Portland, OR :: A couple months ago I started watching the television show “Northern Exposure” on DVD. “Northern Exposure,” which ran for six seasons on CBS starting in 1990, is set in the fictional town of Cicely, Alaska. One of the most fascinating themes of this quirky, funny, and sometimes deeply moving series is the way Cicely’s white and Indian residents co-exist in community. One of my favorite episodes in Season Four depicts the Thanksgiving celebration, which in Cicely has taken on elements of El Día de los Muertos. Indians ambush whites on the street, pelting them with tomatoes – and then they hug, friends. The holiday culminates with a parade down main street with the Indians dressed as skeletons and spirits. Then everybody gathers at The Brick tavern for a community feast.
I’m in Season Five now, and an episode I watched yesterday corresponds nicely with something I’ve been struggling with re: this project. A recurring character in the show’s later seasons is a local shaman (he prefers the job description “healer” to “medicine man”) named Leonard. Since he is taking on more white patients, Leonard decides to do some research. He sets up a table in the community center and invites whites to come in and tell him their legends. One white man tells Leonard the story of Paul Bunyan. “How often do you think about that story?” Leonard asks (I’m paraphrasing). The man replies, “Oh, I haven’t thought about that story in years.” Other whites tell him campfire stories like the one about the man with the hook. But these stories aren’t what Leonard had in mind. Toward the end of the episode, Leonard is talking with the white DJ of the local radio station. “I’ve failed, Chris,” Leonard says with a defeated sigh. “I’ve failed to locate the white collective unconscious.”
I laughed out loud.
I read somewhere recently that many pilgrims will prepare for their journey by studying the stories, legends, songs, and myths of the land and people they plan to visit. This is one way I want to prepare for my own pilgrimage through evangelical America. But I feel a little like Leonard in that episode of “Northern Exposure.” I have failed so far to locate American evangelicalism’s collective unconscious.
What are the guiding myths, so to speak, of American evangelicals? Do we look to stories of the Puritans and the Piligrims (speaking of Thanksgiving), or to a particular interpretation of America’s founding? Does the Left Behind series qualify? Those stories do act as a symbolic representation of a meaning system – the beliefs, assumptions, and organizing principles – of a great many people in this country. What about “The Purpose Driven Life” or books by James Dobson? My sociologist friend Matt suggested I may have to approach these questions from a regional perspective – reading Jerry Falwell, for example, to better understand evangelicals in Virginia.
None of these are particularly satisfying, and I am starting to wonder if I am looking for something that doesn’t exist. Is American evangelicalism so individualistic that the only guiding myth that matters to the average evangelical is his or her own testimony (conversion story)? If this is true, what are the consequences for the movement? What does it mean that we don’t have stories to bind us together?
What do you think? Do American evangelicals have guiding myths? Does the shortage of these stories (if in fact there is a shortage) say something about the individualistic nature of evangelicalism? or about its regional and denominational complexity? I’m lost in a morass of questions.