That’s my great-great-grandfather (one of them) on the right, the son of a convict. Ethnically and religiously he would have been pretty much the same as his contemporaries in the American state of Tennessee, if I am to judge from one of my odder reading choices, Stephen Mansfield and George Grant, Faithful Volunteers: the history of religion in Tennessee (Nashville, Cumberland House, 1997). The authors are clearly believers and local patriots with something of a distaste for nationalism — there is a chapter on that with a rather strange map of Europe to establish what a newfangled idea it really is. While the coverage is broad, certain varieties of religion are clearly favoured. Partly this is demographic, reflective of the religious complexion of Tennessee, and partly it is ideological. Certain religious views are obviously TRUE, and the rest — well… However, the writers are far from total rednecks, and much that they tell us is genuinely interesting. It is worth reading in order to gain a more nuanced view of how people of faith in this state see themselves, their beliefs, their culture, and their past.
The Ku Klux Klan, one of Tennessee’s more famous products, is dealt with honestly enough, and the fact it compromised so many “white” churches in the past is greatly regretted. On the other hand, Abe Lincoln is not quite the hero in these pages that we are accustomed to seeing. While the authors are not racist, there is plenty of evidence in the book of something a friend from North Carolina once told me: don’t kid yourself that the American Civil War is over. Hence, in part, the distaste of nationalism. Lincoln is described as an “ultranationalist”.
Country and western music, Nashville’s greatest claim to fame, plays second fiddle to faith and religious publishing, which the authors see as their state’s great contribution to the world.
What I did find interesting is the effect of Tennessee on my own literary studies, as another chapter deals with Southern agrarianism, a political attitude the authors have some sympathy with; two of the eminent Tennessee agrarians in the 20th century were literary critics Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, whose introductory texts on literature seriously remain the best of their kind, if dated.
What I also find interesting is that while the religion of my ancestors flourished and even, some would say, grew more than a touch monstrous in Tennessee, in New South Wales it tended to wither and die, or at least lose its hard edge. Climate perhaps? The history of Tennessee was Presbyterian more than Baptist.
In the later chapters of Jonathan Kirsch A History of the End of the World (Harper San Francisco 2006) Ronald Reagan emerges as considerably crazier than George W Bush, a frightening thought. On the down side I found this book annoyingly repetitive, as if the chapters, seven of them of course, though chronologically arranged, were originally discrete essays cobbled together to make a book. However, this history and analysis of the Book of Revelation and Apocalyptic thought generally — including non-religious apocalypticism towards the end — is quite fascinating. This blogger does a good job of filling us in on what to expect:
Subtitled “How the most controversial book in the Bible changed the course of Western civilization,*” this book covers the origin, sources, themes, and historical influence of the Book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse. Revelation was a controversial book from its first appearance. It is radically different from the rest of the New Testament, and was held in skepticism by the early church fathers who mistrusted its Jewish roots and prophetic freedom.
The author’s fanatic opposition to Rome was highly problematic for the early church, especially after Constantine adopted Christianity as the official state religion. And as time ground on, Revelation became increasingly difficult to deal with as the world refused to end on time. Kirsch reports that when Augustine proposed a strictly spiritual and metaphoric reading of the book it “was embraced and enforced by church authorities, and thus served to discourage any open speculation on the colorful details of the Second Coming.”
And yet Revelation would not go away, as it was retrieved over and over again by zealots and martyrs…
If every age gets the Apocalypse it deserves, then ours is characterized by Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth, and most spectacularly, the Left Behind franchise created by Jerry Jenkins and Timothy LaHaye. As the world continues to refuse to end on time, we resort to mining Revelation as a source of entertainment and revenue.
* Links in this article do not open in new windows.
Some issues from both books may be taken up later on Ninglun on Blogspot.