Tag Archives: Garrison Keillor

Faith as surrender (and Garrison Keillor as theologian)

Several years ago I posted about Miroslav Volf’s definition of faith, which goes as follows:

Faith is not something we give to God. In that case, faith would be a work, and a silly kind of work because it would be work we do even though it doesn’t benefit anyone. But exactly the opposite is true. To have faith in God is to be “without works” before God (Romans 4:5). Faith is the way we as receivers relate appropriately to God as the giver. It is empty hands held open for God to fill.

On the way home from some care home services this evening, I listened to Garrison Keillor’s “News from Lake Wobegon” podcast from August 31, 2013. He concluded the week’s story with the following reflection:

“I used to think that faith… was sort of like a building block and you’d put all these blocks together and you’d build a house, sort of like the one the little pig built that the wolf could not blow down. And now I get older and I feel that faith is a matter of surrender, it’s a matter of just giving up and leaving that house and just walking out and experiencing the cold and the rain and doubt and confusion and trying to keep up your hope and some sense of gratitude. If you just keep up hope and gratitude maybe that’s… all you need…”

Not exactly the same thing as what Volf said, but then Keillor’s a storyteller first, theologian second. But open hands held open for God to fill and the notion of surrender to God run along the same lines. I like it.

A Prairie Home Trip


Last weekend, Dixie and I left the kids at home with a friend and made the journey down to St. Paul, Minnesota to attend a taping of A Prairie Home Companion (APHC) with Garrison Keillor. Never heard of it? It doesn’t surprise me. Most people I know haven’t heard of it.

APHC is an old-time radio variety show. Garrison Keillor began the program in 1974. With some changes and a short hiatus, it has been going for 37 years. It combines music (often with famous musical guests), comedy-dramas, and humourous stories and monologues. Imagine CBC’s Vinyl Cafe, but more old-timey, twice as long, and much better (I like to think Stuart McLean is inspired by Keillor’s show). We showed a friend some video clips of the show, and she said, flatly, “That’s what you drove eight hours to see? Well, good for you guys.” Obviously, she didn’t see the value. Another said, after I told him about the trip, “That sounds like something parents would do.” I’m okay with that. There are times when I’m an old man at heart.

I first heard of Garrison Keillor in high school. Our art teacher would play his “News from Lake Wobegon” monologues while we painted and made pottery. Lake Wobegon is a fictional Minnesota created by Keillor (he has written books based on these stories). It is mostly populated with Norwegian Lutherans (although there is a Catholic Church–“Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility”). His stories follow the everyday adventures of the townspeople. I fell in love with these stories immediately. Dixie also grew up listening to “The News from Lake Wobegon”. I copied her parents cassettes of the stories and we spent hours listening to them on road trips. Later I bought all the CDs.

It wasn’t until years later that I discovered APHC the radio show in which the Lake Wobegon stories are told. It has been playing on National Public Radio since 1974. I started listening to archived shows available on their website. Then the film, starring Kevin Kline and Meryl Streep, was released in 2006. It’s fictionalized account of the program, it’s quite an accurate in its representation, except that some of the characters on the real-life radio show were made into real people in the film version. Dixie and I both love the film.

Since we moved out here two years ago, we have been talking about going down to St. Paul to catch a taping before the show goes off the air. We would never be this close again, as far as we knew. So when the opportunity arose, we jumped on it. We also happened to discover that Garrison Keillor has announced his retirement in 2013. The show wouldn’t be the same without him; I imagine his retirement will mean the end of the show as well.

* * *


After my Friday afternoon class, Dixie and I hopped into the van and headed south. We live only about 45 minutes from the American border. Border guards are not friendly folk, are they? I think they’re paid to be cranky. I thought maybe she was angry with me for interrupting her smoke break. She didn’t crack a smile.

We soon discovered that speed limits on U.S. secondary highways aren’t the same as on the Canadian equivalent. We had planned to take the 59, which runs south from Winnipeg, about 2 miles east of Otterburne. The 59 would take us to Detroit Lakes, MN, where we would head east on the U.S. 10. We didn’t like the idea of driving 90kph the whole way when we are used to driving 112kph (based on the functional Canadian speed limits). We filled up with gas just south of the border. The attendants told us we could drive 20mph (30kph) faster if we took the interstate, which was 30 kms west of us. And that’s exactly what we did. Better psychologically, but probably didn’t save us any time.

This is getting too detailed…

We arrived at our hotel at about 10:30pm and went straight to bed. The next morning walked a couple of blocks to Mickey’s Dining Car. It’s a 24 hour/365 day diner that’s been in operation since 1937. It’s really a greasy spoon–not very clean, but quaint. It’s on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Breakfast was delicious.

Outside Mickey's Diner

I’ve always wanted to eat at the counter in a diner.


There was a lady with a small child there when we arrived. The child was wandering around and the mother said, “Go back to the seat. You shouldn’t be ‘wacking’ around the aisles.” A true Minnesotan woman, I guess.


In the background behind Dixie (to her left) is the booth where Meryl Streep sat with the other cast members in the film.

Afterwards we drove out to the Mall of America. It’s apparently bigger than the West Edmonton Mall, but once inside it really didn’t feel that way. It was quite tastefully arranged, actually. I rarely felt like I was in a massive temple to consumerism . No–actually, I did (what economic downturn?), but it was a tasteful temple. Not boxy, but lots of curves and soft colours. Dixie bought some boots. I bought a cast-iron teapot.

After the Mall of America we got ready for the show, which started at 4:45. It’s broadcast live. The in-studio audience gets 15 minutes of extra music and talk. They play a couple of numbers, Garrison Keillor does a bit of talking–letting us know what is coming up in the show, a practice run of a song or two which we are to sing along with during the chorus. And then the broadcast show begins.

Beginning of the show

Lives of the Cowboys

Some more pictures here. We discovered on our arrival that the camera had unfortunately been on for who knows how long and our battery was nearly dead. So we were unable to take many pictures.

We waited for Garrison afterwards. He did eventually come out, but it seems that he had to get to the opera, where his wife plays in the orchestra. I’m pretty sure he deliberately avoided eye-contact with his fans (with, I am sure, feelings of deep regret).

Click here to listen to the archive of the broadcast we attended. Listen on some quiet evening at home. Get a cup of coffee or tea, dim the lights, sit in a comfortable chair and put your feet up or lay on the couch, and take in the warm, down-home sounds of A Prairie Home Companion.

The show really was wonderful. I’m glad we went. I will say quite honestly, though, that being in the live audience is not much different than sitting at home and listening on the radio/internet. The show really is directed at the radio audience (contrary to what I told Andrew)–Garrison wanders around, technical people walk onto stage with papers for Garrison to read, Garrison gestures to offstage people during songs, etc. It was really an interesting experience, but not ultimately that different than the at-home experience. This is, I suppose, just as it should be. And you know what? I’d go back in a second.

Afterwards we walked to the St. Paul Grill, where we had an extravagant and delicious supper. It’s the kind of place where you have to order all your side dishes separately, otherwise you’ll end up with a steak on an otherwise empty plate. Dixie tells me the technical term for this is “a la carte”. The tip for that meal was the same amount as the entire cost of that morning’s breakfast (including tip) at Mickey’s.

As a bonus, I accidentally spilled half of my glass of wine on the floor and some of it splashed into the purse belonging to the lady at the table next to ours. Then they replaced that glass with a full one at no charge (a benefit of a hoity-toity restaurant?). And THEN Wallace Shawn walked by. That’s right–the “Inconceivable!” guy from The Princess Bride! He’s actually a respected stage actor, but I thought it would be funny to walk up to him and praise him for obscure and non-artsy work he’s done. “I loved your voice-over work in The Incredibles!” or “I always thought the strongest episodes of The Cosby Show were the ones with you in them.” Of course, I didn’t say anything to him. Because I’m intimidated by even M-list celebrities. And he was wearing intimidating artsy-fartsy clothing: black pants and shoes; a black turtleneck cotton shirt.

The next day we drove to the Cathedral Hill area, where Garrison Keillor lives. We didn’t find (or, in fact, look for) his house. However, he is the proprietor of an independent bookstore–Common Good Books–and we went there. Cathedral Hill is a beautiful area of St. Paul, filled with Victorian homes and coffee shops and Mr. Keillor’s excellent bookshop. It’s got the largest poetry section I’ve ever seen in a bookstore–it was easily 4 or 5 times the size of any other section there. And his own books? They’re tucked away, way back in a little out-of-the-way nook with the travel literature. We spent more than an hour there. Bought some books.

Afterwards, we checked out of our hotel and had lunch at an Italian bistro down the block. I order an Italian beer to wash down my slice of pizza. AND I WAS I.D.ed! First time. Unbelievable, with this beard. I’m a grizzly bear.

Then we went to Target. Basically Zellers with a different name. They won’t have much work to do when they convert Zellers in Canada.

And then we went home, this time by way of the 59/10. It was just as fast.


I’d like to read more poetry. It’s not a resolution for the year, but simply something I’ve wanted to do for some time. The problem was I didn’t know where to start and my university education had inadvertently discouraged me from reading poetry. Studying quite a bit of modernist literature and criticism (such as T.S. Eliot) left me with the impression that unless I carried all of western literature under my belt, poetry was out of my reach. In fact, it nearly left me with the impression that literature in general is an impregnable fortress, entry into which should only be attempted by cranky, elitist types like the modernist writers themselves (as was my impression of them).

And so I’ve read The Great Gatsby a number of times, but with trembling hands. I am afraid of Virginia Woolf (hee hee), D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and the whole gamut of modernist writers.  It also left me with a nagging concern about whether I’m “getting” what I’m reading or whether I missed something important.

But I digress.

One of my Christmas presents this year was Good Poems for Hard Times, compiled by Garrison Keillor. I will begin there. Keillor’s introduction urges the reader to forget or at least move past all the elitist stuff about poetry he or she may have picked up over the years and get on with the business of reading the poetry.  And so I shall.

They’ve been good so far.  This one stopped me, though:

At the Arraignment (Debra Spencer)

The courtroom walls are bare and the prisoner wears
a plastic bracelet, like in a hospital. Jesus stands beside him.
The bailiff hands the prisoner a clipboard and he puts his
thumbprint on the sheet of white paper. The judge asks,

What is your monthly income? A hundred dollars.
How do you support yourself? As a carpenter, odd jobs.
Where are you living? My friend’s garage.
What sort of vehicle do you drive? I take the bus.
How do you plead? Not guilty. The judge sets bail
and a date for the prisoner’s trial, calls for the interpreter
so he may speak to the next prisoners.
In a good month I eat, the third one tells him.
In a bad month I break the law.

The judge sighs. The prisoners
are led back to jail with a clink of chains.
Jesus goes with them. More prisoners
are brought before the judge.

Jesus returns and leans against the wall near us,
gazing around the courtroom. The interpreter reads a book.
The bailiff, weighed down by his gun, stands
with arms folded, alert and watchful.
We are only spectators, careful to speak
in low voices. We are so many. If we—make a sound,
the bailiff turns toward us, looking stern.

The judge sets bail and dates for other trials,
bringing his gavel down like a little axe.
Jesus turns to us. If you won’t help them, he says
then do this for me. Dress in silks and jewels,
and then go naked. Be stoic, and then be prodigal.
Lead exemplary lives, then go down into prison
and be bound in chains. Which of us has never broken a law?
I died for you-a desperate extravagance, even for me.
If you can’t be merciful, at least be bold.

The judge gets up to leave.

The stern bailiff cries, All rise. (Good Poems for Hard Times, pp. 28-9)

It’s not your classic poetic form, but still…

Of course, I’m still wondering if I “get” it, but that has led to pondering, which is a good thing.