From Provincialism to Regionalism: Molly Worthen Follows a Movement

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It’s the rare Southerner who feels entirely at home in his time or place. That is true now, as we scramble as a region to preserve every old recipe and tobacco shack we can before the great flood of modernity washes them away, and it was true in the old days, when a fundamentally agrarian region looked longingly toward what seemed to be purer embodiments of the good life in Europe. It was thought that, with a northern culture running wild with capitalists and puritans, the South had nowhere else to turn but to Europe for support in cultivating its gentility. The form that this gentility took—whether in Anglo-Saxon-influenced Appalachia, or in the French- and Caribbean-influenced Deep South—can be credited to whom the region’s inhabitants most often dressed up as. Never a culture to blush at hypocrisy—or deny the aspirations within it—the South has always believed that you are what you pretend to be.   

This theory resurfaced in my mind while I was reading a series of profiles of prominent evangelicals that the journalist and historian Molly Worthen has published over the last several years. A history professor down the road from me at UNC-Chapel Hill, Ms. Worthen’s essays on pastors like Doug Wilson and theologians like Al Mohler and Francis Schaeffer often focus on their respective efforts to civilize their churches’ manners, even while moving their churches’ theology in the apparently uncivilized direction of John Calvin’s Geneva, circa 1536. Worthen details their preoccupations with the trappings of bygone eras (more sherry! more leather armchairs! more dusty books!) and finds their atavism both illuminating and unique. In one of her more cutting pieces, she writes, “Many evangelicals seem to idealize a long lost arcadia where professor-clergymen praise theology as queen of the sciences and manly Livingstonian missionaries conquer Africa in the name of Christendom—rather than Britannia as she truly is, secularist, multi-cultural warts and all.”

When Ms. Worthen and I spoke last December, I asked her whether she had a personal connection to her subjects. She described her reporting as strictly professional, and her goal as one of simply “getting the story right.” As an academic, she’s interested in the history of ideas; as a journalist, she’s interested in how those ideas—often several centuries old—manifest in the homes and churches of Christians. Thus, she writes about figures in Protestant America who actually matter, and appears to understand the difference between influence and fame. There is, thankfully, little mention of Joel Osteen, Pat Robertson, or Rick Warren in her pieces, except as the occasional foils for the rabble-rousers she prefers to write about. I find smugness in some of her descriptions of these men, but when Ms. Worthen and I spoke on the phone, she had nothing but kind words to say about them. “Even those with abominable views have been, to a person, charming,” she told me, and she assured me that she believed their scholarship to be sincere and intelligent. If anything, she merely wondered if the enthusiasm of some of their students will be ridiculed in a post-academic world unappreciative of cowls and after-lunch pipe breaks.  

It isn’t just that there are many evangelicals in the South, though, that makes Worthen’s observations relevant, but that her essays portray an evangelical culture that relates to the dominant culture in a way that resembles the South’s historical relationship to the United States. Both evangelicals and Southerners live (arguably) marginalized existences, with all the attendant self-doubt and self-justification that can often be found among a minority culture, and both look backward to an earlier time, when the wider culture was kinder to their values. Both the South and the evangelical movement within it liken themselves to the deposed kings and defenders of civilization. The fiercest among them also see themselves as the future kings of civilization.

To those who occupy the center, the margins are sometimes viewed as one general place. This can be true geographically, in how urban dwellers will conceptualize the countryside as a single stretch of irrelevance, suitable for anthropology and little else, and this can be true intellectually, as when wisdom is assumed to emanate from a single cultural wellspring of accepted truth, and ignorance assigned to any who refuse to drink. The task for the regionalist is to distinguish herself from the provincial. The task of those accused of cultural philistinism, like Wilson and Mohler, is to distinguish disagreement with culture from ignorance of it.

The Southern Agrarians in the mid-twentieth century had similar battles with those who confused regionalism (which the Agrarians considered a good thing) with provincialism (which they considered an embarrassing distortion of regionalism). To the poet Allen Tate, provincialism was simply “regionalism without civilization”—the writers’ job was to instruct their compatriots in the manners of civilization. The pastors and professors that Ms. Worthen profiles, like the Southern Agrarians, are tasked with instructing the faithful in how to intelligently and winsomely engage with the world, while convincing journalists and historians like Ms. Worthen that such intelligence and winsomeness are already natural, organic features of their churches. And, on either side, they are confronted by those Tate describes as having “lost their origins in the past and its continuity into the present, and [who] begin every day as if there had been no yesterday.” The aesthetic habits and wide-ranging libraries that Ms. Worthen describes with mild amusement suggest that the corrective lies not just in old ideas, but in pairing ideas within an old way of living. Thoughts not enacted are irrelevant.

Ms. Worthen knows all this, but for the sake of making her journalistic point, she sometimes feigns ignorance. Why possibly does a Southern seminary president flaunt his vast library and cultural mastery? Why do earnest young students at a small Idaho college revel in old Oxford academic regalia? Why do even the strictest Protestants love the almost certainly heretical C.S. Lewis? She pretends not to know, but of course she does know. All this is the dress code of a particular intellectual community paying homage to their golden age in the hopes that there’s still some gold to be mined.

We all steal from the past to plug the gaps we perceive in the present. Just as there are a multitude of diseases endemic to modern life, there are a multitude of places and epochs that we adopt as the proper medicine. The environmentalists extol and attempt within bounds to resuscitate pre-industrial sustainability practices. Those most concerned with the corrosive effects of mass media and consumerism retreat to an ambiguous nineteenth-century lifestyle. Bookish Christians adopt the trappings of the most bookish Christians from the past. There is no great shame or embarrassment here, simply an observation about the quirks and proclivities of different communities. You know, the past isn’t even past, and all that.