Twirling the Dial on Sunday Morning

This morning, a Sunday, I found myself behind the wheel, driving home from the lovely resort in western Georgia where I’d attended an organizational retreat.

Morning is not the best time for me to drive, generally.  Not fully awake, I tend to get lulled by the sun and the road.  Later in the day, I’m great, and I can drive long into the night. Luckily, Mr. NewYorker is the opposite — great in the a.m., nods off as the day wears on. So we divvy up the driving and have each other’s backs.

This morning, however, I was alone. To compound matters, I was confused about the time.  Even though the resort was only about 1 hour and 20 minutes from my home, it was in another time zone. And last night was the end of daylight savings time.  I think I hit the road at 9:15, but who really knows?

I have found that the best way to ensure wakefulness, besides three cups of coffee, is to have a good soundtrack. I often play something loud that I know well from my iPod (Black 47 is a good choice), and sing along. This way, I pull a lot of oxygen into my lungs and my brain.  Sometimes, though, I like to listen closely, so I scan radio stations alert for something worth stopping on.

I turned on the radio and hit scan.  I think could scan radio stations for hours — there’s something about listening closely and pulling in bits and pieces from around the dial that intrigues me.  It drives Mr. NewYorker nuts, but today I was alone and had free rein.

And that’s when I discovered that Sunday morning in the South is not like Sunday morning in New York.  I guess the price of the airwaves in New York pretty much guarantees that your choice is either a) NPR or b) commercial entertainment radio (I’m talking FM here).

As I drove towards the Interstate on a two-lane rural highway, passing herds of cows, the occasional horse pasture, some goats and the isolated antique store, I began to notice that there was an awful lot of religious programming. Was it my imagination, or were three-quarters of the stations streaming church services?  I hit the button that returned the tuning to the beginning of the dial, 88.1, and then hit scan again.

My rules: in the five seconds before the scanner moved to the next station, I had to be sure that the programming was religious. Not just a suspicion, but dead certainty — the words “Bible, chapter, verse, Jesus, God or sin” were the kinds of clues I sought.  If I was sure, I could count it.  I kept track with the fingers of my hands on the steering wheel.

Until, that is, I ran out of fingers.  I think there were 14 stations that qualified, and maybe five that were playing music about which there was doubt.  There was no doubt at all on one station around the 101 mark.  On one scan it was playing a Springsteen song.  A little later the Stones.  And a little later, I got to hear the station identification — I was listening to something called “boomer radio.” I guess that’s better than calling it the “golden oldies.”

There was also a Spanish language station — only one, this is, after all, the South — and I thought I heard the word “dios.” But I wasn’t certain, so it didn’t get counted.

The variety of religion was amazing.  First up, at the low-end of the dial, was a preacher whose topic for today’s sermon was lust.  “Lust,” he told us, “does not belong to God.”  Later, he riffed on how easy it was to fall prey to lust.  “You believe that you’re gonna die if you can’t have her (or him).” He seemed to know what he was talking about. But he warned again that lust was not a part of us that God created, and added that he could tell us that “from jumpstreet.” He warned about the lure of earthly power. You could be rich, you could be famous, or successful, and you might think you deserve that woman … but “Donald Trump is not God.” It seemed like he had quite a bit more to say on the topic, and every intention of saying it.

There were more than a few hell-fire preachers, some with the rolling cadences of black speakers, others with the twang of white men exhorting their listeners to accept Jesus.  But just when I thought that it was all about hearing what the good book says, there would be music.  Yes, definitely some gospel-flavored choirs with lots of call-and-response.  But then, something that sounded … distinctly Episcopalian.  An organ, and restrained.  

There was a speaker with an east Indian inflection, somewhat surprisingly, referring to a verse from Luke.  You don’t see many immigrants from the Asian subcontinent in these parts, although there is a Hindu temple about 20 miles south of here, near Pike Road.  But with the reference to Luke, I don’t imagine this was a Hindu service.

Then I hit a bluegrass station … but wait! what was that? Yes, behind the banjo were lyrics about Jesus sitting next to you on your porch.  On another station, I heard a soft-spoken calm male voice saying that when we know God, then the flip side is that he knows us.  And we know ourselves.

Sunday morning radio ran the gamut, it seemed, from evangelism to what used to be called mainline.  But when you think about it, that’s a pretty narrow gamut.  Here’s what I didn’t hear: anything remotely Catholic, anything not Christian (ok, true: it was Sunday morning, not Friday evening), or even anything that spoke to good works rather than faith. 

It was distinctly southern.  But rich, and interesting.

And it did the trick, keeping me alert and listening until I got to the Interstate.  That’s when I plugged in my iPod and hit shuffle.  The first song up? Black 47’s History of Ireland, Part I.