Muddy Roots News
  • 11.10.14

    Odd Americana: Offbeat Religious Reads

    No denying it, Christianity and American roots music have a long history with one another. There’s everyone from The Carter Family singing “Can the Circle be Unbroken” to Those Poor Bastards belting out “Glory, Amen”. Exalting and questioning that old time religion is a standby in country. There’s a whole lotta musicians – heck, a whole lotta people – who are lookin’ for steady ground and find the Christian faith a rock to stand on. Then again, there’s a whole lotta folks who’d rather bust that rock and stand in the rubble.

    We here at The Rambler aren’t for promoting any one faith (or lack thereof).

    What we are interested in are good stories. Those stories can be shaped like songs, sonnets, films, fiction, tramp ramblings, sentences pissed in the snow, old lady chats in laundromats – we aren’t particular. And Christianity is ripe with good stories. Heck, that tree is sagging under the weight of a thousand tasty figs. Lives being saved, backsliding, bad preachers, good teachers, leaving the faith, drowning during Baptism, Rapture waitin’, deathbed conversion, con men, and so on.

    …but Hank Williams and his musical cohorts aren’t the only ones that saw the light on chronicling matters of conviction. Here’s nine offbeat religious reads that may appeal to roots music fans. They feature everything from fanatics and apocalypse cults to revival tent memoirs and a teen Jesus. And Nick Cave. Seriously. We’ve brought you Nick Cave and God. Or is Nick Cave God? You decide.

    And the Ass Saw the Angel
    And the Ass Saw the Angel – Nick Cave
    Yes, Nick Cave wrote a book. Actually, he has two poetry collections, multiple lyric anthologies, and two novels. Yes, everyone at The Rambler feels slackassy knowing Mr. Cave’s been in 4 bands with over 20 albums, has 6 books, worked on over 10 soundtracks, and appears in the occasional film. WE DIGRESS. Dude’s got skills, and while we were eating cheesy popcorn, sipping Tab, and playing Ms. Pac-Man back in ’89 he published And the Ass Saw the Angel.

    Written in a Southern drawl, And the Ass Saw the Angel explores man’s inhumanity to one another through the story of Euchrid, a mute born to a boozehound and an animal torturer in a valley full of religious fantatics.

    Omensetter's Luck cover
    Omensetter’s Luck – William H. Gass
    Written partially in a stream of consciousness style with hella modernist wordplay, Omensetter’s Luck is the story of good man Omensetter settling in Ohio in the 1890s and Furber, the town priest (whose going through a mental breakdown). David Foster Wallace said Omensetter’s was one of the 5 best, overlooked American novels after 1960. With the epic examination of Good, Evil, envy, and justice going on, it ain’t a surprise that William H. Gass was a philosophy professor, in addition to being a writer.

    Elmer Gantry book cover
    Elmer Gantry – Sinclair Lewis
    Sinclair Lewis won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1930. He was the first U.S. writer to attain it, yet dude’s been forgotten by modern readers. He was called the “red-headed tornado of the Minnesota wilds” by H.L. Mencken and often dealt critically with materialism in his works. Elmer Gantry is Lewis’ satiric take on the 1920s evangelical scene. Elmer is a ruthless womanizer and boozer. He accidentally becomes a golden-tongued preacher and his “ministry” takes the world by a brimstone storm. Read this opener and tell me you don’t want more:

    “Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk.”

    And, hell yes, there’s a 1960 adaptation with Burt Lancaster that’s badass.

    Lamb Book cover
    Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal – Christopher Moore
    What if Jesus had known kung fu? This was the question that partially inspired Christopher Moore’s humorous take on the life of Jesus. More specifically, on the unknown years of Jesus. Everybody’s heard about dude’s water-into-wine thirties, but what did Jesus do from his teens through his twenties? Meet Biff, the guy Jesus talked to about ladies and life. The guy that walked with Jesus before the Apostles did. The guy who didn’t want to see his friend die on a cross. If you like Monty Python or Kurt Vonnegut, you’ll probably dig Lamb.

    Wise Blood book cover
    Wise Blood – Flannery O’Connor
    If you read one book off this list OH MY GAWD, read this. Repeat: Flannery O’Connor is the m-effin sickest Southern Gothic writer out there. Her work is punctuated with eccentrics, religious exploration, sinister scenes, flawed folks, and decay. And Wise Blood? Yes. Absolutely.

    Hazel Motes is a 22-year-old WWII veteran who has fallen under the direction of street preacher, Asa Hawks, and his daughter, Sabbath Lily…but the “blind” Hawks is preaching cynicism, not Jesus. Motes eventually starts his own church accentuating his own lifelong crisis of faith – the Church of God Without Christ. Add in a mummified holy child and existential struggle and you have the most WTF, how-did-that-get-published-in-1952 novel ever.

    P.S. – Brad “The Voice of Chucky and Also Doc on Deadwood” Dourif starred in the strict adaptation done by John Huston in 1979.

    Leftovers book cover
    The Leftovers – Tom Perotta
    What if the Rapture happened? Could you rebuild your life if your family disappeared around you? Was it actually a religious occurrence? What new religions would form because of the mass disappearing act? Perotta’s dark, but not bleak Leftovers (now a HBO show) looks at the social and philosophical aspects of being left behind in a Rapture that doesn’t conform to biblical prophecy through the framework of one family. Stephen King wrote in his New York Times review, “The Leftovers is, simply put, the best Twilight Zone episode you never saw…”

    Salvation on Sand Mountain cover
    Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia – Dennis Covington
    A finalist for the National Book Award, Salvation on Sand Mountain explores snake handling as a religious practice in Appalachia and the trial of Glenn Summerford, an Alabama pastor who may or may not have purposefully killed his wife with poisonous snakes during services.

    Written through New York Times reporter Dennis Covington’s first-person point-of-view, Salvation on Sand Mountain is an even-handed account of an obscure religious practice that spurs the author to examine his own beliefs.

    Holy Ghost Girl cover
    Holy Ghost Girl: A Memoir – Donna M. Johnson
    Donna M. Johnson grew up in a traveling revival. Her mother played organ in the show and miracles, exorcisms, and face-offs with the KKK – it was all everyday for Johnson’s family. Under the God tent there were five-hour sermons, praying in the dirt, healings, speaking in tongues, and selling the Lord to get to the next city. It makes for an energetic, reflective read. If you like true stories that feel like tall tales, get a copy of Holy Ghost Girl.

    Under the Banner of Heaven book cover
    Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith – Jon Krakauer
    Best known for Into the Wild (made into a movie by Sean Penn), Krakauer puts down the outdoors and picks up Mormon history for Under the Banner of Heaven. Here’s an unbiased brush-up on Mormon and fundamentalist Mormon history. Krakauer weaves the history in and out of the story of a murder – two modern-day brothers believe that God has asked them to kill…and so they do. True crime, insanity, history, and faith. The book feels a bit long, here and there, but it’s a hella solid read written with a fair hand.

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    What? You’re still here? Why aren’t you at the library or cruising IndieBound for local bookstores? Go forth and read the word.

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    Patty Templeton just drove 11 hours on about 3 hours of sleep. She would like to be sitting across from you while drinking coffee and talking about weirdo Southern Gothic fiction. Find her over here.