Editor's note: Today's guest post comes from Matt Sutton, author of the outstanding work Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America. Matt currently teaches at Oakland University in Michigan, but will soon be a professor at Washington State University. Matt takes on a recent review of Aaron Ketchell's Holy Hills of the Ozarks.
by Matt Sutton
Jerry Falwell is dead, and James Dobson may be increasingly irrelevant, but the culture wars are still alive and well on the pages of Christianity Today’s Books and Culture. This was evident most recently in Frederica Mathewes-Green’s ridiculous review of Aaron K. Ketchell’s Holy Hills of the Ozarks: Religion and Tourism in Branson, Missouri (Johns Hopkins University Press). She entitles the review “Holy Hegemony.” Although she assumes that we all know that this refers to Ketchell’s book, it is not so clear once the article begins. Who is really practicing hegemony here? The young scholar publishing his first book and trying to begin a career, or a popular writer and veteran of the evangelical lecture circuit who felt it necessary to write a scathing, distorted review of his book, a review that entirely misses the point?
Mathewes-Green begins her article by poking fun at Branson, explaining that by “11:00 pm . . . everyone is snug in bed at the Red Roof Inn or the Best Western.” Once she establishes that she doesn’t take Branson too seriously herself, she opens her tirade against Ketchell. “It's hard for him to see the ways Branson has changed,” she writes, because “he finds Branson baffling to start with. He recognizes it as representing one side of a culture war (the other side, it appears) and focuses on that to the exclusion of anything else.” She then takes shots at him for his acknowledgements (which is always an easy target for those who can’t mount a legitimate challenge at an author’s evidence), and tells us that Ketchell is—wait for it—a Catholic(!), implying that he obviously doesn’t get Protestants. She accuses him of basing his analysis on “sociological texts rather than by talking to Christians directly.” Mathewes-Green totally ignores the fact that the book is chock full of interviews with Branson Christians and tourists. Why let the evidence get in the way of a good skewering? Her biggest problem is that “A good deal of Ketchell's hand-wringing is provoked by culture-war bogeys from thirty years ago. . . All through the book he is caught between, on the one hand, his perception that Christian faith is oppressively forced on Branson visitors, and, on the other hand, the evidence.”
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.
Matthew Avery Sutton