"How to Win the Jews for Christ": Southern Jewishness and the Southern Baptist Convention(*)

By McGRAW, Eliza Russi Lowen | The Mississippi Quarterly, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

"How to Win the Jews for Christ": Southern Jewishness and the Southern Baptist Convention(*)


McGRAW, Eliza Russi Lowen, The Mississippi Quarterly


WHEN FLANNERY O'CONNOR FAMOUSLY REFERRED to the South as "Christ-haunted," she created a label for the influence that Christianity wields for many Southerners.(1) As Walker Percy asks, "How do you blaspheme in California?"(2) Within Southern Baptist representations of Jewishness, Jews typically function paradigmatically, either negatively as the executioners of Jesus, or positively as the model witnesses, waiting to be converted, and thereby signal the advent of the Messiah's Second Coming. While some critics argue that this concept of the Jewish people prevents Jewish "normalization" in the South, where symbol tends to thrive, the resistance of Jewishness to such absorption gives it power. Eric Voegelin writes that "Israel did not sink into a dead past, but survived in symbolic forms,"(3) calling up the biblical potency of Jewishness. Religious meaning prospers in the South, and Southern Jewishness harnesses its power through its refusal to "sink into a dead past," preserving its concurrent symbolic agency.

Voegelin writes of the nature of Israel as both a concept and a people:

   The constitution of Israel as a carrier of the truth, as an identifiable
   and enduring social body in history, could be achieved only through the
   creation of a paradigmatic record which narrated (1) the events surrounding
   the discovery of the truth and (2) the course of Israelite history, with
   repeated revisions, as a confirmation of the truth.... Precisely when its
   dubiousness as a pragmatic record is recognized, the narrative reveals its
   function in creating a people in politics and history.

      Hence, there is an intimate connection between the paradigmatic
   narrative of the Old Testament and the very existence of Israel. (p. 123)

Because the South houses the intimacy Voegelin describes, it has need for Jewishness in some of its Christian contexts. Jewishness provides a template for the integration of myth and history, which Southern Jewishness foregrounds. Overall, Voegelin's concept of Jewishness in text and history forms a close parallel with Southernness and thus provides a space for an inevitable mutual recognition.

Commingling concepts of Israel and the South go back to the Confederacy's vision of itself as a chosen people and endure in the present day, as the Southern Baptists who support the state of Israel attest. Israel frames a natural typology for the South. In a land where, as William Faulkner writes in Intruder in the Dust (1948), "for every Southern boy, not once but whenever he wants it ... there is the instant when it's still not yet two oclock on that July afternoon in 1863,"(4) myth is a quotidian presence. The "dubious" nature, as Voegelin notes, of such symbol systems creates a narrative and, thus, a political and historical people.

In turn, the symbolic nature of Jewishness and its narrative underpin various strains of Southern Christianity. Some Southern Baptist representations in particular position Jewishness as synonymous with Jesus, and seek Jewish conversion. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) strives to contain and thus comprehend Jewishness, which it otherwise confoundingly reinforces and repudiates. As one recent tract calling Southern Baptists to convert Jews urges, "Use terminology that emphasizes the Jewishness of our faith."(5) Jewishness, the rhetoric implies, already lies within Southern Baptist belief. If Jewish people would accept Jesus as the Messiah, they could be subsumed beneath the canopy of Southern Baptist doctrine, and the SBC would have proof of its contention that its brand of Christianity supersedes Judaism. Missionaries for the SBC attempt to claim Jewishness specifically to prove that the Second Coming is at hand, but their overweening mission points toward a desire to contain Jewishness and make it safe for Southern Baptists. Southern Baptists strive to own and therefore demonstrate that they have advanced beyond Southern Jewishness.

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