Post-Evangelical Nashville

Since it’s near day’s end, and I like to explore the cultural underpinnings of politics whenever possible, I want to draw your attention to a fascinating essay by Carrie Allen Tilton at Religion Dispatches. It’s about the network television show Nashville (my wife calls it “Dallas for the country music set”), as a reflection of Hollywood’s vision of a postmodern, post-evangelical southern culture expressed through a post-pop revival of country music. That’s indeed a loaded sentence I just wrote there, and you may just have to read Tilton to understand it. But here’s an excerpt to whet your appetite:

The choices and consequences on Nashville are shaped not by evangelical faith, but by redemptive crusades to achieve an awkward, messy, and ambiguous sense of moral and musical purity. By exchanging the role of traditional southern Christianity for postmodern Bible Belt spirituality, in which the cult of the true self and the pure artistic product forms both existential center and moral compass, the show brings the South into conformity with the shifting demographics of the rest of the country.

In a throwback to 19th century German Romanticism, Nashville gives us southern-fried humanism bound up with the ultimate transcendent value in country music—authenticity. Imparting an ethical framework, a raison d’etre, a redemptive impulse, sacred spaces, prophetic voices, and the possibility for conversion—everything but Jesus and an aisle to walk—this new spirituality is all at once far removed from and hauntingly close to the blood-washed South of yore.

As a southerner, a Christian, and an acute observer of southern culture, I’m embarrassed I had to read Tilton before I recognized that a show I actually (if not, er, religiously) watch, featuring a key character named “Deacon,” a gauzily reverential treatment of “sacred places” like the Blue Bird Cafe, and more sin and redemption stories than you can shake a Bible at–has a religious dimension. I just thought I was watching a cheesy TV show aimed at selling songs on ITunes. But in country music, in the South, in Nashville, there’s usually more than meets the eye or ear. Nashville could well represent a secularized South haunted by holy ghosts.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.