Archive for April, 2006
I just finished two fascinating nonfiction books that fed my current region-and-religion obsession: Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia and Timothy K. Beal’s Roadside Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith.
Both had some topical connection to Lee Smith’s Saving Grace (see previous post): Salvation on Sand Mountain is an account of a journalist’s time among Appalachian snake handlers, and Roadside Religion features a chapter on “biblical mini-golf” courses with great names like “Golgotha Fun Park.” Only in the South, I said to myself, only in the South.
Both Covington and Beal are remarkable for the credit they, as fairly mainstream Christian believers, give to these somewhat eccentric—sometimes dangerous, sometimes merely kitschy—expressions of faith. Beal even struggles to acknowledge the spiritual merit of Precious Moments when he visits the Precious Moments Inspiration Park in Carthage, Missouri. That takes far more graciousness than I have (we hates them, with their huge, droopy eyes!).
In the process of giving weird practices the benefit of the doubt, each writer finds himself opening to mystery, God’s mystery, and they interweave their spiritual narratives with the tales of the places they visit.
Covington gives some historical and sociological explanations for why some Southern Pentecostals handle snakes: the first documented instance of snake handling was in 1910 in Tennessee, and Covington suggests that it may have had something to do with the hills people feeling powerless at the increasing urbanization of the South. But he doesn’t wholly attribute the phenomenon to sociological circumstance, and he recognizes the mystery of both power and powerlessness involved in charismatic experience.
In one of the many beautiful passages from the book, he writes: “In both sexual and religious ecstasy, the first thing that goes is self. The entrance into ecstasy is surrender. Handlers talk about receiving the Holy Ghost. But when the Holy Ghost is fully come upon someone like Gracie McAllister, the expression on her face reads exactly the opposite—as though someone, or something, were being violently taken from her. The paradox of Christianity, one of many of which Jesus speaks, is that only in losing ourselves do we find ourselves, and perhaps that’s why photos of the handlers so often seem to be portraits of loss.”
As a Flannery O’Connor fan, I found it easier to give credence to snake handlers than to Precious Moments pilgrims. The Precious Moments devotees are seeking comfort, while the snake handlers are living their faith on the edge. Not that I don’t think they’re really, really insane, because they are. But I don’t want to deny that God can actually work through their snake handling, even if God doesn’t really want them to do it. (I suppose, for consistency, I ought to grant the same potential benefit for Precious Moments figurines, but everything in me rebels against that).
Beal’s book is at once more amusing and more academic than Covington’s, while Covington delves deeper into the personal. However, Beal has some important insights. In trying to describe why certain sites appealed to him more than others, he writes, “In these places I experienced a correlation between connectedness to the land, personal authenticity, and openness to others. The more the place was locally grounded, rooted in its particular natural environment, the more uniquely personal it was, and the more hospitable it was to others. Hospitality is always local.” (Thus, Beal finds deep hospitality even in places with signs declaring “Hell is HOT” and “You will burn”). Though he doesn’t name it as such, that’s the mystery of the Incarnation, God self-revealing in particulars (most importantly, the ultimate particular in the person of Jesus Christ).
The last paragraph of Salvation on Sand Mountain is so beautiful that I cried when I read it aloud to Porpoise. While driving through his childhood neighborhood, Covington remembers how his father used to call him in for dinner. Rather than shouting his name or banging a dinner bell, his father would come to find him. “This is how he got me to come home,” Covington writes. “He came to the place I was before he called my name.”
So maybe that has something to do with religion and regionalism, as well as Incarnation. God comes to the place we are, to our particular circumstances, before calling our name. And the South (at least for writers of the previous generation—it may now be changing) has a shared history of defeat (a necessary defeat) and post-Civil War poverty. Flannery O’Connor believed that the South was “Christ-haunted,” and that it was “traditionally opposed to the idea of Enlightenment perfectibility” that characterized the Northern states. Southerners shared “a distrust of the abstract, a sense of human dependence on the grace of God, and a knowledge that evil is not simply a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be endured.” So if there’s something distinctive about Southern Christianity, it may be because God, respecting the particular experience of Southerners, self-reveals in ways that appeal to them.
As I said, though, I believe that the South O’Connor observed is changing, at least to some degree, due to the universalizing influence of various media. Having grown up in pre-Internet Arkansas, I’m now shocked when I return home for a visit and discover that Arkansan churches are singing the same songs, reading the same Rick Warren books, and preaching the same politics that evangelicals across the U.S. are. The evangelical subculture sometimes seems so monolithic. Maybe that’s why I find tales of quirky faith so refreshing. But, God being God, there are no doubt ways that he’ll reveal himself through the particular, peculiar circumstances of today’s strangely universal evangelicalism.
April 23rd, 2006
Lee Smith’s 1995 novel opens with the declaration, “My name is Florida Grace Shepherd, Florida for the state I was born in, Grace for the grace of God.” And that first sentence tells a lot about the rest of the book, which has much to say about place and grace, as mediated through the parents who gave Florida Grace her name.
Gracie’s preacher father is a snake-handler, one of the variety of Pentecostals who take Mark 16:17-20 literally. (I’ve mentioned before that I have this snake phobia, right? But this is the second time I’ve read Saving Grace, if that gives you any idea of how much I like it. It’s worth suffering through all the copperheads and rattlers to follow Gracie on her journey. And perhaps it also helps that Grace, as narrator, always refers to them as serpents and not snakes, drawing her language from the King James Bible).
Gracie’s father, Virgil Shepherd, is a daredevil and a womanizer, but Smith actually lets him be right about a lot of things. Even in the midst of his sin, God uses him as an instrument to heal people; Gracie even witnesses him raising a dead girl to life. Virgil Shepherd’s portrayal is one of the things that most impresses me about Saving Grace: if you compare him to the missionary father in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Shepherd is so much more complex. He’s not just a character created by the author to say “Look how bad religious hypocrites are.” Shepherd is a hypocrite, but he’s also, as he insists, an instrument of God, and he honestly believes in God’s grace, even if he doesn’t quite understand it: the firmness of his somewhat misguided belief leads him to frequent “backsliding.”
Having seen the failure of unquestioning belief in “grace,” Gracie herself marries a man with the opposite theological inclination. “Travis Word,” she writes of her future husband, “was the first preacher I ever ran into that placed works above grace in order of importance. As a person even then searching for hard ground in a world of shifting sands, I liked this. I was real glad to hear it. For privately I had always questioned Daddy’s belief that a person could just go out and do whatsoever they damn well pleased, and then repent and get forgiven for it, again and again. In my own mind, this made God out to be too easy, a pushover. I had never really believed that that was the case. Travis Word’s idea of the true nature of God came closer to my own image of Him as a great rock, eternal and unchanging. Even though I did not believe I was saved at that time, I did believe in Him, and I also felt that if He was worth His salt, He’d have no place prepared in Heaven for the likes of me.”
Gracie, as a resident of the Christ-haunted South, knows the reality of sin, even if she doesn’t know how to find her way between the two men who represent the extreme poles of too-easy grace and too-legalistic works. Travis’s emphasis on works makes him increasingly depressed and judgmental, and Gracie finds herself backsliding into “sinful flesh,” just as her father did. “For there are ways in which it is easier to live with a plaster saint like Daddy than with a real saint like Travis Word,” she says.
It is actually a real plaster saint that eventually leads Gracie home. One night, she hears a baby cry, and the sound leads her to “Uncle Slidell’s Christian Fun Golf,” a putt-putt course with plastic representations of biblical places and persons. She traces the mysterious cry to a statue of Mary and the baby Jesus, and here among the kitsch Gracie suddenly knows that she has to go back to her childhood home in Scrabble Creek, North Carolina, the site of much pain and joy.
While there, Gracie loses all sense of time but feels her mother’s powerful presence in that place. “O come to Jesus honey. It is time now, it is never too late,” she hears her mother say. And suddenly Gracie finds herself handling hot coals from the stove, as she once saw her mother do. “The Spirit comes down on me hard like a blow to the top of my head and runs all over my body like lightning. My fingers and toes are on fire. Oh Lord it is hard to breathe and I am scared Lord, I am so scared but I will let my hands do what they are drawing now to do and it does not hurt, it is a joy in the Lord as she said. It is a joy which spreads all through my body, all through this sinful old body of mine.”
We don’t know what happens to Gracie next, for, like Flannery O’Connor, Lee Smith leaves her protagonist just after the moment of transformation. But we know that, in a powerful way, Gracie has indeed come home, in a supernatural way that is yet natural to her heritage. God values Gracie’s cultural particulars, an echo of the way that God gave eternal value to all human particulars by becoming Incarnate in a particular place and time, 1st-century Galilee. And Smith respects that God may work through seemingly eccentric ways, creating a more sympathetic portrait of charismatic faith than any I’ve ever read.
So here’s my question, as I ponder religion and region. Is Saving Grace a tale that could only be told by a Southerner (Smith openly acknowledges her debt to Flannery O’Connor)? As Gracie reminds us in the opening and closing lines of the novel, her name is “Florida Grace, Florida for the state I was born in, Grace for the grace of God.” Grace and place are intimately connected here.
April 19th, 2006
I’ve been thinking about region and religion a lot recently while re-reading Flannery O’Connor and Lee Smith, but I usually do my thinking in literary or experiential, rather than statistical, terms.
Then this morning Porpoise saw a blog post mentioning a site of maps plotting concentrations of U.S. religious affiliation, based on 2000 census data. Hurrah for maps, or “boo-boos,” as my family inexplicably calls them.
Some of the data is just what you would expect: “Oh, look–there are huge numbers of Baptists below the Mason-Dixon line and hardly any above it” and “Utah sure is Mormon, isn’t it?” But there are also some twists I’d like to know more about: why, for example, are there higher concentrations of Episcopalians in South Dakota and Alaska than anywhere else? I hardly think of these states as “smells-and-bells” territory.
Given that I just finished a novel featuring snake-handlers (Lee Smith’s Saving Grace), I was interested to see that Pentecostals are pretty evenly distributed across the U.S. now, not just concentrated in the rural South.
A bit of explanation may be helpful for readers unfamiliar with denominational distinctions: the map categories include the label “Christian,” which in this case refers not to all Christian denominations, but rather to Christian denominations of the Restoration tradition (Disciples of Christ, Independent Christian Church, and Church of Christ). It would have been helpful if the map had used the label “Restoration Christian” rather than just simply “Christian.” Even better would be a division of the Restoration tradition into its different branches, since their theologies are very different from each other now. But Porpoise suggests that the maps are meant to reflect historical trends more than theological distinctions. The Restoration movement started in Kentucky, so it makes sense that most Restorationists are in the Mid-South and the Midwest.
Thanks to the blog Regions of Mind for drawing our attention to the maps!
April 12th, 2006
I’m inordinately fond of Viggo Mortensen (perhaps mostly because I’ve had an Aragorn crush since the age of 7, into which I incorporated Viggo when the films came along), and I usually agree with Entertainment Weekly reviews. These were my two reasons for seeing A History of Violence on DVD. (EW gave it a rare “A”).
Anyone who reads this blog knows by now that I don’t like violence on screen (unless it’s very stylized, choreographed violence with no visible blood) or in real life. But the EW review promised that A History of Violence dealt with important themes, like “whether violence begets violence, whether perception is reality, whether a destructive animal instinct for combat really is lodged in the peaceful heart of every man.” These are issues I’m willing to see meaningfully explored in film.
A History of Violence didn’t do that at all. At least not for me or Porpoise. Porpoise’s first comment after the movie? “That has to be in the top tier of most pointless movies I’ve ever seen.” My first comment after seeing the movie? “Blech.”
“Blech” is still about all I have to say, because the movie didn’t give much for us to interact with. All the blood didn’t even disgust me that much (probably because I was looking away from the screen half the time, but also because it all seemed so pointless).
The most intriguing thing in the whole movie was Viggo’s character’s brief comment that he spent three years in the desert becoming all-American Midwestern family man Tom Stall, instead of Philly mafia guy Joey Cusack. Now that could have been an interesting movie. How does a former hitman become a man of peace?
But if you want to see an exploration of why men become violent, History offers no insight. I have hopes that the new documentary Why We Fight might cover that ground.
P.S. The EW page on A History of Violence also contains a factual error. Ed Harris, not William Hurt, received the 2006 Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
April 9th, 2006
For those who have been following the saga of the impending cinematic badness known as Snakes on a Plane (which I won’t be seeing, as I have a phobia about snakes as well as a desire not to spend money on crummy movies), clever bloggers have unearthed the original “snake on a plane” tale. And it’s by Richard Scarry, beloved creator of children’s picture books classics such as What Do People Do All Day? (besides think up movies with stupid titles).
The story of Noah the Boa Constrictor (who eats only bananas) and his flight to Brazil is chronicled in Scarry’s Busy Busy World, which is apparently out of print. But you can see scanned images of the pages here.
There’s a sloth! And an armadillo! Hurrah for the nice snake on a plane. I shall try to think of Noah if I’m ever bombarded with a Snakes on a Plane trailer.
April 5th, 2006
Sometimes I like films (properly pronounced “feelms” with a superior sneer on one’s face) and sometimes I like movies. Diary of a Mad Black Woman is a movie, and proud of it.
I’d never heard of Tyler Perry, writer and actor behind last year’s Diary and this year’s Madea’s Family Reunion until Entertainment Weekly did a short feature article on him, an article titled “The Gospel According to Tyler Perry.” You know that got my attention.
Perry is very up-front about how his Christian faith motivates everything he does. He originally created the character of Madea (which is not a misspelling of “Medea”—it’s a contraction of “mother dear”) in a series of popular and successful stage plays. Perry discovered that Madea made people laugh, and once he got them laughing, they would be open to hearing a message of forgiveness and love. He openly states that he hopes his plays reach the unsaved. So many people, saved and un-, were flocking to Perry’s plays that he was selling out to auditoriums of thousands, and yet more people wanted in. Hollywood seemed the natural place to go.
Madea is indeed a great character. “She,” of course, is played by Tyler Perry himself, in drag, with coke-bottle glasses and the ever-present pistol in her handbag. (Perry also plays Madea’s brother Joe and Joe’s son Brian, long-suffering husband to a drug addict). She herself isn’t much of a churchgoer—she claims she’ll start attending once they get a smoking section—nor does she preach the film’s main message of forgiveness, but she does help characters get to the point where they love themselves. You gotta get mad first, have to have a sense of your own worth, before you can forgive those who have wronged you.
When Madea’s granddaughter Helen is kicked out of her own house by her husband of eighteen years, who promptly installs his mistress in her place, Madea encourages the spineless Helen to demand her fair share. There’s a hilarious scene in which Madea and Helen break into the husband’s house, and Madea instructs Helen in how to rip up the mistress’s designer clothes. Helen’s ripping grows in strength until she pauses and asks, “Wait . . . what’s this going to solve?” “Nothin,’” Madea cheerfully answers. “It’s just gonna make you feel better!”
Vengeance doesn’t solve anything for Helen, but it’s a necessary stage in her journey of learning to value herself. Along with Madea, the blue-collar all-around good guy Orlando teaches Helen this lesson by loving her with the persistent love of Jesus. It’s no accident that the song playing during the scenes showing their developing relationship is “What If God Was One of Us?” (Yes, that’s right, the one by Joan Osborne from about ten years ago. Only here the song is sung gospel-style and has a totally different tone. The singer even adds an ad-libbed “I know that” before the familiar chorus of “Yeah, yeah, God is great. Yeah, yeah, God is good,” making it completely sincere. I actually miss the ambiguity of the original. I always took it to mean something along the lines of “Yeah, I’ve heard that God is great and good and all that, but I want to see it with my own eyes in terms that I can understand,” but it was always open to interpretation, and I liked that. I also was really fond of the verse, “If God had a face, what would it look like / and would you want to see / if seeing meant that you would have to believe / in things like heaven and in Jesus and the saints / and all the prophets,” which you don’t hear in the movie. Okay, major digression there.)
In many ways, “What if God was one of us?” is the central question of the movie. If he were Orlando, he would love Helen until her emotional walls break down. If he were Helen, he would forgive her ex-husband, hard as that might be. “You got to forgive him,” Helen’s mother (played by Cicely Tyson) tells her. “Not for him. For you.” (As Anne Lamott has written, “not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”)
And that’s Tyler Perry’s strength: taking God’s love and putting it in flawed, broken human vessels. I do have some problems with the ending of Diary of a Mad Black Woman (see note below if you don’t mind spoilers), but I enjoyed seeing God’s love embodied in such a wide variety of characters. My new favorite definition of love actually comes from Orlando. “I pray for you more than I pray for myself,” he tells Helen. “I’ve got it so bad for you I’d… I’d go to the grocery store and buy your feminine products, I swear I would.” Tee hee! (Hear that, Porpoise dear?)
After Helen’s ex-husband Charles has a near-death injury, his mistress abandons him and Helen tries to take care of him, not really sure whether she’s really trying to “do the Christian thing” or whether she’s trying to get revenge. Eventually, Charles repents and apologizes for all the wrong he’s done to Helen. She forgives him, but then she goes off to marry Orlando.
Now, Charles was an awful husband, but old “marriage is a sacrament” me thinks that if he really repented, Helen ought to stay and try to work it out with him (but to leave if he ever hit her again!). It turns out that she actually did stay with Charles in the stage version of Diary of a Mad Black Woman. Perry says that he would get letters of protest from younger women who’d seen the play, who thought she ought to leave Charles for Orlando. Women over 40, he said, almost always applauded her decision to stay with Charles. So, when it came time to make the movie, Hollywood’s attempts to appeal to younger viewers won the day. Sigh.
April 5th, 2006
Inspiration has struck me. If I ever need to pick up some extra cash, I could ghost-write one of those cheesy “Christian guides” to a movie. You know, the ones that take the veneer of a few Bible verses and apply them to a film to show how some character is really a Christ figure. I could write one showing the similarities between V for Vendetta and Dietrich Bonhoeffer!
V plans to assassinate Sutler, Bonhoeffer plans to assassinate Hitler. Both act out of principle. Both oppose censorship and genocide and bad stuff like that. Both make huge sacrifices for a cause. Both love beautiful younger women. Admittedly, only one of them prances around with a cape and sword, but that’s a small detail. You have to make some Hollywood-izations to jazz up the story of a middle-aged German pastor. But, really, V equals Bonhoeffer equals Jesus!
Okay, seriously, I have all respect for those who see Christ in contemporary media, because that’s what I do, too. It’s just that I get frustrated with surface-level comparisons that turn everything into an allegory, rather than an embodied, incarnational truth inherent to the story itself. And there really are Christians (the ones who aren’t protesting V for Vendetta as “leftist propaganda”) currently claiming that V is a Christ figure, just as they hailed the Wachowski brothers’ earlier effort, The Matrix, for imparting Christian (Neoplatonic is more like it, I’d say) teaching about the falseness of the material world. Now I know that V is an insane idealist, and such characters can often be Christ figures, but, really, sometimes a crazy person is just a crazy person.
I’ve been reading Flannery O’Connor’s letters recently, and I’m reminded of an anecdote she relates in one of them:
“Week before last I went to Wesleyan and read ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find.’ After it I went to one of the classes where I was asked questions. There were a couple of young teachers there and one of them, an earnest type, started asking the questions. ‘Miss O’Connor,’ he said, ‘why was the Misfit’s hat black?’ I said most countrymen in Georgia wore black hats. He looked pretty disappointed. Then he said, ‘Miss O’Connor, the Misfit represents Christ, does he not?’ ‘He does not,’ I said. He looked crushed. ‘Well, Miss O’Connor,’ he said, ‘what is the significance of the Misfit’s hat?’ I said it was to cover his head, and after that he left me alone. Anyway, that’s what’s happening to the teaching of literature.”
(O’Connor’s letters are hilarious and deep and fantastic. Expect to see future posts about them.)
Now I see nothing wrong with an individual saying “The Matrix reminds me of the Apostle Paul’s letters” or “The Misfit (or V) reminds me of Christ” (though I would still question the reading ability of the person making the Misfit-Christ parallel), but there’s a difference between that and declaring unequivocally that the Misfit represents Christ.
But I digress. Back to Bonhoeffer. The reason I thought of the parallel was that bit I said in my previous “V” post about using corrupt means to tackle corruption. Terrorists do that, but so too did Bonhoeffer. He was a committed pacifist, and yet was persuaded to participate in a plot to blow up Hitler. Now, the plot failed (the bomb went off, but it missed Hitler), and Bonhoeffer was arrested and eventually executed, but that doesn’t let him off the hook. I’ve never seen a satisfactory explanation of why he chose to override his pacifism to take part in the assassination attempt.
That’s not to say that I condemn him. Like many almost-pacifists, I add that “almost” because of World War II. And possibly Rwanda. Utilitarian ethics would tell us that it’s better to kill one to save the many, at least in cases of genocide.
But I still want to know why Bonhoeffer made his decision. It seems like the answer would be more interesting and complicated than utilitarianism alone. Maybe someday someone will make a Bonhoeffer movie that addresses his moral dilemma. And I suppose it would be more natural to explore the issue through the character of a pastor and theologian, rather than an alliterative lunatic like V. But, alas, there would be no capes and no buildings going boom to the strains of the “1812 Overture.”
April 3rd, 2006