Saturday, July 16, 2016

Prepare Ye The Way (Banjo & Bread, Chapter 1)

“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”’ (Matt. 3:1-3)

According to my parents Barb and Ken Smith, my poetry and preaching career began at a very young age. We had gone to see the musical Godspell in the theater—this legendary 1970s rock revival rendition of the gospel according to Matthew, the sensational musical that launched the Broadway composing career of a Jewish twenty-something named Stephen Schwartz. As we sat in the audience that night, I was ready for the opening of this play, which involves John the Baptist coming forward with an invocation—the epic, beautiful refrain “Prepare Ye The Way (Of The Lord).” As the people in the theater sat quiet and John the Baptist started to sing, an eager young child interrupted the proceedings and shouted at the top of his lungs, “That song is on our record.” And based on my Dad’s retelling, the entire cast joined the audience in stunned laughter at my spontaneous disruption. 

In the opening of David Greene’s 1973 movie version which I also watched at a young age, the disciples heed the call to follow the hip bearded baptist to a public park for a communal immersion, with the fully dressed disciples soaking and splashing as frolicking misfits in the city fountain. As I would wear out my parents vinyl copy of the cast album, I would “play Godspell,” reenacting everything from baptism to crucifixion in my six-year-old way. In regularly  reaffirming my baptism in such a playful primal way, I became a childlike puckish follower of the hippy Jesus. In early 1968, when my actual baptism took place in Chicago at the Church of the Three Crosses, the hymn that day was Sydney Carter’s anthem of the counterculture church, “The Lord of The Dance.” Although in the 1990s I preferred the drunken visions of New Age hedonism and tried to reject even the anarchic hippy Jesus, Christ’s love would not let me go. Whether sprinkled or dunked, our baptism claims us, and mine claimed me for unconditional love and radical service in the counterculture church. 

As explained in Defying Gravity, Carol de Giere’s biography of composer Stephen Schwartz, the originator of Godspell John-Michael Tebelak developed the play as a graduate school project at Carnegie Mellon (ch. 4). Offended by uptight Christians who harassed the hirsute thespian one snowy Easter morning and energized by exposure to the raw style of the Living Theater, Tebelak theorized his clownface messiah (after reading theologian Harvey Cox’s Feast of Fools) as bringing joy back to the story that the uptight church-types had sucked dry (de Giere, ch.4).  In One Way: The Jesus Movement and Its Meaning, Robert Ellwood invokes what he dubs the “playful Christianity” of Cox as a kind of alternative jubilant antidote to the stern joyless asceticism that emerged among some of the so-called Jesus People (139). Perhaps it’s because I memorized most of Godspell, Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Free to Be You and Me, and some of Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches around that time, but the ecstatic picture that Cox and Godspell portray of Christ commingling with counterculture in festive cooperation accurately reflects my memories of church-back-then and captures the spirit of this current analysis.  

Looking at the upheavals of the 1960s through the lens of liturgy and locating ministry in aspects of New Left liberation, Banjo and Bread chronicles the inspired interventions of two “hippy Christians,” who as college students imbibed the avant-garde insurrections of art, music, and performance as liturgy that accompanied the “Methodist Student Movement” as well as the peace, civil rights, and feminist movements. The text that follows is the faithful manifesto of a counterculture Christian born in 1967 and in love with this colorful lineage—organized largely as an oral history, as the first-person theological biography of Calvin and Nelia Kimbrough. The Kimbroughs’ coming-of-age captures a time when the hip counterculture and the activist Left openly conversed and the campus church provided safe space for both. This text draws from extensive prayer and conversation, primary research and oral history, personal interviews and archival documents, charting the Kimbroughs’ lives through a radical campus ministry at Tennessee Tech in Cookeville, the locale where I live, worship, write, and teach. We also see the Kimbroughs mature as co-founders of an intentional community in Evansville, Indiana called Patchwork Central, and finally, working hard until their 70th birthdays as partners at the Open Door Community in Atlanta, a covenantal Christian collective committed to solidarity with the poor and the prisoner, to ending homelessness and stopping executions. 

In my visits to Atlanta, the Kimbroughs granted me access to an extensive personal archive of scrapbooks and photo albums, in which we discover the full influences of the day, from psychedelic artwork on handbills advertising the campus coffeehouses to the couple’s hip fashion statements seen in photographs, documenting times like 1968 when these romantic college seniors were married in an impromptu ceremony presided over by their mentor and campus minister.  Hopefully, the reader will sense God’s sacramental presence in the liturgical practices that revolutionized church at the intersection of art, music, literature, and activism.

Go ahead & read chapter two here:

If you would like a copy of the complete Banjo & Bread as an Adobe PDF, please send a message to Andrew Smith at:
professor.andy.smith [at] with 'Banjo & Bread' in the subject line. 

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