This blog series on Appalachian Spirituality is a mixture of my personal religious upbringing tethered to reflections made on Appalachian culture in Loyal Jones’ book, Appalachian Values (1994).
Some of my earliest memories of religion came through two very different perspectives. Growing up, faith was a verb that was described the Christian journey as slightly out of reach. You had to have faith. You never had enough faith. The trite indictment of “ye of lil’ faith” was repeatedly used as a call to action. Little reflection ever occurred on what you believed—in what you had faith. As Jones writes, “The point is to get religion-get saved-and try to keep the faith and endure, hoping for a sure reward in the hereafter. The beliefs are more realistic than idealistic” (Jones 1994b, Kindle Locations 107-108).
My first memory came through my great-grandfather, Jennings Dodd “J.D.” Barnhart. Known as “Barney” to many people, he, to this day, still holds a place of high reverence and honor in my life. I loved him deeply. When he passed away in 1993, my world was shattered. Being very transparent, I’m not sure if I have ever recovered. Death came into my world at the age of eight and stole a piece of my innocence.
Granddad always referred to God as “the man upstairs.” This is a slightly frightening location when you’re less than eight years of age. Two things made this location eerie. First, why didn’t this “man” ever come downstairs and spend time with the family? Was he renting from my grandfather? How did he get out of the house? I never recalled him being outside.
Second, my grandfather lived in a ranch-style home. So this man lived in the crawl space of an attic? Location, location, location. My confusion came early regarding the location of God.
My second memory is from my Pentecostal upbringing. My parents and I attended a Pentecostal church in Elkton, Virginia. I remember Rev. Kinzie Reed sweating and screaming as paced behind the pulpit and down the center aisle. God was on the move. God was near. If we didn’t wake from our spiritual slumber, then we would miss him! Behind me a gentleman was standing, swaying, and speaking in tongues. Like a wave, the Spirit was descending on the congregation and tongues of various languages emerged.
But even though the Spirit was immanent, the indication of his arrival was not love. Instead, I remember fearing this presence. He seemed to ravage people at the altar as they convulsed on the floor. The preacher kept screaming and the people kept falling. No mention was made of Jesus or God the Father. It was the Spirit. Every Sunday (morning and evening meetings) and Wednesday (evening meeting) was a moment of reckoning. God was on the move. God was near. I was terrified but knew that such fear only meant I had “but little faith.”
As one Appalachian voice has observed, “Religion has shaped our lives, but at the same time we have shaped our religion, since religion and culture are always intertwined. Life in the mountains until recently did not allow for an optimistic social gospel. Hard work did not always bring a sure reward, and so perhaps some of mountain religion is more fatalistic tic than elsewhere” (Jones 1994a, Kindle Locations 105-107). Like the landscape that surrounded me of mountains and valleys, one memory located God in the transcendent “attic of heaven”—a polite house guest that wasn’t to be bothered. The other memory located God in the pew behind me, waiting to spiritually accost me and take my life. I’ve always been haunted by these dueling perspectives.
The spiritual outlook sounds bleak, I know. But you must understand that this was “normal” to me. I knew no different. It isn’t until one’s normal meets another’s normal that we begin to ask the tough questions of life. As I have leaned into being Brethren I’ve discovered the person of Jesus—fully God and fully man. Fully transcendent and fully immanent. Fully mystery and fully known. My Appalachian roots have conceptually shaped me well for such a dialectic.
What my Appalachian roots have stunted in me is an understanding of God’s love, grace and goodness—of God’s otherness, yes, but also his intimate goodness. As a child of Appalachia, I have been intimately aware of this dual dynamic but have struggled to internalize its import to my life. Appalachian folks are a melancholy people. Don’t get too excited. Don’t be in despair. Life can always be better or worse. In the game of life—good or bad—you cannot win. Faith becomes a verb synonymous with endure.
But my question is this: is faith merely a cost-benefit analysis? A cruel joke? An unfair game? A burden to manage?
As I ponder Appalachia and religion (and how it shapes our spirituality), I recognize that I grew up with a failure to understand faith and grace (they go hand-in-hand). If like is always a journey in which you eke out an existence, then grace becomes a luxury and faith becomes a whip to your sunburned back. Just keep going. We don’t have time to love or be loved.
To my upbringing, and to my current struggle with faith and grace, I must continue to challenge myself:
- Faith is not just endurance. The noun side speaks to a God of infinite goodness with a plan and purpose for our lives that is not just survival.
- Grace is not just the goal that I will someday find in the “sweet bye and bye.” Grace is the cure. Grace is the sunset from the mountaintop and the river bed in the valley.
God is upstairs and in the pew behind me. Not because he desires to be distant or because he desires to “scare sense” into me. It is because his good grace is omnipresent and faith both describes him (noun) and ends in him (verb).
Next Post: “Self-Reliance as Gospel”