Hello World, Welcome to the Bible Belt

Somewhere, there's a big book that determines how networks televise the Olympics.

In addition to the games, they are instructed to offer hours of pageantry, inspiring parables about athletes and sermons about what it all means. The final ingredient: Mini-documentaries that dissect whatever foreign, mysterious land is hosting the Olympics.

So hello world, welcome to the Bible Belt.

While some may question whether Atlanta remains in "the South," there's no doubt TV crews can find the real thing in Birmingham, Ala., Savannah, Ga., and the Tennessee and North Carolina mountain towns near the Ocoee River.

"Some parts of the South are definitely further south than others," said the Rev. Harold Bales, director of ministries for United Methodists in Western North Carolina. He also produces -- whenever he feels like it -- a newsletter called "The Southern- Fried Preacher." As a whole, he said, "the South remains a kind of strange country that some folks just can't figure out."

So God only knows what'll happen when 20,000-plus media professionals flock to the 17-day summer games, which should draw about 1.5 million people.

"You have to ask: What's different about the South, these days? What does it mean to be `Southern'? The problem is that I'm not even sure many Southerners have a rock-solid answer for questions like that, anymore," said Bales.

Bales said he keeps returning to three subjects -- food, family and faith. In Southern lingo, those are his three points (alliteration helps) and, yes, he has a poem. If you don't grasp the symbolism of three points and a poem, then you didn't grow up in a Southern pew.

Links between food and faith are fundamental. For many Southerners, church suppers remain weekly rituals and flocks may split while defining terms such as "barbecue" and "Brunswick stew."

In a poetic fit, Bales once composed a hymn to a beloved vegetable, while alluding to Southern populism. "Thou much-maligned by foolish folk, the suave, the chic, the mod," he wrote. "Remember, thou art nobler yet than they, dear humble pod! ... In skillet and in stewpot now, where knowing cooks all put thee, exult thou soul-food; take a bow. I love thee grand ole okree!"

But times change, even in Southern homes. Much has been written about the "new South" and the region's relatively recent transition from a agrarian economy into the age of supermalls. The result: Sweeping changes in the lives of children, parents and grandparents. Still, Southerners remain a few generations closer to older family patterns than many other Americans and, thus, are quick to defend the ties that bind.

"It wasn't fashionable, awhile back, to talk much about traditional families and loving your kinfolks," said Bales. "People said that kind of language excludes some people or just isn't realistic, today. Well, there aren't many people in the South who would agree with those kinds of complaints. The family never went out of style, down here, especially in Southern churches."

But Southerners know that family life has dark and light sides. The same is true of Southern faith, which Bales admitted can be infested with "creepy crawly things," such as racism, sexism, superstition and fear of religious minorities. Also, a lingering regional inferiority complex often causes a shrill defensiveness. Few Southern folks will be shocked if, amid headlines about church burnings, folks from the East and West coasts focus many Olympic reports on this dark side.

But the truth is more complex than that, said Bales. For example, the South contains as many or more truly interracial congregations as any other American region. Another example: The Southern tendency to dwell on issue of sin and evil also can make it easier to move people with appeals to repentance and justice.

"For sophisticated people, the power that religion has down here may not always be as logical as they'd like it to be," said Bales. "But you have to understand the appeal of this kind of complex, sometimes paradoxical faith, or you just can't understand the South."