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by John Wilson

Land of Lincoln

And more on the gospel in political captivity: avoid stupid arguments.

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The soundtrack this week features "The Story," from Brandi Carlile's album of the same title. Yes, the lyrics are banal, and yes the expert arrangement by the estimable T–Bone Burnett is a bit too pat, but nevertheless I find her voice ravishing, and I like the sentiment.

I shudder to think what Wyndham Lewis would have had to say about Brandi Carlisle. But one of his obiter dicta came to mind while I was reading Andrew Ferguson's delightful book Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America. "Wherever there is objective truth," Lewis wrote, "there is satire." He was irritated by dismissive responses to his fiction, but he wasn't making the point simply to defend his own work. Indeed his observation cuts not only against received opinion's condescension to satire (hence Christopher Buckley, for example, is never mentioned in the pompous standard accounts of "literary fiction" today) but also against many self–satisfied satirists and their complacent audiences, who assume that there is something uniquely satirizable about their chosen targets. Seen in a certain light, we are all rather ridiculous.

That truth, in tension with a savage pride, sent Lewis off the rails for quite a long time. All satirists are vulnerable to his fate—not a few suffer bouts of madness, as Swift and Waugh did. Andrew Ferguson seems to have maintained his equanimity. Born and raised in Illinois, he got the Lincoln mystique at the source. But it was only many decades later that he thought to examine it, in a spirit neither debunking nor hagiographic, and free too of the constraints of academic discourse, though he was perfectly willing to take what he could use from the professors. He read. He traveled. He observed:

One Christian publicist after another saw in Lincoln's life eerie resemblances to the life of Christ: both Jesus and Lincoln were born of carpenters and rose from lowly beginnings, both were storytellers, both were killed on Good Friday, both were saviors—of the world, in one case, of the Union, in the other.

Take a second look at that last bit—"of the world, in one case, of the Union, in the other"—and you'll understand, I trust, why I think Andrew Ferguson is one of the best writers we have these days. He conveys the bathos of the parallel with understatement so cool it approaches absolute zero.

Of course he has a whole bag of tricks, some of them enjoyably unsubtle. At a Subway in Richmond he mentions to two women sharing his table that he's in town for a conference on Lincoln and American history.

"History!" one of them said. "Isn't that fascinating!"
Her friend nodded and chewed her slice of pizza thoughtfully. "History can be such a learning experience," she said.

A whole book—or even a whole chapter—in this register would be intolerably smug, as many satiric books are. Not this one. What drives the narrative is not a sense of superiority but rather an alert openness to the Real, which in its manifold wonders includes a gathering of the Association of Lincoln Presenters in Santa Claus, Indiana. Go to the nearest bookstore. Read Ferguson's chapter on this event (Chapter 6, "A Sea of Lincolns"), which is under 15 pages. You can sip a drink while you read. I'll bet you won't be able to put the book back in its stack.

Ferguson's book also turns out to have a bearing on our ongoing conversation sparked by Charles Marsh's new book Wayward Christian Soldiers: Freeing the Gospel from Political Captivity. Thanks to all of you who have continued the exchange—in particular D. W. Congdon on The Fire and the Rose and historian Paul Harvey on the recently founded blog Religion in American History. (By the way, one of the contributing editors to this very promising blog is B&C contributor Randall Stephens, whose book The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South is coming from Harvard Univ. Press in January 2008. Add that title to your wish list.)

In church this past Sunday, our pastor, Rick Allnutt, continued a series on 2 Timothy. One of the verses he touched on was 2 Tim. 2:14, where we find an injunction to "avoid disputing about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers" (NRV). In another version of the passage, from which our pastor read, we are urged to avoid "foolish and stupid arguments."

I took those words seriously. So how do we avoid stupid arguments, disputations "about words"? One way, it seems to me, is to be as clear as we can about the issues at hand. What are we in fact talking about? From my point of view—open to correction—that seems to have become rather blurred as the conversation has proceeded. Charles Marsh contends that the "partisan captivity of the gospel in the United States is the gravest theological crisis of the Christian faith in our time." That's a sweeping judgment, accompanied by similarly sweeping pronouncements in the course of Marsh's book. Is this central contention true? How should such a claim be assessed? What sort of evidence counts? (For instance, would it be relevant to look back at the cover stories from the last 12 issues of Christianity Today magazine? Would that be one small chunk of useful evidence?)

And this is where Andrew Ferguson's book comes in. To answer the questions raised by Marsh's book, we have to pay attention to the America we actually inhabit, as Ferguson magnificently does in Land of Lincoln.

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

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