People of faith are responsible for serving as society's conscience

by Bill Tammeus

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Just a few weeks after the annual Indianapolis 500 race, I am standing in the middle of the track at the finish line. The stands are empty. No cars flash by.

I'm here because the nice folks who organized this year's conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists decided we should visit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It's what conference organizers do.

Back in 1996, right where I'm standing, a driver named Eddie Cheever Jr. zipped past on a lap in which he hit the highest speed ever recorded in an Indy 500 event -- 236.103 miles an hour. That's 211.103 miles an hour faster than the speed of the pick-up truck that just pulled a cart full of columnists around the track.

This visit to the speedway is supposed to be fun, entertaining and educational. And, I admit, it's a bit of all three. But I also find it morally distressing. It's hard for me not to look at such things through my theological lenses, and what that shows me is needless endangerment of human life, an almost-inexplicable searching after mindless entertainment and a human propensity to prefer circuses over bread.

When our NSNC conference was in Portland, Ore., in 1993, our organizers took us to an old-growth forest not far from the city just so we could experience that awesome and rare natural phenomenon and to learn a bit about the ecology of such a site. It was the kind of place -- unlike Indy's motorized amusement park -- that deserves our attention because it's about us and how we are warp and woof with the environment.

"It's nothing less than a chaos of fecundity," I wrote at the time, "and it's what environmentalists and their backers say must be saved. It is an ancient theater of life in which new trees shoot out of dead trunks. Fungus and moss upholster spreading branches. Ferns and wildflowers quilt the ground. Fallen trees lean at crazy angles amid the pounding, powerful force at work here, the force of life. Sunlight squeaks through the canopy, creating a living chiaroscuro -- light and shadow in a strobe-like biodance, chasing each other's essence."

Here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, by contrast, the chasing is done by human-guided hunks of metal, plastic and rubber. They chase similar hunks, spewing hostile exhaust and noise into the atmosphere. And on Memorial Day each year, more than 300,000 human beings gather to watch this American tamasha. The Indy 500 draws a bigger crowd than any other sporting event in the country. Imagine that.

I'm not some Puritan worrying that somewhere, someone is having fun. I like fun. I attend Major League Baseball games. I watch college basketball on TV. I joke. But sometimes, we must be moved to ask questions about why we do what we do, about what causes us to live in wasteful, artificial ways.

Do our short attention spans require racing cars to blip past us at 236 miles an hour? Are we incapable of staring -- really staring -- at a 150-foot-tall Douglas fir tree arrowed toward the clouds and of meditating on the creation and our part in it?

I took my daughters to Disney World once. I will never go back. I have no need to be entertained to death by a facade. It's not that I don't appreciate imagination. I think imagination -- which is quite different from delusion -- is crucial to human life. As Gene Seymour, who teaches journalism at Howard University, said when he spoke to us at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library here in Indianapolis, "Delusion is imagination with a social disease."

Vonnegut was fun. Vonnegut had a magnificent imagination. But he also had perspective, a willingness to ask embarrassing, awkward questions about how we live. That's what people of faith must do, serving as society's conscience, its court jester, praising old-growth forests, challenging motor speedways, echoing Deuteronomy's dictate to choose life.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and award-winning former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for the Star's website and a monthly column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. His email address is]

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