Building the Appalachian Hermeneutic

I am Appalachia. In my veins
Runs fierce mountain pride;

From a poem, Appalachia, by Muriel Miller Dressler.

In a local union hall near Sharples, West Virginia, is a small, age weathered piece of wood with a poem entitled, simply, Psalm 23. It is not our psalm that most of can recite. Instead, it is filled with pictures of the worker’s union. It seems almost out of place here, where a giant mural is hand painted on one side of the hall showcasing the 1993 strike against Peabody Coal. The ‘gun thugs’ are pictured in nice, weather proof coats, while the Union men, camouflaged, huddle around a fire barrel, with their collars turned up. You can almost see them shivering. On the other side of the hall is the U.S. and West Virginia State flags and a giant picture, most likely from the 70’s with its hazy view, of Jesus. You know the one. He is looking over his shoulder, neatly washed hair, well-trimmed beard, with a  slight smile. This is the Appalachian Hermeneutic.

While working with the United Mine Workers of America, it was part of my duty to travel around the southern coal fields in West Virginia, visiting local halls and churches. Surprisingly, I found that some of the most ardent union men, who would tell me stories that I cannot repeat here, were pastors, preachers, and deacons at their local church, most likely some sort of Bapti-costal. Their theology was centered on the working man. Each one could talk Revelation or the Parables of Christ or how to stop a train from moving without being caught. By their favorite chair are three books – The Bible, the KJV more often than not, the UMWA Constitution, and the Contract. They have their guns, their ‘road apples’, and their love of God and His Son.

Appalachia is a term used to describe a cultural region in the eastern United States that stretches from the Southern Tier of New York state to northern Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia. While the Appalachian Mountains stretch from Belle Isle in Canada to Cheaha Mountain in the U.S. state of Alabama, the cultural region of Appalachia typically refers only to the central and southern portions of the range. As of 2005, the region was home to approximately 23 million people.
(Source: Wikipedia)

Main Entry: her·me·neu·tic
Pronunciation: \ˌhər-mə-ˈnü-tik, -ˈnyü-\
Function: noun
Date: 1737
1 plural but sing or plural in constr : the study of the methodological principles of interpretation (as of the Bible)
2 : a method or principle of interpretation

Hermeneutics should never be created or maintained to void the biblical texts of their inherent meaning or to circumnavigate the true meaning of the texts, however, hermeneutics can play a part in how people are reached. Sociologically speaking, they can help us shed light on people’s perceptions of the bible in any set of cultural variables.

The region of Appalachia is generally defined as those areas from northern Alabama, following the mountains to lower New York. More ideally, it is parts of Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. It is generally seen as the economic blight of the United States (although West Virginia is weathering the current economic crisis better than most of the other states). Backwoods and backwards are words more often than not used to describe most of the inhabitants, especially of the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky and Southern West Virginia, yet the people who inhabit these hills are some of the warmest people who I have met.

We have all sorts of hermeneutics today – feminists, Marxists, etc… – but I haven’t found much of a study of the daily interpretation, often political, sometimes dangerous, of the bible in Appalachia. I would like to spend some time studying these things, namely because I live here.

There are interesting features of the Appalachian interpretation. Generally, they take the bible very literally. Eschatology is not that important to them. Of course, if your main concern is the pay check at the end of the week, you don’t have much time to speculate upon the end of the world. They don’t care much for sectarian education. They are industrial workers – at least in the area that I want to focus on – and sometimes, in the same the job that their father and grandfather had before them. They love a good fight, in and out of church, which is evident by the numerous splits in congregations. They are hard-nosed and hardlined, many of them. How does all of this fit into the method in which many preachers interpret the bible? There, many of them, a superstitious lot. They are kind, warm, inviting, but don’t cross them.

The Baptists do well here, as do the Churches of Christ. Pentecostals and Apostolics abound. You have two groups of United Methodists here. One outside the city limits which sound more like Baptists, and those inside the city limits.

How does politics, labor unions, and churches come together in interpreting the Scriptures? And how do that interpretation play back into the relevancy of their daily lives?

For many in the coal fields, you will remember or know what a company town was. In these company towns, their had company schools, company doctors, and company churches. Just as the company chose the teachers and the doctors, they would choose the preachers as well. I suspect that this is where there focus on lay, untrained, ministers came into play. These lay ministers still thrive today, often times at the expense of congregational harmony. The lay ministry allowed the ministry to become democratized, much like the unions were doing. Of course, in many coal field churches today, you find solitary pastors who control their congregation.

Anyway, these are just some thoughts that I am pondering…

As a post-script – while I was building this post, I’ve been asked to help out with a new initiative by the West Virginia Council of Churches in combating violence in the Coal Fields.

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