The Wobegon Preacher
We are highlighting Leadership Journal's Top 40, the best articles of the journal's 36-year history. We will be presenting them in chronological order. Today we present #26, from 1991.
One of Garrison Keillor's stories describes the twenty-four Lutheran ministers who visit Lake Wobegon as part of their "Meeting the Pastoral Care Needs of Rural America" study tour. There to greet them as they step off the bus is the mayor of Lake Wobegon, who, according to Keillor, observes:
"Ministers. Men in their forties mostly, a little thick around the middle, thin on top, puffy hair around the ears, some fish medallions, earth tones, Hush Puppies; but more than dress, what set them apart was the ministerial eagerness, more eye contact than you were really looking for, a longer handshake, and a little more affirmation than you needed. 'Good to see you, glad you could be here, nice of you to come, we're very honored,' they said to him, although they were guests and he was the host."
As they walk down the alley behind Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery, past Mrs. Mueller's cat sitting in the shade of an old green lawn chair, one of the ministers tells the mayor about their tour: "We've gotten an affirmation of Midwestern small-town values as something that's tremendously viable in people's lives. But there's a dichotomy between the values and the politics that is really crucial at this point. It's a fascinating subject."
Garrison Keillor's attention to detail, speech patterns, and his understanding of human nature all combine to make many of his readers feel like they have lived in his fictional town of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. Others long to visit.
Keillor's books, Lake Wobegon Days, Leaving Home, and Happy to Be Here were national best sellers. His live variety show, "A Prairie Home Companion," gained a loyal national audience in its thirteen years on American Public Radio.
More recently, Keillor moved from his native Minnesota (which he calls "a Northern European nation") to Manhattan, where he writes for The New Yorker, Harper's, The Atlantic, and is in his third year with his radio show "The American Radio Company."
Leadership editor Marshall Shelley and New York pastor Gordon MacDonald, who has closely followed Keillor's work as a writer and performer, visited Keillor's American Humor Institute office and asked him about his spiritual and professional pilgrimage.
In your stories, you clearly identify with the values that came out of your religious background. You seem careful not to renounce or to ridicule your strict Plymouth Brethren upbringing. And yet you apparently felt the need to step away from it to embrace a larger circle.
My people were Scottish; they sort of came by their Calvinism naturally. There was something in them that suited that temperament, that intellectual passion for a perfect and ordered world. And I basically grew up in one. But it's hard to stay in that world and still keep one's curiosity.
As an artist you found it unfriendly?
It was unfriendly, and I couldn't understand why. I only felt it as hostility from individuals. I didn't feel it as a judgment that had the weight of Scripture or divine authority behind it.
So I walked away from the Plymouth Brethren, and I've had thirty years now to think about it, and I still don't know what I think. I have the same faith I had as a child.
I don't use the word values to describe this. I believe that it's true. It's not that I've placed a value on the gospel or believe that it leads us toward a particular life. It's true; it's not a value.
If it's true, why did you leave the Brethren?
The Brethren take one aspect of the gospel—the principle of separation—to the exclusion of most of the other things that Jesus taught. And this can lead so easily to the very sort of legalism that Christ was continuously rebuking in the Pharisees who were following him around, looking for a chance to trip him up in inconsistencies and in not following the letter of the law.
In the same spirit, the Brethren seemed to find ample reason to separate themselves from almost everybody, even to separate themselves from each other. That track, if followed to its natural conclusion, would lead to churches made up of individuals breaking bread alone in their living rooms across America.
At the same time, there's so much I would want to say in favor of the Brethren and of other fundamentalists. They were powerful scholars, and they were devoted to the Word. When it comes down to a choice between Scripture and our own imaginations and our own charm as individuals, one does well to choose Scripture.
It's always good to return to that. And the Brethren never left it. They had a great passion for the Word, and that's to their credit. They also were devoted to a life of prayer, which perhaps is easier among those who are set apart. I think prayer and a prayerful attitude are the first things we lose when we get involved in the world.
In one of your stories, you remarked, "In our church we had a surplus of scholars and a deficit of peacemakers." Were you saying that you were a peacemaker and that peacemakers have a tough time surviving in such churches?
In the Brethren, I think peacemakers were seen as lacking conviction. I do think this has changed in thirty years, and I shouldn't sit and talk about the Brethren in the present tense because I have not been present since I was rather young.
No, I wasn't one of the peacemakers. I was part of another group: the satirists. And they didn't have any place there at all. I'm not sure they should. I'm not sure where satire fits into the gospel.
Satire is certainly a moral art. There's no doubt about it. Satire has to have a moral base. You can't satirize based on aesthetics. You can't make fun of what is merely tasteless.
But in a church body, I don't see that satirists are of much use.
As you moved further away from that strict style of faith, were there landmarks along the road-personal events, adverse or friendly-that steered you in the direction you've gone?
Of course. But I think there were more cataclysmic events involved. When our family, in my father's generation, moved off the farm and into the city, that was a difficult move for them as Christian people. And it was us younger kids who felt the shock.
Living on the farm, as my grandfather did, enabled him to choose a different way of life and to live by his own light. And his light certainly was the gospel.
He wasn't a particularly successful farmer. He worked about 160 acres and raised dairy cows and a mixture of crops. His life was centered on his faith in a way that is impossible in the city.
He began every day with a family altar, right after breakfast. My Uncle Jim, who took over the farm when my grandfather died, carried on this practice.
You milked the cows before breakfast. Then, after you had your Post-Toasties and your coffee, you went into the front room-seldom used for anything else-and you sat there and you read a chapter and you talked about it and then you knelt down and you prayed for as long as he figured was necessary—a long, slow prayer, everybody kneeling, putting your face into the sofa. I remember the smells of that sofa, of other members of the family. Only after this was done would you go out, hitch up the team, and cultivate the fields.
It was very lovely to a kid. It was a way in which we were different from other people. In the country you could do that.
The city changed that. Working for the post office, as my father did, that was impossible. We lived in close proximity to other people and felt more a part of American society.
We got a newspaper in our house every day. My grandfather didn't. My grandfather wasn't a particularly patriotic person. He never voted. He didn't believe that was any of his business. He really believed that here we have no continuing city-we're sojourners, wanderers. And in some way he felt that America was a work of God but that the place of a Christian in the world didn't have a lot to do with being an American.
Somewhere along the line you grew away from that.
Because I assimilated. Those old fundamentalists were in some ways like immigrants from another country. By their powerful conversion, they made themselves aliens in the world, and then their children gradually find their way back.
Millions of people have gone through what you're describing—perhaps not consciously rejecting their roots, their theology, but having to make peace with "the more real world," the city. Some rebel and throw out their faith-bashing religion in general, conservative faith in particular. And yet, we don't hear that kind of hostility in your work. You made the transfer. How have you done it?
I don't know what it is that I've done. I don't offer my experience as exemplary in the slightest. A lot of my friends who grew up in more mainline churches, Lutheran and Methodist, have also tended to fall away. Fundamentalists are pretty good at holding on to their own. Some of my family slid off to what we grew up referring to as "the systems."
Do you think a person with your kind of creative drives can survive in the structured, orderly world of conservative Christianity?
Yes. Goodness yes.
When you started your writing career, though, didn't you ever say to yourself, "If the folks back at the home church read this, they would die"?
Yes, but the work that I might have said that about is not my best work.
People back at the home church, or "the meeting" as we called ourselves (we were not a "church," that was "the system's" word) ... people back in the meeting turned out to be right about a lot of things.
They thought the use of tobacco was an abomination. So of course, I launched myself into twenty-five years of smoking. I finally quit six years ago.
They thought all sorts of things were abominations. They may not be abominations, but we can easily do without them.
If I had stayed in the Brethren, it would have been difficult. A person would have had to have renounced the idea of success, and that would be hard. Because I have really enjoyed success. I would have had to renounce that.
They didn't believe in going to college and in developing yourself, developing your talent to the highest level and competing and getting ahead. They thought that was all delusion. They thought that a person had an obligation to work and to support yourself and that was about it.
Your obligations were not to yourself, to your abilities, but to obedience to God.
At least three interesting personalities in our century, in one way or another, stepped away from their conservative Christian roots: Ernest Hemingway, Wes Craven (the producer of horror movies), and Garrison Keillor. What makes the outstanding creative person uncomfortable in that backyard? Is Christianity hostile to artists, to those who love to let their minds roam?
No, not at all. I think the sad thing, for instance, about the recent Mapplethorpe controversy was that it drew yet once again Christians, particularly evangelicals and fundamentalists, into conflict with artists, which is a tragic conflict.
In many cases fundamentalists and evangelicals have been drawn into tragic alliances with capitalists and militarists, which I think is such a betrayal of the gospel.
Artists are searchers. Artists, I think in some sense, are more open to the workings of the Holy Spirit.
What if someone in the church had told you, early in your life, "Go for it. Go to New York. Write. Tell the world what you think and feel even if sometimes it's hard to take. Feel free to use any allusions or structures in your writing that will get the point across." We don't have the feeling that any Christian ever told you that.
I'm not sure they should have told me that.
But what they should not have done was to imagine that art can be controlled and made useful and made becoming. The Plymouth Brethren believed in such a thing as Christian fiction, which is fiction put to the use of preaching a message.
I grew up on "The Sugar Creek Gang" books. I read them all. It was rather light entertainment. I don't denigrate the person who wrote it, but it's not all that fiction can do.
The Christian fiction for adults was completely unsatisfying. A grown-up person would always prefer Scripture itself to anything so thin as the "approved fiction."
Somehow they believed in giving the Spirit some latitude in other matters, but not in art. In those matters they felt that they knew best. And I had a feeling of righteousness about writing, some of which has worn off in thirty years, but not most. I do think that this is worthy work for believers.
Many devout homes raise children with a sense of mission-that the number one call in life is to preach the gospel to the world. Do you at all have a sense of mission in what you're doing these days? Is your work just work, or sheer creative joy, or are you called to a kind of preaching mission?
I suppose I feel called. But the evangelistic drive, I guess, strikes an old PB as a little bit entrepreneurial. We'd want to make sure we really have something before we go out and bestow the gift on others.
I suppose if I had a real mission drive, I'd head for television, but I'm really headed in the opposite direction. If I had a real mission drive, I would get out there and battle for a hearing.
But whenever I do go out there, the world seems to me to be irremediably corrupt. The world of media, the America we read about in news magazines and see on television, where you can imagine you are affecting millions of people-that aspect of our culture seems to me to be heartless and without much basis in reality.
Do you see yourself as offering an alternative?
No. No. What I'd rather do is my hoop-stitching. I do a certain kind of short fiction for The New Yorker magazine. I also do "Notes and Comment" pieces from time to time. The New Yorker has somewhere around a half million readers. In a nation of 220 million people, it's not a very big group. Public radio, likewise, is a small audience in this country. But it's a lovely audience, and it's one that I think is good enough.
Your chosen medium, storytelling, influences opinion. Preachers use your stories as sermon illustrations. Communicators analyze your tapes. Discussion groups read your books and talk about your stories. And many of these stories drip with messages.
That sounds messy. (Laughter)
It's a wonderful kind of mess. One of your best stories is when Carla Krebsbach, the homecoming queen, rides down the main street of Lake Wobegon on a Sherman tank, dressed in white, and her father comes the other direction on his tractor, hauling to the dump a 1937 Chevy coupe that someone had buried and used as a septic tank. They come face to face, and neither can turn around.
That's either a wonderful story just left as a story, or it's a great cosmic picture of purity and evil at a standoff, with all the universe of Main Street looking on, wondering who's going to blink first.
My sister was a National Guard queen in high school, and it was an amazing sight. There was a tank (I assume it was a Sherman tank, I don't know) rumbling down the main street of Anoka, Minnesota, with my sister in a strapless white gown sitting in the forward cockpit.
Yes! And with National Guardsmen marching along on either side in single formation.
That enhances the story. But let us in on the secret. Did Garrison Keillor sit and type out that story with cosmic significance in mind or does that emerge only after the fact?
Those Lake Wobegon stories were amazingly easy to write for about three or four years—sinfully easy, I'd almost say. I'd sit down, always with just a couple of real things in mind.
In that story, the real elements are my sister and her stint as National Guard queen in Anoka, Minnesota, in about 1957. I think the 18-year-old girl in a white formal, riding a tank, is a memorable image.
The other element was a friend of mine had told me that his uncle had in fact buried a car in the yard and used it as a septic tank. Well now, that's an interesting fact to anybody. (Laughter)
But what they mean, I don't really have any idea. We don't normally bring them into juxtaposition. That's what you do, of course, in the story. Those stories were so easy to write, so natural, like writing a letter. I've never written anything with less effort. Not before or since.
But they are fraught with certain themes and messages that just keep coming back again and again and again.
I'd have to study this, and I'm not sure it would be possible for me to identify them.
You come from a background where there was a high premium put upon teaching and preaching. You have chosen a more oblique way to communicate: storytelling. And you have helped revive storytelling in our country to a level that it had lost.
No, I think it's always been present.
Perhaps with children in the back country. But in New York City?
Oh, yes. Stories are how people bring up their children, and stories are how people survive in surroundings that are inhospitable.
New Yorkers are terrific storytellers and have great stories of suffering and duress and how they have managed to survive these indignities. New York stories are about survival; they're not about triumph. There is no triumph in the city. Maybe that makes them more Christian. Out in the West, hyperbole and bragging and exaggeration are part of so much of our stories.
You once said that for over a year, you stopped attending church. You felt conspicuous, felt that you were under pressure to make an impression, and you felt it was better for you and the congregation that you were not there. Have you changed your perception?
Oh, yes. It's different living in New York where a person can be anonymous. I tried for about a year and a half to be an Episcopalian, but in a way, the congregation was just too good for me. They have that sort of maddening high-mindedness that makes liberals sort of easy to despise. I speak as one.
This church had an exemplary record. It's a wonderful church. They have a mission to gay people; they were involved in Nicaragua, South Africa, and everything else; on top of it all, this tiny congregation supported a vast, ambitious soup kitchen.
But after a while, I felt that if I, a middle-aged, white, affluent male, felt real bad one week, thought about coming around to the church and talking about it, I mean, where do I stand in relation to gay people and homeless people and Nicaragua and the Third World and the environment …
I mean, I'm rather far down on the hierarchy of worthy causes.
No, in the Gospels, Christ takes people as they come along. He didn't determine that, for instance, adulterous women were the leading social problem in Judea at that time. But when he met one, he dealt with her.
So since then, I've relapsed and become a Lutheran. I mean I go every Sunday. And that I find very ... good. I was going to say comfortable, and it is comfortable, but I know I shouldn't say comfortable, so I don't want to say comfortable, but it is comfortable.
I feel like I walk through the door and I am among people who are pretty much like me. It's kind of an ethnic church.
When you walk into church for Sunday worship, what do you hope happens?
You hope that the leaders who have worked up the exercise don't get too much in the way of the congregation, and don't try to put on too much of a performance. That's my bias because, you know, as a performer I'm intolerant of other performers.
The sort of minister who sets my teeth on edge is one who is trying a little bit too hard, has just a little too much heartiness coming from up front. And the sermon is too stylized by about half.
You don't go to church for an essay. The art of the essay is a great art, but you don't go to church for that. And I think that's what a lot of ministers, in my limited experience, try to provide. They offer this work of the sermon art. And it's usually not what's needed.
What kinds of preaching do you appreciate?
The best sermons I've heard, the ones that left me shaken afterward, always were based on simple storytelling. The preacher has told us a story from the Bible in such a way that we really can feel its reality. The story of Job is a story that everyone imagines that they know.
But, I tell you, we don't know that story. You don't know that story until you would be able to look people in the eye and tell them that story, and I couldn't sit here really and tell you the story of Job so that it would have the full impact.
But I can remember once in a Baptist church in Louisville, Kentucky, where the preacher did just that. He simply told the story of Job, and he read some, and he summarized some. He extrapolated it into modern analogies and modern terms a little bit but not too much. He just tried to tell a story. And it was a story that left you dazed at the end of it.
We started out with a very orderly, stable, predictable world of the farm. We end up in a world like New York where the story is about survival, chaos, fifteen-minute buffers between appointments, unpredictability. That's quite a journey ...
Yes. But the church is the common thread that works the same in New York as it did in Minnesota. Idyllic as the 160-acre farm may seem to us, it was not idyllic to my grandfather. Everything was unpredictable. And life was cruel. And when he came together with the other Brethren every Sunday morning for Communion, that was the redeeming moment of his week.
What's the parallel between that and your experience in church today?
That the institution of the church and the theology is not so crucial to the people in the pews as that feeling of union at Communion, which is a powerful moment, which brings tears to a person's eyes, and when it doesn't, it should.
To me it's the heart of everything. Flannery O'Connor, a Catholic, wrote about going to church in Georgia. A friend of hers told her she didn't go anymore because she didn't care for the homily.
Flannery O'Connor looked at her in disbelief; she couldn't believe that somebody would be so foolish as to think that the homily was what anyone went to church for. The priest's performance was immaterial.
Has the center of gravity in the gospel shifted dramatically for you over the years, or is it still the same gospel?
We're talking about a considerable passage, about a difference between a child and a man almost fifty.
The God of my childhood was primarily omniscient: One who sees all and is always looking. A child is used to being watched by invisible beings, God the highest, most powerful among them. But your dead relatives are also out there watching. Eventually you realize even your thoughts can be seen by your old Scottish grandpa, who is up there watching.
Increasingly as you get older, your thoughts are shameful, or what you've been brought up to imagine as shameful. And these people were death on everything erotic.
As you get older, you cannot endure the gaze of that kind of God and live. It's unbearable. You have to put that merciless gaze out of your mind or you would become a nut living in a mobile home at the end of a long dirt road with his cats and sitting out there eating acorns.
Against that pitiless gaze is the vision of Christ the Good Shepherd, which we also grew up with as children. Part of that vision is the miraculousness of the gospel, grace, the good news, which one learns more and more about as you get older.
After a long lapse, a long absence, I came back. And the pitiless gaze is gone somehow. The apocalyptic visions of Brethren don't have as much power for me as they had when I was 8 and 10 and 11, when they had absolute power.
We lived our lives in anticipation of the Second Coming, which I think is fine-that is to see the world truthfully. If you look at the world with some anticipation of the Lord's coming, you will have a different scale of values, a better scale. But, when it becomes your obsession, it's impossible to live that way.
One of your stories is about the prophecy teacher who came to town every year, put his elaborate chart up on the wall, and explained the end times in great detail. And one year he goes out to the fields with the men and has a sunstroke. They strip his shirt and are shocked to see his tattoo.
That was his past. Yes. That was his mark.
That story summarizes the shock of the meeting between the eternal and the earthy, between the man with his finger on the ages and the man with the tattoo.
That chart was a powerful thing. It was called "The Course of Time from Eternity to Eternity." I still have it in my bedroom. My wife is Danish and doesn't understand it a bit. (Laughter)
But it depicts everything—the world in chaos on the far left to the eternal hereafter on the right.
When I was a kid, I could look at that chart and feel that I understood all of human history. There on the chart it was perfectly explained and simplified. This wasn't anything I could have explained to anybody else. It was simply a feeling of utter certainty.
But what happens to the value of the chart when you see the tattoo?
Then you start to realize that prophecy can explain only so much. Storytelling is required for the rest.
Great answer. And so is the way you end that story: "My father told me, 'You must never tell anybody about this.' And I never have—until now."
Copyright © 1991 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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