Loosin’ Up That Bible Belt!

30 Aug

 Loosin’ Up That Bible Belt!

The Bible Belt is an informal term for a region in the south-eastern and south-central United States in which socially conservative evangelical Protestantism is a significant part of the culture and Christian church attendance across the denominations is generally higher than the nation’s average. The Bible Belt consists of much of the Southern United States. During the colonial period (1607–1776), the South was a stronghold of the Anglican church. Its transition to a stronghold of non-Anglican Protestantism occurred gradually over the next century as a series of religious revival movements, many associated with the Baptist denomination, gained great popularity in the region.

The region is usually contrasted with the mainline Protestantism and Catholicism of the northeastern United States the religiously diverse Midwest and Great lakes the Mormon Corridor in Utah and southern idaho, and the relatively secular western United States Whereas the state with the highest percentage of residents identifying as non-religious is the New England state of Vermont at 34%, in the Bible Belt state of Alabama it is just 6%.[1] Mississippi has the highest proportion of Baptists, at 55%.[1] The earliest known usage of the term “Bible Belt” was by American journalist and social commentator H. L. Mencken, who in 1924 wrote in the Chicago Daily Tribune: “The old game, I suspect, is beginning to play out in the Bible Belt.”[2] Mencken claimed the term as his invention in 1927

 Ah yes, home sweet home…

A lot of people toss around the moniker ‘Bible Belt’, with the inference that any and all who call this region of the U.S.A  home, must also share a similar set of beliefs about religion and the criteria necessary to save one’s soul. Now, times have changed a little since the term was first coined back in 1924 by a Chicago journalist. The ever thickening melting pot of America has seen every state in the ‘Deep South’ accommodate the basic right of freedom of religion over the years, however, having been raised in a Christian household, attending a Southern Baptist church from birth to 18, I can attest to the fact that the study of world religions or even the concept that the highway to Heaven wasn’t single-lane and one way only, was not a part of my early ecclesiastical education.

When I flew from the nest at the age of 18 to attend college (even deeper in the South), with the exception of the every Sunday line of questioning about if and where I had attended church, I suddenly, for the first time found myself in charge of developing my own understanding of the Divine. This relationship had been with something I had been taught was much larger than me, someone outside of myself who I had only known as ‘God’ until that point. Where I came from, Jesus, the lamb yielding passivist, the miracle worker, the resurrected Son of God went hand in hand with his father, and was also my insurance policy for salvation from myself and my flawed, human existence. I was frightened in the most round-about way, into accepting the tenets of modern day Christianity from a very early age. Fortunately, my household was one that focused more on the positives that being a Christian had to offer, rather than the fire and brimstone that could be readily found in any number of church houses around south-western Virginia. But still, ever looming in the background, were the firey pits of hell for those who did not believe.

Now, for those of you starting to get uneasy, these are my personal experiences and musings about my own past and my perceptions of the religion in which I was raised. Please save yourself the burden of judging whether  I am Christian or not. It’s irrelevant to the point I am trying to make. I am simply making an observation. Many years of travel, study, and interaction with people and communities across the globe have brought me to a simple awareness. There is a common thread which runs true throughout the worlds religions. Traditionalism has a lot to answer for.

Let me explain just what I mean. Within every major world religion, we find that stories, teachings, and belief systems are passed from parent to child, pastor to congregation, wise elder to tribesmen, and we then ‘grow up’ as a Buddhist,  Muslim, Jew, Christian, etc. Children become indoctrinated with the beliefs of their elders, who in turn were taught by their predecessors, who learned stories which had been passed down through word of mouth, written and re-written. A child will either accept and respect the family faith, often times without ever having had his or her own personal experience. We can also find that throughout the centuries, the traditions tend to leave off the gruesome stories where millions have been slaughtered in the name of ‘the one true God’ and focus our attention on the rewards of an afterlife if we have made the cut and lived a life deemed pure enough for passage into the Promised Land.

Now I’m not here to debate religion, to attempt to sway, judge, approve or disprove of anything. I am simply exercising my right to question the world around me. As one who as a child used to be scared to death by the idea that my sweet little soul might not be good enough, petrified  because my religion didn’t make sense to my young mind, I never had a close personal relationship with the hero of the Christian movement. I was told to say I loved Jesus and that he loved me. I knew his stories and the verses in the Bible off by heart, but that was as far as it went. Even at that age, something didn’t feel right. All of these years later, I have finally figured it out.

Traditionalism breeds parrots. We pass the stories and traditions on to our children and leave out what I think is the most vital component to personal salvation of any sort. In fact, it could be the very thing that could eventually bring peace to this beautifully screwed up world of ours. Imagine, just for a moment, if rather than indoctrinating the children of the world with the customs of the past, we educated them about the spiritual traditions of the world in equal measure (warts and all), allowing them to formulate their own opinions and  personal experiences. Imagine, for just a moment, if we didn’t allow our own fears and insecurities, our feelings of separation or superiority to poison the young minds of our future leaders. Just imagine if we taught our children to love themselves first, to relish in the miracle that is creation and to have the same respect for all walks of life. Just imagine if they were taught how to think for themselves. Imagine if the children were not singing the catchy little tunes, repeating from rote memory the chants or  the verses that showed them how much God loved them, yet taught an underlying message of exclusivity that left out those who did not know or share the same belief. Imagine if every child was first taught that there is One Love before being taught the horrible stories of hatred and genocide that litter that pasts of every world religion.I challenge anyone to point the finger at any one religion which does not have a sordid history of mass slaughter of innocents. There isn’t one. But traditionalism teaches young initiates that these killings can be justified when done in the name of the ‘one true God’, whoever that may be and for whomevers purposes are being served at the time. Exclusivity is the common thread that runs true through them all.

Twenty-three years ago I died. And funny enough, none of the major players in any of the world’s many faiths was there to greet me. Another curious thing happened… with my colourful past, based on many religion’s criteria for safe passage to Nirvana, my trip should have been a rather warm one. Instead, I was greeted with unspeakable love and acceptance; an immediate recollection of who I am in the grand scheme and the undefinable, indescribable energy of creativity, love and expansion from which we ALL come. Now that was a personal experience I can hang my hat on.

One night last year, my father, a life-long minister of the Christian faith, was transitioning from this world to the next. He lifted his arm towards the ceiling. To make a very beautiful long story short, after 84 years of believing with all of his heart that Heaven was a place reserved for those who had met with a certain criteria, Dad exclaimed,

            “I’ve had it wrong! I’ve had it wrong all along! Everybody is welcome here! You can’t mess this thing up!” He couldn’t contain his enthusiasm.

I can say, it was one of the most empowering moments of my life so far, for several reasons. One, it confirmed something that in my heart, I already knew to be true. Two, I was blessed to share in the moment when my father had his own personal experience with this understanding. Three, as someone who has lived through and written about some pretty out of this world stuff, often to people’s suspicion or disbelief, my mother also witnessed this event. It was a vindication of sorts, a personal cosmic tap on the shoulder to say “Hey kiddo, we know it’s been a lonely job, but we’ve got your back”.

I have a deep and great understanding for the role that religion has played in the history of mankind’s attempt to understand the Divine. I have studied the works of many great masters and believe it or not, as a middle-aged woman no longer residing in the deep south, but in a country that predominately practices Catholicism, my relationship with Jesus, the man, is one I cherish. I believe that the awakening and consciousness that he promoted during his ministry, teaches a Oneness and inclusiveness that his early traditional values probably didn’t afford him. Somehow he managed to grow past that. He disconnected from that which would have been an accepted separatist point of view during his time and promoted One Love. I have an equal amount of respect for many incredible characters throughout history who may be less famous, but have promoted (some long before Jesus) that the kingdom of Heaven is within you; and whosoever shall know himself shall find it,

I am proud of my home, the springboard from which I splashed out into the world. I respect the  community which loved and supported me and taught me what it meant to give of myself and serve my fellow man. Every religion has something positive to offer. Growing up in the Bible Belt was a great gift and makes so much sense for the life I have been called to lead. It created a longing, an unwillingness to just accept what I was being told. It also taught me that if I expected to detach from judgement that I could not judge others-and that means everyone. My father told me when I was a child that it was almost more important to read material which I disagreed with, which challenged my belief system, than it was to continuously fill my mind with that which was easy for me to accept. It might just be the best gift he ever gave to me. I believe in a Creator who supports my individuality, my right to learn things the hard way, my right to choose a life that includes or excludes the rights of others, and the inevitable consequences that accompany those choices. Over the years, I‘ve grown so much that I’ve had to add some new notches in the belt…

Until next time

Shine On!

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