The two sentences came to me in a flash of Cajun temper: You’re a Christian and a Southerner. Get your ass on a plane. By God’s mercy, I only thought those sentences rather than blurting them out. I had heard about a young man in college wrestling with whether he should leave his studies for a few days to visit his terminally ill grandmother. Had the young man been my son, I imagined, I would have shot those two sentences his way with an edge of fatherly exasperation.
For a time I bathed in the warm indignation of those sentences, but then it occurred to me: this young man was the son of a Southerner and a Midwesterner, and he had never lived south of the Mason-Dixon Line. What began as a mental celebration of the South’s code of honor became a frightening reflection on my regionalist hubris.
That experience came to mind again when daily weblog churn sent me to “Up in Arms,” Colin Woodard’s essay for Tufts Magazine that identifies eleven different cultural nations within the United States. Woodard studies these nations primarily by how they understand gun ownership, violence, and capital punishment. His thesis is blunt: “There’s never been an America, but rather several Americas — each a distinct nation. There are eleven nations today. Each looks at violence, as well as everything else, in its own way.”
Woodard identifies the eleven nations with sometimes witty titles that hint at what sets them apart: Yankeedom, New Netherland, the Midlands, Tidewater, Greater Appalachia, the Deep South, El Norte, the Left Coast, the Far West, New France, and First Nation. Woodard uses the perfect editorial hook, moving curious readers from “Oh, please” to “Do tell.” He grants that this study of American regionalism is not new:
The precise delineation of the eleven nations — which I have explored at length in my latest book, American Nations — is original to me, but I’m certainly not the first person to observe that such national divisions exist. Kevin Phillips, a Republican Party campaign strategist, recognized the boundaries and values of several of these nations in 1969 and used them to correctly prophesy two decades of American political development in his politico cult classic The Emerging Republican Majority. Joel Garreau, a Washington Post editor, argued that our continent was divided into rival power blocs in The Nine Nations of North America, though his ahistorical approach undermined the identification of the nations. The Pulitzer Prize–winning historian David Hackett Fischer detailed the origins and early evolution of four of these nations in his magisterial Albion’s Seed and later added New France. Russell Shorto described the salient characteristics of New Netherland in The Island at the Center of the World. And the list goes on.
If I have read Woodward’s detailed map correctly, my birthplace of East Baton Rouge Parish (or County, for the rest of you) is Deep South, with New France parishes to its west and south. That sounds about right. I’ve lived in the Far West, the Midlands, Yankeedom, and now Tidewater. I feel deprived by not having lived in New Netherland. Dear friends of mine live throughout Greater Appalachia.
This is how Woodard’s essay translates to my faith: he has set me to meditating (I write in my native tongue) on how often centuries-old assumptions have shaped my sense of Christian duty. What I consider Christian common sense (“Of course your grandmother takes priority” or “A gun does not exercise mind control”) may be mostly reflex, at least in how I use it.
In his book Never Mind the Joneses (IVP, 2006), Tim Stafford sketched a redemptive theory of family culture:
You value friendliness? Your family culture will show it. You value simplicity, money, education, extended family? Your family culture expresses your values.
Family culture can flex to fit the people you are. It expresses your creativity and personality.
I’ve had to face my tendency to ask, in my fallen state, “Can anything good come from New England?” If you’re a native of New England and never asked this about the Deep South, your piety far surpasses mine. And I’ve had to remind myself that, in the words of my past colleagues at Christianity Today, demons do not have Zip Codes.
I want to take this self-examination further this year. Drawing from the first few chapters of Revelation, I want to imagine what the Lord Jesus would praise and what he would rebuke in my mental Church of the Deep South. I hope this workout will help me celebrate the gifts of growing up Southern but also deepen my awareness of how some inherited truths may lead me away from the mind of Christ.
The featured image is by Brendan Loy at The Irish Trojan’s Blog.