Jubilation T. Cornpone (or, When Reality Mimics Art)

“Jubilation T. Cornpone; 
Old “Toot your own horn – pone.”
Jubilation T. Cornpone, a man who knew no fear!”

In July of 1968, my parents went on their honeymoon to a brand new Arkansas amusement park, Dogpatch U.S.A.  Dogpatch was themed for the Al Capp comic strip, “L’il Abner,” which drew from the lives of Southern country folk to offer subversive satire on wealth, war, and politics.  In 1956 L’il Abner became a musical play, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer.  I myself am Southern country folk, and I’ve loved L’il Abner since the summer the Greene County Fine Arts Council staged it in my hometown of Paragould, Arkansas, with my own mother playing the part of Mammy Yokum.  Lately, a particular tune from the show has been stuck in my head: “Jubilation T. Cornpone.”

Image result for l'il abner musical

Within the world of L’il Abner, Jubilation T. Cornpone is Dogpatch’s town founding father.  He is a hero to the citizens.  The invocation of his name leads to cheering wild abandon and a dismissal of reason in favor of whoopin’ and hollerin’ support.   Dogpatch’s evangelical fire-and-brimstone preacher, Marryin’ Sam, is Jubilation T. Cornpone’s greatest supporter and advocate, singing Cornpone’s praises to all the people.  Marryin’ Sam says, “J.T. Cornpone didn’t know the meaning of the word fear.  Terror yes, but fear never.” (Let the reader understand.)

In addition to founding Dogpatch, Jubilation T. Cornpone was a Confederate general, and his claims to fame mostly extend from the Civil War.  With each stanza of the song, Marryin’ Sam sings about Jubilation’s heroic exploits in rip-roaring terms, but by each verse’s end, the listener realizes that those exploits have all turned to disaster.  Marryin’ Sam shares the names of the many and varied great battles against his enemies for which Jubilation T. Cornpone is heralded: “Cornpone’s Disaster,” “Cornpone’s Misjudgment,” “Cornpone’s Catastrophe,” and “Cornpone’s Humiliation.”  For example:

With our ammunition gone and faced with utter defeat,
Who was it that burned the crops and left us nothing to eat?
Why it was Jubilation T. Cornpone; 
Old “September Morn – pone.”
Jubilation T. Cornpone, the pants blown off his seat!

To which Dogpatch’s citizens cheer with an utter detachment from reality, “Hurray!”

Again and again, Jubilation T. Cornpone creates a crisis, addresses the crisis of his own creation with a “solution” that deepens distress, and then claims victory atop the layered heap of disaster.  And all the while, the people cheer (encouraged by the evangelical preacher).

The above stanza’s allusion to ruined crops is almost reminiscent of our day, in which a sledge-hammer trade war has led to a broad and severe crisis for American farmers, which is then heroically addressed by propping up farmers with subsidies paid for through borrowed money financed largely by the same country with whom the trade war blazes.  And the people shout, “Hurray!”

Ultimately, Marryin’ Sam tells us, Jubilation T. Cornpone ran for President.  (Because, why shouldn’t he? His track record surely supported such an idea!)

Who became so famous with a reputation so great, 
That he ran for president and didn’t carry a state? 
Why it was Jubilation T. Cornpone; 
Old “Wouldn’t be sworn – pone.”
Jubilation T. Cornpone, he made the country wait!

Marryin’ Sam’s last line drips with a final irony that the citizens of Dogpatch miss.  Because Jubilation didn’t become president, Marryin’ Sam sings,

Jubilation T. Cornpone, he really saved the day!



Clipped Wings

Occasionally I will enter this space early on a weekday morning, when the lights are off and all is still, and the spiritual presence of a dozen generations Episcopalians across one hundred and eighty years seems almost palpable.  I sit in a pew on the lectern side, about eight rows back, and allow myself to settle into the quiet.  Increasingly, these days my prayers are without words, and during my time in this sacred space I most often look to the Resurrection window above the altar as the locus of my meditation.

I can tell you a lot about that window.[i]  It was installed after the great 1938 fire that destroyed the Cathedral chancel, and it is dedicated to the memory of George Alfred Taylor.  There is some dispute as to the window’s manufacturer.  Either the Gorham Company or Payne Spiers of New York created this work of art.  The window depicts Matthew’s rendering of the Easter story.  Matthew’s is the only one of the four Gospel accounts in which an angel meets the women outside the tomb of Jesus.  Matthew tells us, “After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.  And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone…”

I can tell you all of these things about our Resurrection window, but none of these things enters my mind during my early morning meditations.  Rather, when I sit in the stillness of this church, I am captivated by an optical illusion the window presents.  You may have noticed it yourself.  Because of the greenery that flanks the base of the tomb of Jesus in the background and covers the angel’s wingtips, it appears as if the angel’s wings have been clipped.

Resurrection window-CCC

For over six years now, I have been preoccupied, and concerned, and curious about that notion.  What would it mean for an angel to have clipped wings?  What happens when an angel descends to earth but cannot return to heaven?  How does one destined to soar in starry skies make his way when the beating of his wings is only noise and folly?

Have you ever felt that way, like an angel with clipped wings?  Have you ever in your life felt as if you were supposed to soar but couldn’t seem to get off the ground?  Or, have you felt as though you should know God, and that God’s presence might make the very difference in your life, but that the distance between you and God, between you grounded on earth with clipped wings and God high in God’s heaven, is just too great?

I think many of us, perhaps most of the time, feel like that angel and are acutely aware of our distance from God.  We may have some deep intuition that we are created to be in close communion with God, that somehow God intends us to soar like angels.  But often that intuitions seems like a cruel joke.  Loss, and disappointment, and a world so skewed that fairness is a farce seem to be the normal markers of our days, and we catch ourselves wondering whether there is any transcendent meaning to life at all.

Other times, if we’re honest, we know that we clip our own wings.  We can be petty and small when we’re not being grandiose and self-absorbed.  We know the actions we take can be compromised by mixed motives.  We feel acutely the guilt and shame that accompany our decisions. Or else, we are apathetic toward the issues in this world that are of concern to God, preferring to keep our heads down, not even glancing up at the light of God’s heaven, and focusing on our individual, circumscribed present.

For those of us for whom none of this is operative, it may be because we’ve spent years willfully blocking out these thoughts, so that we’ve habituated ourselves to be blithely untroubled by our earthboundness and by God’s distance from us, almost convincing ourselves that if there’s a God at all, he doesn’t really matter.

The distance between God and humanity is the central motif in all of the theistic world religions.  God is “up there,” and we are “down here” metaphorically if not literally speaking.  Another common religious image is that we are separated from God by a great chasm, with no way to bridge the distance.  In fact, the very purpose of religion—all religion—is to bridge that gap.  The purpose of religion is to provide a conduit between God and humanity, and then to broker that contact.  We see this in ancient Judaism in the Jerusalem temple’s Holy of Holies, the space where God dwelt and into which the high priest entered once per year to intercede for the people.  We see it in native religions, in which the shaman with good medicine speaks to the spirits on behalf of the people and then foretells the outcome of events.  Even in Christianity, in the very design of our basilica-style churches (of which the Cathedral is one), the distance and elevation of the altar from the people was originally intended to emphasize the distance of God from us, and especially in the Middle Ages the priest was seen as the necessary intermediary between the people down there and God “up there” at the high altar.

Image result for temple curtain torn in two

Since the dawn of humanity, religion has provided an important coping function for the distress I described at the outset of living in the world with clipped wings, both the distress caused when the world acts upon us and the distress we cause when we act upon the world.  Religion, whatever the variety, has provided a means for us to plead with God for help or beg God’s mercy.  But here’s the thing: Jesus has no interest in religion.  Wait, that’s not quite accurate.  Jesus has great interest in religion, and his interest is to disrupt it entirely.  Because, Jesus says, the whole idea on which religion is predicated—the idea that we are distant from God and need a system to connect us from earth to heaven or across the chasm—is bogus.  In every act and every teaching, Jesus claims that religion’s very premise is wrong.  God is not distant from us.  God is as near to us as the very air we breathe.  God is never absent.  If we were fish, God would be the water.

On the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, the tearing of the temple curtain in the Holy of Holies from top to bottom is the sacramental sign that nothing ever separates us from God, least of all the pretensions of religion.  In Acts today, through St. Peter’s vision of all animals being made clean, God declares that the ancient purity rules that gave some access to God and denied others are invalid.  And St. John the Divine, in his grand vision on Patmos, understands the full implications of Jesus’ truth.  John’s sees what the world can and will be when God’s children fully recognize that heaven is not a place far away, and God does not reside across a chasm.  John says, “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals.  God will dwell with them; they will be God’s people, and God himself will be with them; God will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’”

In other words, when we recognize that God is not up there, or over there, or absent altogether, but right here, always, surrounding us and permeating us with love, then the old world of distance, and loss, and disappointment begins to evaporate as the illusion it has always been.  And with the illusion, our despair evaporates, too.  It is impossible to remain petty or small, self-absorbed or apathetic, when we abide in the very presence of God.  There are no clipped wings in an Easter world.  The Church Jesus birthed is not intended to be another religion, brokering a distant God.  This is the end of religion.  The Church is to be the people who swim and soar through the very presence of God, both here in this sacred space and out there where God also is, and share this Good News in wonder and joy with all those we meet.

At the table of the Lord’s Supper, in our fellowship, on the streets toward our homes, we live and move through the God who is right here, always, making God’s home among mortals so that we need not reach for God, nor fear any chasm.  God is here, enveloping us in love.


[i] The Windows of Christ Church Cathedral

Cognitive Closure and the Road to Damascus

Herman, distracted by his cell phone, ended up entering the freeway on an exit ramp and traveling the wrong way down a crowded Interstate.  A quick glance at his GPS suggested to Herman that he was on the Interstate, just as he’d intended, so he kept driving as cars swerved around him at seventy miles per hour.  A news helicopter quickly noticed what was happening and began covering the story.  Herman’s cell phone rang, so he answered, and his wife’s voice said, “Herman, I just heard on the radio that some fool is driving the wrong way on the Interstate.  Keep a lookout for him and be careful!”  To which Herman replied, “It’s worse than the radio says.  There’s not one car going the wrong way; there are hundreds of them!”[i]

We are loathe to admit when we are wrong.  And that’s not just because we are superficially stubborn.  Social psychologist Arie Kruglanski has pioneered work on what he calls “cognitive closure,” which is that moment when a person makes a firm decision, closing the mental filters to any new information that might change one’s mind.[ii]  It’s easy to see why a degree of such closure is necessary.  If someone lacks all cognitive closure, then ambiguity becomes the norm and important life decisions are never made.  Such a person waffles through the world, with events buffeting him back and forth.  But a high need for closure can be even more dangerous, shutting down one’s discernment too soon, settling for what seems preserving and safe for oneself, but blinding oneself to more far-reaching consequences.

Image result for wrong way sign

Especially in times of high anxiety and stress, Dr. Kruglanski says, everyone’s need for closure increases.  When things seem uncertain, our we crave certainty.  In an ambiguous and frightening world, we want simple and clear solutions we believe will preserve us.   Cognitive closure has two stages, according to Dr. Kruglanski: seizing and freezing.  “In the first stage, we are driven by urgency, or the need to reach closure quickly: we ‘seize’ whatever information we can, without necessarily taking the time to verify it as we otherwise would. In the second stage, we are driven by permanence, or the need to preserve that closure for as long as possible: we ‘freeze’ our knowledge and do what we can to safeguard it…And once we’ve frozen? Our confidence increases apace.”[iii]

This can quickly devolve into destructiveness.  In our individual lives, we may cocoon from the world, cutting off complex but important and life-giving relationships and avenues for living in favor of the simplest tasks we can manage, and which grant us a feeling of control.  In the world writ large, we may give our allegiance to leaders who make simplistic but certain promises, who paint the world in terms of black and white, who present a crisp and compelling narrative of us against them.  So long as we are among the “us” and not among the “them,” the leader’s message is a relief from our anxiety, and we accept his or her worldview, closing ourselves off to any other perspectives.  (It is worth noting that for Dr. Kruglanski this is not only an academic study.  He was born in Poland in 1939 and grew up in a Jewish ghetto under the Nazis.)

Cognitive closure is powerful.  It leads otherwise rational people to believe things patently contrary to evidence.  It leads people to say and do things—or acquiesce to things—that in a different time or circumstance they themselves would find abhorrent.  Traveling north on the southbound freeway, cognitive closure can convince us that all the other cars are driving in the wrong direction.

Cognitive closure is also a compelling way to diagnose Paul, who would become the apostle.  In first century Judea, in which the occupying Roman army was a constant source of anxiety and uncertainty, and in which the nascent but growing Jesus movement was an easy target, Paul became a leading voice identifying Christians as the problem, as the embodiment of all that was wrong in society.  (Acts 7 and 8 chronicle second-hand Paul’s vicious and violent persecution of Christians.  Looking back in his letters to the Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians, Paul admits it himself.[iv])  In the face of anxiety and stress, Paul identifies the first Christians as the problem and himself as part of the solution, blocking out any other evidence, closing his filters to any other explanation.  Dr. Kruglanski says, “That’s what makes certainty so dangerous: When you dismiss other points of view; when you ignore information that is critically relevant to making a good judgment.”  Paul—a highly educated and faithful man—refuses to see those who do not share his vision of reality as being worthy of consideration, and he becomes zealously cruel in his approach to them.

But then we arrive at Acts 9.  There, Paul is literally knocked off his horse and onto the ground.  A thunderous, white light blinds him, both literally and figuratively.  The vision he has obstinately set before himself and claimed as true vanishes in the white light of God.  The voice of Jesus speaks aloud to Paul.  “You are not righteous, as you believe yourself to be,” Jesus says to Paul, “In your demonizing words and actions; in the pain you cause and abet; in your zeal and certainty, you are persecuting me.”  Paul’s cognitive closure has led him down a path on which he is persecuting the Lord of grace and love.  Nothing short of an intervention of grace and love by that same Lord can stop Paul in his tracks, fell the scales from his eyes, and open his mind anew to God’s reality that runs deeper than our anxieties.

Image result for road to damascus

The Road to Damascus, by Rubens

Cracking open our cognitive closure requires such a jolt, and that is what Jesus intends to do in and for us just as much as in Paul.  I worry so about the world today.  I worry for us individually and our tendency to close ourselves to relationships that check and challenge.  I worry for us corporately and the ways we increasingly consider others as two-dimensional cardboard cutouts, as paper tigers we can demonize and against whom we rail.  Arie Kruglanski speaks the truth when he says, “We should be suspicious of our own sense of righteousness.  The alternative is the abyss.”

The words of Jesus ring out for me—to me, and to us all: If ever we demonize in words or actions, in the pain we cause and abet, in our zeal and certainty, we persecute the Lord of grace and love.

Paul hears and heeds the words of Jesus, and he is given new life and a new purpose.  It’s a harder life, trading circled wagons and a lashing anger for vulnerability and a willingness to speak grace and love even when those to whom he speaks do him injury.  But it is a truer life, one centered in God, and a life on whom the survival of the world ultimately depends.

This day—this very day—can be our road to Damascus.  We can be knocked to the ground, our closed minds jarred open, the white light of the God of love scattering all other images from our vision and replacing them with a vision of discipleship in which we become apostles, those whose whole lives are given not to self-righteousness or certainty but to Jesus and his love.  That is Good News.  Thanks be to God.


[i] From the internet, where else?

[ii] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/01/opinion/the-price-of-certainty.html?login=email&auth=login-email

[iii] https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/why-we-need-answers

[iv] 1 Corinthians 15:9, Galatians 1:13, Philippians 3:6.