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Thoughts from a Southern Church Lady*

by Lauren Smelser White Some of my favorite moments during the Tokens Shows I’ve attended have happened during the “Class and Grass” music segment—a portion of the show that captures the whole Tokens venture, which is about breaking down false dichotomies if it’s about anything.

Besides “Class and Grass” being plain old entertaining (…I mean, who wouldn’t want to hear a playful duel between the dulcet tones of a classical orchestra and the yip-skipping liveliness of a bluegrass string band??), it strikes me that there’s also something deeply important about this weaving together of things not typically introduced. I guess I find that interweaving appealing because I believe that that real things tend to spill over the labeled boxes we make to contain them anyway.

Like everyone else, I’ve been fitted with labels of my own. Currently, a few come to mind:

For starters, I’m an Alabama girl, born and raised in the Bible Belt; I’ve never had a long-standing address beyond the Mason-Dixon line. So, it’s understandable that my friends—particularly those who don’t share my upbringing—call me Southern.

Somewhere along the way I learned a bit about buying hostess gifts and sending thank you notes, about the time-table for getting hair highlights re-done, about making sure there are good towels in the bathroom for house guests. Stir that together, slap some make-up on it, and people might call it a lady.

For those who know T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” you’ll remember the anti-hero who measures out his life with coffee spoons. These days I often think of him as I measure out my life in coffee pots, alarm reminders, and the rhythms of school semesters. My current goal is to finish a doctorate in Theological Studies before I keel over dead. Why torture myself this way, you ask? Suffice it to say that I care a whole lot about the church.

So, you could easily drop me in a box, scribble on it “Southern Church Lady,” snap the lid, and move on. Something like that happens pretty often. I know that something like that happens to you pretty often too. And it’s a painful fact of our sinful condition that the labels you’re given might be a lot more far-fetched and hurtful. I’m lucky, after all, that my problem is that I’m written off as odd (…a theologically conservative woman who cares so much about church doctrine?), perhaps boring (…blonde hair and no tattoos? snooze) or simple (…oh, she’s just “Suh-thern”).

One thing’s for sure: like me, you’ve known the eyes that Eliot’s Prufrock has known, the eyes “that fix you in a formulated phrase,” pinning you like a bug on a science fair spreading board. You know how little room this pinning gives you for fumbling toward the truths of who you are. You understand Prufrock when he asks: “And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,/ When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,/ Then how should I begin/ To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?”[1]

What I find most tragic about our habit of labeling each other is how easily those labels become distortions of who we are. One aspect of our identity is captured, deliberately blown up to obscene proportions, and then shoved around our ears like a dunce cap.

It would be better if the label had nothing to do with who we are…but to take the things that we can’t help, or that we love, or simply enjoy, and make a mockery of them? To try to make each other ashamed of, or apologetic for, the basic aspects of what makes us us? Now, that’s something that’d bring a hell-fiery glint to an Old Testament prophet’s eye.

The way I see it, we can all take a hint from Token’s “Class and Grass”—we all need to break down some false dichotomies. And, if you’ll bear with this “Southern Church Lady,” I’ll get started on three right now. (I’ve given them some thought, because they have to do with aspects of who I am and what I hold dear.)

1. Southern and sophisticated aren’t opposites; not if what you mean by “sophisticated” is sharp-witted, creative, and complex.

I think people assuming that Southerners are “simple” is a lot like the U.S. English-speaker’s general misconception that Spanish is an easy language to learn, when it’s actually one of the more difficult to master. Why would we assume that Spanish is simple, other than because we assume that Spanish-speakers are simple? If we take time to learn anything at all about our Spanish-speaking neighbors we find out how embarrassingly stupid that assumption is.

I’d likewise challenge anyone who thanks their stars that they aren’t “simple Southerners” to take time to learn about us, starting by recognizing just how diverse we are. Then I’d ask them to figure out how to make our food and play our instruments, to live close to our land and navigate our social systems, to tell our stories and riddles and bear our tragic secrets, all without feeling the weighty complexity of being a Southerner.

I’d challenge them to wait a minute before trying to con us into shedding, or peddling, our Southernness…just so we end up looking, talking, working, and worshipping like everyone else? I’m still trying to figure out what we’d gain from that.

2. “Church” and “world” are not set apart from one another. Not by a long shot.

For starters, good luck finding a church that isn’t full of people characterized by larger cultural communities. And good luck finding any implication in the Gospels that God’s Logos—the Word through whom all that is was made—came to dwell among us to establish neat little communities walled off from the secular world so we can just get to heaven.

To my mind, “church” is far more like a spontaneous event that occurs in the world than anything else…certainly than it is like a government or a business. For all of their warts, Stone-Campbellites long understood this. It’s why my Grandma still refuses to call a church building anything other than a “meetin’ house.”

3. Finally: To be a “lady” is NOT to be the best kind of woman, as compared with someone deemed “un-lady-like.”

Sure, I may know how to host a bridal tea…I may even admit to enjoying it somewhat…but I also know that “lady-like-ness” is nothing but a cultural game. And it can be a highly restrictive one. Which women get to be “ladies,” first of all? Go ahead; picture them. What does their hair, their skin, their build look like? Now, think about it: What types of women are excluded from that picture, generally deemed unworthy of that group’s honors and privileges? How do you think that ends up affecting them?

Secondly, when it comes to the women who have made the cut, how do you think it affects their self-worth when they find out that they’ll be objects of scorn if they step out of line—that their hearts are as pure as gold, glorifying God most fully, when they are angels seen but not heard? As one of my favorite theologians points out, “it is hardly reassuring to be told…that women are ‘closer’ to the ideal human than men, when it turns out that any kind of active self-assertion or manifest talent is frowned upon in their case as ‘unfeminine’.”[2]

I have sisters, mothers, and grandmothers all over this city, continent, and world, each of us living out our womanhood in innumerably similar-yet-different ways. In the very panoply of our manners of being women, we are a phenomenal testament to our Maker’s creativity. Be careful when putting us in restrictive boxes, lest ye incite the Maker’s wrath.

* In my effort to clear up my “Southern Church Lady” name here, I don’t mean to imply that there’s something wrong with highbrow, high-church, high-heeled debutantes from high Northeastern stock.

I just believe that it’s of utmost importance that we work to encounter one another without going straight for pins and labels…and, in the meantime, let’s figure out which boxes we tend to place on the top shelf, and shake them up a bit too.

I guess you could say that I think there’s only so much “class” the world can handle before it’s desperate for a little “grass.”

[1] Lines 56-60

[2] Sarah Coakley, Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender. Blackwell: Oxford, UK (2002), 96.

Lauren Smelser White is a Tokens Blog contributer and a Ph.D. student in Theological Studies at Vanderbilt University. Lauren's work at Vanderbilt focuses on the transfiguration of desire in the event of Christian revelation and the self-offering activities that sustain cruciform faith. She is also a fellow in the Program for Theology and Practice, which seeks to form groundbreaking scholars who connect their academic work to the practice of ministry and will be outstanding teachers of people preparing for ministry.

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