The Common Good
September/October 2009

A Token of God's Grace

by Bob Smietana | September/October 2009

A theological variety show mixes humor, music, and cultural analysis.

THEY DON’T SERVE Powdermilk Biscuits in Collins Alumni Auditorium, on the campus of Nashville’s Lipscomb University. There’s no Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band, and Guy Noir is nowhere to be seen. The ushers handing out programs aren’t members of The Professional Society of English Majors, and if Brother Preacher ever got hold of Garrison Keillor, he might Bible-thump him all the way back to Lake Wobegon.

Still, if A Prairie Home Companion ever moved South and got religion—or at least went to divinity school—it might look a lot like Tokens.

The theological variety show, hosted by Lipscomb professor Lee Camp, bills itself as “Too Serious for Public Radio. Too Edgy for Christian Radio. Too Much Fun to Miss.” It features a house band of A-list Nashville musicians, musical guests such as Vince Gill, and thinkers such as Brian McLaren, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Hubert Locke. There are also the Token Radio Players, whose “Dispatches from the Bible Belt” would give Dusty and Lefty a run for their money.

At a live show in June, for example, the Players introduced their audience to the “Guns and Moses Day-Care Center” in a skit inspired by the Tennessee legislature’s recent decision to allow patrons to carry guns in bars. “What’s next,” Camp asked, “guns in preschool?”

“If you take guns out of the hands of children,” the fictional day care’s head mistress said, “then only criminal children will have guns.”

It’s part of the show’s sideways approach to addressing theology and social issues. If he can get people to laugh, Camp says, they are more willing to listen. “We try to use the humor and music to sneak up on people, and get them to look at substantive issues.”

The inspiration for Tokens came from a New Year’s Eve show hosted by Garrison Keillor in Nashville several years ago. Camp, who’d been a fan of A Prairie Home Companion for years, began to wonder if Keillor’s approach would work for talking about social justice and theological issues. He especially considered how a song can pierce the heart of a matter, in a way a sermon or lecture can’t.

“Songwriters can get at important theological questions much quicker than theologians,” he said. “And they do it using metaphors that aren’t God-talk. It’s a very compelling way to get at substantive questions.”

That doesn’t mean Tokens is simply a Christian imitation of Keillor’s show. While Camp and his cast deal with theology, they are after something bigger—glimpses of God’s action in the world, or tokens of grace.

There have been six shows so far—all of which are housed on the Tokens Web site—and each carries a theme. The first, “The Appalachian Longing for Home,” debuted in February 2008 and was followed by “Jubilee: Land, Greed, & Grace in American Folk,” “The Politics of Jesus,” “The Christmas Revolution,” “Justice Songs,” and—in June—“Stories We Live By.”

Each episode is bookmarked by Camp’s brief monologues on the evening’s theme. “I give myself the same amount of time a songwriter has,” he says. “Three minutes at the beginning, and three minutes at the end.” In between those two monologues, something magical usually happens.

The June show included Buddy Greene singing John Prine’s “Paradise,” a story of one man’s dismay after strip-mining for coal had ruined his childhood swimming hole: “Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken /Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man,” he sang. “And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County /Down by the Green River where Paradise lay /Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking /Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.”

Camp then interviewed African-American Holocaust scholar Hubert Locke, who talked about how the race riots he experienced growing up in Detroit reminded him of the Nazi’s Kristallnacht, and of a young German officer who’d joined the SS in order to expose its atrocities against Jews, only to find out that no one in the outside world would believe him.

That was followed by the a cappella ensemble Psalom, most of whose members are from Siberia, who sang “They Cried Out to the Lord.” The words are taken from Psalm 107, about how God hears the cries of the oppressed.

Like Keillor, Camp knows the power of a pregnant pause, and how to switch from a song about environmental degradation to a radio skit without missing a beat. And the cast never seems to take itself too seriously.

That’s especially true for Greg Lee, who plays “Brother Preacher.” His is a perfect imitation of a Baptist preacher who’s got nothing to say—but doesn’t let that get in his way. Another highlight is the segment “Class & Grass.” In it, the house band, nicknamed the “Most Outstanding Horeb Mountain Boys,” reinvents a piece of classical music as bluegrass.

That meant playing Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” on guitar, harmonica, banjo, pennywhistle, fiddle, and piano, with a little accordion thrown in for good measure. In the hands of band leader Jeff Taylor, drummer Chris Brown, acoustic bass player Byron House, and Pete Huttlinger—known as a Nashville “guitar god”—along with Aubrey Haynie, the Academy of Country Music’s fiddler and mandolin player of the year, the jam session became a thing of pure joy.

While the cast hopes their show will gain an audience outside Nashville, that’s not what motivates them. They do it mainly because they’re having a great time. That’s something Camp learned from Ken Myers, who as head of Mars Hill Audio produces audio resources that engage contemporary culture. Camp had called Myers to talk about his dreams for Tokens, and was struck by something Myers said.

“He told me that Christians rarely do anything out of sheer delight,” Camp said. “That’s something we are trying to do—it’s an exercise in delight.”

There are moments of grace as well. In his most recent monologue, Camp spoke about singing on Sunday nights in the church of his Alabama youth. He remembered the song leader, a man of deep faith who experienced the heartbreak of burying one of his children. This song leader found consolation in a hymn called “There is a Habitation,” whose words long for the day when God will make all things new.

As Camp began singing, most of the audience joined in: “No night is there, no sorrow /No death and no decay /No yesterday, no ’morrow /But one eternal day /O Zion, O Zion /I long thy gates to see /O Zion, O Zion /When shall I dwell in thee?”

Bob Smietana, co-author of G.P. Taylor: Sin, Salvation, and Shadowmancer (Zondervan), is a religion writer for The (Nashville) Tennessean. For more information about Tokens, see www.tokensshow.com.

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