When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee.” - Matthew 21:1-11
In July, Kathy and I ventured to Mississippi. We stayed in Oxford and toured the home of William Faulkner. It was a kind of pilgrimage. For many, many years I have wanted to see “Roanoke.”
I began reading the novels of Faulkner in high school as an act of protest. Kathy and I went to a private high school that was quite conservative/evangelical and as part of a desire to shield students from unsavory characters, there was a list of books the school deemed inappropriate. They had a list of banned books. Being a good Protestant and a teenager, I took this to be an invitation to read as many of them as possible. Faulkner’s novels were on the list.
Through the years I have read and reread William Faulkner. There is always something new to discover, some vantage I had not seen before. Last year, I began to reread him in earnest because of ghosts. Faulkner’s novels are filled with lingering ghosts of disappointment and the legacy of southern generations. I wanted to read his novels again to hear how the past affects the present, how traditions shape our actions. Does history determine us or shape us?
I also began to read Faulkner again because I discovered that many of my ancestors were his contemporaries and lived not far from Oxford. One of his early novels, As I Lay Dying, is based in Chickasaw County where my genealogical tree was planted for over a century. This is the hill country of northern Mississippi that is east of the Delta; this is hard scrabble farms and small towns all in the orbit of Memphis.
Never before had I noticed that everyone in Faulkner’s novels is either going to or coming back from Memphis. Like so many parts of America, Memphis was just a dot on a map. Yet, for farming communities, especially those growing cotton, Memphis was a hub of a wheel from which all things moved forward.
When we arrived in Oxford this connection to Memphis was clear. Oxford is a “planet” orbiting the sun of Memphis. We had another geographic epiphany in our short visit. It only took folks a few seconds to realize that we were not from Mississippi. And this distinction was noted, commented on, and shaped the way folks interacted with us. That is a nice way to say, we were Northern intruders.
At the end of October we will begin the last section of the Gospel of Matthew: Jesus in Jerusalem. The first lesson is the entry of Jesus into the city, what we call Palm Sunday. Usually we read this story at the end of Lent and the beginning of Spring. The reading is festive and fun; kids wave palm branches; some churches get a donkey. Yet, what is so intriguing is that the lesson has more to do with geography than liturgy.