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The Temptations of Publicity

Fame makes a man take things over.
Fame lets him loose, hard to swallow.
Fame puts you there where things are hollow. Fame.

Credit: David Bowie

I have said that Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is his play on anger. But taken together, all of the Roman plays–Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus–can be said to consider the subject of fame and power. Let’s observe that the power of fame ends badly for all of the protagonists. 

I doubt that I approach anything like fame, but as of this writing, that interview I’ve done for the Red Letter Christians blog has been shared over 1200 times. Though there will be a new person featured next week, I doubt the interview has run its course yet. I have two upcoming speaking engagements, a possibility of at least three others yet to be scheduled, and the prison where I volunteer has sent out its own press release to several large media outlets in Indiana. 

When I was asked to be an interview subject for Red Letter Christians, I had two reservations. First, we may observe the well-known people who have already been interviewed for that page: John Perkins, Brenda Salter McNeil, Jim Wallis, Rachel Held Evans. Shane Claiborne is a regular contributor. I don’t think of myself as commanding the public attention that they have. However, I got over this reluctance when I realized that I did not know anything about a number of the people who have been interviewed for the same weekly feature. I do hope that no one would suppose that I think I’ve done anything to compare to the work of John Perkins. 

Second, there is the title of the page itself, the “Red Carpet.” As I’ve looked through the blog, I find it generally careful about language. But a red carpet is culturally associated with the establishment of fame (or, the fame establishment), the self-acclamation of awards shows. Here’s the purpose the site gives for the Red Carpet page: 

[W]e want to introduce you to 21st century Red Letter practitioners who are living out the words and witness of Jesus. Our hope is that this series of interviews will encourage, inspire and equip you to live as faithful citizens of the kingdom he ushered in.

A description like that seems to invite a person into intense scrutiny–“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded” (Luke 12:48). It is more than I can claim for myself that I am “living out the words and witness of Jesus.” 

However, it is true that I am motivated by Matthew 25:39-40:

‘When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

I think always of the unusual opportunities I have had to visit and work with prison inmates, and I hope to do so for years to come. Therefore, if what I am doing does indeed help to inspire and equip others to get involved in the lives of inmates, then I want to share my work. 

Publicity is not a bad thing of itself, but I am susceptible to the temptations of publicity. A writer wants to be read. An activist wants her activism to succeed. I like being “liked.” And the minute that that becomes the point, I have become like the Pharisee, who prays in public about how happy he is that he is not like the publican–I will have already had more reward than I deserve. 

So next week, I will return to Pendleton, ready to work with about twelve men on the second half of act one of Coriolanus. We will probably talk some more about masculinity, a subject we began with last week. I will watch several men perform a part of scene ten and we will discuss it. And all of this will be the point. If ever my time with the inmates becomes secondary to the publicity, then you should help me to keep my focus on what is important. 


O’Connor Knows the Robertsons (Sort Of)

Because I refuse to pay $600+ a year in order to watch television, I live largely unaware of the programs which are only available by cable television subscriptions. Thus, though I’ve heard of Duck Dynasty, I have never seen an episode. This past week, of course, my awareness has grown exponentially. It is truly impossible, right now, to be unaware of Duck Dynasty. Because the Robertsons are identified culturally as the “anti-Kardashians,” I’ll note that even though I’ve heard of them too, I would not recognize a Kardashian if I had seen her. But no one can miss a Robertson. They have those ZZ Top beards.

Change the Robertsons to the Greenleafs and you would have exactly the kinds of people who populate Flannery O’Connor’s great short story “Greenleaf”: zealous, prosperous, prolific, and thought to be ignorant (though not as dumb as they look). In O’Connor’s short story, the secular Mrs. May thinks of herself as superior to the Greenleafs, ultimately to her own destruction.

On the other hand, in another O’Connor short story, “Revelation,” Mrs. Ruby Turpin thinks of herself as pious, zealous, and superior to black people and “white trash.” In that story, a secular college student named Mary Grace (as obviously a symbolic name as O’Connor has ever created) knocks Mrs. Turpin in the head with the textbook Human Development. Mrs. Turpin later has a vision, the revelation of the story’s title, of black people, white trash, and everyone else entering heaven ahead of her, all of them with “even their virtues … burned away.” In her vision, Mrs. Turpin does get into heaven, as I think O’Connor herself would have it so, but with far, far less vanity about her own righteousness.

In this cultural moment, the two O’Connor stories may represent two sides (of the several sides there are) of the reaction to Phil Robertson’s comments to GQ magazine. To the supporters of the Robertsons, we are in the world of “Greenleaf,” in which the cultural elites, represented by Mrs. May, are confronted and (they hope) defeated by the proliferation of Robertsons and their supporters. But Phil Robertson himself seems to me to be in the position of Mrs. Turpin, too sure of his own righteousness, and too ignorant of other people’s experiences.

Think again about these excerpts from the GQ article:

“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

“It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”

“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

In the first passage, Phil Robertson’s racism is upheld by a well-guarded ignorance. The fact that he has never seen the mistreatment of black people can be explained by a refusal to look and to listen. If Robertson (or anyone else) wants to know about the lives of African Americans in Louisiana during the time of his own upbringing, I can recommend the novels of Ernest Gaines as a strong witness. Or I can recommend just paying attention.

The ignorance which guards the racism frequently masquerades as innocence, a subject Flannery O’Connor has also written about. In context, she is discussing the Christian reader who wants his literature too pure, so much so that the reader himself slips into heretical Manichaeism:

If the average [Christian] reader could be tracked down through the swamps of letters-to-the-editor and other places where he momentarily reveals himself, he would be found to be more of a Manichean than the Church permits.… [H]e has reduced his conception of the supernatural to pious cliché and has become able to recognize nature in literature in only two forms, the sentimental and the obscene. He would seem to prefer the former, while being more of an authority on the latter, but the similarity between the two generally escapes him. He forgets that sentimentality is an excess, a distortion of sentiment usually in the direction of an overemphasis on innocence, and that innocence, whenever it is overemphasized in the ordinary human condition, tends by some natural law to become its opposite. We lost our innocence in the Fall, and our return to it is through Redemption which was brought about by Christ’s death and by our slow participation in it. (Mystery and Manners 147-148)

Here’s the problem: the guarded ignorance which protects Robertson’s “innocent” racism is also on display in his comments about same-sex desire: “It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me.” Conservative Christian commentary about Robertson’s comments seems to overlook the fact that Robertson is treating one physically-oriented lust as morally superior to another lust, and it has mostly ignored his racial ignorance (as if it were irrelevant). Robertson does not acknowledge here that lust itself is a manifestation of human fallenness. Does he acknowledge the similarity of heterosexual lust to homosexual lust elsewhere? To his credit, I think he does, though in an exceedingly clumsy fashion.

Flannery O’Connor may lead us to consider a better way to address the differences. O’Connor developed a friendship with a woman who began to correspond with various writers in the 1950s and 1960s. Betty Hester is identified as “A” in the letters collected in The Habit of Being. Some of Hester’s and O’Connor’s letters had been withheld from publication for decades, but since Hester’s death, a few letters have been made public. Hester had been a closeted lesbian. The following passages come from a letter O’Connor wrote to Hester on October 31, 1956, after Hester came out to O’Connor and explained that she had been dishonorably discharged from service in the Air Force:

“Compared to what you have experienced in the way of radical misery, I have never had anything to bear in my life but minor irritations. But there are times when the sharpest suffering is not to suffer and the worse affliction not to be afflicted. And Job’s comforters were worse off than he was, but they didn’t know it. If in any sense my knowing your burden can make your burden lighter then I’m doubly glad I know it, you were right to tell me. But I’m glad you didn’t tell me until I knew you well. Well you were wrong is in saying that you are a history of horror. The meaning of the redemption is precisely that we do not have to be our history and nothing is plainer to me than that you are not your history.”

“It would be impossible for me to let you [thus disappear]. You have done me nothing but good and you have given me the present you wanted to, but the fact is, above and beyond this, that I have a spiritual relationship to you; I am your sponsor, self-appointed from the time you first wrote me and appointed by you afterwards, which means that I have a right to stay where I’ve been put.”

“I can see how very much grace you have really been given and that is all that is necessary for me to know in the matter. What is necessary for you to know is my very real love and admiration for you.”

Masculinity in Prison

So this came up today:

MARTIUS [CORIOLANUS]:           Come I too late?


            Ay, if you come not in the blood of others,

            But mantled in your own.

MARTIUS:                                         O, let me clip you

            In arms as sound as when I wooed, in heart

            As merry as when our nuptial day was done

            And tapers burnt to bedward!                    [They embrace.]


            Flower of warriors, how is ‘t with Titus Lartius?              [1.6.36-43]

One of the men identified something which will be a recurring subject in Coriolanus: Whom or what does he love? Or, as Menenius phrases the question later in the play, “Pray you, who does the wolf love?”

I have my own ideas about Coriolanus’s love, but for the moment, right here, right now, he is addressing Cominius with the language of marital romance. What does Shakespeare mean by this? What would this look like onstage?

The conversation opened up at this point. What several of the men said, in their various ways, is that notions of sexuality get in the way of expressions of same-sex affection, and this problem is especially fraught in the context of prison. Straight men have only the limited time of visitation to see their wives or girlfriends (if they visit at all), and with decades of time behind bars, the people the men will get to know best are each other. On the one hand, how does a person maintain his personal sense of masculine identity? On the other hand, how does he show that he likes another person, without endangering that sense of masculinity? Or, in other words, how are men able to be vulnerable with one another?

I’ve learned today more about the men in the Shakespeare group. One is a veteran, and he talked with us about the sense of brotherhood among Marines. (By the way, he had once been an inmate at Luther Luckett in Kentucky. That’s the prison where I first became aware of prison Shakespeare programs, though he hadn’t been aware of Shakespeare Behind Bars at the end of his time there.) Another one of the men talked about how men in gangs verbally deny the attachments they develop. I’ve found out that several of the men in the group have had gang backgrounds.

We talked about a lot of things today, more than I can elaborate here, but I was blessed to have one of the men say to me at the end of the session that this was the best session we have had yet. I have been blessed every time I visit the men in Pendleton. 

Getting It

To a degree, I still think I am bumbling around a bit in figuring out how to facilitate Shakespeare at Pendleton. Yet last week, one of the men, who has been with it from the beginning, passed me a short play/scene he had written, based, he said, on the first scene of Coriolanus.

Now … a moment of honesty: with as much student writing as I read, I am usually very resistant to people who want to call themselves writers and pass me their stuff. On the other hand, though I wasn’t looking forward to it, I knew I would have to read his play. I have put it off because of grading 50 research papers and writing and grading exams.

So tonight came the moment of obligation. And … it’s better than I expected it would be.

His title is Let Us Take Back Our Community, and it involves a group of African American citizens having a community meeting in a public park about confronting local violence and vagrancy. As such, the characters are delineated, but the dialogue is speechifying. They are making points rather than revealing themselves and living life. However, the speechifying itself is better than I would have expected. When I think of the few instances when I’ve seen college students try their hands at playwriting, they tend towards plotless speechifying too, so he’s working at an equal level–without regular educational input from professors–to the budding writers of a university program. Furthermore, the idea of taking back one’s community is, indeed, present in the opening of Coriolanus. This scene, significantly reworked, has elements which very definitely could go into an adaptation of the Shakespeare play. 

Though I’ve critiqued the play here, I want to encourage him to keep working at it. I think I might call on him to talk about how he sees Shakespeare developing his characters. Because I cannot give one inmate something of value which I am not giving the others, I am also going to look into how I can make contributions to the prison library. I want to put in some Shakespeare resources, but I also want to put in a few things by August Wilson and Lorraine Hansberry. Shakespeare at Pendleton is about 2/3rds African American in its membership, and I think we can benefit from seeing the interconnectedness of their lives, their visions, Shakespeare, and other dramatists of the African American experience. And if Travis keeps learning from Shakespeare, hang on. He’s got something to tell us. 

Locking myself in

I suppose that if a person is an employee of a prison, what this post is about is just an unremarkable daily occurrence. But for me, this was one of several thought-provoking, self-testing experiences I had yesterday:

I locked myself into Pendleton.

When I arrived at the prison yesterday, I found out that my usual contact was away for some vacation time. Yet, I would be permitted to meet with the men in Shakespeare at Pendleton. … I just had to go ahead in.

I’ve been visiting prisons since 2007, so I’ve long since passed the time of being nervous about entering a prison. But, in all of these years, I’ve never entered a prison alone, unescorted from the front entrance. If you were to count the doorways from Pendleton’s front entrance to the room where I am meeting with the men, there are twelve. At every prison I’ve been in, including Pendleton, I’ve been escorted from no later than the second doorway. If you go from there, you will encounter inmates who are on various work details, basically minding their own business and doing their jobs. But I’ve never gone among them alone.

My first thought was, “Am I going to remember all of the details about where I am supposed to show my i.d. and when I’m supposed to push an entry buzzer?” Though the process is not very complicated, it is regimented, and I am not a person inclined to remember to show the infrared handstamp here and my i.d. there. As it turns out, I did remember what I am supposed to do, when, and where.

But the more interesting moment, for me, came when I entered the first of two cages–I go in through one iron-barred gate, close it, go out another, close it, and keep going on my way. I have always been with a prison official escort through all of this before. But now, I had to close the door on myself. I had to lock myself into the prison. Four times, at least.

I don’t really know what to call the emotion I felt yesterday when I had to do this. I wouldn’t call it fear. I wouldn’t call it extraordinary–at least because the same is done on a daily basis by many people. But every time I closed a door/gate, every time I heard the clang of its locking, I felt as if I was going deeper into something consequential. (I realize that this post may come across as bullcrap to anyone who does this every day. For the moment, I am talking about where I was emotionally and spiritually yesterday.) When that door closes, I cannot let myself out, and I am not with someone who can get “them” (whomever we want to identify “them” as) to let me out. If I get out, they let me out, but they’ve never let me out on my own before.

I don’t know what to call this. I have locked myself in, in, into a prison. At a point, at a moment of time, it was a deliberate choice to do so–I locked myself in. I did that. Somehow, for some reason, that felt like it made all of the difference in the world to me. It felt as if I’ve crossed … what words do I want for this? … into the place where we will be? into the community of men I’ve chosen to associate with? into all of our flawed and desperate beauty? into … myself?



If you had asked me what play we would work on first for Shakespeare at Pendleton, I could have expected Othello or The Merchant of Venice or Macbeth. However, today the men of Shakespeare at Pendleton settled upon doing … Coriolanus.

I doubt that most people know much about Coriolanus. It was Shakespeare’s last tragedy, written around 1608. Coriolanus had been a military hero, and for his service, the Romans are grateful. However, Coriolanus has terrible people skills. He treats the Romans with contempt, as if they were unworthy of his service. He is most driven by pride and anger. Eventually, in his intention to be true to himself, Coriolanus betrays Rome to their enemies, the people of Corioles. Those enemies, in turn, kill him. This play has many points of interest, including its portrayal Coriolanus’s family, which he loses when he goes to Rome’s enemies.

We will look at the first scene next week.

Malchus’s Ear

This past Friday was to have been the third session of Shakespeare at Pendleton. I got there on time. However, I’m not exactly sure of all of the details, but it seems that Pendleton was in some kind of administrative lockdown. In any case, there was “no inmate movement” that morning. I’ve already concluded that such days would occur, so though it is a bit of a bother to drive that distance at 7 on a Friday morning, the drive back gave me time to pray for the group, and each of the men involved. This gave me a chance to review mentally who the participants of the first two weeks have been.


Suppose a crime for a few moments: a police officer comes to arrest a friend of yours, and you take a machete take a swing at the officer’s head. You would very likely be shot, but if you survived the attempt, you would be looking at a long prison sentence.

So, what is happening here?

John 18: 10-11: 10 Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) 11 So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”

Matthew 26: 50-56: 50 Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you came to do. Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. 51 And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. 52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. 53 Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” 55 At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. 56 But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples left him and fled.

Luke 22: 49-52: 49 And when those who were around him saw what would follow, they said, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” 50 And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. 51 But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. 52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders, who had come out against him, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs?

Leave it to John to rat Peter out. And Luke gives the only version that says that Jesus heals Malchus’s ear.

Ask yourself a question: When Peter swung at Malchus’s head, what was he intending to do? I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say what is obvious: Peter was intending to kill Malchus. Unless a person reaches over, grabs another person’s ear, and starts cutting, a sword swing which catches an ear is aimed at the head. Peter has shown his incompetence with the sword, not a moderation of his intention.

Shakespeare has several characters who kill with the thought that they are doing the right thing, Brutus in Julius Caesar especially, and several of the underlings in Richard III as well. Something to think about.

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