Wednesday, May 18, 2011

In Search of a Gray Shades Detector

Last Wednesday, Lady Gaga provided one of the most satisfying TV moments in recent history and she wasn't even singing. Rather, she was mentoring American Idol contestant and metro-Chattanoogan Lauren Alaina during her rehearsal of Elvis Presley's "Trouble". When LA stumbled over the song's first of many "I'm evil"s, she confessed in an interview, "I don't want America thinking I'm evil!" Jimmy Iovine (Idol In-house Mentor and real-life producer) sort of rolled his eyes and said, "This is a character. Just change characters for me," but that advice was clearly going nowhere. That's when Gaga intervened, telling Lauren, "At the end of the day, the word 'evil' isn't that big a deal, is it?" And that was when the young woman stopped arguing and started singing with real passion.

Here's the deal - I really like Lauren Alaina, not just because she's from the town next door, but because she's talented and strikes me as a very sweet and humble young lady; I loved, for instance, her jaw-drop reaction when Jimmy informed her that she is actually a much better singer than Miley Cyrus. She also has this wonderful, unwitting way of using her stature and the nickname "Peaches" ("We're both from Georgia!") to make douchey Ryan Seacrest look just like the fragile man-child that he truly is, though he obviously adores her. So even though I don't care all that much, I think it would be nice if she won the competition.

However, if all this happened a year ago and I'd been witness to the "I'm evil" bit at that time, I may have had to switch players. Her illogical fear would have struck me as the pinnacle of blind, religious idiocy. I guess the difference now is that I understand Ms. Lauren Alaina comes from a community where many, if not most people often and openly discuss their faith (most likely some flavor of Christian Protestant). In this context, her concern is legitimate. I'm just glad that Lady Gaga was able to help her understand that singing "I'm evil" needn't express anything about your true identity.

Identity. It's at the heart of the biggest paradigm shift I've experienced as a southern newbie. I've never lived amongst such a large population of individuals who publicly identify themselves by their faith. Don't get me wrong, I knew plenty of religious people in the north. I'd guess that at least 20% of my high school female classmates wore hijabs, which clearly indicated that they were Muslim. I went to church every Sunday until I was 20 years old and I'd see several of my Catholic peers there, too. I had a sense of what others believed, but we didn't talk about it much. After moving to a college town, I was definitely hanging with a more agnostic crowd, but no one talked about that much, either. When I look at my northern Facebook friends' profiles, I find that most people hesitate to discuss their specific beliefs (either not responding to the query "Religious Views" or posting intentionally vague statements like "I have them"). Occasionally I'll see a specific designation, like "Lutheran", but that's the extent of it.

I can't express how different it is here, though I sense I've seen only a surface glimmer of the deep religiosity that pervades this region. The other day, I stumbled upon a neighbor's Facebook profile. I was surprised to learn that he's a minister in addition to the other job I knew he had. This never came up in conversation, but he makes reference to "the word" in the first line of his profile. Where I come from, that's unusual. But I've noticed this when I've happened across other locals on FB; So-and-so enjoys cooking, reading and Bible study. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I avoid "friending" these people, which certainly attests to my own prejudices. Though honestly, I'm also afraid I'll say or post something that will offend them (like this blog). After all, they aren't the weird ones in this part of the world. I am.

The thing is, I think that my weirdness is so obvious to some of the natives that they may hold back in my presence. If they don't know I'm godless, they at least figure I'm the wrong kind of believer, or the lazy kind, or a Satan-worshipper (which, near as I can tell, is the ultimate insult you can hurl at a weirdo; I don't think I'd heard it since the third grade, 'til I moved down here). Others favor me by assuming I believe in god, casually referring to some way in which he has "blessed" me. I'm always fascinated by those who broadcast their beliefs on t-shirts and bumper stickers with phrases like "Real Men Love Jesus". They aren't trying to start a conversation with any specific person, but I guess they're more than happy to engage in a chat if you're interested.

I am interested. More accurately, I'm curious. I prefer a society in which most people keep religion out of the public discourse because I think that's more polite. But as long as I'm living in the south, I'd like to get more familiar with these varying shades of religiosity. I suspect that the (generally pejorative) term "Bible Belt" is just too broad. I want to study the nuances. What inspires that dude at the gym to say, "If you don't finish all those reps, man, then you don't love Jesus!" Why do some people speak more about Jesus love while others focus on god's wrath? Is the community worship service at the local hipster coffee shop more or less exclusive than your average church, and how so? Is this town actually rather secular for this region (I'm pretty sure it is)? I can't imagine asking these questions outright, because that seems way awkward, so I'm just going to get spongy, do as much eavesdropping as I can, and see what I figure out via passive observation.

The day after Lady Gaga helped Lauren Alaina belt out a rather innocent Elvis song, I had a minor revelation while I was at work. It was family dinner night, when the store is overrun with hyperactive children and exhausted parents looking for a cheap, precooked meal. Compared to the rich, overindulged and manner-less brats I used to meet in Ann Arbor, these Chattanooga kids are angelic, so I don't mind 'em much. Plus, they always get excited to see me, the Free Food Lady. Anyway, a mother and her five sheepish moppets approached my table. As I chatted with mom about the on-sale olive oil and scooped samples, one of the girls quietly handed me a religious tract. I groaned internally, but did what I always do in that situation - say "thank you," tuck it in my pocket and wait until they leave before I throw it out. Again, I found her gesture rude but I certainly don't think it was meant that way. It may have even seemed a generous exchange - I gave her a bite of caprese salad, she gave me the opportunity to be saved. She and her siblings so well behaved in every other way, I couldn't help taking it as a mild compliment.

And then it hit me - so that's how all these families of five and eight and ten children maintain order! Coming from a seven kid Catholic family, I don't know why it took me so long to figure it out. How could two adults raise such an enormous brood without religion? It isn't impossible to produce that many well-mannered kids secularly, but a built-in community - not to mention the fear of god - sure as hell helps. For my siblings and me, the religion didn't seem to stick as much as the manners. Now if we'd lived in place where almost everyone believed in the stuff we were taught... I wonder how we would have developed.

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