On flashy self-denial

Since I stand (not unjustly) accused of meandering loquaciously to the point (and of using words like “loquaciously”), I’ll cut to the chase: when do press releases describing tragedy, grave illness, near-misses, and tabloidesque experiences amongst gospel music stars and their families stop being news and begin shading into homespun sensationalism? I’m referring to the small but persistent number of “news” announcements that (inadvertently) seem to take a kind of dark delight in tales of misfortune and suffering:Member of Mercy’s Well Involved in Roadside Robbery
Kohut’s Involved in Auto Accident
Tracy Stuffle develops pneumonia [after jumping into a frigid lake]

To some extent these kinds of stories reflect the tv-newsification of everyday life - an approach to organizing life that’s summed up by the grisly cynicism of the local television station newsroom: if it bleeds, it leads. But I don’t think this diagnosis can fully account for the exquisite and excruciating level of detail with which gospel music types treat tragedy and lower-grade hardship or distress. Consider the press release about the roadside robbery:

Kyle Hake, lead vocalist for the popular trio Mercy’s Well, was the victim of an armed robbery on his way home to Sumter, South Carolina from a singing engagement on June 26, 2006 at around 2:00 a.m. on Monday morning. The group had performed in Randleman, North Carolina that Sunday evening.

Hake was doubtlessly and understandably frightened by this incident and a news-brief item of this length that also noted that Hake was not harmed by his assailant and managed to escape after his wallet and cell phone were taken seems perfectly appropriate to the situation. It is news, but no necessarily that big of a news story when you consider the scope and range of misfortune that befalls people every day. But the press release continues:

The incident occurred not far from Kyle’s home. Apparently the robber had placed items in the road to cause a blown tire and/or an accident. Kyle ran over the items in the road, stopped to investigate the damage and was approached by an armed masked robber. The attacker threatened Kyle with force. He managed to flee on foot through the woods only to be pursued by the perpetrator. After running and hiding in the wooded area, he managed to escape. No significant cash loss was incurred, but the attacker did take his wallet and cell phone. He suffered cuts, bruises and damage to his knees and feet from running through the wooded area barefoot.

Kyle wishes to thank all who have called, sent e-mails, cards and letters.

“It’s been a comfort to Kyle during this traumatic experience,” stated Brad Strider, owner and manager of Mercy’s Well. “He realizes exactly how much he means to the people near him. Greg and I, along with Kyle’s family and friends, are so thankful he is OK. He appreciates all the prayers that have gone up on his behalf.”

Continue to pray for Kyle that the emotional distress caused by this incident will be minimal. His faith has already seen him through and will continue to sustain him during this time. Anyone wishing to send Kyle correspondence may do so at prayers@mercyswell.com

You can find out more information on Mercy’s Well at http://mercyswell.com

Without diminishing the seriousness of the incident or the real pain inflicted on Hake (both physical and otherwise), one could legitimately wonder if Hake’s suffering has not been somewhat sensationalized so as to play on readers’ fears and feelings of vulnerability. There’s an over-reaching quality to it all, distilled most conspicuously in Hake’s inexplicable barefootedness.

In this kind of press release, the direness of the event dictates the placement of emphasis. Thus the Kohut car-crash item came complete with a picture of the damaged Honda civic. Sure enough. It’s wrecked.

Of course, these tales of near-misses and minor-injuries-that-should-have-been-worse stories are justified by their praise to the Lord for his delivering mercy in sparing performers and/or their families from greater harm. It’s necessary to know that the Kohut’s car, “a Honda Civic, crossed a busy intersection and [was] T-boned by a Dodge Ram 2500 on the passenger side” because such context helps explain just how unlikely survival might have been (BIG TRUCK, teeny car etc), just as it was necessary to know that Hake was barefoot in order to appreciate the extent of secondary injuries in the robbery.

Praise to the Lord notwithstanding, though, this fascination with the particulars of the near-miss or the mishap can often start to feel like a sorta sordid form of self-promotion. A Perrys newsletter last month noted that baritone Joseph Habedank had taken time off to attend to his brother’s graduation. “He was on his way back to meet us for our Sunday night date in Elizabethton, TN., when a lady in an Isuzu Trooper t-boned his BMW. Thank the Lord, Joseph walked away unhurt.” Habedank wasn’t injured and he performed at the concert that night. Once again, there’s the vivid language (”t-boned”) and make-and-model detail of the car-accident reportage. And in this case, it sanctions the mention that, oh, by the way, Joseph Habedank drives a BMW.

A psychosocial critique of all this might conclude that the fixation with calamity reflects a need to feel the sharp edges of life, to publicly distinguish the ordinariness of the self from the one-thing-and-then-anotherism of everyday living that makes us feel unremarkable and the same as everyone else.

This may well be true, but I think there’s a shorter, if not necessarily simpler, answer: what I’ll call showy self-denial. By this I don’t mean to suggest that the frightening accident or terrifying run-in with crime is wholly sexed up or cynically overplayed purely for the sake of sensationalism. Rather, the sensationalist way in which events like these are described speaks to a broader evangelical culture of confessional flashiness.

If that sounds paradoxical, that’s because it is. Running through all these “news” items are the same two competing impulses: the venal imperative of showbusiness to get your name out there and keep it in the news, and the call of Christian piety to deny the self and attribute all success and survival to God’s divine prerogatives. I’m nothing without God, and let me tell you just how much of nothing I almost was!

It’s impossible for this kind of irreconcilable dualism not to put people at loggerheads with themselves. One final example, again from the Perrys. In describing the events aboard a boat on a lake that led up to Tracy Stuffle’s hospitalization and “malignant pneumonia,” Stuffle’s wife, Libbi Perry Stuffle wrote late last week in a widely circulated email:

When Tracy jumped in the water, his body went into shock, he swallowed a bunch of water and it took his breath. He stayed in the water about 15 minutes hoping he could get his breathing back in rhythm, but he couldn’t. He yelled at us to bring the boat to pick him up. We had no idea he was in trouble. When we got him in the boat, he had no color at all and he was coughing up blood. I ask him if he was OK and he said no, he couldn’t get his breath. We made him sit down and wrapped him in towels to get him warm. He started feeling a little better, so we continued to ride the tubes. About 30 minutes passed and Tracy came to the back of the boat to tell us that he needed to go somewhere.

The incongruity of this scene is striking: Stuffle is blue-white with something that sounds very much like hypothermic shock after jumping into “very cold” lake water; he’s coughing up blood … and yet the party continues tubing - for half an hour (thankfully, Stuffle is expected to make a full recovery). Perry Stuffle is still clearly obviously working through the raw emotions of a still-stressful situation. My point is not to fault anyone for sharing unfortunate news to friends and fans about a beloved performer. What’s interesting is that the event is seen less for what it is - a fairly plausible culmination of a series of bad decisions (jumping into a frigid lake, continuing the outing after Stuffle started coughing up blood) - and instead is cited as a proof-text for what happens when one prays for a miracle.

God may rescue us from our own folly and spare us from the graver misfortunes of ordinary life in a world of human error. There’s nothing wrong with saying so either. But at a certain point, all the thank-God-thats and please-pray-fors that these press releases and public statements pivot on begin to cut against themselves and give way to the unseemly indiscretion of self-indulgent piety.

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