Wednesday, May 17, 2017

"S-Town" and the true church

Today’s post is the second half of a two part post that I started yesterday. 

I recently listened to S-Town, the most downloaded podcast in the history of audio journalism. It is a seven episode journey as investigative journalist/producer Brian Reed interviews a man from Woodstock, Alabama over the course of three years. If you haven’t yet listened to S-Town, spoiler alert—don’t read on. The podcast both amazed and disturbed me and caused me to reflect on life, death, purpose, hope, and despair. My literary side is bursting to have a “book club-esque” discussion about this podcast, similar to the seminar discussions I used to create for my English class students. In order to be properly prepared to write about it, I really should re-listen to all the episodes, and I will someday soon (after I finish the next podcast series I am listening to called Up and Vanished). But for now, my mind is brimming with thoughts and ideas about the man the podcast is about—John B. McLemore. This is a true story with live interviews with real people, most of them still alive and living in Woodstock, Alabama. In fact, go on the internet and look up the people, the town, and the news stories about the podcast and its effect on the town.

Before I begin my analysis of the series and the people involved, I must say that I have no idea how these people think or feel—all my commentary is based on how they are portrayed within the realm of the podcast and the spin the producers and editors put on them. I must also say that the life I have lived in Southern California gives me absolutely no authority on understanding what it must be like live in small town rural Alabama. I may say some foolish things with no understanding of that culture as I have never been exposed to it. So, give me grace as I attempt to put my spin on what I got out of this podcast and the man who was the central figure in it.

S-Town revolves around John B. McLemore, a man who contacted Brian Reed and asked Reed to do an investigative story on a mysterious small town murder. It turns out there was no such murder, and the podcast ends up taking a turn to focus on McLemore’s life—a man who was an eccentric genius, who was complicated, tender, funny, compassionate, and also dark, pessimistic, and bitter. John B as they call him in Alabama, was a horologist (someone who studies time and creates time pieces) who lived in the outskirts of town and cared for his elderly mother. At first he seems like a reclusive, bitter man who has done nothing to get out of a situation he hates, but as the interviews continue, we find him to be much more relational, compassionate and loving than he first appears. Through a number of interviews, we find out that he has mentored and come alongside a few younger men in the community, attempting to teach them and help them with their difficult lives. Yet he denies any love or true friendship in his life.

Big time spoiler alert—something happens at the beginning of episode three that changes the course of the podcast….so don’t read on if you aren’t there yet. 

In episode three we find out that John B commits suicide and the rest of the episodes focus on finding out what happened, who the important people were in his life, and what kind of man he really was.
Because this is my blog and I can do what I want, I am not going to make this an analysis of the entire podcast as tempting as that is. (I know most of you are not English teacher types who revel in analysis, comparison, contrast and thematic dissection). I do want to spend time a bit on my sadness over the fact that this brilliant man chose to end his life. If you read my blog yesterday, you know that it also centered on another show whose central character committed suicide. That story was fiction, John B’s story is real. I have known many people who have taken their life and it leaves those living wondering just what we could have done, how we could have helped, what we didn’t see. It leaves us with pain and despair.

When John B McLemore killed himself, he called at least two people to tell them what he was doing. He also left a 52 page suicide note, a manifesto of the depravity of life and this world. And yet, he had so many things about his character, based on people who knew him, that showed love, compassion, and tenderness. He built a gorgeous hedge maze on his property, he repaired intricate antique clocks, he bailed people out of jail and talked others out of poor choices. He gave insight into the horology community and made dimes turn to gold. He was passionate about climate change and politics and mathematics. He anonymously paid for people’s unpaid debts, and had long, intimate, deep conversations with those who called him friend.

It seems that he didn’t feel that his life had a purpose, that he had no hope in himself, or in the future. Here was a man who lived a simple life, yet still impacted those who loved and knew him. That alone is purpose. Here was a man who was so smart that he didn’t have the best social skills to relate to others, yet those who knew him best felt loved by him. Here was a man who had so much to offer, but was afraid to take relational risks because of past hurts and present fears. Here was a man who had so many thoughts and ideas running through his mind, that he couldn’t quiet himself and just be.  He said in one interview that “if you knew what it is like to be in my head, the thoughts running around and never stopping.” The most disturbing episode in the podcast is the last one where we find out some of the things he did to himself to somehow forget his pain. I will forgo the details, but it involves tattooing and piercing and what was described as “elevated cutting.”  If you don’t know about cutting—it is a form of self harm, where people cut themselves physically in order to symbolically and literally “bleed out” the emotional pain and scars they are experiencing. And the saddest part of this “elevated cutting”—these multiple tattooes and piercings, is that he called it “his church.” He would meet his friends in a room, they would drink whisky and perform self harm and call it church. This disturbs me to my core.

John B McLemore was a self proclaimed atheist, and felt that life was depraved and hopeless. I know that many people have a horrible view of church or Christianity because of past experiences and wrongs done to them in the name of religion. This also disturbs and saddens me to my core. Because I know that the hope found in Christ is so much different than what warped people who have done things in the name of God have done to others. I know that the love of Christ is much deeper than the hurts that have been heaped on people. I know that the grace of Christ is greater than any lie or deceit that has been taught to people in the name of Jesus.

I don’t know what John B was taught about God when he was younger; I don’t know how he came to his conclusions about being an atheist; I don’t know what wrongs in the name of religion may have been committed against him, but I do know that the God of the universe created him. The God of love made him to be a man who could create and think and experiment, a man who knew the intricate details of clocks, of vortexes, of refining metal, of gardening and wood working. The God of grace made him a man who cared for others, who gave when people were in need, a man who mentored and served.

If you look at news stories and social media, you will see that swarms of people are flocking to Woodstock, Alabama, or “Shit town”, to visit McLemore’s grave and pay respects. They are leaving dimes and flowers and time pieces and records, and mementos of his life as chronicled in the podcast. Once again, a person becomes popular, but only in his death. Did John B just want to be noticed? Did he want someone to pay him attention?  Of course he did. Because we all want that, in our core. We want to be unconditionally loved and noticed. We want to be secure and solid and hopeful that there really is purpose to this life. There was purpose and hope in John B’s life. He just didn’t know it. But there were others who did. Those who he cared for and mentored and loved in the only way he knew how. And there was One who loved him and created him for a purpose. There is only One who can give purpose, hope and life—Jesus.


And the true church of Jesus, the body of Christ, is not a tattoo parlor of whisky and piercings and self harm, though I can understand why many people would think it to be. The true church, the church Jesus intended, is the body of Christ—the fellowship of believers. 

The true church is filled with grace and not judgment, love and not hate, hope and not fear, faith and not hypocrisy. The true church is not about our performance or our success.  It isn’t about earning our way into heaven because of how many times we serve or how much we have given or how many mission trips we have taken. The true church is about the gospel—the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The true church is a body of sinful people who love a sinless God. The true church knows that we live in a broken, tainted world in need of a Savior. The true church knows that there is nothing we can do to earn God’s favor because it was already done for us through Jesus. 

I wish John B knew these things before he took his life. 

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