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From the July/August, 2004
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The Real News from Lake Wobegon by Peter J. Leithart

The Real News from Lake Wobegon

Peter J. Leithart on Charity, Conversation & Celebration

During nearly twenty years of sporadic listening to NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion, I have often noticed how closely the structure of the program resembles a camp meeting revival. Well-tuned as host Garrison Keillor is to the melodies of American religious life, I am quite certain that the resemblance is deliberate.

Lively music, punctuated by mock commercials and skits of wildly varying success, dominate the first half of the show, but after intermission the liturgy of the word begins in earnest. More music primes the audience, which is sometimes invited to sing along with Keillor. Expectation builds to the dramatic moment when Keillor announces, “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my home town . . .”, always greeted by thunderous applause.

After fifteen or twenty minutes of moving, sentimental, funny, offbeat Americana, the musical pace slows and goes instrumental for a time of meditation, as each member of the audience ponders how to apply the sermon. (I’ve never seen the show live, but I would not be at all surprised to learn that some members of the audience made their way to the stage during this interlude as an act of public recommitment.) After a few more tunes, the audience is sent on its way with a benediction from Father Keillor.

The popularity of the show owes a great deal to Keillor himself, who, for all his trendy leftism, vicious hostility to conservatism, and occasional crudity, remains a remarkable storyteller and showman. Doubtless, however, the program’s endurance owes nearly as much to its liturgical echoes, and the nostalgia these echoes evoke in many listeners. And it is in considering the liturgical character of the program that one stumbles upon important truths about contemporary America.

Charity’s Bond

In his book, Christianity in the West, 1400–1700, which traces the transition from medieval to modern European civilization, John Bossy commented upon the deterioration of the conception of “charity.” In 1400, the starting point of Bossy’s history, charity “meant the state of Christian love or simple affection which one was in or out of regarding one’s fellows; an occasion or body of people seeking to embrace that state; the love of God, in both directions.”

Charity was embodied in fraternities whose purpose was to incorporate “persons of differing status” into organized friendship expressed in common meals and various rites of honor and greeting. A “charitable event” was a public festival where Christian charity was celebrated and exhibited. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the meaning of “charity” had significantly shifted; Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has summarized Bossy’s work by saying that charity “ceased to mean anything much like a bond.”

Williams goes on to point out that charity in the medieval world was in an important sense “play.” In games, as in fraternal and festival events, normal social rules and hierarchies are suspended, and only the rules of the game apply. Games are pure meritocracies. Yet the rivalry of games does not carry the anxiety and pressure of economic and political competition, and this is so because games don’t intend to produce anything beyond the game itself. In the same way, the “play” of charity intends nothing beyond itself; a festival intends to perpetuate festivity, a fraternal organization to promote fraternity.

Charity in the medieval sense is thus a reminder that there is “something” outside what can be the deathly serious pursuit of production and material success, something beyond the competitive spirit that ends, so the philosopher Rene Girard has argued, in violence. Games of charity are pointers to a transcendent Charity, to a Love beyond rivalry.

Even making allowances for a considerable degree of rosiness in the egalitarian paradise painted by Bossy and Williams, the absence of social space for this kind of communal, playful charity in today’s world is a striking wound in the social body. Sport, once an opportunity to compete without the burden of “real” success or failure, has been absorbed by a commercial and professional ethos and by the cult of celebrity. Reduced to spectators, the sports “fan” takes no part in the play, yet the fans have, on more than a few occasions, become violent. Instead of finding a reprieve from life, instead of being an opportunity for play, sport has been, as Williams says, “loaded with the hopes and terrors of non-playful experience.”

Williams identifies conversation as the primordial realm for the operation of charity. Conversation is supremely the social event that exists only for itself; as Williams puts it, “success” in conversation is merely a matter of keeping the activity going, and going fluidly. Even conversation, however, has been overwhelmed by consumerism. Instead of helping to establish and promote bonds of charity, conversations become fact-finding tours, another occasion for acquisition, as each interlocutor, like some primate scouring for fleas in his neighbor’s fur, “picks the brain” of his companion. This is an offense against conversation, because it is an offense against charity.

A Public Space

Against this background, the success of A Prairie Home Companion seems inevitable. It provides space for public festivity and time to celebrate what Americans share. In spite of Keillor’s political railings, the program is as close as contemporary America comes to a truly public event. Prior to September 11, A Prairie Home Companion was virtually the only contemporary setting outside church in which hundreds of people sing together.

Where else in the entertainment world (apart, perhaps, from The Simpsons) is “real” America presented, fully rounded, in all its variety and strangeness? In what other public entertainment is God invoked so casually, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to attend divine service at the Lutheran church every Sunday? At the very least, A Prairie Home Companion is testimony to what Williams calls “the passionate need” for celebratory assembly, the need for charity.

No doubt recognition of this need is behind the recent surge of interest in ecclesiology and liturgy among traditionally anti-ecclesiastical and non-liturgical American Protestants, especially of the Evangelical stripe. One can hardly throw an egg without hitting a new Evangelical book preaching “community” in the church or citing the Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann and the Anglican liturgical scholar Gregory Dix with favor.

It would be premature to think that Evangelicals have turned a corner: There are not enough cynical secularists around to account for the many millions of copies of Left Behind in circulation, and many churches out there are still busily turning worship into an undemanding spectator sport. But there are heartening signs that the churches may be learning the lessons of A Prairie Home Companion, the really big news from Lake Wobegon.


Peter J. Leithart is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and the president of Trinity House Institute for Biblical, Liturgical & Cultural Studies in Birmingham, Alabama. His many books include Defending Constantine (InterVarsity), Between Babel and Beast (Cascade), and, most recently, Gratitude: An Intellectual History (Baylor University Press). His weblog can be found at www.leithart.com. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

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