Enchanted Protestantism

29 06 2009

On the “Incarnational Nature” of American Folk Belief

In our commercialized society, people can often be given to very distorted generalizations of ideological opponents. As I have said recently, the general course of American religion can be seen as having gone full circle. For many, such as the late John Richard Neuhaus, we are living in the “Catholic” moment in which the doctrine and general rhetorical trajectory of the Catholic Church is converging with the ideological aspirations of American conservativism. The mainstream Protestant denominations, including the former pillar of white conservative religion, the Episcopal Church, are defecting from both their conservative pretensions and orthodox Christianity itself. Not so long ago, we had an intellectually rigorous American Protestantism, committed to a “conservative” morality. This has been replaced since the 1960’s with the aforementioned liberalizing mainstream churches on the one hand, and the “Gospel frisbee”, hyper-personalistic Evangelicalism of the white suburbs on the other. Where else is an intelligent, cultured Christian to go but Rome? The irony of all of this is that a hundred years ago, Catholics were barely considered white, and they were certainly not considered Anglo. The white man’s burden used to extend to breaking the back of “Papist superstition”. Not anymore, apparently. Somewhere, someone is having a hearty laugh over all of this.

One of the newfound ideas of many converts is how “incarnational” Catholicism is compared to the Protestantism that they left behind. They marvel at the idea of a sacrament, of ceremony, and even of the art of the Catholic Church (or what is left of it in some places). And indeed, sacraments are important, if only for very strictly theological reasons. Most lay Catholics of yesteryear saw sacraments as things that initiated you into the Catholic polity, in the best case, or something that the Church subjected you to, and often charged for, in the worst. (Mr. G. said that growing up in Louisiana, you were charged to even enter a Catholic church.) Ceremony was often not understood, or merely seen as a vehicle for folk expression, such as the elaborate Corpus Christi floor drawings in Latin America, and most Americans would be shocked at how even my family treated its holy statues in the old days: they were more like family totems than iconic representations of the ineffable God. (As I have written before, my great-grandmother once blackmailed an image of the Holy Face into granting her very important petition.) In the face of these realities, “incarnational” seems to be a very vague shibboleth. Doctrine often influenced praxis, but it did not determine it. The Word was made flesh, but not necessarily a pristine, logical flesh. At times, it was downright grotesque.

How many of these “incarnational” characteristics are present in other religions? To be honest, almost all of them. I have stopped trying to say that Catholicism has “X” over Buddhism, Islam, Voudou, etc., because the only thing that Catholicism has of importance over other religions is salvation. Anything else can be obtained either as well or better in any other spiritual path. “What of Protestantism?”, you might ask. Are the cultured exiles from Protestant confessions wrong to seek a more “human” religion in the Catholic Church? Of course not, if they do it for the right reasons. But the same process that they decry in their former confessions is affecting the Catholic Church, just not as deeply, given the conservative apparatus that governs our church that transcends the national ideology of the average American Christian. Catholics live in the same suburbs, and are bombarded with the same hyper-personalistic sentimentalism that undermines traditional doctrine and praxis. But what of Protestantism not set in the context of the American suburb, a Protestantism that was practiced on the ground in a pre-industrial society? How affected was it by what Max Weber called the “disenchantment of the world”? Was the German Protestant farmer any less “incarnational” than his Catholic counterpart, living at the same time before the Industrial Revolution?

An enlightening book on this subject was written by Anthony Cavender, under the title Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia. The book does not deal with religion directly, but it does reveal the popular religious sentiments and worldviews of an isolated pocket of the American South. Most of these immigrants were Protestants who came from Scotland or Ireland, and they often spoke an antiquated English frozen in time in the early eighteenth century. Though they obviously did not have the ceremonies, charms, and a pantheon of heavenly intercessors to fill their daily lives, this did not mean that their existence was any less enchanted than that of Catholics in a similar situation.

As in the case of Catholic countries, folk magic often preserved an ancient worldview that had long ago been rejected by the elites. Especially when it came to illness, the magical axiom of “like draws like” was used to bring about health, as in a cure for infant colic. It was treated,

by passing a child from father to mother, usually three times, under a horse, mule, or bush, through a horse collar or split sapling, or around a table leg… The underlying assumption was that the child would pass fom a state of sickness to wellness.

A common cure for foot cramps also used such “sympathetic magic”, such as:

turning the shoes sole up under the bed or placing a pan of cold water under the bed before retiring; wearing a string with nine knots around the waist; and always removing the left shoe first.

Secular charms were also used to cure ailments, such as the following one for ringworm:

Some ringworm sufferers recited the following charm while rubbing the bottom of an iron pot in a circle with an index finger moistened with their own saliva: “Ringworm round, ringworm red, ringworm die, to make (name of sufferer) glad.”

These were often used alongside herbs and other materia of questionable effectiveness, the type rightly mocked when we conjure up images of “snake oil salesmen”.

Religion also played a significant role in folk healing. The Bible itself was used either to be put under one’s pillow to cure bad dreams, or verses would be read on three consecutive days to cure a toothache. There were even in existence special forms of faith healers equivalent to curanderos in Mexico, who would have their own secrets of treating using prayers and incantations. These skills were often passed down from male to female, or female to male, just as in the case with Cajun / Creole Catholic traiteurs in Louisiana. (An American tradition of folk healing that crossed confessional and ethnic lines, perhaps?) One such healer was the burn doctor, who would often use an old charm to “talk the fire out” from the wound inherited from English folk medicine:

There came an angel from the east bringing fire and frost. In frost, out fire. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

A bloodstopper was often called in the cases of very serious wounds, thinking that they had the ability to “halt the blood”. One verse of the Bible often used in this healing art was Ezekiel 16:6:

And when I passed by you, and saw you weltering in your blood, I said to you in your blood, “Live and grow like a plant in the field.”

The following incantation was also used for “bloodstopping”, accompanied by the drawing of three crosses on the body of the person:

Oh wondrous tidings,
Oh wondrous hour,
Boundless is the angel’s joy,
That Jesus Christ was born.

Other faith healers were specialized in getting rid of hexes and curses thought to be the cause of illness. Like the curanderos and traiteurs of Catholic rural societies, such healers charged nothing, since it was all deemed to be a “work of the Lord”.

Like Renaissance Neoplatonism, southern Appalachian folk healing had a deep appreciation for the affect of the movement of celestial bodies on human and animal behavior. The health and treatment of human organs was seen to be linked to the signs of the zodiac. Certain herbs were thought to derive their power due to their sympathy with zodiac signs. Also,

The forty days (3 July to 11 August) encompassing the rise of the Dog Star, Sirius, was thought to be a dangerous time for both people and animals. During “dog days”, dogs were more susceptible to going mad, snakes more inclined to bite, and sores and wounds less likely to heal.

Even tooth extraction was seen to be more propitious at some times rather than others due to the passage of the moon through the signs of the zodiac. In these folk tendencies, we see encased in cultural amber some very ancient ideas that once captivated the minds of the cultural gatekeepers of Western civilization, such as the divines and philosophers of the High Renaissance and ancient Greece.

This is all a far cry from “white religion” as popularly conceived in our present society, and it is certainly a far cry from the disenchanted world of the Protestant ethic described by Max Weber. This is not the white religion of the elites, but one that was shared in many parts of Protestant America, from the deep South to rural Pennsylvania and beyond. Indeed, even in the snake handler video seen above, there is nothing that a Chesterton could criticize in terms of a “rational, dry religion”. If there is a problem, a disenchantment of the world, it crosses confessional lines, and it is even at work within the Catholic Church itself. But it was not so long ago that our religious worlds looked far different than they do today, and even across confessional lines such societies looked more like each other than their contemporary co-religionists.



16 responses

17 08 2009
Agostino Taumaturgo

Yeah, I’ve noticed that amongst the convert-apologist crowd, and I find it a complete turn-off. I was going to write more, but let’s just say that my feelings about these types (based on my experiences with them) are far less than charitable.

LOL on the “RCIA/Medieval philosopher’s brain” comment, btw. Especially since the people who cooked up RCIA are mainly the same people who wanted to eradicate medieval philosophy from Catholicism in the first place.

17 08 2009
Enchanted Protestantism – II « Reditus: A Chronicle of Aesthetic Christianity

[…] of nature and supernature, was very much present even in this seemingly iconoclastic religion. I have written already of the persistence of such attitudes amidst the popular classes, so now it is time to speak of the […]

3 07 2009
Fearsome Comrade

What kind of irritates me is that the “incarnational” advantages of Catholicism can be found in the “magisterial” Protestant branches (Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican), but among a lot of converts, being able to repudiate “Protestantism” in the strongest possible terms as not just a doctrinal, but a complete moral, cultural, philosophical, intellectual and artistic failure appears to afford them some kind of self-satisfaction.

There also appears to be a sort of vicarious appropriation of other Catholics’ works–as though being Catholic allows you to somehow take credit for Tolkien’s work, or going through RCIA imparts to you a medieval philosopher’s brain.

1 07 2009

But they have those really big turkey legs at the Renaissance faire. How earthy. Especially when served by a girl whose bosoms are overflowing out of her corset. That is what anachronistic religion is all about, baby, nice hunks of meat.

I grew up in a more northern part Appalachia, and I heard stories of some of the old mysteries, but by my childhood it was mostly late modern neo-pagan and occult nonsense that had taken over that aspect of human life. The pop occult was huge in the area I grew up (I grew up in the Gallia county Ohio – across from Pt Pleasant WVA – Mothman Prophecy country, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mothman_Prophecies ). Still, my mother saw the last of some of the old folk medicines and superstitions in the Ohio Valley. The stories of those days, witnessed first hand, will die with her. I suppose I did in my childhood have the pleasure of knowing that the early French settlers sold their souls to the devil in order to survive – they came over during the French Revolution, responding to an add which said that it was a land of milk and honey and that the kind natives would serve them for free. They died in droves the first few years, then sold their souls to the devil, and things went well after that. Me and my welsh blooded friends knew not to trust anyone with a French last name, though, frankly, we were intrigued by some of their girls, having heard some things.

Thank you for this post, Arturo.

30 06 2009
Death Bredon

Well, we “Easterns” have always thought that Protestantism and Catholicism, Reformation and Counter-Reformation, are just two sides of the same Carolingian Coinage. 😉

And yes, we sing “We have seen the true light . . . .” every Sunday. But, Easterns have done than for more than 1500 years (because its true) — it’s an anti-pagan polemical thing, not an internicen unless.

And yes, you just weird like that. 🙂

30 06 2009
Arturo Vasquez

I think the real point of the essay was real to bring out the fact that many Catholic voices who speak of the “incarnational” advantage of Catholicism over Protestantism basically live in the same world, and basically believe the same things, as their Protestant counterparts. And the Reformation and Counter-Reformation were basically part of the same process of “modernization” or as my homage to Max Weber put it, the disenchantment of the world. Though if I had my druthers, we would have Hermes Trismegistus on the porch of churches (as in the Middle Ages”, have the Virgin petting unicorns, and have churches devoted to la Mano Poderosa. Maybe I’m just weird like that. But converts better stop stepping up saying how they have “seen the light” just because they read a little bit of Tolkien and Dante and thus feel a little more at home at a Renaissance faire. Such ignorance proves once again the profound American distaste for history.

30 06 2009
Death Bredon

Good point Adrian — I should have said “Rural,” not “Red State.”

Nevertheless, in my experience the Rural Prot vote goes as conservative as possible on social issues (foreign policy and macro-economics rarely seems to enter into their deliberative process). I suppose this is an express of day-to-day Rural Prot living-memory traditionalism.

29 06 2009

“What one notices about this “Red State” religion — after one quits just be frightened or uncomfortable with the “backwardness” of it all — is just how sincere and incarnational — even liturgical — it all is.”

I don’t think so. Red State religion, the religion of the Colorado Springs and the Heirarchs of conservative American Protestantism, is actually quite polite and buttoned-down (it can be lively in the way that a bad pop concert is lively).

I see a major difference between American Pentecostalism, which is ecstatic, communitarian and popular and Establishment Evangelicalism, which is individualistic, respectable and “Scriptural,” i.e. bibliolatrous. Understandably, the more Pentecostal kinds of Protestantism appeal to poor whites, Latin Americans and sub-Saharan Africans and other peoples who have been spiritually innoculated (by their heritage or social circumstances) to the more defective Protestant traditions.

29 06 2009
random Orthodox chick

“Where else is an intelligent, cultured Christian to go but Rome?” Uhm, Constantinople? You forgot us Orthodox. GRIN.”

I doubt it.

Socially and culturally, Rome has more to offer people in western society (intellectually is arguable; you gotta know where to look). If anything, it gives them a dog in the fight of American discourse.

(These comboxes have gotten really silly lately.)

29 06 2009
Death Bredon


29 06 2009
Death Bredon


Yes, Intelligent Christians go to Rome, and then to purgatory. (To purge them of their hubristic claims to “intelligence.”)

But, those with the faith of a child go to Orthodoxy* and then to heaven.

* It is better if it is the Orthodoxy of the Third Rome (Moscow), not the Turkish Orthodoxy of Istanbul.

[Tongue in check alert!]

29 06 2009
Death Bredon

P.S., I can drive to Jolo, WV in three hours, but a ten-minute drive would suffice to find a snake-handling church.

P.S.S., Just an hour or so from Jolo, WV is an Old Russian Monastery that uses Znamenny Chant from carefully preserved Pre-Revolution Service Books. The local yocals decided not the climb up the ridge and burn out “those dress-wearing hippies” (Cassocks, Beards) once they learned that the 4am Mattin Bells, which echo loudly through out the hollow (“holler”) actually signify the call to Christian (the locals were a bit skeptical about this) prayer and that the monks were constantly praying for the locals and their crops. That last, incarnational bit seems to been the key.

29 06 2009
Death Bredon

Glad to see you getting out of the ‘burbs and the ‘hood, Arturo. (Just run like hell when you hear the sound of dueling bangos unless you like squealing like pig!)

Indeed, just outside most large towns and cities, and more frequently in the Hills of Southern Appalachia, of course, one can find a style of Christianity that is very discomfiting to White City Slicker and Suburbanites, whether of liberal or conservative political or religious bent. Hell, its frightening to a lot of folks whose closest real contact will “them there hills” has been Easy Rider or Deliverance.

Indeed, in Rural America, one can find everything from Old Time Tent Revivals, to Foot-Washing, Old-Regular, Primitive Baptists, to Speaking in Tongues (the real old fashioned way, not the suburban neo-charismatic way). to lining out hymns, and, yes, even to snake handling. (Yep, it really happens and its much more common-place than you think.)

What one notices about this “Red State” religion — after one quits just be frightened or uncomfortable with the “backwardness” of it all — is just how sincere and incarnational — even liturgical — it all is. Its also deeply biblical — don’t challenge a Hillbilly Prot to a Bible verse competition; you’ll lose badly. Indeed, my Grandmother’s Primitive Baptist Prayer-Book, which is a cherished inheritance, compares well, if not identically by any means with my Russian Old Believer Prayer-Book. Both are dripping in Biblical language.

And, having grown up at the fringes of this “Rural Protestantism” — the black version of rural Protestantism is simply a slightly different flavored variety of the larger species, and I have been a grateful guest at many of these churches too — and only later having been “educated” into White Middle America Values and Sensibilities, which were later equally challenged by experiences of the Old Latin Mass, Old-Style Episcopalianism, and Old-Believer Orthodoxy; I now see that, in New-World Religion, denominational lines have less concrete ontic significance than the line between Old-Time and New-Fangled religion.

Indeed, once one gets over the cultural shock of Rural Protestantism, the differences between SSPXers, Jordanville Orthodox, Missiouri-Synod Lutherans, and even the Oh-S- Cultured, Sherry-Sipping Anglo-Catholics, ones sees that all these groups, including rough-and-tumble Rural Protestantism, actually share more in common with each other than they do with their secularized brethren of bearing cognate appellations. More and more, I agree with C.S. Lewis that the great divide in this world is not between saints and sinners, or between denomnations or ethnicities (the two often go hand in hand), but between those who really believe in the God of Abraham and the Dread Judgment Seat and those that don’t — the later group includes those who “fake it” by going through motions on Sundays at the nearest Comfortable Suburban Church of Liturgy for Agnostics and Atheists.

Unfortunately, or perhaps Providentially, who am I to say, I find it very unlikely that these varied, yet inwardly similar, Trad traditions (gee, you’d think that is a redundency, but somehow its not in this day and age) are very likely to merge or even work much together in a conscience way, at least until the Second Coming. Nevertheless, the mere existence of Rural Protestantism, its lack of Political Correctness, its Non-Progressiveness (called it backward if you must be a snob), and its grim determination to hang on against the onslaught of the McDonaldized Suburban Religion, gives me great hope and comfort. Got to love them stubborn Hillbilly’s!

29 06 2009

“For many, such as the late John Richard Neuhaus, we are living in the “Catholic” moment in which the doctrine and general rhetorical trajectory of the Catholic Church is converging with the ideological aspirations of American conservativism.”

In American political discourse, a religion is “good” if it produces individuals that are “good citizens” (however that may be defined at any given time). Conversely, a religion is “bad” if it produces bad citizens. For most of American history, the Catholic Church was considered scary because it seemed to stand for everything the US was supposed to be against (e.g., monarchism, superstition, praying in unintelligible tongues), which meant that it must produce bad citizens. The actual content of Church doctrines wasn’t what most Americans objected to, it was the fact that it seemed so foreign. Nonetheless, there has always been a desire among white Catholics at least to be accepted as being really American. This is why they named their fraternal organization “The Knights of Columbus” (because a Catholic founded America, so being Catholic is as American as apple pie), while black Catholics called their group “The Knights of Peter Claver” after the Jesuit saint that is called the “Apostle to the Slaves.” Both choices are quite telling.

29 06 2009
Arturo Vasquez

Like I said, where else would an intelligent Christian go…

29 06 2009
Fr. Ernesto Obregón

“Where else is an intelligent, cultured Christian to go but Rome?” Uhm, Constantinople? You forgot us Orthodox. GRIN.

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