Update, 10/27/22: Two weeks after this article was published, Tokens Show rebranded and relaunched with a new name, No Small Endeavor; learn the inspiration behind the original title here, and the reason for the change here. Their mission remains the same but with a renewed commitment to greater diversity of guests, and their new tagline is “Exploring what it means to live a good life.” They also announced that starting in 2023, their radio show will be nationally syndicated.
“Public theology” is a term I’ve been seeing more and more—in people’s professional titles, in books, in taglines, etc. Public theology is theology that talks with and not just to society, write Sebastian Kim and Katie Day in their introduction to A Companion to Public Theology (2017); it ventures outside the ivory tower and the walls of the church, engaging issues of common interest to build the common good. It’s incarnational and touches all aspects of life, which means it’s interdisciplinary, addressing economics, politics, healthcare, criminal justice, the arts, and so on.
One media entity that does public theology really well is Tokens Media, which encompasses live events (Tokens Show), a podcast, a radio show, and online courses. Sponsored by Lipscomb University in Nashville with funding from the Lilly Endowment and the John Templeton Foundation, the shows are hosted and produced by Lee C. Camp, a professor of theology and ethics at Lipscomb.
Tokens Show blends music, theology, comedy, and social issues, bringing together a host of talent and thought from the local Nashville scene and the country at large for evenings of conversation and fun. See a trailer below, followed by a blurb from the Tokens press materials.
Called Nashville’s best variety show, our philosophical and theological events imagine a world governed by hospitality, graciousness, and joy; life marked by beauty, wonder, and truthfulness; and social conditions ordered by justice, mercy, and peace-making. We exhibit tokens of such a world in music-making, song-singing, and conversations about things that matter.
Unapologetically Christian but casting a wide net, Tokens Show spotlights poets, pastors, theologians, ethicists, historians, singer-songwriters, psychologists, journalists, politicians, activists, scientists, entrepreneurs, and other scholars and practitioners. Its long list of distinguished guests includes James Cone, Rachel Held Evans, Stanley Hauerwas, Miroslav Volf, Francis Collins, Jim Wallis, Tracy K. Smith, Keb’ Mo’, Christian Wiman, Naomi Shihab Nye, Walter Brueggemann, Amy-Jill Levine, Willie James Jennings, Pádraig Ó Tuama, Barbara Brown Taylor, Ricky Skaggs, Over the Rhine, and many more.
Tokens was launched in February 2008 as a quarterly event, generally held in Lipscomb’s Collins Alumni Auditorium, with its annual Thanksgiving show, a major bash, held at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium since 2010. (This year’s is November 20—and I’ll be there! See more info at bottom of post.) The Tokens house band, the Most Outstanding Horeb Mountain Boys, consists of much-sought-after Nashville session players Byron House (upright bass), Pete Huttlinger (guitar), Aubrey Haynie (fiddle, mandolin), Chris Brown (drums), and Buddy Greene (harmonica, vocals), led by music director Jeff Taylor (piano, accordion).
Sojourners magazine praised Tokens Show for its substantive entertainment and overall playful tone:
If A Prairie Home Companion ever moved south and got religion—or at least went to divinity school—it might look a lot like TOKENS. While Camp and his cast deal with theology, they are after something bigger—glimpses of God’s action in the world . . . tokens of grace. . . . Camp knows the power of a pregnant pause, and how to switch from a song about environmental degradation to a radio skit without missing a beat. And the cast never seems to take itself too seriously.
One of Tokens Show’s regular segments is “Class and Grass,” where the house band plays a medley of classical music and bluegrass arranged by bandleader Jeff Taylor. For example, for Tokens’ 2019 Thanksgiving show, Taylor built a ruckus-raising medley around “Orange Blossom Special,” a fiddle tune from the 1930s named after a luxury passenger train of the same name, weaving in excerpts from Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 5, Bizet’s “Habanera,” Offenbach’s “Galop infernal,” and Rossini’s William Tell overture:
For their 2018 Thanksgiving show, they mashed up the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” with Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man and “Did You Ever See the Devil, Uncle Joe?”:
“Für Elise and the Prophetic Imagination,” from “The Prophetic Ethic” show on June 6, 2014, features jazz, tango, and bluegrass variations on Beethoven’s famous, posthumously discovered bagatelle:
And the “Class and Grass” segment of Tokens’ April 13, 2010, show, “Back to Green,” combines a piano piece (anyone know what this is? Bach? Mozart?) and “Billy in the Lowground,” a popular fiddle tune among Kentucky musicians that has been known in Scotland for centuries:
Though several musical styles are represented on the Tokens stage—bluegrass, country, gospel, folk, blues, rock, classical—bluegrass predominates. Here’s a bluegrass version of the African American spiritual “My Lord Is a Rock in a Weary Land,” led by Buddy Greene:
And “Crying Holy Unto the Lord,” a song by Irene Amburgey that’s performed here by Bryan Sutton and Company:
One of the show’s past musical guests was Nefesh Mountain, a Jewish bluegrass band fronted by married couple Doni Zasloff and Eric Lindberg. Here they sing “Wayfaring Stranger” and “Esa Einai,” an original setting of Psalm 121:1 (“I lift my eyes to the mountains . . .”) in English and Hebrew.
Tokens Show also regularly features hymns, a significant part of Christian heritage, especially in the US. In the following video, Audrey Assad describes growing up in a Plymouth Brethren church that forbade the use of musical instruments but placed a high value on four-part a cappella singing. She then leads a vocal quartet in one of my favorite hymns, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” (the other singers are Michael Gungor, Buddy Greene, and Lee C. Camp):
Here’s an instrumental bluegrass hymn medley comprising “Where the Soul of Man Never Dies,” “Are You Washed in the Blood,” “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,” and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”:
For some hymns, the audience is invited to sing along, as with “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,” featuring soloist Jason Eskridge:
The show highlights new musical works as well, like singer-songwriter and upright bassist Scott Mulvahill’s “The Lord Is Coming”:
And Gungor’s “God and Country,” an antiwar anthem performed by Michael Gungor, Audrey Assad, and friends:
From their “Singing Down the Pain” show, I learned that the tune of Elvis’s “Love Me Tender” was taken from the American Civil War ballad “Aura Lee,” adopted by soldiers on both sides. I also learned about a historic music-sharing experience that happened outside Murfreesboro, Tennessee, on December 30, 1862, when, on the eve of a major military battle, Confederate and Union brass bands exchanged songs, Battle of the Bands–style, across enemy lines. Winding down, the Confederates started playing the familiar “Home, Sweet Home,” and the Union joined in, with soldiers from both North and South singing in unison their mutual longing for home.
Despite this bonding, the Battle of Stones River commenced early the next morning, resulting in 24,000 casualties.
As you can see from that video, Tokens Show is largely story-driven.
It occasionally features spoken-word pieces, as in their October 4, 2016, episode, “God Songs.” Leslie Garcia, one of Camp’s students at the time (now a digital product designer in New York), delivers a poetic reflection on the Latin American immigrant journey, drawing on her own family history. It opens, “My mother came to this country in the back of a pickup truck . . .”
Real-life questions and issues are met with the best of theological reflection at Tokens events, with Camp as emcee providing the connective tissue that links the various acts.
One thing I like about Tokens Show is how it recognizes the complexities of American Christianity’s past and present, painting neither as entirely good or entirely bad. It addresses some of the lamentable aspects of US and church history and culture, but it also speaks hope, confronting these realities with gospel truth so that we might humbly allow that truth to drive us to confession, action, and anticipation. And while it does acknowledge the ways in which sin has marked systems, it also celebrates those places within those systems where virtue or redemption can be found.
Tokens Show has a healthy relationship to tradition, which for them is a wellspring of creativity. In terms of music especially, Tokens showcases vibrant works from earlier eras but also, often, innovates on them or draws them into new contexts. In their theology, too, they adhere to the orthodox creeds while being open to what happens when those traditional tenets of belief are brought into so-called secular arenas of contemporary life, further unfolding their meaning. In the root sense of the words, Tokens is both conservative and progressive—conserving what’s worth conserving, leaving behind what’s not (such as cultural accretions that diminish the gospel), recovering and progressing toward the good, semper reformanda.
While some of the song selections may prompt nostalgia for some, Tokens Show is not all warm and cozy. There can be a bite and a challenge as we hear wrenching personal stories or encounter new facts. Tokens does not shy away from provocation for God’s sake. But it is to the show’s credit that the tone is never haranguing, always invitational.
The gospel calls us out of our bubbles and into the world. Our faith should have an impact on how we think about public issues and relate to others in the public square. Tokens Show models this kind of engagement.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, when live shows had to be shut down, Tokens launched a podcast, its first episode airing May 21, 2020. Its tagline is “Public theology. Human flourishing. The good life.” Even though live shows have resumed, the podcast continues to be active. I have enjoyed every single episode, but let me share just a few in particular:
>> “The Art of Conversation: Heather Holleman,” September 22, 2022: Creating warm connections with others might be as simple as learning how to converse, says Heather Hollemann, author of The Six Conversations: Pathways to Connecting in an Age of Isolation and Incivility. She draws on the social sciences to suggest practical tips for how to move beyond small talk into deep and meaningful conversations with friends, family, a romantic partner, coworkers, clients, neighbors—whomever!
>> “The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon: Bill McKibben,” September 15, 2022: Environmentalist Bill McKibben, author of The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back at His Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened, speaks on racial justice, environmental justice, and the relationship between America and Christianity.
>> “God and Guns: Chris Hays and Carly Crouch,” August 12, 2021: In this interview, Old Testament scholars Christopher B. Hays and Carly L. Crouch, the editors of God and Guns: The Bible Against American Gun Culture, challenge the too-easy progun rhetoric of many American Christians, addressing violence in the Old Testament, the Second Amendment, armed church security, and some surprising statistics.
>> “The Making of Biblical Womanhood: Beth Allison Barr,” June 3, 2021: Controversially, historian Beth Allison Barr defines “complementarianism,” the theological view that promotes male headship and female subordination, as “Christian patriarchy.” Hear her unpack that and other ideas from her book The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth in this episode. She offers a unique reading of 1 Corinthians 14 (bringing it into conversation with ancient Roman law codes); reminds us of the oft-neglected Romans 16 (which names a woman apostle and a woman deacon, among other early church leaders who were female, though several English translations obscure the fact); notes how the 1980s revival of the Arian heresy coincided with the explosion of “biblical womanhood”; and shares her and her husband’s personal connection to the topic in their ministerial life.
Shorter interviews of this nature also take place during the live shows, even though this blog article highlights the music.
You can subscribe to the Tokens podcast through the app of your choice, and episodes (audio only) are also posted on YouTube, though there’s a bit of a lag there. You can also find video excerpts from Tokens events on the Tokens YouTube channel.
Their annual Thanksgiving show this year is “No Small Endeavor”—Sunday, November 20, 7:30 p.m., at Ryman Auditorium—with musical guest Johnnyswim, a husband-wife folk duo comprising Abner Ramirez and Amanda Sudano. As I mentioned, I’ll be going; I paid $137 for two tickets last week, including taxes and fees, and it looks like the house is already more than half-full. (There is also a $20 virtual option available, or a $47 virtual membership that gives you streaming access to four shows.) It will be my first Tokens Show and my first time in Nashville, and I’m making a long weekend of it with my husband. Let me know what we should do/see there, and if you have any tips on where to stay. We’re not country music fans, but bluegrass, gospel, blues, and folk—yes, please! We’re foodies too.
Besides catching one of Tokens’ live events, if you live in the Nashville area, you might also want to tune in to their radio show, which airs Sundays at 2 p.m. Central on WPLN Nashville Public Radio.