From my economical hotel to Duke University was maybe a twenty-minute drive. As a stranger in town I prefered to stay off the heavily traveled corridors during busy morning commute times, never being sure when exactly my exit was coming up. So I took the backroads. Along the way I started to see churches with denominational names I’ve never even heard before. I quickly lost count of just how many houses of worship I passed. With all this rich fare, perhaps it is time to tighten the old Bible belt a bit. The short drive reminded me of my one and only fact-gathering trip sponsored by Nashotah House. I was sent to Asbury Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky for a technology conference. Accompanied by an Episcopal priest and a Lutheran pastor, I was not the only one of us to feel a bit besieged by the in-your-face evangelicalism of Kentucky. My Lutheran colleague wistfully commented, “but the ELCA is ‘Evangelical.’” A different species of evangelical entirely.
The chapel at Duke University easily dominates the west campus. The divinity school is one of the flagship seminaries of the United Methodist Church. Founded by the tobacco money of James Buchanan Duke (who also owned the estate in New Jersey where our ill-fated garden was planted this summer) and the fledgling Trinity College, Duke is an interesting mix of the sacred and profane; Eliade in quadrangles and limestone. The campus sports identity is the Blue Devils, and this diabolical emblem can be seen leering from tote bags and campus buses connecting east and west. Money and religion, devils and saints. Life offers many choices, and Duke, as an exclusive institution, serves the blended family of academics in Bible land.
One of my daughter’s favorite movies as a child was Disney’s Lilo and Stitch. In case you missed it, Stitch is an alien (you’ve got to love it already!), and Lilo is a little girl who loves Elvis, a true southern prodigy. The movie features Elvis singing Giant, Baum and Kaye’s “Devil in Disguise.” Although a song about love in crisis, “Devil in Disguise” seems a decidedly useful trope. Human institutions often disguise themselves as divine. After all, no suite trumps the God card. Religion is so prevalent in the Bible Belt that Christianity is less a religion and more a culture. That culture is at barbed odds with itself, for its deepest, darkest desires are out of line with the utter selflessness that Jesus seems to imply is at the heart of Christianity. Travel is one of the greatest teaching tools we have. Sometimes your own country can feel like foreign soil.