- All Out of Faith Southern Women on Spirituality
When I speak with New Englanders or Californians about religion, I soon realize that we are not talking about the same thing. They speak as if religion were an elective—one allegiance among many that a person might choose or decline—while I mean something as elemental as air. I am pretty sure this is because I am a southerner.
I grew up with the sticky sap of Alabama pines on my hands, as used to seeing signs that said "Repent" hanging from those trees as pine cones or red-headed woodpeckers. When my family and I took road trips to Georgia to see my mother's [End Page 115] kin, we passed the striped tents of itinerant evangelists along the way. These hardly seemed necessary, since the scenery averaged at least two churches every five miles, but it was a rare tent that did not have a couple of dusty pickup trucks outside. Though my parents did not elect religion, their three children absorbed it, the same way we absorbed red clay into our clothes and the smell of those pines into our hair. It was not something we could decline. Religion was in the air.
Wendy Reed and Jennifer Horne understand this. "While not every Southerner is religious," they write in their introduction to All Out of Faith, "every Southerner has been shaped by religion in some form or fashion." The seventeen southerners they have chosen to testify to this truth are all women, mostly writers, largely Christian (at least by birth), and fundamentally fearless. At least seven still live in the South. Three are African American and two more are openly lesbian. One is Jewish—the only one, as far as I can tell, who is still actively involved in a traditional congregation—and one is a practicing Buddhist.
As the title suggests, most of these women are more out of faith than in, but of course that depends on what you mean by "faith." If faith means assent to a prescribed set of religious beliefs or active membership in a religious body, then no, most of these women have left that kind of faith behind. But if faith means trust in what is most really real, along with courage to proclaim the heights and depths of that divine reality, then these women are full of faith.
Half of the essays are worth the price of the whole book. Shirley Abbott's chapter on "That Old Time Religion" begs to be read out loud, especially the section on Siloam Springs Baptist Church Camp, where the preaching began before breakfast and it got so hot that "the mosquitoes finally died of the drought." In "This is Our World," Dorothy Allison speaks for many when she describes defying "the cryptic covenant that requires that we will not say what we see." By remaining faithful to "the nobility of the despised, the dignity of the outcast, the intrinsic honor among misfits, pariahs, and queers," she creates fiction that allows readers to say, "You told my story. That is me, mine, us."
Vicki Covington's "Why Jesus Loved Whores" is one of the shortest pieces in this volume as well as one of the most haunting. In a spare two pages, she describes "the fault line" in a woman's body, the shifting plate of vulnerability to "bad men" that causes earthquakes in the most stable-looking lives. Lesbian activist Sylvia Rhue is so gloriously out of the closet in "Sex, Race, and the Stained-Glass Window" that she can confess her weakness for "Boinkable Bible Babes." Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of sex in this book.
Writers like these leave some of the others outclassed. This is no place for an author's first published work, or for a rambling recollection that reads like a journal entry. The interview with Lee Smith also feels out of place, as she speaks to someone else instead of directly to the reader. Yet the variety...