A reflection on my grandfather I wrote in 2013. Dodge Trucks had played Paul Harvey's "So God Made A Farmer" for their Super Bowl commercial and it was the talk of the land for weeks afterward.
Pop died in 1976, but he was on the super bowl last Sunday.
You may have seen or heard about him. Dodge Trucks made a commercial about him. They had Paul Harvey delivering a section of an old speech of his. It was called "So God Made A Farmer". Mr. Harvey may not have had Pop in mind when he gave that speech but, make no mistake, he was talking about Pop.
Did you see that old man near the beginning of the Dodge commercial wearing the cowboy hat? Pop wore a hat just like that. The image of him in that hat is seared in my little 6 yr old mind. I loved that hat and I loved the man who wore it. Oh my, how I admired that man. Pop had been a real cowboy and ranch foreman in west Texas and New Mexico during his early adult years. There are pictures of him as a young man in a cowboy hat and riding chaps, wearing a pistol on his hip. No words are adequate to describe the effect of those pictures on the imagination of a little boy who came to realize that his grandfather had lived a life of adventure.
Pop used to tell me stories of how, on Saturday nights, all the cowboys would ride into town and the goal was to ride the most ornery "buckin' horse" you could find. More than one mishap and much hilarity ensued. He was always ready with a laugh, often at his own expense, as he told stories about those days.
Did you see those work worn hands in one of those pictures? Those were Pop's hands. Pop's life on the ranch had equipped him to do anything, it seemed, with his hands. He could repair a car, build a garage apartment, or make a sandbox for his grandchildren. I can still see Pop's skillful fingers cutting, trimming and smoothing the wood for a hundred different projects. Even during his "leisure" time his hands were busy, shelling the pecans he gathered from the enormous trees in his yard, as he watched Gunsmoke on TV.
His workbench was a magical place to a little boy. It was where useless pieces of wood became useful treasures that benefited whoever received them. Ollivander's Wand Shop had nothing on Pop's garage.
Did you hear Paul Harvey talking about connectedness to the land and the livestock? Life on the land loomed large for my grandparents. So large, that when Pop asked my grandmother to marry him, her answer was "I will but I won't chop cotton". The land loomed large enough to even become a negotiating variable in her consideration of marriage.
Pop was hardy. He knew hardship. He lived the rough and tumble life of a rancher and when old injuries made that impossible he took his second grade education and his vast store of practical knowledge and provided for his family and his retirement. He had a kind of manly expectation of himself and his obligations.
He also had a quiet but fierce independence. And he was determined to hang on to that independence. He refused, for example, to ever own a car he couldn't repair himself. He believed complex possessions were essentially tyrannical, and contributed to dependency and a loss of freedom.
I've found myself thinking a lot about hardiness lately. I'm not sure exactly why. Maybe it's the background narrative I'm hearing. Life is lived in a context and with a certain set of assumptions and I think I'm realizing that lots of those assumptions have changed. Some people call that "the narrative". It's kind of the backstory that influences how we understand ourselves and our place in the world.
Something about the Christian narrative has changed. I don't mean the gospel has changed. I mean that the Christian cultural uptake and articulation of the meaning of the gospel is altering. This is not always bad. As a teenager, I remember when our eyes were opened to the meaning of God's grace and many legalistic understandings held by our Christian community fell by the way. That was mostly a really great thing. (I will observe, however, that once we learned about grace, there never was enough food at church potlucks after that. I guess once we realized we wouldn't go to hell for not bringing a covered dish, we sort of used our get-out-of-hell-free card or something.)
So changing the narrative is not necessarily bad, but in the current case I confess to catching a little whiff of wimpishness to some of the background noise. There's a hint of unmanly passivity in some of the emerging ideas. And I wonder what Pop would think.
A shifting narrative usually shows up in the arts before it shows up explicitly in the church's teaching. Keeping a finger on the pulse of Christian music is a helpful way to get a sense for how the narrative is changing.
Now I'm not one of those people who thinks everything in the past was great. The 20th century, after all, was the most blood-soaked century in human history. Still, progress can be real and changes made over time can be very beneficial.
However, not all change is for the better and I have to wonder about the wimpish sort of vibe I'm getting from the changes right now.
When I was a kid, one of the Christian background narratives was that the Church was God's army. As if Christians were kind of like commandos on a mission to rescue P.O.W.'s from behind enemy lines. In our children's classes we sang "I'm in the Lord's Army". On Sunday mornings we sang "Onward Christian Soldiers". That old hymn, written in 1865, said something about the conceptual model in which we understood our place and our agenda.
"Like a mighty army moves the church of God;
brothers, we are treading where the saints have trod.
We are not divided, all one body we,
one in hope and doctrine, one in charity."
I'm not endorsing every single aspect of the "Christians are God's Army" narrative but there were several good things about it. Community, legacy, and history were all elements of the narrative. As was an agenda of accomplishment and daring and action. It was also outward facing rather than navel gazing.
Somewhere during the 80's things shifted and, by the 90's, the "God's Army" narrative was out and a new narrative was in. The new narrative shifted from the sense that we were here to accomplish something in God's cause to being that God was here to accomplish something for me.
To put this in a context that fans of "Downton Abbey" will understand, we sort of went from a narrative of "I am God's commando" to one of "God is my personal valet".
We morphed, somehow, from a narrative of "I'm on a mission for God" to "send God to the store for me". I'm not exactly sure how that happened, but happen it did. When was the last time, after all, that anyone sang "Onward Christian Soldiers"?
But the narrative of "God as valet" did not stick around forever. The narrative is changing even now.
This morning, on a lark, I clicked over to the web site for the K-LOVE radio station here in Dallas. This is a Christian music radio station and they show on their home page what's playing now and what's been the most popular music of the last few weeks.
There I found a song called "Carry Me" by a young artist named Josh Wilson. Mr. Wilson's song is one of the hottest tunes of 2013. Here's the first verse:
"I try to catch my breath
It hasn't happened yet
I'm wide awake in the middle of the night scared to death.
So I prayed God, would You make this stop.
Father please hold on to me, You're all I've got...
Carry me, carry me, carry me on."
Mr. Wilson doesn't offer any context or explanation for why, he just opens his song with the fact that he's quivering in his bed, terrified and for no obvious reason.
If there are any P.O.W.'s that need rescuing, Mr. Wilson is apparently unavailable.
Now, Josh Wilson may be a great guy and there may be some very extenuated circumstances that would explain his fears. But it's not apparent in the lyrics and what interests me, anyway, is not Josh Wilson's quivering but the widespread popularity of his song. There is evidently something about the paralyzing fear and passivity of Mr. Wilson's lyrics that resonates with the current Christian mindset.
According to the newest narrative, then, God is out as valet and in as therapist.
Gone are the days, it seems, when artists thought like the writers of Casablanca:
ILSA: I'm frightened.
LASZLO: To tell you the truth, I'm frightened too. Shall I remain here in our hotel room hiding, or shall I carry on the best I can?"
The notion that we should not be passive in the face of our fears -that we should be men of action and daring - seems distinctly at odds with the emerging narrative of Christian artists.
And I wonder what Pop would think. As a small boy, Pop drove a covered wagon across Texas. And long before he was Mr. Wilson's age, Pop rode the range by day with a pistol strapped to his hip, and by night he rode "buckin' horses" into town. To be honest, I can't imagine that a song about paralyzing fear and passivity would have much appeal to a man like Pop.
And maybe that's why the Dodge Truck commercial has had such an impact. I've read several writers who each independently described the commercial as "stunning". Perhaps it's been seen as stunning because it runs so counter to the prevailing narrative of fear and passivity. Perhaps there's an unspoken yearning for the energetic, industrious, bold, steady and manly character described by Paul Harvey.
Perhaps the new narrative ain't all it's cracked up to be.
Pop died in 1976, but he was on the super bowl last Sunday.