Identity as Religion, Religion as Identity

Naipaul interviews theology students in northern Georgia.

Identity as religion, religion as identity: it was the very theme of another theology student, a young man from a background quite different, a mountain community in northern Georgia.

He said, “When I think of growing up, the two things are very much the same thing–family and church. The church was a small church, with about forty-five members, all related. Seven or eight generations ago the first member of our family moved into that area and bought four hundred acres, and we still live on that. It isn’t a plantation. There might have been slaves early on, but that disappeared pretty soon. We were a family of small farmers. My grandfather had fifteen or sixteen brothers, and their descendants all live within three miles of one another. It is very rare that anybody moves away. When you go up there you know people, and you know them as relatives.

“At the same time it is very easy for your own identity to get lost. But I have since grown to appreciate how wonderful that is: a warm, loving, open kind of family, not just father and mother and brothers and sisters, but cousins, aunts, and uncles.

“The church is very much the same thing. Family members. The Holiness Church is a very emotional religion, and what struck me early on was how very different people were in church from what I knew of them at home. The emotion they expressed in church was different. There would be a lot of shouting. The preacher would try to work them up to the sinfulness of human nature. There would be moments during the service when people would get up and speak in tongues, and people would try to interpret what was being said. And there were times when people would get saved.”

“This religion was not a reaching out to the world?”

“This religion was a calling away from the world, an excluding of the world. I still struggle to find how I relate to all that now. The first year in college I spent alone in my room. I was scared to go out. Then I became angry with some aspects of the faith that had such a rigid view of the world.”

But now (like the Mississippi plantation, and for the same, economic reason) the mountain world was changing. “A lot of the people have to go away to get work.” They came back, it was true; they never lost touch. But: “The twentieth century is pouring over the mountain.”

SOURCE: A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1989), pp. 48-49.

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