Saturday'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 Gospelgal.com, 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 gospelgal.com 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*