The girl taking my supper order looked at me as though I had just asked if I could sleep with her mother.
“We don’t serve beer here Sir,” she replied.
Raising my eyebrows I asked if a glass of wine might be possible and was met with the same slightly aghast uncomprehending stare. Welcome to the Bible Belt. To be fair I should have seen the writing on the wall, or more precisely the writing on the giant billboards beside the Interstate that afternoon. Two in particular had caused me no small degree of head shaking. ‘If you die tonight – you will meet God!’ Followed soon after by, ‘If you die tonight – heaven or hell?’ Both had been followed by a phone number the dialling of which would presumably send you the right way – for a small fee of course.
All of a sudden baptist churches were ‘thicker than fleas on a mangy dog’ as they say in Tennessee – although not generally about religious institutions. Shortly after a white SUV had pulled out in front of us and as I closed the gap I made out the registration plate – ‘CREATED’.
We spent a night in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a place crammed to the gills with god-fearing hillbillies intent on having the best of all possible times on this earth in the kitschy neon-lit funfair-meets-shoptillyoudrop-meets-wildwestsaloon confection of a town. Clearly not all god’s lambs are averse to tipping some of satan’s brew down their necks. A father and son duo in matching fluorescent green T-shirts emblazoned with verses from Matthew and the Corinthians were ranked around a circular bar with 20 other braying customers knocking back an array of flavoured Moonshine shots. Hallelujah, cried the barman as he swept the bottle round again.
We did not hang around Gatlinburg too long and headed west the following morning. Pigeon Forge was another long ribbon development of funfair-filled amusements for the masses. One illuminated advertisement almost made us stay for the evening: ‘Biblical Dining in A Theatrical Setting: Tonight at 6pm – Moses’. One can only wonder of what that meal and entertainment might have consisted of: Charlton Heston would have been oh so divine but I guess he’s doing that gig for real right now. Whatever, I’ll always regret having to drive on past.
In Nashville the size of the churches increased exponentially: they were the size of shopping malls with parking lots as large as football pitches beside them. God is big business in the south.
Out in the country again the smaller churches have names such as Souls’ Harbor or Heartsong. We stopped to get a cold drink in Leiper’s Fork. Settling down at a table next to a large group of elderly folk who I assumed were chatting away to each other only to realise that they are quoting scripture at each other. We are offered a small pamphlet, a tract on the ‘Essentials of Salvation’. I skim it quickly and it annoys me intensely with its ‘there is no other way . . . ‘ and ‘God says so . . ‘ text. The unforgiving black and white letters outlining a blinkered one-track ideology. My beer arrives and I enjoy my own public sinning on the Sabbath and raise my glass in plain view of the righteous folk across the way. They smile back, perhaps thinking I agree with their poorly written piece of propaganda.
And to round it all of nicely my favourite T-shirt worn by a sweet looking old man in a diner just outside Memphis Tennessee: ‘Got Jesus – it’s hell if you ain’t’.
There’s some truth in nearly all of it if you have a discerning eye: even my irreverent retina focused a little more clearly when I saw this written on a gravestone in Pembridge, Herefordshire, England: “Clearly there is nothing better for a man under the sun than to eat, drink and be merry”. Ecclesiastes 8:15.
Have a blessed day.