Saturday, June 6, 2009
Some Mysteries Explained
Petersen recommended that I read this book: Class: A Guide through the American Status System by Paul Fussell. My only complaint is that Petersen didn't have me read this sooner. I understand why he didn't: the knowledge therein gives one a steep Lifemanship advantage over others. Below, I intend to make Petersen pay for hording this advantage for himself.
The chief mystery this book explains is why some folks get on and others just can't. It's because class in our culture is very real, learned from the very beginnings of life, and very difficult to unlearn. It is nearly impossible to learn and adapt to the habits of another class. Try this, for example: You walk into a friend's living room and notice a beautiful new oil painting, an original not a print, over the fireplace. What is your reaction? If it is to compliment it and your friend you are hopelessly middle class. If you would simply appreciate the painting but think making any compliment would be terrible gauche, you are upper-middle or upper class. If you would rib your buddy about his pretension in owning such an effeminate artifact you are a prole (proletariat).
Fussell designates nine classes:
His descriptions of these classes will have you alternately laughing and hiding your head in shame at yourself, your friends, and your family. His careful analysis also goes a long way to explain why some pastors just don't "fit in" in a certain call. They are of the wrong class. This is a problem more nuanced and difficult to untangle than Paul and the Jews and Greeks - chiefly because class is hidden in our culture. If you have been befuddled by your inability to "get" your parishioners, or simply fit right in without having to do a blessed thing - class is a piece of the answer why, likely a very big piece. This book, therefore, will be a great benefit to all pastors - and fits in very well with Petersen's advice on bringing change to a parish. You've got to understand your people to do that. And class is a big part of your congregation.
For example. My first call was to a very rich, very upper-middle class suburb of Chicago. I did not fit in with the majority. I was dizzingly uncomfortable when invited over to one of the elder's homes for lunch. I found the advent of November each year delightfully laughable when all the furs came out - after the first gal walked in like that I looked around to see who else was chuckling; no one was. The two parishioners I liked the best, and who liked me the best, were a mechanic and a guy who worked for the public works department. Oddly enough, the people I felt self-conscious around (like the banker with the foreign wife, McMansion, and fancy wine cellar) always complimented my preaching; the two guys I really liked and who really like me, not so much. I always found that strange.
After reading Fussell's book, all these mysteries were explained. I come from a high-prole family striving for middle class respectability. My dad is a meat cutter - always willing to explain to you that he is not a butcher (a meat cutter knows how to run the market, a butcher only cuts up the animal). My mom and step-mom (young marriage and divorce in the early 30's after a couple of kids is a depressingly regular habit of the high-proles) both worked outside the home in middle class occupations: marketing. So of course I didn't naturally jive with the folks who hired itinerant Aztecs to mow their lawns and never wore clothing with words on them: I came from a world where mowing the lawn was to be done after removing your Go Big Red T-shirt and decorating your home with a Southwest Theme was all the rage.
And it's why I fit in so well where I serve now. It's why the people find it easier to exercise the Christian virtue of toleration toward my eccentricities and foibles: I'm their kind of scum. I like killing my own food and I only enjoy two kinds of beer: cold and warm. I am not shocked or discomfited when they use, shall we say, "rustic" phrases to describe incessant rain or the relunctance of the milquetoast set to express their frustrations scatalogically (the high prole reader will understand).
So also: how can Petersen, with his black rain coat, poorly fitting tweed jackets (which he always, always wears. Never just a clergy shirt. The jackets often have elbow pads, like community college philosophy professors'.), middle Michigan upbringing, and love of comic books - how can this man survive in a mixed race urban parish? One trip to his self-painted home, one reading of blog posts expressing desperate support for the Bach society and Ballroom Dancing lessons gives the answer: like his parishioners he is middle class striving for something more. He is thus attractive to all who are likewise on the cusp of middle class, either coming up from high-prole or reaching up to something more.
And the Editor-in-Chief - how can this man with his six violin-playing sons, his PhD from Marquette, his homemade High Mass Missals in the pews - how can he survive in (!) Kewanee, IL? Perhaps you didn't read his screeds about his son not getting enough playing time in High School basketball? Or his "USA: Love it or Leave it," Sarah Palin-loving, waterboarding-supporting, Rush-listening conservatism? The man is high-prole to the core. He fits right in with Catepillar line workers and Pabst Blue Ribbon drinking mechanics. The doggedness of his caste didn't hurt him in sticking to his guns at St. Paul's, either.
I will let others read the book and provide illuminations for these:
* Juhl's hat.
* Every half-smart seminarian thinking he's going to get a PhD and teach there someday.
* Why DP's get reelected.
* Gerald Kieschnick.
* Cwirla picking blackberries off the trellis for breakfast.
* Why Wil Weedon and Paul McCain are BFF.
An aside. This is one reason why I love the liturgical set: they love learning and ideas. Between Adler recommending A. J. Nock and Petersen recommending this Fussell book, I've learned more in the past two weeks about sociology, economics, and politics than I had in all my formal education. Maybe this is how the other half lives, too, but I don't get that impression. When I talk with my friends of the Evangelical Style/Lutheran Substance set they are more apt to recommend books of a practical-tactical nature. Some of which can be good and useful (Petersen has also recommended some useful books of this order, like the one about affair proofing your marriage) - but very few of these sort of books threaten to change the way you look at the world. In the past year, I've received recommendations and read books, articles, or magazines that did just that from Juhl, Beane, Petersen, Adler, Seaver, etc.