Numerous surveys tell us that denominational identity is in decline. Someone will not automatically attend a Presbyterian church, for example, just because their parents did. One survey even claims that white, mainline Protestants are more loyal to their brand of toothpaste!
Could this relate to the fact that Crest brands its product far better than the Presbyterian church?
In seminary, I learned certain theological and organizational attributes that defined Presbyterianism. In practice, I have discovered that, when people in rural areas identify as Presbyterian, they base this claim much more on intuition than reason. They are referring to “my people” and their way of existing in the world. To be Presbyterian is an attitude, a worldview, and a commitment to others. It is almost tribal. And people are extremely loyal such ways of life.
Doris Betts brilliantly illustrates these themes in her story, “This Is the Only Time I’ll Tell It.” The narrative begins when a recently widowed father is caught abusing his newborn. In fact, he is holding her by the legs and dunking her into a bucket of water! Zelene, who had been walking by the house, hears the infant’s screams and literally throws herself through the back window to come to the rescue. The father runs away, while she gives CPR and brings the child back to life.
Zelene is obviously bold, courageous, and heroic; she is also a member of the town’s Presbyterian church. The father is eventually incarcerated and 37 lifetime Presbyterians tell the state authorities a “righteous lie” about the existence of next-of-kin. They want Zelene, who had never married nor had children, to raise the baby instead of the father’s notoriously drunk relatives. As Betts’ narrator puts it, “There’s nobody can lie like a Presbyterian if he thinks good sense requires it.” Presbyterians believe that our ultimate allegiance is to the kingdom of God, not to the so-called powers that be.
A few sentences later we read, “And Zelene was a Presbyterian–God, yes.” Why such an adamant statement? To be Presbyterian means that Zelene goes to church every week on foot, rain or snow. And every week, she faithfully offers to the preacher a hand-woven, oakstave basket full of produce from her garden. But then her parishioners would refill those same baskets and put them back on Zelene’s porch. The commitment to sacrificial giving ran both ways. What a profound understanding of stewardship!
Zelene knew that life was hard. As she puts it, “You have to be Presbyterian to feel that bitter in the dark.” Ironically, Zelene names her adopted child, Silver, and raises her on a subsistence farm. They work from dawn to dusk, eeking out a living with a garden, a few chickens, a cow, and “one hound dog so dumb it split one ear and then two on the same barbwire fence.” Silver grows up learning the value of work. When she was six, she recited the Children’s Catechism to the whole congregation–she had memorized thirty-one pages! Was she Presbyterian? God, yes!
Throughout history, those outside the denomination have pointed to this aspect as our defining feature. Max Weber famously coined the phrase, “the Protestant work ethic,” to describe people who willed a better life by their daily sacrifices. But what often goes unnoticed is that Presbyterian theology is rooted in grace, not works.
In this, Zelene proves herself to be a true Presbyterian. She baptized Silver as an infant, shortly after her near-murder at the hands of her father. Zelene felt this ritual meant “that water meant for drowning had gone inside this child, that no grown body–at any size–would ever be fully dry of that knowledge.”
I’ve read pages and pages of theology, and that is one of the most beautiful rationales for public, infant baptism I have ever encountered. As we learn in the catechism, we are baptized into Christ’s death in the promise of new life. Silver’s life made this story come alive. Zelene knew that baptism is a public testimony to what God had already done; it is a declaration of absolute faith in the transforming love of God over every evil. Am I proud to claim that as part of my denomination’s heritage? God, yes!