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Cultural Perspectives on the American South: Volume 5, Religion.

If the readers of this volume are looking for a traditional treatment of the Baptists and the Methodists of the Bible Belt, they will be disappointed. However, if readers are interested in exploring the great diversity and variety of religious expression in the Southern part of the United States, they will be delighted with this book. Edited by Charles Reagan Wilson, volume 5 of this series presents a fascinating sequence of entertaining and highly readable vignettes that transport the reader from the congregations of the Old Regular Baptists tucked away in the hills and valleys of the Appalachians to the rural landscape of Georgia and Alabama. The reader encounters spiritualists who produce "writing in an unknown tongue," the turmoil and unrest of the civil rights movement, and a plethora of religious experiences, some little known and others more a mainstay to the Southern religious landscape.

Wilson describes the series as an "interdisciplinary study of the South" based on the "assumption ... that the South is many faceted" with the goal of exploring "the range of human experience in the southern past and present" (p. vii). This approach, when applied to the examination of religion, results in a book that explores the interrelatedness of cultural traditions in the development of a religious matrix that is much more complex than it appears on the surface. The underlying assumption of the work, which binds the various essays together, is that Southern religion is defined by much more than simply "the centrality of evangelical dominance, the captivity of religion to cultural values, black-white similarities and differences, the role of conservative theology, and the denominational stories" (p. ix). This study assumes that Southern religion is not simply captive to culture but also plays an active role in defining Southern existence. Religion exists in a reciprocal and dialectical relationship with other cultural forms, constructing what Clifford Geertz calls "webs of significance" that are coimplicative, relational, and reflective of human existence in any given cultural setting.

The essay by Mickey Crews, "Populistic Religion: The Social Origins of the Church of God," demonstrates this view of religion and culture through a sociological analysis that views the Church of God as a parallel movement to political Populism. Describing the Church of God in its late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century rural setting, Crews sees the movement as an interweaving of sociological and psychological functions. His thesis is that "Populism and the Church of God offered to their advocates alternative ideologies, which they used to cement their new communities in a changing world" (p. 14). This thesis exemplifies the underlying assumption of the series by showing the relational nature of religion to other cultural movements, each emanating from a common existential base.

Two essays describe the presence of social reform in the religious tradition of the South and suggest that this element emanates both from religious sensibilities and other cultural forms. In "Hillbilly Heretic: Will N. Harben's Challenge to the Old-Time Religion," Wayne Mixon argues that "fiction provided one of the few sanctuaries for southerners who were critical of religion in the region" (p. 17). Thus, through the medium of literature, Will Harben was able to express religious sentiments that ran counter to the predominant religious orthodoxy of his time. Nevertheless, Harben's social gospel message was not completely absent from Southern religion, as Glenn T. Miller's essay on A. W. McAlister demonstrates. Miller argues that McAlister, a force in North Carolina politics and business in the first three decades of this century, worked through the economic and political arenas to advocate his progressive religious reforms. From McAlister's viewpoint, "religion and politics were ultimately one in their devotion to the common good" (p. 41). In these two essays, one notes the relational theory of religion and culture where the cultural forms, literature and politics, become co-implicative with religion in the Southern cultural matrix.

Three articles in the collection discuss the conflict of worldviews based upon different cultural and religious traditions. Louis Schmier's enlightening essay on Jewish religious life in Valdosta, Georgia, from 1900-1940 explores the complex interaction between the Southern-Protestant worldview and the European-Jewish worldview. He traces the process of secularization and Americanization within this Jewish community as its members struggled to "retain a Jewish identity ... [and] to convince themselves that they were not turning aside from their fore-fathers. . ." (p. 62). "Writing in an Unknown Tongue," by Judith McWillie, introduces the reader to artistic endeavor and writing while under possession of the spirit. Her portrait of the practitioners of this art reveals a complex relationship between West African, Caribbean, and Southern religion and culture, suggesting the strong "tradition of the sacred within the broader context of American art" (p. 116). Finally, Joe Barnhart explains the current Southern Baptist controversy in light of conflicting "worldviews that cannot be harmonized" (p. 169) - the fundamentalist and modernist worldviews. Each of these articles challenges the notion of cultural homogeneity in the South by pointing to the abundance of disparate religious experiences.

Two articles in this collection explore the influence of folk tradition and religion in the South through examinations of rhetorical styles. Howard Dorgan's article examines the impromptu preaching of the Old Regular Baptists of the Appalachian mountains, while David C. Estes studies the sermonic style in an African-American Spiritual Church in New Orleans. These two examinations of exhortative style in two distinctive groups provide a good comparison of similarities and differences across the spectrum of religious diversity in the South.

Finally, a group of essays examines the importance of Southern religion to social functioning, particularly to the civil rights movement. Lewis V. Baldwin's insightful article on Martin Luther King, Jr., demonstrates the importance of the black church as an institutional base for King's civil rights activities. In a related article on another civil rights leader, Andrew Michael Manis balances Baldwin's thesis by considering Fred Shuttlesworth's "religious experiences ... as part of a cultural context" (p. 145). Manis contends that personality and experience are as much a part of one's cultural background as are institutions, and that all are relational in producing particular religious responses. Finally, Jean E. Friedman examines Alice Walker's Meridian to suggest that the civil rights movement can be understood as "spiritual journey" (p. 167) and political consciousness. All three of these essays demonstrate the intricate grounding of cultural traditions, such as religion, in the human experience.

This volume in the Cultural Perspectives series is an important one for scholars of Southern regionalism and Southern religion. Its importance lies in dispelling the myth of cultural homogeneity by exploring religious diversity in the South and in supporting the thesis that religion and culture are inextricably bound together to provide meaning for human life. This accomplishment is no small task, given the variety of topics and authors this book brings together. What the book might lack in organizational unity or in comprehensiveness, it more than compensates for with its grand vision of religion and culture in the South.
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Author:Ostwalt, Conrad
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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