And the healing has begun

GarrisonkeillorSaturday’s edition of A Prairie Home Companion was called a Bonus Joke Show and it followed the presidential election, so the mind naturally turns to Christian-bashing — or, to use host Garrison Keillor’s more specific target, "born-again Christian"-bashing. Keillor poured himself into fundraising for the Democrats this year, as the Associated Press reported in September, so his indignation about the election’s results is not surprising.

Keillor’s anger emerged even before he finished singing Prairie Home‘s theme song, "Tishomingo Blues." Keillor improvised a closing stanza: "Ah, three days since the election and I am doing fine [laughter] / though I woke up on Wednesday morning and the sun refused to shine [applause] / And the American people, bless their hearts, did not do as they should do / Democracy is fine with me / but sometimes I’m not so sure about you."

Keillor joked that he will work with other citizens for a constitutional amendments that denies the vote to born-again Christians, which met with vigorous applause and cheers. This is the closest Keillor came to explaining his understanding of born-again Christians who vote:

If you feel that war in the Middle East is simply prophecy fulfilled, if you believe that tribulation and suffering are just the natural conditions of life, if you believe that higher education is vanity, unnecessary, there is only one book that one need to read, if you feel that unemployment is simply is God’s way of making you more dependent on him and drawing you closer to him, if you feel that lousy health care is simply a portal to paradise, then you don’t really share our same interests, do you? No, you do not.

What born-again Christian on earth doesn’t believe all that?

Keillor’s routine caught the attention of, edited by a friend of this blog. Gospelgal wrote:

Just after he finished his monologue/rant/tirade/otherwise simply wonderful introduction, Keillor introduced the show’s musical guest. It was gospel singer  Jearlyn Steele. During the course of the show, they sang "We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder" and "Let Us Break Bread Together On Our Knees."


Keillor lent his warm, steady bass to these beloved gospel numbers — two of the most precious to the most traditional of the flock — as if he hadn’t just trashed the folks who wrote and sang those very songs.

Garrison Keillor is no dummy. For years I’ve enjoyed his folksy wit and admired his ability to convey truths about the human experience through his work. I’ve even gotten used to his heavy breathing, the dark, sonorous speaking voice and the wheezing of nose hair.

I should add, too, that I don’t know if he is currently a part of any faith tradition. So I don’t know if he was being ironic, thumbing his nose at born-agains or even saying, "Hey, everybody, even the sharpest barbs are offered in good fun. Let’s sing, shall we?" Perhaps he’d booked Steele for the show months before the election, and just happened to be in a particularly foul mood about the red-state victory. Maybe the opening monologue is completely spontaneous. I don’t s’pose I’ll know soon. But I think this incident presents the readership with an interesting question:

What does gospel music mean in the public imagination?

Keillor has performed gospel music throughout his career on A Prairie Home Companion, and he recorded one album dedicated solely to gospel. During his years in New York, Keillor spoke of attending an Episcopal Church. But one thing came through clearly on Saturday evening: Keillor expresses contempt for Christians to his political and theological right.

In a spirit of what she calls "bipartisan sauciness," Gospelgal turns her attention to a London Times article about Democrats campaigning in African American churches:

The article continues:

"Mr. Gore looked utterly incongruous, failing miserably to tap his foot in time to the febrile mix of gospel music, electric organ and wailing worshippers inside Jacksonville’s Abyssinia Missionary Baptist Church …"

*Sigh* We get it. He’s out of his element. And puh-leeze, can somebody describe an Af-Am church service without using words like "febrile" and "wailing?" I guess that’s how it looks if you haven’t grown up attending those sorts of services, but I’ve read so many of these descriptions that sound like some sort of freakish voodoo ceremony … the natives are getting restless …

" … President Clinton, a Southern Baptist whose ability to connect with black congregations — he could even sway in time with the music — has seen him become the first white politician included in the [gospel gal's note: Arkansas] Black Hall of Fame."

I hope any budding politicians out there are taking notes: ability to sway + ability to clap on 2 and 4=ability to connect with black congregations. Because that’s what really matters. *Shaking head*

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  • Jeff the Baptist

    Its kind of sad. Especially considering the born-agains really like Keillor’s work. His is small-town working-class humor, but without all the profanity and sexual innuendo that is so common elsewhere (like the blue collar comedy tour). Its too bad that his audience is Red America but he hates them so.

  • Bob Smietana

    Keillor’s politics are really tied up in his faith, as he expressed it in the first paragraphs of his book, Hometown Democrat. (the book is basically a rant with a few main points–mainly that if you say you love God but could care less about your neighbor whose fallen by the wayside or the public good, you are not much of a Christian:

    Here’s what he had to say on the first pages:

    “I am a Democrat, which was nothing I decided for myself but simply the way I was brought up, starting with the idea of Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, which is the basis of the simple social compact by which we live and also You are not so different from other people so don’t give yourself airs, which was drummed into us children back in the old days when everyone went to public schools. Don’t be conceited.

    So you can write: goody-goody for you, but don’t think you’re a genius because, believe me, you’re not. The democracy of the gospel. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. All we like sheep have gone astray. These articles of faith, plus our common tongue and a fondness for jokes and the American landscape, bind us together in a union of souls, each one free, each one devoted to the union.”

  • Luke

    Keillor’s upbringing was strict evangelical of one sort or another. (In his fiction, he refers to growing up in the Sanctified Brethren, not sure if that’s legit or a pseudonym.) A lot of his family still is. His brother Steven has ties to the intellectual evangelical world in the Twin Cities and wrote an interesting theological gloss on American history called _This Rebellious House_.

    This isn’t to make excuses for GK’s nastiness, but he does have his own history and, I expect, issues.

  • Robert

    Did anyone actually hear this? I’m a “born-again” Evangelical and didn’t find it at all offensive, and definitely not hateful. In fact, I thought it was quite funny.

    And guess why it was funny? Because I have heard something along these lines preached in all seriousness from the pulpit. Self-reflection is not a bad thing. If we can’t laugh at ourselves then the problem is with us.

    If you feel that war in the Middle East is simply prophecy fulfilled, if you believe that tribulation and suffering are just the natural conditions of life, if you believe that higher education is vanity, unnecessary, there is only one book that one need to read, if you feel that unemployment is simply is God’s way of making you more dependent on him and drawing you closer to him, if you feel that lousy health care is simply a portal to paradise, then you don’t really share our same interests, do you? No, you do not.

  • Lex

    As a lifelong Christian, a descendant of many preachers and a former religion journalist, I didn’t find a thing wrong with Keillor’s introduction, nor did I feel any dissonance between it and his gospel singing.

    The fact of the matter is that some so-called Christians who are among George W. Bush’s strongest supporters also are exactly the kind of so-called Christians who give Christianity a bad name. They need to come to Jesus, and I mean that literally.

  • Scott

    A tad touchy aren’t you?? Garrison Keillor is an entertainer using satire. He is not writing an editorial for the New York Times.

    This Conservative Baptist enjoyed last weeks Prairie Home Companion. And Jeff the Baptist, since all those folks in `Red America` keep tuning in every Saturday, they seem to enjoy the show, also.

  • Clarke

    I’m a “Red State” evangelical who enjoyed last week’s Prairie Home Companion – several of the religion jokes were absolutely hilarious.

    Some of the barbs Keillor aimed at Christians were probably a bit sharper than usual, but there’s plenty in the evangelical world to poke fun at.

    I may be reading too much into this particular discussion, but has the evangelical/born again Christian community become so self-important that we’re going to dissect Prairie Home Companion looking for slights? There has to be a better, more productive way for Christians to engage the world around us.

  • Dan Knauss

    These kind of jokes are not a big deal and nothing new from Keillor, but following the election it’s hard to tell if he’s joking or what such jokes mean. A lot of people seem to really believe that Bush won because of the batshit-crazy-fundy-theocrat-snake-handler vote, and insufficiently liberalized Christian bashing is at an all-time high. Imagine GK blasting hispanic catholics or jews for voting for Bush.

    But then think of all the routine shots Keillor has always taken at unitarianism & related icons of effete, urban, baby-boom “spirituality” narcissism. Think of the sensitivity and complexity of his stories that often show the conflicted relationship between the small towns of the heartland and Metro America. The man is not all of one mind, and if much of his audience includes religious conservatives, the people who attend his shows are urban NPR listeners who vote religiously for Democrats. This really is GK’s main audience, and he gives them the expected Michael Moore routine now and again, especially in his writings online and for newspapers. (Moore too is more in touch with and sensitive to the small-town middle-American than his enemies allow, but his listeners are among the urban liberal “elite” [requirements: a BA and opinions] who are hungry for demons and scapegoats.) Keillor especially speaks to those who, like himself and many of his characters, grew up with some form of traditional religion and then, in the tumult and angst of the 60s, lost or rejected their faith. GK may ridicule his generation for filling the blanks with unitarianism, buddhism-lite, and ketchup, but that’s where he and his target audience finds itself. They are perpetually drawn to world-weary now nostalgic, now hostile remembrances of the town or neighborhood where everyone went to church together.

    “What does gospel music mean in the public imagination?”

    –it is thoroughly aestheticized cultural detritus that is accepted and approved if stripped from its origins. Of course Keillor’s audience knows gospel is “black Christian worship music,” but that is OK as long as “black”=voters patronized by white liberals as a specially protected, historically victimized culture group with the inevitably odd practices and beliefs of all “ethnic” folk. Gospel’s OK as long as there is no accompanying sermon about the evils of homosexuality. Similarly, bashing Revelation prophecy enthusiasts is OK because we know that means crackers and rednecks, not the black men and women on urban cable access shows. Farrakhan is not, in our cultural logic, a “fundamentalist.” “Black religion” is all good but we keep its non-aesthetic contents out of view. “White religion” is conditionally good insofar as it is not hostile to the Democratic Party platform and other triumphs of Enlightenment. Failing that test, white religion is possibly more menacing than Al Quaeda.

  • Jane

    And to lighten things up a bit…the best joke from last week’s Bonus Joke Show:

    Did you hear about the Amish woman who had a lover? She liked to have two men a night.

    (I know, I know, it’s barely a joke. But yet the people I know with an Anabaptist background, including myself, just laugh and laugh.)

  • Mark D.

    On Gospelgal’s question: “What does gospel music mean in the public imagination?” I am writing this Sunday morning from the South of France where I attended a large Gospel concert at Le Dome in Marseille last night. Probably 1500 people there, very revved up with the music – big rock show staging and lights and sound, almost all the songs in English, with many favorites old and new.

    But when the singers talk in French about Jesus and what he means to them – a pall and and a hush. When one leader asked how many folks believed in God, maybe 10% of us gave a shout out for him. Everyone here loves the music – until it talks explicitly about its subject.

  • Gospel Gal

    Hey, Friends,

    So cool that everyone weighed in!

    My thoughts on weren’t so much about “dissecting PHC looking for slights” or choosing to get my sensitive little evangelical feelings hurt instead of reflecting on how I can learn to enjoy being caricatured (smile). A line in one of my favorite spirituals (“All God’s Children”) cautions that “Everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven ain’t goin’ there.” It was a critique of those who claim to follow Christ but mistreat their brethren. Those folks can be Red or Blue.

    My posts at are really about engaging the world by looking at the way Gospel music is perceived and exploring what that means to those who love it or dislike it. So I think using this incident (and the Times article) as an opportunity to explore what gospel music means to people is fair game. And because I was aware that GK does have a church background,I really did wonder if he was being ironic. I wasn’t sure if he was being unkind *or* pointing out that Blue Christians love gospel, too!

    Dan Knauss and Mark D. kind of picked up on what I was wondering: In the public imagination, is gospel music OK as long as it’s just “ethnic music” connected to “black religion?” (“Well, those are just their customs.”) Is it enjoyable as long as it’s not connected to actual red or blue religion and the controversial beliefs/voting patterns that can result?

    In Keillor’s case, this might be part of the answer: (from

    ” . . .indeed, the Sanctified Brethren are there in Lake Wobegon. My people. People who take Scripture seriously and defend their revelations with fervor and thus are not always the easiest neighbors to get along with. But surely worth paying attention to. And some of them have a sense of humor. I do suspect that my liberal pals have an easier time about Born Agains if they are black than if they’re white, but maybe that’s just a suspicion on my part.”

    Again, I’m glad everybody weighed in. And come visit sometime!

  • Gospel Gal

    Uh-oh. I don’t think that link posted correctly. It’s:

  • Tim

    As far as I know, Keillor is (or used to be) a Lutheran, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America variety.

    Tim (of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod variety)

  • Elliot

    Last I heard (last year) Garrison Keillor was still an Episcopalian. The anthology of poetry he recently edited, Good Poems, is structured in a Christian pattern – beginning with prayers and ending with death and then resurrection. His most recent novel “Love Me” follows a classic fall & redemption pattern, with the erring hero ending up back in Minnesota with his wife, believing in the Resurrection and going to church.

    Sounds to me like he takes Christianity seriously. He may not act charitably towards fellow Christians who he disagrees with politically, but that’s a different issue.

  • Terry White

    Keillor’s cousin used to work for me–as I recall, his roots are in the Plymouth Brethren. But he sure has the Lutheran culture pegged, as well!!

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