Goon Priest

The Goon Priest

Second Sunday after Epiphany
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

1 Samuel 3:1-20
John 1:43-51

I wonder what a rewrite of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad would look like if the setting shifted from punk rock and public relations to church and public witness. What if someone could draw the unforgettable characters in ecclesial matters that Egan does with musicians? (They might have to tone down the bohemian debauchery a little bit).

In Egan’s novel, the Bay Area punk band member confesses that her cohorts live privileged lives in houses of “Easter-egg colors,” but “the second Scotty lets the garage door down, we’re suddenly enraged.” In the rewrite, you’d have the honest soul who admits to the details of a bourgeois life and to becoming righteously indignant about the Sudan only when the Bible study starts or the blogging begins. Instead of the record producer with the gifted ear for “the sense of actual musicians playing actual instruments in an actual room,” but who must work feverishly to churn out products popular in a market he labels the “aesthetic holocaust” of digitalization, you’d have the worship leader who has to turn up the speed and volume to drown out the gnawing in his gizzard over doing what you have to do to keep them coming.

In his review of Egan’s novel, Ted Peters points out how the rhetoric of “authentic counterculture vs. sold-out mainstream,” of “starting pure and selling out vs. staying pure without counting the cost” shapes “the imagination of Egan’s characters, even as the ironies of their lives tie these stories into knots.” (The Christian Century, 10/18/2011, 51). Who’s a mere paid parrot, and who’s real? Who’s to say?

One of the motifs in this script is that the characters grow up knowing they’ll get old too and sell out – or that they’ll die young. That’s why I’m sure a rewrite would include a chapter on Eli the priest, “whose eyesight had begun to grow dim,” but who could probably see not only the sorry lives of his priest sons, but also the compromise and corruption of his own ministry. “Time’s a goon,” says one of Egan’s characters, and, nearing the end, Eli knows he’s been visited by the goon squad. Maybe he was gutting it out until his 401K clicked in, when he could get really prophetic. Maybe he just grew weary in well-doing, like the inner city policeman who once told Chris Hedges, “I came here to help these people; now I do it to put bread on the table.” (Losing Moses on the Freeway, 34)

Whatever the reason, “the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” But then… but then – since God’s creation is not an enclosed echo chamber or a soundproof recording studio – the Voice came to Samuel by night. Samuel ran to Eli, who eventually perceived what was happening. The message the Voice announces is that God is about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. God will raise up prophets, beginning with Samuel, who will speak God’s truth in such a piercing way that the Lord will be with them and none of [their] words fall to the ground.

The Voice… Sometimes through unexpected channels.

Dorothy Day heard it, even as she fended off Eugene O’Neill’s amorous advances, befriending him instead, to the point of putting him into his own bed following his drinking bouts at a New York bar called the Hell Hole. In his drunken state, O’Neill was fond of quoting Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven,” oblivious to how deeply those words were shaping the character and direction of Dorothy’s life (Ethics, James McClendon, 284).

Sometimes the Voice comes through sources so obvious they are easily ignored. Baptist prophet Carlyle Marney sent to his mentor W.O. Carver ten years worth of writing in his struggle to understand the Church. 84-year-old Carver read all 280 pages, marked them and sent them back “scalded with his own concerns of over 60 years,” and added, “Go on with your work, in a passionate evangelizing of this meaning of Church, but do not forget the bent knees and loyal spirits of those who can never understand.” (quoted in Marney, Mary Kratt, 90).

One day John the Baptizer, the greatest of the truth-telling prophets, watches Jesus walk by and exclaims, “Look, here is the Lamb of God.” Word made flesh. Voice and Vision. Two of John’s disciples follow Jesus, who turns and asks them, “What are you looking for?” They answer with a question. “Rabbi, where do you abide/stay/continue/remain?” (a word that reverberates with multiple meanings throughout John’s Gospel). Jesus invites them to “come and see.” As they come to abide in and with Jesus, they join the chorus of witnesses, even cynical Nathaniel, who talks at first like a descendant of Eli.

What does a witness look and sound like? Wittgenstein says, “Tell me ‘how’ you seek and I will tell you ‘what’ you are seeking.” Epiphany concerns the ‘how’ as well as the ‘what.’ This weekend we bless the memory and give thanks for the life and witness of Martin Luther King, Jr., a life that revealed the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ of abiding in Christ.

In The Preacher King, Richard Lischer makes the crucial insight that while King never departed from practicing love as nonviolence, he did make a pivotal turn from “identification” (the persona many, if not most, will memorialize this weekend) to a largely unacknowledged prophetic rage, “mediated to him by generations of angry [black church gospel] prophets” (35). During the last three years of his life, King pronounced fierce judgments, sounding like a Samuel who was under heavy obligation to hide nothing of God’s message. The sermon that was scheduled but unpreached due to his assassination was entitled “Why America May Go to Hell.”

But judgment was not the only note in King’s witness. His inherited formation in the redemptive mission of the black church opened his eyes to deep truths. Lischer puts it powerfully:

In the beginning, King spoke of the necessity of accepting suffering as a tactic for shaming the opposition, but as he was drawn into the vortex of the Movement, the moral-influence theory reverted to something more real and terrible, something that Ghandi or the Social Gospelers did not divine, namely, the necessity of conforming one’s own suffering to the twisted agony of the crucified Christ (54-55).

Because King transposed the realities

“of love, suffering, deliverance and justice from the sacred shelter of the pulpit into the arena of public policy…[t]here was always something more, some message from another realm – a spiritual standard that informs and judges the world and ultimately promises to save it from corruption.” (3-4).

This “message from another realm” embodied in the witness of Dr. King may even be a word for Eli. I’m paying more and more attention to characters like him who grow old and apparently sell out. But I also notice something else. Eli still had enough priestly discernment and knowledge of the tradition to enable a young prophet-to-be to hear and respond to the Voice of God. Christ’s invitation to ‘come and see’ is perennially fresh – even for a goon priest.

4 Responses to “The Goon Priest”

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  1. This is wonderful, Jim. I love Egan’s book and what you’ve done here to reimagine it in terms of a lukewarm, accommodated Church. There’s a lot here to take in – thank you for some powerful and provocative reflections.

    • Jim McCoy says:

      Thank you, Debra, for these encouraging words. And thank you for your own consistently sterling blogs.

    • Jim McCoy says:

      Thank you, Debra, for these encouraging words. And thanks for your consistently sterling blogs!

  2. Brent Laytham says:

    I’ve been edified and educated at the same time. Thanks Jim.

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