After more than two years of living in the South, I have yet to be evangelized. This is oddly troubling to me. I anticipated an increase in religious encounters moving from the pagan sprawl of Chicago to the Bible-belt. I admit this is a “darker” desire of mine – like secretly taking pleasure in witnessing failed parallel-parking attempts. But it’s still odd especially because it’s not for lack of churched people. I estimate that the population in any coffee shop (my “third place”) in central Arkansas, on any given afternoon, is at least twenty-five percent Christian. That is, a quarter of the patrons, based on my observations, are engaging in some type of Christian-y activity or emitting those particular vibes.
I understand now better than I did before I left and came back what Flannery was getting at. Christ-haunted indeed. Unlike her, however, I can’t quite see the narrative seam that penetrates the thickness and reveals the mystery. Most days feel heavy and unfamiliar but in a familiar way. And this heaviness, I think, obscures the ability to discern – to see with the right eyes, from the right angle, the enigma of returning home.
Some people leave the South because they want to flee the culture of their youth. They feel the weighty expectation to be certain types of people or are overwhelmed by an ethos that, for whatever reason, they grew to despise. Every enunciation of a vowel – every trite colloquialism – every pickup truck unnecessarily fitted with massive mud tires – every twang on a steel guitar – every subtle racial slur – it all begins to rub against a nerve that sends discomfort to the soul.
If these people grow weary staying put as discontented outliers, they often plot an escape to a foreign land devoid of the particular cultural trappings that unsettle them. Escape is the only option for survival – for holding on to sanity. And so they move to another place, not necessarily because it is good, but especially because it is different.
I did my best growing up to resist full-scale enculturation into the Southern malaise. My immediate family was not prototypically southern. I was raised in a pseudo-metropolitan city (Hot Springs). Classic rock, not contemporary country, played on the radio, and my dad never took me hunting. These things curbed the vortex by affording me a small degree of otherness.
But in Arkansas you are never that far away from things rural. At some point in my early teens I realized that I harbored an ambivalence toward my southern identity, so I coached myself out of my southern draw – as much as that was possible – and progressively compiled a mental list of Southern signifers I intended to despise and avoid.
Despite the cultural resistance I built over the years, however, the decision to move out of the south to Chicago was basically pragmatic. I was already content as a cynical outlier. Truly, my wife and I were not seeking asylum. We did not flee as ex-patriots. We simply took a journey, albeit naively, to a new place that symbolized for us adventure and progress. The excitement of new possibilities that accompanied transition softened for a time the emotional impact of missing home and family, which was inextricably tied to that land below the Mason-Dixon.
We did not anticipate how difficult the transition would be culturally and socially. Our affective shape didn’t quite fit the Midwestern hole, of sorts. The level on which this dissonance registered was deep in our bodies: we felt it more in our bones than we could name it in our heads. It had something to do with intersubjectivity (though that sounds too clinical). Relationships felt forced and were draining. The rules were different, even in churches, and no one warned us, or maybe they did and we didn’t listen. Things weren’t always so bad, of course, but the break-down occurred often enough to overshadow better connections we made.
We entered into a crisis of belonging, and we struggled there with varying intensity for our entire sojourn. The difficulty we felt in relationships was enhanced by and inextricably related to all matters of place, which we forgot to consider as we made our way through the world.
The cold, for instance, was not something we felt only on the skin – it was part of our being-in-the-world and as such was a powerful catalyst for formation. Those icy, lingering, gray winters shaped us and were determinative for how we related to one another. Or consider the geography: the wasteland of parking lots and shopping malls typical of suburban sprawl flattened our soul.
Amidst all those subliminal forces we were irreversibly formed – fashioned in the image of the Midwest. That formation, however, only brought us half way to feeling like we belonged there. The truth is we would never naturally fit there or probably anywhere else again.
Even more surprisingly, and we’ve only come to realize this fully in hindsight, was the extent to which our otherness heightened our awareness of God’s activity around us and in us. Our inability to fit-in, on a certain level, was a daily bucket of cold water in the face of our false self. The sense of otherness heightened our sensitivity to the Spirit-charged world around us. But this awareness was not a guaranteed by-product. Disorientation just as easily triggered for us frantically defaulting back to safe postures. The old self.
When the familiar becomes strange, we have an opportunity to enter and receive something we cannot manufacture. We are disarmed and exposed – just enough to highlight the truth that we don’t know what we’re doing and don’t have things together. This is a good thing. God’s work begins here.
I haven’t struggled with being a jerk in the past five years as much as I have since we moved back to Arkansas. I don’t know what it is – but there’s something about this place that makes me want to show others that I have intellectual fortitude. I find myself, when I have those helicopter moments looking down at my self, returning to postures where I’m defined by what I do and what I know.
This place is highly stratified, and now I find myself stratifying through the world. I am quicker to label others as “them.” Quicker to defend my territory. Quicker to speak.
Although I am irreversibly different than I was before my familiar was disrupted by a strange place, I am afraid that the dark pull of home will somehow cause me to forget how to be different. My sensitivity will be numbed.
I know am standing on the precipice of something new – not knowing quite yet if I can lose control again and take the plunge. I look back over my shoulder – haunted by the sounds of home. I am afraid because I also know, and cannot shake, that those echoes are not far off, but very near.
I know very well the ghostly voice whispering in my shadows. The old man has been around all along.