‘S-Town’ Explores the Maze of the Divine Clockmaker’s Mind
Image: Valero Doval

My favorite professor likes to say that a biblical view of humanity “needs to start in Genesis 1, not Genesis 3.” In saying so, he’s arguing for a fuller picture of what Scripture tells us about ourselves—not only that we’re fallen and sinful, but that each and every one of us is made in the image of God. It’s actually the combination of these ideas that most fully explains both the goodness and evil of which humans are capable: We display—albeit brokenly and imperfectly—characteristics that point us to the perfect character of our God. Christians can find signs of this eternal truth in highly unusual places, such as the incredibly successful podcast S-Town.

S-Town was downloaded over 10 million times within four days of its release on March 28, setting a new record for podcasting. It was produced by the makers of 2014’s Serial, a true crime series that quickly became a breakout hit. Like its predecessor, S-Town begins as investigative journalism, but ends up much more like a Faulkner novel than a crime serial. Host Brian Reed began the series by responding to an email from John B. McLemore, a resident of Woodstock, Alabama, who believed that a murder was being covered up by his local police. Eccentric, foul-mouthed, prone to apocalyptic pessimism, and surrounded by a cast of equally peculiar characters, McLemore begins corresponding with Reed about his claims. Reed visits Woodstock to investigate the alleged murder, but he ultimately discovers a far more fascinating subject for his project—McLemore himself.

An antique clock restorer and horologist, McLemore spent his life learning centuries-old techniques for repairing and enhancing intricate timepieces. In a beautiful monologue that begins the series, Reed describes what McLemore taught him about the art and science of clock repair. Each clock has unique inner workings that make repair incredibly difficult, but, as Reed notes, “to make the job even trickier, you often can’t tell what’s been done to a clock over hundreds of years.” Reed goes on to explain that because no one but the maker of these old clocks knows exactly how they work, the creator and those who later tinker with them will leave “witness marks” to explain the work they’ve done—little impressions or holes that provide a kind of blueprint for the restorer to follow.

That’s really what S-Town is about: the uncovering of witness marks in the life of one broken man.

McLemore displays an incredible loathing for his hometown—the title of the series is a shortened version of the profane expression he frequently uses to refer to Woodstock. In his long-winded rants to Reed (ones as laced with scientific jargon as they are profanity), he details his gripes about the small town: its racism and misogyny, its widespread denial of climate change, its police corruption. But McLemore’s pessimism doesn’t discriminate. He’s convinced that the entire United States is on the verge of total collapse into “carnage…a new dark age.” McLemore might be an atheist, but it sure seems like he believes in total depravity.

In spite of his apocalyptic predictions, however, McLemore has a remarkable effect on many people in his life. He cares for his elderly mother and dozens of stray dogs; he maintains deep friendships with everyone, from his clock customers to local handymen who spent time working on his property; and one young man even credits him with singlehandedly pulling him out of an alcohol addiction by his unwavering support and friendship.

May
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‘S-Town’ Explores the Maze of the Divine Clockmaker’s Mind
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