Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Critic of the Week—Tex Sample

I once walked into a hometown blue-collar bar, took a table, and fired up my Kindle to catch up on my reading.  After a few moments, silence fell over the bar.  Other than Waylon Jennings on the jukebox, all sounds had diminished to a whisper, as the flannel-clad drinkers stared at me like I’d taken off my jeans in public.  I never returned to that bar.

I should have read Tex Sample.  In Living With Will Rogers, Uncle Remus, & Minnie Pearl, Sample identifies the gap between the “literate culture,” people like me who perceive the world through words and documents, and the “oral culture,” which prizes folk wisdom, oral heritage, and tradition.  He finds remarkable fonts of untapped wisdom in the oral culture.  But he also sees significant cultural conflict.

A product of rural oral upbringing himself, Sample encountered the conflict in college, where professors passed information through documents and artifacts.  This allowed greater nuance, but discussion often bogged down in extraneous implications.  Oral culture people, he says, pass tiny nuggets of wisdom that lack finesse but permit quick decision.  This ability to think and work at the same time gives oral people a distinct edge.

Yet literary people often hold power in oral people’s lives.  We often sign their paychecks, pull their strings, and demand unquestioning loyalty.  Though they don’t have elaborate critical names for this behavior, oral people recognize colonial exploitation when they see it, and they resist.  They exercise remarkable power in their ability to drag their heels, spread gossip, and just refuse.

Sample, a career theologian, writes primarily for pulpit preachers, who often have graduate degrees but lead congregations of diverse background.  But only occasionally do his words limit themselves to a church context.  His wisdom of lives lived on society’s margins can enlighten teachers, lawyers, businessmen, and anyone who must cross that culture gap.

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