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Leaves Of Grass And The Kingdom Of God
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Leaves Of Grass And The Kingdom Of God

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Leaves Of Grass And The Kingdom Of God
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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. As the grandson of a fundamentalist Baptist preacher in rural Virginia and the son of a preacher, my guest, Erik Reece, spent the first 18 years of his life as a compulsory churchgoer. That was followed by 18 more years of trying to extract himself from the church.

After doing that, he wanted to create an American gospel that was both religious and democratic, a collection of readings by American philosophers, poets, utopians and political and religious leaders whose vision is relevant to our country in the 21st century, people like Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, William James and John Dewey.

His new book is called "An American Gospel: On Family, History, and the Kingdom of God." Reece's previous book, "Lost Mountain," was about radical strip-mining and the devastation of Appalachia. It won an award for environmental reporting from the Sierra Club, as well as an award from the Columbia University graduate school of journalism. Reece is a writer in residence at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

Erik Reece, welcome to FRESH AIR. Before we talk about your own religious upbringing and your religious life, would you describe what you call the American gospel, or "An American Gospel," that you've put together?

Mr. ERIK REECE (Author): It's a way of thinking about religion and democracy that is in many ways rooted in the thinking of Thomas Jefferson, his notions of a very decentralized kind of agrarian country, and it's really rooted in the idea that really fundamental phrase in Luke 17:20 of the kingdom of God, whereas in Luke it says that the kingdom of God is in our midst. And the gospel that I'm putting together, or that I put together here, is really a way of trying to rethink the way we would live if we thought about the kingdom of God as not something in the sweet hereafter but something that's actually in the here and now.

GROSS: What's the vision of Jesus that you grew up with? Your grandfather was a fundamentalist Baptist preacher. Your father was a preacher too.

Mr. REECE: Right, right. It was a very, I guess I would say, oppressive kind of Christianity. It was very - it very much emphasized our innate sinfulness, our unworthiness before God, and it was a - it was a heavy, a heavy kind of Christianity.

The American philosopher William James made a distinction between what he called religion of the sick soul and religion of healthy-mindedness, and I think in many ways my grandfather preached a religion of the sick soul, not that he wasn't a very loving man, because he was, but I think he really thought that his job was to get his congregation to save their souls, and the way to do that was to convince them of their guilt and their sin. That was the sort of simple message that he preached to his congregation.

GROSS: Are there any things from his sermons that you vividly remember?

Mr. REECE: I remember he preached a sermon about the creation story, the Genesis creation story, and it was about how the serpent had tricked us into disobeying God and that because we had been tricked we were just innate sinners, and because we were innate sinners, God had to send his son to save us all, and it was a very forceful kind of sermon and it was a sermon that was supposed to lead, as all of my grandfather's sermons were, to people coming forward and confessing their sins at the front of the church, kneeling beside him, and it was a very dynamic sermon.

My grandfather was a very dynamic, charismatic preacher, and I just remember sitting in the third pew with my grandmother, listening to him pound the pulpit and really express this real force over his congregation.

GROSS: What was it like for you when you were young and all these people who decided they were sinners would come up to the front of the church to kneel by your grandfather, the preacher? Was that powerful for you? Was it alienating for you? Like what did you feel, watching that?

Mr. REECE: It was powerful. This was a small fishing village in Tidewater, Virginia. My grandfather was the moral force, the head of the community, and I understood this, and I understood the power that he wielded, and I understood that he was never wrong, that what he said was right and that I needed to constantly be questioning my own life and my own sinfulness and really be doing a lot of soul-searching, as clearly everybody else that was coming forward was.

GROSS: Because your grandfather believed in a kind of punitive religion, where you know, unless you, like, walked the line you'd be punished and go to hell, was his religion a comfort to you or did it scare you?

Mr. REECE: It scared me. It wasn't really a comfort. I remember when I would stay with my grandparents for long periods of time, just the fear that would overcome me, that it was really a fear that my grandfather would go to one place and I would go to another place. It was a fear of being separated from him and from my grandmother.

GROSS: You mean like heaven and hell, that kind of separation?

Mr. REECE: Right, right, right, yeah, and so it was - it really was a fear, and it's something that later in life I began to think about. Well, if we took all the fear out of Christianity, then what do we have left? So it was a question, and it was an influence that stuck with me.

GROSS: Now, your father was a preacher too, but he took his life at the age of 33 when you were three years old?

Mr. REECE: Right.

GROSS: Would you describe how your father took his life?

Mr. REECE: Well, he was - he had a .22 rifle that my grandfather had given him for - it was a hunting rifle, and my mother had taken - she was a schoolteacher and she had dropped me off at the babysitter and she had gone to school, and when we came home in the afternoon my father had never gotten out of bed and he had shot himself.

GROSS: You ascribed his suicide to two things - one, brain chemistry, because he had bipolar disorder.

Mr. REECE: Right.

GROSS: And the other, religion. How do you think religion figured into your father's suicide?

Mr. REECE: I think the two things really just reinforced each other. I don't think either one probably would have led to the suicide, but I think that my father first of all probably shouldn't have become a preacher. I mean, he felt the pressure from my grandfather to be a preacher, but he wasn't very good at it.

He was very introspective, very quiet. I think he would have been a good seminarian or a Bible scholar or a teacher, something like that, but he did feel the pressure from my grandfather to sort of carry on this family tradition.

But I don't think he could really ever escape the heaviness of my grandfather's fundamentalism. I think that just innate, inherent sinfulness, that guilt was just something that he just - he couldn't ever shake it, and he could never step outside of my grandfather's shadow, and so I don't feel like he could really ever find his own way.

He could never find any accommodation, and so at one point, you know, it just - he really felt like the best thing he could do for himself and for everybody was to end his own life, and my mother feels no bitterness about it. She says to this day that she honestly feels that he thought he was doing us a favor.

GROSS: Twenty years after your father's suicide, your mother gave you the Bible which he had used since his days in seminary, and the cloth marker was at Matthew 10, and I'd like you to read an excerpt for us. This is on Page 28 of your book.

Mr. REECE: Okay. Never imagine I have come to bring peace on Earth. I have not come to bring peace but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. Yes, a man's own household will be his enemies. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me. He who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. He who will not take his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.

GROSS: Now, when you found that, your father's Bible was marked to this page. You couldn't know for sure what that meant, whether it was an accident or whether that's really what he had been reading before he killed himself, whether this was a significant passage for him or not, but your reaction in the book to this passage is: who is the egomaniac speaking these words? Would you elaborate on that reaction?

Mr. REECE: Well, it just struck me as, who is person speaking 2,000 years ago, a complete historical stranger, saying that we should love him, who we are really incapable emotionally of loving, more so than we love our own fathers and our own sons? And it just seemed like an incredibly egomaniacal kind of claim to make, and on the one hand, I could conclude that this was something that my father simply couldn't do, or on the other I could conclude that it's something he took very literally, though from everything everybody told me, he wasn't the kind of person that would've done that.

GROSS: My guest is Erik Reece. His new book is called "An American Gospel: On Family, History, and the Kingdom of God." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Erik Reece. His new book is called "An American Gospel: On Family, History, and the Kingdom of God." So at some point you broke with the church. You felt - I think it's fair to say you felt like your father felt, imprisoned by the church, and didn't know how to get out because of his ties to his father, who was also a preacher, but you left the church at what age?

Mr. REECE: Well, our church burned down when I was 17 years old, and I took that as a pretty good omen that I should get out then, and I never really went back. And it caused quite a bit of hurt feelings among my family, but it was really then that I sort of set out on my own religious pursuit.

GROSS: And I think it's interesting. Some of the people who you excerpt in the American gospel you've put together are poets and writers, like Walt Whitman has a very prominent place in the American gospel you've put together.

Now you're an English professor, so I suppose I shouldn't be shocked…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …that you're turning to poets, but tell us why. Why turn to poets when trying to understand religion?

Mr. REECE: Well, I think there's a lot of poetry in the Bible, and I think the imagination is really an incredible moral force. The imagination helps us to - it helps us to belong inside our own skins and to belong in the world in an intense kind of way, and it helps us imagine a better future, and so I think poetry is very important in that sense.

Emerson said that poets are liberating gods, and I think they can liberate us to see things differently, and so it was sort of with that impulse, I guess, that I began really thinking seriously about Walt Whitman, because he is such a poet that is - he's really a celebrator of life, and he has a religious view, but it's a religious view that's so different from my grandfather's, because it really is one that sees the creation infused with the creator and with the sense of the divine, and it really does portray the natural world as the kingdom of God. And I found that very, very inspiring.

GROSS: There's an excerpt of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" that you include in your book. Well, there's several excerpts you include in your book, but there's one in particular that I'm going to ask you to read that's on Page 114. Why don't you read it and then tell us why you've chosen it.

Mr. REECE: Okay. I see something of God each hour of the 24, in each moment then, in the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass. I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is signed by God's name, and I leave them where they are, for I know that others will punctually come forever and ever.

GROSS: Why is this such an important passage to you?

Mr. REECE: Well, I think, again, this is Whitman saying that he sees the divine in the ordinary. He sees the work of God in this world, in both the natural world and in other human beings, and it's - again, it's that religion of healthy-mindedness that I think really helped me begin to understand that religion didn't have to be this heavy, dogmatic, guilt-ridden kind of force, that it could actually be a very, very inspiring force.

GROSS: There's something I really want to play for you. Have you heard the Fred Hersch musical settings for "Leaves of Grass"?

Mr. REECE: No, I haven't.

GROSS: Well, I have to play it for you. Fred Hersch is a jazz pianist, but a few years ago he took parts of "Leaves of Grass," set it to music, and this passage is one of the passages that he set to music. So here it is, and Kurt Elling is the singer.

(Soundbite of song, "Leaves of Grass")

Mr. KURT ELLING (Singer): (Singing) Why should I wish to see God better than on this day? I see something of God each hour of the 24, and each moment then, in the faces of men and women, I see God and in my own face in the glass. I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is signed by God's name, and I leave them where they are, for I know that wherever I go, others will punctually come forever and ever.

GROSS: So that was Fred Hersch's musical setting for a passage from Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" with Kurt Elling singing. Isn't that beautiful?

Mr. REECE: It is, you know, and it really reminds you that one of the great services Whitman did for us was he really brought together body and soul. There's so much of a dualism in a lot of fundamentalist Christianity, and there was a lot of in my grandfather's, and Whitman was bringing these things back together again.

I remember I was walking with my grandfather once, and we were having a good conversation about nature. He loved nature, and I said something - I quoted a line of Whitman about if somebody asks to see the soul, then I point to this tree and this rock. And my grandfather became very icy, and he said that's pantheism. And I don't think it was.

I think Whitman was not saying we worship the trees in the natural world but that we see the handwriting of God there.

GROSS: My guest is Erik Reece, and he has a new book called "An American Gospel: On Family, History, and the Kingdom of God." He's put together an American gospel, excerpts of texts ranging from the Gospel of Thomas to Thomas Jefferson's re-working of the New Testament. Also included in the American gospel you've put together is William James, the psychologist and philosopher who died in 1910. Tell us about one or two of the excerpts from his work that you've included that are meaningful to you.

Mr. REECE: Well, there's one excerpt where he says that religion should - the purpose of religion should be to make life more interesting and more meaningful, not less, and I thought that was very important because in many ways I look back at my grandfather's religion, and it did kind of make life seem not that interesting because life was this thing we were supposed to escape, and for James it was just the opposite.

And he took it further, and he said that one of the main tenets of American pragmatism, which is the only school of philosophy that America has ever contributed to the world, he said that one of the main tenets here is that if you have a belief, that belief has to lead to an action. If you simply believe something but it doesn't change the way you do things, then it really isn't of any consequence.

And so James said that religion should be a habit of action, and I think that's something that in a lot of mainstream Christianity we tend to forget. So James was very important to me in that sense.

GROSS: You know, I'm just thinking about some of the things you said earlier about your father's suicide and about the pain that religion caused you when you were growing up in a fundamentalist family, with the idea, the main idea of religion being sin - you know, don't do this, don't do that, you will suffer.

Mr. REECE: Right.

GROSS: And do you think of religion as having caused a lot of pain in your life?

Mr. REECE: Yeah, I do. I think it was inadvertent. I don't think anybody meant to inflict it on me. In many ways I inflicted it upon myself because I took to heart probably too much of this emphasis on sin and guilt. I mean it's interesting to look at my mother because to her Christianity is very liberating; it's a force that really helps her in her life, even the fundamentalist kind of religion. And I guess I was just sort of psychologically tuned to see it more the way my father saw it and less the way my mother saw it. So I guess that's more - as much about me as it is about the message that my grandfather was preaching.

GROSS: Do you go to church now?

Mr. REECE: No, no, I don't. I usually spend Sundays out in the woods.

GROSS: Erik Reece, thank you very much.

Mr. REECE: Well, thank you.

GROSS: Erik Reece is the author of the new book, "An American Gospel: On Family, History, and the Kingdom of God." He's a writer in residence at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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