Moses, Jesus, and the Trickster

I’m very pleased to announce the publication of my book Moses, Jesus, and the Trickster in the Evangelical South (University of Georgia Press, 2012). I just received my hot-off-the-press copy today; the book should be generally available for purchase in about 2-3 weeks. The book represents the published/expanded form of lectures given at Mercer University back in the fall of 2008; in fact, chapter 2 was a lecture I gave on the evening of Tuesday evening, November 4, 2008. One of my best friends from college, Bill Underwood, formerly interim president of Baylor University, is now president of Mercer University, and graciously hosted a post-lecture election watching party on that historic evening.

Images from the book will be posted here soon. Because I put in a number of paintings in the book, I thought I would use the opportunity provided by my personal website/blog to post some of this artistic material in color, since it had to be reproduced in black and white for the book.

Here is just a little bit from the introduction, summarizing some of the major themes of this work, which incorporates historical primary sources, literature (including extended analyses of Absalom, Absalom!, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Edward P. Jones’s The Known World), art (including paintings by Clementine Hunter, Purvis Young and Sister Gertrude Morgan), film, music (a lot of that), and material culture:

Won’t somebody tell me, answer if you can!
Want somebody tell me, what is the soul of a man
I’m going to ask the question, answer if you can
If anybody here can tell me, what is the soul of a man?
I’ve traveled in different countries, I’ve traveled foreign lands
I’ve found nobody to tell me, what is the soul of a man

 When the pioneering gospel blues slide guitarist Blind Willie Johnson recorded “What Is the Soul of Man?” for Columbia records in the late 1920s, he challenged listeners to ponder a question central to the religious experience.  . . . This book tours some of the answers Protestants in the American South historically have given to the philosophical quandary posed by Blind Willie Johnson. How did southern Protestants, black and white, from the eighteenth century to the civil rights era, grapple with the intractable religious and philosophical questions, through religious expression and belief? How did they come to terms with questions about the soul of man? Most particularly, how did they do so through religious institutions, thought, and culture? How did they do so through theology, folklore, music, art, drama, and film? And why did their cultural expressions of religious faith characteristically take on an intensity and vivacity that continues to attract our attention today, giving the South its Bible Belt image. . .

To understand fully how southern believers have defined the soul of man, we must broaden our field of vision beyond the usual suspects in the study of southern religion. Here, we will do so through an examination of four historical literary archetypes: Moses, Jesus, the Trickster, and Absalom. Moses and Jesus are familiar, Absalom and the Trickster less so, yet they too have been formative to creating the southern sacred. Southerners’ answers to questions about the soul of man suggest the power of evangelical Protestantism in southern history, as well as the ways in which that power consistently has been challenged and questioned. Skeptics have nibbled around the edges of the evangelical culture that came to cultural dominance after the Civil War. Literary figures, cultural archetypes, and musical explorations have added layers of cultural complexity to what otherwise might be seen as a solid South of evangelicalism.

. . . .  Absalom, Absalom! (Vintage Paperback Edition) If Jesus has been a pure figure in white southern theology, he could become a trickster of the trinity in black thought and lore. If Moses has represented deliverance, then Absalom has shown how the Egyptians and the Israelites in fact were entangled in one narrative. Absalom suggests that the southern drive for purity, and the obsession with miscegenation, covered over the fact that no people were more impure. The design of the masters of southern history–for racial and religious purity, and for a definition of freedom that depended on order, obedience, and hierarchy–was a hoax. Throughout southern history, the soul of man has burst those bonds, and produced a rich cultural history in song, sermon, art, tale, dance, and literature.

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