Deadly Grudges, an Elvis Impersonator, a Holstein-spotted Chihuahua – and more

In the life-is-stranger-than fiction category – several months ago I had read this article in GQ about the Elvis impersonator from Tupelo framed for ricin assault. The article is very funny. All the real-life characters could be straight out of a Tennessee Williams comedy. State representative – and undertaker -Steve Holland could single-handedly carry his own television series. As did the story of the Yarnell forest fire tragedy I mentioned in my last post, this article also made the “Best of 2013” magazine articles list at Longform, sponsored by the Writing Program at the University of Pittsburg.

Stories of Forest Fire Tragedy and Heroism

Thanks to my friend who sent me this link to Longform, sponsored by the Writing Program at the University of Pittsburg, which lists their picks for the best magazine articles of 2013. My first click was to The True Story of the Yarnell Fire in Outside Magazine. I’ve been intrigued by forest fire fighters and the dangers they face for about 15 years ever since I read Norman Maclean’s book Young Men and Fire about the Montana Mann Gulch burnover. It’s one of my favorite books of all time. The Yarnell article has a link to a great site with present day photos and annotations of Mann Gulch. Dick Gordon of “The Story” did an interview with smokejumper Bob Sallee, one of the only survivors of the Mann Gulch burnover. Sallee tells an amazing story.

Ross Douthat’s Ideas from a Manger

There are three different “world pictures” jostling for market share in America, according to Ross Douthat: biblical, spiritual, secular. Douthat cleverly uses the Christmas story as a touch point for examining and describing each. I think this is as accurate a description as any. My guess at the currently popularity of each is that “spiritual” leads the pack and continues to gain ground with Joe and Jane American. In second place, but losing ground is the traditional “biblical” view of the world. And in last place but growing, and having a much larger influence on our culture than its number of adherents (and already in first place among the intelligentsia) is the “secular” way of looking at the world. It’s worth reading the article for how Douthat contrasts the spiritual and biblical views. There’s some overlap. But, ultimately the spiritual view rejects the historical and particular elements that are at the core of the biblical view.

Stepping Back and Moving Out

      As the cultural darkness deepens, should we step back from “mainstream” society, form a Christian “community,” and live closer to the land?  This article by Rod Dreher contains profiles of two such intentional communities, one a group of Catholics in rural Oklahoma, the other a community of evangelicals-turned-Eastern Orthodox in Alaska.
      As much as I like the idea of community, I’m certain I would find living in such communities difficult. I like plenty of space between my brethren and me. I love being independent. And getting back to the land doesn’t sound particularly appealing to me.  But, the survival of a robust Christian witness in America may one day depend on the multiplication of communities like the ones described by Dreher.

Brother’s Keeper

If you want to see a powerful argument for the wisdom of giving communities the authority to judge their own, watch Brother’s Keeper. In this 1992 documentary, you’ll meet four eccentric, elderly brothers who live together in their dilapidated house on a run-down dairy farm. We also meet many of their neighbors in a rural farming community in upstate New York. One of the brothers dies, under admittedly ambiguous circumstances. The next thing you know, the police and prosecutors, who have jurisdiction in the community but who are obviously viewed by the locals as outsiders, have charged one of the brothers with murder. From there the case takes some unsettling turns as the the prosecutors badger the remaining brothers, who have obvious intelligence and social handicaps, and propose a bizarre motive, in attempts to strengthen their case. Meanwhile, the locals rally behind the brothers – an ironic turn given that previously most had ignored or avoided the brothers.

It’s a powerful and vivid portrayal of rural American culture. I was struck by how much the people in this rural upstate New York community have in common with my family and friends in rural Mississippi – much more so than either group has in common with “city folk” from their own region. And in addition to reminding me of why the jury system is such a treasure, this story also reminded me that sometimes life is so complex, and our knowledge so incomplete, that we’re better off leaving judgment to the One who knows both the actions and the hearts of those involved.

Heartbreak in Tallahassee – And Elsewhere

My two best friends from Florida State University days emailed me this morning with the news that the FSU quarterback, Jameis Winston, would not be charged with sexual assault. I read the police report including the witness affidavits.

Heartbreaking. In so many ways. Not just for these young people, but for so many who live in a youth and young adult culture where drunkenness, hooking up, and sexual assaults are commonplace. There was plenty of the same when we were at FSU in the late 70s and early 80s. But, this isn’t one of those things that “has always been this way.” I’m convinced it was not the culture on most college campuses in the 1950s and earlier. A lot of good things happened in the 1960s – and also a lot of things for which we are going to be eating bitter fruit for a long time.

I believe human nature has been the same since our ancient grandparents (A & E) set our moral DNA. But, I also believe culture makes a huge difference in the risks we are willing to take with our outward actions. Just as an example, consider George Washington and his aristocratic compatriots. They grew up in a culture that drummed into them from childhood that the good life was worth pursuing, and that the “good life” was defined by honor, duty, service, integrity, self-sacrifice, and self-control. And Martha Custis and the aristocratic ladies who were her peers had similar (albeit “feminized” as demanded by the times) virtues that defined for them the good life. That’s not to say that these folks couldn’t be “lovers of money” (witness the incredible debt some of them accrued in land deals trying to become rich and richer), or that they didn’t beat and rape their slaves, or weren’t alcoholics, or weren’t blind to a hundred other sins. But frankly I find it nearly incomprehensible that George and Martha would ever have found themselves in a situation like Jameis Winston and his accuser – partly because of how their culture had formed their characters, and partly because their culture would not have countenanced social customs that would have enabled such a situation.

What did the culture of Jameis Winston and his roommates  teach them about “the good life”? Honor? Duty? Self-control? And what about the young woman in this awful affair? Sober-mindedness? Modesty? (I feel guilty of some sort of sexism for even using the word.) I doubt it.

I’m pretty confident that these young people heard that the good life includes a lot of self-esteem. But, self-esteem is a weak pillar when it’s standing there all alone surrounded by vulgarity, lewdness, and hedonism, and when seldom is heard an encouraging word about the old, classic virtues.

Sad for this young woman. Sad for Jameis Winston. Sad for us all.