An Interview with Tex Sample
By Rich Brown
Tex Sample loves to “pitch tent.” It has nothing to do with a camping trip, however. He knows koiné Greek, the kind used in the New Testament. “Pitching tent” is what John 1:14 is all about: the Word being made flesh and dwelling with (literally “pitching tent among”) us mere mortals. But Tex doesn’t slide into deep biblical exegesis the way you’d expect from a long-time seminary professor, gifted theologian, and published author.
He could do that, of course, and feel right at home with scholars and intellectuals—because he’s one himself. But eventually you realize there’s something faintly autobiographical going on as he tells you a story about his friend, a Southern Baptist preacher to whom Tex gives the pseudonym “Jimmy Hope Smith.” Reverend Jimmy gives every indication of being a stereotypical fundamentalist. He speaks with a thick southern accent, laced with intentionally incorrect grammar and deliberate malaprops. Behind that façade, however, is a highly educated man thoroughly conversant in numerous schools of philosophical thought, obtained during the course of earning a Ph.D. at a prestigious eastern university. Whenever Reverend Jimmy encounters elitist Yankees pontificating on the low-brow tastes of the uneducated working class, he doesn’t get mad. He begins to subtly challenge their intellectual assumptions, allowing them to feed on their obvious self-importance and certainty. Before they know what’s happened, they’re hopelessly entrapped in their own arguments.
You see, Tex knows what Reverend Jimmy Hope Smith knows: an oral culture is not, by definition, inferior to a literate one. It’s just a whole lot different.
The first thing to appreciate about Tex is that he’s not just from the small town of Brookhaven, Mississippi; it’s still very much inside him. “Tex” is not a nickname, by the way. His father named him after Texanna Gillham, an African-American woman who was born into slavery and helped raise his father near Center, Texas.
As a young man Tex resisted a call to the ministry as long as he could before reluctantly setting a course in that direction. After graduating from Millsaps College in his native state, he went on to get an M.Div. and a Ph.D. from Boston University—the same place where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had earned one earlier. Eight years of pastoring United Methodist congregations eventually led to a professorship at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri. His speciality continues to be the study of blue collar and poor people. Time spent as a cab driver, laborer, and oil-field roustabout no doubt played a part in that.
Now retired from his seminary career, he lives in Goodyear, Arizona, and works as a freelance lecturer, workshop leader, and consultant with the church and with community, governmental, and business groups. He is coordinator of the Network for the Study of U.S. Lifestyles. Not surprisingly, he has own Web site: www.texsample.com. He travels to about fifty events a year, such as the Theology and Ministry Forum at Graceland University in February, where he instructs and encourages church people to understand American oral culture better. That means the sights and sounds, the stories and folk wisdom, the music and the beat of a culture that’s radically different from what is typically a part of Christian churches.
At heart Tex is a country boy. That helps form his soul as a Christian. He loves and values country music, yet he can feel the passion in an operatic aria, too. He’s at home among educated, highly literate people, and equally so among the working class and the poor.
And so when Tex talks about “pitching tent,” it’s about being with people—being truly with—the way God came to be with the ancient Hebrews wandering around Sinai and also the Judeans and Galileans in Jesus’ time. Expressed formally, it’s about the relationship between church and culture. But Tex will steer you along a more informal route.
“We’ve got to find new ways to negotiate those relationships, but it doesn’t mean selling out. You do join certain indigenous practices, but you also oppose some. You join some indigenous practices in order to be with people, but then you take those practices in order to put them in God’s story. You don’t put God’s story in the world; you put the world in God’s story. That to me is key.”
Storytelling is a prime way to communicate and understand in oral cultures. A big challenge for the church today is that most leaders probably operate out of a literate culture, Tex contends. That simply means that their understandings and actions arise from intellectual pursuits, thinking and feeling, reason and philosophy. Meanwhile a significant percentage of church members, perhaps even a majority, operate out of an oral culture that values stories and proverbs, activities and relationships. It’s not that either is “right”; all too often everybody just talks past one another and nobody hears or understands the others.
The world—at least that part of it in Western cultures like the United States—is filled if not driven by an incredible mix of sound and images, technology and rhythm, in a multisensory, multimedia mix. Yet the majority of churches remain oblivious to it all. One result is the number of people who speak of their faith, their spirituality, without bringing “church” into the conversation in any way.
Tex reflects on the counsel of the apostle Paul to “be not conformed to the world” but to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (see Romans 12:1-2):
“Transformation is the aim. Formation is critical. I think in America—and it’s partly out of our history—we talk far too much about beliefs and we don’t talk nearly enough about practices. And we talk too much about getting our ideas right—and that’s important, but we talk about it so exclusively that we don’t bother to get our practices right. What I mean by that is that practices engage us.
“A lot of people say, ‘I’m a Christian but I’m not a church person.’ I just don’t believe that. When someone says that, it tells me they don’t have their practices together. They’re saying only, ‘I believe and therefore that’s sufficient.’ Now, of course, there are a few people in the world I meet who are serious about their practices who take that line, but typically for those people who tell me they’re spiritual but don’t have a church connection, it means they don’t do anything about a consistent, serious practice of the faith.
“They have what some of the scholars call mere belief. The Quakers call that notions. People have notions about the faith, but not much faith. The problem with this is that sort of thing doesn’t form you much. What happens is, your real practices overwhelm your beliefs and you get a kind of ‘tourist Christian’ who says, ‘I like to look at the faith and think about it, but don’t ask me to make any commitments to it in a community—the body of Christ.’ I don’t think you can be a Christian apart from your community, apart from the church.”
Spirituality is the buzzword found in a lot of churches these days, especially mainline Protestant ones, and it’s been part of the Catholic tradition for many centuries. Meanwhile, evangelicals and fundamentalists are more apt to speak about discipleship. Tex sees connections, but returns to familiar territory to do so:
“Discipleship is related to spirituality if you mean by that the Christian faith moving into a way of life, and that way of life has a whole range of practices. It’s not just worship, of course, but worship and Eucharist and ministries of caring, justice, and peace. Christianity is not, basically, a belief system; it’s a way of life. My problem with so much of spirituality is that it’s so individual—there’s no community in it. Often it’s just ‘me and God.’
“I don’t have much confidence in it, and therefore don’t run around giving it a lot of praise. Some academics think it’s wonderful. I don’t. I think it lacks commitment. I think it lacks conviction. I think it lacks seriousness. But now, let me say one other word: When somebody is seriously engaged in a range of spiritual things, then that would be something else entirely. Still, I don’t know how you’d do spiritual practices without being part of a community. I don’t mean you have to be part of that local church on the corner, but I think you do have to be involved in a community of faith. For a Christian, that’s just intrinsic to the faith. To talk about ‘the faith’ apart from the church, well, that’s not a Christian notion.
“Part of the problem is that we’ve tried so hard to make everything OK with anybody in terms of whatever they wanted to do, that we haven’t taught the notion of churches. I’ve known the RLDS Church—now the Community of Christ—for about thirty-five years, and one of the things I’ve liked best about it is that community has been key in that church.”
Music plays a role in almost all churches. But what is heard and sung in most congregations is often a great deal different from what is heard outside the walls of the church. In his seminars Tex likes to point out the “day the music changed” for white America back in the mid-sixties—when the emphasis shifted from the downbeat (on beats one and three) to the upbeat, or more correctly the “backbeat” (beats two and four). The growing influence of black musicians and the dramatically different styles and rhythms from the Caribbean and South America had a lot to do with it. But it quickly spread to country, rock ‘n’ roll, pop, and now is most clearly part of hip-hop and rap music. Meanwhile, in the pews of most American churches, congregants still sing hymns based on eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and early twentieth-century music. With each ensuing generation, there is more and more disconnect between church and culture. The church is losing the battle, but the war is far from over, Tex believes.
“I’m hopeful. I’m not always optimistic. Hopeful means I think the world finally is in God’s hands. I’m not worried about that. Am I optimistic that everything’s going to work out? Nah. People go through a century and the church loses contact because it becomes a very small minority of people. I don’t want that to happen.”
Although he agrees that the church, by and large, is not a powerful force in our children’s generation, that can change.
“Children change. But I don’t think we in the church are reaching children and adolescents and young adults. That’s one reason why I do all that I do—so the church can make that happen.”
What Tex does is introduce church people to a new way of Christian worship. He advocates lifting words off a printed page, projecting them up on screens along with all kinds of visual images, using techniques and technologies and media that are commonplace elsewhere. It means using computer software and different kinds of music, sung with a backbeat and a rhythmic intensity we’re just not used to finding in church. That, of course, might come as a shock to people used to more traditional practices, who may well think it’s nothing more than entertainment. Tex returns to a familiar theme:
“I don’t like the notion of entertaining people in worship. It’s not that I’m against it ever happening, but there are just so many better ways to do it. I would hope that we’d be putting the worship in God’s story, not putting God’s story in the worship. Making sure that what’s organizing it, what it’s about, is God’s story. That’s my basic approach to all I do: not how faith can serve the media, but how the media can serve the faith. There’s the key.”
There will be some folks in the church who “just don’t get it, and they may never get it,” he adds.
It’s somewhat surprising, then, when he cautions against trying to blend traditional and alternative methods in major ways. It’s like what happens to country music singers who attempt to cross over into pop music. They may gain new fans, but they risk losing as many or more of those at their core. What he says about country-to-pop crossover carries over to worship styles in the church, as well.
“The crossover worries me. I just see that music as so important to white, working-class people. Those who keep doing crossover with it are just adapting music to another group of folks. They’re leaving that base. Country music is such a powerful medium. It obviously changes, but it doesn’t need to be trying to fit everybody. And that’s what crossover does—to get out there in the mainstream to be like many, many more people. I think if it does, then it’s going to lose its relationship to the working class.”
This is why Tex believes strongly in setting up entirely new groups that will respond to the appeal of alternative worship.
“The idea of bringing little bits and pieces of something else into a traditional worship service—well, I wouldn’t typically do that. It’s why in my workshops and seminars I start speaking about oral culture and staying with the practices of oral culture. Don’t try to change them. Instead, if you’re in a church where they are, start up an alternative, too. Don’t try to mess around with what their roots have been. It’s just key. I really have a lot of respect for oral culture. I personally love it.”
He suggests forming an alternative group even in small churches. One of the biggest challenges, however, relates to finances.
“Quite frankly, when you initially start up one of these alternative services, they don’t pay for themselves. Folks who often come to those things have not been raised in the church. And even if they were raised in the church, they’ve been gone for quite some time and haven’t developed practices of giving. I’d start within a church that already exists because then you have some resources to draw on. It’s tough to build one from the ground up. Some people do, and seem to do it well, but it’s tough. Some of the younger folks are starting house churches. I don’t think that’s necessarily the answer, but it’s certainly one answer.”
Some local churches—and denominations—resist change, perhaps to the point of trying to turn back the clock to a time perceived to be better or “golden.” Tex pauses for a second, letting this thought sink in, before concluding, “It can take a long time for a church to die. We’re going to have those folks around, and that’s fine I suppose. The only time I get upset is not when those congregations won’t stop doing what they’re doing, but it’s because they won’t allow some other things to go on as well. When their grandchildren don’t want to do what they’ve been doing, those grandchildren are going to take a walk.”
That’s it right there. Tex Sample doesn’t want anybody’s grandkids to take a walk away from Christ’s church. They belong in God’s story. That’s why he “pitches tent.”