In Moses, Jesus, and the Trickster in the Evangelical South, Paul Harvey examines how Southerners crafted a sacred culture around common motifs. He centers his analysis on four literary archetypes (Jesus, Moses, the Trickster, and Absalom) and explains how each of these figures worked their way into the southern spiritual imagination. This imaginative spiritual pulse of the South has been communicated through story, music, dance, and sermon and Harvey promises to uncover "both the historical narrative and literary/artistic/sonic expression" that drove religious belief in the region (p. 2).
The book evolved from three lectures that Harvey delivered for the Mercer University Lamar Memorial Lectures Series, each one focused on race and the religious imagery of the South. The first chapter explores the contested nature of Moses and Jesus as both black and white Southerners laid claim to their images and legacies. Backed by a host of interesting accounts, Harvey addresses common misconceptions or oversights in scholarship that depict Moses as a primarily black hero and Jesus as monopolized by the white community. Whites adopted Moses as a very important figure, relating the wandering in the wilderness to the white Confederate experience. Blacks, too, claimed Jesus as an important religious figure and associated him with traditional African religious manifestations. In this [End Page 109] chapter, Harvey also discusses the ambiguous role of the Trickster and the Absalom character in southern religious life. Conjure and magic combined with Christianity to create a world that the Trickster could inhabit—an amoral world that the author describes as seductive and spiritual. This amorality is evident in literary tales from the South, including William Faulkner's Absalom! Absalom! (1936) and Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987), and Harvey examines the fictional characters in these novels as a reflection of the tragedy of racial violence throughout southern history.
Chapter two explores the racial contours of the concept of freedom in the South with an emphasis on how slavery affected religious rhetoric. Here, Harvey examines the tension between freedom and unfreedom represented by Christianity in a slave society. He describes how slaves repurposed Protestant Christian texts and teachings intended by white society to support bondage, crafting their own meaning and narrative of resistance from biblical stories. On the other hand, during the early nineteenth century, southern planters took on the roles of "Christian stewards" and many engaged in the mission to the slaves, preaching obedience and social control rather than freedom. Not all white Southerners agreed on how black slaves fit into the evangelical worldview, and Harvey describes debates ranging from whether blacks had souls to how slaves could enjoy Christian spiritual freedom in physical bondage.
Chapter three describes Jesus as Southerner, offering a description of the many faces of the Son of God and his contested image in the South. Blacks have depicted him as suffering and persecuted or a triumphant protector; Confederates saw him as their preserver and warrior; the Ku Klux Klan drew on his princely power and lauded him as a symbol of purity. This final chapter hints at some of the themes readers are sure to encounter in Harvey's book (coauthored with Ed Blum), The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (2012).
Moses, Jesus, and the Trickster in the Evangelical South crafts a creative and compelling argument for the significance of these recurring images in southern religious life. By viewing southern religion through [End Page 110] the lenses of race and culture, refracted in the personalities of Jesus, Moses, the Trickster, and Absalom, Harvey presents a unique work that would be of interest to scholars and anyone intrigued by the dynamic and volatile nature of southern religious history. These chapters would certainly enhance undergraduate course readings as they present innovative scholarship that is also reflective of larger historiographical trends. Harvey demonstrates with this volume that the twin forces of race and religion in the South continue to provide endless opportunities for analysis and important lessons for those who...