Orthodoxy and the Christ-Haunted Culture of the South

I continue my short series in honor of Vladyko DMITRI of the South. This wonderful talk was given by the priest, Paul Yerger, of Clinton Mississippi, a true gentleman. Archbishop DMITRI was deeply sensitive of the unique culture in parts of the South and of the proper role that Orthodox mission should play. His own Southern roots taught a generation of priest how to serve as missionaries with him. The piece follows as originally run. Though longer than my usual posts – it is well worth the read.

One of my favorite priests in the Diocese of the South is Fr. Paul Yerger who serves Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Clinton, Mississippi. His gentle demeanor and kind words are what I have always associated with the South, though it is rarely witnessed today. I had a chance to visit with him this week at the Diocesan Assembly in Miami. Three years ago he was our keynote speaker at our assembly in Dallas. His talk has become a classic for me – both as a lover of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, and of the South she loved so dearly. With his permission I reprint his copywrited article.



Address to the Twenty-sixth Annual Assembly of the Diocese of the South
Dallas, July 22, 2004
by Father Paul Yerger

parkers-backI was asked to speak on evangelizing the South, but I don’t feel adequate to the assigned title. Archbishop Dmitri has planted in us the vision of an Orthodox South, and by his own life and work has shown us how to carry it out. That’s why so many of us sit here tonight.

I’d like to speak to a particular limited aspect of that vision. We have made much progress, but it seems to me we haven’t much engaged the culture of the South. Orthodox missionaries of the past lifted up to God what they could of the culture they found. We have many Southern converts who have attempted to leave their own culture behind and embrace some other one. What do we find in the culture of the South that is somehow seeking Orthodox Christianity?

Vladyko speaks positively of his Baptist upbringing – in some respects Southern Protestants laid a good foundation, and we reap where they labored. More than most places the South still cherishes basic Christian values: marriage, family, community. Many of our Southern converts were attracted to the stability of the Orthodox Church for this reason.

It’s deeper than that: go up in one of these gleaming glass towers in Dallas, realms of high technology and global enterprise. Look at the computer screens where these workers ply their trade. When one of them leaves his desk and the screen saver comes up, as likely as not it says, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God…” or “For God so loved the world…” – or stuck around the edge of the screen may be a prayer or a Psalm verse. Scratch many an urban Southern technocrat, and not far under the skin are Bible stories and characters, memories of altar calls on hot summer nights, addictive hymn tunes, images of heaven and hell (especially the latter).

I’d like to introduce an old friend of mine, the writer Flannery O’Connor, who reposed in 1964. I did not know her in the flesh but have read her so long I call her a friend. She was a Georgia girl, a devout Roman Catholic whose short life included much physical suffering, who had a particular gift for capturing in words the spiritual warfare raging in many rural Southern souls. I recommend to you her two volumes of short stories and two short novels, as well as her letters and essays.

When asked once why the South had produced so many writers and artists, without hesitation she said, “Because we lost the War.” That’s part of who we are in the South. A culture, or a person, that has never lost doesn’t understand a big part of human experience. Here in Texas it’s the Alamo that’s remembered, not San Jacinto. Many things are somehow connected with this: a deep sense of the irony and mystery of human life, an affinity for the underdog, for some an adulation of heroes and glory, whether in wars, athletics, or automobile races; and for some a yearning for a past that never was, another life that might have been. Unfortunately it’s easy for some Southern Orthodox just to substitute another lost empire, the Byzantine or the Russian, as the place to escape to instead of the Old South.

Flannery O’Connor described the South as “Christ haunted.” I want to tell you about one of her characters, O. E. Parker, in her last story, Parker’s Back.

Parker was fourteen when he saw a man in a fair, tattooed from head to foot. Except for his loins which were girded with a panther hide, the man’s skin was patterned in what seemed from Parker’s distance-he was near the back of the tent, standing on a bench-a single intricate design of brilliant color. The man, who was small and sturdy, moved about on the platform, flexing his muscles so that the arabesque of men and beasts and flowers on his skin appeared to have a subtle motion of its own. Parker was filled with emotion, lifted up as some people are when the flag passes. He was a boy whose mouth habitually hung open. He was heavy and earnest, as ordinary as a loaf of bread. When the show was over, he had remained standing on the bench, staring where the tattooed man had been, until the tent was almost empty.

Parker had never before felt the least motion of wonder in himself. Until he saw the man at the fair, it did not enter his head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed. Even then it did not enter his head, but a peculiar unease settled in him. It was as if a blind boy had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know his destination had been changed.

He had his first tattoo some time after-the eagle perched on the cannon. It was done by a local artist. It hurt very little, just enough to make it appear to Parker to be worth doing. This was peculiar too for before he had thought that only what did not hurt was worth doing…

Shortly after this he quit school “because he could” and joined the Navy.

…Everywhere he went he picked up more tattoos.

He had stopped having lifeless ones like anchors and crossed rifles. He had a tiger and a panther on each shoulder, a cobra coiled about a torch on his chest, hawks on his thighs, Elizabeth II and Philip over where his stomach and liver were respectively. He did not care much what the subject was so long as it was colorful; on his abdomen he had a few obscenities but only because that seemed the proper place for them. Parker would be satisfied with each tattoo about a month, then something about it that had attracted him would wear off. Whenever a decent-sized mirror was available, he would get in front of it and study his overall look. The effect was not of one intricate arabesque of colors but of something haphazard and botched. A huge dissatisfaction would come over him and he would go off and find another tattooist and have another space filled up. The front of Parker was almost completely covered but there were no tattoos on his back. He had no desire for one anywhere he could not readily see it himself. As the space on the front of him for tattoos decreased, his dissatisfaction grew and became general.

After one of his furloughs, he didn’t go back to the navy but remained away without official leave, drunk, in a rooming house in a city he did not know. His dissatisfaction, from being chronic and latent, had suddenly become acute and raged in him. It was as if the panther and the lion and the serpents and the eagles and the hawks had penetrated his skin and lived inside him in a raging warfare.

Eventually Parker married a woman named Sarah Ruth Cates. Her father was a Straight Gospel preacher, but he was away, “spreading it in Florida.” She was a plain severe thin girl who “was always sniffing up sin. She did not smoke or dip, drink whiskey, use bad language or paint her face, and God knew some paint would have improved it, Parker thought.” She was the only woman he had met who was not fascinated by his tattoos. She refused to look at them and called them “vanity of vanities.

“Parker could not understand why he stayed with her. He “did nothing much when he was home but listen to what the judgement seat of God would be like for him if he didn’t change his ways.”

…Dissatisfaction began to grow so great in Parker that there was no containing it outside of a tattoo. It had to be his back. There was no help for it. A dim half-formed inspiration began to work in his mind. He visualized having a tattoo put there that Sarah Ruth would not be able to resist-a religious subject. He thought of an open book with HOLY BIBLE tattooed under it and an actual verse printed on the page. This seemed just the thing for a while; then he began to hear her say, “Ain’t I already got a real Bible? What you think I want to read the same verse over and over for when I can read it all?” He needed something better even than the Bible! He thought about it so much that he began to lose sleep.

At this time Parker had an apocalyptic experience. Daydreaming, he drove a tractor into a tree and it burst into flames. Thrown to the ground, he looked up to see his own shoes, which he had somehow come out of, burning in the wreckage. Immediately as if fleeing something he drove furiously into the city and burst into the tattoo artist’s studio.

 …”Let me see the book you got with all the pictures of God in it,” Parker said breathlessly. “The religious one.”

. . .The artist went over to a cabinet at the back of the room and began to look over some art books. “Who are you interested in?” he said, “saints, angels, Christs or what?”

“God,” Parker said.

“Father, Son or Spirit?”

“Just God,” Parker said impatiently. “Christ. I don’t care. Just so it’s God.”

The artist returned with a book. He moved some papers off another table and put the book down on it and told Parker to sit down and see what he liked. “The up-to-date ones are in the back,” he said.

Parker sat down with the book and wet his thumb. He began to go through it, beginning at the back where the up-to-date pictures were. Some of them he recognized-The Good Shepherd, Forbid Them Not, The Smiling Jesus, Jesus the Physician’s Friend, but he kept turning rapidly backwards and the pictures became less and less reassuring. One showed a gaunt green dead face streaked with blood. One was yellow with sagging purple eyes. Parker’s heart began to beat faster and faster until it appeared to be roaring inside him like a great generator. He flipped the pages quickly, feeling that when he reached the one ordained, a sign would come. He continued to flip through until he had almost reached the front of the book. On one of the pages a pair of eyes glanced at him swiftly. Parker sped on, then stopped. His heart too appeared to cut off; there was absolute silence. It said as plainly as if silence were a language itself, GO BACK.

Parker returned to the picture-the haloed head of a flat stern Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes. He sat there trembling; his heart began slowly to beat again as if it were being brought to life by a subtle power.

“You found what you want?” the artist asked.

Parker’s throat was too dry to speak. He got up and thrust the book at the artist, opened at the picture.

“That’ll cost you plenty,” the artist said. “You don’t want all those little blocks though, just the outline and some better features.”

“Just like it is,” Parker said, “just like it is or nothing.”

When he sees the tattoo with the aid of mirrors, Parker “turned white and moved away. The eyes in the reflected face continued to look at him – still, straight, all-demanding, enclosed in silence. … The eyes that were now forever on his back were eyes to be obeyed.”

He drove through the night to show his gift to his wife. “It seemed to him that all along that was what he wanted, to please her.” He arrived just before dawn to find himself locked out of his house. He knocked on the door.

“Who’s there?”

“Me,” Parker said, “O.E.”

… “I don’t know no O.E.”

When they first met, Sarah Ruth had extracted from him his real name, which he had previously revealed to no one.. . .

…”Who’s there?” the voice from inside said and there a quality about it now that seemed final. The knob rattled and the voice said peremptorily, “Who’s there, I ast you?”

Parker bent down and put his mouth near the stuffed keyhole. “Obadiah,” he whispered and all at once he felt the light pouring through him, turning his spider web soul into a perfect arabesque of colors, a garden of trees and birds and beasts.

“Obadiah Elihue!” he whispered.

The door opened and he stumbled in. Sarah Ruth loomed there, hands on her hips. . . .Trembling, Parker set about lighting the kerosene lamp.

“What’s the matter with you, wasting that kerosene this near daylight?” she demanded. “I ain’t got to look at you.

“A yellow glow enveloped them. Parker put the match down and began to unbutton his shirt.

“And you ain’t going to have none of me this near morning,” she said.”Shut your mouth, he said quietly. “Look at this and then I don’t want to hear no more out of you.” He removed the shirt and turned his back to her.

“Another picture,” Sarah Ruth growled. “I might have known you was off after putting some more trash on yourself.”

Parker’s knees went hollow under him. He wheeled around and cried, “Look at it! Don’t just say that! Look at it!”

“I done looked,” she said.

“Don’t you know who it is?” he cried in anguish.

“No, who is it?” Sarah Ruth said. “It ain’t anybody I know.”

“It’s him,” Parker said.

“Him who?”

“God!” Parker cried.

“God? God don’t look like that!”

“What do you know how he looks?” Parker moaned. “You ain’t seen him.”

“He don’t look,” Sarah Ruth said. “He’s a spirit. No man shall see his face.”

“Idolatry!” Sarah Ruth screamed. “Idolatry! Enflaming yourself with idols under every green tree! I can put up with lies and vanity but I don’t want no idolater in this house!” and she grabbed up the broom and began to thrash him across the shoulders with it.

Parker was too stunned to resist. He sat there and let her beat him until she had nearly knocked him senseless and large welts had formed on the face of the tattooed Christ. Then he staggered up and made for the door.

She stamped the broom two or three times on the floor and went to the window and shook it out to get the taint of him off it. Still gripping it, she looked toward the pecan tree and her eyes hardened still more. There he was-who called himself Obadiah Elihue-leaning against the tree, crying like a baby.

Christ-haunted — Southern Christianity is split down the middle, head and heart divided asunder. There is head religion: some tincture of Calvin, all about law and judgement, righteousness and sin, the fearful grace of the sovereign God tamed by respectability. Then there is heart religion: Pentecost, revivals, Jesus and the Holy Ghost called forth on demand to save souls and soothe the heartaches of life. And there are redneck existentialists, too, who want nothing of either, like Hazel Motes in O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood, who preaches the Church Without Christ: it ain’t got no Jesus to die for you and make you feel guilty about it.

Such is O.E. Parker when we first meet him: he says he doesn’t see what there is to be saved from. But something attracts him to Sarah Ruth; he is hungry for something: to love something greater than himself, to partake of beauty and glory and mystery, like the tattooed man he saw at the fair. But when he tries in his own way to put on Christ, to give her his whole self, his whole body, his back that he could not see, he is rejected. The deepest longings of his heart find no place in her religion.

Orthodoxy is the only Church that puts it all together: the mind in the heart, the body and the spirit, the word and the image, grace and freedom, the good God who loves mankind. This is the “evangel”: the Good News for the South. Her deepest longings are met here. As Vladyko has taught us, all that is good and true in Southern Protestantism is here. Jesus and the Holy Ghost are here: the real Jesus confessed as Lord and God and Saviour, risen from the dead. We are steeped in the Bible and love to hear its cadences. We also know that deep sense of the irony and mystery of human life, that yearning for something lost. The writers of the Bible knew this yearning well: By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. This yearning is really a yearning for the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.

Let us not make of Orthodoxy another law to be obeyed, another head religion to feel proud of, another emotional trip, another escape to some other world. Let us proclaim it as the Good News that the people of the South and every land are hungry for.

Quotations from Parker’s Back in Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories, New York, Farrar, Strauss, 1993.


  1. This has brought me to tears, Father.

    I have often thought that if Orthodoxy “takes hold” in America, it will be here in the South.

    I live in Georgia. This place is spiritually starved, and many people (at least the ones I know) find their faith to be dead, trampled down by the sheer inertia of modern, rationalistic thinking. Perhaps we’ve become dried out and hollow enough now to be engulfed with the flame of Orthodoxy.

    “How long, O lord, how long?”

  2. Wow! An excellent post! An awesome post (I little use that word “awesome” except when describing God Himself, and one or two created things, like this post). Glad I visited your blog today, Father. You have blessed me with it, and I want to bless others, so I will be posting on my blog an intro and a link to it, as I sometimes do. Axios, adelphos mou agapitos, axios!

  3. I remember coming across this article some time ago, and it nearly brings me to tears somehow. I don’t know if it’s my own Southern pride, or there really is truth to this and other things I’ve heard, but I agree with Brantley; if Orthodoxy really takes hold anywhere, it will be here. Now if only we could convince Southern Protestants we’re not just Catholics with beards. ;-D

    “I’d like to speak to a particular limited aspect of that vision. We have made much progress, but it seems to me we haven’t much engaged the culture of the South. Orthodox missionaries of the past lifted up to God what they could of the culture they found. We have many Southern converts who have attempted to leave their own culture behind and embrace some other one. What do we find in the culture of the South that is somehow seeking Orthodox Christianity?”

    This reminds me of something our choir director did recently. He took the music from a Sacred Harp song, and applied it to the Trasagion. He did the same thing also with a communion hymn.

    What I find amazing is that the music fits right in. It doesn’t sound out of place at all in the Liturgy (for one thing, we keep the volume at a more ‘liturgical’ level). It seems to be rather well-received. The only sad thing is…people don’t seem to know where it came from (I’ve heard it referred to as “the Native American music” or something like that).

    Of all the music we sing in Liturgy, somehow I’m able to remember how to sing that Trisagion better than I can sing anything else. My wife jokes that it’s because I’m a Southerner, that the music resonates with me in a particular way. 😉

  4. Reading Miss O’Connor’s “Parker’s Back” cured me instantly and permanently of iconoclasm, like drinking tonic boiled with mustard greens cures you of leg cramps.

    Thanks be to God.

  5. Father Bless,

    Orthodoxy is a “way,” (Acts 9:2); that is, as a path
    and way of life, which leads to union with Christ, to deification.
    The ultimate “way” is Christ Himself (St. John 14:62).

    With Love in Jesus Christ

  6. Father,
    Great post. I live in the Charlotte, NC area. What I find interesting in this area is that when I meet people and start talking and they find out that I’m an Orthodox Christian they usually respond, “Is that Christian?”
    But, that opens a great door to explain the origins of Orthodoxy and usually it grabs their attention because it is so new to them.
    There are two large Greek Orthodox Churches in Charlotte and the one I am a member of has many Protestant converts. And we have several right now who are attending and are learning the faith.
    It just takes time and patience.
    As another said, “Now if only we could convince Southern Protestants we’re not just Catholics with beards”

  7. Southern culture is slow as is Orthodoxy. You don’t transform a culture in a lifetime. But many of us in Southern Churches are clearly having an impact, small and slow as it is. How long til the work of St. Herman bore fruit in Alaska – and there we were dealing with a small culture. But Christ is honored here in the South. “Jesus” is never used by a Southerner when he swears – if he does a. either he wasn’t raised right b. he’s been spending too much time with non-southerners or c. too much tv. It’s small, but like many things, it is a marker for something much deeper.

  8. Thank you, Fr Stephen, from this Florida cracker, now living in Orthodox Cyprus and having felt the first twinge of homesickness in a long time.

  9. I absolutely loved this talk when we were blessed to hear Fr. Paul share it. Thanks for sharing it here again as well. We’ve referenced it many times here in our home and lives.

  10. Let me say that when I read O’Connor after recommendations among my fellow Orthodox… I just didn’t get it. I read all of one collection.. but except in a few places where I felt she really captured people I recognized… to a Tee… and made me laugh… the other places were so often dark, despairing, and dismal… I found myself wondering whether she even liked the South (didn’t seem like it), and moreover, whether her vision was more of one more in need of Christ… or if Christ haunted… it seems meant more as if He really was more ghost than in our presence. So I can’t say I liked the stuff.

    But the way this excerpt is presented offers a fresh start. So thank you for the invitation to re-read and pickup what I missed. I’ll need to find more help… but at least this is a start. Thank you.

  11. Like my friend, Father Paul Yerger, I’m a huge fan of Flannery O’Connor. I’m reading the new biography, “Flannery”, right now, which is good, but her letters, “The Habit of Being,” are my favorite. As a Southerner, a writer, and an Orthodox Christian (that’s the order of my coming into each of those roles) Miss O’Connor inspired me to write truthfully, from my core as a Christian, so that my world view infuses my writing, but not to try to fit a category, such as “Christian writing.”

    I’m a big fan of your blog, Father Stephen, but I forget to check it regularly….l wish you would set up a subscription box so we could receive emails each time you post.

    Following you from over in Memphis….. Kh. Susan Cushman.

  12. Dear Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for sharing this address by Fr. Paul Yerger. As a man with Southern roots, I too, am in hearty agreement with the perspectives given in this blog.

    Archbishop DMITRI helped the Evangelical Orthodox Church in our journey to fully embrace the Orthodox Faith and to be received into the communion of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

    From my Southern Baptist roots in Oklahoma, I too, feel that embracing the Orthodox Faith and Worship has been more of a fulfillment, than a rejection of my Christian upbringing.

    Please take note of the website: http://www.gettoknowtheoriginal.net

    It is a feeble attempt on the part of a Southern man, to express our yearning for the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.

    Fr. John

  13. “…but it seems to me we haven’t much engaged the culture of the South. Orthodox missionaries of the past lifted up to God what they could of the culture they found. We have many Southern converts who have attempted to leave their own culture behind and embrace some other one.”
    I’ve read this post several times before but it never really spoke to me. This time, however, the above quote jumped out. I live on the west coast and it doesn’t seem as if the churches are engaging the culture here either. Instead it seems as if we are encouraged to be Russian or Arab or Georgian, etc. What is the matter with being an American? I know god loves us too, but I’m not so sure about his church. Or the Priests I know.
    I’ve been reading you for years Fr. Stephen, glad you are around and glad you write.

  14. Anna, I don’t know anything about California, but here in Western NC mountains, I tell my goddaughter — a redneck hillbilly — that Orthodoxy will have put down its true roots when we speak of the Holy Mamaws. The mamaws will pass down their own local lenten recipes, bring baskets of vegetables from their gardens to be blessed at the feast of the Transfiguration, cover their Pascha baskets with quilt-design covers. Collards and black-eyed peas will likely become the traditional St Basil’s Day/Circumcision of Christ feast around here! But the important thing will be the passing down of their love, faith, and piety.

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