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.
McLemore is also brilliant, studying ancient restoration techniques and memorizing detailed reports on climate change and economics. His college chemistry professor is brought to tears as he shows Reed an ornate sundial McLemore crafted specifically for the coordinates of his home—decades after McLemore had been his student. Even McLemore’s own home is a monument to his creative genius: He maintains an orchard and a historic graveyard, and he builds a custom swing set and a giant hedge maze with 64 possible solutions. As Reed notes, “John liked a good project. For him, creating something new or restoring something was a worthwhile way to spend one’s time.”
Reed’s dark, deeply emotional portrayal of McLemore reads a lot like the Faulkner short story “A Rose for Emily,” which follows the life of an eccentric spinster and the townspeople that are both repelled and fascinated by her strange behavior. The series’ theme song is even named after the story, and when Reed first visits Woodstock, McLemore gives him a copy as a primer on the culture of the town he’s visiting. It’s clear that McLemore views his own life in Woodstock along the lines of a Southern Gothic tale à la Faulkner or Flannery O’Conner, and S-Town completes his vision with all the usual suspects: a damaged and misunderstood main character, the clash of tradition and progress, and grotesque themes designed to expose real societal problems.
Reed accomplishes what even his predecessor, Serial’s talented host Sarah Koenig, failed to fully maintain—an objective yet incredibly empathetic approach to storytelling. While Koenig occasionally veered into self-reflective navel gazing, Reed manages to see McLemore’s life as a worthy subject in and of itself. He clearly cared deeply about McLemore, but he’s able to make his own emotion a testament to McLemore’s character instead of his own.
Indeed, Reed’s approach to the entire town of Woodstock is a lesson in empathy. At one point, for example, after McLemore’s young friend Tyler Goodson describes an act of violence he thought about committing, he asks Reed if he thinks he’s a bad person. “I see you as a complicated, normal person,” Reed says. “I disagree with some of your decisions, but you’ve had very different life experience than I’ve had.”
For many listeners, the world of Woodstock will seem starkly foreign. McLemore’s charges of racism and misogyny don’t seem misplaced, and it’s clear that Reed feels like a spectacle to the locals. Someone audibly gasps when he tells them he’s from New York, and at one point, he describes how he made his social media accounts private before traveling to Woodstock so people wouldn’t know his girlfriend is black or that he has Jewish ancestry.
Instead of caricaturing Woodstock as a backwards rural Southern town, however, Reed balances his honest portrayal of its faults with a true empathy for its struggles and history. Even when individual characters in the saga do seemingly malicious things or are painted in a negative light by other people, Reed continually flips the listener’s assumptions and judgments from one episode to the next. Everyone has a history that explains at least some of their behavior, and everyone gets a chance to tell their side of the story.
McLemore’s own complicated relationship with Woodstock and its cast of characters is an honest and stirring picture of what human identity looks like in a fallen world. McLemore is painfully aware that the world he inhabits is tragically broken, but he still finds ways and places to create beauty and relationship. As Reed observes, however, “so much of the stuff John said he hated” about Woodstock “was part of him, too.” He was inescapably bound together with the racism and misogyny he despised, and everything from his work to his relationships was marred by the brokenness around him.
Even McLemore’s own creativity reflects the fallenness of his world. He’s continually disappointed with his own work, and Reed suggests that some of the chemistry he practices may be incredibly damaging to his health. Without a worldview that includes some understanding of eternity, McLemore ends up saying about his own painstaking work, “At my death, this place out here has one destination, and that’s to be paved over with a Walmart.” He experiences the futility of earthly labor that has no eternal vision and the disappointment of misplaced hope in human relationship.
S-Town is often crude and profane, and it includes a few brief descriptions of sexual acts; however, the series captures a truly beautiful picture of the fruitfulness of the language of “the image of God.” In his opening monologue, Reed recalls another important idea about “witness marks” that McLemore taught him: They’re displays of past brokenness and repair, but they’re also “clues to what was in the clockmaker’s mind when he first created the thing.” McLemore has a desire to create and restore, he recognizes injustice and suffering with an almost righteous indignation, and he spends his life desperately seeking true relationships—even when his efforts are misguided or futile. These traits exhibit themselves in fundamentally broken ways, but they are clearly exhibited nonetheless. Even though the “s-town” has left McLemore with its own set of broken witness marks, his life still offers insight into the clockmaker’s mind.
Kaitlyn Schiess is a freelance writer and blogger and is currently pursuing a Master of Theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. She writes regularly at Christ and Pop Culture and her blog, Letters from the Exile.