I Survived (Because of) Bible Belt Religion
There are almost as many churches as there are people in the small southern town where I live. You will scarcely meet a person who isn’t a member of one (or more) of them, though few have faithfully attended Sunday services since at least the Clinton administration. But even the local dope dealers and bootleggers can quote long passages from the Bible with scribal accuracy. While they may not, on the advice of counsel, admit to committing any crimes, they would be quick to confess many particular sins. And that is no small thing.
Some time ago, one leading evangelical influencer rejoiced over the decline of “Bible Belt Religion,” commenting that it “made bad people worse.” More recently, another Christian pundit took another swing at the cultural Christianity of the South, one of his favorite punching bags, calling it a form of “toxic religion” that is, at best, an expression of the Faith to be “survived.”
While I would agree with them that wholehearted, full-throated devotion to Jesus Christ would be preferable, I can’t find such dedication even among our Lord’s hand-picked Apostles or in a single congregation since the strange winds began blowing at Pentecost. These critics of the faith of my kin seem to be stricken by a virulent strain of perfectionism. Such perfectionism is little more than the Holiness doctrine of entire sanctification applied to culture, or at least to certain cultures. Hence, one of the problems with their disdain for the Bible Belt stems from an over-realized eschatology; a transformationalism that expects seeds to yield a hundred-fold overnight. Nevertheless, we are praying for lasting fruit, not Morning Glories.
One can imagine fewer complaints from the South if her critics held everyone over the fiery pit like one of Edwards’s unfortunate spiders, and did so with equal contempt. But there seems to be a bit of socio-theological dissonance at play. On the one hand, cultures that are overtly pagan, unbelieving, or outright anti-god are viewed through the starry eye of Pelagian optimism. While on the other hand, the imperfect religious expressions of the Bible Belt are met with the clenched fist of an Augustinianism gone to seed. The latter is denounced as utterly depraved with all of the fervor of a tent-revivalist, while the former are patted on the head like some tame race of noble savages.
Just so, barring a faulty eschatology or kind of theological schizophrenia, one is left to draw the conclusion that those who dislike “Bible Belt Religion” really just dislike the Bible Belt. But for my part, I thank God for the Bible Belt people who introduced me to Jesus.
Our little church couldn’t boast of a single scholar. Our collars were blue, our necks were red, and our thumbs were green. The preacher sold insurance and tomatoes on the side. The hands that held the offering plates usually had axle grease under their nails. And if you had asked our ladies about a woman named “Gloria” who had made her way in a man’s world, they would’ve immediately thought of Gloria Gaither. Our church was a houseful of simple people who simply loved the Lord.
Were there doctrinal problems? More than you could shake a stick at. But there was also an unvarnished devotion to the two Great Commandments. And such love covers a multitude of catechetical misfires. The Bible Belt Christians who raised me could not always give you chapter and verse, but they were always ready with a cup of cold water. At the end of the day, it is the one who offers a cool drink that receives the prophet’s reward, not the one who remembers all the names of the prophets.
The pastors of my childhood dangled their participles, misplaced their modifiers, and would’ve probably preached against the premarital conjugation of verbs. But they also proclaimed a God too big to fail, too wise to make a mistake, and too loving to let you go. They weren’t against education as such, they were just against equating facts with fidelity. After I received my doctorate, I remember one old preacher pulling me aside and saying, “A Ph.D. is like the curl on the end of a pig’s tail—it may look good, but it don’t represent no more ham.” He was right. Credentials aren’t synonymous with Christian virtue.
Where I’m from we prayed in public and sinned in secret. This is the much maligned “Bible Belt” decorum. We weren’t perfect, but we made few claims to such lofty ideals. We believed in repentance—mostly because we were used to doing so much of it. The town drunk usually made his way to the summer revival meetings and has been “converted” at least a dozen times. Somehow I think this is better than him not showing up at all. And one of these days I imagine it will take. The fella who formerly held his post was forced to take early retirement from it because the Free Methodists got ahold of him and turned him into a country parson.
We are told that backward, small-town, southern religion created a disproportionate number of “nominal” Christians. I reckon that’s probably true since it has made more of the other kind of Christian than anyone else too. Want to trade missionary receipts?
The top brass Evangeligentsia says that Bible Belt Religion has resulted in a measure of cultural Christianity. I say, yes. But I prefer to think of it like the leaven which the shrewd woman in the gospels hid in three measures of flour until all was leavened. We have it on good authority that the Kingdom of God is just like that. Urban Evangelistas love to rail against nominal religion, declaring with no small amount of glee, “Mayberry is not the New Jerusalem.” To which an honest person is bound to say, “sure.” But then again, Mayberry sure as hell ain’t Sodom and Gomorrah either.
Anyone who ever had a widow teach them about David from a lint-laden flannelgraph; or learned the “Romans Road” from a mechanic during VBS; or was otherwise loved to Jesus by hard-working people with southern accents, should give thanks to the Good Lord for Bible Belt Religion.
So despise not the day of small things. Let patience have her perfect work. And for goodness sake, honor your fathers and your mothers.
Brandon Meeks (Ph.D., University of Aberdeen) serves as Theologian-in-Residence at his Anglican parish in Arkansas.