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Sola Gratia in Lake Wobegon

by William Lee Miller

Dr. Miller is chairman of the department of rhetoric and communication studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 2-10, 1987, p. 526. 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.


Garrison Keillor, whose news from the fictional town of Lake Wobegon will come to an end on June 13 after more than a dozen years on Public Radio, frequently can be as funny as any humorist you could name. But I suggest that he has been something more. There are times -- as in his treating shy people with a kind of gossamer poetry, or his evoking the tenderness of a father watching his son learn to swim, or his telling about an immigrant Norwegian who, sharing no common language with his new German bride, does the dishes to show how happy he is that she has arrived -- when you say to yourself, hey, wait a minute, is this humor, or what? Sometimes it is the "what," or humor mixed with the what so that it becomes a kind of superwhat.

But Keillor has not neglected the humorist’s first responsibility. Whether his work brings you to a state of total collapse depends, of course, on your susceptibilities -- on the mysterious transaction between the humorist and the humoree. You might, for example, be reading Keillor’s book Lake Wobegon Days (Viking Penguin, 1985) to your wife in the car, and suddenly find that you can’t get a passage’s funniest phrases out of your mouth. You make several runs at it, backing off to the beginning of the paragraph, gathering yourself, then approaching the most uproarious sentences with a running momentum like a roller coaster trying to crest a hill. You fail again, and finally your wife, who is driving the car and is not yet in on the joke’s denouement, pulls over to the EMERGENCY PARKING ONLY strip along the Interstate, stops the car, takes the book, reads the passage, looks inscrutably at you over her glasses, and starts driving again. Listening to "The Prairie Home Companion" on the car radio can be dangerous for Saturday night driving. Among the passages that produced in one hearer-reader distinct effects of this kind is the author’s discussion of the semaphore work of Lake Wobegon’s Boy Scout troop ("UNGENT/SEND HEAP/I’M BADLY CURT")

Nonetheless, producing convulsed hilarity is not Keillor’s only distinction, or even his chief one. In my opinion his main achievement is that he has decisively taken over from Woody Allen (or, if you prefer, from Peter De Vries) the title of the nation’s leading humorist-as-theologian. In fact, he may have retired the cup.

Keillor’s religious understanding functions in his material in three ways. First, he reports much more -- and much more sympathetically and with much more knowledge -- about the hinterland’s religious people, institutions and beliefs than does any other American humorist. That’s an obvious point. Second, he fairly often makes an explicitly religious affirmation. That point, I think, is fairly obvious, too. Third, and perhaps not so obvious, his outlook throughout his work -- not just when he is dealing with religious subjects -- is suffused with what we may discern to be a religious understanding.

Particularly apt is his treatment of the fissiparousness and perfectionism of his own little sect, the Sanctified Brethren: "Once having tasted the pleasure of being Correct and defending True Doctrine, they kept right on and broke up at every opportunity." The Cox Brethren were distinguished from the Bird Brethren, "who tended to be lax about such things as listening to the radio on Sunday and who went in for hot baths to an extent the Beales considered sensual." Although by the time Keillor came along, the Beale (or Cold Water) Brethren listened to the radio on Sunday and ran the bath hot, they never patched things up with the Bird Brethren. "Patching up was not a Brethren talent," he observes laconically. Some nights when Brother Louie and Brother Mel would argue at length about interpretations of the Bible, he could see that Lake Wobegon’s Cox Brethren "might soon divide into the Louies and the Mels."

Keillor describes the small-group sectarian worship service itself -- held in a private home -- with a mixture of humor and tender empathy:

Either the Spirit was moving someone to speak who was taking his sweet time or else the Spirit was playing a wonderful joke on us and letting us sit, or perhaps silence was the point of it. . . . This living room so hushed, the Brethren in their customary places on folding chairs (the comfortable ones were put away on Sunday morning) around the end-table draped with a white cloth and the glass of wine and loaf of bread (unsliced) was as familiar to me as my mother and father, the founders of my life.

When the sect’s meetings were shifted to the second floor of the St. Cloud bus station, "the long silences were often broken by the roar of bus engines and the rumble of bus announcements downstairs. Waiting for the Spirit to guide us to a hymn, a prayer, a passage from Scripture, we heard, ‘Now boarding at Gate One."’

Keillor has also dealt with the mainline church -- if anything in Lake Wobegon can be called mainline. He tells how David Ingqvist, pastor of the Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church~ lost out on a trip with his wife to the five-day Rural Lutheran Clergy Conference in Orlando, Florida, owing to the intervention of his most troublesome deacon ("When I see those pictures of starving babies I just think we ought to go through the budget and cut out the nonessentials -- travel, and that sort of thing")

Pastor Ingqvist, Keillor also notes, was alarmed that Dear Abby so often recommended that her readers seek the advice of ministers. "Talk to your minister," she’d say to a 14-year-old girl in love with a 51-year-old married auto mechanic who is in prison for rape. Why did Abby assume that a minister could deal with this situation? The poor old guy is in his study, paging through Revelation, when the door flies open and a teen-aged girl in a tank top bursts in sobbing passionately for a married felon three times her age -- what is the good reverend to do? Try to interest her in two weeks of handicrafts at Camp Tonawanda?

And so on. The thread of the town’s religious life runs constantly through the news from Lake Wobegon. Especially effective, however, is the way that Keillor, without ceasing to be a humorist, gets inside the mind of a worshiper, exaggerating, tossing off choice phrases, exposing the wandering mind and the human frailty, but still not mocking, not observing from outside, not repudiating. Take, for example, his affecting description of a revival service in the concluding chapter of Lake Wobegon Days. Could any other American humorist have written such an account? Ring Lardner? Sinclair Lewis? Robert Benchley? James Thurber? H. L. Mencken? Even Mark Twain himself? The question answers itself -- answers not just No, but No in thunder. Keillor stands this entire humorous tradition on its head.

Again, in a piece on the subject of where babies come from, he speaks movingly of the eagerness of the Tolleruds, standing on tiptoe and pressing forward to greet their adopted Korean baby at the Minneapolis airport. In listening to such episodes you may wonder when it is going to be funny; you may chuckle once or twice, but then you may find that it elicits tears instead of laughter. One could almost substitute these sketches for a sermon in a worship service (and in some instances that would no doubt be an improvement).

As to the third point, which conceivably some might find not entirely obvious: religion figures in Keillor’s work not just as subject matter but also as point of view. In addition to certain characteristic material -- what he or she makes jokes about -- a humorist also has an angle of vision and an implicit philosophy. Keillor has an implicit, and sometimes explicit, point of view that differs from the main American tradition of high humor -- even though he is a significant new member of that tradition.

That tradition of the artist’s humor descends from Mark Twain and the 19th-century raconteurs. But it took a new turn, as did so much of our history, after World War I, with Ring Lardner, the Algonquin wits and the early New Yorker, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, H. L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis, E. B. White, James Thurber, S. J. Perelman and their various companions, imitators and successors. They were shaped by the printed page, before the world was overcome by furniture that talks. As a part of that tradition, Keillor writes for the New Yorker, as did many of its number, and like them he shapes his work with discriminating intelligence, with imagination, and with a distinctive perspective. His work is not that of a joke-maker, a mere gag writer who feeds the laugh machine.

It is fortunate that Keillor continues this heritage that regards humor as a demanding creative art (even though both the general public and the elite have difficulty understanding that there can be such a thing) because without those exacting standards his writing would topple over into sentimentality. Even now it constantly trembles on the brink. It will not be good news when there are imitation Keillors all over the lot, peddling warm nostalgic memories of innumerable small towns.

It is also fortunate that it fell to Keillor to combine the standards set by the New Yorker with the wider possibilities, in audience, style and subject matter, of radio -- but public radio, not commercial, and radio, not the terrible new furniture that not only talks but gives off hideous flickering images. As we try to hold on to the tattered remnants of culture against the waves of mindless images, radio has this advantage: it can still give prominence to words. One of those is indeed worth a thousand pictures.

But while Keillor is among the best of the current representatives of the American tradition of literate humor, he also represents an important alteration or correction of it -- and perhaps even a repudiation of its prevailing points of view. It is not only that tradition’s treatment of religion that he has stood on its head; the same is true of his treatment of everything else. His work gives the tradition’s customary subjects and attitudes a 720-degree turnaround -- that is, insofar as the tradition may contain the smug, fast-talking humor of dismissal and exclusion, or the self-occupied humor of urban neuroses. And in that turnaround one can detect religious significance.

And at times the tables can be turned on the would-be satirist, as in the case of Johnny Tollefson. Much embarrassed by his folks and much distressed by the limitations of his surroundings, Johnny is going to be -- of course -- a writer ("He made a list of experiences he thought he should have in order to become a better writer. He left No. 1 blank, for fear his mother might see it"). On one occasion Johnny visits the local bar for ideas and atmosphere. After a few beers he emerges, trips and falls, gets up too soon and falls sideways against the hood of a brown pickup -- just as his uncle and aunt are passing by on their way to Wednesday night prayer meeting. It is a classic scene out of American humor. This time, however, it is not the presumably earnest Bible-carrying pair who are subjected to a sprinkling of mockery, but the young writer. After an exchange with his aunt and uncle, Johnny begins thinking how he might make a story of the scene and improve upon the details. He concludes that "the story would go on to reveal their essential hypocrisy and that of the entire town." Thus the proto-satirist is himself the recipient of a gentle satiric touch.

Often after reading the depressing formal literature devoted to analysis of jokes, humor and laughter, one senses a notable discrepancy between its theories and something that one has actually experienced in one’s own life -- the healing power of laughter.

The critics’ dubious efforts at analyzing humor tell us a good deal about its "banana peel" aspect, which is external and cruel and which involves taking pleasure in someone else’s discomfiture; about its superior aspect, in which we reinforce our exalted sense of ourselves by mocking and putting down others; about its satirical aspect, in which we seek to undermine the evils and puncture the foibles of this world by subjecting them to derision; about its cynical aspect, which meets the alleged meaninglessness of life with a defiant, bitter laugh; and about its irresponsible aspect, which shrugs and wisecracks to turn aside the requirements and obligations of our life here on earth. But Keillor’s humor is the opposite of all of these.

There is indeed an aspect of humor that divides -- that makes someone the butt of a joke while the rest of us laugh at him or her. But is there not, at a more profound level, an aspect of high humor that unites, that brings a shock of recognition of our common humanity? Often there is a sudden rush not only of recognition -- Yes, that’s the way it is, exaggerated now so we can see it clearly -- but also of fellow-feeling, even of surprise identification: Yes, it must be that way with them, and it would be so with us, in that condition; yes, we share those human responses.

Is all this intended to poke fun at impractical, absent-minded folk who are somehow different from the rest of us? Or at cigarette smokers? Or people who smoke Pall Malls instead of Marlboros? No. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve ever driven in a blizzard, or where you rank (or think you rank) on the scale of absent-mindedness of this kind: You understand. You identify: Yes, that’s true to something in us. Keillor manages to convey an accepting inclusiveness that is also a larger affirmation.

Sometimes this larger affirmation -- of Providence, of the grace of God, even of the dangerous notion of Special Providence (i.e., Providence for me) -- appears in Keillor’s work almost in an explicit way. For example, he writes in a New Yorker story:

When I dropped the window off that falling ladder back in 1971, I didn’t know that my son had come around the corner of the house and was standing at the foot of the ladder watching me. The window hit the ground and burst, the ladder hit the ground and bounded, and his father landed face first in the chrysanthemums: all three missed him by a few feet. Quite a spectacle for a little boy to see up close, and he laughed our loud and clapped his hands. I moved my arms to make sure they weren’t broken into little pieces, and I clapped too. Hurray for God! So many fiction writers nowadays would have sent the window down on the boy’s head as if it were on a pulley and the rope were around his neck, but God let three heavy objects fall at his feet and not so much as scratch him.

Any minor-league skeptic could of course make short shrift of that claim without working up a sweat: What about all the two-year-olds who are hit by a falling window? What is God doing about them? And so on. American humorists, have mostly been on the side of the skeptic, but Keillor is not. It would really require a more thorough analysis to establish the point, but take it from those of us who have read and heard a lot of him: Something like Amazing Grace is humming along through Keillor’ s stuff.

One of his most striking themes is what one might call a positive or benign irony: getting more than, other than, better than, you deserve. "But what a lucky man [the fellow whose car is snowbound in the ditch]. Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which once you have it you may be smart enough to see is what you have wanted had you known. . . . He starts out on the short walk to the house where people love him and will be happy to see his face." Sometimes there is a lot of grace around -- as in Garrison Keillor’s coming along when we needed him.


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