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What Growing Up in the Ozarks Taught Me About Southern Conservative Christianity

Insights into the first episode of BALLS DEEP, airing tonight on SBS VICELAND.

by Sam Eifling
Nov 23 2016, 12:00am

A view of Christ of the Ozarks on top of Magnetic Mountain, Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images

A view of Christ of the Ozarks on top of Magnetic Mountain, Eureka Springs, Arkansas, October 1972. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)

To find out more about the impact of religion in the Ozarks, check out "Tent Preachin'," the first episode of BALLS DEEP airing tonight on SBS VICELAND at 9.20PM. It will also stream online here.

The easy assumption for me, even as a small boy in the Arkansas Ozarks, was that people who took the Bible at face value had to be kidding.

My dad's side of the family hailed from south Arkansas, which was well in line with the spiritual underpinnings of the pentecostal revival. In his heavy build, his joviality, and his musicality, my grandfather resembled an archetypal revivalist preacher, though he was more reserved in his faith, and late in life, he enjoyed playing piano and singing hymns at the old folks' home down the road. His ex, my grandmother, was more of a tell-don't-show type. She'd unspool Bible fables for me and my brothers and expect us to accept this Santa Clausian malarky as, well, Scripture. Did you know that Noah's grandfather Methusula lived to be 969 years old? Even a kid knows to ask:

Wait, what?

Well, people used to live a lot longer.

How? They didn't have surgery or antibiotics. How did people live longer?

Well, they also didn't have as many diseases back then.

That conversation really did happen about 25 years ago, but in hindsight, I can't blame my nana for trying to make the effort to rationalize it for me. There probably were fewer deaths by exotic cancers during the Old Testament epoch, when people likely succumbed to war, starvation, dysentery, malaria, poxes, and minor infections that festered and then hit the bloodstream. It's also true that she first heard these tales before the atomic bomb was invented, before we identified DNA or could launch satellites, before Google made answers so easy to find. The religious superstition of the creeks and hollers where the aftermath of the Great Depression endures has already fended off so many advances in rational thinking that it's impenetrable by now.

Election years tend to give outsized clout, or at least attention, to Protestants in the South, but Christians in America are a fading group altogether: A 2014 Pew survey found, since 2007, the median adult age of Christians in America increased by three years to 49 years old, even as non-Christian faiths and "unaffiliated" categories got younger. They're less educated and more likely to leave the faith than non-Christian religious Americans. But they are concentrating in the West, and in the South particularly, and notwithstanding the occasional tsunami like Obergefell v. Hodges, they still seem to drive an outsized chunk of national policy.

These days the primary strains of religiosity I see in hilly west Arkansas fall along a few fault lines. The small-town clapboard churches that sprang up in the shadow of revival tents actually strike me as the most beneficent: I gather that they function as de facto Narcotics Anonymous chapters where people really do pray for one another, where their kitchens double as food pantries for down-on-their-luck congregants, where people sing together in a group of friends every Sunday and legitimately do head to the Old Country Buffet feeling happier than when they woke up. These are the finest of the churches, and yet they're having difficulty replenishing their congregations. Why would you need an opiate for the masses when it's so easy these days to get actual opiates?

The second, and growing, strain of Christianity can be found in megachurches, massive congregations inside buildings that resemble convention centers led by pastors who resemble motivational speakers or business gurus. People pray for one another in these places too, but the spiritual aspect is entwined with the sort of corporate conservatism you can find inside companies like Walmart. That chain's founder, Sam Walton, was the rare billionaire who maintained a modest, borderline shitkicker public profile; my dad likes to tell the story of once finding ol' Sam broken down on a roadside and helping get his pickup back and running. But in the generation since Walton's death, the culture around Walmart's world HQ in Bentonville reflects more conspicuous consumption, and its churches are relatively short on brimstone.

The third strain is more dismal and hateful. That you will see the further you drive into the woods, or echoed out of the state's degenerate legislature, or on the other end of the phone in your kitchen when local brood mother and Christian celeb Michelle Duggar is on a robo-call jag. Last time I got one of those, it was right before my hometown tried to pass an anti-discrimination statute that would have, among other things, prevented landlords from refusing to rent to gay or trans tenants. Her argument against this statute, delivered on the recording like a vacuous Helen Lovejoy, was to use the old bathroom hypothetical in which a formerly male sex predator now dressed in a skirt ambushes little girls behind closed doors. This was, it's worth noting, before her son Josh was exposed as an incestuous, abusive perv. She may have been coming from a sleazy place, but I have no doubt she was speaking from the heart—albeit her own overzealous one.

The Duggars' mass-market brand of King James–style bigotry, however, elides the only sensible reading of Christ's example, one that I keep hoping, to my continuing disappointment, will rise and redeem the benighted religious South. That reading, popular among no one I know, holds that Jesus wouldn't have put up with any of this smear-the-queer bully-pulpit horseshit. Not in a temple, not on a mount, not at a supper. Christ's most radical and brilliant notion, that you shall love thy neighbor as you love thyself, leaves gay-baiters on the same side of history as slave owners. A man possessed of such an omniscient, omnidirectional love would certainly have partaken in the physical act, and he would've made no distinctions among lovers for their superficial qualities (certainly not for something so fickle and arbitrary as gender). Christ would've loved the poor, the dispossessed, the evicted, the dropped-out, the overwhelmed by student loans, the haven't gotten a raise in ten years, the never gonna get to retire, the obese, the infirm, the depressed, the isolated, the addicted, the meth-mouthed. It doesn't matter who you are, 'cause Jesus, a fully-outed pansexual love revolutionary, would definitely have made out with you at a party.

I mean, c'mon. They didn't even have diseases back then.

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