Southern Religion – Part 1

Southern Religion

If you want to understand the South, you have to read southern authors. Folks like Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Walker Percy, Pat Conroy, etc. But perhaps Flannery O’Conner summarized its religious culture best: “While the South is hardly Christ-centered,” she wrote, “it is most certainly Christ-haunted” (The Habit of Being).

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What did she mean by “Christ haunted” south? Consider Hazel Motes, the main character in O’Conner’s first novel, Wise Blood. Hazel is haunted by the legacy of his evangelist grandfather who “had ridden over three counties with Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger.” He despised both the preacher his grandfather epitomized and the Jesus the old man preached – a Christ who paid to redeem your soul, and now comes to collect. Yet Hazel could never quite run (or drive) far enough away. Throughout his life this Jesus stalks him as “the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind.” And despite himself, Motes would become a preacher. Mocking the old forms of his tent revival roots (even down to the clothing), Haze announced “a new Jesus” and a new church: The Church of God Without Christ. Salvation without a savior for souls without sin! But in that pungent irony so peculiar to Southern Gothic, we later discover that under his shirt the anti-preacher wore barbed wire, and in his shoes he packed shards of glass and rock. This self-inflicted punishment was “to pay,” he explained. Despite his earlier insistence to the contrary, Haze would finally confess, “I am not clean.” His previously nonexistent soul needed atonement.

Motes’ tortured caricature of southern Christianity, in all of its grotesque proportions, is dead-on. O’Conner would later refer to him as “a Christian malgré lui,” a Christian in spite of himself. And the same could be said of the South itself. The truth is, Jesus makes us uneasy; and yet still we pine for that “ole time religion.”
Here in the Bible Belt, Hazel’s Church without Christ is new in name only. The “Jesus” on our lips is more dead-letter creed than living Person. The Christ “in our hearts” is more ritual and rule than risen Lord and Ruler. Yet we know He’s still out there. We are haunted. Like Hazel Motes, we’re on the run. And what better place to hide than the church?
But we’re doubly haunted. In Christ’s absence, the spirit that remains is hardly holy. The specter haunting us is more often a monstrous distortion, such as Haze imagined. A Jesus whose redemption means bondage, whose forgiveness only enslaves.

What the South needs more than anything is to be introduced to Jesus through the clear proclamation of the gospel. Not a new Christ. Nor the Christ we imagine. In our flight from God, we need, like Saul, to be wonderfully interrupted by the living Christ. “Who are you, Lord?” “I am Jesus…whom you are fleeing.”

Want more? Listen to the first sermon of the series below or click here:

Southern Religion – 4/27/14 – James Walden, Pastor

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