Category Archives: Words and Language

The Single Story that Threatens Appalachia

Like people in every culture, Appalachian people are complex. Why, then, do we insist on clinging to the single narrative that plagues its people and obstructs solutions to its overwhelming problems?

In my 30 years of living in southern West Virginia, I had many friends and acquaintances who fit the stereotypes. But I also have lifelong friends, still living there, who do not.

My favorite teacher is an avid reader and a gardener whose manicured lawn and radiant flowers were the envy of my mother, who struggled to get anything to grow in her stereotypical dirt yard. My mother’s best friend is a female lay minister in a progressive church who uses her skill to advocate for the poor and the elderly. One of my best friends is a former teacher turned small business owner, who is married to a lawyer. Another was the office manager for a United States congressman who was voted out of office when the once blue state turned red. I attended a progressive church there where the wife of a doctor spent her life engaged in philanthropic projects, not the least of which was to establish a shelter for victims of spousal abuse. The pastor at the time was a learned man with a PhD in theology—a man who later became one of the first leaders in the Presbyterian Church to advocate for LGBTQ persons.

These are not the people we hear about—the people who have the credibility and the knowledge that could bring about change if given the right resources.

The single narrative we hear has changed little over time. Consider that defining narrative of the early years, the story of a bitter feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys. The drama of the bloody battle between two families that threatened to engulf two states has been re-enacted at an amphitheater in West Virginia’s Grandview State Park for over fifty years. For many years, summer visitors from out of state carried that single view of the passion and violence of Appalachians back home with them as a memory of its people.

Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, first published in 2005, told a similar story of the poverty and mental instability of the people. Her tale of her own grit and her escape from this world remained on the New York Times’ bestseller list for over seven years, and it is scheduled to be released this year as a movie.

Most recently, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy tells the story of the author’s escape from abuse, addiction, and poverty. It is a tale of admirable strength in the face of adversity, but, to me, the people in his family sound much like the characters in the Hatfields and McCoys saga. He concludes, “I believe we hillbillies are the toughest goddamned people on this earth. We take an electric saw to the hide of those who insult our mother.”

As a child of Appalachia, I have lived among the vulnerable, those who, despite their faith in God, can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps—those whose voices are not heard in the most well-known tales about my culture. Though the men in Vance’s story sound somewhat familiar to me, the women bear no resemblance to most of the Appalachian women I know.

Even my experience is only a single story. A personal story is just that—one person’s story. The danger is when the stories we hear follow the same basic plotline and create a single perception of an entire culture.

Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian writer, says in her famous TedTalk, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Yet even Adichie is guilty of stereotyping—as are we all. In her novel Americanah, she creates one character who hails from West Virginia. That character argues with the narrator’s professor boyfriend about white privilege: “How can I be privileged? I grew up fucking poor in West Virginia. I’m an Appalachian hick. My family is on welfare.”

This story of Appalachian people is the single greatest barrier to finding solutions to poverty, not just in Appalachia but across our nation.

Even President Obama, who I believe cared deeply about the poor from all cultures, stereotyped people in rural America during his campaign: “It’s not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” This grave mistake allowed his opponents to use his stereotype to stoke the anger of the people he hoped to help.

Over and over again, the single story threatens to become our national narrative. We generalize about every culture. We generalize about immigrants. We generalize about sexual orientation. We generalize about religions. We generalize about the media. We generalize about our elected officials.

And in the end, because of these stereotypes, we can do nothing more than stand on opposite sides and lob insults at one another.

We need to begin to listen to one another’s stories—to all the varied perspectives that make us a colorful and complex people. The storytellers need to avoid the urge to editorialize—to allow the stories to speak for themselves without pushing a political agenda. The story-hearers need to listen to hear, not just to respond with their own political views.

This is a tall order. Like Adichie, we will not always be able to live up to this ideal. But if there is an American story, it is one with thousands of subplots.

If we want to avoid a tragedy, we must outgrow our need to believe in a simple story in a picture book with an unrealistic rescue at the end.

The American story is an epic, not a fairy tale.

Are Evangelicals Endangering Democracy?

“Don’t you believe that God inspired the Bible?”

“Yes,” I said, “but I don’t think God stopped inspiring people when the Bible was in its finished form. I’ve read some great books by women that I think were equally inspired by God, and they give me a perspective that the Bible doesn’t, since every book theologians decided to include was written down by a man.”

My hands on the wheel, I glanced sideways at my friend, who views God very differently than I do. She raised her eyebrows and then leaned back against the headrest, looking exhausted.

I went on at length to name some of the current books I’ve read and to say why I got more out of them than a lot of what I read in the Bible, especially those pesky chapters in Paul’s epistles that tell women to shut up. That doesn’t mean that I don’t read the Bible, I told my friend; in fact, I’ve read the entire Bible in three different translations, and I still read it every day, following the Common Lectionary.

My friend listened for a while and then said, “You’re making my head hurt.”

I laughed. “Is that because of my argument or the concussion?”

My friend had taken a tumble in a parking lot that resulted in a concussion, and I was driving her home from a check-up.

“Both,” she said.

That was a few months ago, and this week, now that she’s well again, we continued the conversation. Though she doesn’t agree with many of my views, we both find it interesting to discuss them, and we respect each other’s views.

I’ve also seen that concussed look, though, in the eyes of evangelicals when I try to explain to them why I do not believe the Bible is meant to be read literally. Having grown up in the Bible Belt, I have many family members and friends who do believe the Bible is both literally and historically accurate. When I have these conversations, they often end with a confused look and the pronouncement, “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” Those who love me fear for my soul, but they are usually respectful enough to simply shake their heads and walk away.

Recently, though, a cousin who was frustrated with my argument finally gave up trying to reason with me. He resorted instead to telling me that much of what I say and write sounds “dangerously close to the apostate church.” For those who are unfamiliar with fundamentalist beliefs, Nathan Jones, an ordained minister who graduated from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, describes the apostate church in this way:

The Church has become so seeker sensitive, and that can be a good thing in that we want unbelievers to come to know Jesus as their Savior, but we have ended up chasing the believers right out of their churches. We have filled our churches with unbelievers and now are putting unbelievers into the church pulpits. These new church leaders are not saved. They have no fruits of the Spirit. They have no signs in their lives that show that they are saved. These unbelievers in the pulpits keep writing their apostate books and they keep leading their apostate churches saying every kind of doctrine that has nothing to do with the Bible whatsoever.

Jones believes, as many evangelicals do, that apostasy is one of the signs that the end times are near and that Christ will soon return. My cousin—and many other fundamentalists—essentially believe that progressive Christians are the “apostate church.”

People like Jones are vocal, and they have learned to use social media to broadcast their message to a widening audience. Though I am a Christian and an elder in my church, when I try to engage them in conversation on social media, they openly and loudly doubt my salvation and the salvation of some of the most Christ-like people I know.

Because progressive Christians believe in the separation of church and state and are reticent to proclaim their beliefs in such public ways, any counter-argument to evangelicals is rare. In recent years other evangelicals, who are more focused on social justice and earth-care, have begun to speak up, but rarely does the average person in the pews of a progressive church challenge such thinking by bringing God into the conversation. As a result, extreme evangelicals—those who do not hear the arguments of science or social justice— have become an influence in our public dialogue out of all proportion to their percentage as part of the population, and they are aiming a wrecking ball at the separation of church and state.

Fundamentalists are not just dangerous to our democracy, however; they are even more dangerous to the human psyche of those who walk away from the fiery message of doom preached in their pulpits. I launched this blog five years ago because my mother, one of the most Christ-like people I’ve ever known, revealed to me that she was afraid she was going to hell. When I expressed my astonishment, she told me that even though she knew on an intellectual level that her fear made no sense, it was nearly impossible to reject something that had been beaten into her throughout her childhood.

Almost a year ago, I lost the second of two brothers to an opioid addiction. After a year in jail, my brother received help from a program at a mega-church in the city where he lived. They provided him with a bed in a group home in exchange for his work in the church and their thrift shop. They required that he attend Bible study every day and that he go out in a van with others to seek converts on street corners in some of the worst parts of the city. Church attendance was mandatory, and residents had to commit to six months in the program.

My brother told me that he loved the contemporary music at the church and that he enjoyed his small group Bible study. But he said that the sermons were very hard to listen to because they were meant to instill fear and to scare people straight, and according to their teaching, he was never saved. One of the leaders of the church told him that if he left the program, he was choosing hell and that he couldn’t come back. He left the program just shy of six months but still managed to stay clean for almost a year. Shortly before he died in a car accident with heroin in his system, he had hit a rough spot, and he told me that he felt God had abandoned him.

The reasons for addiction are complicated—and the way out even more so. I am grateful to the church for trying to help my brother. But I believe that message—that if we walk away from God, then God walks away from us—contributed to his death.

My fundamentalist acquaintances would say that I’m cherry-picking when I choose not to believe that women should be silent in church but then choose to believe this verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans:

38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (NRSV)

Perhaps I am cherry-picking. But when I look at the whole of the life of Christ, I can’t see how oppressing women, denying help to the sick and the poor, and lacking compassion for those fighting the demons of addiction are any part of the package. Nor is calling a compassionate Christian an apostate.

Even the early Christians thought that Christ would return in their lifetime. And for over 2000 years humanity has suffered from the doom and gloom of those predicting that Judgment Day is near but who feel they can ignore the plight of others because they will be swept up to heaven when the day comes.

I wish pastors and Christians like those I’ve encountered in progressive Presbyterian (USA) churches had more of a voice. They speak of a gentle and generous God but also a God who is angered when self-righteous religious leaders refuse compassion to the multitudes. And I wish more Christians were like my friend, who is willing to engage in a dialogue with those whose beliefs are different even when it makes her head hurt.

To those who suffer the wounds and bear the scars of judgment from a version of Christianity that Christ himself might not recognize, I would say that those religious leaders sound suspiciously similar to the scribes and Pharisees of Christ’s time.

And I offer you this thought that my pastors often use to end our Prayers of Gratitude and Concern: “In life and in death, we belong to God.”

Indeed, we do.

One Percent of Travelers “Inconvenienced”?

“Inconvenienced”? “Inconvenienced”?! This is the word chosen by the government to describe their perspective on those who have been stopped in airports around the world as a result of Trump’s executive order:

The Department of Homeland Security noted that ‘less than one percent’ of international air travelers arriving Saturday in the United States were ‘inconvenienced’ by the executive order… (Washington Post)

One percent. That doesn’t sound like much. One percent of a dollar is one penny. Losing a penny is an inconvenience. Continue reading One Percent of Travelers “Inconvenienced”?

Stop Telling Me to “Get Over It”!

“Get over it. There’s nothing anyone can do about it now.”

This sentiment has been expressed by many of my friends and acquaintances who voted for Trump and even by a few who did not.

Three men in my life, about whom I care deeply, have voiced variations on this theme to me since the election. All three voted for Trump. Two of them are my age, but one of them is fifteen years younger than I am. I have known all of them for decades, and I love them. All are men of character who are good to their wives and who would give up their lives to protect their daughters.

Yet they voted for Trump.

And now, all three seem confused by the fact that some of the women they care deeply about get angry when they suggest we should “get over it.” Continue reading Stop Telling Me to “Get Over It”!

When Our Bustling Democracy Fails Us

bustle

The bustle just didn’t work the way it was supposed to. Eleven days after the most disheartening election of my lifetime, all I wanted to do was to forget for a few hours that democracy hadn’t worked the way I thought it was supposed to either. I wanted to focus fully on the joy of my daughter and her fiancé as they exchanged marriage vows. I wanted the celebration to be perfect.

But the bustle didn’t work. Continue reading When Our Bustling Democracy Fails Us

Are Trump Supporters Dumb?

 

Creche

As a native of West Virginia who took the last name of a husband of Polish descent, I’ve been subjected to my fair share of jokes about my intelligence.

Just before one of my early Christmases in Maryland, a colleague asked this question at the lunch table: “Why wasn’t the baby Jesus born in West Virginia?”

Several pairs of eyes glanced furtively at me before looking back to him. I’d earned myself a spot as an English teacher in one of the most renowned school systems in the nation—a system that, at that time, usually hired intellectual teachers from prestigious schools. Though I’d graduated both high school and college at the top of my class, I’d earned my degree from a little-known state college, and I sometimes felt out of my league in a department largely made up of intellectuals.

I sensed the punch line before he delivered it with a snort and a laugh: “Because God couldn’t find three wise men and a virgin.”

I frowned but said nothing.

He raised his hands in a gesture of apology and said, “Present company excepted, of course.”

Of course.

When people default to a stereotype, they seldom recognize the disconnect when they know someone who defies the stereotype. And that is precisely the problem we face in moving forward on many of the issues that face us. Continue reading Are Trump Supporters Dumb?

Is Your News Source Credible?

Go to the author's English Teacher's Page for a lesson package of resources to teach this skill.
Go to the author’s English Teacher’s Page for a lesson package of resources to teach this skill.

We teachers have failed to prepare our students for the digital age. After watching the most recent events of the presidential campaign unfold, I’ve reached the painful conclusion that I didn’t do enough to help my students master one of the most important skills for a literate person in today’s world: how to recognize whether a source is credible and objective.

Continue reading Is Your News Source Credible?

Agree with Rubio? Never! (Well, maybe…)

Press release on Rubio's Senate web page
Press release on Rubio’s Senate web page

This might be a first for me, but here’s something I think you should read—on a Republican senator’s web page. Whenever I think of Marco Rubio, I cringe a little and remember the “small hands” comment that embarrassed even his own family and ultimately led to his exit from the presidential race. At that point in this election cycle, it would have been unthinkable that I or anyone who shares my political views would visit his Senate web page to read his remarks on a current event. But I find myself in the odd position of agreeing with almost everything he said on Friday at a press conference in Miami: Continue reading Agree with Rubio? Never! (Well, maybe…)

The Key to Education?

Graduation 74

As I look toward retirement in a few days, I’ve been thinking about the most difficult class I taught in 30 years in the classroom.   I was about 20 years into my career when I was hired to lead the English Department in one of three schools that made up my district’s first experiment in choice. Our school was the new one—the one many students didn’t want because it had no history and no ties to the community.

The boundaries for all three schools were redrawn, and our school opened with only ninth and tenth graders. If students didn’t get their first choice, they were guaranteed a spot in their new home school. Because of our signature program in the arts, many creative students chose us. We also had a large number of students who didn’t want to be there, as well as some students who had problems in their home schools who came to us to get a fresh start. Those in the second group created the perfect storm that shook my confidence to the core and gave me a dose of humility that I’ve never forgotten.

Continue reading The Key to Education?