Religion, TV

Kentucky Fried Christianity

January 12, 2012

Last month, when I stumbled across a race-bating news item — concerning a backwoods Baptist church in eastern Kentucky that had banned mixed-race couples from joining its congregation — I knew I had something to write about.  I just thought I’d be more effusive when I actually got to writing it. I mean, I like thinking about race and religion, but I was underwhelmed by the story for a few reasons. Expect some generalizations and no apologies.

The article appeared to represent an interesting intersection between race and religion. Most curious to me is whether the nine members who voted to ban interracial couples from the Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church were also a part of the 30 members who later unanimously voted to allow interracial couples within its congregation. If so, it would seem that the week in between votes was a convenient road to Damascus. Jesus moment, anyone?

Let me be real.  I wasn’t offended or ashamed (or even surprised) about rural-land’s opinion of interracial couples. While they enjoy immense privilege in this country (more on that later), Christians are not exempt from feeling bias, prejudice or bigotry. I say this having been raised as a church boy. More significant than personal flaws are systemic flaws. Christian organizations have some experience enacting reactionary policies against those they wish to castigate. For a better example, see the LGBT community. While you’re there, ask yourself why Christians treat some biblical direction as suggestion and others as law. All Christians are guilty of this, though some are in a bit of denial. Take your pick from slavery, bacon or the Sabbath. They all come from the Cafeteria.

Perhaps this is why I harbor only slight reservations upon seeing Christians squirm in the media circuses they often create (for themselves).  This cynical thought was incubated in a back-and-forth on Christianity that I had with IHL editor Richard (who’s a NALT breed of Christian, himself). What follows may or may not add to the Believer v Nonbeliever discourse — and it may only serve to rile the thin-skinned — but these thoughts do relate to a privilege necessary to conclude that we live in a post-racial America. Enjoy the detour.

Let’s start by shooting from the hip: Can we agree that America is not post-racial?

In the context of the above-referenced Pikeville, Ky. story, to claim that we’re post-racial demonstrates great privilege, even if that privilege is just “benign or inadvertent ignorance.” I mean, if you’re presumptuous enough to speak for an entire country and say that it is post-racial, don’t you have to concede that it is only as progressive as its least common denominators? By the time this short ditty was written, there were several other knuckle-gnawing race-related media items to be discussed; like this and this.

Many Christians believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible — amazing mechanics of creation aside.  As a nonbeliever, it would seem that they’d have an easier time if they treated the book as a set of general guidelines.

It should surprise no one that several Christian leaders sought to differentiate themselves from rural-land, penning various condemnations. Yes, not all Christians in this country are legalists who need to be pitted against more tangible others than the devil himself. They’re not at all like the church in rural-land Kentucky.  For that matter, not all people who live in rural-land Kentucky are as backwards as said church…or at least I hope. And since we’re only digging as deep as online articles, let’s assume that Stella Harville hasn’t severed ties with her fickle childhood church.

So, dear IHL readers, I ask that we give rural-land the benefit of the doubt. It may not be graceful, but they came around. And if you can give those rural-land dudes a second chance, surely, you can give another eastern Kentucky institution a first.

This brings me to that curious Graham Yost show on FX, Justified, which is based on the Elmore Leonard short story, “Fire in the Hole”. The series opens with Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), a gun-happy U.S. Marshall who is sent back to his old neighborhood after a shooting in Miami. He’s joined by a cast of characters that include more 5-0, an old flame, his ex-ish wife, and (most interesting to me) his friend and eventual nemesis, Boyd Crowder (played by Walton Groggins).

If you resisted watching the show because you thought it would remind you of Deadwood, or because it has the feel of a modern western, you’re right. It wouldn’t be fair to Deadwood to compare the series side-by-side, but it’s fair to call Justified a modern western. Olyphant has mastered the steely eyed lawman character at this point. He’s charged with playing such an angry character…or rather a character who doesn’t even think he’s angry. When he asks his ex-ish wife whether she thinks he’s angry, she says that he’s the angriest person that she knows. He would certainly be more angry if he wasn’t carrying a gun. He uses it to close cases, solve other problems and sometimes end his sentences. The show is a mix of violence and sex (read relationship drama). On multiple sites, fans seem rather interested to know whether Raylan and his ex-ish wife will work it out.  No spoilers here.

If the subject matter or setting aren’t up to your taste, check out an episode (Season 3 returns to FX on January 17, 2012). It may not kick-start your appreciation for the show’s depth, but at the very least, you could work on your faux-Kentucky accent. (After watching an episode, I tend to shift into the show’s accent for an hour or so. It’s, at once, maddening, amusing and hard to escape.)

Justified opened its first season by introducing viewers to the Crowder family. Known for their various criminal enterprises, the Crowders are part of Raylan’s childhood landscape. The season’s (and arguably the show’s) main antagonist, Boyd, is introduced in the pilot as a RPG-wielding terrorist. His father, Bo Crowder (M.C. Gainey), seems a more formidable (if not menacing) foe to Raylan.  During the course of the season, however, Boyd transforms into a born-again believer (in crime and in Christ) and, as such, becomes a uniquely complex adversary for Raylan. He has all the crazy and creativity of the Crowder clan, but exhibits them with an understated or measured grace. I can’t speak to The Shield, but I’ve seen Predators. Let’s just say that Boyd Crowder is no Stans (though Stans could be a distant and more abrasive relation).

Perhaps Boyd is where the fictive and real Kentuckys collide: the rural-land Church story demonstrates that a more complex picture of Christianity (and Christians, for that matter) is in order. Yes, let’s not discount the transformative properties of drinking Jesus juice. But when we hear presidential candidates parrot buzzwords like broken-records for the Bible-belt base, I think it’s closer to putting sugar on a turd than a sour cookie. Boyd’s is a hyperbolic characterization of the “born-again Christian,” but it does, at least, cater to the various shades of gray that go along with being a faith-driven believer. This would be a good place to note that although he has found religion, Boyd remains a rather capable criminal. Righteousness by faith, right?

The concept of salvation through faith is said to inspire believers to the point where they can’t hold in the “good news” and must proclaim it to all who will listen. Maybe this relates to me pushing Justified onto a sea of blank stares. Or, maybe this pushy aspect of religion relates, somehow, to the privilege required to say that America is post racial. After all, Christians do enjoy cultural and societal privileges that the other major religions in the States don’t.

You can’t won’t be president of this country unless you self-identify as a Christian. If you live in a blue-law jurisdiction, try buying alcohol on Sunday. For that matter, try buying a certain overrated chicken product from that one fast food chain. Still, for all its privilege, Christianity as represented in the media appears rather thin-skinned and stark.

From where I’m standing, it seems that people who view Christianity as progressive are most likely Christians. One can argue incremental progressiveness at times. But, Christianity is an old institution. Old institutions tend to harbor deeply rooted traditions and policies. Like many old institutions, Christianity resists change even when its policies or traditions are grossly asynchronous with modern (or secular) values. It includes certain self-preservation mechanisms which aim to aid in its survival. One such conspicuous mechanism is proselytism. It goes something like this: It’s not enough for one to be a mere believer. Christians must be salespeople of Christ.

Perhaps Christians should feel a bit ruffled. I mean, they’re only ever in the media (discounting The 700 Club, presidential primaries or Sunday morning programing) when their beliefs or actions can be juxtaposed with other societal groups. Then again, when there’s a news story about a house fire, nobody obsesses over whether the firefighters or victims are Christian. People just want to know that those involved are safe. In that vein, I hope that the interracial couple (Stella Harville and Ticha Chikuni) are safe. I’m glad that the nine unnamed members of Gulnare Free Will Baptist have put their own fires out. Perhaps the tentacles of media will reach their community with an eventual and possibly touching follow-up. After all, getting to know people is the most organic way to become familiar with their belief paradigms. Because, whether we like it or not, we all subscribe to one.

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  • Reply Morpiedra Vasolez January 13, 2012 at 1:25 am

    Gangstagrass – Long Hard Times To Come (live) @ The National Underground, NYC, 10/28/10

  • Reply Five Thoughts About Drive « In Harsh Light February 4, 2012 at 7:03 pm

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  • Reply Jay May 2, 2012 at 4:23 am

    Hateful people seem to only want others to join them in spreading their ill-will. Whether it be to recruit more “haters” or to prompt those offended to respond in a hateful manner as retaliation. That’s an old tricky trap that “lovers” have learned not to fall for so easily. No wonder why the policy didn’t last very long.

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