The liberal church as prairie schooner & its appropriate burden

A Prairie Schooner 
UPDATE 29 June 2014. I've just had cause to revisit (and tidy and tighten up) the address on this page. If you click on this link you can go to that post. 

The version you will find below is essentially the same as the revised version but it's really very messy and considerably less well-structured. I'd advise clicking on the link above! However, just for the record, I leave the old version here as a salutary reminder to myself (if no one else) of some famous wise words by Samuel Beckett:

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." (Worstward Ho).


A prayer of Socrates':

"O dear Pan, and all the other gods of this place, grant that I may be beautiful inside. Let all my external possessions be in friendly harmony with what is within. May I consider the wise man rich. As for gold, let me have as much as a moderate man could bear and carry with him" (Plato, Phaedrus 279c).

A promise of Jesus':

"Come unto me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:28-30)

Tolstoy’s recasting of this promise:

"All people worry about the well-being of the flesh, they have loaded up a kind of cart that they could never pull away; they have placed a yoke on themselves which was not designed to fit them. Understand my teaching and follow it, and you will come to know peace and joy in life. I will give you a different yoke and a different cart: spiritual life. Harness yourself to it and you will learn calmness and blessedness from me. Be peaceful and meek in heart and you will find blessedness in your life. Because my teaching is a yoke designed to fit you; fulfilling my teaching is an easy cart to pull and a yoke designed to fit you" (Tolstoy, Leo: The Gospel in Brief, trans. Dustin Condren, Harper Perennial 2011, pp. 49-50)


This address began with me stumbling this week across Socrates' prayer. I was especially taken with the line in which he asks Pan and the other gods of the place: "As for gold, let me have as much as a moderate man could bear and carry with him" (Phaedrus 279c). This mention of carrying a burden deemed appropriate inevitably brought to my mind one of Jesus' most comforting promises that, unlike other teachers, his yoke was easy, and his burden is light" (Matthew 11:30).

Although one might be tempted on a first reading to think that these two teachings are not really about quite the same thing, after spending a little time with them, I began feel that, in their different ways, Socrates and Jesus were both trying to gesture towards the same thing, namely, the need to figure out what is the burden appropriate for the task in hand. It's important to try to ascertain because, as Tolstoy's recasting of Jesus teaching suggests, humanity is all to prone to loading up a kind of cart that we could never pull away and to place upon ourselves and others a yoke which was not designed to fit human kind. It seems to me that our current neo-liberal inspired consumer lifestyle is just the latest of these ultimately crushing burdens.

Sometime during this week my thoughts about burdens and their appropriateness or otherwise condensed around the Western. Although, of necessity, in this address I speak in rather general terms I have particularly in mind John Ford's fine, but often over-looked, movie of 1950 called "Wagon Master".

Like many children of my generation I watched many dozens of Westerns and their basic story lines became thoroughly interwoven with my own. As you will be aware many Westerns focus on a group of settlers moving West and the image of their distinctive covered-wagons, "Prairie Schooners", travelling through a variety of extraordinary landscapes has become almost indelibly etched into the cultural memory of America as well as Europeans like me.

Most of these settlers (who were, of course, mostly Europeans) were leaving behind something that no longer satisfied them in order to create a better life in a new land. Some of them were fleeing religious persecution, some former crimes and misdemeanors, some simple poverty. Others were, not so much fleeing anything in particular, as setting off to find some kind new or greater excitement, fame or fortune, perhaps as gamblers, hunters, gunfighters, bounty-hunters, actors, or prospectors.

The mix of reasons for undertaking such a journey was always profoundly complex and, in the best Westerns, it is this volatile and unstable mix which provides the raw material and energy that drives along the plot. One thing worth observing here is how in the genre's classic period there are fewer gunfights than you'd imagine. When they do occur there is often only one of them and even then it lasts but a few seconds. The reason for this is that the gunfight is generally not the focus of the best films and the classic Western does not fetishise violence. Instead its focus is upon the moral and ethical dynamics that lead up to the moment of violence and then about the moral and ethical consequences which follow it.

Monument Valley, Utah
Now so far I've only been speaking about the people who appear in the Western but a central character in many of them, often overlooked, is the landscape of the West itself. To be sure nearly all film-makers realised that there was a straightforward visual appeal to be had in the landscape but the best directors also always allowed it to play an important, narrative, role. In their hands the landscape becomes the place where the rules of old laws back East not only no longer apply but actually cannot apply here. The sheer alien strangeness of the landscape (whether it is Monument Valley, Utah or the endlessly open and flat prairies of the mid-West) emphasises that the people travelling through it are *not* acting in their former worlds where old moralities and law are known and in force but somewhere these things are suspended and/or put radically into doubt. The landscape is the necessary, highly particular context in which everyone - whether the good, the bad or the ugly - must learn anew how to make the most appropriate basic decisions. It's important to see that this wild landscape is not yet that of the hoped for new world but it is only place in which such a new world can be formed, where a new and more appropriate morality and law is forged and refined between the competing and often conflicting visions of the good life these settlers are bringing with them. It is this process that the best Westerns seek to show us at work.

OK, all well and good, but what has this go to do with us?

Well, we may begin by observing that each of us here today will be able to tell a story about how we came to this church because we felt that the old ways of doing religion back "East" were not only not working for us but were also not working for wider society. So, we asked around for, or by luck or grace simply stumbled upon, this prairie schooner of a liberal church which openly recognises the need to "go West" to begin the admittedly hard journey of making a new and good life. To join this kind of church is to climb aboard an already moving wagon train and to set out together willingly into the wild to remake, to revision the good life.

But no one, except perhaps the most foolish, ever joins a wagon train without taking with them from the old world some important things that they deem are an appropriate load for such journey. I do not just mean the appropriate material burdens of food, clothing and tools (such as the gold of which Socrates speaks or the beef-jerky of the cowboy) but also appropriate spiritual foods, clothing and tools. In the genre of the Western (and for us as a kind of Christian church) this latter appropriate burden is primarily symbolised by the Biblical text whose words come regularly to be heard under the open skies by the graveside, at mealtimes, or on Sunday morning in camp. The words of the Bible are borne as an appropriate burden because they are able continually to give the settlers spiritual strength just as their beef-jerky is able to give them physical strength.

The hard part is, however, not coming to accept that from the old world some kind of burden must be born by us as we set out, rather it is in deciding what, precisely, we should take with us in the first place? We've all been through a rather less dramatic version of this when packing for a holiday. I mean just how many pairs of socks and undies do we take, how many pairs of jeans, shirts jumpers jackets or shoes? How many books to pack (a perennial problem of mine - I mean do I really need to take with me everything Wittgenstein wrote just for a week's holiday!!), how many snacks and, whether or not we are to include the laptop?

The question is not whether there is a burden from our old world to be carried forward or not - there always is - but rather it is how do we ascertain that the burden we are to carry is an appropriate one? We also have to ensure that we have loaded up the right kind of cart so that we can, in fact, pull away and also that we are taking up a yoke that is designed to fit us.

It seems clear to me that one of our tasks from time to time is together to reflect upon what burdens seem still to be appropriate for us to carry and what are now inappropriate and which should be left behind?

(NB: In the conversation immediately following the address and musical offering we, as a congregation, shared together some thoughts about this.)

But it's important to realise that discerning the appropriate is always an ongoing activity. The unfolding journey together through an actual landscape is what will continually show us, as it did to the first settlers, what is now really appropriate to our journey and what is not.

So, in this morning service some things we initially took on board our prairie schooner of a church have stayed on board (for example: the Lord's Prayer, a reading from the Bible and another religious or secular text and the overall basic shape of the service); other things have gone (for example: a fourth hymn and a sung canticle); still others have been brought on board (for example more silence, the lighting of a candle, the Prayer for Peace and the time of conversation). These are the things our journey together has made us feel are, at present, appropriate and so "light" burdens to carry. I do not doubt that over time what is deemed to be an appropriate burden may well change.

But I've said nothing yet about the wild landscape through which our church is presently journeying. It is not the desert of Monument Valley nor the open prairie but it is one that in many ways is at least one as alien, strange and, sometimes, as threatening. Our current cultural landscape is often felt as alienating, disorientating, unmapped and wild as anything filmed by John Ford. So many of our old moral, ethical, legal, cultural, political, scientific, philosophical and religious certainties have just disappeared from sight and we know that we are in an increasingly wild and lawless place. This is the condition of "normal nihilism about which I have spoken a number of times before - and which I précis in a piece called "Christianity - of this world or not?".

However, the visionary promise contained in the classic Western is that only by risking everything to traverse this dangerous, region landscape can we hope to forge new and genuinely shared moralities and practices that have taken genuine account of the diversity of our current culture in which, in truth, all its members find they are displaced and forced to harness up a wagon and move on. As every settler and refugee knows - you can only take with you an appropriate burden, i.e. you only carry and keep what you really, really need and only those who can successfully discern what this is will be able to pull the cart away and make it to the end of the trail. Once there, only the really important things, the things we found to be truly appropriate, whose burden we found light and whose yoke was easy, will be with us on our first day in the new world in, what we can genuinely hope will be an extraordinarily diverse and new kind of community. A community that, thanks to the furnace of the wilderness, has forged and begun to refined for its own time and place a new and appropriate shared morality and law.


An important postscript: The narrative found in the classic Western does not, of course, take proper account of the Native American Indians nor women. The classic Western offers an idealised, generally optimistic story and glosses much about which humankind should be ashamed. But, the frontier town at the end of the trail, this new world, was not a definitive end but, like most apparent ends, it was really only a new beginning. As America (and the World) itself developed, and as the genre of the Western developed, better account has been taken of both the contributions and the sufferings of the Indians and women in the story of the West and of excluded and silence minorities everywhere. The struggle for a truly appropriate shared morality and law never ends. Our wagon train is still, thankfully, moving. The task of letting go of the inappropriate and taking on board the appropriate goes on even as, along the way, there are times when we'll settle for a while on some attractive bend in the river with our wagons in a circle to take stock and rest-up.