Last night I went with my wife Miriam, our dear friend Sommer, and her daughter to see our local high school’s production of Footloose. All three of us adults have been and continue to be involved with local theater; Sommer and I were founding members of the Thespian Troop–I serving as the first vice president–and we all are close personal friends with the director, choreographer(s), producer, and know a lot of the kids in the show. One comes from my church, but I met everyone in the cast when I was asked to come in and talk to them about what it is like to be a small town pastor. Last night, watching these kids dance, sing, run around, and give life to a really captivating examination of the influence the wrong sort of Christianity can have on a town, I was so proud and impressed. I’m biased, but there’s nothing like putting on a show that tackles issues of religion; I know from experience. My friend Sommer played Jesus to my Pilate when we did Jesus Christ Superstar in high school.
Those who know me know my JCSS obsession. This is not that blog entry. Footloose, based, of course, off the classic generation-defining film of the same name, has been part of my life since my sister and her friend Linette, who is now a fellow UCC pastor, took me to see it when I visited them at Purdue University in 1984. I fell in love with Kevin Bacon (I mean, who didn’t? the man is gorgeous) and like everyone else, I just wanted to dance. I do remember regarding John Lithgow as a foreboding, impossible figure, whose beliefs seemed to suck all the fun out of the room. Raised as a Western secular humanist tending toward atheism, the whole religion thing was foreign to me. I was fascinated by it, but I thought that the pretty boy dancing seemed a lot more fun than the old man yelling. Such is the mind of a child.
Miriam and I rewatched the film in preparation for the show, which was a great thing to do because we had the script freshly in our minds as we watched the troop perform the musical. I began to see that the story itself is much more complicated and nuanced than I allowed the film to portray, at least in my minds eye. Perhaps it was because I sat in the gym of my elementary school, across from the church I pastor, next to the local veterinarian and surrounded by former classmates watching their own kids, but I realized that Footloose is about small town religion. That good old time religion, the bluegrass singers call it. A religion in which the pastor is seen as the minister to the town, not to the church alone. And Footloose is about how, historically, pastors have gotten it wrong.
Yellow Springs is right next to a place called Cedarville, home of Cedarville College. If you’ve never heard of it, think of Liberty University but with actual academic standards. The whole idea of a town outlawing dancing and a local pastor having almost autocratic control may seem like a ridiculous idea to some, but in this part of Ohio we see it. I am glad to live in a town in which such is not the case, and I also love the fact that Christianity has played an historically significant role here in very good ways.
But last night I was struck about how fear often informs our religion. In the play, Rev. Shaw Moore has lost his son in a car accident, along with three others, and his response is to outlaw those things he fears will lead to danger. He does this not because he is an autocrat, but rather because he is propelled by agapic love to do so. At least he thinks he is. I can understand this in a way. My faith has resulted from the suicide of my brother; my response has been to live more fully, more deeply, more compassionately. Yet, I wonder now if that has simply been a coping mechanism. A way for me not to think about the possibly finality of death. I espouse a resurrection hope, not a resurrection certainty. So do I throw myself into relationships with others in the name of Christ to assuage myself that I am living as deeply as possible? Do I still have fear at the base of my existence?
I often say that a major mission of mine is to help transform the way that people think about Christianity. This is not unique; a number of my Progressive Christian friends say the same thing. We love the gospel, but we see the looks we get when wearing clericals; or how if we are introduced with our titles, how people’s faces change. Not everyone. Not always. But if I stay at a party in which people have more than two drinks, I am almost always guaranteed to hear someone’s honest feelings about Christianity. In the main, I love these conversations. I generally listen more than I talk, because I really want to know about the Christianity that puts them off. Most often, it is not a form of Christianity I practice or would want in my life. I try to follow the advice of St. Francis of Assisi. I preach the gospel, using words as necessary.
Rev. Moore Christianity thrives around these parts, but stops just short of our town lines. But that does not mean that I don’t have the desire to have the sort of influence he has in the town. For me, it would be the influence to address our growing lack of racial and economic diversity; to assist in creating the conditions that allow multigenerational families to remain in the village; and to foster an atmosphere in which people who are not Christian would still look upon the religion with respect and esteems. Heck. It might even be possible that people would know Christians by their love. Huh. Imagine that?!
But to those reading this and living in this corner of the world, get out to see Footloose Saturday night or Sunday afternoon. Enjoy the kids and their hard work, but please give a thought to your local pastor. Let me know what I can do for you. No strings, just love.
And maybe a little fear that this is the time to get it right.