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Garrison Keillor, Mystical Maestro

By June 22, 2012 No Comments

I’m on the road conferencing this weekend, hangin’ with the Swedes at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. More precisely, giving a talk at the eighth biennial gathering of the Augustana Heritage Association, the Augustana Lutheran Synod having been, in its century of life (1860-1962), the largest Swedish-American organization in the United States. Augustana was a Goldilocks on the American Lutheran scene: not confessionally minimalist and over-assimilated like the east-coast General Synod, but not so propositionally dogmatic about the Augsburg standards as the Missouri Synod folks. Combing a heartfelt Scandinavian piety with an impressive range of institutions of mercy and social involvement, Augustana had an important and admirable role to play on the American scene until it was absorbed by successive mergers into the current Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. There’s some wistfulness in histories and memoirs written by those reared or ordained in its fellowship. Something unusual was lost, or stranded in history, when the mid-sized Swedish store got absorbed into the big American corporation.

Who better to recall it to life for an evening than Garrison Keillor? Come down from the Twin Cities for just this occasion, supposedly to talk about “Life among the Lutherans,” Keillor strode out on stage in his gray suit, white shirt, and characteristic red tie and immediately went down into the crowd where he stayed for the rest of the night, leading a hymn-sing. The thousand people in the crowd didn’t much need their songbooks, and the classic Modernist architecture of the college chapel turned out to be acoustically fine. Right off Keillor called up what seems to be his favorite hymn, “Children of the Heavenly Father.” A little later someone from the audience chose another by the same composer, “Day by Day, and with each Passing Moment.” The lyricist was Lina Sandell, the Swedish Fanny Crosby, and the revivalist roots of the Augustana Synod were evident in the fervor and familiarity with which the tune went up. The American Fanny Crosby came through herself, later on, in “Blessed Assurance.” To me the best number of the night was “Abide with Me,” stipulated by Keillor to be a hymn for his own funeral. No Christian pop at my deathbed, he pleaded; I don’t want Jesus as a boyfriend. Rather, five verses of the Anglican classic, sung this night a cappella, in a powerful calm.

As the evening wore on, the setting sun slanted through the chapel windows to catch Keillor in something of a natural spotlight, suffused in an evening glow. Fitting, for this is the last scheduled meeting of the Augustana veterans. Those who were ordained in the Synod’s last year as an independent body, the class of 1962, are now in their mid-70s. Canes are frequently in sight, and the hairstyles mostly come in shades of gray. These are veterans of forty years of ministry through the Protestant mainline’s long slog down from the heights of the establishment; Augustana turns out to have joined up on the very cusp of that descent. Nonetheless, the evening concluded with “Peace like a River,” firm and confident. Keillor affirming the vision of a generous God, stalwart careers seeing a circle of completion, a noble church alive in the mystery of memory.


James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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