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Garrison Keillor and Culture Protestantism

by David Heim

Mr. Heim is a Century assistant editor. This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 3-10, 1987, p. 517. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


In mid-June Garrison Keillor departs his weekly public radio program "A Prairie Home Companion" and heads for Denmark, with the hope of returning to the obscurity necessary for leading the literary life. He’s scarcely leaving too soon for that. His recent career has vividly demonstrated how American culture’s omnivorous appetite for novelty can transform a counterculture product into a mainstream industry. Through his program, and his recent best-selling book, Keillor, the self-styled "shy person," has become a celebrity, and the mythical town of Lake Wobegon, "the town that time forgot," has been handsomely marketed with T-shirts and baseball caps.

One could sense the old Lake Wobegon beginning to slip away in the fall of 1985 when Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days hit the best-seller list. Keillor, who once described himself as a man "in the wrong place at the wrong time" (he was referring to his preference for the medium of radio) , began cropping up in all sorts of magazines and even on "Nightline," where he was expected to offer samples of folk wisdom (something he was not at all happy about, one was glad to see) Meanwhile in St. Paul, the local press was giving Keillor celebrity treatment of another kind, investigating and writing about his personal life. While he feuded with the press in a series of rather nasty and tedious radio sketches, the show, which had already lost regular musicians Butch Thompson and Peter Ostruschko, was losing some of its charm. It’s a wonder he stayed with it as long as he did.

Keillor was never, of course, a simple rural storyteller who happened to be overtaken, despite his best efforts, by commercial success. He began as a highly ambitious writer, and his one foot remains firmly planted in the sophisticated world of New Yorker-style humor. His early pieces for that magazine, collected in Happy to Be Here, reveal his mastery of the New Yorker’s brand of parodic humor, practiced most famously by S. J. Perelman. The point of this largely pointless humor is to string together cliches and banalities, ingeniously demonstrating the emptiness of modern life and speech and the author’s evident superiority to both -- a superiority the reader delights in sharing. Keillor’s attempts in this genre are remarkable mostly for their gentleness: he conveys an unexpected fondness for both the verbal conventions and the people he is mocking.

It is this gentleness and fondness that have flourished in his treatment of Lake Wobegon. Keillor displays a genuine reverence for his material -- material culled largely from his own past. Rather than using his acute grasp of manners and speech to demonstrate their fatuity, he asks us to acknowledge beneath and within the clichés and banalities of small-town life -- including that of the church -- enduring and even noble sentiments. It is the charity behind the satire that makes Keillor’s humor so winning.

Given the wide coverage Keillor has received in the religious press, and the many churchly greetings one hears aired over PHC’s announcement time ("To Pastor Bob in Waukegan: We’ll be home in time for choir practice") , it’s clear that Keillor’s show has had a wide following among churchpeople. Part of that appeal is simply that the inhabitants of Lake Wobegon live within the orbit of the church. Indeed, they live, as hardly anyone lives anymore, in Christendom. Covered-dish suppers, Sunday-school picnics, church-council debates, Pastor Ingqvist’s sermons -- these are staples of life in Lake Wobegon and so, naturally, of Keillor’s humor. In short, Keillor satirizes the church from the inside.

Those within the church know best of all how open to satire it is. The church is, one might say, inherently comic, for it makes divine and universal claims in very human and particular ways -- a discrepancy evident to anyone who cares to look. It matters, however, what one makes of that discrepancy. In Keillor’s case, we sense that he looks at the discrepancy from both sides, appreciating not only how earthen a vessel the church is, but how precious is the treasure it’s trying to hold. The gentleness of Keillor’s voice thus has religious significance: he finds the church humorous precisely because he grants that it is deadly serious. As G. K. Chesterton once put it, the test of a good religion is whether you can joke about it.

One of Keillor’s classic stories about the absurd genuineness and the genuine absurdity of religious life concerns the touring evangelist who brings her "Gospel Birds" show to Lake Wobegon. The show features a reenactment of the Noah’s ark story, in which birds, dressed up as other animals, enter the ark two by two. After this, four parakeets play on tiny bells the hymn "I sing because I’m happy/I sing because I’m free/For His eye is on the sparrow/And I know He watches me." "It was lovely," comments Keillor, "and in two-part harmony." This is a nice spoof of the bizarre and tasteless entertainment that characterizes some religious subcultures. But in Keillor’s account, tastelessness is only part of the story. The evangelist asks the congregation, "with every eye closed and every head bowed, to sit and contemplate God’s great love for us in our lives. And when one of our birds lands on your shoulder, I want you, if you feel that blessing in your heart, to stand up where you are." Keillor goes on:

Well, the Lutherans of Lake Wobegon are kind of a reserved bunch. They have closed their eyes and bowed their heads in church before, but it lent a certain excitement to meditating knowing that in a moment a bird would land on your shoulder, and wondering which one it might be. So they were a little nervous, and some people were peeking. But then they got down to the business of meditating, and their eyes were closed and their heads were bowed, and Yes, as they sat and thought, thoughts did come to mind of divine providence in their lives, of a great love that seemed to abide in the world and that upheld them and supported them as if by invisible hands . . . and more than that, a presence of grace in the world, that lifts all of us up. And as they sat and meditated, one by one each of them felt a slight weight on the shoulder, as if someone tapped them, and then they did feel blessed. And one by one they stood up where they were, until everyone was standing. It was a stunning moment. And they all felt very touched by this, not only touched but filled by this miraculous event.

The most absurd, the most laughable, the most narrow forms of religious culture can nevertheless be -- or so Keillor’s voice is able to convince us -- effective channels of real grace.

Keillor’s theology of culture is eminently comforting. It assures us that the cultural forms with which our faith is bound up, and which our cosmopolitan and critical minds tell us are historically contingent, are adequate -- are rather marvelous in fact. Keillor adopts what we might call a "Christ of Culture" posture; he is an elegiac poet of Culture Protestantism. As those terms remind us, Keillor’s remembrances of Lake Wobegon appeal to a certain complacency in our faith, a nostalgia for the days when religion and culture went hand in hand and did not need to be too closely distinguished. Indeed, one would not have to work very hard to show that the "grace" Keillor refers to is a generic grace, one that come from simply living the common life in Lake Wobegon. That’s why Keillor’s meditations can appeal to those well outside the church, who regard the religious life Keillor describes so intimately as simply one more quaint part of folk culture, to be savored in the same way one enjoys Judy Collins singing "Amazing Grace."

But it is the function of humor, after all, to comfort us, to reconcile us for the moment to the discrepancies with which we must live. Humor depends, in fact, on discrepancies. Chesterton again: only something that is dignified can be undignified. That is why Keillor’s humor has had an authentic religious resonance for Christians who are acutely aware of the tension between faith and culture. We know that the gospel relativizes all cultural forms; yet we also know that faith is always embodied in a particular culture. By embracing both points, Keillor’s humor reconciles us, even encourages us, to live with that tension, confident that if grace can come through the "Gospel Birds," it can come through other mundane efforts as well. In any case, we have a faith serious enough to joke about.


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