Thinking Out Loud

August 24, 2009

Life Among The Lutherans: Garrison Keillor

“…So our family celebrated [the fourth of July], a day in one group of people split off from another group of people — it seemed like a happy thing to us — and we kept right on splitting off — we believed in the value of a good snit and walking out, slamming the door and never speaking to those people again.  Better yet, never speaking to them in the first place.  We were Sanctified Brethren, we believed that God had bestowed his truth on us and nobody else, and if you number had ever gotten above 12, we’d have found some way to break off with the others and form a new and purer group.  A church of, say, 3 people.  Two to procreate and one to watch and make sure they didn’t do it in an unscriptural way.”

GarrisonKeillorGarrison Keillor is an American humorist, author and the force behind “A Prairie Home Companion,” a permanent fixture of Saturday evenings in many U.S. homes as it broadcasts live, for two hours, on National Public Radio.   The show is a mix of music, poetry and radio drama, culminating with the monologue, which always begins, “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my hometown.”

“…now even ice fishing, in all its sanity and silence, has been blighted by the curse of this century which is communications.  Never before have we learned so much we didn’t need to know from people we don’t like and can’t get rid of in media that has only one purpose, to sell, sell, sell, and which has been steadily encroaching and circling and crowding out whatever peace and quiet is left in the cosmos…”

Much of his writing has to do with life in middle America.  On the one hand, he laments the passing of simpler times, while on the other hand he highlights the ability of some communities to preserve a sense of that simpler past.

“…Our public reputations depend on the opinions of the uninformed.  Each one of us is a book reviewed by critics who only read the chapter headings and the jacket flap.  We’re all a mystery.  We should all respect each other on that basis.”

Garrison Keillor - LutheransLife Among the Lutherans is a collection of those monologues, going back as far as 1983, and featuring the particular essays that deal with the religious side of life in this fictitious Minnesota town.  When you consider that most of them do contain some mention the equally fictitious Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church, narrowing it down to 28 stories must have represented a rather difficult editing process.  The book is appropriately published by Augsburg, a leading Lutheran publishing house.

“The organ is the enemy of worship, as most Christians know.  Scripture says, ‘Be still and know that I am God.’  This is not the organist’s philosophy.  Organists despise stillness.  They’re sitting there with the organ equivalent of a 300 hp Ferrari and they want to put the pedal to the metal and make that baby fly.”

In the preface, Keillor admits he did not grow up as a Lutheran.   But he understands the people intimately, and he understands the role that the church(es) play in a small town.    We only hear of one other church in town, the Roman Catholic parish, Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility.

“…It’s not easy being a minister and preaching to your own family — sometimes it gives a Lutheran pastor real respect for the rule of celibacy over across town.  Preach on forgiveness and forbearance to a congregation that includes one woman with whom you’ve had some arguments you’d rather not remember, including one that isn’t over yet.”

Truth be told, the book deals in the superficialities of church life.   But that said, once you get past the meandering plots and colorful characterizations, the book is actually rich in deep theology.   People live and breathe and act the way they do because they are acting on certain beliefs and convictions.   Keillor confronts issues and ideas which, in a pluralistic, politically correct, mostly secular society, simply never come up in normal conversation.

“…The people divided over the question ‘will we recognize each other in Heaven or will our spiritual forms not have our earthly features?’  The clergy fought this out for two years, some arguing ‘Yes, of course we’ll know grandma there, and she will know us — the family was meant to be eternal,’ and other people saying ‘No, we will go on to a finer and better life there and if you think your face is anything God would allow in a place of perfect bliss, then you ought to take another look.’”

Garrison Keillor (2)But Keillor doesn’t always celebrate this particular church culture.   Every page consists of material that could represent hours and hours on an analyst’s couch.   In the second to last chapter, there is an outpouring of angst greater than the sum of the previous chapters, wherein Keillor seems to regret a religiously repressive past that made him lack adventure or lack confidence or lack certain kinds of experiences.    However, much of this may simply consist of looking at growing up in the mid-20th century through a 21st century lens.

“The honest truth is that most of these young people marry because they desperately want to have sex and be normal nice people…so two people sense each other’s interest and availability, and powerful forces come into play…and the mothers of the two of them exert their influence.   A candidate is brought in for inspection and goes home, and afterward the mother says, ‘Well, I thought he was nice.’  And the way she says, ‘I thought he was nice’ communicates the fact that the boy is a dolt, about as bright as a mud fence, and none of this has much to do with honesty.   It’s more about sheer hope — that if you love somebody, or try to, and try to do the right thing, somehow it’ll all work out over the long haul.   And you set out down the highway of marriage, trying to ignore the many vehicles you see overturned in the ditch.

Why is that some of the most tormented people seem to produce the most innovative and quirky humor?   With Christmas fast approaching, Life Among The Lutherans is a natural gift idea for someone who, like Keillor, enjoys some sentimental reminiscing.    But it should also be read by a younger generation, if only to see what they escaped.   Unless they happen to currently reside in Lake Wobegon, that is.

“Christmas is a holy day that the early church fathers invented because they were in competition with the Roman religion.  One thing Christianity lacked was a big feast and the Romans had one toward the end of December, Saturnalia, so the Christians established Christmas, sort of like one chain putting up a store right near its competitor.  It doesn’t have so much to do with Jesus as it does with business, and it’s been a big hit;  the number of people celebrating Saturnalia and offering sacrifices to the gods has really diminished.”
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1 Comment »

  1. [...] I could criticize fellow Evangelicals, I wouldn’t criticize Lutherans.   For that we have Garrison Keillor, although he has spent enough time among Baptists and Pentecostals that increasingly a larger group [...]

    Pingback by The Place for Christian Humor and Satire « Thinking Out Loud — October 15, 2010 @ 2:31 pm


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