Saturday, March 12, 2011

You're not from the South are you?

I was at a denominational committee meeting in Atlanta the other day. During the midst of spirited debate I made a somewhat emphatic point. When I was finished the person sitting to my right (who I had not met before) whispered to me, "You're not from the South are you?" Turns out this person was from New York City and meant it as a simple observation. Still it was oddly bracing. Odd because, well, of course I'm not from the South. Born and raised in the Philadelphia area it's still such a constituent part of who I am. 

This is keenly seen in food and sports. I sneer at the generally tragic (and now almost pandemic) attempts at "Philly Cheesesteak" seen outside of my birth city. Once in Savannah I watched someone slather mayonnaise on a cheesesteak I ordered. When I reflexively objected they told me, "This is how they make them in Philly." They don't.

My devotion to Philadelphia pro sports teams hovers near the genuinely disturbing. During a late season Phillies game at Turner Field in Atlanta I spent the better part of the last five innings taunting the white-bread and zombie-inert Braves fans around me. Of course it helped that the Phils were eight runs ahead. Watching the 2005 Super Bowl on TV I almost had an aneurism screaming at Donovan McNabb while he sleepwalked (and puked) through the Eagles soul-crushing loss to the Patriots.

I just turned 53. Almost 22 of those years have been spent in the South. That's more time than I have lived in Philadelphia. And those 22 years have been in the Deep South - South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia and now in Alabama. (During our few years in Mississippi I was always baffled when South Carolina's bona fides as "Deep" South were questioned. South Carolina is, hands down, the most passionately and consummately Southern state I've lived in.)

My adjustment to the South was not all together smooth. I arrived at the University of South Carolina in the Fall of 1976. Recalling my thought process back then is tenuous but I'm fairly sure I picked the school largely on the strength of a campus visit the previous February. I drove down with a high school friend who was interested in Clemson (and eventually enrolled there). We left Philadelphia in the grip of a grey, late-winter, dirty-snow, chilling-wind malaise. 12 hours on I-95 delivered us to a Pandora-like universe. Sunny, mid-70's, cobalt blue skies, southern coeds. I was sold.

And yes, I really was that shallow.

The first clue of how steep a learning curve I was on came on the first date I had in college. Her name was Emily and she was from Hemingway, SC. I was set up with her by a dorm hall-mate. We went with a group of others to the Skyline Disco (It was 1976. Disco was in its early death throes but still, sadly, alive). Six of us sat at a table near the bar and mercifully far enough away from the dance floor. The drinking age was 18 at the time and I could barely conceal my giddiness at legally ordering alcohol. The first hour or so was a normal level of awkward until the chatter veered to the Civil War. Being the only non-South Carolinian I was at first nonplussed by the intensity and barely masked bitterness of the discussion. I then added my first contribution to the topic:

"You lost. Get over it."

Then, as now, I could be as intentionally inflammatory as anyone. But I promise you I said those words without guile, malice or irony. The response from these soon to be ex-casual friends was unbridled ferocity. There was no second date with Emily.

So yes, I am not from the South but my learning curve is leveling out a bit. It is my adopted home and there is nothing grudging about that. I can't shake the formative Philadelphia boy in me. But I have learned to love a lot about the South. Including, in no particular order, the following:

Good food that is really bad for you

You can't get a decent cheesesteak in the South but they more than make up for it in other areas. One is barbecue (which is pork, not beef and not something you cook on) when done well it will, it pains me to admit, make me forget about cheesesteaks altogether. The inter-South debate on how you make it and what kind of sauce you use borders on fratricide. I won't die on any barbecue hill but  will admit to a preference for mustard-based or the vinegar and pepper variety.

A culture of manners

It's not as if (contrary to stereotype) manners don't exist in the Northeast. And this culture forever teeters on self-parody and downright abuse. Oswald Chambers wrote, "An unguarded strength is actually a double weakness" and the unguarded form of manners can turn into a toxin of inauthenticity and smiling viciousness. Nonetheless, I have grown to value the expectation of respect and circumspection in private and public discourse. It's a bit frightening to think what I would be like without those cultural guard rails. Probably better not to think about that.

College Football

I grew up in a passionate pro sports town but nothing prepared me for the visceral devotion and spectacle of college football. Passion for the college game is not peculiar to the South but there is no other region where it is the dominant sports paradigm. Yes it gets out of hand (like poisoning 130 year-old Oak trees) but the combination of game, school-tie and pageantry is unrivaled. And it is better than the NFL.

It is "Christ-Haunted"

This term was famously put by Flannery O'Connor in her essay, The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South. “I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted." The grotesque and shocking nature of grace is arguably the dominant theme of O'Connor's work. I have found so much of the religiosity in the South to be as grotesque as the homicidal Misfit in A Good Man Is Hard To Find. But O'Connor adds, "Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive." I was soon gripped, in ways I find hard to explain, by these displays. I saw in them both the deepness of my own hypocrisy and the resilience of God's mercy. 

For all my educated-clergy and liturgical preferences I was shaken into the Kingdom by being confronted with some of its most brutish and unsophisticated caricatures and lean on that experience to prevent my constant need to sweeten up and smooth out the gospel. Grace is shocking and the Cross is a scandal. The South provides me a constant narrative of that. 

A narrative that can be cringe-inducing and mysteriously compelling at the same time.


  1. Tom Cannon is a good man, and they are, in fact, hard to find.

  2. After almost 5 years in the south (and 11 or so outside of Philadelphia) I actually no longer miss cheesesteaks, and my pining for proper Italian hoagies and scrapple only rears its head occasionally. I did see something on a menu here recently called 'an insult to philly sandwich' which lived up to its name by being made with roast beef! (At least they were honest) Even though you can't take the Philly out of me, I'm learning to really love the South and I don't think there is any shame in the gorgeous weather being a part of that love...

  3. Wow, I'm laughing about your faux pas over the civil war. Folks in Georgia still don't like Sherman either.

    I have to wonder whether that "culture of manners" will last much longer in the world we've created. I (born and bred southern) am forgetting to say "Yes, sir" at times when 3-4 years ago it have been pure reflex. The casual use of first names cuts both ways as well. When I can be immediately introduced to Dr. Gresham as "Miles" is there much point in asking the small fry to say Mister and Missus? On the other hand - Dr. Gresham is a fellow I've never met before, and I'm more comfortable with Miles.

  4. Despite suffering through the Braves-bashing taunts during those last five innings, I too am glad that you have set your roots in the Deep South. May they never be poisoned.

  5. Laughing at the image of you in 1976 disco attire. And, harassing Braves fans. I found this post comical. The Christ haunted South is another tangible challenge for ministry to people who only accept a shadow of the whole as the entire story. The word Grace in our denominational circle seems like intellectual as opposed to a reality longed for based on a visceral awareness. I dont know if you know this about me, but I move to Birmingham when I was 7 from New Jersey (I was born in Allentown) and I was view, for the entire length of my elementary education, as a Yankee. That was a rude awakening for a little kid who came from an integrated school in Cherry Hill, NJ.

  6. I so identify with your first days in South Carolina. I arrived 24 years later, and yet I still felt like I was speaking a completely different language. I remember visiting with my Dad (also the reason I ended up there ... weather) and saying to him "There is no way I'll fit in here, they're not wearing any clothes! I'm going to look like I'm Amish." One summer in the South, and I was one of them. And of course, I, too, ended up loving the South far far more than I ever imagined I would.