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In Praise Of Phil Robertson’s American Wilderness

A reader who wrote about l’affaire du canard: Robertson’s comment aren’t “cringeworthy.” They are simply an echo of what Leon Kass also found out, “While he was a medical student, he met and married his wife of nearly 52 years, the classics scholar Amy Kass. The couple went on to Boston, where he completed an […]

A reader who wrote about l’affaire du canard:

Robertson’s comment aren’t “cringeworthy.” They are simply an echo of what Leon Kass also found out, “While he was a medical student, he met and married his wife of nearly 52 years, the classics scholar Amy Kass. The couple went on to Boston, where he completed an internal-medicine internship and earned a biochemistry Ph.D. at Harvard.

“A funny thing happened to me in graduate school,” he recalls. “My wife and I spent part of the summer of 1965 in Mississippi doing civil-rights work.” The couple lived with a black farmer in Mount Olive, Miss., in a home that had no toilet or indoor plumbing. “I came back from this place with this conundrum: Why was there more honor, goodness and decency in these unschooled black farmers than I found in my fellow graduate students at Harvard, whose enlightened and liberal opinions I shared?”

The answer, he eventually concluded, was that his black hosts displayed “the dignity of honest work and religion”—things he didn’t often find among his highly educated peers, most of whom “were only looking out for Number One.”

There’s a lot here for reflection, with regard to how we think of a man like Phil Robertson and the cultural milieu that produced him. Let’s return to this passage from the GQ article that got Robertson in so much trouble:

The ecology here has been so perfectly manipulated that it feels as if two giant hands reached down from the sky and molded the land itself, an effect that I’m sure would please Phil. Whatever you think of Phil’s beliefs, it’s hard not to gaze upon his cultivations and wonder if you’ve gotten life all wrong. This is life as summer camp. It’s gorgeous, in a way that alters you on an elemental level. I feel it when I breathe the air. I feel it when I survey the enormity of the space around me. I shouldn’t be sitting around the house and bitching because the new iOS 7 touchscreen icons don’t have any fu*king drop shadow. I should be out here, dammit! Killing things and growing things and bringing dead things home to cook! There is a life out in this wilderness that I am too chickenshit to lead.

As we speed along, a speck of mud gets on my shirt—OMG MUD EWW SO GROSS!—and I flick it away. Meanwhile, Phil sits next to me, and his whole life is caked in mud. He’s been out here plunging his hands into the earth and ripping the heads off ducks while I’ve been in suburbia with my thumb up my ass. I feel both inadequate and ungrateful.

…  We hop back in the ATV and plow toward the sunset, back to the Robertson home. There will be no family dinner tonight. No cameras in the house. No rowdy squirrel-hunting stories from back in the day. There will be only the realest version of Phil Robertson, hosting a private Bible study with a woman who, according to him, “has been on cocaine for years and is making her decision to repent. I’m going to point her in the right direction.”

It’s the direction he would like to point everyone: back to the woods. Back to the pioneer spirit. Back to God. “Why don’t we go back to the old days?” he asked me at one point. But now, I’m afraid, I must get out of the ATV and go back to where I belong, back to the godless part of America that Phil is determined to save.

Think about that: this gruff, Bible-thumping duck hunter is, away from the cameras, working hard to help deliver a woman from cocaine addiction. He’s doing this because he’s a gruff Bible-thumper who was … well, take it away Christianity Today:

But before the business began, Phil struggled with drug and alcohol addiction after experimenting at college. It came as a shock to his young wife, who says “Phil, who had never drank before, started drinking…it was scary to me.”

Things spiralled out of control, and Phil was constantly in trouble with the law, sometimes going away into hiding for two to three months at a time, leaving Miss Kay and their three young boys at home alone. That is until, during what Phil describes as his “lowest point”, he forced them to leave.

“That’s when I seriously began to contemplate, it there a way out of all this?” he says.

His wife then reminded him of a man who had once come into the bar Phil owned to tell him about Jesus. Phil had forced him to leave at the time, but Miss Kay suggested that he meet with him now.

Phil remembers, “He said ‘What do you think the Gospel is?’ And I said ‘I guess I don’t know’. I didn’t even know what the Gospel of Jesus was.

“So when he went through Jesus coming down…dying on the cross, being buried and being raised from the dead, I’m like ‘How in the world did I ever miss that?’

“I was blown away when I heard Jesus died for me. It’s simple, but profound,” he says.

That day, Phil gave his life to Jesus, was baptised, and began to turn his life around.

Within years, the business he began following his conversion became worth millions of dollars, and is now run by his four sons. They became the stars of ‘Duck Dynasty’ in 2012, which premiered its third season in August with 11.8 million viewers, becoming the No 1 non-fiction series telecast in US cable history.

But the family’s struggles didn’t end when their financial problems were over. While the Robertsons have been praised for their family friendliness, the newly released ‘I am Second’ film reveals that since becoming a household name in America, they have dealt with some huge issues.

Son Jep became addicted to drugs and alcohol as a teenager, “I pretty much did anything that was put in front of me,” he says.

It wasn’t until, led by Phil, his family staged an intervention that Jep decided he needed to change the way he was living. “Dad said ‘Son, are you ready to change your life?'” he remembers.

That’s real life. It was this religion, roughly conceived and roughly conceived by this hell-raising redneck Phil Robertson, that delivered him and his son. And it’s the same faith that is leading Phil Robertson, worth tens of millions now, and nationally famous, to get down on his knees in prayer to help a struggling cocaine addict be free through faith in Jesus.

Who among Robertson’s critics have faced demons like he has faced? Who among those critics has conquered them? Who, having made a fortune and become a household name, would give of his or her time to help a soul suffering as he once did?

Very damn few, I’m thinking. Give me the imperfect Phil Robertson, and the dignity of the life he leads and the values he embraces, over the world of many who spite him. For all I know, Phil wouldn’t consider me a good Christian. You know what? I don’t care. Drew Magary, the GQ writer, certainly doesn’t share Robertson’s views, but in being around him, he was able to intuit a deep integrity in that man’s way of life, an integrity that Magary senses is missing from his own life.

I live in rural Louisiana too, but have spent most of my life in Magary Land. Because I live in southern Louisiana, our religion is not as stark as the Robertson brand, but as far as the Robertson critics elsewhere are concerned, we are one and the same. Watching what has happened to Phil, I’m thinking about all the people I know whose views are pretty much Phil’s, and who would appear to Phil’s critics as redneck bumpkins who must be hated and suppressed. They live lives out in this wilderness — because culturally, that’s what any place that’s not a big city or a suburb is to these cultured despisers — that most of Phil’s critics would be, in Magary’s phrase, too chickenshit to live. Heck, I’m too chickenshit to live it myself, at least like they do.

And I’ll tell you this: if I had Phil Robertson’s money, I would have my big Christian self spending much of the year living in a country house in France, drinking fine wine and eating great food, and traveling around Europe to historical sights. I would fly around to museum show openings, go see my favorite musicians in concert wherever they’re playing, really enjoy my fortune. And I would write big checks to my church and to various charities, and consider that I had done my duty. The one thing I would not be doing is praying with a cocaine addict for her deliverance and healing. Because I’m too chickenshit.

Think about that when you judge Phil Robertson harshly. This was the thing that won me over about Nadia Bolz-Weber, the former addict turned liberal Lutheran pastor. Her views on homosexuality couldn’t be further apart from Phil Robertson’s or from orthodox Christianity’s, but there she is, reaching out to help others as she was helped, because of Jesus. The same Jesus who saved former addict Phil Robertson. I think Nadia Bolz-Weber is wrong about a lot of things, things that matter, but there is a ragged integrity to her life and her witness — an integrity that for all my theological and moral correctness, I am too chickenshit to live. But having lived in the wilderness, and still living in a wilderness apart from us tame people, they see things that the rest of us do not.

Furthermore, I think about how Phil Robertson’s virtues cannot be easily disentangled from his vices, if vices they are. This is something I’ve been confronting in the case of my own late sister. As I wrote in The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, my sister was unjust to me, filled with prejudices that wouldn’t have stood a moment’s critical reflection, had she wished to engage in it. And these prejudices have had, and continue to have, a profound effect on my life. That said, so very much of the good Ruthie did, and the good person Ruthie was, was rooted in the fierce love she had for this place and her way of life. If Ruthie had been less tenaciously attached to her particularity, I don’t know that she would have been the good and great person that she was. She didn’t have to be this way in order to do good, but honesty requires me to concede that one is hard to disentangle from the other. I bear the down side of that particularity, but that by no means blots out the amazing things Ruthie accomplished. It only makes her fallible, and human. Like the rest of us.

People are complicated. They are not problems, but mysteries. Truly, I have no idea what my sister’s views on race or homosexuality were. She might have been ultraconservative, or she might have been ultraliberal. I don’t know. She didn’t think about these things, or talk about them. She just lived. If I were to guess, though, I would say that her views were closer to Phil Robertson’s than to Drew Magary’s. But: I do know for a fact that she went above and beyond the call of duty to help black kids and, in at least one case, a gay kid. She did this because she loved them, and thought it was her duty and her pleasure to help. If my sister did hold conservative views about homosexuality, or retrograde opinions on race, I’m sure that that would have been the only thing outsiders would have cared about. Nothing else about her life would have mattered, only her heresies.

This is wrong. It’s unjust, and it’s stupid.

If Phil Robertson weren’t a rough customer from the rural South, there wouldn’t be a TV show. If Phil Robertson looked more like a clean-cut Baptist pastor from suburban Shreveport instead of John the Baptist, wearing camo instead of camel hair, his Christian witness would be unremarkable. (Similarly, if Nadia Bolz-Weber weren’t tattooed, the roadmap of her life in the wilderness, she would come across as safe, as tame, and her witness would be unremarkable.) See, we want our wild people to be wild in ways that we can accept. So many liberals, for example, love to praise exotic foreign and primitive cultures for their authenticity, for the apparent fact that they see more deeply into life and how to live it than we in our technological consumer society do — but edit out parts of their traditions that offend their sensibilities. It’s like the people who want close-knit communities, like in the good old days, but who forget the oppressive conditions, material and social, under which those close communal bonds were forged. The Episcopal seminarian I wrote about in the 1990s, who didn’t understand why the inmates in her Bible study class rejected her liberal interpretation of Scripture for a fundamentalist one, could not grasp that the world these impoverished prisoners came from compelled them to seek out strong, morally uncompromising religion. She wanted to turn them into Episcopalians, but they were a lot closer to giving their lives to Islam.

You see where I’m going with this. We want the fantasy of the lovable mountain-men types who get up to wacky hijinks, but we can’t bear the messiness and the fullness of their lives. Why not? Why do we have to approve of everything they believe before we can acknowledge the integrity of their way of life? Drew Magary writes for Gawker Media, which, culturally speaking, is a million miles away from Robertsonia — but even he gets that Phil Robertson is a good man who has something to teach him.

This week, a California reader of this blog and of my book spent the day in St. Francisville with us all. She had been visiting a friend in Louisiana all week, and made a pilgrimage to my town to pray at Ruthie Leming’s grave. I heard her tell someone late in the evening that she was so moved by the friendliness of Louisiana people that she would consider taking up her friend’s invitation to move here to live. This is Phil Robertson’s America. I don’t know her opinions  about race, religion, or other hot culture war issues, but if she’s an average Californian, she will discover that they are probably at odds with the average Louisianian’s. But she will also discover, in Kass’s words about the black farmers of the Civil Rights era, “more honor, goodness and decency” than she will find among the coastal dwellers who look down on people like the Robertsons, but who are too chickenshit to dwell in the wilderness and get muddy, but who prefer to sit in suburbia with their thumbs up their asses. (And I’m talking about conservative Christians like myself too.)

I’m going on too long. Let me close with this passage from The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming:

Our friend Edie Varnado, who lives in the country outside of McComb, Mississippi, and makes soap for a living, wrote to encourage Julie and me. She told us that she and her husband stayed in Mississippi in part to be close to her folks. Her brother moved to New York City. One night, over dinner, Edie’s father said to her, “Even with everything you have, or will have, to deal with, you have the better part.”

She laughed gently at that, but her father looked at her seriously, and said, “You really have.” As the years went by, she saw her father was right. Her brother has memories of all the hurts he experienced as a child. Edie remembers their folks as adults, as real people, for better and for worse. Edie was with both her mother and father when they died, holding their hands and reading the psalms.

“It’s hard, big, real and dirty,” Edie wrote.

It’s hard. It’s big. It’s real. It’s dirty. It’s not safe, it’s not air-conditioned, and it’s not paradise. That’s life in Phil Robertson’s wilderness, even if that wilderness is the concrete jungle.




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