When Religion Meets Culture
In the long history of human development, one of the most controversial matters was human history itself. Only those who do not have to deal with history directly or study it in depth might consider that it is a definite and simple narration of the past events and their cause-effect relation to the contemporary events of human civilisation. On the other hand, for historians and researchers on political studies, history is as interpretive and changeable as human life itself. While tracking of certain events might be relatively easy and common historical time line is synchronised, socio-cultural interpretations of the previous epochs remain controversial and quite interpretative issues even today. In this context, exploration of socio-cultural and religious developments in a specific timeframe might be a challenge especially if conclusions of research challenge generally accepted view on the subject. In this regard, the book "Southern Cross: The Beginning of the Bible belt" by Christine Leigh Heyrman is reviewed from the point of its interpretations and overall contribution to the field of Christianity in America.
First of all, it should be outlined that the author does not simply retell the historical events of the 19th century evangelism on its way of spreading among Southern states of America. She created an accessible narration in the framework of the novel, which tells the human perspective of the whole story. In this context, the author placed historical events and politico-religious changes in American South into socio-cultural dimension of its implications and general development of the American society. Irrespective of the expected vagueness of the narration, Heyrman manages to concentrate her research on answers to two questions. First of all, she aimed at understanding of why initially institutionalised Anglicanism failed to prevail in the South. Secondly, she wanted to find out why and also how evangelicalism managed win dominant position in south by 1820s.
In this regard, the main strength of the book is that, the author managed to answer both questions in full and specific details. She also showed the connection between two and cause-effect conditionality of both. In the context of the first question, she argued that the main reason for Anglicanism to lose in South was inconsistency between Anglican preaching and general social culture of Southern lifestyle. In this context, spirituality, condemnation of alcohol and gambling, fears of complexity of human lives created turmoil among various classes of society; thus, it was viewed as ruinous for the newly-created society:
"Many southern whites, both humble and great, believed that evangelicals, by this
unsparing emphasis on mankind's sinfulness, hell's torment, and Satan's wiles,
estranged men and women from strong and decent parts of their personalities and
plunged them into fathomless inner darkness " (Heyrman 33).
In this context, the author should be praised for showing how Anglicanism lost its positions in the South and also for emphasising that evangelicalism at its roots and the one that prevailed in South in 1930s were quite different. In this regard, the answer to the second question is that this cultural denomination went the way of cultural popularisation and adaptation to the requirements of the target society of assimilation. In other words, evangelists had to adapt in order to gain influence or as she puts it "becoming respectable" (Heyrman 87). In this context, she argued that respectability in Southern society was achievable only if it were gained among white elite. In order to achieve it, evangelicals had to change their initial preaching of freedom of slaves, more rights for women, purity of youth, condemnation of excessive wealth and general attributes of masculine behaviour to actual praising of that masculinity as a basis for family and society itself (Heyrman 124). Another means of survival was placing pressure or rivalling religious and ethnic groups such as Quakers, Baptists and Native Americans. Thus, until certain extent, it can be argued that the author aimed at showing how religious propaganda was substituted by cultural one. From the author's perspective, the connection between religion and culture remains the same, even today, and is shaped by external factors of societal development.
Although the book can be definitely praised for its quite new interpretive approach to the history of evangelicalism in the South, it has its critical and quite controversial points. First of all, although from the historical perspective, the book's resources, which include original documents of the time, biographies and personal journals, contribute to its authenticity and historical accuracy; most of the resources used refer to the time until 1800s. On the other hand, the author tried to show consequential implications of the events from 1750 to 1800s to the further decades up until 1900 without any documentary support from the second timeframe. Thus, her interpretations of the further implications remain her own judgements, rather than carefully verified historical facts.
Another potential controversy might be a cause-effect relationship of the author's conclusion. In this regard, it can be argued that it is difficult to prove whether evangelicals were changed by the Southern society or they collectively decided to change their approach in order to infiltrate society and gain power within it. In other words, the author does not provide evidences showing organised character of these actions, rather she describes the final results and ways of changes which took place. In this regard, it should be stated that this problem is persistent not only for this book, but is in general quite characteristic for the societal and religious research of both contemporary and ancient histories. Thus, the problem itself is in lack of valid evidences, which would prove one or the other statement.
The whole narration of the book is quite accessible and simple in structure; thus it is suitable for a wide audience, which has at least general idea of the subject matter. On the other hand, the simplicity of narration usually envisages additional explanation of the core discourse of the studied topic. In this regard, the book could have benefited from additional references to theological framework of each denomination and their differences. Although it might have contributed to certain complication of the whole narration, it would give the audience an opportunity to compare these denominations from another perspective and make their judgement more grounded. In this context, the most efficient educative effect from the book would have been achieved with additional study of the topic from the interdisciplinary perspective.
Overall, from all mentioned above, it can be concluded that Christine Heyrman managed to write a comprehensive historical narration of interaction between popular culture and evolving religious denominations. Although the book might have various controversial aspects, it an immense resource of historical evidences of evangelicalism establishment in the South and complexities of societal and religious perceptions of the one world. This book is a great example of contemporary exploration of the historical events with further implications for comprehension of contemporary problems. In this context, the book is recommended to a wide audience, particularly to historians and social science specialists.
Heyrman, Christine Leigh. Southern Cross: The Beginning of the Bible Belt. North Carolina,
NC: The University of North Carolina Press. 1998. Print.