I have this friend, a well known city official in Memphis, so I will keep him anonymous. Some years ago he asked me to help him with a project to do some editing work for him. Since then, every now and then, he and I get together for coffee, dinner, and good old fashioned conversation. He is devout in his Christian faith, but for some reason he has concluded over the years of knowing me that I am an atheist, which is defined as one who does not believe in the existence of God. Despite my repeated attempts to tell this man I do actually believe in God, I just may not believe in the same manner in which he does, he nonetheless remains steadfast in his conviction that I am not a "true believer."
I saw him recently; he had just returned from a three week excursion to Vietnam. He went just because he had the time, the money, and wanted to get as far away from Memphis as he could, and because he had served in Vietnam during his short stay in the military. So on this occasion, to not bring him too far into culture shock at returning from Vietnam to Memphis, I suggested we go eat at a local Memphis Vietnamese restaurant, Pho Saigon, one of my favorite diners since my graduate school days. Sitting in a quiet corner late on a Saturday evening, an hour before closing, while the second light snowfall of the year started to coat the tops of trees and the sunroof of my little silver KIA in the parking lot, I looked around and realized we were just about the only people in the restaurant.
The owners, all women, had their small children running around barefoot. The women spoke languidly with one another in sharp exchanges of their native language interrupted by the occasional English phrase. I have gone to this place so much over the years that the women let me in and prepare dishes of take-out for me after hours; I know which of the women are sisters, which is the grandmother. I have in my spiritual quest even visited their Buddhist temple, a hidden treasure and enclave, nestled in a very unexpected place on Getwell Avenue. The giant Buddha like figure, not an actual Buddha figure, sits by the door of the restaurant, as a happy reminder of their homeland. To the untrained eye, the Buddha like statue, that guards the door of Pho Saigon, looks to be a statue of the Buddha; it is not, is another folk god, the Budhai, or sometimes called Pu-Tai, that existed in the folk cultures prior to the advent of Buddhism in Vietnam and other Buddhist lands. In English, it is the "Smiling Happy Buddha with the Big Belly." When the Belly of the Buddha is big and full, it is not really Buddha. I hate to break it to you, but asceticism, fasting, and meditation does not bring with it a big sack of a belly. So, if you ever see a big bellied Buddha, that is not Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha, it is Pu-Tai, the happy one.
The Buddha-like Statue that is Not-The-Actual-Buddha Also Serves as a Hat Rack (See Baseball Cap on the Right Side) Photo Snapped on March 26, 2017, Dr. Hayes
This is Pu-Tai (Ancient Pre-Buddhist Folk God Often Mistaken for the Buddha, but is Not the Buddha)
This is the Buddha. Siddhartha Gautama is Skinny and Meditates and Does Not Eat as Much as Fat, Happy Pu-Tai!
My friend and I shared two orders of caramelized catfish with extra soy garlic sauce as I watched out of the corner of my eye the only other customer, a scraggly young man with a rough overgrown beard, a knitted cap loosely perched on top of his un-brushed hair, who looked like he was strung out or high, and whose hands were trembling as he opened countless sugar packets into a tall glass of ice-less water. Finally, the young man, jumpy as a street alley cat, made his way up from the table, without ordering, and left, as awkwardly as he had arrived. After what seemed like an eternity of my friend attempting, himself very awkwardly, to make small talk in English with the very young and very pretty immigrant Vietnamese waitress who seemed determined to stay at our table for the duration of our meal, the moment that I had been expecting, and dreading, finally came. My friend turned to the topic of God and offered his two favorite lines.
"Your arms are too short to box with God" and "let me know if and when you finally believe in God." I could have mouthed the lines as he was saying them, I have heard him repeat them to me so many times. I always picture Muhammad Ali with his boxing gloves; maybe I am the peon below and Muhammad Ali stands in the place of God and he is swinging a punch at me, or maybe I take on Muhammad Ali's gloves as I swing wildly into the vacant airs of heaven. Either way, true, I lose. And when I don't think of Ali, "sting like a bee," I think of the great African American poet, James Weldon Johnson's poem from God's Trombones (1927), "The Prodigal Son," where Johnson in his retelling of the story of the prodigal, uses the line "your arms are too short to box with God." There, Johnson writes, "Young man/young man/Your arms too short to box with God/But Jesus spake in a parable, and he said/A certain man had two sons." And in Johnson's retelling one of those sons is God. Then, there is also the 1976 Broadway Musical, Your Arms Too Short To Box With God: A Soaring Celebration in Song and Dance, based on the book of Matthew. In the 1980 revival of the Broadway play, Jennifer Holliday starred. This version is Delores Hall, lead.
On this particular night I had been going through something deeply personal, which I did not share with my friend. I was hoping, somehow by osmosis, to hear something in his religiosity that would strike me as consoling. I wanted to turn to him and say, 'You ever heard the song, "Graceland," by Paul Simon? In it, there is a line that says, "She comes back to tell me she is gone/as if I didn't know that/And she said, losing love is like a window to your heart/everybody sees your blown apart/everybody feels the wind blow/Well, I am going to Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee, I am going to Graceland."' But I did not turn to him and say that. Instead, I sat there, my elbows on the table, mannered yet in my bad humor, feeling like my heart was a window, looking for "Grace" in the land of Memphis, Tennessee, and not necessarily finding it, either. I guess this is why it is best to interpret Paul Simon metaphorically. While I do believe in God, for some reason I don't seem to display the outward, external signs that would satisfy my friend enough to convince him that I am a "true believer." This lead me to think more about what do people look for as the external signs of faith?
Your Arms Are Too Short To Box with God
In America, in our shared history of Protestantism, the question of being a "true believer" is never far from the question of the outward, external "signs" of faith. The early Puritans believed in the elect, the "chosen" people of God, those predestined by God to believe in God. According to the theory of the elect in Puritanism, if a person believed in God, or was "saved," it was because God had already decided that the person would believe and would be saved. The theory of election in our Protestant history is simple: God selects whom he likes, and one was either chosen or not chosen. If you were chosen, there was really nothing you could do to escape it. Conversely, if you were not chosen, well there was really nothing you could do to escape that either. The damned and the non-damned alike were selected by God. But, how could it be known to the layperson's eye if one was speaking to a believer or a non-believer, to the damned, or the non-damned? The only way a person could know for sure whether he or she was saved, or whether one was talking with someone who was saved, was by looking for some set of "external signs." This could be anything from the material reality of how a person dressed, to the way a person behaved, to how much land a person owned. In other words, blessings, salvation, and the like were all manifested somehow in external signs.
In the South, religion is as predominate as the air we suck in. One of my favorite Southern literary works is the novel, Wise Blood, by Southern Gothic fiction writer, Flannery O'Connor (March 25, 1925 – August 3, 1964). She famously said of the South that it is "Christ Haunted." There is literally a church on every corner. And sometimes there is a street preacher on that corner. One of O'Connor's greatest characters is found in Wise Blood, character by the name of Hoover Shoates, a surly, charismatic, con artist extraordinaire, a street preacher whose religious message is that there is no religion. Shoates, undergoes an anti-spiritual transformation, a de-conversion away from Christianity, if you will, when he renames himself Onnie Jay Holy and creates a ministry of one, the "Holy Church of Christ Without Christ." But with or without Christ, Onnie Jay Holy asks those to join his ministry for a donation of $1, and he still has all the outward external trappings, all the external signs, of being in Christianity. With the proceeds, Mr. Holy, hires a homeless man, an alcoholic, to be his sidekick, a "Prophet." All the character, Mr. Holy, knew in life was religious Christian fundamentalism, and so even when he disavowed the "religion" of his fundamentalism, he remained, at the core of his inner being, a fundamentalist. He became a fundamentalist atheist. His existential nature was still fundamentalist even if his loud proclamation was that religion was false. Mr. Holy was still a bigot, a dogmatist, a hypocrite. The fact that his religion was no longer a part of his bigotry, dogmatism, hypocrisy, was irrelevant to his still being those things. Thus, the problem of Southern fundamentalism may not be the religion itself; it may be the fundamentalist framework for that religion.
Southern Gothic Fiction Writer Flannery O'Connor and her Peacocks
Driving home from teaching my classes at a local community college, for the past week, I have observed standing on the corner of a busy intersection of Popular Avenue and White Station, a late middle aged man with graying, whitish hair, balding in the back of his skull, a clean shirt slung out over his trousers, with sleeves tightly clasped around the wrists, standing with a large sign proclaiming the "word of God." Each day that I drive past I notice the message printed on his sign changes. Does he have a sign for each day of the week? How many signs does this man own? Of course, I don't know the answer to any of these questions, but what I do know is that none of the messages on his signs seem to be inspirational, loving, or kind. His messages seem to speak of doom and gloom, of sadness and sorrow, of persecution and fear, and perhaps more than anything seem to represent an apprehension that he himself may be a relic and a dying breed of man. I don't personally know of anyone who has ever been "saved" by reading a street sign. I suppose it could happen, but it seems that "salvation" is not the intention of a street preacher. The street preacher's voice is like iron and grit, and it reminds me greatly of the words of electric folk singer, Lucinda Williams, "You Better Get Right with God." Or, what the blues musician, Son House, sang about in, "John the Revelator," when he moaned, "Who wrote the book of the seven seals? Whose that writin'? John the Revelator." The street preacher is raw, as raw as a blues song in the broad daylight of the Delta; his words blowing in the warm unpredictable late March air.
Street Preacher Memphis Tennessee March 23, 2017 White Station and Popular Photo by Dr. Hayes
Proclamation itself--the act of officially announcing openly, loudly, widely, and in some cases antagonistically--seems to be the 'real' intention behind street preaching, not necessarily conversion. The external demonstration of the 'signs' of one's faith may be what lies behind the phenomenon of street preaching. To those driving past the street preacher scene, I wonder who looked crazier? The actual street preacher, or me, the 5'2 female college instructor, standing behind the street preacher, taking pictures on my cheap Cricket LG phone, of him holding his sign? I am sure he knew I was there taking my pictures, but he deliberately never turned around to acknowledge me or say anything; instead, he kept staring out into the open traffic, kept tilting his sign forward, and kept half-grinning at the cars that honked either in agreement or in amusement. It seemed fitting, all too fitting, that at one point a train on the other side of the street, slowly moved past; after all, it is a street preacher, the open air, and the South, and what is more appropriate to that scene but a slow moving old rusted out train?
Street Preacher with Train Passing Memphis Tennessee March 23, 2017 Photo By Dr. Hayes
The whole concept of street preaching is that it takes place in the open-air. In fact, if you look up most definitions of "street preaching," the main characteristic of it is that it proselytizes in the open air with the aim of "ushering in the Kingdom of God." The "kingdom of God" is a phrase that both Jesus and Flannery O' Connor were fond of using. So when was the last time I read Isaiah, the street preacher's sign asks? Driving down the street! Being the good photojournalist that I pretend to be, and not really am, I did something quite unsafe; once, I was back in my car, as I drove off down the street, I looked up the scripture on the sign, and I read it on my phone. I know--I know--I should not be reading and driving at the same time. The passage from Isaiah is about the lowliness and the sorrow of the "man of suffering." How often in the South, in its culture, do we encounter this history of the "man of constant sorrow?" From bluegrass songs to film. "He grew up before him like a tender shoot and like a root out of dry ground," is part of the beauty, the poetry of the Isaiah passage. Consider the now rather older film, "O Brother Where Art Thou," by the Cohen Brothers, and the famous song by the Soggy Bottom Boys, "I am a man of constant sorrow." The allusion to Isaiah in it is clear.
Contemporary street preachers sometimes base their actions on Acts 17 where Paul told the Athenians, "He shall not strive, nor cry; neither shall any man hear his voice in the streets." One can go back further to pre-Christianity, to the Tanakh (the Jewish word for the Old Testament), and find examples of "open air" preaching; one of the most famous being that of Jonah and his urging of the people of Nineveh to repent and see the time of the lord was at hand; of course, Jonah took a side route, symbolically, through the belly of a whale. This idea of taking things out into the air, speaking it out, the prophetic impulse, runs through the history of American literature. So much so, even I once wrote a poem called "American Images." I wrote it when I was pregnant, about feeling like I had a whale in my belly, where I reference the Biblical story, saying, "Jonah is curled up/Inside the belly of a clock/and/Bread is floating/On the waters/And you/Are a purple/Hyacinth/Awaiting tender rains."
There is a strong history in the American tradition of taking Protestantism out into the "open air," whether it is on horseback, in a tent revival meeting, or in a football stadium. There is something about American Protestant faith and "the open air." We find it in the Princeton theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) preaching his famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," all the way to Oral Roberts (1918-2009) healing ministry, to Billy Graham (1918--) and his football stadium crusades. We can find outlandish examples of it, like Jack Coe (1918-1956) , in his healing and squawking tent revivals in the 1950s, where the outward, external signs of "the true believer" was loud, aggressive, and passionate, all the way to the more soft-spoken and fervent tent meetings of Oral Roberts whom in the 1950s helped start the prosperity Gospel where riches, wealth, materialism, and affluence became the external "signs" of the "true believer." If one travels back into the hills of Appalachia, it is possible to find out in the hollers, to this day, snake-handling churches, where the external signs of faith include the "handling of serpents."
Having grown up, myself, in a Pentecostal church atmosphere (no we didn't handle snakes, thank you Jesus), I can recall being in the third grade and playing in my room while my mother lay stretched out on the edge of the bed watching a Billy Graham crusade on the television set that sat perched on the wooden dresser. In a moment of childhood play, I had imaginatively created a scene where a doll, aptly named Billy, had gotten into a barroom scuffle with Cody, another doll, a drunken Cowboy riding in from out of town. My mother overhearing the drama of the two dolls, Billy and Cody and their barroom adventure, stopped me at the point in my fictional child's story where Cody was about to take a swing at Billy and knock him "square in the head." She made me come sit on the edge of the bed with her and watch Billy Graham; perhaps, even then, I was not displaying the external signs of faith that a "true believer" was to have. I must have gotten saved fifty times during my childhood years of Billy Graham crusades; for, at the end of every one, when they would play the music, "Come as You Are," I always declared myself a sinner and repented, time and time again. Yet emotionalism and the conversions that went with it, provoked by the song or not, when all was said and done, it always seemed I was a little more preoccupied with the doll Billy and his barroom fight than I was with Billy Graham, the moral crusader of the American soul. And, quite frankly, I never felt any different post-conversion efforts, proffered in by the music of the Billy Graham crusades, than I did pre-conversion antics.
What each and all of these may have in common--be it my friend who seems to mistakenly assume I am an atheist, or the Pentecostal church of my childhood (The House of Faith with the now deceased female pastor, Rev. Polly Turpine), or 16th and 17th century New England Puritans, early 18th and 19th century Protestants, or the snake handlers, or street preachers, is that they, much like Flannery O'Connor's character of Onnie Jay Holy, seem to be in search of the external "signs" of the "true believer." For my friend, the external sign would be that I profess the same creed as he; for the Puritans and the Protestants, being part of God's elect was manifested in one's outward behavior and wealth; for the Pentecostal church of my childhood it was the adults running around the church building in ecstatic fury as they dropped envelopes of cash into the offering plate, for Onnie Jay Holy it was how many people he cold de-convert, for the snake handlers it is picking up a deadly thing and it not biting them back, and for the street preacher it is the literal sign in his hand.
I shall end with a literary critic's point about the writer, Flannery O'Connor. The critic, Frederick Crews, is noted as once saying about O'Connor's religious themes in her short stories and fiction that her work is "not finally about salvation, but about the sudden and irremediable realization that there is no exit from being, for better or worse, exactly who one is" (Crews qtd. in McMullen 58). For O'Connor, the moment of realizing who we are can be a tough moment of existential crisis. As O'Connor once said, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”
I suppose that is where grace steps in. Realizing "exactly who one is," and being comfortable in that skin, is grace. Religion in the South seems to come down to two sides of a coin, and each side is easily represented by song. Either one agrees with the lyrics of Paul Simon, "I have reason to believe, we will all be received in Grace-land," which emphasizes grace, compassion, mercy, acceptance, and inclusion; or, one agrees with the sardonic, satirical, tongue-in-cheek lyrics of Lucinda Williams (lyrics Lucinda Williams herself does not want you to agree with), where she croons, "I would risk the serpent's bite/I would dance around in seven/I would kiss the diamond back/if I knew it would get me to heaven/yes, you know, you gotta get right with God."
Works Cited: McMullen, Joanne Halleran. Writing Against God: Language as Message in the Literature of Flannery O'Connor. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press. 1996.
Hayes-Vasquez, Paula. "American Images." Night Visions and Other Poems. Xlibris Corporation. 2010.