by John Wilson

Hegemony International

A response to Matthew Avery Sutton.

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Curiouser and curiouser. When I read this paragraph, I was baffled. I didn't remember any reference in Mathewes–Green's article to Ketchell's acknowledgments. She does refer to his introduction, which is a substantial chapter in itself (subtitled "The Moral Vineyards," it runs from p. xi to p. xxxvi in Ketchell's book). But just to be sure, I went back and re–read the article. Nope. No mention at all of Ketchell's acknowledgments. How did that phrase go: "always an easy target for those who can't mount a legitimate challenge at an author's evidence"?

By the way, one of the writers who commented on Sutton's post at Religion in American History was Ed Blum, who has written for B&C and has another piece in the queue (and reviews of two of his books in the mag are pending). Blum took Sutton's assertions at face value—evidently he didn't bother to read the article himself—and added a bit of moralizing of his own. Is this how good intellectual conversation proceeds?

And the business about Catholics and Protestants … . I started to wonder as I read if Sutton was under the misapprehension that Mathewes–Green is an evangelical. In fact, of course, she is the most widely known popular voice of Orthodox Christianity in America. She herself has been quite critical of evangelicals and evangelicalism on occasion. And for some time she reviewed movies regularly for Our Sunday Visitor, a Catholic publication. But apart from all that, Sutton has simply distorted what she wrote in her piece. Here is what she said:

Ketchell explains that he began studying Branson because his thesis advisor specialized in Marian apparitions, and the topic of folk religion drew his interest. (Of his own background, he says that his family "has for many generations been staunchly Catholic.") As he thought about a past visit to the Ozarks, "I recalled that in that region one could not find statues of Mary or paintings of St. Sebastian skewered with arrows, yet its religious attractions were comparable mixtures of sacred and secular." (I am stumped as to how a statue of Mary is a "mixture of sacred and secular"; I can only guess that Ketchell considers art intrinsically secular because it partakes of the material world.)

How Sutton got from that paragraph to his response is a mystery, like much else in his piece. But worse even than all these inaccuracies and distortions is the use to which they are put: to charge that Mathewes–Green has systematically, willfully misrepresented Ketchell's book. There is room for disagreement with any review. But Sutton has done both Mathewes–Green and his readers a great injustice. In fact, as will be clear to any impartial reader, Mathewes–Green read Ketchell's book carefully. She raises a number of specific points—here, to take just one example among many:

Ketchell states that "Branson's tourism industry has utilized religious rhetoric to imbue landscape with a sense of inviolability grounded in utopian imaginings of the human–topography relationship." It uses "consumer culture to express theologico–geographic sentiments." At hymn–sings in Silver Dollar City's rustic chapel, "it is easy to characterize the brand of religiosity offered at the site as Reformation–derived and often Manichean." (More than once I felt like borrowing Inigo Montoya's line from The Princess Bride: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.")

Mani pops up again in the Veterans' Memorial Museum. Captured Axis materials there are accompanied by a note stating they are displayed as trophies of war, and intend no endorsement of Nazi views. In this Ketchell perceives "a Manichean world of absolute right and unconditional wrong—one that draws thick lines of ethical separation between religious and non–religious, country and city, and old–fashioned and modern." Yet later on, when writing about a protest Branson residents held against events involving the KKK and Christian Identity groups, Ketchell seems to approve. Perhaps some "thick lines of ethical separation" are better than others.

This strikes me as a persuasive criticism. Perhaps Sutton disgrees. I don't know. In any case, there are a number of such points in Mathewes–Green's article, based on an attentive reading of Ketchell's book. Indeed, one wishes that the editor for this book at Johns Hopkins University Press—one of the foremost university presses in the country—had read Ketchell even half as attentively as Mathewes–Green did.

Which reminds me of Sutton's conclusion:

No, it is Mathewes–Green who is ignoring the evidence. Holy Hills is a careful, balanced, and sophisticated analysis of Branson that incorporates the latest religious and culture studies theory. That Mathewes–Green read this book through the lens of the culture wars tells us a whole lot more about her than it does about Ketchell's brilliant and engaging book. For a different view of Holy Hills, see my review in Christian Century.

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