Friday, January 08, 2010
The Legend That Is Jerry Falwell - A Personal Reexamination
It has been nearly three years since Jerry Falwell - old-time Southern preacher, college chancellor, political firebrand, and a man whose legend and legacy has reached near mythic proportions - passed away in his office at the university he built from scratch, nurtured and loved, and even now people are continuing to assess the true scope and ultimate impact of his life and work.
Several new books have come out within the last year which approach him from different angles: Dr. John Killinger's The Other Preacher in Lynchburg, which examines Falwell's impact in Lynchburg, Virginia and across the country through the lens of being a fellow minister in Lynchburg; The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University, which explores Kevin Roose's life as a student at Falwell's Liberty University as told by a Brown student and aspiring writer who spent one semester living, learning and worshipping there; and Macel Falwell's new memoir, Jerry Falwell: His Life and Legacy. Of the three, I have finished Killinger's book (fascinating), am nearly finished with Roose's book (a good look at Liberty from the inside), and will soon be starting Mrs. Falwell's book.
I'm sure that some of you who are here regularly may be asking why I, a born-and-bred Episcopalian with a more moderate view on certain social issues, would spend thirty seconds on Falwell let alone invest in three books (and possibly read some of his own work, ghost-written or otherwise). It's a fair question, and I'll be short and direct with my response: I have absolutely no idea. Had you asked me three weeks, three months, or three years ago whether I would be interested in exploring Jerry Falwell's life as a personal study, I would have laughed.
Now, I'm not laughing.
As a native of Lynchburg and someone who spent the first 22 years of my life in that town (a town that I still love), I and everyone else were perpetually in Falwell's shadow. Even today, when I tell folks where I come from, they invariably respond, "Oh! You make Jack Daniels!" And just as predictably, my answer is always, "No, we made Jerry Falwell." It seemed that the two were inseperable: Lynchburg was Jerry Falwell, and Jerry Falwell was Lynchburg. I can remember from a young age the Sunday morning broadcasts of The Old Time Gospel Hour that were invariably running in the background as my family got ready for church, whether we were watching or not, and I can still remember Falwell's booming baritone going up and out from behind the pulpit at Thomas Road Baptist Church. In fact, that is precisely the reason I chose this particular picture to accompany the post - it is from the period in my life containing my earliest awareness of who he was.
Remarkably, in 22 years in a town the size of Lynchburg, I only saw Falwell in person three times: once at an annual performance of TRBC's Living Christmas Tree; once at a Sunday morning service at TRBC (where I witnessed perhaps the greatest repeat passing of collection plates and baskets during a sermon that I have ever seen); and once as his great, black SUV nearly ran a friend of mine and I into a ditch as the good reverend was pulling out of a carwash just minutes from Liberty University. The once-every-every-seven year sightings are even remarkable now when I consider that I went through a phase where it seemed that every young lady I asked out on a date (some successfully) was a student at Liberty, attended TRBC, or both.
So again, the question comes up: why am I doing this now? I still don't know; perhaps it's part of a larger reexamination and review of my life in Lynchburg, a life where Falwell was always lurking on the edge of things. Perhaps it's part of my exploration of other denominations and faiths outside of my own Episcopal background - and no single denomination or faith was bigger in Lynchburg than TRBC (25,000 members, if I remember correctly). Or maybe it's a subconscious desire to move beyond - after nearly 40 years - some subconscious notions that have built up, to at long last decide for myself whether he truly was a sinner or a saint, a hero or a villain, a priest or a charlatan, a man who really loved his hometown or who simply saw the advantages of being able to build an empire by never leaving his hometown.
I can't say where this is going - I only know that I'm going to enjoy the ride.