Being baptist (Lenten Reflection on 1 Peter 3:18-22)

There was a dream and one day I could see it; Like a bird in a cage I broke in And demanded that somebody free it And there was a kid with a head full of doubt; So I’ll scream ’til I die; And the last of those bad thoughts are finally out.

I’m baptist. That’s a quirky self-identification these days. However, it’s one that is a core part of who I am. Along the way, I was ordained by a wonderful congregation. So I’m a Reverend baptist. But we push for the priesthood of all believers, so Rev. Sam Harrelson seems superfluous.

I wasn’t necessarily born into being baptist. I had choice and made decisions along the way. MaNy of those choices are why I’m probably not a full time pastor in some congregation in Rhode Island or North Carolina right now at age 42. My family started attending church somewhere around my 12th-13th birthday. We ended up at Little Bethel Baptist Church in Mullins, SC as that’s where a number of our family members and family friends attended. Most of my friends growing up were either Presbyterian or Methodist (including my high school girlfriend). My Aunt Lib and Uncle Herbert were also staunchly Methodist. They were thrilled when I went off to Wofford College, being that it is tightly associated with the United Methodist Church and still produces many fine and upright Methodist pastors in the 21st Century.

While at Wofford, I eschewed the Baptist Student Union for the more progressive theology (and alcohol) friendly Wesleyan Fellowship. I changed my major from Chemistry / Computer Science to Religion sophomore year and worked my way to deciding that I’d attend Yale University Divinity School. My Wofford Religion professors were all good Methodists as was the beloved College Chaplain (obviously). Rev. Skinner urged me a number of times to join a Methodist church and go off to Yale with the intention of being a Methodist minister or academic or some combination in-between.

My beloved roommate was a Lutheran-turned Methodist (now turned Lutheran… or maybe Greek Orthodox?) who would depart to a Methodist seminary after our graduation. Somehow, he lived with me for four years and was there for the many late night conversations we’d have about “going Catholic” after attending a moving Mass at St. Peter’s or perhaps exploring the monastic lifestyle after drinking too many beers at a monastery in Salzburg. We still have many of those conversations late at night after our children have fallen asleep and our minds wander in the darkness. My fiancé at the time was going off to a Methodist seminary herself and in many ways, my reluctance to switch teams led to our eventual breakup. She’s now a fine and upstanding Methodist minister.

Surprisingly to myself (and Rev. Skinner), I declared myself “Baptist (Southern)” on my Yale Divinity application. For some reason, they admitted me. I think it was partly out of pity and partly out of amusement.

I was a fish out of water in New Haven and quickly regretted that I hadn’t taken up Rev. Skinner’s admonition to become Methodist. There were no polity classes for Southern Baptists at Yale Div, so they lumped me into a very welcoming but coldly New Englandly American Baptist group. I learned the ins-and-outs of American Baptist tradition and found it very similar to the Methodist kudzu that surrounded my baptist trunk. The professor was a Pastor of a local American Baptist congregation and urged me to come visit with them and see if I’d be interested in becoming American Baptist. I thought about it, but ended up wandering across Whitney Ave from my apartment to a stately and very New Haven-y United Church of Christ on most Sundays for service. I was surprised to find their minister was a female and self-identified LBTQ. There were rainbow flags. Sermons included social justice themes. Depictions of Jesus were all non-white (and some non-male). It was 2000 and I felt my world was changing rapidly.

I almost joined the UCC. I identified that church as my “home church” in polity classes and became this enigma trapped inside of a riddle with my Yale Div classmates. “I thought you were a Baptist?” was a question I often heard as we discussed a theological point over coffee. Oddly enough, it was there at Yale and in Connecticut that I discovered why I self-identified as baptist (and rekindled my love of NASCAR and wearing cowboy boots). I dove into the history of Baptists and Anabaptists and Baptists in America. I wrote papers explaining the Southern Baptist conservative takeover in light of 1970’s eschatological theologies and political maneuverings with Revelation as the anchor text. I read as much as I could about the various responses that Baptists had in the North and the South to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. I traveled to NYC by train every year for the Martin Luther King Jr. Service at Riverside Church (famous anchor Baptist church were MLK Jr had preached). The more I studied being baptist, the more I appreciated the complicated history of the movement(s) and the nuances of this particular quirky expression of faith.

For me, personally, being baptist became a philosophical thought technology as much as a walk of faith. I realized I could attend a UCC or Methodist church and still “be baptist” without compromising those deeply held and recently uncovered historical kernels I’d just discovered in the musty but exhilarating tight corners of the 13th floor of Yale’s Sterling Library that seemed to swallow readers whole as one ventured through the stacks.

After Yale, I moved back to South Carolina and found myself teaching Middle School Science at an Independent school (as one does). I loved teaching even though I was back to my days of studying chemistry rather than theology. I let it slip that I’d been to Divinity School and identified myself as a Baptist during a few conversations. Turned out that the Math teacher on my team was married to the head of the state Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. She took me under her wing and I found myself attending a CBF church and discussing ministry again with the Senior Pastor.

A couple of years later, I was off to Gardner-Webb Divinity School for another go at being a baptist in theological studies. This time, I would be surrounded by other Cooperative Baptists and Southern Baptists and Missionary Baptists in the context of the unique culture of South-Central North Carolina. I met professors there who pulled and tugged at my conception of baptist and encouraged me to dig deeper. I’m still friends with many of them today. It was a wonderful time to be at Gardner-Webb because of the strong academics and collegial atmosphere. There were young people straight from college looking to become pastors. There were pastors in their 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s who were looking to complete a seminary degree and finalize their MDiv (not always a requirement to be a baptist pastor here in the South). The school was diverse in thought, race, gender, and expressions. I appreciated my time there and look back on it as an experience that helped define my own conception of being baptist and myself in a way that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. I finally might take up a calling to become a pastor, I often thought on the long drives from Asheville to Gardner-Webb in Boiling Springs, NC.

Then, my mentor there unexpectedly passed away at the young age of 40 and I felt all of that warmness turned cool. He had guided me through Gardner-Webb and many aspects of life over the previous two years. He was patient with my procrastination and encouraging of my righteous indignation. We often talked of baptist-as-a-philosophy and he shared his passion of Jewish-Baptist relation with us. For him to be gone from my life so suddenly and completely was a major hole I couldn’t patch. I was on the “preaching circuit” around Western and Central North Carolina, preaching in various sizes (and styles) of Baptist churches most weekends. There were a few job offers and interviews. I came close to taking one pastor position in particular. But I was still grieving and that clouded what should have been easy decisions about my future. I lasted until the end of that year but decided not to finish my last semester of study and go back to the Middle School classroom to teach.

I had another great experience in the classroom while also working on the side to rekindle my consulting business. I was able to quell that still small voice calling me to something theological by podcasting with my friend about religion, writing papers and sermons no one would read, and having long conversations with myself on drives between Spartanburg and Asheville. But after 4 more years in the classroom, I knew it was time to hang up the bow ties and try my hand one last time to finish the MDiv I had started years ago.

My business was taking off with a number of high profile local and regional clients. I had a new girlfriend that was amazing and encouraged me to pursue my theological side more often. Things seemed inevitable. I submitted my admission papers (re-admission?) back to Gardner-Webb and planned to continue building my business while attending the last few classes and maybe picking up some preaching gigs on the weekends. Everything seemed to finally be on track and inevitable. For the first time since I began this journey with God and the Bible and my own baptist faith and message back as a 14 year old, I felt that things were coming full circle towards a completion of sorts. I finally knew what I was going to do with my life. Well, I finally knew how I was going to do what I was supposed to do with my life.

Turns out my “ministry” as a baptist (as it were) didn’t turn out exactly like I had expected. In the next few weeks, I would have a series of conversations with my then girlfriend and now partner, Merianna, about her own calling. That would lead to her deciding to apply to Gardner-Webb for seminary as well in pursuit of understanding and following her call to ministry. It was an exciting moment in our relationship. I loved our exploration of her Baptist tradition and seeing her while she went through an extended process of discernment. I tried, in my limited way, to be both an advocate and a supporter. As the first day of classes approached, I was also in a process of discernment about my path again. I made another decision to forgo those last few classes of the MDiv program.

Now looking back on that pivotal point in my life, I realize it was the right decision to make. Merianna’s ministry has flourished and paved an amazing path for both herself and other people in both Baptist and now UCC life to listen to their callings and pursue theological education. Being able to contribute occasional pulpit supply or Sunday School series or pastoral care duties along side her over the years has been the truest expression of being baptist that I could have experienced. We’ve laughed, cried, argued, agreed, under thought, and over thought about her own experiences as well as mine.

To be walking alongside her in this path and attempting to do what I can to support her has opened my own eyes to the systematic sexism (and misogyny) that infects much of religious life in the United States still. That’s especially true in my the Baptist ecosystem regardless of regional or identification flavor. From the Southern Baptist Convention to the American Baptist Church to the Alliance of Baptists to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (there are many others, those are just the ones I’ve been affiliated with or participated through in some way), issues around gender, identification, ableness, and identity run rampant in local churches large to small and progressive to conservative.

That eye opening realization has led my own consulting work with churches (and nonprofits) to focus on some of these issues with clients. What begins as a conversation about tech or messaging and public relations often turns to a deeper look at the intrinsic nature of underlying problems within a church instead of outside a church.

“How can we get more people to like our Facebook page and attend our (virtual) services?”
“Why aren’t young families participating and giving like they once did?”

These are the style of questions that I address with many churches that often lead to a discernment process which uncovers the same sort of systematic rot that lies at the heart of congregations on the brink of having to cut staff, sell property, and make tough decisions about the future. I don’t know if I’ve “saved” any churches directly through my work, but I know that some have blamed me for being able to keep the lights on a few months later. That is a form of ministry I never would have experienced had it not been for that intrusion of Merianna’s calling in my own life.

As an Ivy-league educated white male with a head full of doubt but a road full of promise in the Baptist world, I would have taken a pastor position at a small church and worked my way dutifully up the ranks until landing a coveted Senior Pastor position at some large Baptist congregation with a six figure income and a nice vacation and health insurance package (and maybe a country club membership or Chamber of Commerce speaking opportunities thrown in) while I worked on my eventual series of books about spiritual guidance in troubled times while passing off difficult pastoral care duties to Associate Ministers due to my heavy schedule of speaking arrangements and decisions I had to make regarding committee budgets.

I’m glad I chose not to pursue that path.

Being baptist isn’t a career ladder nor is it a call to the ordinary. It’s not a phase or a stage. It’s not something we get over, but it’s a process of thought. It’s about listening and hearing that still small voice inside all of us calling our souls to competency but also calling us to be outwardly be transformed by an inner revelation. That means working for good for all. That means standing up for those who have been shut out of the board rooms of decision and the committee calls of power and allowing space for their voices to be recognized.

Perhaps the fictional Jerry Maguire’s Mission Statement / Memo sums it up the best:

That happens when we don’t listen to the loud sound of the quiet voice inside. Life, I believe, is not a country club where we forget the difficulties and anxieties. Life is the duty of confronting all of that within ourselves. I am the most successful male in my family, but I am hardly the happiest. My brother works for Nasa, helping grow blue-green algae that will one day feed the world. He was originally targeted as the “successful” one in my family. But he gave up early, for a quieter kind of success. He was once tortured, now he is quietly making the world a better place. He learned earlier what I am just now starting to wake up to. He sleeps well at night. And he doesn’t worry about being too preoccupied or too busy to get the dance right. He dances for something greater.

Don’t dance (as we Baptists would say) for people, but dance for something greater than yourself.

1 Peter 3:18-22

3:18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit,

3:19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison

3:20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.

3:21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you–not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

3:22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.


Crescendo of conspiracy until the mounting
Of evidence with harm accumulates on the back.

The Redbird creeks on a branch feeding
In the ice rain over a frozen land finished with white.

Glass covered floors in the palace of Ithaca wetting
The tile with a strange homecoming of fire and blood.

A nostos for the Cunning to a land forgetting
And has forgotten his words and deeds.

The one much prayed for by those in a sardonic mood smiling
The epithets of an ice-frozen heart and spear.

With Polyphemus as his guide and a bag of wind blowing
To take them home to a land for Nobody.

The Two-Headed Turtle resting
On the potions of Hermès to escape the magic of memory.

Only Argos remembers him and joins his standing
In the broken palace that brings libel to the song.

The Cunning beat their chest and sing songs while limping
Away on the promises of an afterlife inside the palace door.

David Bowie’s Station To Station and Art as Literature

David Bowie had an immense and long-lasting impact on me and I’ve been revisiting his music (even more than usual) lately as it has been 5 years since his passing on.

I first dove into Bowie because of Nirvana (I know, I know). Nirvana was the first band that I discovered early for myself, and that music has also shaped much of my own aesthetic. Their cover of Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” on their Unplugged album immediately caught my fascination. I had known about Bowie and knew of him from “Let’s Dance” and his role as the Goblin King in Labyrinth, of course.

But as a child in the ’80s and then a pre-teen and eventual teen in the ’90s, Bowie’s 80’s music was reminiscent of what I felt we were all pushing against. His ’70s material was almost off-limits in the same way KISS or Black Sabbath was to me… there was something secretive and occultist and just weird to my Southern conservative Baptist straight-laced white boy type. Nirvana was almost a bridge too far (indeed, a high school teacher spent a number of days having us analyze why Nirvana’s music was so terrible and destructive to “Western Culture” … turns out that turned us all on).

When I started doing a deep dive on Bowie because of Nirvana’s (masterful) cover in 1994, the persona had been reinvented again and he was associating with Trent Reznor and moving away from his 80’s MTV friendliness into industrial rock. I was just beginning to explore this area myself and Nine Inch Nails played a big part in that (I bought one of their t-shirts around this time having never heard them, but figured I should give them a listen). That led to me first experiencing Bowie through Earthling, which is a weird way to hop into Bowie.

Eventually, I explored his 70’s material (and then his 60’s works) and was blown away. Where had Low and the Berlin Trilogy been all my life? Ziggy is an amazing piece of work, of course. Hunky Dory is still one of my favorites. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) comes just before Let’s Dance and hints at what would become industrial rock in the ’90s. It was all a revelation.

Station To Station was in there, plodding along with its otherworldliness. It took me some time to even listen all the way through in one sitting. It was only after I also earnestly began studying religion (modern and especially ancient versions) that I was finally brave (?) enough to hop in and attempt Station To Station.

I try to “read” music as literature. Now Station To Station is one of my favorite Bowie albums and this write-up from 10 years ago is one of the most effective descriptions of this piece of art…

Bowie constructs the most grandiose of love songs, the most overblown, epic ballads, mouthing hollow romantic clichés as if, by saying the lines with enough simulated passion, he will actually come to feel them. And yet, of course, all of this is just a construct, too- he knows exactly what he’s doing. It’s not a cynical act, because the desire to feel remains genuine- in its way, this is as stark and troubled a record as anything from Neil Young’s contemporaneous ditch trilogy, the musical polish and role-play only thinly veiling a soul on the edge, battling with addiction and paranoia and with what he, at least, genuinely believed were dark mystical forces just waiting to drag him forever into the abyss. “It’s the nearest album to a magical treatise that I’ve written,” Bowie has said, though perhaps a ritual spell of protection would be a more accurate description.

Source: The Quietus | Features | Anniversary | Exploring Notions Of Decadence: Bowie’s Station To Station, 45 Years On

American Churches and The Digital Divide 

The company also found that one-third of faith-based organizations reported an increase in donations during the 2020 pandemic—specifically, ones with more of a digital presence. Churches with YouTube channels, Instagram pages, and prominent websites saw 533 percent more donations than those without.

Technology like this can help churches of all kinds, but it has been a lifeline for some smaller and more rural churches, which have been more vulnerable in the pandemic.

Source: The Digital Divide Is Giving American Churches Hell | WIRED

Over the past year, I’ve worked with dozens of churches, non-profits, community groups, and various religious organizations and congregations on tech and marketing issues discussed here. Some are large, most are small. I’ve worked with predominately white congregations, predominately black congregations, and a mixture of both. Some of that work was setting up a website for the church or group, lots of that work was to implement an online giving option that was either new or much easier to use than a previous solution (especially on mobile devices), some of that work was marketing strategy and how to survive Covid and still keep services and ministries going amidst lockdowns and economic crisis.

What has struck me about all of this work is that the churches and groups that “leaned in” (I’m not a fan of that term, but it works here) to the situation with a realization that this was going to be a long term situation that would change the nature of congregating for a long time found their communities more engaged, their donation numbers rise, and new opportunity to provide ministries and services became clearer. Those who sought short-term budget options to “get through this” and “make our way back to normal” are the groups that struggled in 2020 and are only now coming back to me for help with the long term.

I hope more churches begin the hard, but fruitful, work of reconciling the current landscape with the realities being faced by congregants. Numbers are important, but a church is made of people. Churches that recognize and uplift that in their outreach, leadership, and message-telling are the ones that are “finding a Way through.”

American Allegory and The Middle

If that’s what you took from it, you’re reading too much into it.”

Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, ‘I remember my faults today. Once Pharaoh was angry with his servants, and put me and the chief baker in custody in the house of the captain of the guard. We dreamed on the same night, he and I, each having a dream with its own meaning. A young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard. When we told him, he interpreted our dreams to us, giving an interpretation to each according to his dream.”

Genesis 41:9-12 (NRSV)

My Master’s Degree is in the field of “Religion and Literature.” It’s a rather quixotic (and troubled) field of study these days with a cumbersome history. In many ways, Religion and Lit is a direct 20th century response to the growing importance of historical critical methods of studying religious texts, such as the Bible. In a nutshell, instead of focusing on the “historical” contexts of texts or traditions, there are other paths available through the rigors of “literature.”

I won’t get into the technical definitions of such terms as Canonical Criticism, Rhetorical Criticism, Structural (and Post-Structural) Criticism(s), Narrative Criticism, Reader-Response Criticism, Ideological Criticisms and so on… but know that theological and academic thinkers love to carve out new climbing paths on the way up to the Summits of Meanings (and in most cases that’s completely needed and appropriate). So when I refer to Religion and Literature as a ontological thing unto itself here, that’s my own approach path.

But one lesson that reading and interpreting gifts us with is the notion of meaning. Like Janus, this two faced divinity of realization tempts us towards “either or” conclusions. Whether or not Noah was an actual person who set about to collect 2 (or 7) of every organism on earth (or just the clean ones) and then build a rather large sailing vessel after hearing instructions straight from God doesn’t really interest me (though, no… he wasn’t and didn’t).

However, it’s an amazing text to interact with as it resides in the Christian Old Testament. It’s fascinating to put that version up against the others found throughout the ancient world from Mesopotamia to the Americas. Truly, the flood motif is one that echoes in the very proteins of our human DNA. But no, I don’t enjoy reducing it to a historical event. That does the text (and I would argue meanings of the text) no justice and offers no participation.

So often in my early faith journey I heard “If you don’t believe that Noah was a historical person and the Ark event really happened, you are not saved!” or something along those lines. The same is true for Adam and Eve, of course. Though I was always puzzled by whether I was supposed to “believe” Genesis 1 – 2:4a or Genesis 2:4b – 3 since there are two very different telling of creation at the very beginning. It took me years to discover the beauty of the Bible through reading it through the lens of participatory literature. And it “means” more to me as a result.

One of the reasons I still enjoy reading the Bible as literature (as well as studying historical contexts etc) is that these paths outside historical time charts and archaeological strata allows for approaches that impart reception. There’s a real sense of immediacy when reading along with a parable or a lament or a psalm or levitical code that takes us out of time and place. To me, the same is true Flannery O’Connor or Toni Morrison or Margaret Atwood.

This does not imply that “truth” is absent or completely subjective. To the contrary, immediacy and participation requires much more finesse and fluidity than is normally implied when a debate turns into a “subjective vs objective” argument. Reading scripture or texts or phone books or Super Bowl commercials as literature can be a fascinating exercise that removes us from the need for concrete meaning and instead projects a wide spectrum of relationships with both our own senses and the thing we are studying. Just as in physics, the person doing the experiment impacts the outcome of the experiment whether knowingly or not.

It’s easy to cling onto notions of objectivity and “real” meaning while building up an edifice of understanding, only to come to an inevitable point when there’s a large crack in the wall that demands either reinforcing and applying more mortar to our conclusion instead of realizing the building ground was shaky and suspect to begin with and maybe the materials weren’t as strong and resilient as we first through the, so we might need to reexamine our previous work and even start over.

Simply put, participating with a text instead of simply ingesting or reading a text to decipher an author’s or editor’s intent (“intentional fallacy” of making assumptions related to the author(s) of ancient or modern texts that we can never really know or recover) doesn’t discourage search for meaning or truth. In my own experience, the best example I can give are lyrics to Beatles’ songs. I fell madly and deeply in love with the Beatles around the time of my senior year in high school and that carried over into my college years. I spent uncountable hours filling up notebooks with possible references and meanings behind the lyrics of “Hey Jude” or “I Am the Walrus” (that was fun) or “Baby’s in Black” or “Norwegian Wood” and would subject my patient but suffering friends to my extrapolations. This search for meaning into not just “what” John and Paul (and sometimes George) were writing and singing, but why. This led into me discovering the power of the internet in the mid-90’s as I stumbled upon bulletin boards of fellow seekers of Beatles writ and knowledge as well as The Grateful Dead and Nirvana. As I began my faith journey, I poured the same zeal into my own studies of the Bible and trying to understand the why and the intent of the authors and editors.

As I grew in the faith and my music tastes and my academic life, I learned of other approaches and some of the fallacies involved with authorial intent (especially with unreliable narrators such as Dylan and Hemingway). That slow boiling realization finally came to a head after I learned enough Greek to poke around the world of New Testament studies and found myself at Yale Divinity School at a time when reading the Bible through the lens of literature-approaches and post-construct (or post-modern) means was in bloom (and thanks to Prof. Bloom with whom I was able to study the great work through those lenses).

I realized that it meant less to me that Hey Jude really was written as a one-off by Paul about John’s son Julian and sentiments such as “the movement you need is on your shoulder” were lines meant to be replaced later until John insisted on their importance and instead it meant more to me how I was able to lovingly participate with not just the lyrics but also the chord progressions and climbing scales.

The same is true with something like the Bible… the words are important, but don’t miss the sound of the voice coming through the music, as The Grateful Dead would sing based on Robert Hunter’s lyrics.

In turn, the same can be thought when approaching Bruce Springsteen’s Super Bowl commercial for an automobile company. It was certainly well produced and visually calls out to our human need for toughness and purpose in the midst of uncertainty and cold dark winters. I was amazed that it was shot on location just a few days before the actual game and required some work to even make the show. Great art is frequently associated with constraints.

But is this great art? On one level, it speaks to a generation of Americans who look fondly at the rugged individualism of a hardened person surviving the winter clad in denim and boots and a trusty recreational vehicle (and a mug of hot coffee). The wrinkles are as much a part of the messaging as the old Jeep belonging to Springsteen or the cinematic shots of rushing water through a frozen landscape. The marriage of Springsteen’s iconic voice narration on top of this barren imagery with the score he composed for the ad spot is superb.

But like all marriages, there are points of contention.

As a baptist, one of the philosophical and theological epistemologies I cling to is the notion of religious liberty in the sense that the relationship between the Divine and a person is up to that individual. That’s not necessarily true for many of fellow Baptists these days, but as someone who likes to participate with the historical notion of being baptist, it is there in my matrix along with priesthood of all believers. A person has absolute liberty of conscience regarding their faith or choice to not pursue it, and my responsibility is to protect that liberty for all.

When I first saw the Springsteen ad and the image of the “lower 48” of the US with an American Flag draped theme superimposed by a Cross, I cringed.

The marketing message of the ad is clear… this is a chapel directly in the center of the contiguous United States and represents a call to “re-uniting” around themes that make America great after a period of divisiveness and “identity politics” that has scarred the country over the last decade. The Boss represents the Übermensch of American identity. It’s been a long and cold winter, but there will be a Spring ahead. A New Day for America.

But is that really unity? Is what this commercialization of American Civic Religion in the form of a Jeep commercial superimposed on the very center of America what we should aspire to at this time of darkness, death, pestilence, division, hunger, and ultimately a reshaping of modern life.

What about voices that aren’t the hegemonic conception of “America” in the sense of a middle-of-the-country white male? When Springsteen sifts his hands through the soil, I wonder if there’s a conception of the lives of Native People who were stripped of that land? Of course, I’m reading into the ad and adding my own value judgements about the composition of the “heart of America” that is tacitly inferred.

“Either you are with us or you’re against us!”

Take mask-wearing, for example. Large portions of our country still wrestle with the call to wear face coverings and maintain social distancing, citing preferred articles and hot takes on social media or the latest cable news bait designed to increase blood pressures and dopamine levels to sell more ads from automotive companies. Perhaps that is the cynical take here. We are discussing and ourselves wrestling with concepts of Christian Nationalism or MAGA or just a needed return to what made our country great that we’ve “read into” a car commercial. The medium subverts the message and in turn causes us to participate with commercial advertisements meant to convince our minds of an intended thought to move us further down the sales funnel at a rate of 1/1000 viewers.

But I don’t think we need to dismiss the Springsteen ad as “just” a commercial or elevate it as a “call to our consciousness.”

Clearly, it struck a nerve. I awoke this morning to a number of passionate social media friends from fellow baptists and religious thinkers and political ideologues all espousing a variety of seemingly nuanced opinions about the ad.

I would urge viewers and readers here to think of the advertisement and our participation in its messaging in a way that social media and cable news (and most preachers) don’t encourage. Despite the quick takes we’re encouraged to use based on our emotional responses, participating more deeply with a thought technology or, in this case, a framework or identity can be done so in new ways.

So I propose an allegorical approach.

Allegory may dream of presenting the thing itself… but its deeper purpose and its actual effect is to acknowledge the darkness, the arbitrariness, and the void that underlie, and paradoxically make possible, all representation of realms of light, order, and presence… Allegory arises… from the painful absence of that which it claims to recover.”

— Stephen Greenblatt

In this context of allegory, I think of Galatians 4:21-31 when Paul invokes the use of allegory to make a point about the notion of being “slave” or “free.” His use of the Hagar passage from Genesis has always been problematic for me and also caused me to cringe. “That’s not my identity!” I would think in my head as I studied this passage or came across the verses in my own journeys with the New Testament. Often, I would skip over it and leave it behind like a thing I didn’t want to deal with or acknowledge without acknowledging my privilege to do so.

Tell me, you who desire to be subject to the law, will you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman. One, the child of the slave, was born according to the flesh; the other, the child of the free woman, was born through the promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother. For it is written, “Rejoice, you childless one, you who bear no children, burst into song and shout, you who endure no birthpangs; for the children of the desolate woman are more numerous than the children of the one who is married.” Now you, my friends, are children of the promise, like Isaac. But just as at that time the child who was born according to the flesh persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. But what does the scripture say? “Drive out the slave and her child; for the child of the slave will not share the inheritance with the child of the free woman.” So then, friends, we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman.

— Galatians 4:21-31

I eventually read an article by Prof. Elizabeth A. Castelli titled “Allegories of Hagar: Reading Galatians 4:21-31 with Postmodern Feminist Eyes’” in the collection The New Literary Criticism and the New Testament (Trinity Press International, eds Edgar V. McKnight and Elizabeth Struthers Malbon… caveat that I studied with Prof. McKnight while at Gardner-Webb Divinity School and he introduced me to Castelli’s article here). It came to me at a time when I was reconsidering allegory as a lens of understanding and reading, and caught me off-guard in the best of ways. It’s a fantastic piece in an excellent collection of articles by new criticism thinkers.

Here is the piece of Castelli’s work that resonates with me when thinking about identity and performative assumptions in the context of allegory building…

The passage of Sarah and Hagar from their traditional narrative into Paul’s allegory is a process of smoothing over and eliding complexities, eliminating potential contradictions, and reducing them to fixed and absolute opposites. In the course of this transformation, the meanings that accrue to them are, in one sense, inverted. that is, while the traditional interpretation holds that the offspring of Sarah is the nation of Israel, Paul has argued that the rightful heirs to God’s promise are himself and the other believers in Christ. In doing, Paul has deposed the reigning interpretation and has set his own up in its place. As suggested earlier, a successful allegory displaces its antecedent, remakes its subjects, and constitutes its own independent authority. Claiming a new and independent meaning, the allegory supersedes the antecedent and replaces it. By analogy, Paul’s allegory of Sarah and Hagar enacts this process not simply on tradition of the two women but on the tradition as a whole. In superseding the claims of the traditional interpretation of their story, Paul also constructs his own new and authoritative version. Once again, the structure, form, and content of his argument intersect and reinforce one another.”

Castelli goes on to posit that Paul’s use of allegory here actually inverts his purpose of imposing an authoritative version and creates points of intersectionality and meaning for new voices participating in the story thousands of years later.

Springsteen does the same with this commercial that he evidently had a very heavy hand in conceptualizing and producing (again, it’s not dependent on his intent in my approach here). Remaking the heart of America into a place of peak-Winter introspection and then hopeful upbeat violin instrumentals at the conclusion with the iconography of the flag, the Cross, and a candle lighting to bring warmth and light to a quiet place of inner desolation and perhaps desperation (much like a cup of coffee in the morning on a freezing day), deposed the prevailing notion of unity and being “in the center” into a message of hope and determination.

Only, here in the Springsteen ad we are self-limited to a certain conception of “America” in a politico-religious sense of the idea. It’s seemingly not available to all who fall outside the manufactured marketing demographic identified as potential Jeep buyers by market research specialists working with tables and data and social media inputs that determine such things.

All are more than welcome to come meet here in the middle,” the “Thunder Road” singer says in a voiceover. “It’s no secret the middle has been a hard place to get to lately, between red and blue, between servant and citizen, between our freedom and our fear.

“Now fear has never been the best of who we are, and as for freedom, it’s not the property of just the fortunate few, it belongs to us all. Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, it’s what connects us, and we need that connection. We need the middle,” he says.

So where are the allegorical opportunities to subvert this hegemony if one prefers to do so?

I propose we turn to Amanda Gorman’s preceding verse from the Super Bowl that points to a similar, but different, invocation to move ahead:

Let us walk with these warriors, charge on with these champions, and carry forth the call of our captains,” Gorman said. “We celebrate them by acting with courage and compassion, by doing what is right and just, for while we honor them today, it is they who every day honor us.”

Amanda Gorman

It’s in the allegory of the champions and captains that we truly do find the courage and compassion to not push towards “the middle” but honor those who have bravely stood up and pushed us towards justice as our country continues to reckon with ourselves.