Southern Life

When a good friend sent me this now semi-viral  photo captioned,  “Miracle in the Alcohol Aisle,” I recalled immediately that Item #1 on my  list of indications that a truly  “New” South  (not to be confused with “The Rapture”) has finally arrived is:  “The Baptists will start to make eye contact in the liquor store.” Then I flashed to the story of the minister who, when pulled over for driving erratically, assured the policeman that the cup resting on his console contained nothing but water. When the officer’s examination ascertained that the vessel actually contained wine, the good Rev. broke into a huge smile and proclaimed, “Praise  God! He’s done it again!” Naturally, the fact that the lady in the photo who is most definitely looking to wet her whistle with something a bit stronger than water has risen miraculously from her wheel chair also brought to mind the tale of the faith-healer who asked Mr. Jones, who suffered from a speech impediment, and Mr. Smith, whose broken leg had put him on crutches, to step behind a curtain at the front of the church while he used his special hotline to pray to God to heal them of their afflictions. Satisfied that he had gotten the job done, the preacher indulged his flair for the dramatic by commanding Mr. Smith to cast down his crutches and stand unassisted and instructing Mr. Jones to speak to the expectant congregation in a clear voice. The first sound was a decided “whump” followed by “Mither ‘Mith just busted his AATH!”

By now my mind was positively whirring, suspended in a cyclone of preacher/church/religion jokes, not the least of them Lewis Grizzard’s famous tale—which you probably have heard, but so what?–where the preacher repeatedly exhorts his flock to “Tell it all, Brother!” by confessing their darkest sins and elicits a progressively more disturbing series of admissions to drunkenness, adultery, gambling, thievery, and the like,  each confession  affirmed from pulpit and pew with, “Tell it all, Brother, Tell it all!” Finally, there remains but one visibly uncomfortable congregant who has kept silent about his worst transgression but the resolute Rev. refuses to give up until he browbeats the poor fellow into revealing that he has violated the laws of man and nature with a goat, whereupon the entire church falls into an immediate and deathly silence until the utterly nonplussed preacher recovers sufficiently to advise, “Damn, Brother, I don’t believe I’d ‘a told that!”

For those truly unfortunate folk who think even a joke must have some larger meaning, the one here would seem to be that while God’s forgiveness knows no bounds, the same is clearly not true for all of his mortal would-be followers. I’ve always thought that you could learn a lot about a society or culture by paying attention to its humor, which is usually generated at the pressure points where its laws and mores start to constrict and chafe.  In this case, imposing  behavioral standards based on strict, literalist readings of the Holy Bible’s pronouncements on the nature and consequences of sin simply asks for more than most humans are capable of delivering.  Unable to abide by such a narrow and inflexible moral code, southerners and other citizens of quasi-theocratic societies who were forced to pay public obeisance to rigid religious dogma and ritual have frequently responded by mocking it in private. Since the aforementioned Baptists were and remain the predominant would-be moral enforcers in the South, they also bear the brunt of humorous derision as the kind of people who refuse to have sex standing up lest someone mistakenly assume they’re dancing.

At this point, full disclosure demands that I exchange the third person for the first and admit that, in this case,  I am making fun of myself as well my people, for though I have been a professing , if not  always practicing, Episcopalian for more than a quarter century now, the truth is that in a great many respects I will always be the Baptist I became even before I formally joined the church at age nine. My case is hardly unusual, I have found.  It’s certainly true that the Episcopal Church (whose communicants have no problem with the eye contact thing, believe me) has traditionally been a favorite hangout for recovering Roman Catholics, but in these parts, at least, you won’t have to skin many Episcopalians before you expose a wayward and occasionally still-discomfited Baptist lurking within.

There are many reasons for this, I suspect. One may be that some of these refugees from the Baptist flock simply couldn’t take anymore of those prolonged  “invitationals,” where the preacher, mindful that he had not wheedled, bullied, or just plain terrified a new convert into coming down to the altar in a good while, asked the congregation to remain standing, “with every head bowed and every eye closed,” while the choir softly hummed  just a few more stanzas of “Just As I Am” (“without one plea, but that Thy blood was shed for me … ” ) because the Lord has “laid it on my heart” that there was someone in the congregation who needed, in the worst way and, indeed, that very day, to come to Jesus . When it became obvious that the Reverend was not going to dislodge a single sinner from his or her pew, he typically went  to his “Plan B,” and, with the choir still humming and everybody still standing—including the sweet old ladies whose ankles were swelling so fast you could almost hear them, he asked anyone  in need of a special prayer of supplication in his or her behalf to quietly raise a hand.  People,  I was present on many such occasions in my youth, and in the spirit of “Tell it All, Brother, Tell It All,”  I must confess that my curiosity frequently got the better of me and I opened my eyes enough to check out whoever might be so needy as to seek divine succor. Although I’m not proud of what I did, I can say that I didn’t feel particularly uplifted to hear the preacher say repeatedly, “I see that hand. God bless that hand,” when I could see perfectly well that not a soul in the entire congregation had lifted so much as a pinky. This dubious tactic became so notorious, in fact, that it inspired a story of the Baptist minister who lost his part-time job as a lifeguard because his instinctive response to a drowning person’s  frantic signal for help, i.e., simply bellowing “I see that hand. God bless that hand,” proved singularly ineffective.

In the end, I think I signed off on being a Baptist, in the active, participatory sense at least, because I just couldn’t accept the idea of trying to win converts primarily by threatening them with the horror of eternal damnation when holding out the prospect of eternal and unconditional love was also an option. I don’t miss hearing such sermons, but something I do and always will miss very much about the Baptist services are the wonderful, stirring, uplifting hymns that we used to sing before the preacher got up to condemn us as incorrigible sinners and warn us that if we didn’t come down and profess our faith in Jesus on that very occasion, we might suffer a head-on collision exiting the parking lot and be hurled straight from our car into ol’ Satan’s horrific “Lake of Fire.”  Although the preacher had some powerful material to work with, for me it just didn’t match up to the message of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” which,  I learned later, also enjoyed a certain resonance outside the Christian faith, at least according to a Jewish former student who swore that as proprietors of a small department store in South Georgia, her father and uncle had been known to break out in this very same tune on Christmas morning as they shared a bottle of good bourbon and reviewed the season’s sales  numbers.

My very favorite hymn, however, was actually  “When We All Get to Heaven,”  which not only assured us that we could count on “the wondrous love of Jesus” but promised “soon the pearly gates will open; we shall tread  the streets of gold.” Now that’s what I’m talking about! It’s also why one of the longest playlists on my iPod is labeled “Gospel.” This might surprise– and I’d like to think, even please—some of my old Baptist brethren.  I don’t reckon I can risk showing them my playlists, though.  Those things are displayed in alphabetical order, after all, and, rest easy Doug Clark, I’m not even studying about deleting the “Hot Nuts.”

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Jim Cobb

Jim Cobb

Jim Cobb teaches history at the University of Georgia, where he is B. Phinizy Spalding Distinguished Professor in the History of the American South. His most recent book is the South and America Since World War II (Oxford University Press, 2010) He has been known to blog at www.cobbloviate.com.