I’ve only seen a couple of movies this year that I really loved, and at the top of that list is Winter’s Bone (the list also includes Toy Story 3 and Babies. And Crazy Heart, but that’s officially a 2009 release). My review of Winter’s Bone was posted on the Rabbit Room on Friday – click hear to read it – and in the review, I quote from a book I’m reading now that I’m really loving, Rodney Clapp’s Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction. His discussion of the role music plays in our lives, the part I quoted from in my review, is very good, but what interested me most about the book, when I first picked it up, is this thought from the first chapter, America’s Southern Accent.
“The strongly southern accent or inflection of democracy as we now know it in the United States may helpfully be discerned by way of contrast. By way of broad and rough contrast, I want to suggest that American democracy is composed of two dominant strains: the democracy of the parade, based predominantly in the North; and the democracy of the revival, predominantly of the South.”
I picked up Rodney’s book just after reading the manuscript for a book my uncle is finishing up on the roots of American Fundamentalism, told through the story of our family, and Rodney’s book provided helpful ways of thinking through some of the things that came up as I read my uncle’s book, as has another book I’m working my way through, Richard Niebuhr’s Social Sources of Denominationalism, published in 1929. If you’re at all interested in the questions of why we believe what we believe and how our surroundings shape what we choose to believe, I highly recommend both of those books. And I’m sure I’ll be writing more about my uncle’s book as it makes its way towards publication.
I was rereading Reinhold Niebuhr’s first book (published in 1929) earlier today – it holds the distinction as having my favorite book title, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic – while Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Evening Service, Op. 37 was playing on the record player in the next room, and a pork sausage omelette was cooking on the stove. The book is a series of journal entries from Niebuhr’s first pastorate, where, fresh of out seminary, he would serve for 15 years before returning to the academy where he would spend the rest of his life. The entry that jumped out at me today was written in 1916, when he was just 24 years old. It immediately made me think of several conversations I’ve had recently with friends about the place of honesty and discernment in what to address in our work, especially as it relates to writing about childhood faith, my primary area of interest at the moment.
I had a letter from Professor L___ today suggesting that I return to college and prepare myself for the teaching profession. A year ago I was certain that I would do that. Now I am not so sure. Nevertheless the academic life has its allurements. It is really simpler than the ministry. As a teacher your only task is to discover the truth. As a preacher you must conserve other interests besides the truth. It is your business to deal circumspectly with the whole religious inheritance lest the virtues which are involved in the older traditions perish through your iconoclasm. That is a formidable task and a harassing one; for one can never be quite sure where pedagogical caution ends and dishonesty begins.
What is particularly disquieting to a young man in the ministry is the fact that some of his fine old colleagues make such a virtue of their ignorance. They are sure that there is no Second Isaiah and have never heard that Deuteronomy represents a later development in the law. I can’t blame them for not having all the bright new knowledge of a recent seminarian (not quite as new as the seminarian imagines); but the ministry is the only profession in which you can make a virtue of ignorance. If you have read nothing but commentaries for twenty years, that is supposed to invest you with an aura of sanctity and piety. Every profession has its traditions and its traditionalists. But the traditionalists in the pulpit are much more certain than the others that the Lord is on their side.