I was sitting on my front porch of the aluminum-sided duplex I rent from my mama and daddy, talking to my chickens and looking through the rusty old chain-link fence past a neighbor's immovable pile of junk and the port-o-potty that's been adorning the yard of a newly manufactured home like some perverse old local pine, at a kid in a hunter-green pick-up truck squealing out of the neighborhood, and I thought to myself, "This is why people call this town Bricktucky." It's an insult that I've only recently been introduced to, though I've lived here at the Jersey Shore nearly all my life.
Never mind that some of the most expensive beachfront real estate in New Jersey is a short two-mile jog from my neighborhood, or that nine miles southeast lies the party town where American television is creating the same kind of distorted vision of the Jersey Shore and Italian Americans that Neil Postman said it does of everything that matters. There's a Moose Lodge between me and the summering glitterati, and the most prominent Italian-American influence that I observe here, besides the dominant culinary one, is the Roman Catholic Church.
It shocked me, for example, to come home after a six-year sojourn in Orange County, California, and find the local Gannett affiliate reporting on Ash Wednesday services as if they were a matter for serious consideration. In the land of the mega-church, the impartation of ashes was an opportunity to be identified with him who was despised and rejected, or at least with him who was a religious sideshow oddity.
Speaking of the circus, there is the carnival that is summer at the Jersey Shore, and then there is a bucolic day-in, day-out life that nourishes those who live it. The same could be said of American Christianity. The abundant life resides in a parallel universe from the carnival performances of pseudo-celebrities and culture warriors left and right. Sometimes the universes intersect. Often they collide.
I didn't always know this. I had my favorite Christian authors and radio preachers. I heard a particularly insightful one speak at a conference once. He was getting close to retirement and sprinkled his talk with appeals to buy his books so that he could enjoy his golden years. Another one, whose radio broadcasts nourished my budding faith in the early 1980s, was, 25 years later, the only mega-church pastor in an affiliation of them to publicly stand by my husband and me after we publicly confronted his spiritual mentor's corruption.
You can be assured of one thing only when it comes to successful preachers and authors: they are compelling communicators. They've no doubt worked hard to get that book or sermon written while you've been lounging at the pool (or, in my case, the coop), but I've met and/or interviewed enough authors and speakers to assure you that prominence and godliness don't go together like Guidos and Guidettes. Your grandma is more likely to be an accurate reflection of the risen Christ than anyone who's sought and endured the limelight, including me.
You need to know this if you want to live the abundant life our savior promises rather than aspiring to the fun-house mirror distortion. Becky Garrison gets this and writes about it in her new book, Jesus Died for This? A Satirist's Search for the Risen Christ. Garrison is the daughter of an eccentric Episcopalian priest. Although her father preached civil rights in the South when that was a dangerous thing to do, he also reportedly dropped acid with Timothy Leary. She writes, "Dad overloaded his sermons with countercultural slogans that were full of tolerance but light on theology. Without the power of the risen Christ, Dad's civil rights activism that drew him to the priesthood was reduced to Sesame Street sing-alongs." About her progressive peers, she says, "When peaceful progressives downplay the life-transforming power of the resurrection, they reduce the words of 'social justice' Jesus to just another prophetic voice calling people to repent." And about herself, she reflects, "I can very easily get caught up in critiquing emergent exercises, progressive power plays, and other ungodly games that I forget to follow the living Christ."
Garrison's hyperbolic take on American Christianity reminds me of John Hurwitz's and Hayden Schlossberg's take on South Jersey in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. You remember when the main characters get lost in the Pine Barrens and battle it out with deer and peculiar country bumpkins? When I wasn't cringing at their crudity, I was laughing myself silly at the duo's depiction of my sacred soil, because it was so obviously rooted in a wry love of home. (Hurwitz and Schlossberg are natives of semi-rural Randolph, New Jersey.) Likewise, Garrison's skewering of the religious carnival is rooted in her love for the real thing and the bitter experience of seeing the spotlight shine so brightly on the center ring.
So, just remember, next time you're reading that new spiritual memoir (or any post of mine): if the message doesn't turn you back to your own life and its local sources of nourishment, turn your back on it.
Now I gotta' go pickle those beets I picked yesterday with my mama. She taught me most of what I know about loving God and living the Christian life. That's why I quit the circus and came home to her.