A Pilgrimage to New Cana

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Richard Lischer’s “New Cana Lutheran Church” as of December 2016

Open Secrets
Richard Lischer
Broadway Books, 2001. 239 pp.

In December of 2016, my wife and I drove “[out] of Upper Alton… up a state road…” in our 2009 Chevy Malibu. We had been visiting families for our first Christmas with our son (Theodore) — hers in Godfrey and Collinsville, mine in Gillespie — and on that day we had one small pilgrimage, of a kind, to make before we left for our home in Chicago. We were on-the-hunt for “New Cana.”

About a month earlier, one of our pastors gave a message in which she quoted from a moment in the memoir of a Lutheran minister named Richard Lischer. She told how he had entered into his first pastoral appointment, at a small rural church in southern Illinois, with the high aims of using all his theological training to its utmost ability. He sets up, at his first event, a small group discussion for talking about how the church is engaging with their new pastoral appointment; the first (and second) responses are muted, stiff “Well, I didn’t vote for you, but I know we will have a very good church with you as our pastor.” Our pastor weaved this narrative as an example of how we (as American evangelicals especially) often think of ministry strategies before thinking of the people we aim to serve.

But, if I’m an honest parishioner, I was a little distracted by her description of Lischer himself. A memoir about a pastor in small-town Illinois? As a son of small-town Illinois who had married a daughter of small-town Illinois, and as a person who had recently received a call to pastoral ministry, I knew that this was one of those books I would need to borrow. While walking to lunch after church, I grew curious: I wonder where in small-town Illinois Lischer preached? Then I read the opening chapter via an Amazon preview and saw the above quote of him driving north out of Alton (where my wife and I had lived our first year of marriage) into the country. Immediately, I began comparing Lischer’s words with my mental map of Madison and Macoupin Counties (which is, if I say so myself, pretty accurate), and soon I had narrowed down the location of his “New Cana” parish to a small sub-region of the north-of-Alton, east-of-Jerseyville region.

It was in this context, that my wife and I ended up outside of “New Cana” Lutheran Church, the world of Lischer’s memoir Open Secrets.

 

Our pilgrimage itself was not precisely “exciting.” After all, we are long-time Madison-Macoupin County residents who have only recently made residence as urbanites in Chicago.

Open Secrets
Open Secrets‘ 2001 cover; the “small town” pictured here is far too populated to be “New Cana”

We have been lost in the middle of a cornfield many-a-time before. And “New Cana” Lutheran Church is literally “lost in the middle of a cornfield,” in a way that was utterly familiar to us. Hannah ended up taking one of her better photographs of the church (as my photograph, above, is, characteristically, angled and unprofessional) and using her graphic design wizardry to produce a better book cover, since the edition we had clearly represented a “small town” on the Atlantic seaboard, not southern Illinois. Our small “Lischer-circle” at church (which was us, our pastor Tiffany, and our local Hauerwasian theologian Kevin) were ecstatic about such an update. But the church itself, however mythic as told by Lischer, was no surprise to us. It was, in many ways, a part of us already. The stories that Lischer tells in his memoir could have just as easily been some of the stories my grandmother tells me about growing up on a farm in Shipman. Actually, I’m not entirely sure that somewhere in her family there wasn’t some offshoot that married into or joined the “New Cana” Dullmanns and Bufords and Semanns at some juncture. I’ll have to investigate the Caveny family line at some juncture.

But we didn’t pilgrimage to the “New Cana” church for the sake of excitement. Rather, I think we pilgrimaged there for a sense of “home.” In December, it was becoming ever-clear to me and Hannah that we longed to return “home,” to “our world.” Our inability to see the sunset or sunrise in Chicago was wearing on us; our distance from family was difficult for us; and our new “city-like” busyness was, honestly, “not our thing.” So, however blessed and joyful our time in Chicago had been, we visited “New Cana” with the strong sense that someday soon we would live again in this world. Our world. And in the same sense, we didn’t read Lischer’s memoir to view, as though visitors at a zoo, a “different culture and society,” but, in part, to learn again and learn anew our own home.

 

Lischer’s pastoral observations are some of the most profound on the topic that I have ever read.

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Richard Lischer is a Professor Emeritus of Preaching at Duke Divinity School

Instead of confronting, as most theological-praxis books tend to do, us with theological controversies in the church or practical concerns about preaching or leading Bible studies, Lischer addresses the real “meat” of pastoral work: arguing with the cemetery committee about an unnecessary expense that would overburden a poor widow, learning how to receive a beer offered by a parishioner when the subtexts of the convention are concealed, attempting (unsuccessfully) to “be tough” while half the church watches a pig be butchered prior to dinner. Or, more difficult, wrestling with how to effectively marry a passionate couple with no sense of responsibility or commitment, baptizing an infant that will surely die, consoling a mother whose only son fell in the pond and drowned, or taking a young man to the Cardinals game in the wake of him both losing his father (to a heart attack) and his pastor (to a job-move).The book is a holy excursion into the work of pastoral ministry, and one that expounds on a far more interesting (and far more important) layer to how one thinks of “pastoring.” Too often in American Christianity, the “pastor” is really seen as a “preacher-teacher,” whose “ministry” is all words, words, words; theology without any weighty living behind it. In some sense, Lischer also had this preconception upon arriving at “New Cana.” But Open Secrets divulges a different kind of pastoral ministry, a different aim of a philosophy-of-pastoring, that is desperately needed in our day. Ministry, in Lischer’s memoir, does not occur primarily in the pulpit but at fences, post offices, hospitals, and garages. And, yet, (and this is crucial) it is not the flimsy thing that happens when a person smacks the word “ministry” on top of something else (“Brother, I feel called to do a cassette tape-to-CD transfer ministry,” etc.). Lischer’s ministry is something holy, that manifests the divine in the day-to-day. It is Sacramental, perhaps in its purest form.

Lischer’s insights on rural thought are also extraordinarily valuable. He uncovers the concept of “Gossip” as a form of knowledge (even, I think, an epistemology), and considers how he, as a pastor, can use that “Gossip” for the sake of God’s Kingdom. He reveals the power-structures of committees and sub-committees, of the elders versus the cemetery committee. He observes the tensions of interfering with abusive families, wrestles with his own methods of accomplishing what he feels is right, and, more often than not, discovers that he does not understand how this German farming community actually communicates. If anything, Lischer’s “outsider” view of downstate Illinois rural life helps one to consider any number of “outsider”-“insider” dynamics within churches; and, furthermore, underscores the need to observe traditions and values before moving too quickly in changing them.

 

If Hillbilly Elegy reminded me of the rural world “falling apart” (as I’ve written about before), then Open Secrets encourages me about all the good of rural communities, all the possibility that exist in them, and all the tensions that come with doing effective Christian ministry in that context. In the time since Hannah and I made our pilgrimage to “New Cana,” we have been considering a pastoral opportunity at a church in small-town Illinois. It isn’t a job offer yet — there are, as always, various hurdles to jump over — but we have still, nevertheless, been considering the possibility in a way we hadn’t when we first picked up Open Secrets. As we finished reading Lischer’s memoir last night, I think we both felt a strange sense of preparedness for wherever the Lord is taking us. Lischer’s misadventures in “New Cana” have changed us, equipped us, even prophesied to us, of some new adventure of our own.

Rural Theologies

“Social class in America isn’t just about money.” So says J.D. Vance in the midst of his memoir Hillbilly Elegy. Raised in southwestern Ohio, but grown with close ties to nearby Kentucky, Vance tells a story that is more than just his own “rags-to-riches” type of narrative. His tale encompasses a breadth of white rural experience that conditions not just the hillbillies of Appalachia but actually many poor rural whites throughout the country. Around the time of the election of Pres. Donald J. Trump, Vance’s memoir was often pointed at as a description of the ailment that manifested in political symptoms.

If social class, neatly construed, is not, as Vance suggests, about money, then what is it about? Vance struggles with this throughout his book. He goes to the Marines, a big state university, an Ivy League law school, upper-crust elite work, and all the time he still feels like a “hillbilly.” For him there’s a sense of pride in that identification; but there is also a sense of humiliation. For some reason, he stresses near the end of the book, he just cannot escape the pressures of rural poverty and the power it wields over his life, even in the midst of relative success.

I have wondered about this problem of social class too. In my working life thusfar, I have been a campus missionary, a graduate student, and a low-level lab manager in an expensive neighborhood (e.g. my pay was better than as a missionary; my costs were higher still). At every juncture I would have described myself, financially, as poor. And, based on the poverty level standards, this would have been objectively true. Yet I was raised in a middle-class household, in a stable family, in a culture with certain values. It has only been fairly recently that my eyes have become adjusted to seeing what “poverty” looks like.

The numbers describe me and my family as poor. But we don’t look it. Instead, we look pretty successful. (We save a lot of money by not caring about having “satellite TV” or “high speed internet.”) In a strange way, in spite my financial “lacks” (i.e. I don’t make enough to save any money, and we spend more on food every month than we can afford), I feel successful while Vance, in spite of his financial gains (making upwards, we are told in the book, of $100K a year; good house; good neighborhood), feels unsuccessful. What constitutes this? What is “social class” really, if it isn’t, as so many sociologists or economists (or policy-makers) claim, an economic demographic?

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A dilapidated building in downtown Benld, IL, where I grew up. Photo by Bruce Wicks via Flickr.

A problem confronts me whenever I set down to think about theology: I have been to too many different places. At present, I live in a demographically-mixed (all the demographics!) part of Chicago’s South Side; in the past, I lived in a poorer part of the river town Alton, IL; I grew up in a middle-class household in an impoverished rural county; I once lived in a burgeoning up-and-coming town for the upper-middle-class. And this is just the state of Illinois!

An observation that I have seen in my life throughout Illinois (and also in my sojourns to other states as well) is that denominational / theological groups thrive in certain socioeconomic circumstances. The more poor, the more rural, the more Pentecostals, the more Baptists, and the more non-denominationals (who are really Baptists). Drive through eastern Tennessee into the mountains, for instance, and you will see, one after another, X Baptist Church, Y Baptist Church, Z Church of Christ, Q Church of Christ, R “Fancy Name Big Church” (which might be non-denominational evangelical or charismatic, you can’t quite tell by the sign).

This observation is just an observation, of course, and I haven’t yet gotten the chance to dig up the data for it. My hunch is that there are surely a few of churches that don’t fit these socioeconomic trends, and yet my hunch is also that this is the minority. There is a history to this phenomenon: most American denominations were founded by ethnic minorities as they migrated to the country. Poor Irish settlers (like my great-great-great-grandfather Caveny) brought with them their Roman Catholicism, not-quite-as-poor-but-still-poor German farmers brought with them their Lutheranism or their Congregationalism, while more financially-astute English immigrants brought Methodism and Anglicanism.

Different ethnic groups brought with them different levels of financial stability and different home-cultures and values when it came to work, money, and the like (although discerning those cultures and values becomes a very difficult ethnographic task, one that cannot be navigated lightly). The different ethnic groups in America for a long time created different social classes, and these social classes became tied to theological identities.

How American society transformed from ethnically-determined churches into socioeconomically-determined churches, especially amidst white people, is a mystery that I do not want to broach here, and it should go without saying that there is another parallel story that occurs in American society with regards to African-American, Hispanic, and other minority churches. But the result of these historical processes is clear: somehow when you land in a geographic location determined by certain economic situations, you can already get a sense of the theology of that people.

This leads me to propose a surprising and bizarre claim: theology in America is the result of socioeconomic class more often than it is the result of Bible-training, study, and preaching.

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A movie theater scheduled for demolition in Middletown, OH, where Vance grew up. Photo by Robby Virus via Flickr.

Vance finds this to be true in his memoir. His observations of the culture of Appalachian hillbillies includes claims like “[they have] a lack of agency,” they believe in “avoidance and wishful-thinking,” and “[they] had an almost religious faith in hard work and the American Dream.” He provides some statistical differences between how hillbillies perceive their own church attendance (“Why, of course I go to church!”) and how the actual church attendance in their towns; he notes the suspicion held by his communities towards ecclesiastical structures; he observes their personal, private commitments to Christian faith that are divorced from communal, public manifestations of it.

What manifests in utter suspicion of ecclesiastical structures in Appalachian appears as devout congregationalist / Baptist communities in my own southern Illinois. Non-denominational churches pop up like wildfire in the rural Midwest, communities with little to no oversight except centralized pastoral authority. American civil worship practices appear too, like the displaying of patriotic symbols (the flag, “God bless America!”) or the singing of the National Anthem at a church. I remember visiting a church on the Fourth of July in which the whole congregation recited the Pledge of Allegiance, something that to me was utterly off-putting but absolutely normal for the community. For many in rural churches this is a natural manifestation of their Christian belief.

I am “waving” at something here. One of the pinnacles of Protestant — especially Reformed, but also Wesleyan — belief is the emphasis that beliefs, values, doctrines, and practices find their home in the Scriptures first. And, yet, if we take Vance’s personal stories of Appalachian faith to heart, and if my admittedly-broad observations ring true, then it would seem that theologies and doctrines are not as based off of “serious Scriptural study” as they are based off of socio-economic class, with a priority to the “social” part over the “economic.”

The pastor-theologian should find this strange and maybe even a little troubling. If a pastor’s goal is to see my people grow in the knowledge of the Lord and in a knowledge of His Word, how is it that the people under pastoral authority seem to grow most effectively in a knowledge of the socio-cultural beliefs they already bring with them? And, given these socio-cultural beliefs are difficult to leave behind, as we see Vance wrestle near the end of the memoir, how is a pastor to provoke pervasive underlying beliefs that have a lot more to do with American or social-class identity than our ancient Christian identity or the Scriptures?

Theologically speaking, this is the problem that feels most at stake in Vance’s work. There are surely problems of socio-economics, justice, cultural-community dynamics and the like that one could discuss from Hillbilly Elegy, but the issue of a socially-determined (as opposed to biblically-determined) theology is one that seems to manifest underneath a lot of the societal ills Vance describes. He comments, for instance, on how churches that ought to be a safety-net for low-income families instead have become so individualistic that their social benefit is altogether negated, to the detriment of his community.

 

How the American Christian should respond to this level of theological crisis, a thing tied to the socioeconomic crisis of the white poor, is complicated, and my goal here is simply to point out what Vance has already pointed out in his book. It is provocative enough to notice that most of our received theologies in evangelicalism are not the result of Bible study or theological inquiry, but instead the result of the strange interconnections between church-life and our social-cultural matrix. My hunch is that this is just another type of syncretism that American Christians do not see as such because we would rather describe syncretism as something “people in the third world” do. (As I overheard a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology say the other day: “Anthropology is the word white academics use to describe non-white cultures, while sociology is the word for white cultures.”)

If rural theologies flourish and propagate as a culturally- and socially-derived set of beliefs, even tied to economics and class, how ought pastors — in all types of communities and contexts — communicate the Gospel and discuss the Scriptures? Once the problem is clearly seen, it becomes difficult to know how to go forward. Vance wrote that “social class in America isn’t just about money”; but, as we have seen, so too “theology in America isn’t just about Bible studies and teaching.” Somehow both of these things rely on a rural culture that is much more powerful than we could have expected.