Review: Strangers and Friends at the Welcome Table

Marie W. Dallam

Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Oklahoma Honors College.

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Marie W. Dallam, "Review: Strangers and Friends at the Welcome Table," Journal of Southern Religion (20) (2018):

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James Hudnut-Beumler. Strangers and Friends at the Welcome Table: Contemporary Christianities in the American South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018. 278 pp. ISBN: 9781469640372.

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The subtitle of Strangers and Friends at the Welcome Table: Contemporary Christianities in the American South aptly describes the content of this book. Contextualizing interview data and site visits within contemporary scholarship and structuring the narrative around rich stories of individual actors, author James Hudnut-Beumler explores the vast continuum of southern religious engagement with issues relevant to modern American life. The book’s primary title, in concert with both the cover image of folded hands on a dining table and the first chapter’s focus on “hospitality,” could give a false impression that this book will focus on southern religious foodways. This is not the case. Rather, the book’s ten chapters are ideologically linked by the thread of religious diversity. Through specific examples, Hudnut-Beumler shows southern Christianity as a diverse and complex entity both in its institutional forms and in its responses to social change and social problems. Many stories he recounts belie the common stereotypes of southern Christianity as ultra-conservative and stuck in the past, while other stories show that stereotypes can also be rooted in chunks of truth. In all, his work provides a serious challenge to those scholars who would prefer to treat Christianity in the South as a monolith.

Beyond the conceptual link of diversity, the chapters primarily read as stand-alone essays about faith-based responses to various timely social issues. This is both a strength and a weakness. Some of the topics Hudnut-Beumler addresses have continued to develop beyond the bounds of his text. For instance, his exploration of racist uses of the Confederate Battle flag is somewhat outdated simply—and tragically—because so many additional news-making instances have occurred recently (the 2017 riots in Charlottesville, Virginia being only one). Likewise, the sexual transgressions revealed during Roy Moore’s 2017 run for senator of Alabama have far eclipsed the quaint tale told in the book of Moore’s efforts to promote America as a historically Christian nation. Thus, while these and other chapters are very engaging, there is still more to know about these stories; this is the inevitable pitfall of writing about present history.

Hudnut-Beumler is at his strongest when he engages in politically-tinged theological/religious critique. He deftly illuminates hypocrisy in “traditional” southern approaches and mindsets and does so in a way that will make readers uncomfortable, as they should be. The lilting moral imperative that flows through the text ultimately makes it seem more like a theological book than simply a history or cultural analysis. For that reason, this book is most appropriately suited to a popular Christian reading audience, with whom its theological undertones will resonate most strongly. Additionally, because Hudnut-Beumler presents religious history succinctly and ties it meaningfully to contemporary events, individual chapters could be useful in secular undergraduate classrooms; chapters such as those on Lost Cause religion, Pentecostalism, and megachurches could function very well in survey courses on modern Christianity, American religious history, or similar topics.

Hudnut-Beumler’s writing is engaging and at times evinces a dry wit. Whether writing about faith-based responses to victims of the 2005 hurricanes; what it means to be gay, southern, and Christian; or the experience of attending a Christian homeschooling conference, his nuanced stories will keep readers of all sorts glued to the page. Strangers and Friends most certainly demonstrates why we should all be using the plural when discussing Christianities in the American South, rather than falling back on tropes of compartmentalized regional identity.