From Winnipeg To Nashville Part 6: A Theology of Jack Daniel Made of Titanic Proportions

37192257_420084955143706_9104256479019401216_nThere are a lot of museums in Tennessee. And a lot of them are not cheap. In Nashville alone, two persons could easily drop more than a few hundred dollars within a couple block radius on museums.

We had to pick and choose which ones we were going to see and which ones we were going to pass up fairly early on. I tend to ask two questions when deciding which Museums are worth the money and which are not.
1. How much do I already know about a particular person or place of interest
2. Does the museum showcase a particular artifact or object of interest that I feel I need to see in person

From those two questions I am then able to measure that against the dollar value and the travel time/investment.

And of course when there are two of you travelling together it is also helpful to be able to match these questions with a shared interest in a particular place.

Long before leaving we knew there were two museums that we both really wanted to see during our time in Tennessee- the Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge and the Jack Daniels Distillery Tour in Lynchburg, and thankfully we got a chance to visit them both.

I figured I was going to enjoy them. What I didn’t expect was to be so captured and moved by their collective stories, both of which brought to light issues of class, slavery and heroism in their own way.

The Titanic Museum
37133918_420085248477010_6974433904044277760_nThe telling fact about this museum’s attention to detail is the scaled down replica of the Titanic that houses the exhibit itself, including the worlds largest lego Titanic.

And to say it is scaled down is definitely not to say this thing is small. It would be near impossible to miss the massive ship looming over the Pigeon Forge Parkway.

We didn’t realize it at first, but when you enter the museum you are walking into a recreation of the ships grand staircase. You are quickly turned towards the back of the ship, but there will be two more visits to this staircase along the way. And it is a neat experience to walk through, especially after the exhibit has brought the ship to life and given it context.

Along with this grand entrance you are also given a boarding pass for a single individual. This is the character you play along the way, and the museum is set up in such a way as to keep the fate of your given name a mystery until you happen upon its reveal. It plays to neat affect as you are intentionally viewing the exhibit through the lens of that particular story, attentive and aware of how he or she fits into the bigger picture. Were they a part of first class or third class? Were they part of a wealthy family or struggling immigrants. What brought them onto the ship? Where were they coming from? Where were they headed?

All of these questions are opened up before you as you wander the different sections of the ship itself. You learn about how each level housed different classes, and of how many more third class residents there were than first class. I think this is something that really stuck with me, is just what this ship represented to so many struggling individuals anticipating the promise of a new life. It makes the harrowing reality of the sinking ship that much more painful to experience, and a part of what this museum does is allow you to really gain an appreciation for the experience itself, whether it has you standing at the bottom of a stairwell watching the water rushing towards you, walking up that Grand Staircase or attempting to walk and stand on the ships deck at the different points of angle during the ships gradual and inevitable sinking.

And then you come to the bow of the ship where you are able to touch a man-made iceberg and immerse your hands into the water to feel how cold it would have been when the ship sank. Standing under the stars and looking out at the expanse of the ocean ahead of you, the stories of all the individuals on the ship really come into perspective at this point in the exhibit.

And this is really a big part of what made this museum so effective, is the way it tells the story. Using elements of all the senses, it really becomes an emotional experience. The stories of the children on board were probably the toughest to read, but you also get to read and hear about largely untold stories of individuals like whom sacrificed themselves for others, whom were transformed by the experience, whom represent immense loss in terms of spiritual voices, family members, mentors and innovators.

Speaking of the tragedy of the Titanic against the even more immense tragedy that would soon follow, journalist Tony Parson writes,

And yet we remember the victims of Titanic in a unique way. We remember Titanic for more than the senseless loss of life.

Like the casualties of 9/11, their tragedy seems to mark a turning point in our history.

When the icy, black waters closed over the Titanic, and when the last of the screams of the freezing and drowning had finally stopped, the world would look a very different place.

The old world feels like it died with the Titanic – the good and the bad.

The unforgiving class system of Titanic is part of its myth, and gives it immense symbolic power – we may have lost the age of chivalry with Titanic, but we also lost the age of deference, and serfs who were content with their lot, who would cheerfully tug their forelocks while they died and their superiors lived…

Every generation discovers Titanic anew, retells her story, tries to find meaning, and sees some reflection of its own time.

Jack Daniels Distillery 
37354463_421850188300516_411072470951395328_nPerhaps the most offsetting thing you learn about Jack Daniels (Which, as they will point out is the name of the distillery, not the drink. If you want to describe the drink it is “Jack Daniel”) is the fact that Lynchburg, the small town that houses the Distillery, is a dry town.

In fact, Jack Daniels is literally the only place in town you can go to get a drink, either on a tasting tour or from the gift shop. And the only reason that is the case is because of a loophole in the system. Technically, and for legal purposes, they are selling bottles, not alcohol. What’s inside the bottle is beside the point.

Unless you live in Lynchburg and want Jack Daniel. Then what’s inside the bottle is all the point.

That and some mutually beneficial economic legislation.

The other most striking thing about this nearly 90 minute long tour of the Distillery in action is the degree with which they have turned Jack into something of a humanitarian. He’s not. In fact he seems like he was quite the troubled individual. A bit of an assuming “ladies man” as they put it subtly and delicately. And yet Jack Daniel has grown into an institution that proudly continues to aspire towards the family name all these years later. As the tour will inform you, most of the workers in the Distillery are connected to the blood line that started the institution. It is in a very big way an undying family business that functions using the same underground spring (that refuses to dry up) an the same recipe that Jack used all those years before.

Now, this might sound weird, but my wife Jen turned me on to the idea of considering a theology of Jack Daniels. She casually noted how the story of Jack Daniels, and really the larger history of Whiskey that permeates the area (and the whole Kentucky Bourbon/Jack debate is a hotly contested issue to be sure), plays into our understanding of faith as Christians. And she was right. The more I thought about it the more this made a lot of sense.

So here are 3 ways in which Jack Daniel is theology:

1. It’s about spiritual formation
A word on how they make Jack Daniel.

They will tell you over and over again on the tour that Jack Daniel is not a bourbon – it’s a Tennessee Whiskey. To makeJack Daniel they drip it through, very slowly, ten feet of packed, sugar maple charcoal (mellowing process) and then put into charred oak barrels for what they describe as the maturing process. This maturing process is defined by elevation. Barrels on the lower level get a certain label for a certain taste. Barrels on the higher level get another label for another particular taste.37743349_427647307720804_8256060451637428224_n

It is this slow drip process that sets Jack Daniel apart from Bourbon.

Just don’t tell them that this is a technicality under regulations. As far as regulations are concerned, Bourbon is Bourbon no matter how you make it.

There is something to be said for this process though. Kentucky Bourbon, and Moonshine to an even greater degree are much quicker and much easier to make. In reality Bourbon arrives via international travel and trade, but in 1964 the Kentucky Bourbon enthusiasts declared it to be a distinctly American drink. Only, as they say, everyone knows that by American they mean Kentucky.

Jack takes time. It take patience. Just like our spiritual life. To be transformed from Kentucky Bourbon into Jack Daniel we must be formed by the spirit using that slow drip process. Drip, by drip, the spirit shaping us and molding us through our experience of the sacred in the every day process of living.

2. It’s all about grace
A noted thing about the Jack Daniel distilling process is its attention to mastering the craft. And the master craft really comes down to controlling the taste. In the case of Jack Daniel it is about ensuring that no matter which bottle is sold and where we buy it the product tastes the same. So that when we are buying a single barrel or double mellow, we know precisely what to expect.37661415_427631824389019_6195279059333677056_n

The analogy is not perfectly applied to our spiritual lives, but I think what is striking is just how much this attention to detail shapes their love of the of the product. If it is not right it goes through the process again. And every part of the process has a role and has a use or is reused. The barrels, the sour mash, the charcoal. There is no wasted part of the process. Apply that to our spiritual lives and I think we are given a picture of how the spirit shapes us. There is no wasted product. You do not discard imperfections. You simply go about the process again. And as we go through this process, the stuff of life, we trust that we are being made and shaped more and more into the sons and daughters of God we are already known to be.

3. Whiskey brings us together

There is a healthy debate that exists across state lines between what is whiskey, what is not, and how that Kentucky and Jack differs. And these debates spill out of what has become a recognizable part of the culture.

37261544_421263471692521_1101857659172159488_nGet close to the Mountains and talk about Moonshine, and the conversation pushes even further yet. Moonshine is the stuff of raw experience, unaged and unfiltered. The sort of drink you risked drinking and that shaped the plight of the drinker. And yet it is still Whiskey, even in its rawest form.

37408987_422777841541084_4171655494986891264_nAnd the truth of all Whiskey, whether Bourbon or Jack or Moonshine, it all shares the same source, the same origin. And when it comes to the sour mash, it is akin to sour dough, with a single, seemingly eternal source giving life to endless creations.

And as spiritual beings we all share the source of our strength. We are all equally seen and loved and adored by our Heavenly Father. We are all equally welcome to participate in the sacred.

And this is hugely important to recognize when it came to the Jack Daniels tour. I didn’t realize it at the time, but one of the most compelling notes of the tour is the subtle mention of a slave that accompanied Jack in coming up with his creation. It’s significant because until recently this slave was never mentioned on the tour, that is until a woman stood up and made a difference. You can read her article here. But suffice to say that it is a powerful reminder of how we are being shaped and renewed and transformed over time, whether that be as persons, including the raw, unfiltered life of Jack himself, or as a nation. And in God’s light we are being shaped and transformed according to His spirit, His love and His unifying acceptance.









Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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