I’m a product of Appalachia. My family (on both sides) has lived in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia since the 1700s. Only a handful ever left the Valley. I am one of those few. I left the Valley attempting to be my own person and make a trail for myself. Decades later, I realize that it’s difficult to run from who you are. Like wrestling the image in the mirror, you’re left with a lot of wasted time and still gazing at the specter of one’s own reflection. These next several posts will be reflections on Appalachian spirituality (from my perspective—and no one else). I’m using Loyal Jones magnificent book, Appalachian Values as an outline for this project. Jones writes of Appalachian origins:
We mountain people are the product of our history and the beliefs and outlook of our forepar- ents. We are a traditional people, and in our rural setting we valued the things of the past. More than most people, we avoided mainstream stream life and thus became self-reliant. reliant. We sought freedom from entanglements and cherished solitude. tude. All of this was both our strength and our undoing. Our Appalachian forebears came in almost equal thirds from England, Scotland and Germany, although some came from Wales, France, Holland and Africa. And, of course, the Cherokees were here over a thousand years before Europeans settled. (Jones 1994, Kindle location 55-59)
My Appalachian forbears immigrated to America “for many reasons, but always for new opportunity and freedom—from religious, political, and economic restraints, and freedom to do much as they pleased. The pattern tern of their settlement shows that they were seeking land and solitude” (Jones 1994a, Kindle location 73-75). With such a call to freedom and liberty, these American prototypes, according to Jones, developed a sub-culture around ten core values (though the list is probably more):
- Independence, Self-reliance and Pride
- Humility and Modesty
- Love of Place
- Sense of Beauty
- Sense of Humor
The list is not unique to Appalachian culture but the cultures are quite distinct to those shaped by its influence. The next several blog posts in this “Appalachian Spirituality” series emerge as my spiritual director and friend has challenged me to confront my Appalachian spirituality. For too long it has manifested itself in a belief that God’s grace is in short supply and, consequently, there is a shortage of God’s love for my life. That last sentence may sound bleak to you but what I’ve discovered in Jones’ book is that this is somewhat indicative of Appalachian spirituality.
My hope is that as you journey with me over the next few weeks that you will witness a picture of Appalachian culture, see how it has shaped my life (and maybe your own), and begin to invite God into not so much a denial of the culture as a corrective to its skewed understandings of faith. Like water to a blade of grass emerging in the crack of an asphalt driveway, may the hardness of my Appalachian upbringing provide a crack through which the water of the Spirit may encourage new life to grow.
Thanks for joining me on this journey!
Next Post: “Religion as Endurance”
For further reading, see the following resources:
- American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard
- Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
- White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg
- Yesterday’s People: Life in Contemporary Appalachia by Jack E. Weller