“Dancing Around the Intersections
of Theology and the Performing Arts”
A Review of
Tokens – Episode #5
Directed by Lee Camp.
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
Tokens – Episode #5
Directed by Lee Camp.
Listen to clips or purchase the full show: [ TokensShow.com ]
It’s been awhile since I reviewed any non-book sort of media here, so I jumped at the opportunity to review a recent episode of Tokens, Lee Camp’s “New Old-Time Radio Show.” Hosted on the campus of Nasville’s Lipscomb University, where Camp is a professor of theology and ethics, Tokens is a radio variety show in the grand tradition of NPR’s Prairie Home Companion. Indeed, it was in the audience of a PHC taping at Nasville’s famed Ryman auditorium where Camp had a flash of inspiration that would lead to the development of Tokens. “I’d been looking for a vehicle for exploring the overlap of music and theology. It’s the teacher in me trying to find new ways to say something worthwhile and make a difference for people,” says Camp. Thus, he gathered some musicians and in Februrary 2008 launched the first episode of Tokens, which featured the music of Andrew Peterson, Buddy Greene and Odessa Settles and taped interviews with Brian Maclaren and A.J. Jacobs, the author of The Year of Living Biblically. Since then, Camp and friends have staged six Tokens episodes and are slated to record their seventh show in a little over a week.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down and listen to Episode #5, “Justice Songs,” which was recorded back in March 2009. Camp provides a solid theological framework for the show in his opening and closing monologues, reminding us that while Tokens features the work of entertainers of the highest caliber, there is something much deeper than entertainment going on here. He says in his opening monologue, “In scripture, the starting point for justice is the character and activity of God… [Justice] is never a side issue, but a primary concern of those who seek to do the will of God.” Thus, this episode of Tokens will remind us – primarily through music – of the voices of those suffering at the hands of injustice. Camp says, “Tonight, we listen for cries to which we need to pay attention, cries for help, voices silenced, weeping, unheard and cries for action, sharing and good deeds.”
This “Justice Songs” episode of Tokens intersperses songs by Vince Gill, Buddy Greene, Sonya Isaacs and Odessa Settles with comedy sketches and interviews with Will Campbell, renowned justice advocate and author of Brother to a Dragonfly, and Brad Maclean, a lawyer who left a comfortable position in corporate law to take up the defense of death row inmates. After Camp’s opening monologue, the show opens with Buddy Greene’s moving rendition of Stephen Foster’s well-known song “Hard Times Come Again No More,” which is followed by the show’s stage troupe presentation of a side-splittingly funny spoof advertisement for “Eye-4-Eye Adjustment Associates,” a comic representation of justice under the Hebraic law of the Old Testament. This comedy sketch is followed by a taped interview with Nashville-based lawyer Brad Maclean. After telling some stories from his work with death-row inmates, Maclean notes that if an inmate is on trial for killing a person of a higher social standing, he is much more likely to be sentenced to the death penalty. He thus observes from his experience that the two primary characteristics of death row inmates are poverty and mental illness. After the interview, the first half of the show is filled with more excellent songs by Vince Gill (a recent inductee into the country music hall of fame), Sonya Isaacs and Odessa Settles, and a comic impersonation of “Brother Preacher” by Greg Lee.
After an intermission, the show picks up again with more superb music and comedy. Highlights included Odessa Settles’ version of the old hymn “Were you there” and a treat that only Nashville could offer, a stellar bluegrass rendition of a Bach piece that was jokingly referred to as “Class and Grass.” Another significant portion of the latter half of the show was a memorable, but brief interview with the iconic activist preacher Will Campbell that centers on his conviction that “we’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.” Lee Camp, in his closing monologue, leaves the audience with a sort of benediction: “Keep asking the annoying questions, also offer viable and just alternatives.” From there, the show segues smoothly into its closing songs, both covers of familiar justice-oriented folk tunes in which all the singing performers join together in an ensemble. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a more beautiful and moving rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind,” complete with Buddy Greene’s stellar work on the harmonica. The shows ends with the ensemble offering a fine cover of the folk-classic popularized by Pete Seeger, “If I Had a Hammer.”
Tokens is one of today’s finest exemplars of exploration around the intersections of theology and the performing arts, and it is well worth the effort for you to attend one of their live performances, or if that is not possible, at least to check out the many recordings from previous shows that are available on their website. And especially if you are in or around Nashville on Thursday October 15, you would do well to get tickets for the next installment of Tokens on that night, a show that promises the music of Ashley Cleveland and an interview with Scot McKnight.