Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Made Up Names

I'm writing from my hotel room in St Paul, Minnesota, the second time in as many weeks that I've been in this very non-Southern town.   St Paul is a picturesque city with a town square that's as beautiful as any other in the Midwest.  The St Paul Hotel, where I'm staying, overlooks the square, and is a stone's throw from Assumption Catholic Church; which I had assumed was St Paul's Cathedral.  The building has the stoic, stubborn look that I imagine the apostle himself had, unimaginative and hard, determined to outlast the harsh winters and winds of apostasy that howl at its thick and unwelcoming doors. 

So much for assumptions.

I came to town to play on National Public Radio's  "A Prairie Home Companion" with my boss, Emmylou Harris.  When she introduced me to Garrison Keillor, the show's host, he looked at me with that most owl-like visage and replied in a glorious baritone voice, "Phil Madeira... sounds like a made-up name."

I thought of saying, "Look who's talking- Garrison Keillor", but let it slide.

Years ago, I thought about changing my name.  I've always preferred my given name, Philip, but most people are too lazy to pronounce both syllables, so I gave in long ago to being Phil.  To complicate matters, Madeira is often misspelled by anyone who knows the "i before e" rule.  Consequently, I did go through a phase of trying to find a 'made up name', but nothing suitable was coined, and here I am, Phil Madeira.

The other thing Mr Keillor said was "You must be from the Midwest", to which I heartily answered, "No".  I am not sure what about me gave him that impression.  Perhaps it was the large Hohner accordion hanging from my neck, giving credence to a surmised background in polka music.   I think of the Midwest as pedestrian and white bread, and the accordion often bolsters that image, albeit wrongfully so.  But I will leave the accordion to defend itself.

I went to college in the Midwest, specifically to Taylor University, in Upland, Indiana.  With the exception of Iowa, I'm not sure that there's any more Midwestern place than Upland.   It's nondescript, in the middle of bloody nowhere.  There is literally nothing to do there, which is exactly why a group of stodgy Methodists built a college there in the 1800s.

In the Fall of 1970, my parents drove me from coastal New England, across a winding ribbon of highway that carved through Pennsylvania's hills, gradually settling in Ohio, on a level stretch of land that glibly announces "Welcome to the Midwest".   By the time we neared Taylor University, where I was to begin my college career, we were surrounded by fields of tall corn, ripe for the harvest.  In Indiana, we literally turned a corner, and there was my college of choice, rising from an endless sea of maize, a horrible sight for a boy raised on the craggy coast of Rhode Island, where history's ghosts had waged wars, where neighborhoods teemed with Portuguese and Italian immigrants, grilling chorico sausages with onions, sauteing clams and garlic, and where blue bloods dined on crops of lobster and bluefish harvested from Narragansett Bay.

Indiana had, well... nothing. 

As we took a right turn and saw Taylor's shallow buildings rising abruptly from the corn, we said nothing.  I think we were all hoping that it was some other college, and that we had taken a wrong turn, but alas, that was not the case. 

Had I been a more conscientious student, all would have been different.   I would have been accepted, like my siblings before me, into that grand institution of Christian higher education, Wheaton College in Illinois.  My parents had gone to Wheaton, along with their classmate and friend Billy Graham.  My siblings had gone there.  My siblings' spouses had gone there.  My siblings' spouses' parents had gone there.  There was a time when I believed that all Christians went to Wheaton College,  "For Christ and His Kingdom".

It must be a wonderful thing to have such a great college experience that you want your children to attend your alma mater.  My parents, particularly my mother, loved their Wheaton experience, and certainly thought it would be the best scenario for the education of each of their children.

I was the only person in my immediate family who did not attend Wheaton.  I had little choice, after being rejected by George Cramer, the school's registrar, and a former parishioner of my father's church.  You have to be pretty damned undesirable to get rejected by a college whose alumni roster includes your parents and your siblings.  I always knew George had it in for me.

When I was a senior in high school, I really didn't have a plan for college.  I fatalistically assumed that  I would wind up at The University of Rhode Island, although I had no idea what I would study.  I applied to Taylor, because a family friend, Jack Diamond (not a made up name) went there and did well enough to transfer to Wheaton.  Mind you, Wheaton was where I was expected to go.

One day, an admissions counselor from Taylor called and asked if she could visit with my parents and me, as she was traveling through New England.  During the meeting, my mother suggested I read some of my poetry to her.  I had written a series of poems about apathy called "Who Cares About Apathy?", which at the time seemed like a catchy and poignant idea. These poems were actually quite dreadful, but my senior English teacher, a bovine-nosed woman named Mrs Karr, had given my work an A+, so it seemed worth it to my mother to present it to the counselor.

On the basis of the creativity my paper revealed, I was invited to join the class of 1974 at Taylor University in the fall of 1970.  My student number was 70666.  I liked that.

Turning that corn field's corner and seeing my new home was a real let down.  The architecture sagged with mediocrity, and the buildings were separated by great distances on an uninteresting and very Protestant tract of land.   I would discover these distances, during miserable winters, to be impossible to traverse without getting windburned and frostbitten.

My parents both wore hopeful smiles, believing in something unseen, and blocking from their minds the fact that had I achieved something more, we would be unloading my luggage in lovely Wheaton, Illinois, where much of my spiritual heritage had been forged, and where my parents had met in the mid 1940s.  You know the type of smile I'm talking about; it's actually an exaggerated version of a smile, like a grimace, I suppose, which should be called a "grinace".  These smiles appear when one encounters grave disappointments, achingly sad truths, and news of misfortune. 

In my parents' minds, and perhaps even in mine, I would have my freshman year in a sort of Purgatory, where the better angels of my nature would ferry me across the mundane waters of required liberal arts basics, and land me where I was supposed to be, Wheaton.

Parent orientation centered around a church service, which was as interesting and as moving as the sea of corn in Taylor's back yard.  After the bow-tie clad chaplain said the benediction, we walked to the cafeteria, which was housed under a large, white, dome-shaped building, nicknamed, I would soon discover, the TU Tit.  Indeed, it had the appearance of a reclining woman's pleasantly relaxed breast.  One time, some pranksters climbed the giant mammary, placed a 55 gallon drum on top of it, and painted the drum pink along with a large circle around it, giving it a very erect nipple, and thus, a much more realistic appearance.  The newly improved TU Tit didn't last long.

While standing in line for my first glorious meal, my mother took pity on a tall, gangly, bird-like boy, and began talking with him.  Her compassionate mind was thinking "Paw thing", and she took it upon herself to brighten his day by showing interest in him.  The complication of her charity was that my father and I were conscripted into the conversation. 

"Wheruh you from?", Mom asked.   In a moment which makes me wonder if God isn't mean-spirited after all, Steve replied "Wheaton, Illinois".  "Oh, Dave and I and our two uthuh children all went to Wheaton", Mom announced. 

The next thing I knew, Steve, the bird-boy, was inviting himself to join us for lunch.

Great, I thought.  My last meal with my parents, and I have to share it with this weirdo from Wheaton.  After our meal, Steve said, "Hey, wouldn't it be neat if you and I turned out to be roommates."  I sure didn't think so. 

"Yeah", I said.

A half hour later, Mom was the first to walk into my new room, and I heard her say "Oh NO!" and then recovering, "er, what a surprise".

Sure enough, the bird-boy was my room mate after all.  He had already chosen his bunk, his desk, and had hung his artwork all over the room.  His chosen medium was flesh.  Steve was an amateur taxidermist.  His work included a stuffed pigeon and a rabbit's head mounted on a piece of plywood.  I later would learn that he was a scavenger, and anything left on the roadside would wind up in our room, despite my protests.

(Steve would eventually transfer to Wheaton, where perhaps he studied taxidermy.   Years later, he surfaced in the Colorado Springs area, where he had built a home from scavenged materials.  No lie.)

My parents soon left, and I donned my freshman beanie and set about the work of embracing my new home.  I didn't realize it then, but I had just entered the epicenter of Evangelicalism- The Midwest.  If I thought for a moment that my home life had been flavored with the taste of Christendom, the spirituality I was about to experience was of a flavorless, over-cooked variety, like English pub food without the glorious architecture and beer.

At first, I fell hard, mesmerized by the thrill of being with a crowd who thinks like you think.  My first experience of the sensation of camaraderie was the childhood discovery a fellow Yankee fan in Red Sox country back in Rhode island.  Now here I was at TU, with 1400 people who all loved Jesus, and who wanted to change the world for Him.  It was an amazing thing, like being in a gigantic youth group.

Truth is, that rebel yell in my heart cannot be stifled for long, and eventually my colors will show.  My proclivity to be set apart, to be different, to be Phil Madeira, will always override my desire to belong.  My rebel yell sometimes manifests itself in the form of a grand profane moment, in which I am exposed as an odd sort of Christian, and subsequently rejected completely or tolerated generously and sweetly as someone who has yet to truly understand the change that Christ demands of his followers.

I'm a lousy joiner.  

Like the housekeeper who doesn't do windows, I don't do religion, although I can make a case for doing windows.  The case for religion is weak, and no one has made that clearer than Jesus Himself.

So, I sought out like-minded rebels, but they were hard to come by.  I didn't want to throw out the Baby Jesus, just His bath water. 

Although I felt a kinship with the rebellious crowd, I was apprehensive about becoming too emeshed, because most in that scene were frequent drug users.  Refugees from religion, there was a bitterness among this group, most of whom had been steeped in Midwestern Evangelicalism to the point of spoiling.

I wasn't interested in smoking pot, although I had many evenings breaking the Taylor Pledge by splitting a $1.50 bottle of Boone's Farm Apple Wine, or drinking Drury's, a dreary beer served at Newt's Glass Bar, so chicly named because the bar was constructed of glass bricks.  Yep, that's how they do things in the Midwest.

Eventually, I gave in to my curiosity about weed, and occasionally smoked in the confines of my off-campus room.  I remember going to a chapel service,  high as a kite, and trying to remain inconspicuous by wearing welder's glasses.

Someone told me I was having fun.

I hold no affection nor sentimentality for my short-lived pot smoking days.

That nothing-to-do-bubble in Indiana was less protective than one might imagine.  I've often thought had I gone to the University of Rhode Island, I might not have ever done anything rebellious, since partying was a way of life at big state schools.  What grain would I have gone against in such a hedonistic place? 

I gave my soul to a Taylor girl, a Christian Education major who gave me a considerably unchristian education.  Rather than celebrate my enlightenment, I mourned the loss of my ignorant innocence, as well as the loss of the girl, who didn't last long at Taylor.  She was an outsider, too, and that's what did me in.  Perhaps your average college boy would be high-fiving fraternity brothers after conquering such supple landscape, but I knew that it was me who'd been conquered, not her. 

A few months after my heart had been broken, I met guitarist Phil Keaggy who was playing a concert at nearby Marion College.   On the night we met, he told me that he thought someday we'd be in a band together.  Three years later, this assumption or prophecy or wild guess, call it what you will, came true when I made the trek to Upstate New York and joined his band and the cult which he was a member of.  But that is another story.

I had a philosophy teacher in my Junior year named Herb Nygren, and it was he who opened up the world to me, and made faith intriguing.  If there was a single thing that my college education gave me, it was the sense that spiritual exploration was not only interesting and entertaining, but necessary in order to stave off the crippling atrophy that seemed to make invalids of so many religious people, from Jesus' time to the present. 

As I pondered my own beliefs, questioning God seemed to be a Biblical expression of faith, and even worship.  Searching for God would have to include a scrutinizing of him in order for a mutual satisfaction to occur between Creator and creature.  The tale of Jacob wrestling with God in the wilderness and limping away, the victor, alluded to a picture of God Almighty wearing a "Question Authority" tee shirt, and saying "Bring it on" to honest doubters.

Evangelicals hammer away at the idea of a personal relationship with Christ, which I resonate with to this day.  Yet, they depersonalize the concept with rigid theologies, particularly Calvinism, which foists a determined, willful God on hapless Christians who have no choice in the matter of following Him or Her.  The notion of God choosing some for Heaven and some for Hell, does not sound like the gracious Shepherd I heard about in Sunday School, going to the ends of earth to find one lost sheep.

Calvinists, whom often call themselves "Reformed", love the box they have created for God; in preparing this concrete place for him, they sequester him in finiteness and smugly declare the subservience of his love, a muted affection smothered and dwarfed and beneath a gargantuan Will which God's own tears cannot erode.  Calvinism seems to be at home in the Midwest, as squared off as a road map of Indianapolis.

The red clay on my Southern soles doesn't blend with the dry dirt of the Midwest.  My blood doesn't want to freeze, and my will doesn't want to surrender.  Like Midwesterners, I'm holding my ground, but it's a different kind of soil.  This dirt tastes like it's been trod over by gospel-singing negros, woman warriors, and spirit-filled portrait painters, with names like Sister Rosetta, Flannery O'Connor, and Howard Finster.  The ground I'm holding is my faith, flexible and evolving, open and mystical, childlike and offensive.  I don't want to put a name to my beliefs, lest they feel contrived or made up.

May God Almighty recognize me apart from the labels I've acquired:

"gangstuh"  (my mother's pronunciation)
7 on the Enneagram
8 on the Enneagram
not a Christian

...and forgive me for the labels I've bequeathed.

Meanwhile, my Southern Born Woman smiles and knows my type, but is content to call me baby, which is not a made up name.


  1. Fond memories of St. Paul, and good times... This made me laugh out loud: "Three years later, this assumption or prophecy or wild guess, call it what you will, came true when I made the trek to Upstate New York and joined his band and the cult which he was a member of. But that is another story." Cult stories are the best!


  2. Thank you for the gospel truth Philip! You and your SBW mirror my kind of faith!


  3. Thank you, kind readers. Todd, the "cult"story is on the list of entries, and is called "Love Inn"...


  4. Phil, Phil, Phil...when you are in the Twin Cities, let me know. Can't remember whether I've ever told you about my experience teaching at Wheaton the first year Paul was in seminary. But I've written about it too:

  5. Paula,

    I just read your journal entry on the Wade Collection and the statement you were asked to sign. Very interesting. Well written, too. I love the Wade collection, and it was fun taking our kids to see the Wardrobe a long time ago.

    Thanks for the link- I've posted it on my Facebook page, and certainly encourage readers here to partake as well.

  6. of all the theologies, i was drawn most to calvin’s covenant hermeneutic by the sheer beauty of its logic. cold, perhaps. cruel, predictably so. but brilliantly consistent in its execution. it challenged the dispensational framework that i had known all my life growing up in appalachia, utterly destroying it.

    god knows i needed that. but eventually, reformed theology, too, would leave me empty.

    through the course of my spiritual journey, i have come to realize that i best serve a god who i have fashioned from all the myths and rituals that resonate with both my mind and my heart. a god of contradictions. a god of chaos. a god who embraces and defies the boxes that i put her in.

    northern, southern, eastern or western, i take comfort these days in the words of erasmus, popularized by c.g. jung: “vocatus atque non vocatus, deus aderit.”

    no matter what labels i choose (or don’t choose, for that matter) it would appear that god, quite simply, is. everything else is just a matter of how i choose to frame it. in the end, be it bullshit or brilliance, those frames say more about me than they do about god.

    thanks for the thought food.

    tikkun olam

  7. I'm not sure if I ever realized you also attended Taylor U. Surely this has come up at some point, but I don't remember it. Regardless, it was with great interest and empathy I read this post. I too experienced the world's largest cornfield youth group from 91-95, and have conflicting feelings about my time there as a result. I also know that I brought that baggage with me to Nashville which resulted in a period of both enlightenment and disillusionment as it relates to my own faith... stories for another time over brews perhaps. Anyway - just wanted to say hi and let you know that I enjoyed this post in particular. And note that not long after your departure Taylor 'erected' a large 40-foot high phallic sculpture behind the dining commons that was surely meant as a counterbalance to the 'tit' - the good evangelicals wanting to be sure everyone knew who was still in charge.

  8. Phil, was your Mom from the South? Being new to your blog, I"m not familiar with your roots, except the Rhode Island part.

    This post really resonated with me, a gratefully recovering Southern Baptist turned Calvinist (also recovering) who is on a spiritual journey that is constantly evolving. Still, the depth of the imprint of my religious upbringing makes it hard for me to not feel guilty about my continued quest.

  9. sdk, thanks for chiming in. I think most of us define "god" by the synthesis of our responses and reactions to a number of random (or predestined ? ;) stimuli. In your case, Calvinism trumps Dispensationalism... yet your heart/mnd trumps logic.

    Sounds like the artist's way.


    Andy, I didn't know you went to TU.

    I probably sound terribly unappreciative of Taylor U, but there was a lot of good, moreso than not. There were some big-hearted Christian people there whom I will never forget.


    Karen, thank you for reading.

    Mom is a New Englander, through and through, born in Providence and having lived in New England for nearly 90 years. On the other hand, if you read my first chapter "Southern By The Grace of God", you'll have some appreciation of why I high-tailed it to Dixieland a long time ago.

    Think of your "quest" as a form of praise.

    I try to continue in openess, yet, like my SBW, I can't escape Jesus and (as CS Lewis says) "the one true myth" of redemption. I haven't thrown at the Bible, but I try to read it in a way that searches for the heart of Love. Thus a scripture like John 3:17 embodies what I believe God is all about, whereas the conquests of God's followers are often antithetical to Love's character.

    I believe that God is honored by an honest quest.

    Thanks, Karen.

  10. ... and that's why I always liked you.


  11. Thanks Trina.
    It's good to be liked.

  12. Jeffrey M. Archer24 April, 2010

    Phil, I read this post aloud to my wife over breakfast this morning. I roared at your descriptions of TU, your room mate and the sense of Taylor at that time. She gloated at the distinction of TU vs Wheaton, you see she is a grad of Wheaton, Class of '76. I've tried to tell her that Wheaton is where people go when they can't get into Taylor. She never believed that and now you've confirmed that. My life will never be the same.

    But I do agree with you in so much of what you said, particularly the searching and questioning of God part. I can only add that as I have sought God, and even during those times I was running from God, God was faithful. You said it best, "If there was a single thing that my college education gave me, it was the sense that spiritual exploration was not only interesting and entertaining, but necessary in order to stave off the crippling atrophy that seemed to make invalids of so many religious people, from Jesus' time to the present." Spiritual exploration is critical to a life lived with Christ. Otherwise it is someone else's experience, not yours.

    I've said it before and I mean it more today. When you were that "kid from New England" playing the piano atin the lobby of MCW Hall, I became a big fan of yours. I'm so pleased to see that you were able to make a life doing what you so obviously love. I loved those times listening to you play. You were at home when you played. I love music but can barely play a radio. Musicians have a corner and view of the world that the rest of us cannot comprehend, and people like me are envious.

    Phil, thanks for sharing your thoughts. (I ached when I read of your divorce from E, having gone through the pain of that myself.) In retrospect, TU wasn't so bad and it has contributed, in one way or the other, to be the musician, man and father you are today. I hope and trust you will continue to search for God through Christ. I do. Blessings on you Phil and, I'll say it again, you have a place to stay in Charlotte if you ever get this way. Blessings. Jeff Archer

  13. Thanks, Jeff.
    Contacting you privately with a response to your kind note.


  14. PM- Ah, it is all beginning to make sense now - ENTJ and an Enneagram 7. Yo tambien. Peace, my brother! Patrice Marie (also known as PM.)

  15. Scott Bachmann30 April, 2013

    I know that during your PKB days you spent some time at Love Inn. What causes you to label it a "cult?" That's a pretty harsh (some would say judgmental) term. Here's what Phil Keaggy said about the place in the 1970s: "The Love Inn Community of Freeville, New York, is a body of believers functioning primarily according to New Testament patterns, and is not just another church on the corner, or a commune. We're a family and God is teaching us more and more. There's a quality of life that's being experienced here, in a practical outworking of the Lordship of Jesus in our lives, that is surpassing anything I've come from. One of the first things that happened to me here was that I had to come under authority. It's been hard for me to let go of my independence, but I am learning that they are not trying to hold me down, or restrict me out of jealousy, or just to put their thumb on me so that I won't be happy. It means less time spent on the road sometimes but I'm experiencing a lasting closeness with other Christians. I look in my brothers' faces and see the love they have for me. I've taken on the responsibility of being part of the Love Inn staff. If I show faithfulness in this job, the Lord will entrust me with greater things." Did Phil's opinion of the place change over time? You must realize that much of what goes down in the average Episcopal church is (to be generous) extra-biblical, and some would say just downright weird. On the one hand you like to be this tolerant, worldly, profane guy who sees the grey in everything and considers vagueness to be a fruit of the Spirit; on the other hand, you have no problems throwing stones at other parts of the Body. By the way, loved, loved, LOVED "Emerging." That was a GREAT album.


Your comments are welcome, and I will try answer any questions, if possible. Thanks for reading! pkm