SO MANY GOOD VOICES IN MY HEAD
by Scott Holland

Community means inviting the multitudes to speak.

SCOTT HOLLAND is pastor of the Monroeville Church of the Brethren in suburban Pittsburgh and a contributing editor of Cross Currents. This article first appeared in Soundings 79, no. 1-2 (Spring/Summer 1996) and is reprinted by permission.

My home is in Pittsburgh's Monongahela Valley, in the old mill town of McKeesport, which was once the hub of Western Pennsylvania's thriving steel industry. Some months ago, reflecting on what I might say in a forthcoming lecture at Bluffton College on the topic of "community," restless and somewhat unsatisfied with what I had written, I turned off the computer, locked up the house, and went for an afternoon walk. Down the long hill from my stable, postindustrial neighborhood, past neglected homes and boarded-up businesses, there is a popular working-class restaurant and tavern: Sam's Place. Contractors gather at Sam's for food, drink, and conversation. A draft is sixty cents, hard-boiled eggs are twenty-five cents, two for thirty-five. And everyone, it seems, has strong but cynical opinions on the state of the Union. I pushed open the heavy steel door and joined the company of contractors inside.

A contractor in the economically depressed, old steel town of McKeesport is generally a man between the ages of forty and sixty who once had a job making big money in the mill, or a related industry, before the wolf finally came to the Valley and the unthinkable happened. The factories closed and the economic base of the community collapsed, leaving thousands unemployed or underemployed. A contractor may dig a gas line, roof a house, point a chimney, and if he gets lucky, land a house-painting job or two. At Sam's Place, it is improper to ask, "What do you do?" Everyone is a contractor in this place where identities are hard to come by yet carefully protected in the rust-belt of the culture of late capitalism.

The old guy on the stool next to me broke the rules that warm and lazy afternoon. "So what do you do?" he asked. "I'm a contractor," I replied. "Sure you are," he scoffed. "I think you're a college school teacher or somethin'." I confessed, "I teach a little college, preach a little gospel, do a little writing -- you know, a contractor!" He smiled. "What do you teach? What do you write about?" I hesitated. "Theology," I finally answered. "Theology!" he exclaimed. "Hummm. . . . so you write theology? That should keep you busy." He fell silent, looked deep into his mug as though searching for something, squinted, and said, "Theology? What the hell is that?"

I told him theology has to do with the mystery and adventure of naming ourselves and rendering God's name in history. Only after we had talked over an hour did he extend his hand, "Basil is my name," he said. I introduced myself. As we continued to talk, Basil shook his head and muttered, "I suppose I've allowed this place to name me." By "this place," he didn't mean the alternative community of Sam's. After all, there is a quiet dignity in being named a contractor, over a social mug of Iron City, when all other public faces have faded. He was speaking of his home in the industrial Valley, his family of origin, his Greek Catholic Church, his dying town.

"I should have gotten the hell out of here years ago, like my cousin," he said. "He doesn't even remember this place. We never see him." It seems his cousin put down his inheritance on a suburban home in a planned community, poured his mill hunk body into a salesman's suit, joined a country club, and vanished. Basil didn't mention his cousin's name.

"I let this place name me," Basil lamented. I agreed with my new friend. Communities can be totalitarian. Families, churches, institutions, clubs, regions, and neighborhoods are drawn to master-narratives wherein all must find their plot and place in the story. Characters are too easily assigned. What does one do when one discovers the story one is living in is a bad fiction? Simply get the hell out and live without memory? What place will name us then? In whose narrative will we find ourselves? Whose discourse will constitute us?

Anytime we simply get out of our community, home, church, or skin, we risk being simply named again by the designer label on our suit, the title to the Lexus, the deed of the new Fox Run home or, worse, by self-help gurus or golden-throated preachers selling new souls down by the rivers of Babylon. For reasons of economics, conscience, adventure, or art, many of us will find it necessary to leave our communities of origin; few of us will succeed at simply getting the hell out, unless we choose to live without memory.

We are, after all, living in a story-shaped world. We come to consciousness within the context of stories, languages, and symbol systems given us. We are known and made known through the gaze of others. We come to self-consciousness only in the company of others. There may be that still, small voice in all of us, but that voice is already and always narratively constituted by and through the speech of others. We are social and therefore story-shaped creatures. If pop psychology ever finally succeeds in finding that insufferable inner child, it will discover him mute if he has only been nurtured in the solitary wilderness of psychic space, void of tradition and communities of memory. All of this is to say there are many good voices in our heads. Walt Whitman declared: "I contain multitudes!"

The voices within us are often in conflict. There are indeed great tensions between personal identity and communal identity, between individual agency and collective conformity, between the author and the scribe, between the artist and the auditor, between ego and super-ego, between imagination and memory. Or, like Basil, we find ourselves the submissive scribes of a narrow communal consciousness rather than creative composers of our own lives. We are named within a very narrow range of hills. The poetics of space, the specters of tribal gods, and the ghosts of our ancestors can be cruel. They can be prisons of our bodies and souls. They can also be many good voices in our heads, if like the strong poet Whitman, we invite the multitude to speak, yet remain composers of our own lives.

This act of composing a life, of naming ourselves, signals that identities are not simply given to us, nor are they static or even stable. They are composed. Identities -- both personal and communal -- demand memory, imagination, and hope.(1)

Elie Wiesel tells an old Jewish story about a poor and pious Jew, Eizek son of Yekel, who lived in Cracow (Souls on Fire [New York: Vintage Books, 1973]). Heavy with debt, worry, and unhappiness, he sought release from his problems through prayer. One night he had a strange dream that carried him to a distant city under a bridge, by an immense palace. In the dream a clear voice spoke to him, "Eizek, this is Prague, and over there is the grand palace of the kings. Now look and look well, for under this bridge, at the spot where you are standing, there is a buried treasure waiting for you. It is yours. Take it. Your problems are resolved."

Eizek dismissed the dream as insignificant. However, when he fell asleep the next night he again saw the palace of the kings, the bridge and the grand city of Prague. Out of the mist of this strange place he heard the voice again, "Do you want to keep your worries and remain poor?" Eizek tried to forget the dream, but the third night the nocturnal vision and voice returned to rebuke him, "What? You haven't left yet?"

Although skeptical, Eizek began the long and difficult journey to Prague at dawn. After a few weeks he arrived in the great city. He recognized the palace, the bridge, and even the spot where the voice promised the treasure was hidden. But his rather awkward investigation called attention to himself, and he was arrested by the king's soldiers and led before the captain of the guard.

He was so frightened that he would be imprisoned or even killed that he told the captain of the guards the truth about his dream and the recurrent voice. The captain laughed and scoffed, "You are a simple and foolish man to believe such dreams." The captain told Eizek that he also had a recurring dream that would take him to Cracow if he were stupid enough to heed voices in the night. The voice had told the captain that there was a treasure waiting for him under the stove in a small cottage in Cracow owned by a poor Jew, named Eizek son of Yekel. Eizek listened and listened well.

The captain released his prisoner and Eizek hurried home to Cracow. He rushed into his cottage, pushed over his old stove, and to his astonishment, under his own hearth, discovered a great treasure.

In the Jewish tradition, a rabbi would tell this story and invite his listeners to provide a Midrash, which is a commentary or an interpretation. What is the meaning of this tale? What is its wisdom? Some might say it means we never have to leave home after all. But Eizek did have to leave home to discover the treasure.

A rabbinical interpretation of this story is not that we don't have to journey from our communities of origin. On the contrary, the rabbis insist that this tale reminds us that there can never be a homecoming without a long and difficult journey.

This classical wisdom intersects with the research and writing of the contemporary philosopher Paul Ricoeur, who divides his time between Chicago and Paris. In his book Oneself as Another (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), he reminds us that the shortest path of the self to itself lies in the speech of the other. Self-understanding involves a long detour through the narratives of others, with self-consciousness as the final destination, not the starting point.

Wiesel says we tell a story in order to find a story. As we consider the dilemma of identity and the challenge of composing a life, we would do well to enter stories like "Eizek son of Yekel" with memory, imagination, and hope. We must lean into the paradoxical wisdom of the story, for in the end we will be saved by the story not the doctrine, by the symbol not the statute, by the parable not the proposition, by the aesthetic not the ethic, and by a poetics of religion, not a metaphysics of morals. We tell a story in order to find a story.

There are of course many true stories. After all, we have many good voices in our heads. Stories of journeys and homecomings are as gritty and as ambiguous as life itself. Stories, unlike doctrines, contain a surplus of meaning because they give back to us phenomenological slices of life. Eizek saw Cracow from the perspective of Prague. There was a homecoming, but home was not the same. Other homecoming narratives are more difficult.

Frank Baum's magical story of The Wizard of Oz is a case in point. Everyone knows this story. A tornado sweeps Dorothy away from Kansas to the land of Oz. Even under the spell of Oz she is convinced: "There's no place like home, there's no place like home." The lion, the scarecrow, and the tin man travel with her down the yellow brick road, which she hopes will take her to the Wizard and then home, for there's no place like home.

After a terrifying yet exciting adventure in the labyrinth of Oz, her wish is granted and she leaves the colorful world of Oz and enters the drab, black-and-white tones of her Kansas farm. Auntie Em, Uncle Henry, and the hired help gather around her bed and assure her that she is all right, that she has returned to reality. Oz was only a bad dream from a bump on the head. Against their patronizing dismissals Dorothy cries, "It wasn't a dream, it was a place, a real, truly live place! Doesn't anyone believe me?" They don't.

Many people, however, did believe her. They wanted to believe her. So Frank Baum wrote another Oz book, after the Wizard, in which Dorothy takes Auntie Em and Uncle Henry with her to Oz, where she becomes a princess, far from the Kansas flatlands. Salman Rushdie, who knows much about home and perhaps too much about exile, provides this commentary on the stories of Oz:

So Oz finally became home; the imagined world became the actual world, as it does for us all, because the truth is that once we have left our childhood places and started out to make up our own lives, armed only with what we have and are, we understand that the real secret of the ruby slippers is not that "there's no place like home," but rather that there is no longer any such place as home: except, of course, for the home we make, or the homes that are made for us, in Oz: which is anywhere, and everywhere, except the place from which we began (Rushdie, The Wizard of Oz [London: British Film Institute, 1992]).

We live by memory, imagination, and hope. With rich memories of places like Cracow and magical images of places like Oz it's not hard to be hopeful. Yet we also live in Bosnia. And we live on that dark and dangerous cul de sac in Los Angeles where three-year-old Stephanie Kuhen was shot and killed by brave Latino gang members.

Anne Rophie, writing in Tikkun, the Jewish journal of politics, culture, and society, laments:

Here we are living in a post-Cold War period of increasing tribal warfares, of despair over nationalisms that vie and bite and engage in death duels as each generation whispers its hate-filled lullaby into the cradle of the next. Everywhere we look, borders are newly contested and bitter lines of religion, race, and nation seem to be inflamed, raw and terrible.(2)

We are living in an age of increasing tribalism, nationalism, and sectarian violence. The hope of authentic community can seem distant. The rise of gang violence in our major cities as the Crips clash with the Bloods and brother slays brother should not surprise us. It is only a microcosm -- a telling reflection of an increasing international gangster ideology, theology, and politics. We are living in an age of gangsters who place the private interests of clan, territory, and tribal gods over the common, public good.

In an age in which many communities are beginning to look like gangs, can we be hopeful about the concept of community? With some memory and imagination, I think so. But only with memory and imagination. Since we come to consciousness only in the company of others, various forms and expressions of community are humanly inevitable, sociologically necessary, politically important, and spiritually good. We can never simply find our plot and place in a generic narrative of "the human community." There is none. There is no human community; there are many wonderfully different and terribly strange human communities. A community that claims to be grounded in a universal reason is dishonest, disembodied, and dangerous.

In any great society groups must organize around churches, synagogues, mosques, ethnic roots, sex identities, gender concerns, special interests, and political agendas. This is how it should be. It is only in these diverse communities and identities that productive public life is possible.

The late James Luther Adams of Harvard wrote widely on the importance of voluntary associations, collectives, and identity groups within the broader society (The Prophethood of All Believers [Boston: Beacon Press, 1986]). Adams insisted that voluntary associations are necessary for the public health of any pluralistic democracy. They not only provide good company, support, intimacy, and a sense of identity for their members; they also serve an important political function. They remind us that there are many human communities and many modes of being human. They remind us that we must all learn to share public space peacefully. As such, the presence of voluntary associations or collectives protect all individuals and communities from the totalitarianism of any one community, whether it be a nation, church, or political party. They protect us from political and ecclesiastical gangsters.

Jean François Lyotard says that the postmodern age is characterized by the collapse of the master-stories (The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989]). The Enlightenment's dream of discovering one story that can name us all has crashed, leaving only a multitude of little narratives. This is hopeful for individual liberty, life-giving communities, and the fate of the earth. This awareness of the fall of the imperial story can help us invite the multitude to share public space in a vision of community in which difference is recognized and respected.

In the history of civilization master-stories have been violent and imperialistic. For example, I would tell my audience at Bluffton College, which has Mennonite roots, that in the sixteenth century many Mennonites were burned at the stake and drowned in the rivers of Europe because they dissented from the master-story of the established church and empire. The Mennonites formed an alternative community in which stories of peace and religious voluntarism were told and practiced. Many had their tongues cut out and died horrible deaths for questioning the old master-narrative. Yet when they said "no" to the emperor's politics, economics, armies, and church, they in fact pointed to other stories of God and to alternative ways of being in the world. They remind us even today to look for truth in new movements, minority traditions, and oppositional communities.

The legacy of resistance and redefinition continues. In the contemporary Mennonite Church there is a subcommunity called BMC: The Brethren and Mennonite Council for Gay and Lesbian Concerns. As I listen to my brothers and sisters in BMC tell their stories, as a straight preacher in the Mennonite and Brethren heritage, I am reminded that there are many, many love stories in this blessed fallen world.

Identity groups, collectives, and focused communities are important for social and spiritual life. Yet if they don't empower us and encourage us to enter a broader public life, then they are gangs, not authentic communities. Parker Palmer offers this fine definition of public life and space:

The word "public" as I understand it contains a vision of our oneness, our unity, our interdependence upon one another. Despite the fact that we are strangers to one another -- and will stay strangers for the most part -- we occupy a common space, share common resources, have common opportunities, and must somehow learn to live together. To acknowledge that one is a member of the public is to recognize that we are members of one another (The Company of Strangers [New York: Crossroad, 1981]).

My own work suggests that any voluntary association, intentional collective, or alternative community must also be public in its consciousness. There are, I believe, three characteristics of a publicly conscious community.(3)

(1) A publicly conscious community values both the unique identities and traditions of its members and its broader corporate identity and mission in the world. Unembarrassed by particularity, it has enough self-respect to take its heritage or community of memory seriously. It knows that only when we live out our lives in radical particularity can our lives take on universal significance. It also respects the legitimate autonomy of other social institutions and communities of difference. It is not an imperial tribe or clan, but celebrates with others the multiculturalism of the public square.

(2) Resisting sectarianism, the publicly conscious community accepts some responsibility for the well-being of the wider society. It cares for its members and is attentive to the needs of strangers. It recognizes that the stranger, the Other, the neighbor, not simply the self and its community, are the demanding referents of compassion, for to love the world is to accept responsibility for its history.

(3) The publicly conscious community is eager to form coalitions with other institutions, agencies, and collectives for the common good of the human community. These associations will at times necessarily involve compromise and creative infidelity to one's own group or tradition as one accepts contamination on behalf of a greater experiment or strategic move for the public good. This community understands the limits of perfection.

Unless our communities provide hospitable space for strangers, the naming of ourselves and the rendering of God's name in history will be terribly limited and incomplete, for strangers can be important personal, social, and spiritual guides. In the quest for personal and communal identity, the voice of the stranger must be invited to interrupt our deepest solitude and our most confident communal consensus. Strangers bring wisdom from the far country.

Here is a stranger story not from Prague or Oz, but from Pittsburgh. About ten years ago my wife Shari and I moved from our seven-bedroom Mennonite parsonage in Ohio to a tiny row house in an old Italian neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Many of our neighbors had the surname Schulli. There are as many Schullis in our Pittsburgh neighborhood as there are Yoders in Holmes County, Ohio.

The week we moved into our row house on Parkview Avenue, I discovered our car needed a new water pump. One morning I was flat-on-my-back under the car, pretending to be a mechanic, when I saw a pair of black, scuffed-up, wing tip shoes approaching. Then I heard a voice. "Hey, whatsa matta?" he asked. Cursing the car a bit, I explained. "Don't you worry about a thing," he said. "I'm gonna take care of you. I'm gonna take care of you because you're astrange." What an odd thing to say, I thought. He's going to take care of me because I'm strange? I learned his name was Carmen Schulli, one of my new neighbors. I was in no mood to protest, so I yielded to his offer of goodwill, even though he called me strange.

We both got in my car, turned left off Parkview onto Greenfield Avenue, and coasted down a long hill into the lot of Culfo's Garage. "Hey, Culfo," Mr. Schulli shouted, "this man is my friend. You take care of him. And when you touch his car, treat it like a Schulli car." Within an hour I was indeed well taken care of and very grateful. As Mr. Schulli and I climbed the steep hill back to the neighborhood in a fixed car, he grinned and said: "I wanted to take care of you because you are astrange. Forty years ago I came to this country and I too was astrange. A neighbor took care of me." He continued, "Our priest says we should treat strangas well because the Bible says we were all once astrange in a foreign land. The Bible even says some strangas are angels."

Indeed it does. Hebrews 13 exhorts us to practice hospitality to strangers for in so doing some have entertained angels without even knowing it. Some strangers are angelos, angels, messengers of God. Imagine that! It is important, I think, that Mr. Schulli confessed that he was once a stranger, for the stranger in his body invited him to open his heart to this stranger in a broken down car.

There is a very interesting Amish-Mennonite cemetery in Hartville, Ohio. Among the dead with proper church burials and the proper ethnic names of Yoder, Troyer, Miller, and Coblentz, there are two bodies that don't quite belong: the body of a stranger and the body of a drifter which found final resting places among the righteous. This is emblematic of this blessed life of ours. Even within the most ethical soul and the purest ethnic community strangers and drifters are buried. Within all of us there is a stranger living in our dreams and bones disturbing any final and finished idea of identity. There is a drifter in the body, rolling Bugler cigarettes, drinking cheap whiskey, just waiting to hop a freight train traveling West. Such strangers can disturb the peace. Little wonder why so many of us retreat to sacred reservations where identities are fixed and communities are pathologically safe and secure behind heavy gates!

Concerning the stranger, Julia Kristeva is instructive (Strangers to Ourselves [New York: Columbia University Press, 1991]). Kristeva reminds us that we shall never be able to live at peace with the strangers around us if we are unable to tolerate and live with the otherness and strangeness within ourselves. In many ways, Kristeva argues, we are strangers to ourselves, always traveling, always in process, never finished.

In Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), Michael Waltzer argues that it is useful to think of the contemporary self as wonderfully complex and necessarily divided. It is not the unified self, Waltzer contends, but the divided self which opens us to the largeness of life. Persons are self-divided in three different ways. First, the self divides itself among its many interests and roles, not only across a lifetime but across a day or week. The self also divides itself among its identities. It answers to many names, defining itself in terms of family, nation, religion, gender, and political commitments. Finally, the self divides itself among its ideals, principles, and values. It speaks with more than one moral voice, and this is why it is capable of self-criticism and open to doubt, anguish, and uncertainty.

The divided self is able to enter many publics or social spaces without internal contradiction because it recognizes itself to be a mysteriously complex entity, which reflects and is reflected in the complexity of the social world and the pluralism of the public sphere. All of this is to say again there are many good voices in our heads. A beloved community, a community worthy of our passionate commitment, will invite this multitude to speak in the adventure of naming ourselves and rendering God's name in history.

The large homes of our McKeesport neighborhood once were occupied by captains of industry and their attending doctors and lawyers, those whose hands touched the finest leather and poured the finest wine. But today our neighborhood is nicely integrated with teachers, factory workers, contractors, social workers, plumbers, and preachers. Once a white enclave, it is now about 50 percent African American.

A couple of years ago we needed some chimney work done. The chimney men I hired were ex-steelworkers who had lost their jobs in the mill a dozen years before. They were tough, white, hard-working good ol' boys from the Mon Valley. Contractors! I climbed up on the roof with them to point out the repairs I wanted done. As we looked out over the community, one contractor commented, "This used to be a really nice neighborhood, twenty years ago."

I replied, "It still is." He looked surprised.

Just then the neighbor from across the street, an African American, stepped out of his large English Tudor home and greeted me. "What's up, Scott?"

I waved. "Hey, what's up, Eddie?"

The talkative contractor continued, "Uh, what I mean is that there are a lot of blacks in this neighborhood now, aren't there?"

"Yes," I answered. "That's why we like it!"

"What do you mean?" he asked. "Why?"

I thought I would be a bit playful, so I responded, "Well because of heaven, of course!"

To my surprise, both contractors became quite interested. So I told them that I was a Christian and in the Bible the story of redemption begins in a garden but ends in a city. The biblical vision of redemption is not a return to the Garden of Eden where man and woman walk with God in solitude. It is instead a vision of a transformed city, the New Jerusalem, where people from every nation, every tribe, every kindred, and every tongue live together in peace. It is a vision of unity in diversity, of similarity in difference. It is a multicultural, interracial, interreligious place. It is not a big church, synagogue, temple, mosque, or pagoda. It is a city that has redeemed the pleasures of Babel.

The contractor, with sincerity and seriousness in his eyes, exclaimed, "Y'know, I never thought of it like that. I'll have to tell my priest!" The three of us sat on the roof and for the next half hour talked about God and other great mysteries. We talked -- and argued a bit -- about the problems of racism and religionism. We talked about the difficult peace of the city.

At the end of the day, when their work was finished and I was writing their pay check, the contractor smiled and repeated our roof-top theology: "Now what was that again? The story of heaven begins in a garden but ends in a city. Wow, it does make you think, don't it?"

"Some have entertained angels unawares." The poet Rilke warns us, though, that "Every angel is terrifying." Yet Rilke was a strong and intuitive poet, for one of his poems also echoes this refrain: "Strangely, I heard a stranger say, I am with you."

Notes

I am grateful to the Bluffton College community for the invitation to present the Forum Lecture which forms the base of this essay. I am especially indebted to Assistant Dean Mary Ellen Newport for her engaging letters and thoughtful phone calls while I was writing the lecture. Her intelligent and intuitive sense of connecting author and audience became a very good voice in my head as I composed this piece.

1. [Back to text]  The Post-Industrial Theological Collective (McKeesport, Pa.) has recently defined constructive theology as an exercise in memory, imagination, and hope. Collective member David Morse is at work on a methodological essay dealing with this creative movement.

2. [Back to text]  Anne Rophie, "Healing Light," Tikkun 8, no. 6 (November/ December 1993): 67.

3. [Back to text]  My work on the marks of public theology has recently been greatly informed by the brothers Himes: Michael J. and Kenneth R. Himes, Fullness of Faith: The Public Significance of Theology (New York: Paulist Press, 1993), 1-27. See my "Preaching with Prophets, Musing with Mystics, Dancing with Strangers," Brethren Life and Thought (Summer 1994), and "God in Public," Conrad Grebel Review (Winter 1986).

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Source: Cross Currents, Winter 1998-99, Vol. 49 Issue 1.