We ask authors of books reviewed in Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read their books. In our latest installment of the series, James Hudnut-Beumler discusses his book, Strangers and Friends at the Welcome Table: Contemporary Christianities in the American South.
Read Rachel Lane’s review of Strangers and Friends in our upcoming issue and online.
What’s it about and why does it matter?
My book is an account of religion in the Now South, a culture that has continuities with the Old South, the New South, and the Civil Rights era, but also features some striking innovations. It is a region that is overwhelmingly Christian, where no other faith represents more than .6 percent of any state’s population, yet also where the various Christians are sufficiently diverse to argue with one another about what the Bible means for law, inclusion, sexuality, ethics, and politics.
All this matters insofar as the southern states account for a large number of voters and the membership of nationally significant denominations. To understand this region with the soul of a church—united by a commitment to hospitality but riven by fear of scarcity and various others—is to understand a driving force in American life and religion.
How does oral history contribute to your book?
As a work of contemporary religious history, oral history figures repeatedly as evidence and interpretation from actors and observers of the lived religion of the Now South. Often a voice breaks through the narrative to offer just the right explanation of why something is going on, as when Christians embrace the death penalty. I didn’t have the experience of one of my informants who asked a conservative evangelical how they could be for the death penalty when it was used against Jesus, heard the the reply, “If it was good enough for Jesus, it is good enough those sons of bitches.” This is just one example of the you-had-to-be-there insights available to historians that don’t appear in books, but vividly reveal the interior thought and motivations of one’s subjects.
What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?
Oral history takes me as a historian closer to my non-written sources, amplifying and correcting their insights. More importantly, there are things that people tell you that would never get written down if you did not ask them. I have two chapters on religious responses to Hurricane Katrina where the inner logic of religion in the face of tragedy, need, racism, and human resilience comes to the fore. I ended up with more total words in transcriptions from my interviews than published in toto in the book itself and they became alternately the leading sources for some chapters and the most vivid voices in other chapters. I learned a lot from listening to preachers and speakers in participant observer situations, but also from asking open-ended questions in interviews.
Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?
I hope most will be interested in the use of oral history in a mixed methodology work of contemporary religious history. I bring together demographic, economic, data, organizations’ self-depictions, visits to church services, and websites and oral history to unpack what the South is becoming and struggling with. One of the features fellow historians may be interested in is that I shared every direct quote with my informants in the narrative context it would be used in the book itself. This led to three requested changes that I accepted. In each of those cases something the narrator said somewhat cavalierly the first time was said with greater, more helpful precision in the final version. I have been on the other end of that equation with journalists for years and I really wanted to get it right. My press also requires quote verification evidence. I also sometimes teach from the WPA Slave Narrative collection and we often reflect on the duties owed to interview subjects that were and were not observed by the Federal Writers charged with taking the narratives down. I have conducted oral histories for an archive in the past and this reiterative process was more beneficial for all, in my experience.
What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the book?
That even now, after air-conditioning, the end of Jim Crow, and massive in-migration from other regions, the American South remains distinctively religious, a Christianity-tinged culture; and yet, the forms that religious activity takes in the region are broader than ever before. Christian homeschoolers, Hispanic Catholics, and the minority of LGBT affirming churches are just as much a part of the Now South as are revivals, altar calls, and church suppers on the grounds.
James Hudnut-Beumler is the Anne Potter Wilson Distinguished Professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt University Divinity School and the author of several books, including In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar.