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Pop died in 1976, but he was on the 2013 super bowl. You may remember seeing him. Dodge Trucks made a commercial about him. They played a recording of the late Paul Harvey delivering a section of an old speech of his. It was called “So God Made A Farmer”. Mr. Harvey may not have had Pop in mind when he gave that speech but, make no mistake, he was talking about Pop.
Do you remember that old man near the beginning of the Dodge commercial wearing the cowboy hat? Pop wore a hat just like that. The image of him in that hat is seared in my little six-year-old mind. I loved that hat and I loved the man who wore it. Pop had been a real cowboy and ranch foreman in west Texas and New Mexico during his early adult years. There are pictures of him as a young man in a cowboy hat and riding chaps, wearing a pistol on his hip. No words are adequate to describe the effect of those pictures on the imagination of a little boy who came to realize that his grandfather had lived a life of adventure.
Pop used to tell me stories of how, on Saturday nights, all the cowboys would ride into town and the goal was to ride the most ornery “buckin’ horse” you could find. More than one mishap and much hilarity ensued. Pop was always ready with a laugh, often at his own expense, as he told stories about those days.
Pop was hardy. He knew hardship. He lived the rough and tumble life of a rancher and when old injuries made that impossible he took his second-grade education and his vast store of practical knowledge and provided for his family and his retirement. He had a kind of manly expectation of himself and his obligations.
He also had a quiet but fierce independence. And he was determined to hang on to that independence. He refused, for example, to ever own a car he couldn’t repair himself. He believed complex possessions were essentially tyrannical, and contributed to dependency and a loss of freedom.
The pandemic has had me thinking a lot about hardiness. I think it’s because of what our society’s reaction to Covid reveals about our reduced expectations of ourselves. Life is lived in a context and with a certain set of assumptions, and I think a lot of people are coming to the realization that many of those assumptions changed somewhere along the way. Covid has lifted a cultural veil and exposed what’s underneath. It’s probably not for nothing that the Greek origin of the word apocalypse means “to reveal”. Hardship exposes and lays bare things we didn’t understand quite so baldly before.
Ultimately, I think what’s changed for many is their expectations regarding their own independence. Many have become more self-absorbed and eager to be cared for – less determined to care for themselves. This probably explains the Covid fault line between those who want the government to tell them what to do, and those who are more inclined to fend for themselves.
I think the shift that’s taken place was actually happening in front of our very eyes if we had had the vision to see it. Maybe I’m the only one who didn’t connect these dots along the way. But, in hindsight, one place you could see the trend toward embracing and celebrating our inner neediness was in the changes taking place in American churches, long before the widespread hysteria that has attended Covid. I now suspect that the changes taking place in churches were merely reflections of more widespread changes concurrently taking place in the American psyche.
Something about the Christian narrative started changing in the ’70s and ’80s. I don’t mean the gospel words themselves were changed. I mean that the Christian cultural uptake and articulation of the meaning of the gospel was altering. This did not have to be a bad thing. As a teenager, I remember when our eyes were opened to the meaning of God’s grace and many legalistic understandings held by our Christian community fell by the way. That was mostly a really great thing. (I will observe, however, that once we learned about God’s grace, there was never enough food at church dinners after that. I suppose once it dawned on us that we wouldn’t go to hell for not bringing a casserole, we sort of used our get-out-of-hell-free card or something.)
So just because the Christian narrative was changing, that, in itself, didn’t make it bad.
But now, looking back, I confess to being able to perceive a very real wimpy vibe that accompanied many of the changes. There was more than a hint of unmanly passivity that began showing itself during those years in American churches.
And I wonder what Pop would think.
When I was a little kid, one of the Christian background narratives was that the church was God’s army. As if Christians were like commandos on a mission to rescue P.O.W.’s from behind enemy lines. In our children’s classes we sang “I’m in the Lord’s Army”. On Sunday mornings we sang “Onward Christian Soldiers”. That old hymn, written in 1865, said something about the conceptual model in which we understood our place and our agenda.
“Like a mighty army moves the church of God;
brothers, we are treading where the saints have trod.
We are not divided, all one body we,
one in hope and doctrine, one in charity.”
I’m not endorsing every single aspect of the “Christians are God’s army” narrative but there were several good things about it. Community, legacy, and history were all elements of the narrative. As was an agenda of accomplishment and daring and action. It was also outward facing rather than navel-gazing. More sacrificial, less self-indulgent.
Somewhere during the ’80s, things shifted and, by the ’90s, the “God’s Army” narrative was out and a new narrative was in. The new narrative shifted from the sense that we were here to accomplish something in God’s cause to being that God was here to accomplish something for me.
We morphed, somehow, from a narrative of “I’m on a mission for God” to “God is my therapist”. I’m not exactly sure how that happened, but happen it did. When was the last time, after all, that very many churches sang “Onward Christian Soldiers”?
One morning not long after the 2013 Super Bowl, on a lark, I clicked over to the website for the K-LOVE radio station here in Dallas. This is a Christian music radio station and they show on their home page what’s playing now and what’s been the most popular music of the last few weeks.
There I found a song called “Carry Me” by a young Christian artist named Josh Wilson. Mr. Wilson’s song was one of the hottest Christian tunes of 2013. Here’s the first verse:
“I try to catch my breath
It hasn’t happened yet
I’m wide awake in the middle of the night scared to death.
So I prayed God, would You make this stop.
Father please hold on to me, You’re all I’ve got…
Carry me, carry me, carry me on.”
Mr. Wilson doesn’t offer any context or explanation for why, he just opens his song with the fact that he’s quivering in his bed, terrified, and for no obvious reason.
If there were any P.O.W.’s that needed rescuing, Mr. Wilson was clearly unavailable.
Now, Josh Wilson may be a great guy and there may be some very extenuating circumstances that would explain his fears. But it’s not apparent in the lyrics, and anyway, the salient point about this is not actually Josh Wilson’s quivering, but the widespread popularity of his song. There was evidently something about the paralyzing fear and passivity of Mr. Wilson’s lyrics that resonated with the then-current Christian mindset.
Gone are the days, it seems, when artists thought like the writers of Casablanca:
ILSA: I’m frightened.
LASZLO: To tell you the truth, I’m frightened too. Shall I remain here in our hotel room hiding, or shall I carry on the best I can?”
The notion that we should not be passive in the face of our fears – that we should be men of action and daring – this seems distinctly at odds with the contemporary narrative of Christian artists. At some level, how we should react to our fears seems to be the nub of the issue in our conflict over Covid.
And I wonder what Pop would think.
As a small boy, Pop drove a covered wagon across Texas. And long before he was Mr. Wilson’s age, Pop rode the range by day with a pistol strapped to his hip, and by night he rode “buckin’ horses” into town. To be honest, I can’t imagine that a song about paralyzing fear and passivity would have much appeal to a man like Pop.
Some writers have commented on how reactions to Covid have bifurcated so neatly along political lines. With the left, always eager for government intervention, hectoring the world on the need to eschew self-reliance and place all our hopes in the care of “experts”. While those on the right, to a greater degree at least, are more inclined to act in accordance with their own independence and without the interference of “experts”.
I wonder if this fissure, between those who want to be cared for and those who want to care for themselves, explains much about Covid and our politics in general.
Several writers, after the 2013 super bowl, each independently described the Dodge Truck commercial as “stunning”. Perhaps it was seen as stunning because it ran so counter to the prevailing underground narrative of neediness and passivity. Perhaps there was an unspoken, even unrecognized, yearning for the energetic, industrious, bold, steady, self-reliant, and manly character described by Paul Harvey.
So I wonder what Pop would think about Covid.Published in