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Appalachian Spirituality: “Place Matters”


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).

As long as I live, it will be important for you to know that I’m from Virginia. Even though this year marks the pivotal moment when I’ve spent just as much time out of Virginia than I did growing up there…it’s important you know I’m from Virginia. Even though my children and my wife are native Ohioans, it’s important you know I’m from Virginia. Even if the Commonwealth of Virginia were to reject me, deny that I was born there, and block all my attempts to return, it would still be important for you to know that I’m from Virginia.

One of the first questions asked in the mountains, after “whose boy/girl are you?” is “Where are you from?” We are oriented around place. We remember our home place and many of us go back as often as possible. (Jones 1994, Kindle Locations 220-222)

Place matters because place is the foundation on which the houses of our lives are built. You can live in an immaculate mansion, but if the foundation is wobbly the whole manor is in danger. Place serves as the binding for the book that contains the story of our life. It’s important than you see the word Virginia on my book’s binding.

As a child I spent many overnights with my great-grandparents. My great-grandparents were truly salt of the earth people. Granddaddy Joe and Grandma Dean—the world just doesn’t make people better than them.

I remember the early Saturday mornings when I would wake up. Peering out the window the sky was still dark and coming from the kitchen was the smell of bacon frying. The loud sizzle as the meat met the pan. Dancing through the rest of the house was the pairing of the smell of bacon frying and classic country music on WSVA AM 550.

To this day, the smell of bacon frying reminds me of my grandmother fixing breakfast for her entire family (friends and all). I remember my childhood on their country hill when I hear the classic country ballads of Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Conway Twitty, Marty Robbins—and the list goes on and on. In the words of Hank Williams, “the Lord willin’ and the crick don’t rise” reminds me of a simpler time.

This reminds me of that.

Place became the breaking in of extraordinary grace. Peace fills my soul. My eyes water just a tad and I’m reminded that my life has, indeed, been good.

My great-grandmother passed away in 2013. My great-grandfather passed away in 1999. With their passing the world lost the best cook and the best storyteller. Southern, comfort cooking and a good story is my idea of a great time to this day!

The power of the place is that walks in the woods, the blueness of robin eggs, the smell of bacon frying, the “Falling to Pieces” with Patsy Cline are inbreakings of kingdom life. Place reminds us that our God has always been incarnational and that the gospel is a contextual message.

Sense of place is one of the unifying values of mountain people, and it makes it hard for us to leave the mountains, and when we do, we long to return. (Jones 1994a, Kindle Locations 224-225)

The movie “Big Fish” follows the story of a dying father and his son. The son, Will Bloom (played by Billy Crudup) is trying to learn more about his dad, Edward Bloom (played by Albert Finney as the elder Bloom and Ewan McGregor as the younger Bloom). Edward Bloom, mind you, is the master of story and a series of flashbacks throughout the film weave together an imaginative story of legends and myths.

As Will reconnects with his father from whom he has been estranged for years, he must re-create his father’s elusive life inspired by the few facts he actually knows about the man. Through these tales, the son begins to understand his father’s great feats and his great failings. Will begins to realize that through his father’s tales is the humanity of the story teller—he begins to appreciate his dad for who he really is by situating him in the places of his grandiose tales.

At Edward Bloom’s bedside, as he is dying, Will steps into his father’s shoes and begins an impromptu story: In this make believe story, Edward Bloom regains strength, and he and Will escape the hospital. Jumping into Edward’s old car, they speed to a nearby river, where all their family and friends are waiting. Yet, instead of a funeral, they are holding a goodbye party, and Edward Bloom happily bids them farewell as he transforms into a catfish and swims away. The proverbial fish that got away! Shortly afterwards, Edward Bloom dies.

Will is the only one present for Edward Bloom’s death and is deeply moved that they connected at last. They connected, mind you, because Will entered Edward’s place…no matter how extravagant.

At Edward Bloom’s funeral, Will is astonished to see all of the characters from his Dad’s stories: there is an Amos Calloway (but rather than being a werewolf he is, instead, a long-haired man), there’s Carl (though he’s not a 12-foot giant but very tall at around seven feet), he sees Ping and Jing (who are not conjoined twins but are identical), and he sees Jenny, Mr. Soggybottom, and many others.

It becomes clear that Edward Bloom had combined his love of storytelling with his own reality, which finally makes sense to Will. His father wasn’t merely making up stories…he was simply mythologizing the everyday experiences of a traveling salesman. Story and place were woven together.

And so, when his own son is born, Will passes these same stories on to his newly born son.

The major theme of the movie is a son struggling to love and be loved by his Dad, only to find out that the stories that frustrated him most were his father’s secret love language to his son. Place creates stories that make life coherent.

Place matters because story makes us human.

Next Post: “A Proper Patriot”

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