Winter Issue 2
In Praise of Pierce Pettis
by: Alex Strohschein
Among my favourite three songwriters Pierce Pettis may not write as many songs as Bill Mallonee or craft an album that can match one of Mark Heard’s final three albums but every one of his nine (soon to be ten) albums always contains his celebrated lyrical eloquence. Like Mallonee and Heard, Pettis weaves his faith into all of his work, but in a more subdued and subtle way than you find among many contemporary Christian artists. He fits into the narrow rivulet of Christian artists such as Over the Rhine and Bruce Cockburn, who have deeply-held Christian beliefs but who are able to play on secular, mainstream stages.
Pettis is a clever lyricist. On his 1993 album Chase the Buffalo he writes of “trying to stand in a fallen world” and, musing upon an ended love he laments, “The presence of your absence follows me … / The silence of your voice deafens me.” He reflects on the fact that our personal autonomy can be a double-edged sword; on “Choices” he sings, “I am not an accident, a victim or a slave / I am the sum total of the choices I have made / Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse / It’s a terrible freedom, both a blessing and a curse.” For every agnostic or atheist who disbelieves in the existence of God, Pettis turns the tables and responds, “When you start to doubt if you exist, God believes in you / Confounded by the evidence – God believes in you.”
Pettis’s music can be slyly critical. On his 1991 album Tinseltown, the title track warns listeners that, “The great communicators, they’re just manipulating you / ’Cause no one back in Tinseltown gives a damn about a truth” – a biting critique of both Ronald Reagan (known as the “Great Communicator”) and the silver tongues on the silver screen. In “Lions of the Colosseum” Pettis chronicles the journey of the Christian Church from the days of the first martyrs to sleazy televangelists: “Live from the lap of luxury / It’s the lions of the colosseum / With politicians, millionaires / You won’t see Mother Teresa there / Just the holy rollers with the manes of hair / Lions of the colosseum” (have you ever seen Tammy Faye Bakker?). In light of the racial unrest in the headlines, whether it be the Charlottesville riots half a year ago or Lecrae’s decision to “leave white evangelicalism,” one recalls Pettis’ song “Legacy,” where, musing upon Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sad observation that “the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning,” Pettis sings, “We learn the golden rule in separate Sunday schools / In a house long divided against itself.”
Nostalgia is often a pervasive theme among folk singers, who either sing traditional songs from a bygone era or who write their own compositions with a nod to the past. In “Absalom, Absalom,” Pettis recalls David’s relationship with his rebellious son, as David grieves and condemns himself, “You were watching when I took a good man’s wife / And gave the orders for his murder, just to cover up the crime / All the vanity, cruel arrogance, and greed / Oh Absalom, you learned it all from me!” Pettis’ own music is deeply rooted in history and place. Alabama, Pettis’ home state, appears in his songs. In the tune “Little River Canyon” Pettis reminisces of youthful revelry before lamenting the hard realities of growing up, perhaps describing the same fate that befalls many of the white, working class poor in Appalachia and the Rust Belt, “Some left for college, some could only dream / Hanging around town, still wearing their high school rings / I avoid their faces when I come to town / Man, I still don’t know which one of us has let the other down.” In a new song entitled “Mr. Ziedman,” Pettis sings of a kindly Jewish tailor he knew growing up who, tormented by the loss of his family in the Holocaust, seemingly committed suicide in his old age.
Lastly, Pettis is able to find profundity in the seemingly ordinary. In his song “To Dance,” Pettis tenderly reflects that, “To dance is swimming in time / Where passion in public and prudence can somehow align / Moving like lovers on top of the covers / And everyone knows it’s alright to dance.”
Pierce Pettis’ songs have been covered by the likes of Joan Baez and Garth Brooks. Pettis performed a concert with Steve Bell and Malcolm Guite at Regent College back in July 2015. Some of Pettis’ famous (in the evangelical world) fans include Andy Crouch, Richard Hays, and James K.A. Smith. No wonder these three are so brilliant – they have some good taste in music!
by: Erica Bowler
As any college kid will know
It’s not nice being out of dough.
The leading role in our story
(which, in fact, is rather gory)
Is Ehud, one of Gera’s sons,
Who lived off cucumbers and buns.
And why was Ehud’s life so lame?
Why was he poor, who was to blame?
Eglon! – who hated civil rights,
And overtaxed the Israelites.
For every year, some time in May,
The brute squad took their cash away.
One day, with his cupboard bare
Ehud’s rage began to flare
“If I have to eat one more cuke,
Said he, “I’m really going to puke!
It’s time to change the status quo
This Eglon chap has got to go!”
The next year, in latish spring,
Ehud went to see the king.
With a knife strapped to his thigh,
He sweet-talked guards and sidled by.
King Eglon sat upon his throne,
Bald with warts and rank cologne
He looked a bit like Jabba the Hutt,
Rolls of fat spilling from his gut
The king snatched the loot with glee
“Taxes, taxes, all for me!”
As the King continued to grin to gloat
Our left-handed champ cleared his throat.
“Wot?” Asked the king (yes he was thick)
“If you’ve got something to say, then say it quick.”
Ehud bowed and replied,
“I’ve got info, and it’s classified,”
King Eglon, somewhat pacified,
grunted and shooed his men outside.
“Right then,” began the oafish lout,
“What’s the news? Come on, spit it out!”
“I’ve got a message from the Lord.”
Said Ehud, and stabbed him with a sword.
Inward slid the silken knife.
The king’s tummy yawned and came life.
And, quick as spreading scandal,
It swallowed point and blade and handle.
(I won’t say what poured from his belly
only that it was rather smelly).
Ehud grabbed the king and, with a groan,
Dragged him to his other throne.
With that, our hero quickly ran,
And escaped down through the royal can.
Meanwhile, servants outside the john,
Were wond’ring what was going on.
They waited and again they waited,
“Perhaps,” said one, “he’s constipated.”
But, after an hour – or was it three?
One of them fetched a key.
Though shocked at the macabre display,
They had never liked him anyway.
And when Ehud’s troops came to the gate,
They all began to celebrate.
Moral: if you are a trifle hefty
Never trust a starving lefty.
Weaving Ricoeur into Charlotte’s Web
by: Kelly Dycavinu
Preface: One of my areas of interest is being able to bridge the gap between academic discussions and conversation with my kids, that is, to introduce head-y theory to the heart of a ten-year-old (and vice versa!).
Fiction has the power to ‘remake’ reality and, within the framework of narrative fiction in particular, to remake real praxis to the extent that the text intentionally aims at a horizon of new reality which we may call a world. It is the world of the text which intervenes in the world of action in order to give it a new configuration or, as we might say, in order to transfigure it.
In E.B. White’s 1952 children’s classic, Wilbur is a runt of a pig whose life is spared from the ax when a young girl named Fern intervenes on his behalf. Under her care he grows up strong and healthy. Wilbur is sold then to a neighbouring farm where he is befriended by a spider named Charlotte. When Wilbur learns he is being fattened up for killing Charlotte determines to help save him. She weaves the words ‘some pig’ into her web, and from then on Wilbur’s world forever changes. He transitions from being a pig fit only for slaughter to a pig that’s prized:
“You know,” [Mr. Zuckerman] said, in an important voice, “I’ve thought all along that that pig of ours was an extra good one. He’s a solid pig. That pig is as solid as they come. You notice how solid he is around the shoulders, Lurvy?” / “Sure. Sure I do,” said Lurvy. “I’ve always noticed that pig. He’s quite a pig.” / “He’s long, and he’s smooth,” said Zuckerman. / “That’s right,” agreed Lurvy. “He’s as smooth as they come. He’s some pig.”
Charlotte’s strategy for saving Wilbur embodies Ricoeur’s assertions on the power of story. Her words—her story—remake reality for Wilbur. Charlotte’s ‘text’ (some pig) intervenes in ‘the world of action’ (a world in which a pig is a pig, intended for dinner, not deserving of special attention) and ‘gives it a new configuration’ (Wilbur is now some pig and visitors arrive from all over the county to look at him). This ‘new horizon’ not only envelops Wilbur, but the Zuckermans, Lurvy, and their entire community as well: “All said they had never seen such a pig before in their lives.”
Yet Charlotte’s writing does more than alter people’s perception of a pig. It also alters the pig’s perception of itself. Twice Wilbur objects to Charlotte’s plan to write, in reference to him, the word ‘terrific’ in her web. “But I’m not terrific, Charlotte. I’m just about average for a pig,” he says. For Wilbur, at this point in time, Charlotte’s story isn’t true. Yet the next day “everybody stood at the pigpen and stared at the web and read the word, over and over, while Wilbur, who really felt terrific, stood quietly swelling out his chest and swinging his snout from side to side.” Charlotte’s story brings about a shift in the way he feels about himself and, in turn, Wilbur’s sense of identity is altered. Enough so that when Charlotte discusses using the word ‘radiant’ next Wilbur immediately declares, “I feel radiant.” What Charlotte speaks and writes of Wilbur directly informs his sense of self. Wilbur not only has Charlotte’s initial rendering of him as some pig, terrific, radiant, and humble but he also has the countless retellings. Charlotte’s words are repeated, restated, and reaffirmed on multiple occasions by Mr. and Mrs. Zuckerman, the Arables, Lurvy, the minister, the fair announcer, and various members of the crowd.
What’s more, in addition to altering perceptions and identity, Charlotte’s writing alters actions and behavior. Wilbur takes to behaving ‘radiantly’ by performing flips and twists in the air and walking with a spring in his step. Mr. Zuckerman, in appreciation of his terrifically radiant pig, bans manure from the pigpen, orders fresh straw for each day, gives Wilbur better feed and buttermilk baths, and decides to enter Wilbur in the County Fair. This former runt of the litter wins special recognition at the Fair and, in the end, will live out the rest of his life without the fear of becoming Christmas dinner. Indeed, Charlotte’s text intervenes in the world of action and gives it a new configuration. Charlotte and E.B. White, alike, demonstrate Ricoeur’s insights into the power of story to ‘remake’ reality.