Pete's Blog

Authoritah

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At church this morning, as often happens in the summer, we had a first-year seminarian as guest preacher. My mother, who was ordained in the Presbyterian Church in 1974, takes a understandably keen interest in these rookie outings, and has never been short of sotto voce comment afterwards. She would have said this young woman was "smiley," which I always took to mean that the preacher in question, doubting his or her intellectual qualifications to address this congregation with what is, more or less by definition, the most important thing they will hear all week, falls back on charm as a substitute for scholarship. The effect is often that of the television game-show for a man, Tupperware party for a woman. The young woman we heard today seemed quite nervous at first, her delivery suggesting a gushing teenager addressing friends at the mall, perhaps telling them about a movie she especially liked. But she settled down after a few minutes and, while the sermon as a whole was not exactly profound, she did eventually manage to slow down enough that we could understand most of what she was saying. She is doing her summer field work in the oncology ward at Swedish Hospital in Seattle and if I were a patient there I would be happy to see her because she is a cheerful and kind-hearted young person with a palpable desire to make things better for people. In the pulpit, however, she wrestled with the question of authority, as many in her situation would, male or female. How is she to make herself an authoritative figure, without boring or hectoring the congregation. It reminded me of similar questions of authority raised over the rock bands of my teenaged years and their embrace of the Blues. Here, of course, the context of these criticisms was mostly racial, since my generation was the first to engage in a wholesale embrace of the blackest musical traditions available. This led to some terrible embarrassments both at the top (did somebody say the Doors?) and the bottom of the professional ranks - I remember trying my best Muddy Waters growl in Pittsburgh when I was 16 and the whole audience falling out laughing. The song was "I'm Ready." I wasn't. But just as great female preachers like my mother gave Samuel Johnson the lie by being more female, not less; by finding a vocabulary of authority that was uniquely theirs, so did Mick Jagger turn his callow, adenoidal singing into a template for white singers that avoided the mannerism trap that swallowed Jim Morrison. Because Mick Jagger knew that Muddy Waters did not want him to sing just like Muddy Waters. No great artist wants his art to be the product and province of a single community. Great artists want their work to be universal, which means that other artists from other communities are going to be inspired by it and practice it and take it in new directions. To prefer Muddy Waters to the Rolling Stones is not to make a distinction between gold and dross. It is to prefer Shakespeare to Bernard Shaw.

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