Southern Seen – With a little help from my friends
By: Larry McGehee
Among several hundred books arriving in the final months of 2007, just in time to use as gifts, were four written by talented friends of mine:
1) E. Brooks Holifield, distinguished American religions historian at Emory University and a classmate of mine at Yale in the 1960s, is the model academic scholar. He never fails to address very difficult topics (as his earlier Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War proved). In his newest book, God’s Ambassadors: A History of the Christian Clergy in America (Eerdmans, 2007, 356 pp.), Holifield tackles a seemingly impossible topic. Combining the disciplines and data of history, religion, and sociology, Holifield traces the authority of the clergy (alternating Protestant and Catholic chapters) from America’s beginnings to the present time.
Holifield concludes, that despite seismic changes in the churches—disestablishment, revivalism, pulpit informality, slavery schisms, rise of sciences, the Social Gospel, the Civil Rights Movement, and partnerships of Pentecostals and evangelicals with politics—the clergy remain in control of America’s 300,000 churches and perform the same functions they always have: “the unrelenting demands of preaching, baptizing, serving the bread and wine (or grape juice), teaching, administering, organizing, raising money, helping the poor, instructing children, visiting, marrying and burying, and counseling with brokenhearted parents and bewildered adolescents and people seeking one or another kind of salvation” In addition to the parish ministers and priests, there were other “clergy in religious orders, counseling centers, hospitals, prisons, children’s homes, colleges, universities, denominational offices, ecumenical institutions, think tanks, publishing houses, and seminaries.” Holifield takes up, beautifully, studies of ministry and churches done 50 years ago by the awesome H. Richard Niebuhr.
2) On a more local level, but germane to Holifield’s sweeping study, is a book edited by a Wofford alumnus and Presbyterian minister, Scott Neely, This Threshold: Writing on the End of Life (Hub City, 2007, 161 pp.). Neely gathered statements and interviews from Spartanburg-area residents as they lay dying, and augmented them with pieces from doctors and other caregivers—and included photography, poetry, song lyrics, and drawings. Suspicious of such an intimidating topic as death (what you don’t confront you sort of avoid), I picked the book up cautiously, but after a few pages could scarce put it back down. Perhaps part of its hypnosis came from knowing the editor and some of the people featured in the book, but even absent t putting faces with words, there is a universalism to Neely’s sensitive work and compassionate spirit that speaks to anyone, whether watching others die or dying themselves (which of course is, universally, all of us).
3) John T. Edge, who seems to publish at least two books a year—while traveling maybe 100,000 miles and eating at maybe 300 southern restaurants–is director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, headquartered at the University Of Mississippi. His organization sprang from and is affiliated with the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, which is now producing in 24 volumes The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Edge is the editor for the 7th volume: Foodways (UNC Press, 2007, 310 pp.). With 149 entries, Edge provides us a good history of the development of southern foods, profiles on many culinary personalities and places, vignettes on unique southern dishes (including Moon Pies and chitterlings), and a vicarious adventure into the South’s best contribution to American culture and world peace—its food.
4) John Lane, longtime Wofford writer-professor, now graying and middle-aged, the Gulliver of nature travels, has been about everywhere (and written about it)—Alaska, the Far West, Appalachia, foreign countries. In his latest book, Lane stays home—a new house designed painstakingly by him and his wife, Betsy, on their beloved Lawson’s Fork Creek near the abandoned Glendale Mills site. In Circling Home (University of Georgia Press, 2007, 206 pp.), Lane ranges out one mile in several directions from their home (actually in more of an ellipse than a circle), finding himself surrounded by fascinating interplays of raw nature and human interventions—Native American sites, Revolutionary War graves, spillways and dams, flood debris and foxes, an old iron works, plantations and cotton. Keen-eyed, Lane’s observing—always reminiscent of Thoreau, but especially in this work—sparkles with colors and scents and emotions. His language spills out with all the rapid dash and billowing foam of the creek that cuts through his circle.
Larry McGehee, professor-emeritus at Wofford College, may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com
Published in The Messenger 12.13.07