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Ancestor Worship & Honor Culture

Detail of Soviet stamp featuring Rembrandt's 'Return of the Prodigal Son'. MarkauMark / Shutterstock.com

A line from my NRO essay on Dante and Holy Week has caught the eye of some readers. In it, I make a wisecrack that ancestor worship is the true religion of the American South. Here, from my book How Dante Can Save Your Life, is the context of that remark:

Back in the fall of 2012, when Father Matthew and his wife Anna first came to town to talk to us about starting [an Eastern Orthodox] mission, a local clergyman told him that the greatest challenge he would face in West Feliciana Parish is not hostility to religion. it would be the unwillingness of people to leave their family’s church, no matter how unhappy they were there.

“You’re right about that,” I added, laughing. “The real religion of our parish is ancestor worship.”

It was a joke, of course, but there is a lot of truth in the jibe. In the South, loyalty to tradition dies hard. After Father Matthew had been living here a year or so, I asked him what characteristic of the South stood out most clearly to him. He didn’t hesitate one bit, saying, “The way you all hold a grudge.”

I was taken aback by the swiftness of his answer, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made.

I go on to talk about how the shame-honor culture of the South, and the deep reverence for history and ancestry, can be a real burden, especially to the Christian life. It has been observed by many others (e.g., Walker Percy) that its honor culture makes the South more Stoic than Christian, and that this Stoicism was chiefly responsible for the abject failure of Southern Christians on the question of race. Alan Cross, a Southern Baptist pastor and new friend of mine, writes in his 2014 book When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus, that honor is a good thing,

But making it a primary thing is a Greek concept and not a biblical one. Shifting the concept of “honor” toward family and home and what that home ultimately represented in Southern society became a fatal error.

That gets very, very close to why I fell off the straight path and into the dark wood. As I talk about in detail in How Dante, I made a terrible mistake early in my life, of making idols of Family and Home, and believing that the only way I could redeem myself from the shame of having moved away was returning. A lot of this was subconscious, or something of which I was barely conscious. But it was very real, and for most of my adult life, it compromised my emotional life and my spiritual life, because I saw God as a Southern patriarch whose displeasure at me could not be appeased.

When I did everything I possibly could to redeem myself from the “disgrace” of having left Family and Home, and that still wasn’t enough, that’s when I broke. The code of honor meant that my father, in his mind, could not be wrong, nor could my sister have ever been wrong … and, to her children, honoring their mother meant that they could not go against her judgment and accept their uncle, who made himself a prodigal by leaving in the first place. Hannah predicted this in The Little Way of Ruthie Leming came true:

“Uncle Rod, I need to tell you something,” Hannah said, her voice rising. “I really think you and Aunt Julie should stop trying so hard to get close to Claire and Rebekah. It’s not going to work.”

“Why not?”

“Because we were raised in a house where our Mama a lot of times had a bad opinion of you,” she said. “She never talked bad about you to us, but we could tell that she didn’t like the way you lived. We could hear the things she said, and Paw too. I had a bad opinion of you myself, until I started coming to visit y’all, and I saw how wrong they were.

“I was fifteen the first time I did that,” she continued. “My sisters are still young. They don’t know any different. All they know is how we were raised. It makes me sad to see you and Aunt Julie trying so hard, me knowing you’re not going to get anywhere. I don’t want y’all to be hurt.”

Hannah was right, as it turned out. And I was badly hurt. But real good came out of it. It revealed to me the false gods of Family and Home, the gods I had unwittingly worshiped as ultimate goods, not partial goods. And more importantly, I understood the difference between God and the world in which I was raised. My story was like the Prodigal Son story in the Gospel, if it had ended with the father taking the side of the elder brother, the one who stayed, and refusing to welcome the prodigal brother home. After all, the prodigal had made his choice to walk away from what he had been given in his home and his family; let him live with it.

That’s not how God is. The law of Love trumps the Justice of the old honor code! I had to go through something close to the Prodigal Son’s experience myself to grasp, once and for all, the radicalism of Jesus’s teaching to the Semitic shame-honor culture, and to understand what that had to do with the relationship between God the Father and myself. I thought I understood, but really, I knew nothing.

So, when Father Matthew sees that we Southerners hold a grudge like nobody’s business, what he’s talking about is that we find forgiveness and humility alien to our spirit. We don’t think we do, but we do. That doesn’t make us bad, necessarily, but it does mean that there is a particularly regional quality to our brokenness. We do not like to lose face, because losing face means submission.

The acute challenge that my priest put to me — and this too is in the book — is that now that I see and have repented of the shame-honor lie in my relationship to God, how can I allow Love to defeat Justice in my fractured relationship with my family? Because it has to; as a Christian, I have no choice. This is hard. Honor culture is so deep in my bones, and there is a lot of undeniable good that goes with it (e.g., “a man’s word is his bond,” which people here really do live by). But ultimately it is not Christian.

What do you Southerners in the readership think? What are your experiences with the shame-honor culture we all grew up in? How has it shaped your relationships, and your faith?

By the way, after I started this post, I received the following e-mail from a young Evangelical friend in Washington DC, to whom I had sent a galley copy of How Dante Can Save Your Life. He writes:

I finished How Dante the other day and really enjoyed it. You succeeded in what you set out to do, which was to give your readers a picture of how interacting with the Commedia (and, potentially, other great works) can broaden a reader’s heart and stir the waters of the mind to receive healing and transformation.

This is a profoundly Christian book about the work of sanctification. What gives it particular force is that you wrote specifically through the lens of Orthodoxy (while taking pains to say that much of this is relevant to just about anyone). I think if you’d “Oprahfied” the spirituality it would have been a much weaker book. Instead, the way you wrote it allows your readers to trace the threads that are common across Orthodoxy and other Christian traditions, and even threads that can be found woven throughout creation as God’s “invisible attributes” (cf Rom. 1:20).

I found (as a Christian, but not a big-O Orthodox one) many similarities to the doctrines of grace and sanctification in the Baptist and Reformed traditions, among others. God’s grace is a freely offered gift, through Christ, that we can only receive when we acknowledge our own spiritual poverty. But it doesn’t end there; we must take hold of the promise by responding in faith and “rise, take up our bed, and walk.”

This is the unique achievement of your book: theology books tend to focus on limning differences in belief, and self-help books tend to tell you what to do without offering a first-person look at vulnerability and suffering, but you invited your readers into the story with you – as perhaps only a blogger can do. You took a real risk in writing so candidly about your internal struggles and your relationship with your family. I think you really brought it home at the end with the story about your dad in the hospital room – a really affecting image that I think many people will relate to.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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