"I Love to Tell the Story": The Competing Exceptionalism of Appalachian Religion Open Access

Doster, Meredith Abigail (2017)

Permanent URL: https://etd.library.emory.edu/concern/etds/9z903061d?locale=en


The story of "Appalachian religion" brings longstanding investments in both critical and nostalgic interpretations of a region and its religious cultures to the fore. "'I Love to Tell the Story': The Competing Exceptionalism of Appalachian Religion" explores how one compound term authorizes a particular interpretation of "Appalachianness" as sui generis and innately religious. Interpreting "Appalachian religion" as a distorting category that posits religious difference as a hallmark of regional identity underscores the competing exceptionalisms that shape the intersection of personal, regional, and national storytelling. This dissertation considers the mechanisms by which one term makes region-wide claims but confers "Appalachianness" on a limited elect, thereby perpetuating and authorizing an Appalachia that wields stories of exceptionalism as self-authorizing tools and mechanisms of exclusion.

In the North American landscape, stories of self, region, and nation collaborate, documenting unwitting allegiances that ascribe gospel-like authority to personal truth claims. Writing at the intersection of Appalachian and Religious Studies long dominated by Catherine Albanese's case study on "regional religion," I parse the stories that name and claim Appalachian religious difference to redress disciplinary structures that authorize "facts" and "fictions" alike. While stories can be read at face value, proving meaningful to those who name and claim them, my intervention challenges traditional readings of "Appalachian religion" to relate its storytelling apparatus to dominant modes of American scripturalizing.

To read the story of "Appalachian religion" for evidence of competing centers and conflicting narratives focuses on the discursive formation of a compound term that connotes a minoritized tradition studied primarily within a marginal(ized) discipline. Appalachia and the story of "Appalachian religion" are far from traditional centers of power, but their traction in the national imaginary begs questions about how we might leverage the storytelling apparatus that authorizes regional and national exceptionalism to reframe the qualities of both "Appalachianness" and "Americanness." Examining the collusion of self, regional, and national storytelling in the authorization of one regional religion, I theorize the stories we love to tell about "Appalachian religion" as a mode of American scripturalizing that produces and perpetuates exceptionalism as gospel truth. To query and unsettle these truth claims, I posit auto-historiographical lifestory-telling as a methodology capable of demythologizing the stories that shape lives and worlds.

Table of Contents

Prologue: "This is My Story, This is My Song" • 1

Introduction: The Story • 13

Pivoting from Soundscape to Story • 21

A Storied Region and the Either/Or Story of "Appalachian Religion" • 27

Appalachia, Appalachian, Appalachianist: Naming A Field, Telling A Story • 33

Scripturalizing (from) the Ex-Center: The Competing Exceptionalisms of "Appalachianness" and "Americanness" • 39

Lifestories and Lifeworlds: (Story)Telling Auto-Historiography • 46

Retelling "American" Religious History • 49

Appalachia as Story: The Religion of Exceptionalism • 53

Naming, Claiming, and Reframing "Appalachian Religion" • 63

Chapter One: Naming Appalachian Religion • 71

"Appalachian Religion" in Two Stories • 76

Ron Rash, Cratis Williams, and the Facts and Fictions of "Appalachian Religion" • 78

Fred Craddock and Institutional(izing) Stories of Religious Difference • 94

The Positional, Paradigmatic Exceptionalism of "Appalachian Religion" • 113

Chapter Two: Claiming Appalachian Religion • 116

The Value(s) of "Appalachianness" • 116

(Pro)claiming Innate Religiosity • 120

The (Sui Generis) Story and Study of "Appalachian Religion" • 126

From "Appalachian Values" to "Regional Religion": A Case Study in Exceptionalism • 134

The School of "Appalachian Religion" • 141

Loyal Jones' Story of Faith and Meaning • 153

Who Counts? The Representational Politics of "Appalachian Religion" • 160

Chapter Three: Reframing Appalachian Religion • 163

The Danger of a Single Story: Reframing Literature, Lifestory, and Lifeworld • 165

(Life)Story as (Thinking) Technology: An Auto-Historiographical Exercise in Reframing • 171

Reframing Lifestory and Lifeworld of "Appalachian Religion" • 174

Storied Encounters, Scholarly Formations: Where Africa and Appalachia Meet • 177

Reframing Legends: Barbara Ellen Smith's Auto-Historiography • 186

Competing Appalachias, Contested Frames of Reference • 198

Conclusion: Can There Be an "Appalachian Religion"? • 201

Begging the Question(s) • 201

Recounting the Stor(ies) • 210

An Auto-Historiographical Turn: Killing My/Our Darlings • 214

Two Final Stories: The Next Generation • 218

Epilogue: "Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now" • 223

Works Cited • 227

Appendix A • 257

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