Southern Cross: Testimony From the Mississippi Baptist Convention

Written by Andrey Slivka on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.


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Southern Cross


Testimony from the Mississippi Baptist Convention


And heard crackling from
the television set–it was Sunday–I’d fallen asleep the night
before to an obscure cable band–a great and valid American voice.


A turpentine-soaked rattling
tickled my brain:


"Mahfriendswedon’tbeLIEVE
– that he’s the son uh God! We don’t TRUSS! – inhimbein’thesonuhGod!
We don’t TRUSS !– that oneuhthesedays – ourbodiesgonnalayinthegroundandoneoftheseDAYS
– youandAh – aregonnawai – mahfriendfortheTRUMPETtosound. We
don’t BELIEVE! – that heistheson-uhGod–"


I sat up in bed, hypnotized,
and put on my glasses to confront this magnificence. A thin-lipped old white
man in a colorless suit goggled at me via a ghostly cable feed. From the grainy
looks of it he might have been broadcasting from the Truman administration.
But as an identifying screen legend made clear, he was really no farther
than Tupelo. "Frank Cayson Ministries," the screen informed
the viewership. (What viewership? Maybe this channel was being directed by Jehovah
exclusively to me.)


Apparently the Rev. Cayson
pastored his town’s Open Door Baptist Church.


"He’s not comin’
Tupelo! He ain’t comin’ Suthuhn Baptis’ Convention or no other
convention, bless God, with a three-piece suit on, honey! He’s comin’
back to IZ-ril. He’s gonna put one foot on the Mount o’ Olives, one
on the sandy sea, andtheBobblesays, mah friends the mountain’s gonna SPLIT,
and they gonna look at it–and this ol’ sky, gon’ roll
back like a SCROLL!… He IS gonna make you and Ah bow down, and make us confess,
that he IS the Christ the sonofthelivin’God. He is who he says he is, Ah
believe, don’tchoo believe that?–don’t it make yuh wanna shout
AMEN!"


Hell, yeah.


"He got to shoutin’.
And Ah got to shoutin’. And Ah looked over, and Ah said–overahundredmilesanhour-comin’backfromOxford–we
had no idear how fast we was goin!–jess settin’ there, praisin’
God, ol’ Gerald singin’ ‘you take the whoooooole world, but
you–give–me–Je-sus
…’"


A hundred per? Two preachers?
Bellowing for Jesus?


I give you the Rev. Frank
Cayson, my brothers and sisters, caterwauling back to Tupelo on Rte. 6 in a
’55 Ford.


Climbed in my own car that
same day aglow with the borrowed spirit of He whom they call:


The bright morning star,
the balm of Gilead, the Christ of Galilee, the everlasting power, the God of
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the king of kings, the lord of lords, the lion, the
pride of Judah, the lamb of God, the lily of the valley, the Nazarene, the prince
of peace, the rose of Sharon, the lord of angels, the resurrection and the light…


And rolled downstate–down,
down, down, down to Jackson.



Adventures
in the idiom of the White Southern Sump-Pump Protestant Religioso Other–the
American Lynch-Mob-Belonging Evangelical Other against whom you and I vote every
election season as a matter of cosmopolitan principle and public hygiene…


The annual meeting of the
Mississippi Baptist Convention, and the Mississippi Pastor’s Conference
that preceded it, were held from Oct. 30 to Nov. 1 at the grand, stentorian
First Baptist Church in downtown Jackson, the friendly, woebegone capital of
a second-world state.


It was all right. Driving
down from Memphis along 61 through Tunica and Coahoma and Bolivar Counties and
the rest of the alluvial rural slum of the Delta, I had a dopey Northern-intellectual’s
blues- and Faulkner-derived vision of Gothic evangelical voices roaring, remorseless,
out of the hot, surreal void of a moaning southern-Mississippi autumn. Voicing
the impossible horror emptiness of fields; evoking terrible divine power like
that which you discover in Job–God making himself manifest in yawning whirlwinds
over stricken crops.


But it was fine. Folks,
as a certain second-string Southern writer wrote, is folks. Sunburnt Baptists
circulated with razor-raw faces and Sunday suits and oxfords, and scratched
themselves like anyone else scratches themselves, on High St. (Poor Jackson.
Its municipal slogan ought to be: "It ain’t Charleston or Savannah–And
it sho ain’t New Or-leans!") They had wristwatches, wives, automobiles,
etc., just like people up here in New York do.


They also had their voices,
and their stories. Without letting it bother them, they were participating in
an exercise according to which their noise erupted through the veneer of Mid-American
stolidity that in part, but only in part, defined them. Preachers would get
up and work amazing changes on the serious, rich American idiom they’d
inherited and absorbed. It was singular. In a great way, they were working against
themselves. They were building fundamentalist evangelical houses of cards, and
blowing them away with oratory.



"HOW
MANY O’ YOU WANNA TAKE OFF WITH ME? ANYBODY WANNA TAKE OFF?"     


The bearish,
semi-mulleted Rev. Steve Gaines blared–the evening of Oct. 30–from
the pulpit of this huge half-timbered Anglo-Saxon mead-hall of a house of worship,
outside of which Jackson choked under an autumnal heatwave.


His immediate topic, The
Church:


"It’s for allll
the people. I tell you it’s for allll the people. They don’t
have to dress like us!"


"Amen!" the congregation
yelled, and "Awright!" This was the convocation’s first night–the
pastors’ night–so Gaines was addressing his Southern Baptist colleagues
in ministry.


"They don’t have
to look like us!"


"Aaaaay-men!"


"They don’t have
to act like us! They can have earrings, noserings, navel
rings, bathtub rings–"


"Aaaaay-men!"
And chortles of satisfaction, and preacher-arms held aloft, palms held (testify!)
forward.


"It doesn’t matter!
They ought to be welcomed in the house of God!"


"Yeeeey-ah!"


"They ought not to
have to become like we are before they come to see who he is!
They ought to be able to come in, just like they are, he will meet them where
they are, like he did me when I was in college, when I was nowhere close
to him, he found me where I was, and praise God, HE WILL TAKE US WHERE
WE NEED TO GO!"


But now–and this was
good–Gaines pulled a rhetorical trick. He changed intensity on a dime,
and lost about 1000 decibels’ worth of power. His linebacker’s body,
which he’d cantilevered out over the congregation–a red-faced linebacker-sized
threat of a gasoline-breathing man hovering over a bunch of old Mississippians
with faces like you see on the chaw-chewing guys playing fiddle and double bass
behind Ernest Tubb in black-and-white photographs–deflated like a spent
balloon. And he uttered, conversationally, suddenly, out of nowhere, so that
it contrasted in tone and color with what had come before, the following throwaway
line:


"But I’m not preaching
about that tonight."



Haw, haw, haw haw…



In other words, a rhetorical
bait and switch, a Mississippi praeteritio.


A small effect. But it’s
from dozens of such small effects, accreted over the course of 14 lines, that
a Shakepearean sonnet’s constructed. A definition of art: signification
struggling to be born against the necessary tyrannies (the pentameter, the linguistic
parameters of the Southern Baptist church) of convention.


"‘…And Jesus
entered the temple and he drove out–’ I like that, because so many
of these people have such an idea of Jesus that’s not scriptural. He drove
out all those who were buying and selling in the temple. He overturned–I
tell you, when Jesus shows up, some people gonna be driven out, some things
gonna be overturned–the tables of the money changers. The seats of those
who were selling doves. One other Gospel says he had a whip, and one guy tells
me one time, ‘well, he didn’t hit anybody.’ BUT THAT’S JUST
’CAUSE THEY GOT OUT OF THE WAY…"



Yehhhhhhhhhhh!




Baptists
pulled back from affable urinals and–    


 "How
you doin’."   


 "Awright.
Got this sinus thing."


"Lots o’ people
do."


"Yeah, it’s this
ol’ dry and all."


"Got to fix it."


"Yuh."


–pulled back and stowed
Baptist peckers and sauntered forth from Baptist bathrooms…into the fluorescent-lit
hallways…ambling…pressing hands…howdyhowdyhowdy how are ya?


At one point I watched
a child levitate. I swear this is true. The second afternoon, between bureaucratic
sessions, a child who’d been adequately informed by the Holy Spirit
actually
floated in the air in the foyer near the registration table,
where the old women sat. Baptists stopped chewing gum long enough to stop and
stare; a crowd formed. It was a fat kid with freckles and his glasses taped
together, and he himself couldn’t believe it was happening.


But there he was, floating
in the air at chest level; his eyes and mouth agape, his arms and legs splayed
out in a useless attempt to balance and orient himself. Fearful, he peered down
at the ground. We watched, awestruck; he rotated and twirled on a variety of
axes. First his feet were pointed at the ceiling, then his head, then his arms.
He bobbed slightly, like a fishing-line bobber on the surface of a gentle pond.
He was borne on invisible throbbing energies.


Then it was over. Whomp.
He fell to the ground.


"Rats."


Spectators shrugged, walked
on to wherever they’d meant to walk in the first place, and it’s possible
that they were relieved it hadn’t lasted longer.


Southern Baptists aren’t
Pentecostals or snake-handlers or strychnine-chuggers. If they were, they probably
wouldn’t dominate national conversations like they actually sort of do.
Here’re some Southern Baptists: Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Trent Lott, Newt
Gingrich. And Jimmy Carter, at least until he quit this autumn, dissatisfied
with the Southern Baptist Convention’s social conservatism. So it’s
possible that, under the circumstances, people here just thought the kid was
being inappropriate, making the denomination look like a bunch of dervishing
religious nuts or something, people who could work magic.


"Well."


"Nice to see
ya."


"Yuh."


Booths in a church exposition
hall testified to the intersection of spirituality and commerce ("Mississippi
Baptist Recreators’ Association," announced one. "Providing Opportunities
for Fellowship, Professional Development, and Personal Recreation in the Area
of Christian Recreation"). Elderly women browsed Christian literature on
tables while devotional muzak lilted and maundered.


For instance: What God
Does When Women Pray
.


And: Breaking Free: Making
Liberty in Christ a Reality in Life
.


And: Building Your Spiritual
Resume
.


And: He’s Gonna
Toot and I’m Gonna Scoot: Waiting for Gabriel’s Horn
, by a certain
Barbara Johnson ("Barbara Johnson, a popular conference speaker and the
author of ten best-selling books, has been called ‘the queen of encouragement.’")


The atmosphere was one of
welcoming church-picnic decency. People were nice. That’s the mindblowing
thing about Americans, I’ve found. They’re nice; when you break down
on the side of the highway, bunches of them stop to help you, and give you a
ride; if you’re a visiting Yankee journalist with a Catholic nose, a tight-ass
boreal accent (all nasal) and what’s in fact a Jew name, they’ll shake
your hand anyway, and answer your questions; they mess with your preconceptions
that way.


They said:


"Tell you what I’m
gon’ do. Since I ain’t gon’ miss a meal, I’m gon’ go
eat supper, then I’m gon’ come back and talk to John over there and
his lovely wife…"


And: "You’ll get
the same software that another church gets for 2000 for eight hunnert dollars…"


And: "…our congregation’s
been growin’…"


And: "Things goin’
well. You lost some weight, boy, lookin’ good. On purpose? Haw haw haw."


And: "…He said you
should finish at Southwestern, I said I never even set foot on that campus…
First week I was down there, the eldest member of the church died, and I–"


And: "He said, you
sure you’re not rippin’ me off Ah said no Ah ain’t rippin’
you off it’s a new washer-dryer…"


And: "I got official
business witch you. Can you come on the first Sunday night o’ December?…
Okay, you got a service? Okay, you come on the 17th? Might be better, ’cause
that’s plumb Christmas there. November the 26th. And that way I believe
it’ll work better. Free you up in December in y’own church."


And: "Played once.
Didn’t keep playin’. Kep’ hittin’ it off, puttin’ it
back on the tee. Fella says, ‘Don’t keep doin’ that.’"


And: "Ah been there
long enough to be mayor. Been there 20 years. You too? Waaal, Ah’m just
an ol’ stick in the mud."



The scum
of the Earth:     

   "You’re going where? Mississippi? You better
watch your ass, man. Those people are nuts. Lynching’s legal down
there, man. Yeah, you’re lucky you’re white. What? The Southern
Baptists?
Shit, man…"


The Deep South, in a tenacious
way, still exists in the Northern cosmopolite’s imagination as an unceasing
reality of hangings, pickup-truck drawings-and-quarterings, backwoods flayings,
swamp-country ass-fuckings and generally unrelenting carnage.


Testify, my Northern urban
brethren. Of unctuous, drawling preachers with silvery pompadours over greasy
tan faces. They gesture from Southern pulpits in orgies of hypocrisy, in tight
iridescent suits, pinkie-ringed, obscene, Elmer Gantry-an. They own metal detectors
and Gulf Shore bungalows. Rural Southern Baptist congregations rush to church
windows in the midst of services, rest the barrels of their machine guns on
the sills and blow away passing Jews, Slavs, atheists, caravaning gypsies, cripples,
Negroes, papists, Wobblies. They caterwaul on Mississippi backroads in ’55
Fords, hollering praise unto…


Unto Jesus.


In fact, it’s been
an interesting autumn for the Southern Baptist Convention and its constituent
state organizations–of which Mississippi’s is arguably the most right-wing.
On the same day that Mississippi’s Southern Baptist pastors convened in
Jackson, the Baptist General Convocation of Texas (that is, the Texas version
of the event I attended; Southern Baptists seem, like witches, to like to convene
at the end of October and beginning of November) cut funding to the Southern
Baptist seminaries under its jurisdiction, citing its membership’s aversion
to the increasing level of "doctrinaire fundamentalism" in the schools.
From the Washington Times’ account of the Texas development:


"The Texas Baptist
Convention [is] known to be a ‘moderate’ stronghold, along with Virginia…
The terms ‘moderate’ and ‘conservative’ are relative, however,
and even ‘moderate’ Baptists hold strongly conservative theological
views as compared to most mainstream denominations."


In other interesting Southern
Baptist news–gleaned from a search of the wires–I discovered that
a church in Frankfort, KY, had decided to "end its relationship" with
the Southern Baptist Convention. They were concerned that "the new conservative
leadership of the denomination is interpreting the Bible too narrowly, curbing
the role of women in ministry and treading on the historic Baptist teaching
of freedom of conscience." Another Baptist church, in Lexington, voted
to sever its ties with the Kentucky Baptist Church. "We were so busy trying
not to let the Southern Baptist Convention define us…that we were having a
hard time focusing on who we are as a local church," the pastor commented.


Apparently church members
"were upset with revisions to the denomination’s statement of belief,
the Baptist Faith and Message, which became official at the annual meeting of
the Southern Baptist Convention in June in Orlando… That document underscored
a two-decade-long movement in which conservatives gained control of seminary
agencies and seminaries."


One of the stipulations
of the Baptist Faith and Message is that wives should submit "graciously"
to their husbands.


Conservatives were rebuffed
this autumn at the Arkansas Baptist Convention, also, when the Faith and Message
failed to carry the day.


And so on.


And this autumn, too, Jimmy
Carter announced that he was quitting the Southern Baptist Convention, citing
its "increasingly rigid" right-wing stances on women and claiming
that the denomination clings to "provisions that violate the basic premises
of [his] Christian faith."


Poor guy. A full 20 years–20
years–after his fellow denominationalists–his friends and neighbors–took
to the polls in droves to vote for Reagan and kick his ass out of the White
House, it finally occurs to him that Southern Baptists aren’t especially
fond of female ministers, faggotry or, if the evidence is to be trusted, James
Earl Carter, either.



There was
the predictable intolerance–here in Mississippi among the most doctrinaire,
the most conservative Southern Baptists in the universe.


A soft-spoken older gentleman–soft
collar, soft suit, soft smile, soft drawl from some mythical nostalgic courtly
honeysuckle South lived on twilit porches–assumed the lectern to argue
against a proposed "Resolution Encouraging Christians to Vote." In
doing so he told the following evocative and even, despite the circumstances,
charming, little story:


"This resolution takes
me back to 1953, when as a young graduate of Mississippi College I went
to New York University Law School in New York City. The first thing I looked
for was the closest Baptist church. The closest one was next door, right across
the street from the Law School, right across from the apartment I was staying
in, called Judson Memorial Baptist Church. And I said, great, I found me a Mississippi
Baptist church. Judson Memorial–it couldn’t be any better than that.


"That particular Sunday
morning I went into the church, I looked around–huge, beautiful church…
Then the pastor began to preach. And he spent his whole sermon extolling the
virtue of the Democratic Party, and particularly of Adlai Stevenson, and suggested
to us why we might vote for Adlai Stevenson instead of for Dwight Eisenhower.
Well, I was appalled, because he spent his time talking politics instead of
preaching the word of God…


"What we have asked
in this resolution to do…we are asking to encourage all pastors–in church–to
educate, to inform and discuss, the critical issues of this important election.
I do not feel that we should place this responsibility, this burden, upon our
pastors. I do not feel that we should take away from the time that they are
preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to talk about the political issues of our
day. I believe that that would be one of the most dangerous things that could
happen to our churches…"


He was–stomp–swiftly
crushed. You could see his persecutor striding down the aisle toward the microphone,
tieless, rangy, thick-spectacled, ungainly, a hillbilly avatar, a walking peckerwood
exercise in the validity of Platonic idealism: he was a form. I felt
kind of sorry for him, and for the South. It was as if an invisible jug band
were following him down the aisle, in triumph, and the washboard player was
married to his own aunt. This was one of those moments at which the South acts
like Northerners assure you the South is going to act ("lynching’s
legal down there"), a local equivalent of the black kids who get
on the train at 4th Ave. and misuse verbs and consume malt liquor. Even his
accent was different: his was the true sharp rural accent, born of humid pine-voids,
loamy, alkaline, resonant of the effluvium irradiated upward from chthonic alluvial
Tippah County soybean voids:


"I’m Jimmy Walker,
pastor of the Tiplersville Baptist Church, and I’m a duly elected messenger
to this convention. What this gentleman’s asking us…to do is to be quiet
about two very vital Christian issues that’s in this current election.
The approval…as our president identified them yesterday, of alternative lifestyles
and the issue of abortion. These are two Christian issues."


"Yehhhhh!"
the congregation droned. "All right!"


"They are issues we
as Christians need to take a stand on. We need to educate our people that abortion
is murder–"


"Right!"


"–of innocent,
unborn children. We need to educate our people that homah-seckshality
is an abomination–"


"Riiiiiiight!"


"–to God. It is
written in the Old Testament, and the New Testament.


"We need to educate
our people about the issues of the day. We need to say to them that there are
two people in this race, that one of them supports the unlimited access for
a woman to kill her baby. And that same one supports the promotion in our society,
in our students, of a homah-seckshul lifestyle."


"Amen!"


"Aaaaaayyyyymen."


Later that day I picked
up, in the lobby outside the church sanctuary, the leaflet bearing the proposed
convention resolutions, and found this passage, which indicated a whole, whole
other world, a whole other way of life:


"Whereas, books that
target children, such as the Harry Potter series, contain elements of New Age/Occult
that are opposed to Christianity (Deut. 18:9-14 and Gal. 5:16-21), and whereas,
music is increasingly more profane and sexually oriented, and whereas, the Bible
teaches us that we have the responsibility of raising our children in the ‘nurture
and admonition of the Lord’ and not ‘to cause any of these little
ones to stumble’…therefore be it resolved that the messengers to the
Mississippi Baptist Convention meeting…urge all Christians to be informed
of the targeting of our children by the secular media…"



There were
moments of charm. (Comic relief: The acrobat creeps on stage in piebald tights
and a ruffle, cheeks rouged; the crowd stirs; in the pit, the violist drowses;
the bassoonist, choleric, lazily takes snuff.) Testimony of a female missionary:


"…I really didn’t
think I’d ever go back. But God put that burning in me, and I decided to
go back to Ukraine. When the door opened up, and the opportunity came, and he
tried to tell me to go, I had to get on my knees and I had to say, Lord, you
gotta help me. I had no finances together. Well, when I was on my knees, the
Lord brought donuts to my mind."


Nervous laughter; a weird
wind ruffling a still pond. Guys start looking at their wives, nudging each
other, whispering, The hell is she talking about?–though not, under the
circumstances, in so many words.


"Now, I know that
sounds really strange," she continued, "but he did. He brought donuts.
And through the power of God, and the ability that he gave me, I was able to
sell seventy-two hundred donuts."


Laughter again; the audience
is now implicated.


"Six hundred dozen
donuts. Those donuts, and the contributions that my friends made, and the other
things that we did, paid for my trip…


"Well, when I got ready
to go… I also had no spending money. So again I went to the Lord. And thank
goodness the Lord talked to my husband, who is an avid deer hunter, and he sold
his four-wheeler…"


Applause, and haw haw
haw haw haw!


Another female missionary
who addressed the Convention turned out to be stationed–and I confess that
in my relative ignorance of the aspirations of evangelical Protestantism, I
found this remarkable–in Boston:


"…Literally when
you’re coming to Boston you’re coming to a foreign country. I want
to read you a scripture. ‘One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision.
He said, do not be afraid. Keep on speaking, do not be silent. No one is going
to harm you or attack you, because I have many people in that city.’


"I guarantee you, if
you come to Boston, people are gonna say, when you open your mouth to speak
with your Mississippi accent–they’re gonna say, what are you doing
here? And you can say, I’ve come to share the message of Jesus Christ with
the city of Boston.


"God bless you for
your discomfort. Please pray for the city of Boston… Pray for all of us who
want to see the Kingdom come to the city of Boston…"


And there were too many
moments to mention when people assumed the pulpit and simply and humbly and
quietly affirmed, in the face of despair, faith in life.


A middle-aged man named
Archie, accompanied by a teenaged daughter and a meek wife, his broad face irradiating
the gentle weariness of someone who’s been completely wrung out, spoke
slowly, as if straining against tears, as his wife and daughter hung their heads:


"The Lord gave, and
the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.


"Many of you are aware
that our son C– became ill when he was 13. And after an extended illness,
passed away on July the 6th. I cannot begin to tell you how God in his wisdom
blessed us in our great time of need. But I wanna take this opportunity…to
just say thank you to my Mississippi Baptist family… We serve an awesome God.
He will never, never leave us, no matter how hard the storm. Thank you from
the very bottom of our hearts."


And there was YoYo Collins,
visiting Oklahoman quadriplegic evangelist, who as a young man paralyzed himself
in a diving accident; unimaginable pain, unimaginable trauma:


"…Then they put me
in what they call a striker frame. All that is, is a cot, looks more like a
stretcher than anything else. It stood on a couple of poles and had a pivot
point at each end. I found out later there was another piece to it. There was
a hole that I could see through, and breathe through. They would sandwich me
between these two stretchers, strap me in them and roll me over onto my stomach.
Then they put me in what they called ‘crutchfield tongs.’ All that
is, is a metal bar that goes across the top of your head–kinda resembles
a big old horseshoe.


"They had some screws
in the side of that thing. They screwed those through my scalp, into my skull,
tied a rope about 4 feet long to the top of that thing, and on the end of the
rope they put about 40 pounds of weight that would apply the traction to try
to pull my neck back into place.


"And time, folks. That
striker frame seemed to stop it. Every moment seemed like a day. Every hour
seemed like a week. Every day seemed like a month.


"A short time after
that, the doctor came in with my parents. He stood at the foot of my cot and
he said, ‘Your son has a cutting of the spinal at the fifth and sixth cervical
vertebrae, and he will be doing little more for the rest of his life.’
And as a physical education major, with so many physical dreams and aspirations–at
that point in my life, my dreams literally seemed to be crushed.


"But thank God, folks,
that’s not the end of my story…"



I was fascinated
by huge, elephant-in-the-living-room irony that a bunch of fundamentalists ("Southern
Baptist Convention leaders say the Bible is perfect in historical detail as
well as spiritual teaching") were capable of participating in a three-day
meeting that amounted to an exercise in the excessive, illimitable, anarchic
business of signification, as practiced by pulpit-thumping preachers like the
mindblowing aforementioned Gaines, and a brilliant, compact little slickster
of a pompadoured pastor named Johnny Hunt, a visitor in to Jackson from the
First Baptist Church of Woodstock, GA–a human stiletto, whose every utterance
vibrated with energy and scandal. The Rev. Mr. Hunt ought to preach with one
expensive shoe up on the running board of a whitewalled roadster. He’s
magnificent: vogues, preens, scowls, juts his chin out, lacerates himself onstage,
strikes boxing poses and punches out Agnosticism with vicious pint-sized fists.


"We graduated five
high schools in our area last year in our church," he said, looking disgusted.
"I don’t even go there on that day, because there’s so much complainin’
by those who would rather not graduate in a church building… Last year,
the ACLU got involved…"–here I sat on the edge of my seat and checked
the ol’ tape recorder; I know what to look for; I’m no fool–"So
the principal called me one day and said, ‘I need some help.’ I said,
what’s the problem. He said ‘Well, we’ve got one atheist in our
school, his family’s atheistic. We just want to know–in your baptismal
pool, there’s a cross. Do you think maybe, just for that Saturday
morning graduation, you could cover–the cross?’"


Congregational laughter.
Yeah, right, buddy. Haw haw haw hawwwwww…


"Well. He said, ‘We’d
be glad to put our colors up.’ I said"–leaning forward, a look
of unimaginable belligerence on his tan little face, stabbing the air above
our heads with the sharpest finger in Creation, penetrating right through to
the chill, sneering heart of Godlessness–"I said, brother, you tell
that family I said they can wear their colors and we’re gonna wear
ours! And our colors are the banner of the cross! It’s STILL
THE CROSS!"


G-forces; the wind almost
sheared my ears off; joy and grand communal cheering in the congregation, all
of us about to slobber and spew and drool and cry with triumphant laughter,
and why not?


And Hunt offered the following
testimony, which, in its humility and immediacy, its unapologetic familiarity
with the mundane difficulties and even seedy interstices of life, is about as
far from the alienating Slavonic brocaded voodoo of the Ukrainian Catholicism
in which I was (well, occasionally, sort of, once a year or so) raised (sallow
old celibates mumbling unconvincing mysteries over chalices, retreating each
night to lone rooms in tubercular rectories) as you can get. Martin Luther had
a point.


But Hunt discussed his youth,
and his conversion:


"I was managing a poolroom,
I’m ashamed of where I came from. Thank God for the difference he made…
Dad checked out on us. Left my mom when I was seven years old. So I managed
a poolroom for four years. Quit high school the day I was 16. No purpose or
direction in life. Then I got married when I was 18. My wife always told me
to go to church.


"So we started going
to this little Baptist church. I heard the Gospel clearly, and God began to
deal with me, and I was under conviction… And God dealt with me. And I went
home that afternoon, and before we went home, the pastor of the church said,
I want you to pray for a young man who’s here this morning. Apparently
he’s under conviction. Let’s pray God and bring him back tonight and
save him.’


"I normally would leave
and go to the drag strip and race my car, and had never been to church on Sunday
night. But that day I went home and told my wife, I said, ‘I don’t
wanna go race today. I wanna go back to church tonight.’


"She said–‘you
wanna go back to church?’ I said, ‘Yeah, the preacher was talking
about me.’ And she said, ‘How do you know he was talking about you?’


"Can I say something
to you, brother? When he’s talking to you–or about you–you know
he’s talking to you. ’Cause God doesn’t have your number,
God’s got your name! And God dealt with me that morning!… And she’ll
tell you, just how literally true this testimony is. I says to her, ‘Jen,
you know I managed a poolroom. You know that I’m drinkin’ regular,
gambling regular. And you know I love to go down to the Red Fox saloon. I’m
going to church tonight. I’m thinking about givin’ my life to Jesus.
But I just need to say to you, if he doesn’t change my life, tomorrow I’ll
probably be back in the Red Fox saloon.’


"I want you to know,
on January 7, 1972, on a snowy Sunday night in Wilmington, North Carolina, I
went to church. I got real nervous, I was sitting there in the pew… I said
to my wife, ‘I got an idea. When that preacher gives the invitation in
a moment, I want you to go forward and tell him I want to be saved.’"


Laughter.


"…That night, I slipped
out of that pew, went forward with that invitation and I invited Jesus Christ
into my heart. Listen to me–that’s where that passive voice came in.
I couldn’t change myself, I couldn’t turn over a new leaf.
God reached down out of heaven and changed my life. And that’s what the
cross did for me."


Drowned out by applause.


"It’s still the
cross."



What did
these guys think they were doing, if not impugning their whole ostensible evangelical
mission every time they opened their mouths? Language and fundamentalism–heck,
language and stability–go together like pickles and honey. The Word of
God, mocked and riddled by the word. Language blasts holes in wholes, so to
speak. Etc.


Instead of speaking, Gaines,
et al., should have just gotten up behind the pulpit, pulled out their revolvers
and shot themselves in the feet, right there in front of the congregation, yep,
right up there at the pulpit, and saved everybody a lot of time.


Language, as opposed to
fundamentalism, is all about infections, blurrings, slippages of meaning, syncretisms,
bastard spawns, unreasonable mutations, contaminations, grafts, foul emergent
significatory beastlinesses, weird miscegenations, hideous fish dragged up sullen
and beslimed from the bottoms of oceans, mutant chemical children emerging from
wombs with too many noses, eyes or arms, prodigies of horrible beauty born out
of teeming gothic petrie dishes.


On the other hand, so is,
just perhaps, your typical Baptist church. On Sunday, Oct. 29, I awoke in a
motel in Oxford, donned the clothes I like to wear when I’m on this reporter-at-large
trip–which is to say I dressed, somewhat prophylactically under the circumstances,
like an itinerant provincial Bible salesman (black coat, black trousers, shirt
stiff and white as Death itself, black itinerant provincial Bible salesman oxfords
for kicking recalcitrant hounds)–and committed myself to the rather cheerful
prospect of attending Baptist church services. ("Ah smells popery!"
growled the dude in the Klan robe when I entered the pew, and produced a rope.)
Two hours later, having wandered into Oxford’s Antioch Primitive Baptist
Church ("Max Ewing, Pastor, Elder"; not a part of the Southern Baptist
Convention; but the ambience is similar; trust me), I found myself singing along
with the congregation in my tone-deaf warble as it belted out the hymn you’ll
find as #453 in your Baptist Hymnal:



How sweet the name of Jesus
sounds


In a calm ear!


It soothes His sorrows


Heals His wounds


And drives away His fear!


And drives away His fear!



What was I hearing here?
The resonances hit me: I was hearing Hank Williams’ "I Saw The Light";
and his "House of Gold"; and his "Angel of Death"; and his
"Calling You." There was the same swinging-marching rhythm, and in
some cases, the same wide intervals.


On the basis of those resonances,
you can construct a flowchart of a pocket of American cultural infection
that’s either fanciful or isn’t. Ol’ Hank, raised Baptist in
Shitberg, AL, learned guitar from a local black blues street musician ("I
was shinin’ shoes and sellin’ newspapers and following this old Nigrah
around to get him to teach me

..