Jesus for President

From my economical hotel to Duke University was maybe a twenty-minute drive. As a stranger in town I prefered to stay off the heavily traveled corridors during busy morning commute times, never being sure when exactly my exit was coming up. So I took the backroads. Along the way I started to see churches with denominational names I’ve never even heard before. I quickly lost count of just how many houses of worship I passed. With all this rich fare, perhaps it is time to tighten the old Bible belt a bit. The short drive reminded me of my one and only fact-gathering trip sponsored by Nashotah House. I was sent to Asbury Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky for a technology conference. Accompanied by an Episcopal priest and a Lutheran pastor, I was not the only one of us to feel a bit besieged by the in-your-face evangelicalism of Kentucky. My Lutheran colleague wistfully commented, “but the ELCA is ‘Evangelical.’” A different species of evangelical entirely.

The chapel at Duke University easily dominates the west campus. The divinity school is one of the flagship seminaries of the United Methodist Church. Founded by the tobacco money of James Buchanan Duke (who also owned the estate in New Jersey where our ill-fated garden was planted this summer) and the fledgling Trinity College, Duke is an interesting mix of the sacred and profane; Eliade in quadrangles and limestone. The campus sports identity is the Blue Devils, and this diabolical emblem can be seen leering from tote bags and campus buses connecting east and west. Money and religion, devils and saints. Life offers many choices, and Duke, as an exclusive institution, serves the blended family of academics in Bible land.

One of my daughter’s favorite movies as a child was Disney’s Lilo and Stitch. In case you missed it, Stitch is an alien (you’ve got to love it already!), and Lilo is a little girl who loves Elvis, a true southern prodigy. The movie features Elvis singing Giant, Baum and Kaye’s “Devil in Disguise.” Although a song about love in crisis, “Devil in Disguise” seems a decidedly useful trope. Human institutions often disguise themselves as divine. After all, no suite trumps the God card. Religion is so prevalent in the Bible Belt that Christianity is less a religion and more a culture. That culture is at barbed odds with itself, for its deepest, darkest desires are out of line with the utter selflessness that Jesus seems to imply is at the heart of Christianity. Travel is one of the greatest teaching tools we have. Sometimes your own country can feel like foreign soil.

Dukes and Serfs

Once upon a time in a land far away, a man and woman worked a fertile garden, blessed by God. That garden was in the incredibly rich, black soil of Savoy, Illinois. The zucchinis harvested were of biblical proportions. Some of them miraculously grew to the size of my calves seemingly overnight. The broccoli and carrots my wife and I grew had so much flavor that we couldn’t believe just how much leeched out while vegetables sat in the back of a truck or on a grocery-store refrigerated shelf. Even with their periodic mistings. It was as if Bunnicula had visited them at night. So long ago, the garden. It seemed obvious in those days why the writers of Genesis compared paradise to a garden. Ours was no Eden – it was hard work – but my wife and I had a lot of fun with it.

James Buchanan Duke, namesake of Duke University, owned a considerable estate outside Hillsborough, New Jersey. Having established both a tobacco monopoly and an electric company, Duke was enormously wealthy. He left his Hillsborough farm (not the tobacco farms which were in his native North Carolina) to his daughter Doris, making her one of the wealthiest women in the world. Her estate now consists of a socially conscious Duke Farms Foundation that has offered gardening plots to the plebeians of the region. So yesterday I found myself once again back in the garden. Sharing a plot with a friend, we arrived for opening day and were greeted by one of the organizers of the garden. Her name, of course, is Eve.

New Jersey planting requires more manure than the black earth of the Midwest. Yesterday I found myself shoveling horse manure, not for the first time in my professional life, while Eve supervised the garden. It seemed strangely biblical. Dodging between my summer classes this year, I will be emulating the first profession of our mythic father Adam. In the afternoon, after cleaning up, we headed to Rutgers Day, the university public-relations festival that shows off the tremendous wealth that cannot afford to hire full-time faculty any more. As I kept a weather eye on the clouds, worried about the seeds I’d just planted, the future continued to look stormy to me, even on the campus that has at times been my only source of barely sustainable income. Perhaps I should have changed my shoes, because it seemed to me that the smell of horse manure still hung heavily in the air.

I wonder if this is how Adam got started