The United States of Freberg

I cringe a bit when my children break into show tunes while in public. Selections from Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat are fine (though they’re still stumbling through the “red and yellow and green and brown/And scarlet and black and ochre and peach/And lilac and gold and chocolate and mauve . . .” part). My worry is whether they’re going to sing “Take an Indian to Lunch.”

It’s a catchy song with an impolitic title. But the words, which point to the racism embedded in American history, are rather subversive. The subversion though is not always apparent to others when the kids bounce down the hiking path singing the following words at the top of their lungs:

Take an Indian to lunch this week
Show him we’re a regular bunch this week
Show him we’re as liberal as can be
Let him know he’s almost as good as we . . .

Let’s give in and all do the brotherhood bit
Just make sure we don’t make a habit of it
Take an Indian to dine this week
Show him we don’t draw the line this week
We know everyone can’t be
As American as we

After all, we came over on the Mayflower!

Stan Freberg leans on chair.jpg

Stan Freberg — Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The song is the product of Stan Freberg (1926-2015), a self-described “guerilla satirist” who died last week. The New York Times did a nice write-up of Freberg’s legacy, which mostly had to do with advertising. He won the top industry award 21 times and had an exceptionally eclectic clientele that included General Motors, the United States Army and the Presbyterian Church. In 1958 he opened his own agency with the following slogan: “More Honesty Than the Client Had in Mind.”

Freberg’s genius was to insert a self-deprecating humor into commercials. He especially liked, as the Times put it, “lampooning the deficiencies of a paying client’s own products.” In Pacific Airlines advertisements, he confronted people’s fear of flying by telling people that even the pilots were afraid. As part of the campaign, flight attendants passed out “survival kits” that included security blankets, a lucky rabbit’s foot and fortune cookies bearing the slogan “It could be worse.”Upon landing, the attendants were encouraged to exclaim: “We made it! How about that!”

As most satirists do, this mocker of modern consumerism had a serious side. Freberg was a social prophet. After being chosen to succeed Jack Benny on CBS radio, he got fired after refusing tobacco advertisements and joking about the proliferation of the hydrogen bomb. The son of a Baptist minister and vacuum-cleaner salesman, he also took satirical aim at American history. This was reflected in my favorite album, “The United States of America, Volume One: The Early Years” (1961), the one my children have memorized because of its witty dialogue and catchy show tunes.

In this beautifully produced album, Freberg uses historical anachronism to brilliant effect. He describes how therapists used sublimation to relieve the anxiety of early American explorers. He explains that Columbus came to America on a Fulbright. The Europeans that followed him were drawn by the bounty of organically grown fruits and vegetables. And that Columbus wanted to get a loan to open an Italian restaurant in the New World but can’t because the banks were closed for the Columbus Day holiday.

He also uses historical absurdity. In “Take an Indian to Lunch,” Freberg sings about an early Puritan politician who strategically takes an Indian out to eat in order to secure the Native American vote. In a song about the first Thanksgiving, the bald eagle displaces the wild turkey as the national bird—because they cooked the wrong bird. Columbus has to leave the Spanish palace by a balcony because King Ferdinand finds him with Queen Isabella. Betsy Ross complains that George Washington tracked snow all over her early American rug. And Washington complains that Ross used red, white, blue, stars, and stripes in her design of the flag. “Why couldn’t it have been puce—or lavender over chartreuse?” he laments.

In the context of a pervasive jingoism in the wake of WWII, this affectionate but irreverent recitation of American foibles was a helpful antidote to a mean McCarthyism during the Cold War. In the song “Declaration of Independence,” Freberg plays Benjamin Franklin and sings, “You sign a harmless petition and forget all about it. Ten years later, you get hauled up before a committee.” Freberg reminded Americans that the founders, in their “purfuit of happineff,” had clay feet and that their documents were (and are) imperfect. In fact, the founding fathers were not conservative themselves, despite the insistence of their biggest modern-day conservative boosters. In the revolutionary context, they were “professional liberals” and “wild-eyed radicals.”

As you might expect, Freberg provoked immoderate reactions. Lots of famous people—including Paul McCartney, Stephen King, “Weird Al” Yankovic, and David Mamet—loved him. So did lots of not-famous people, like many conservative Mennonites I grew up with. But, of course, like many prophets, Freberg was not always welcome in his hometown. Cold War hawks thought it was Freberg who was the “wild-eyed radical.”

But Freberg didn’t care. In the final scene of “USA, Volume 1,” a grouchy lady confronts him and announces, “I’m from the Daughters of the American Revolu-“ Freberg slams the door as bombastic patriotic music closes the album.

*** cross-posted at the Anxious Bench ***

Beyond Playboy: The Inner Life of Jimmy Carter

In 1976 Playboy magazine conducted its infamous interview of Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter. The interview nearly cost Carter the election. Secular pundits mocked his confession of “adultery in my heart.” Conservative Christians not only disagreed with his use of the word screw but objected that Carter would grant the salacious magazine an interview in the first place.

The distinguished historian Randall Balmer goes beyond this notable episode to explore the evangelical spirituality that underlay the controversy in the first place. This biography of Carter is the latest in an abundance of research on non-rightist sectors of American evangelicalism. My own Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism (2012) has been followed by Brantley Gasaway’s Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice (2014) and now Balmer’s Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter. Carter, contends Balmer, was a quintessential “progressive evangelical.” His spiritually minded mother pushed racial boundaries in the rural South and identified as a feminist before Betty Friedan. Carter, as a child and then as a young man who left the navy to become a peanut farmer in his hometown of Plains, Georgia, assumed similar stances on spirituality and justice. A hard-working populist who refused to join the White Citizens Council, he entered politics because he felt that he could help “establish justice in a sinful world.” Niebuhrian in his realism, he nurtured a warm evangelical piety, a strong conversionism, and a pronounced Baptist belief in the separation of church and state. These religious convictions drove Carter’s career as a state senator and governor.

They also animated his political agenda in the White House. Arguing against Carter’s reputation as an ineffective micromanager, Balmer describes impressive advocacy for human rights, the Panama Canal, the Camp David Accords, nuclear weapons limits, and the Equal Rights Amendment. In each of these efforts, Carter embodied a small, but energetic evangelical left that was rallying around the 1973 “Chicago Declaration.” This vibrant progressive movement labored against both evangelical political conservatism and evangelical apoliticism. On the ground, these evangelicals built Sojourners and Evangelicals for Social Action and campaigned for Oregon Republican Mark Hatfield, Iowa Democrat Harold Hughes, and President Jimmy Carter.

The book isn’t perfect. As I note in a review that appears in an upcoming issue of the American Historical Review, Balmer’s depiction of Carter’s broader evangelical context is not quite as convincing. Despite the work of Darren Dochuk, Bethany Moreton, and others on the long rise of evangelical conservatism since the 1940s, Balmer portrays Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as abrupt hijackers of an apolitical, benevolent evangelicalism. At the same time, he constructs an overly romanticized account of a nineteenth-century evangelicalism that pushed for abolitionism and women’s rights. To be sure, evangelicals pioneered many social justice initiatives, but they also reinforced Jim Crow, robber barons, and jingoistic imperialism.

Nevertheless, this is a terrific book. It demonstrates the significance of progressive strains of evangelicalism, showing that such strains reached the highest political office in the nation. It is based in extensive oral interviews, archival sources, and a multitude of newspaper and magazine accounts. It is compact, readable, and clearly argued. And it is a beautifully written spiritual biography that recovers the moral gravitas of an oft-maligned politician. Whatever the limits of progressive evangelicalism, whatever his political liabilities, Carter was clearly a man trying to articulate and practice Christian theological principles of temptation, sin, redemption, and salvation by grace.

The Entrepreneurial Evangelicals

The title refers not to Sam Walton of Wal-Mart fame or to George Pepperdine, who started Western Auto Supply and used the money to found Pepperdine University. The new entrepreneurial evangelicals are from the Majority World. Esteemed Anxious Bench contributor Philip Jenkins has a great line in The Next Christendom: “If we want to visualize a ‘typical’ contemporary Christian, we should think of a woman living in a village in Nigeria, or in a Brazilian favela.” The centers of Christianity now, in other words, are not Geneva, Rome, or Los Angeles, but instead Kinshasa, Buenos Aires, Addis Ababa, and Manila.

Oya-Hazel Gumede fits the profile of a rising class of global entrepreneurs. She grew up in the midst of South African apartheid. Her mother died of AIDS. Her father was not around much during her childhood. Her brothers were victims of violence. She was raised in a township called Gezinsila, which means “wash your filthy feet,” by her grandmother, who used to slaughter a chicken to celebrate a good report card from school.

Along with her grandmother’s care, several things sparked Gumede’s upward mobility. As a teenager she converted to Pentecostal Christianity. Just as important, she came of age at the dawn of new, exciting possibilities in a democratic South Africa. Gumede harnessed her native intelligence and charisma to become a leader in her local church community. In addition to serving as dean of a small Bible institute, she rapidly rose in professional ranks. She eventually worked in the office of First Lady Zanele Mbeki, advised various government agencies, represented South Africa at the United Nations, and travels throughout Africa on business. She is the co-owner of Ashira and Shelton law firm. Gumede, along with other evangelicals, are moving comfortably in elite, so-called “black diamond” circles that are beginning to emerge in a white-dominated South Africa.

Gumede, according to sociologist Steve Offutt’s important new book New Centers of Global Evangelicalism in Latin America and Africa, represents a new kind of entrepreneurial global evangelical. Gumede and other local actors are globally connected, drawing on newly available transnational religious resources to build organizations and institutions. They are not overwhelmed by these global resources in their environments; rather, they use them to achieve their own ends and to mold their own religious communities.

Offutt makes many striking observations about these new centers of global evangelicalism, among them the role of huge megachurches, widening social stratification, and sophisticated levels of political and social engagement. Perhaps the most fascinating development is that global entrepreneurs are exporting religion, not just importing it. They are sending out their own missionaries, radio programs, and literature along a South-South axis: Salvadoran churches working with Chinese churches and South African religious networks extending to Argentina. In my own Mennonite circles, I’ve observed groups of Nicaraguans moving to Bangkok to attend university and to join churches in Thailand. Offutt’s book shows that these are not isolated cases. Religious communities in the Global South are increasingly ambitious in their social engagement and growth of big organizations. And significantly, while still influenced by the West, the West does not control them. Contra Brouwer, Gifford, and Rose in Exporting the American Gospel: Global Christian Fundamentalism, they are “culturally savvy, technically capable, and religiously inspired.” They use Western resources toward their own ends.

The research that undergirds these conclusions is impressive. For his two case studies of El Salvador and South Africa, Offutt conducted 118 interviews with leading evangelicals, including the heads of evangelical alliances, senior pastors of megachurches, entrepreneurs working in the private sectors, and nonprofit and political actors. He went to church with them and sometimes even lived in their homes. Attuned to the many textures of a rapidly changing Global South and suggestive of broader trends, New Centers of Global Evangelicalism represents the best of a growing literature on transnational religion.

The Hare with Amber Eyes

Before reading this book, I had never heard of netsuke, which are intricate miniature ornaments, usually carved from wood or ivory and representing people, animals, the professions, mythical creatures, and sexual acts. Worn to hang items from a kimono (which have no pockets), they reflect the rich culture of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Japan.

In 2005 Edmund DeWaal, a potter from London, inherited a collection of 264 netsuke from his uncle Iggie. The netsuke, it turns out, had traveled a long, winding journey to London. Iggie had possessed them for decades in Tokyo. Before that the collection survived in a mattress, undiscovered during the aryanization of Jewish properties in Vienna during World War II. Before that, the collection was assembled by Charles Ephrussi in Paris during the Japonisme obsession in Western Europe in the late nineteenth century. In total, the netsuke had a history that spanned five generations of Ephrussis from 1871 to 2009.

But DeWaal didn’t know any of this when the netsuke came into his possession. The Hare with Amber Eyes is DeWaal’s sobering and delightful project of historical recovery. What he finds in his family history reveals a sweeping, panoramic view of nineteenth-century European history. It’s a primer on the migration of Jews from the shtetls of Ukraine to the glistening cities of Western Europe, on the devastation of the Holocaust, on the fascination of Western elites for Eastern culture. The sources from this literate, wealthy, and connected dynasty give the book amazing texture.

The original Hare with Amber Eyes–courtesy of edmunddewaal.com

Most profoundly, The Hare with Amber Eyes is a search for identity. DeWaal travels to London, New York City, Toyko, Odessa, Vienna, and Paris. In Odessa, for example, he is taken by the city’s exquisite texture. But then he realizes “that in all my enthusiasm about tactile responses to Odessa I have mislaid its reputation as a city of pogroms, a city you might wish to leave behind.” DeWaal wonders if he really wants to recover this emerging narrative of extravagant living, extramarital affairs, and genocide. “Losing things can sometimes gain you a space in which to live. I don’t miss Vienna, Elisabeth would say, with a lightness in her voice. It was claustrophobic. It was very dark.” Later he writes, “I think of all those careful burnings by others, the systematic erasing of stories, the separations between people and their possessions, and then of people from their families and families from their neighborhoods. And then from their country.”

It’s also a narrative about place and belonging. Is it ok to bring the netsuke to his home in a Edwardian house on a pleasant London street far, far away from their history in Vienna, Paris, and Japan? In the end, DeWaal decides it is permissible. After all, “objects have always been carried, sold, bartered, stolen, retrieved and lost. People have always given gifts. It is how you tell their stories that matters.”

Which is what De Waal has done so compellingly. “I put some of the netsuke out on display—the wolf, the medlar, the hare with amber eyes, a dozen more—and when I next look they have been moved around. A rat, curled up asleep, has been pushed to the front. I open the glass door and pick it up. I slip it into my pocket, put the dog on the lead and leave for work. I have pots to make. The netsuke begin again.”

And so this story about netsuke is really a story about a family, which is really a story about leaving and movement and about preservation and destruction. What does it mean that the netsuke survive the Holocaust, but their owners do not? The richness of description makes the destruction all the more stark and sinister.

The book—beautifully composed, compellingly conceived, narratively tight—is unsettling too. It is an upbeat horror story with lots of emptiness, loneliness—seemingly redeemed because the stunning netsuke have survived to another generation. This narrative about ultimate things that features a dearth of religion and a striking abundance of good taste left me wondering: Is aesthetics all there is?

The Gospel Next Door

Marty Troyer, The Gospel Next Door: Following Jesus Right Where You Are (Herald Press 2016).

This epistle challenges conservative American Christian sensibilities. In an era of retrenchment when many want to build walls and militarize borders, Marty Troyer links the gospel to shalom. More than an absence of violence, he seeks wholeness and human flourishing.

This is not an abstract notion. Troyer, who writes out of his experience as a Mennonite pastor, does not seek an ethereal gospel. This is a particular gospel that plays out in real life. It takes concrete shape across the world, in our cities, even next door. It also plays out in time: ancient Palestine and Egypt, the Karankawa peoples that once inhabited modern-day Southeast Texas, and now in the land of a global superpower.

These were—and are—places of extreme depravity. Houston, the place the author knows best, is home to human trafficking, astounding corporate greed, stifling pollution, wounded soldiers afflicted with PTSD, and the excesses of a market economy. How, Troyer asks, are we living out the gospel amidst these troubles?

But Houston is also home to a gospel that heals both people and cities. In Project Curate, Habitat for Humanity, the Fifth Ward Redevelopment Corporation, Troyer sees glimpses of a coming kingdom. In artist Robert Hodge; Julie Waters, founder of Free the Captives Houston; and Betty and Jim Herrington, who invite the homeless into their home, he sees modern-day saints. If we have eyes to see, the gospel is almost certainly at work next door.

The genius of The Gospel Next Door is that it brings together things perceived as fundamentally different: evangelism and peace, social justice and salvation, Black Lives Matter and theology. To a church and society riven by culture wars, this book is a profound gift of public theology.