Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Dancing and Banjos: Tokens Imagines A Kingdom Come

by Ben Howard

Theology isn’t supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be something studied by old German men with beards and tweed coats. It’s supposed to impractical and aloof; a relic of a former age. Theology isn’t cool and there certainly isn’t any room for humor or dancing or, God forbid, banjos in the realm of the theological.

But there really should be.

Last Sunday I was blessed to be in the audience for the annual Tokens Thanksgiving Special, “The Welcome Table,” at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. If you aren’t familiar with Tokens it’s kind of hard to describe. The best analogy would be a kind of theological Prairie Home Companion, but I don’t know if that quite captures the intentionally subversive mentality of the event. My favorite description of Tokens is that it’s what would happen if Mark Twain met God and liked him.

The show always feels like a classic taste of Americana from Lee Camp’s Southern gentleman-cum-emcee to a house band cheerfully titled The Most Outstanding Horeb Mountain Boys to a cavalcade of bluegrass, country, and folk artists like Daley and Vincent, Vince Gill and the rambunctious and enthralling Johnnyswim occupying the stage.

If that’s all the show was, it would be brilliant. If it was simply a warm slice of apple pie; a bit of restorative and peaceful nostalgia amidst the cultural clutter of the holiday season, it would have been a very fine show indeed. But Tokens is so much more than that.

Tokens is special because it embraces and dances with difficult and divisive issues, weaving them into the tapestry of a show so full of warmth and heart, that the audience is ready and willing to engage with the something new, something that might make them uncomfortable otherwise. Who would have thought that a packed house of largely white southerners would openly cheer Brian McLaren for his work in interfaith dialogue? Or would happily smile and tap their toes to a song from The McCrary Sisters called “Bless ‘Em All” about blessing all those of different traditions and different faiths?

That’s the point of Tokens. It’s entertaining, sure, but it’s a show that’s always casting its vision forward, always pointing its audience beyond the entertainers, beyond the jokes, beyond the songs and books and music to something else; a vision of Kingdom and community that subverts and overturns our present reality. It’s a vision of a Kingdom where we are all family. A Kingdom where we laugh together and cry together, sing together and mourn together. A Kingdom where everybody is in on the joke because everybody is a little bit ridiculous and where everybody is welcome because everyone has a reason to be left out.

In his book Prophetic Imagination renowned scholar Walter Brueggemann points out that prophecy is more than foretelling the future, it is about imagining a future that the community can live into. At its core, Tokens is not mere entertainment, it is not mere nostalgia, or Americana, it is a prophetic re-imagining of what life in this world looks like; a life with music and laughter and dancing and, yes, even banjos.


The Tokens Thanksgiving Special will air on WSM 650 AM on Thanksgiving Day at 7:00 pm. You can also listen online at

For more information on Tokens please visit or follow Tokens Show on Twitter @Tokens Show. Also, check out the Tokens podcast, Dispatches from the Bible Belt on iTunes.
You can follow Ben on Twitter @BenHoward87 or email him at benjamin.howard87 [at]

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