The Wordy Shipmates

Sarah Vowell’s history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Recommended if you like early American history with a sense of home and hearth and a twist. Can’t get enough Sarah Vowell – like with Christopher Guest, I’m always wondering what could possibly be her next act. And though she may be getting panned I think this one is right up there with classic titles like Assassination Vacation, The Partly Cloudy Patriot, and Take The Cannoli.

Every summer when I was a kid I attended vacation Bible school. It was like arts-and-crafts camp, only churchier–firing and glazing ceramic praying-hands bookends, that sort of thing. We studied the Book of Daniel’s third chapter, in which Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, commissioned a gold idol that his subjects were required to bow down to. Anyone failing to kneel before the image “shall be cast into the midst of a burning fiery furnace.” Kneeling before a false idol being an obvious violation of the Second Commandment, three Jews on Nebuchadnezzar’s payroll refuse to worship another god. The three lawbreakers, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, are hauled before the king, who tells them that when he said that thing about the fiery furnace he really meant it. They reply that perhaps God will save them from the flames, “But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”

Those words are insolent and bold, even when spoken by a felt puppet with glued-on googly eyes. The three hope God will save them, but if not they will gladly burn. Nebuchadnezzar is happy to help them find out. He has Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego thrown into the furnace. To mimic the flames, my fellow Bible students and I rattled flashlights at the puppets, who remaied perfectly still and perfectly unharmed, not a yarn hair on their heads singed. “They have no hurt,” marveled the king, who decreed that anyone from anywhere who spoke against “the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, shall be cut to pieces, and their houses shall be made a dunghill: because there is no other God that can deliver after this sort.” A happy ending–the faithful defy the king and the king admits he was wrong.

The lessons of that story–be true to yourself, be not afraid to defy authority, be willing to die for what you believe in–had profound influence on my own moral backbone, and I am not alone. In his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. writes of the lawbreaking that landed him in the clink: “Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake.”

She ties it all together. And if you do like Sarah Vowell, here is a pretty amusing interview of her at work.