I just finished listening to the popular podcast S-Town. While it contains adult themes and language, I highly recommend it.
For the uninitiated, S-Town is a 7-part presentation by the producers of another hit podcast, Serial. Set in the rural town of Woodstock, Al., narrator Brian Reed uses recorded interviews and public records to spin a Southern Gothic tale of small town secrets and lies.
S-Town touches on class, politics, sexuality and, oddly enough, the dying art of clock-making. This podcast is about a lot of things.
But at its heart, the podcast is about the longing to be loved.
S-Town’s Tragic Figure
The focus of S-Town is John B. McLemore, a local craftsman and misanthrope with a hatred of his hometown. McLemore is far too intelligent to waste away in this impoverished backwater. But he remains shackled to his homestead like a character out of a Faulkner novel.
I won’t spoil too much of the plot here. But much of the pathos in S-Town comes from the slow reveal of McLemore’s self-loathing and his search for meaning. He expresses hatred of everything around him. But it is the bravado of an outcast pretending he never wanted to join the tribe that rejects him.
I grew up less than 30 miles from Woodstock. I know the land, the people and the culture that gave rise to the story told in S-Town. This part of Alabama is a gumbo of old-time religion, deep racial wounds and, above all, poverty. It’s a place protective of its own and suspicious of everyone else.
A man like John B. McLemore would be a fish out of water in much of the rural South. In Woodstock, he is like an extraterrestrial. He is an atheist, a political liberal and a man of, shall we say, rather fluid romantic preferences. In rural Alabama, such a man is signing his own death warrant.
The podcast peels away the layers of this angry, tragic figure. After the first episode, I disliked McLemore. By the third episode I pitied him. By the end of the series, I felt the need to pray for him.
Loving the unloved
This past week I attended Holy Week services, surrounded by family and the members of my church. I am blessed with many people that love and care for me.
What must it be like to be unloved? To be rejected at every turn by family, friends, and those who profess Christianity? McLemore’s story is a harrowing example of the lengths a man can go for a sense of acceptance. He becomes unlovable because he is unloved. He rejects the world that has rejected him.
Christians are called to bind up the wounds of Lazarus. We are to be like the Good Samaritan. It is an ugly business, loving the unlovable. It’s messy. We get our hands dirty, and our reputation may suffer. Straddling the fine line between hating the sin and loving the sinner is easier said than done.
But our calling is to love, and to show mercy. We must love the sinner as well as the saint. We must love even those that seem to reject it, because we may be the only glimpse they see of God’s love.
“If we detect any trace of hatred in our hearts against any man whatsoever for committing any fault, we are utterly estranged from love for God, since love for God absolutely precludes us from hating any man.” – St. Maximos the Confessor
In a few months I will visit relatives in Alabama. As I have done hundreds of times, I’ll drive through Woodstock, the setting of John B. McLemore’s lamentable life.
In that dying town, as in every town, there are stories like his. Outsiders and outcasts are among us always, passing by without notice. Let us be ready to love them when we have the opportunity.
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