Published May 20, 2010
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) They don’t serve Powdermilk Biscuits in the Collins Alumni Auditorium at Lipscomb University, not far from downtown Nashville.
There’s no Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band; Guy Noir is nowhere in sight.
And if Brother Preacher ever got hold of Garrison Keillor, he might Bible thump him all the way back to Lake Wobegon.
Still, if “A Prairie Home Companion” ever moved south and came to Jesus, it might look a lot like “Tokens.”
For the past two years, Lipscomb religion professor Lee Camp has been hosting Nashville’s “new, old-time radio show,” which offers a mix of theology, A-list local musicians, and a hearty helping of Southern-flavored satire. Camp bills “Tokens” as “Too serious for public radio. Too edgy for Christian radio. Too much fun to miss.”
“Tokens” debuted in 2008 and performs before a live audience about five times a year, though they are moving toward a more frequent rotation. Episodes are recorded and available online as podcasts, downloads, and CDs.
The latest, on April 13, was entitled “Back to Green,” and featured Christian music star Amy Grant and environmental capitalist Tom Szaky – who’s made millions using worms to recycle garbage into fertilizer. It also featured the Tokens Radio players, who satirized Szaky’s work with a skit about a company call Wigglescat – which, like Szaky, sells poop for profit.
“We put together things that most people would not put together, like worm poop and theology,” said Camp.
Humor plays a large part in the show’s sideways approach to theology and social issues. If he can get people to laugh, Camp says, they are more willing to listen.
Even when the show takes on issues like justice, materialism, and the environment.
“We try to use the humor and music to sneak up on people, and get them to look at substantive issues,” said Camp. “You get a lot further by approaching things at an angle. If you approach things head on, then people get entrenched in what they think they already know.”
Camp was also inspired by Keillor. The theology professor had listened to “A Prairie Home Companion” for years, and wondered if he could use a similar approach to talk about theology.
Before starting “Tokens,” Camp approached his friend Randy Goodman, chairman of the County Music Association, about starting the program. Camp says he expected Goodman to reject the idea. Instead, Goodman gave him thumbs up.
Camp admits that anxiety about failing, more than anything, had been holding him back.
“If you can overcome the fear of failure, it’s amazing to see what can happen,” he said.
The first cast member to sign up was Jeff Taylor, who now serves as the show’s musical director. Taylor helped recruit A-list Nashville session players. Taylor also helped get musical guests like Grant, Ashley Cleveland, Vince Gill, and Buddy Greene to appear on the show, which premiered on February 19, 2008.
During the April 13 show, Grant sang Joni Mitchell’s pro-environmental song “Big Yellow Taxi,” with its trademark line, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” She also sang Merle Travis’ “Dark as a Dungeon,” which laments the fate of coal miners. That’s not a typical song for the Christian pop star.
“We try to have people sing things they wouldn’t normally sing,” said Camp.
The show’s radio troupe is a mixture of professional and amateur actors, including Greg Lee, an actor from Ohio, who plays “Brother Preacher” – a pitch-perfect imitation of a Baptist preacher who’s got nothing to say but doesn’t let that get in his way. His three minute monologues are alone worth the price of admission.
There’s also Merri Collins, a pediatrician and church friend of Camp’s, along with fellow Lipscomb theologian David Fleer.
Fleer said he signed up because of Camp’s approach to theology.
“We have a very conservative audience,” he said. “And Lee is presenting some not-so-conservative ideas. I look out at the audience, and not only are they listening, but they are also hearing what Lee’s trying to say. And that’s rare.”
Grammy award winner Ashley Cleveland, who appeared on the show last year, said she’d heard about the show from friends, and jumped at the chance to play on “Tokens.”
“Faith should never be reduced to a to-do list,” she said. “It should always start with a celebration.”
That doesn’t mean that “Tokens” is simple a Christian imitation of “A Prairie Home Companion.” While they deal with theology, Camp and the cast are after something bigger – glimpses of God’s action in the world, or tokens of grace.
“We didn’t want to do something just for the church crowd,” said Buddy Green, who’s been a regular guest on the show.
Motivated by joy
In June, “Tokens” will celebrate its tenth episode. That’ll be followed by a November show at the Ryman for Thanksgiving. Right now the episodes are recorded and can be ordered online at tokensshow.com. Camp hopes someday the show will be broadcast as well.
Despite the serious topics in the show, Camp said he’s mainly motivated by the sheer joy that comes with performing.
“Christians don’t do many things simply for the delight of doing them,” he said. “That’s something we are trying to do – it’s an exercise in delight.”
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