This will be a somewhat rambling, God-bothering post. If that's not your thing, feel free to surf on over to something more fun!
After sharing a few things on some of the Rednecks / Country Boys / Cowboys / Hillbillys G+ communities last night, I had a few ideas going through my head as I drove to work this morning. I started out with a fairly pedestrian idea: what could rednecks learn from religion? Then, when I inverted the question I started seeing a bunch of new ideas. So, what can religion learn from rednecks?
The answer turned out to be: quite a lot. One thing that leapt out at me was that when people have an uncomplicated life, they can find God an easier idea to get hold of. There's an argument that a belief in one God comes from desert cultures, where a belief in many gods comes from forest cultures (1). Is the life of country boys simple? Perhaps: it might be condensed to work, family, sports and the outdoors (yes, I'm speaking in stereotypes, but I'm probably close to the mark still). Maybe the people most receptive to the Bible might be those for whom life, and things in it, are robust, clear and firm.
The second thing that I found myself thinking is that for many country people, death is no great mystery. I recall that the book Deer Hunting with Jesus noted how the good people of Appalachia tend to have a high rate of enlistment in the United States' armed forces. Over the last decade, this would have also meant a tragically high rate of death and severe injury. Rural workplaces the world over have a singularly high rate of accidents, fatal and non fatal. Ernest Hemingway said of the people of Spain's Atlantic coast -
Death, to people who fish in the cold parts of the Atlantic ocean is something that may come at any time, that comes often and is to be avoided as an industrial accident; so that they are not preoccupied with it and it has no fascination for them. (2)
This might mean that priests and pastors might make headway in some communities by framing salvation as an exercise in preparing for an eventuality. A meaningful thing to prepare for, to be sure. Fundamentally, though, as sensible and practical a choice as taking out life insurance and putting on a hardhat. It might only be when people try to live as if death were not real that they cling to life the way a drowning man clutches driftwood - like the alcohol and drug-fuelled expatriates of mid-twentieth century Tangier (3).
The third thing is that people living an outdoors life may have little need to be told about God himself. In a sense, they live with His fingerprints. Visiting a ruin in the Algerian desert, writer Albert Camus said
I felt myself whipping in the wind like a mast. ... Eyes burning, lips cracking, my skin became so dry it no longer seemed mine. Until now, I had been deciphering the world's handwriting on my skin. There, on my body, the world had inscribed the signs of its tenderness or anger, warming with its summer breath or biting with its frosty teeth. But rubbed against for so long by the wind, ... I lost consciousness of the pattern my body traced. Like a pebble polished by the tides, I was polished by the wind, worn through to the very soul. (4)
Where a person's life is experienced overwhelmingly through what the senses tell them of Creation, telling them of the glory of God is like shipping coals to Newcastle.
People who talk about evangelisation sometimes speak of Jesus meeting people where they are. Thinking about what rednecks can tell us, that might be a bit presumptuous. Without putting a name to the experience, it's likely they've already met Him.
(1) Bruce Chatwin, letter to Shirley Hazzard dated January 1984, in E. Chatwin
and N. Shakespeare (eds), Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin (London,
2011), p.378; Guy Pagès, 'Le polythéisme de la forêt contre le monothéisme du désert?', 16 November 2013.
(2) Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon (London, 1994), p.233
(3) Ian Thomson, 'Tangerine Dreams', The Spectator, 28 August 2010.
(4) Albert Camus, 'The Wind at Djemila', trans. E.C. Kennedy, in P. Thody (ed.),
Lyrical and Critical Essays (New York, 1970), pp.74-5. Camus was an atheist, but
it must be said he displayed no real scorn for Christianity.