Jonathon, a friend of mine and a writer I am continually impressed with, has written my post for this week—I hope you enjoy.
The post office in my small Arkansas hometown is an old project of the Public Works Administration. Its square-shaped, largely unadorned façade is typical for the projects of the PWA and other New Deal construction. A mural is painted on the inside wall of the courthouse depicting the peach industry, which was important to the town in that era.
Since the mural was completed in 1939, the town that worked with the federal government to build that post office has gone. The peach industry disappeared in the 1950s, and was replaced with poultry, cattle, and manufacturing. The poultry industry that now sustains the town looms behind the post office, but is not represented in any of its public art.
In the 2016 presidential election, one prevailing narrative for much of rural America was that the rural (white, male, etc.) American was the “forgotten man.” Trust between those perceived as coastal and urban “elites” and large swaths of the rural interior has deteriorated as the development of cable and Internet news has allowed people to choose the stories that confirm their biases and pre-conceived notions. This phenomenon has been well-documented by both conservative and liberal news sites.
In times of great national divide, such as the American Civil War, the Great Depression, the Vietnam era, and the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—the United States has produced art, history, music, literature, and films that illustrate both sides of the cultural conflicts. For every “Fortunate Son,” protesting the draft for the Vietnam War, there is an “Okie from Muscogee,” a Vietnam-era counterprotest song; likewise, “Dixie” is matched by “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Today we face a growing cultural rift that has lasted for decades. The rift presents itself on several fronts: a welcoming policy toward documented and undocumented immigrants and refugees versus protectionism, the debates on healthcare and education, and debates on the role of government in ordinary citizens’ lives. Accompanying this rift is an increasing polarization that seems to have no end in sight and a distrust of the distributors of shared cultural images and ideas, such as conventional mass media and the larger artistic community in areas such as film, visual arts, and music. To remedy this, the urban, and particularly, the rural, sectors of the United States will have to learn to rebuild cairns.
One of the characteristics of the rich anthology we know as “the Bible” is its penchant for retelling stories. On both the small scale (short passages) and the large scale (the lengths of entire books), the people of Israel recognized divine inspiration in multiple accounts of a particular sequence of events. From the dual creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2 to the national histories of Samuel-Kings and Chronicles, the Biblical narrative does not hesitate to go backward and cover old ground for a constructive purpose.
Often, as in the case of the Chronicles, the latter of the two national histories of Israel, or in the case of Deuteronomy, where Moses recounts the law again to the children of Israel, the second occasion is a substantially different moment in the nation’s history. The audience of the proclaiming of the law in Exodus is an audience which complains after seeing the drowning of the Egyptian hordes by God, and which has, with the plagues, at the sea crossing, and in the fearsome sights and sounds at Mount Sinai, seen their leader confirmed again and again by Jehovah. The crowd in Deuteronomy, the children of the members of the Sinai audience, are discouraged by the forty years of wandering about in the desert and are nervous about the impending crossing of the Jordan. Rather than hearing the words from a man with decades of leadership yet before him, they are listening to the voice of a man who is about to die and who is preparing the people for the first transfer of power among their tribe since leaving Egypt decades ago.
One of my favorite retellings in the Scriptures, though, is only implied. In Joshua 4, Joshua tells representatives of the tribes to pick up stones from the streambed of the Jordan River and to use them to create a memorial. He then tells the citizens of Israel that the memorial is there so that they can pass these stories down to their children. I like to believe that this story took many forms throughout its many retellings. As a bedtime story, it would be a great adventure to send little boys and girls off to sleep to, their minds dancing with fantastic images of unimaginable sights. For people facing uncertainty or worry, it could become a story of the Lord’s deliverance. For a soldier, it could be a story of the Lord’s protection and power. For the residents of the divided kingdoms, the cairn (if it still stood) or its collective memory within the culture could have stood for the unity of the two nations and the equal protection provided to both nations in that day and age. In short, this piece of public artwork—for make no doubt about its being a piece of public art, its constituent parts selected by the men in the riverbed and constructed at the request of the nation—told its narrative through whatever lens its knowledgeable observer chose to use upon it.
The rock cairn at Gilgal was not alone as a piece of public art. Others were erected throughout Israel’s history, each a product of its own time and its own community’s cultural experiences. The rock cairn was not forgotten, but it took its place among the many public displays of their religion and history throughout the land of Israel, and many of those attributes of the story the cairn represented were reflected in each rebuild of the temple—the faithfulness of God, the continuance of the Jewish kingdom, the unique relationship between Israel and Jehovah. In these subsequent monuments, the rock cairn was rebuilt and rebuilt and rebuilt, time and time again, but as much as its principles were reflected, they were commented upon by each new construction. “What mean these stones?” then, could incorporate the Midianites and the Philistines, the conquests of David and Solomon, and fortresses of the Maccabean revolt.
This is not so in my rural South. Right it is that these rural areas do not forget their past; images like that of the peach farmers of my own hometown are never far from the mind of a Southerner. However, these rural areas seem to have no record of time passing since then.
The narrative left for rural America to live by in these times is a holdover from the New Deal. Recent cultural touchstones—even those such as 9/11 and the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—have not left their marks upon much of the region in a significant way. For example, many communities, like my own, have merely memorialized the recent wars by adding on to their monuments to the World Wars, monuments that are often products of the interwar, World War II, and Cold War periods. As purveyors of culture (bookstores, theaters, museums, and the old guard of the old media, such as record stores) close, there is only the old narrative to fall back upon, the narrative used to persevere in the face of economic hardship and famine.
The creation of new art would allow for the rebaptism of rural America in a sense. It would allow it to process its old legacies, to “rebuild the cairn,” a luxury its urban neighbors enjoy with a greater frequency. Perhaps, in the process of mutual rebuilding, our country might begin again to heal and to remember why we chose to make “out of many, one” so many years ago.