שְׁכִינָה, indeed.

Southern Christianity, in my experience, is quite fundamentalist (or Fundamentalist, if you prefer) in its outlook, and though I might wish that I could say that these beliefs are foreign to me, they are not. I was reared in the church, the Southern protestant church, that is, yet over the years, I have come to find the way that they think about most things to be abhorrent to the intellect and incompatible with “real life,” a term which I am forced to use to indicate practically everything that occurs outside of the church doors.

Some people who know me well, and they are few, have told me for years that they are still praying for my soul, and please do not think that these words are idle, spoken out of some deep-seated Southern politesse, they are not. These people sincerely beseech the Almighty on my behalf so that I might one day believe as they do. I almost said “that my soul might be saved,” and however true that statement may be, the expression I chose feels more accurate.  While I am genuinely grateful for their love and concern, I also fear that that their time could be better spent doing any number of other activities: standing, learning a new language, fornicating (I told you I listened in church), or, I don’t know, reading a book that is not the Bible. God will forgive them; it’s his thing, right?

One of the worst parts of this debacle is that Southern fundamentalists truly have no idea that they have no idea. Most of what I have seen passing for religion around here falls under the rubric of social tradition or even prejudice confirmed with snippets of Scripture used as sermon seed by preachers who often sound so uneducated that one wonders what their actual, pragmatic use might be, had they not the Spirit to guide them. Even in one of the larger churches in the area, the preacher, a Ph. D. no less, kept referring to Jesus as the presence of God on earth, which is fine, by the way, since this is a fundamental Christian tenet, but he then decided to th’ow a little razzle-dazzle on the audience by referring to this physical presence on the earth as “Shekinah glory.” Aside from some serious debate on the actual meaning of “Shekinah,” nothing impresses an idiot so much as throwing in a Hebrew word to make the gospel message sound authentic, except that he kept repeating with an ever-increasing fervor, “SheKYna GLO-ry! SheKYna GLO-ry!” I assume no one else caught that he was mispronouncing the word, but the nasal whine of his spiritual fury coupled with a simple mispronunciation was the perfect pall on my day, if not my ear.

I know that I sound bitter and mean, looking for any error upon which I might pounce to prove that Christianity, and Southern Christianity in particular, is a hoax unwittingly perpetrated against masses of people who cannot be labeled “victims” because of their abject willingness. My faith was not crushed by the mispronunciation of a single Hebrew word by a fat yokel with a degree in theology. I suppose that the issue that has really fueled my distaste for the religion of my youth is Faith itself. I have very little. I don’t care to have more. In his defense of the separation of Church and State, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error. Give a loose to them, they will support the true religion, by bringing every false one to their tribunal, to the test of their investigation. They are the natural enemies of error, and of error only.” One must question everything, even one’s self and personal beliefs every day. This is essential.

In Mississippi, where we still smart at references to the War of Northern Aggression (the Civil War, if you are unfamiliar) and are quite proud of a certain social rebelliousness, people cling to faith, not because it satisfies our rebellion (though recently that has come into question), but because it is easy. One does not have to think about any social issue. The Bible has all the answers, not because one has read it and found these answers, but because the preacher has said this. He has said so, a preacher whose rural background has given him an understanding of seventeenth-century English only slightly better than his understanding of Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. A black-and-white world is easy; shades of gray are hard. Faith, especially the unwarranted, uneducated faith of the Deep South, must be questioned relentlessly. It is a detriment to our economy, our state, our reputation, our intellects, and our souls.

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