Monday, May 23, 2011

Bible Belt

The church building was dimly lit and packed with hundreds of people. There was a picture of Grace Slick projected on a wall and The Eagles were playing over the speakers.

It was the mid 1980s and this was not my fundamentalist church’s attempt at relevance. It was a seminar about the evils of rock and roll. Grace Slick, former member of Jefferson Starship/Starship/Jefferson Airplane/Starships of Jefferson with an Airplane, was plastered on the wall because we were being told the famous rock and roll urban legend about how she named her kid “god”. The woman that sang “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” somehow got lumped in with Aleister Crowley and the Church of Satan.

The Eagles weren’t being played because our pastor was really into Joe Walsh but because of the evils of Hotel California and its hidden messages about the awesomeness of Satanism. Ironically, this is probably one of the best songs ever written against such evils but that kind of talk isn’t what packed out church buildings in 1985. Along with The Eagles, Led Zeppelin and others were played backwards. When you’re ten years old and sitting in a dark church building, nothing scares your more than hearing Robert Plant’s voice played backwards. I was clay in the hands of the evangelist leading the seminar.

Just as fascinating as the backwards music were the stories that went along with these seminars.

“One church held a seminar just like this one and afterwards several of the people brought their rock and roll albums into the parking lot, threw them into a big trash can and lit them on fire. As those albums from AC/DC and Meatloaf (seriously?) burned, a black snake crawled out of the fire.”

I can’t prove it but I’m pretty sure that one of the guys that saw that happen went on to marry the girl that woke up lying in a bathtub full of ice in a Panama City hotel room with one of her kidneys missing. I’m sure they’re doing well.

That did it for me. The next day I grabbed Michael Jackson’s Thriller cassette (a small plastic device with tape inside of it used for listening to music, preferably in a Camaro with T tops and the phrase Youth Gone Wild written on the top of the front windshield) and smashed it with a rock in my driveway. I never saw a snake but I did purchase that music again later on in life.

Rock and Roll seminars were the norm in the 1980s in what is known as the Bible Belt. As funny as they seem now, they are a perfect fit for this area of mostly southern states with a few Midwestern states and some of Texas thrown in. When you drive down a road in the Bible Belt you will see as many churches as you will Waffle Houses and dead possums. That’s another way of saying that there are a lot of churches in the Bible Belt. Also, everyone who lives in the Bible Belt says the same thing – “I live in the buckle of the Bible Belt.” That’s another way of saying that my place is more Bible Belt-ier than yours. Unlike most other belt buckles in the south this one probably says something like Turn Or Burn instead of Bocephus.

Maybe you’ve heard it said before that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman nor an empire. As a life long resident of the southern states, I think that the same formula could be applied to the Bible Belt. There’s not a whole lot of Bible and there’s certainly no belt. But there is a lot of that old time religion, good manners and church buildings. None of which ever saved anyone.

In the Bible Belt, people are absolutely in love with Jesus. They wear bracelets reminding them to do what he would do, they spend money on roadside billboards telling commuters that he’s watching them and they even listen to music about him on radio stations with words like fish, joy and love in their names. The Bible Belt Gospel, just like the 1980s Anti Rock and Roll Gospel, focuses only on the externals. They are both false gospels because of their emphasis on morality and performance. Who needs Jesus when you already live in his favorite part of the world and you’ve just burnt your collection of Winger records? Yeah, all two of them.

But even in this gospel of performance, there’s not much room for commitment to the very body for which Jesus died. There are games and recitals and trips and work and sleeping in late that prevent many from showing any kind of devotion to a local church body. As a pastor, I’ve lost count of how many people have told me that the church where I pastor is, “their church” and “where they belong” but have never set foot into our building in the three years that I’ve been here. When I was a kid, one of my heroes in the faith told me, “If your religion isn’t good enough to get you up out of bed, I wouldn’t count on it getting you into heaven.” I’ve thought about that a lot lately.

Burn this, don’t drink that, join this and vote for him may have their place at times but they offer no real eternal hope when they are presented as the meat and potatoes of the gospel. You can burn all the Whitesnake albums you want and you can buy all the old time gospel standards you can afford but if the gospel of Christ never truly penetrates your heart, convicting you of your sin and moving you towards obedience, you will hum a Squire Parsons tune on your way to hell. One possible clue that the gospel of Christ hasn’t truly penetrated your heart is a lack of commitment to his church (see 1 John).

Many refer to the Bible Belt with joy and appreciation and certainly there are plenty of excellent gospel-centered churches in the Bible Belt. But I can’t help but wonder if the title we’ve given to our part of the country is actually an indictment against us. For all of our churches and for all of our good manners and for all of our traditions, is there really a deeper sense of the Holy Spirit’s work in Georgia than there is in Stockton, California or Entebbe, Uganda?

I think that Satan is just fine with the Bible Belt. I think that he has absolutely no problem with blue laws that prevent the sale of alcohol on Sundays. I think that he loves hearing young people say kind words about Jesus and seeing older people cling to that old time religion. He’s fine with all of these things just so long as the gospel isn’t clearly understood and applied and just so long as hearts are ignored in favor of surface level bells and whistles.

So maybe the Bible Belt isn’t really a region in the United States. Maybe the Bible Belt is just some accessory Satan gives to people in the south in order to convince them that they’re okay with God. I’m sure that it has a very big buckle.


  1. For a second I thought you said you burned your Porter Wagner albums, but then it dawned on me, "That's who he was being rescued to when he destroyed his Michael Jackson cassette."

    Of course, I'd wonder about anyone who'd buy Michael Jackson twice...

    Good stuff, Jay. As per usual.