HED:Polk probes deeply into Mississippi's soul

By John Armistead

Daily Journal

There is no scent of magnolias in Noel Polk's "Outside the Southern Myth" (University Press of Mississippi, 1997), a collection of essays which dissects Mississippi culture of the 1950s and 1960s into thin, transparent layers.

With his native Picayune as a working model, Polk seeks to present a view of Southern life and mores which is neither the media-Hollywood good-ole-boy stereotype nor the idealized Dixieland of plantations and lost causes.

Instead, Polk, a professor of English at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, asserts that there has always been "another southern culture, one trying its best to work its way up to an identifiable, certifiable middleclass way of life, that has always engaged its own history and its received history in its own way, on its own terms, terms not all that different from those of middleclass American towns everywhere."

In many ways, Polk's personal "coming of age" in the late 50s and early 60s parallels the coming of age of Mississippi itself as the state painfully groped its way from closed society to open society status. Pulled along more by the rush of events around him than by any particular private epiphanies, Polk found himself a student at the all-white Mississippi College in Clinton who sneaked over to all-black Tougaloo College in Jackson to attend workshops on race relations.

Polk's coming of age applied to his religious understanding as well. One of his most thoughtful and provocative essays is "One Baptist Son," which he subtitles "Notes of a Survivor." Raised in a Southern Baptist home and in Picayune's First Baptist Church, he was thoroughly imbued with the Baptist world view long before he enrolled as a freshman at Baptist-owned Mississippi College.

With the retrospect of three decades, Polk attempts to examine "the ways in which Baptist doctrines and practice appropriate divinity, shape it to Baptists' own social and psychological ends, and the place of the individual within that shaping."

In so doing, he avoids expressing rancor toward his real flesh-and-blood boyhood church family. "Though I speak as a survivor, or at least as one in recovery - remission perhaps - I do so recognizing the full complexity of all social organization and want to make it clear at the onset that whatever trouble I had then and have since had with the Baptist system, my experience of the people of First Baptist, Picayune, was entirely positive."

With this disclaimer, Polk takes apart piece by piece the essential elements of Baptist faith and practice, pointing out in clear and masterful prose the flaws he sees.

The result is arguably one of the most insightful and thorough (yet succinct) analyses written of not only the Baptist method of doing religion but that of evangelicalism's as well.

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