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Excerpt: 'Between the Bridge and the River'

White Americans have a very unusual sense of history. They make it up as they go along, constantly revising to suit their tastes in a manner that would make Stalin blush. Very few of them saw any irony in the fact that during a recent nasty Balkans conflict, when Uncle Sam intervened to stop the Serbs from ethnically cleansing the Bosnians, the military action was performed using Apache helicopter gunships. Helicopters named after a people that had been ethnically cleansed in the United States less than one hundred years previously. Sixteen-lane highways across the sacred burial grounds. Yee-hah.

I-40 runs all the way from Nashville, Tennessee, to Barstow in California, where it joins I-15, which can either take you north to Las Vegas and then on to Salt Lake City or south to Los Angeles and Mexico. For most of the way it follows old Route 66, a highway White America remembers fondly because for them it conjures up a time of innocence before cigarettes gave people cancer and gasoline fumes burned a hole in the sky. A time before homosexuality and drugs, a time when the only threats to the world were Soviet Russia, aggressive extraterrestrials, or perhaps the occasional mutant insect that had inadvertently fallen into a nuclear reactor and grown to five thousand times its original size and was intent on eating Chicago.

In short, Route 66 was a symbol of what White America is really nostalgic for: a time that never existed.

Saul and Leon were, of course, White American. They used history, their country's and their own, and any suitable religious doctrine to suit their own ends. They were survivors. Like roaches.

Saul and Leon were barkers at the carnival tent catering to the low-income end of America's spiritually disenfranchised. (Historically, it is better for religions to cater to the poor because there is always more of them. They are more desperate, so therefore will cough up as much money and devotion as they can, plus their life on Earth is unpleasant enough for them to buy the idea that things might actually improve after death.)

Saul and Leon fell into the arms of the Lord for the first time almost immediately on leaving the orphanage. They had traveled by night, south from Atlanta, through Macon County to northern Florida and the little town of Crawford's Creek.

This is true hillbilly country.

Hillbillies are much maligned, as most of them place hospitality and kindness above cynicism and wit and therefore are deemed intellectually inferior by the cynical and witty who occasionally pass through their domain on the way to somewhere noteworthy and sophisticated. Hillbillies don't mind this, of course, because they place hospitality and kindness above cynicism and wit and therefore the cynicism and wit of the cynical and witty is wasted on them. No real harm done.

However, the cynical and witty often think this is just ignorance and, as with all cynicism and wit, there is some truth in it.

There is a streak of anti-intellectualism, a deep mistrust of smart folks, running through America's rural population, which is understandable when you realize that intellectual capitalist scientists applied farming methods that led to horrid diseases in the livestock.

Diseases caused by animals eating reconstituted organ parts of their own parents in the name of smarter economics.

Therefore the country folks like to keep things simple, so they don't respond well to metaphor or allegory.

This can lead to problems when approaching ancient enigmatic scripture, which is almost entirely allegorical.

For example, in the Bible it says:

And these signs shall follow them that believe; in my name they shall drive out demons; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents and if they drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them. They shall lay hands on the sick and they shall recover. (Mark, chapter 16, verses 17–18)

People who embrace the concept of allegory would argue that this passage means basically accept God—the notion of a benign spiritual entity that controls an essentially ordered and pragmatic Universe—and you'll feel a lot more comfortable, physically, spiritually, and emotionally. That you'll be in a much better condition to help those around you, and by being of service to those others, not only will they be helped, but you will, too. That faith is the lifeblood of the soul, and the world is a lot more dangerous and terrifying without it. Or something like that. What this passage is almost certainly not advocating is the handling of real poisonous snakes and drinking real poison, especially as it was written in a time and place where you could hardly walk a mile without tripping over a couple of utterly deadly toxin-injecting serpents.

Also, there was probably no talking snake in the Garden of Eden, and for that matter, the existence of an actual place called the Garden of Eden seems unlikely (this, of course, does not count the nightclub in Hoboken of the same name).

God is probably fine with people eating apples, Eve wasn't actually made from Adam's rib, and Jonah wasn't really eaten by an actual large fish. (Although it is probably true that the people of Sodom loved it in the pooper.)

It is worth noting that one of the most prominent snake-handling cults, the Church of God with Signs Following, was founded by George Went Hensley, a Pentecostal minister who died tragically, if predictably, from a snakebite.

This being said, the congregation of the Christian Reformed Fellowship of Born Again Snake Handling Pentecostal Baptists (not associated in any way with the Hensley group) were a godsend to Leon and Saul. It was from these snake handlers that Saul's true vision would eventually come. They would be his inspiration for the powerful moneymaking juggernaut the Holy United Church of America, where Leon's charisma and astonishing singing voice and Saul's duplicity and greed would finally be joined in a spectacular marriage of Religion and Show Business. Of course, churches don't spring up overnight.

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Craig Ferguson