by Deborah Brunt
WestBow Press. 266 pp.
I’ve now lived in the South longer than I lived in the Midwest, and I came to terms long ago with certain realities about the region where my kids are growing up. In the minds of “real Southerners,” neither I nor my children will ever be “from around here,” but that doesn’t matter as much as it used to, because as the years wear on and as more people relocate for work (as my wife and I did), fewer and fewer people in North Georgia are “from around here.” My children are going to grow up with the expectation that they address all adult men with an archaic word for “father” and all adult women with an archaic word for “mother,” and in the moments they don’t, they’ll become, for a spell at least, the main reason that society is going downhill in a hurry. Further, when my son behaves badly at church, somebody is going to tell him to “act like a gentleman,” despite my protests that there’s never been a gentleman in the Gilmour family and that he should act like someone who works for a living. And no matter how dead the Civil War is back in Indiana, the War Between the States is still alive and well here.
I know what sorts of things people write about the South, so there are basically two constellations of argument that I expected. One says that slavery and racism are unfortunate accidents of the history of the South, that the Confederacy was mere months from abandoning slavery as an un-gentleman-like way to be until the Yankees started their march, and that the rest of Southern culture is ultimately superior to the Yankees (a category that encompasses California and Indiana and Massachussetts, by a feat of sheer geographic boldness), and therefore true Christians will strive to be as Southern as possible, preferably in a Southern Baptist Church, while acknowledging that, with regards to Black folks, mistakes were made. The other says that the only way to transcend racism is to throw the whole Southern construct out, to evolve as a region by killing off the less-developed proto-culture, that until Statham, Georgia becomes a miniature Manhattan, and in a hurry, the American Southeast will basically remain a swamp of incest, bigotry, and everything else that a good liberal despises most. Certainly there are variations on both of those, but those are the basic constellations of arguments regarding the South that I’ve seen in the past.
This book was neither of the above, and I’ll admit that it took me off guard.
Deborah Brunt’s past in the Southern Baptist Convention, along with some historical research, has left her convinced that the sins of slavery and Civil War have not yet released their grip on the Southern Evangelical Church, and until repentance happens, the wounds of that period will never truly heal.
I worded the above statement ambiguously on purpose: the language of sin, repentance, and such has been handy for when theological liberals want to put special emphasis on past political realities that they especially abhor. But this isn’t that sort of “racism is a sin” book. Instead, this book leaves all of the basic assumptions of evangelical Christianity intact, deploying basically Baptist modes of Bible-reading to criticize, among other things, Southerners’ insistence on the “lost cause” ideology and the continued damage done when Southerners deny the central place of slavery in the Civil War. In almost every case Brunt prefers Biblical and preacherly language to sociological or academic-historical vocabularies, and the whole book reads more like a talk at a Christian convention than like an academic lecture.
Such Bible-quoting moves are the book’s charm, but they tend to reduce complexity for the sake of a strong spoken point (more on the style later) and miss some of the real theological work to be done when one thinks about the South. To pick an example at random, Brunt does a good job noting that, even when Southerners regarded themselves as paternal keepers of their slaves and bestowers of Christian order on the un-Christian lives of their chattel, the same figures would without hesitation over-work field workers, even until they died from it; break up families; and sever other relationships if the profit margin was good enough (99). But when another sort of book would examine the economic and historical roots of such systems of oppression, Brunt simply says that if Southerners had confessed slavery as a sin, they would not have kept things going as they did (124).
Perhaps such individualistic interpretations of things have their place, and Brunt is at the very least consistent in going that direction, calling for individual repentance for the Southern Baptist Convention’s treatment of women (22), for “checklist method” Christianity that focuses on outward abstinence from smoking and drinking as a substitute for real relationship with Jesus (160), and all sorts of spiritual and social ills. There’s not much treatment here of the dialectic relationships between history, cultural expectations, economic systems, and historical resentment, but for Brunt, all of those things seem secondary to the individual souls and said souls’ relationships to Jesus. In other words, a book of political theology this is not, but then again, it’s not trying to be.
Perhaps the most obvious moment when this individualistic theology overreaches is when Brunt treats the secession of the Southern states in the first place. In her words, “The Confederacy was birthed from a broken covenant” (142). Nowhere here is Thoreau’s claim that Massachusetts is just as guilty for the cotton-based economy as Georgia is; nor is there much of a sense that the “covenant” that bound the states together was itself the result of some nasty compromises precisely on the question of slavery. For Brunt, to ally with the South against anything at all is bad, idolatry in fact directed at “King Cotton” (47), and for that reason the dialectics that drive the whole system forward (yes, I did go Hegel/Marx there) largely get the short shrift.
One can tell that Brunt is first and foremost a public speaker. Her book’s short paragraphs, apostrophes to the reader, and other speech-like conventions make the book a quick read but sometimes tiresome. This might be my own grumpiness more than any fault on the book’s part, but when I’m reading a book about history and theology, I don’t want to take breaks for the book to call on me, tent-revival style, to say a prayer for myself and my soul, and when on occasion the book steps laterally into the dramatic person of Jesus, addressing Southern Christians about their (our?) hard hearts, I can appreciate how such moves might work in a spoken-word setting but find myself more irritated than challenged or inspired.
Ultimately readers interested in complex and involved examinations of Southern culture, “lost cause” ideology, the mutations of modern American racism, and other such phenomena would better be served elsewhere. My hunch is that those who don Confederate uniforms to do battlefield re-enactments won’t be convinced by Brunt’s book either, but I could be wrong about that. Ultimately, as I noted above, this is the sort of discourse best suited for in-person audiences of people already mostly convinced; it’s political rhetoric, not intellectual inquiry.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.