Garrison Keillor and the test of a good religion

Garrison Keillor and the test of a good religion September 23, 2016

Garrison Keillor has stepped away from Prairie Home Companion.  Ethan McCarthy discusses his depiction of the Midwest and its values, which Keillor loves, though he often finds them annoying.  But you’ve got to read what McCarthy says about Keillor’s depiction of the church and Christianity (excerpted and linked after the jump), which, I suspect, many of you will relate to.

McCarthy closes with a quotation from G. K. Chesterton:  “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.”

From Ethan McCarthy, Bidding Farewell to Garrison Keillor’s Church – Christ and Pop Culture:

If the heart of A Prairie Home Companion is “The News From Lake Wobegon,” then the heart of Lake Wobegon is the church. Sometimes it’s the Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility Catholic parish and its priest, Father Wilmer, but more often it’s Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church and its pastor, Liz (in the old days it was Pastor Ingqvist, but he was transferred some years ago). The church is the center of the town’s life, in part, because that’s simply the way of life in many small Midwestern towns. Lake Wobegon’s social life is largely bound up in its churches, and most of its residents belong to one congregation or the other. The Lutheran church makes an appearance in the monologue most weeks, and Pastor Liz probably gets more attention than any other single Lake Wobegon character.

Keillor himself was raised in a fundamentalist Plymouth Brethren church, and like his attitude toward Lake Wobegonians in general, his memories of it are mixed. On one hand, he says, “I have many fond memories of growing up in the meeting. Of the gentleness of people, of the transparency of their faith, of their devotion to the Word and to Scripture study.” But, he says, “I don’t miss the humourlessness, the lure of legalism, or the snares of the invisible liturgy. . . . If the Pharisees were to come back, they’d come back as Brethren. Seeking the manners of godliness over the love of God, going through the motions, genuflecting in all the little ways Brethren do. This spirit of fearfulness is so contrary to the spirit of artistic freedom and joyfulness, whether in literature or music or painting, in which we aspire to transcend ourselves. I never met Brethren who felt that the arts were a gift of God. The Brethren I knew felt quite the opposite, that the arts were a pretense for individual pride.”

For all his distaste for the culture of fundamentalism, though, Keillor says that he does believe in the Christian confession. “I believe in the propositions in the Apostles Creed that we stand and recite Sunday morning,” he says.

The church in Lake Wobegon reflects this disparity. On one hand, it’s full of the kinds of petty foibles that typify Keillor’s characters, and the churchgoers’ hypocrisy and smallmindedness is often a target of his humor. But it’s also the place Keillor returns again and again in his stories to find transcendence, and his knowledge of and love for the gospel and the Scriptures pervade his stories. “Our show, deep down in its heart, is a gospel show,” he has said. One place we hear this is in the gospel songs that Keillor frequently sings on A Prairie Home Companion, which he clearly knows and loves so well. Another recent “News from Lake Wobegon” segment ends with an impromptu singalong of gospel songs and Christmas carols around a backyard campfire. It’s a complex moment, fully aware of how clichéd it is, and of how small and provincial its world is—and yet, as Keillor bursts into song onstage, the beauty of the moment overshadows all this, and the conviction and love in his voice are unmistakable.

Keillor had no interest in presenting a scrubbed and gleaming version of the church and its people to the world; if anything, his stories tend in the opposite direction. But behind his show’s quaint, Midwestern trappings, and behind its often dark and cynical underpinnings—deep down in its heart—is a genuine belief in the church’s grace and transcendence. It’s the kind of belief than can withstand Keillor’s annoyance with the frequent humorlessness, legalism, and hypocrisy of the church.G. K. Chesterton said in a lecture that “it is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.” Keillor’s humor has long resonated with Christians who are acutely aware of the tension between their faith and its clichéd, often embarrassing cultural accouterments. We need to be able to look squarely at them—even poke fun at them—and still believe.

 


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