April 2010


From DavidD (seen in its original context here): 

Playing is learning, for adults as well as children. This is why I never worry when prayer becomes dry in Church. It is still good for me to “play” Church until my heart returns. After all we baptize our children long before they can know what it is we are doing. The learning comes AFTER the doing. And what a wonderful thing to watch them do!

I recently had a friend tell me it was obvious that I respect religious traditions, and that’s true. I love tradition, in both practice and as a matter of purely anthropological interest.

But lately I’ve come to realize that part of what makes tradition so appealing to me is its inherent link to ritual, and the link of ritual to repetition.

I’m a person who has had a lot of doubts through the years, but I have found in the last couple of years that a lot of ritual repetition can be quite faith affirming. The former Evangelical in me wants to think that doing the same thing over and over is just rote, vain repetitions done to feel religious, but I cannot deny that after 150 Jesus prayers in times of doubt, my doubts dissolve. I learn, and affirm, by doing.

There is a danger of thinking that the devotions of the Church are magical (just like many Evangelicals are guilty of thinking that Bible reading will fix their problems instantaneously), and those practices should never be separated from the teachings of the Savior and the Apostles by way of the scriptures and apostolic teachings of the Church (after all, they aren’t mantras), but they are useful in beating back both doubts and demons. When I find myself unable to pray, I can always begin with “Our Father, Who art in Heaven…,” and follow with “Oh Heavenly King, Oh Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who is in all places and fillest all things, treasury of good things and giver of life, come and abide with us and cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, oh gracious Lord.”

And if I am still unable to pray (and I admit, there are still days when this is true), I end with, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” 

(That has probably been the single most repeated prayer in my entire Christian life, even when I eschewed things like liturgy, repetition and planned devotions. This is the closest thing I prayed to a sinner’s prayer in my own Damascus Road experience.)

When in the context of religious practice, I don’t want to stray too far into the thinking that practice makes perfect lest I fall into rote practice, but practice is part of perseverance. And that is why — even when things get dry, to borrow from David — I keep at it.

Appalachian religion is a hard thing to decipher, and the more you try to untangle the different associations of Regular, Old Regular, Old-Time Regular, Old Primitive, Old-Time Regular Primitive, Old-Time Regular Particular Primitive Baptists, etc., it gets very confusing. And that’s just the Baptists, nevermind the old circuit churches, the various forms of Pentecostalism, the mainline churches that made inroads there, the Mennonites and other Anabaptists and the religious associations that sociologists have only been able to label “mountain churches.” The hillbillies are not as doctrinally unified as a quick glance would have you believe.

But there is one area where you do see some homogeneity, and that’s in folk superstitions. And while it may be funny to point to some of them and think they are the imagination of isolated hillbillies, from personal experience I can attest that these beliefs were exported from the mountains to the Gulf South, though by my lifetime they were mostly mocked by old and young alike.

Here are a few examples:

If a bird flies in the house, death follows.

Hang your boots on the wall with toes pointed toward the wall is a sign of your death.

 If a rooster crows near the back door, company’s coming.

To keep the Devil away, throw salt over your left shoulder.

Never give a knife as a gift; it will cut friendship.

Misfortunes come in threes.

Small ears indicate a stingy personality.

If you rock a cradle empty, you will have babies a’plenty.

To take the last piece of pie, biscuit, or from a plate is a sign that the girl will be an old maid.

Marry in green; ashamed to be seen. 
Marry in brown; you’ll move into town. 
Marry in blue; you’ll always be true.
 Marry in yellow; ashamed of your fellow. 
Marry in black; you’ll wish yourself back.

Source: http://www.projecttaney.org/50083/supersti.html.

You can chalk superstitions up to pagan syncretism or to acceptable forms of folk religion, but at their core — while one may be tempted to dismiss them as “old wives tales” — superstitions are religious beliefs. It’s fairly obvious how practices that supposedly ward off witches, hobgoblins and ghosts have religious connections, but even folks customs related to “luck” have their spiritual aspect. While mountain folk may not have had the classical education of their European forebears, what are the practices for luck (a vaguely defined concept at best) other than ways to avoid the Fates? The people throwing a pinch of salt over their shoulders may not have believed three Greek crones with beards were hanging over them, planning their eventual demise, but many of these practices were certainly an attempt to steer clear of an unavoidable predestination to a certain end (or, in some cases, to encourage it). Why else would you cover your mouth and say the Lord’s Prayer after sneezing other than to prevent your soul from leaking out?

And while most people have dismissed these practices as silly (many of them are silly), they still linger in the American subconscious, not because people are afraid of witches and ghosts anymore, but because — even in a culture that has gulped down postmodernism like cheap beer — there is a great sense of fatalism these days. Just listen to the nightly news, and especially the news commentators. The difference is that, thanks to their skepticism, people don’t have anything to use to fight that feeling anymore.

I suppose that I should be thinking about more important things, like the fact that it is Holy Week or that my coffee was a little burned this morning (differing levels of importance, of course), but I can’t stop thinking about this government health care reform fiasco, either for the monster that it actually is or for the monster it is being represented as by the right.

That’s mostly because of my Facebook feed. It’s been almost two weeks now, and still I see multiple snarky comments about it every day. And, I suppose, it deserves a good deal of snark addressed in its general direction, though the kind of snark I would address at it and most of what I have seen are completely different beasts. Most of the comments I have seen have said something to the effect of “Congress and the President have had the gall to take away orrr Got-Gibin’ freeeeeeeeeeeeeedum! Thiiiiiiiiink about tha’ SOLDIERS!”

The irony of all of this is that many of these folks decrying our socialist future and supposed loss of freedom are the same ones who, not too long ago, were adamant defenders of warrant-less wiretaps, the truly freedom-squelching PATRIOT act and the Bush administration’s executive orders that allowed the gummunt to detain people indefinitely without charges for being “suspicious.” And these are just obvious examples.

Of course the health care reform package is a dragon that needs to be slain…but so is most of our political system. Most people do not realize just how detailed, and how deep, the regulation goes.

Here’s an example: a couple of years ago, the extended family, with which we share our homesite, had a milk cow. She gave a lot of milk, so much so that three families couldn’t consume all of it. It filled our refrigerators. We froze it. Finally, we were forced to start giving it away by the gallons. We had to give it away because we could not legally sell it.

Turns out, you’ve got to have a permit to sell raw milk, even if the people buying it come to your house and watch you pasteurize it (which we did). You can give it away, but you can’t sell it.

Farmer Joel Salatin, who is kind of one of my heroes, has an example: 

I want to dress my beef and pork on the farm where I’ve coddled and raised it. But zoning laws prohibit slaughterhouses on agricultural land. For crying out loud, what makes more holistic sense than to put abattoirs where the animals are? But no, in the wisdom of Western disconnected thinking, abattoirs are massive centralized facilities visited daily by a steady stream of tractor trailers and illegal alien workers. But what about dressing a couple of animals a year in the backyard? How can that be compared to a ConAgra or Tyson facility? In the eyes of the government, the two are one and the same. Every T-bone steak has to be wrapped in a half-million dollar facility so that it can be sold to your neighbor. The fact that I can do it on my own farm more cleanly, more responsibly, more humanely, more efficiently, and in a more environmentally friendly manner doesn’t matter to the government agents who walk around with big badges on their jackets and wheelbarrow-sized regulations tucked under their arms.  

Or this:

In the disconnected mind of modem America, a farm is a production unit for commodities — nothing more and nothing less. Because our land is zoned as agricultural, we cannot charge school kids for a tour of the farm because that puts us in the category of “Theme Park.” Anyone paying for infotainment creates “Farmadisney,” a strict no-no in agricultural zones.

You can read the rest of the article, titled “Everything I want to do is Illegalhere. Or buy the book here .

I realize all of these examples are agriculture related, but that’s where my interests lie these days. The deep piles of regulations reach into every aspect of your life. And so, that’s why — even though I do oppose further encroachment by the gummunt — you’re not going to hear me ranting too much about losing freedom.

We haven’t been free for a long, long time.