impose unity, then Clapp's book provides a whole series of interrelated dialogues, perhaps especially between the "democracy of the parade" that characterizes the U.S. North and the "democracy of the revival" in the South. An earthier formulation for dialogue is suggested by Rodney Clapp's first sentence of Chapter 3: "In country music, holiness is the pork to hedonism's beans."

Contradictions that are openly named and discussed can be great dilemmas, but hidden contradictions can do immense harm. An important example in Clapp's book is provided by right-wing politics, which depends for its captivating power on a number of concealments--such as the amount of government resources required to clear the way for, defend, and continuously undergird the interests of capitalists who go on to pose as anti-government.
From Reagan to George W. Bush, the New Right has attracted Americans across the spectrum by marrying "lower-taxes" libertarianism (especially advantageous to the most wealthy) to social conservatism (resonant with middle- and lower-class Americans worried about cultural and communal degradation). In political and cultural terms, it has been an extraordinarily successful marriage. However, perhaps partly because of its success, the New Right has gone to extremes that now threaten the marriage and clearly have not served living democratic community, and indeed, real community of any other sort.
Rodney Clapp also takes direct aim at those on the political left who marginalize faith, treating it "at best as an epiphenomenon and an instrumental or secondary good [and thereby failing] ... to understand the devout as they understand themselves." (And, needless to say, consequently losing access to a crucial dialogue.)

Christians have much to contribute to building "democracy for grown-ups," according to Rodney Clapp. For example (and here's a ticklish one for Quakers!), the doctrine of original sin is an important antidote to the myths of progress and American innocence. And Christians can be (ought to be) a standing challenge whenever politicians use scapegoating techniques. Significantly, Clapp numbers anti-gay campaigns among his examples of scapegoating.

Righteous links:

Where I'd be in Portland tomorrow evening if we were not on our way east.

Edgy apologetics: clash of the committed, Christian vs Muslim. I have mixed feelings about this story. All we need is more intercommunal fireworks, but doesn't dialogue involve taking risks for honesty? (Here's a link to a PDF-format article I found helpful, C.M. Naim's "Getting Real About Christian-Muslim Dialogue.")

Mary Kay Rehard's Kenya News blog presents excerpts from an interview with Oliver Kisaka, a Friend who serves as vice president of the NCCK--the National Council of Churches of Kenya.

Tricia Gates Brown of Northwest Yearly Meeting edited Christian Peacemaker Teams' book about the hostage drama/tragedy of 2005-06, 118 Days: Christian Peacemaker Teams Held Hostage in Iraq.

Changing times in Norway: Two stories from aftenposten.no's English-language pages. Wilhelmsen, where my Uncle Martin served as a skipper, decides to flag out to Malta; and retailers protest against unfair application of no-Sunday-shopping law.

UPDATE: Another flood-related Web site provides easy access to a number of states' agencies and responders, and other donor resources.

One of the founders of rock music, Chuck Berry, looks back at the blues:

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