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All Religions Is Local

From: The Southern Literary Journal
Volume 46, Number 1, Fall 2013
pp. 140-143 | 10.1353/slj.2013.0015

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In a 2009 interview with novelist Tim Gautreaux for the journal Image, Dayne Sherman prefaced a question with a compliment: “Assuming there is such a thing as a Catholic novel or a Christian novel, I believe you’ve written it.” Gautreaux—one of the writers under study in Nisly’s book—shot back with, “Actually, they are the same type of novel. What happens in a narrative is dictated by who the main character is.” Grappling with the varieties of southern religious experience as expressed in verbal art forms from the South, these two new studies remind us that the doctrines of evangelical Protestantism and of Catholicism do not exert any direct or monolithic effect upon southern culture. Rather, they are received within particular social and historical contexts and are transmitted by particular religious leaders, prior to being filtered through the psyches of individual artists (and their fictional characters). Like politics, to borrow a phrase from Tip O’Neill, “All religions is local.”

Paul Harvey’s book began as three separate Lamar Lectures in Southern History delivered at Mercer University in the fall of 2008. Each of the three chapters can stand on its own, with a blues lyric question rather than a thesis as their unifying principle: “What is the soul of man?” Even within each chapter, the lecturer’s habit of digressing and of alighting upon entertaining anecdotes is in evidence—lending the work much of its charm. The book’s title pertains mainly to its first chapter, and even so leaves out the fourth religious figure, Absalom, under examination there. But if readers can forgive this misleading signpost in the title, they will find much of interest.

In his first chapter, Harvey points out that New England and not the South was the Bible Belt two hundred years ago, while the most powerful southern political figure of that time—President Thomas Jefferson—openly doubted the supernatural elements of the Bible. During its historical transformation to an evangelical Protestant culture, the South moved in another seemingly contradictory direction: toward regional leadership in rates of violence, incarceration, alcoholism, and poverty. Harvey argues that those two conflicting aspects of southern religious experience—its rhetoric of salvation and victory, and its shadow-side of sin and defeat—find their cultural expression in four archetypal figures: Moses, Jesus, Absalom, and the Trickster.

Songs and sermons provide abundant evidence that African and African American southerners living under slavery and then segregation identified with the Israelites in bondage in Egypt, and with the hero who led them to the Promised Land. Yet, as Harvey explains, white southerners also invoked the Moses archetype to express their collective suffering during the Civil War and their hopes for independence as a nation. Likewise, black as well as white southerners embraced Jesus as a powerful symbolic figure. His humble origins, his suffering during crucifixion, and his ultimate triumph over evil: all provided grounds for identification during the pre-Civil Rights era. He appears in various guises as warrior, savior, healer, friend, and comforter in spirituals and other African American cultural expressions, often as a white man but not infrequently as black.

While Moses and Jesus both personify the ultimate triumph of good over evil, Hardy suggests that situations of moral ambivalence, if not outright paradox, found expression in the archetypal figures of Absalom and the Trickster. Hardy draws upon Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, Morrison’s Beloved, and Edward P. Jones’s The Known World as texts that rework the Biblical Absalom story, revealing the miscegenation and incest lurking behind the South’s obsession with “purity.” Much of the space in this section is devoted to plot summary, and one wishes instead that Hardy had worked in some examples from outside of literary fiction as he does for the other three archetypal figures.

Tricksters abound, however, in the pages devoted to that archetype: con artists, conjure men, apparitions, folktale animals, and the devils of blues lyrics. Like Absalom, the Trickster figure stands in contrast to evangelical religion’s master narrative of redemption and victory. “Slaves in particular,” Hardy writes, “confronted an amoral world at odds with the apparent meaning of religious texts.” While he does not cite Henry Louis...

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