The ghost in Bud Day’s obituary

Of the many wonderful parts of the New York Times, my favorite is the obituary section. Perhaps it’s being a pastor’s daughter, perhaps it’s that my mother’s side of the family were morticians, but I love reading a good obituary. Let’s look at one headlined “Col. Bud Day, Vietnam War Hero, Dies at 88.”

Col. Bud Day, an Air Force fighter pilot who was shot down in the Vietnam War, imprisoned with John McCain in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” and defiantly endured more than five years of brutality without divulging sensitive information to his captors, earning him the Medal of Honor, died on Saturday in Shalimar, Fla. He was 88.

His death was announced by his wife, Doris.

Colonel Day was among America’s most highly decorated servicemen, having received nearly 70 medals and awards, more than 50 for combat exploits. In addition to the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor, he was awarded the Air Force Cross, the highest combat award specifically for airmen.

Col. Day was a genuine hero who earned much recognition. Later we get some details on how he was tortured:

Major Day was strung upside-down by his captors, but after his bonds were loosened, he escaped after five days in enemy hands. He made it across a river, using a bamboo-log float for support, and crossed into South Vietnam. He wandered barefoot and delirious for about two weeks in search of rescuers, surviving on a few berries and frogs. At one point, he neared a Marine outpost, but members of a Communist patrol spotted him first, shot him in the leg and hand, and captured him.

This time, Major Day could not escape. He was shuttled among various camps, including the prison that became known as the Hanoi Hilton, and was beaten, starved and threatened with execution. His captors demanded information on escape plans and methods of communication among the prisoners of war, as well as on America’s air war.

In February 1971, he joined with Admiral Stockdale, then a commander and the ranking American in the prison camp, and other prisoners in singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” while rifle muzzles were pointed at them by guards who had burst into a prisoners’ forbidden religious service.

Great details, right? And isn’t that interesting that he was in a “forbidden religious service”? So what religion was Col. Day? And why in the world is this detail excluded from the obituary?

I’m interested in the religious views of … everyone. Whatever they are. Knowing how fully my faith in Christ informs everything, and seeing how others’ religious views inform them, it is the most important piece of information I look for in an obituary. When it’s not there, it confuses me. How could someone write up the life of an individual and leave out such an important part as their religion? It boggles the mind.

This is something of a common complaint I have, but in this case it’s also somewhat personal. I’m Lutheran, of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. So was Col. Day. I wanted to see how the Times dealt with his religion. Other than that reference to a “religious service,” it’s not.

[Read more...]

A Broadway revival that includes ‘Blessed Assurance’

The other day, I wrote a post about the fact that many journalists struggle to understand, to be perfectly honest about it, the role that Christian faith plays in the African-American church. There is a tendency to see the black church as a political institution, and that’s that.

I also mentioned that there is another common assumption, which is that the music of the black church is primarily an expression of culture, as opposed to faith. You know, those black spirituals are so lovely and so powerful, but they don’t really mean anything in particular.

I thought of that second point again when reviewing a recent New York Times piece that several GetReligion readers brought to my attention. It seems that something strange has been happening down on Broadway in recent weeks.

You see, there’s a Broadway revival — never has that word been more accurate — running of one of the greatest American plays ever about faith and family and the ties that bind.

I am referring to Horton Foote’s classic “The Trip to Bountiful,” which focuses on an elderly woman’s quiet, but desperate, flight from Houston in an attempt to visit her family homestead one last time, near a town called Bountiful. In this production, the great African-American actress Cicely Tyson is playing the lead. In this case, her race is a key element of the news hook. The Times article notes, early on:

She is on the run from her abusive daughter-in-law and henpecked son in Houston, desperate to see the family farm in Bountiful once more before she dies. Overcome with emotion, she begins singing an old Protestant hymn, “Blessed Assurance.”

From the first note, there’s a palpable stirring among many of the black patrons in the audience, which the play, with its all-black cast, draws in large numbers. When Ms. Tyson jumps to her feet, spreads her arms and picks up the volume, they start singing along. On some nights it’s a muted accompaniment. On other nights, and especially at Sunday matinees, it’s a full-throated chorus that rocks the theater.

“I didn’t realize they were doing it until someone remarked to me how incredible it was that the audience was joining in,” Ms. Tyson said in a recent interview, referring to her preview performances. “I said, ‘Where?’ I was so focused on what I was doing that I didn’t hear it.”

After the play opened, on April 23, she began tuning in. “At that point, I was relaxed enough to let other things seep in,” she said. “It was absolutely thrilling.”

Thrilling but unexpected.

This phenomenon happens the most in the Sunday afternoon shows, you say? That would be, well, right after, uh, church? That might have something to do with large numbers of people in the audience stepping over this line in Broadway tradition and joining in.

Now, the Times team did find an expert who knows something about this hymn (even if that expert incorrectly says that this particular Fanny Crosby text has something to do with “fundamentalist” faith). The story also features quality quotes from people in the audience.

[Read more...]


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