Saturday, August 22, 2009

Canning Pickles

Had coffee with a friend of mine last week, whom I hadn't heard from in awhile. He's a (very) part-time music minister at a small church not far from us, and while we're not exactly close, he sometimes seeks me out for counsel. In the right conditions, it's something I do pretty well, and I enjoy it. Part of my psychological makeup is a need to feel useful and competent, which I don't think is terribly unusual, but since I'm being transparent about my dysfunctions I might as well confess that I often enjoy the feeling of being useful (which includes the feeling of being very smart and insightful) more than the person's company. Sick, I know. This is my life.

My friend has a Yoder-inspired "radical discipleship" kind of theology similar to the one I tried to have before I stopped bothering. This tends to get him in trouble. There's a bit of a game to navigating an evangelical church when your theology doesn't quite match up, and he's so adamant that there shouldn't be a game that he refuses to play it. Plus, his situation is interesting: he gets a very meager stipend to lead music, which he thought was basically a staff position, until he learned recently that the elders mostly think of him as a benevolence case. That has to hurt a little.

Recently, his Sunday School class was studying the passage in Numbers about the 12 spies. The spies are sent into Canaan and 10 of them report that the Canaanites are a bunch of preternatural badasses and they might as well turn back, whereas Joshua and Caleb come back convinced that YHWH will fight for them and this will be a cakewalk. 10 were bad and 2 were good, as the old song goes, a conspicuous numbering that probably comes to us (perhaps along with the rest of the story) from the southern tribes somewhere around the 6th century BCE.

One of the obvious take-aways from the story, at the Sunday School level, is to trust in God despite the obvious circumstances. This is the angle my friend took, encouraging them that with God on our side, we can do anything God asks of us. This was met with resistance, however, from a couple of women in the class, who insisted that sometimes life is just too hard. We're human and frail. For good or for ill, they could relate to the 10 naysayers and weren't afraid to say so. When my friend tried to correct their theology on this matter, they began, rather loudly, to discuss canning pickles.

Later, when they got to the part where Moses falls face down on the ground, the class pondered what this might be about. Some suggested that Moses had simply given up, falling on his face out of pure frustration. My friend pointed out that the Hebrew word used in the passage means to prostrate oneself in worship, and that Moses was probably humbling himself before the Lord and surrendering the situation to God's control. He pointed out that it is a corresponding Greek word that is the one most commonly translated "worship" in the New Testament. The pickle canners responded to this by saying something to the effect of "Yeah right. Like we're gonna do that," whereupon they resumed their discussion.

Now, the story comes to me from my friend, so I'm not sure that you or I would have experienced the pickle ladies as quite that rude. Then again, they might have been. I don't know. But I invited him to look beyond both the passive-agressive tactics and the theological content of their resistance and consider their social context. This is a small town in a downward economy. It might not be terribly surprising that they identify more with the 10 "bad" spies. It's quite possible that, however much they might be faithful churchgoers, their religion has never really offered them the sense that they can do anything, and they don't expect it to.

Instead, it offers solace, repose, and a form of community in the midst of a repressive economy -- not just recession but capitalism itself -- that they're not allowed to see for what it is. What I call oppression, from my academic, leftist, nerdy white guy perspective, they call bad luck or hard times. I'm going to guess, and I'm going to sound like I'm stereotyping horribly, that they're probably more likely to have the country station tuned in while they're canning pickles than they are the local Christian pop station. Their theme song is probably less "I Can Do All Things" than it is "Help Me Make it through the Night."

These thoughts are inspired, at least in part, by a book I read for a comprehensive exam called White Soul: Country Music, the Church, and Working Americans. It's actually a theological work, whose author, Tex Sample (I did not make that up), studied at Boston University and now teaches at St. Paul's in Kansas City. His goal is to help the church understand and minister to working-class culture, using country music as the lens through which to do this, and along the way he offers a challenge to those of us who might look down our liberal bourgeois noses at working-class culture and country fans in general.

I'm totally guilty of this. I remember going to my first demolition derby, on a fluke, and though I admitted to really enjoying it, I qualified this to one of my artsy friends by saying "I felt like I should be eating pork rinds and wearing a wife-beater." The subtext here is that I was allowed to enjoy it only as a form of slumming. I've also made my share of NASCAR jokes. It's true; I confess.

As my friend and I discussed his Sunday School class, "canning pickles" quickly became a trope for the quotitidian, for the daily concerns of people who do not have time for or interest in arcane theological arguments. The pickle canners were saying, to my friend, that his theology was not practical for them. It was literally nonsense. They couldn't see any impact on their daily lives from his reading of things, and being theologically or exegetically correct was not a priority for them. They wanted cameraderie, fellowship, a bit of solace. They wanted their weekly opportunity to check in and be seen, maybe catch a bit of gossip -- to encounter the divine for a moment and then go back home to the roast in the crockpot. This ritual -- from the gossip to the roast, with the numinous in between -- serves to confirm both their perspective on the world and their place in it.

In this, I think they're like most people. Let's face it: the people who go into theology, or ministry, or religious studies, or become militant atheists -- and I submit these people have more in common than they might think -- are kind of weird. They think about religion a lot more than normal people do. It looms large in their minds. I remember listening to A Prairie Home Companion one night and discovering that, as odd as it sounds, I envied the people of Lake Wobegone, not for their idyllic life on the edge of the prairie but because their relationship with religion was so...normal.

Seriously, most people do not think about religion with the kind of frequency or at the level that I do, and sometimes I envy them. In a way, it's been my goal to find a way closer to where they are in spite of the fact that I'm constitutionally unable to be truly irreligious. Hence the turn from theology to religious studies, from being conservative to trying to be radical to admitting that I'm really just a liberal.

This doesn't make a lot of sense to my friend (not that I tried to explain it as such), who takes Jesus more seriously than that, to his credit. I don't find it realistic, and he's constantly running up against the realpolitik of a small-town church. I encouraged him to look at it more like a mission field, and to spend the kind of time learning the culture that a good missionary would, and that this includes the religious culture as well -- even when it clashes with his theology. I encouraged him to think less in terms of what he was there to teach than what he was there to learn. I also told him they wouldn't understand his theology until they knew what love looked like as it flows from his understanding of the gospel. Model that, and teach it, I said, and then they'll have a framework in which the theology makes sense.

In the meantime, he's learning how to can pickles.


India Henson said...

It makes perfect sense that these adorable women would identify with the 10 rational spies. Women (or spouses who are not the primary breadwinners) often follow their husbands' dreams in spite of the ridiculous ideology of their husbands. Even if they were to point out the hazards of moving to this place or taking that job or going to that church, husbands usually overrule these well-thought-out arguments. They are, after all, the bread winners and power brokers of the marriage. Eventually, women learn to can pickles and ridicule their husbands to their pickling companions.

I'm not surprised that they quit listening to their teacher's lesson. They've heard it all before. Pickling, however, has some interesting variants.

Irritable said...

Nicely done, India.

I once dragged my wife along on a hare-brained scheme. She was kept silent not by my overbearing domination, but by my sheer enthusiasm. Though there were some mildly redemptive elements, it was mostly a disaster.

I listen better now.

terri said...

Peeked in on your blog from Exploring Our Matrix....and I was pleasantly surprised to read this post. It has a sort of Lake Woebegone feel to it itself.

I quite enjoyed it.

Irritable said...

Thank you, terri, and welcome.

Bad Alice said...

This has made me think about the rural culture my mom grew up in, and which she went back to in her later years. I have a hard time imagining women in that area being quite so contrary. Actually, at my mom's funeral the preacher and a number of women from the church mentioned how many questions she asked. I think my mom drove them a bit nuts, when they would have liked to just rest in the familiar Sunday school tropes. Rural isn't quite the same as working class, though.

Irritable said...

Hi Alice, good to see you.

I'm not sure it's that much different; he was trying to move them beyond the familiar tropes, and they didn't see the point in it.

I think for a lot of people religion is part of the furniture of daily life, and not something you're supposed to ponder deeply. It's not that they're unthinking or shallow (though they can be, just like the rest of us!), but just that certain kinds of abstraction don't hit them where they live.

Some of us thrive on it, of course, and drive them nuts.

Philip said...

I stumbled into this looking for info on pickling cucumbers. Ha! One way or the other, its about faith.

Irritable said...


You're absolutely right. I'm glad you stumbled by.

the reverend mommy said...

Ah! Nice.

I'm glad to have found you!