For the affect is not a personal feeling . . . it is the effectuation of a power of the pack that throws the self into upheaval and makes it reel. Who has not known the violence of these animal sequences, which uproot one from humanity, if only for an instant, making one scrape at one’s bread like a rodent or giving one the yellow eyes of a feline? A fearsome involution calling us toward unheard-of becomings.

—Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

Feminist and Appalachian studies scholar bell hooks powerfully recounts how political oppression birthed the caricature of Appalachia that is all too familiar to us today: “The free thinking and non-conformist behavior encouraged in the backwoods was a threat to imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, hence the need to undermine them by creating the notion that folks who inhabited these spaces were ignorant, stupid, inbred, ungovernable.”[1] This dehumanizing view of mountain folk has extended to their religious practices, which have been cast as simple-minded, constricting, and oppressive. Yet as an eighth-generation Appalachian from the mountains of East Tennessee, I have witnessed the ways that Appalachian Christianity surpasses its caricature, pushing against and even undoing the misinterpretations of mountain life.

Even for someone like me, to think and write about Appalachia entails a hermeneutical move with potent social and political implications. The first few decades of Appalachian studies scholarship, beginning in the 1960s, were haunted by the question: what exactly is Appalachia—a geographic region, a culture, a mythic idea, or an assemblage of each? The debates that emerged to delineate what religion might mean in this context were similarly marked by ambiguity. The Great Revival bequeathed Appalachian people with a complex multiplicity of Christianities. The breadth of these Christianities is seen in the sheer diversity of Baptist subdenominations finding their origin in the mountains: Primitive, Missionary, Regular, Old Regular, Separate, Free Will, and Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Baptists, to name just a few.[2] Much of this plurality of religious expression in Appalachia was wrongfully reduced to the piety of “snake-handing hillbillies” and “contemporary primitives” who were understood to be merely responding to poor socioeconomic conditions rather than enacting religious traditions on their own terms.[3]

In this tentative work of constructive theology, I attempt to sidestep such pitfalls, limiting my project to Appalachian mountain religion, a term coined by Appalachian scholars Loyal Jones and Deborah Vansau McCauley to delineate the plurality of Christianities birthed exclusively in the mountain south. Importantly, it is also a term that is readily accepted by mountain people without interrogation. Here, I use mountain religion to refer specifically to the independent Holiness-Pentecostal congregations that dot the backwoods and hollows of southern Appalachia.[4]

These numerous and widespread small congregations exist outside of any denominational structure, yet they remain fundamentally connected, both as socially relational bodies and as an intelligible church tradition, through intricate kinship networks and regular “fellowshipping” practices.[5] This allows not only a stable transmission of worship practice and oral tradition but also an anarchic, amorphous model of social cohesion that reflects two central, and seemingly contradictory, signatures of mountain religious life: radical individualism and radical relationality as expressed in ecstatic worship practice.

Mountain religion emphasizes grace and transformative religious experience as mediated by the presence of the Holy Spirit and particularly as manifested in speaking in tongues, handling snakes, and ingesting poison.[6] In these practices, the Spirit “baptizes” individuals, pulling them into an ecstatic state in which many report losing a conscious sense of self, being surrounded in an encompassing warmth, and experiencing the feeling of rushing wind. Rather than focusing on oneself, the worshiper focuses on listening to the whirling Spirit, receiving guidance, comfort, and the gift of tongues while being held in safety and prayer by fellow worshipers.[7]

Religious practices drew on nature—that is, the mountains that simultaneously sustain and threaten, the kinship networks that supply both family and feuding—to validate, explain, and give order to people’s lives. Catherine Albanese notes that mountain people used a symbolic system based on nature “to orient themselves in everyday life, seeking to live in peace and harmony by performing each action at the time when nature decreed it should be done.”[8] Such natural symbols include winds and storms that quickly envelop mountain valleys, and coal seams that ground livelihoods and histories—forces forever beyond one’s control. Albanese claims that this “ordinary religion” came to be sublimated over time as rural “unchurched” religious sentiment was consolidated from camp meeting into more traditional church structures. Yet I contend that this naturalistic impulse has remained not only operative but central to Appalachian religious understanding.[9] Naturalistic symbols came to the fore of expressions and rituals of Appalachian religion.

Ordinary religion—the weaving of naturalistic symbols into embodied Christian experience—is the real entry point into how mountain theology functions. By beginning to reread and reconstruct Appalachian mountain religion through the lens of its own implicit, local naturalistic symbol systems and its relational kinship networks, we can begin to crack the edifice of what has, from the outside, been deemed a religion of stricture, patriarchy, and fatalism to reveal the more fluid, dynamic, and political theology bubbling up from below. The work of the French poststructuralist philosopher Gilles Deleuze can aid in this rereading of Appalachian mountain religion. In the burgeoning multiplicity of the Deleuzian conceptual universe, we find a way to view the frenetic and buzzing ritual emotion of Holiness-Pentecostalism as anticipatory and liberating.

The entirety of Deleuze’s ontology is too vast to summarize with any cogency here. It is enough to say that Deleuze reacts against what he perceives as the majority of the Western philosophical tradition, which he reads as focused primarily on being and identity. Deleuze’s own philosophy, much like that of Alfred North Whitehead, is marked primarily by difference and becoming. Rather than focusing on the finality of a fixed product—that is, understanding change as the outcome of a duration between a past and current point—Deleuze focuses on a continual return of difference. The process of “becoming,” he argues, moves through each heterogeneous temporal instance in a kind of simultaneity of starting and ending, or as he writes in A Thousand Plateaus, as an “in-between, intermezzo.” This repetition of difference dissolves the basis of substance metaphysics in that the human person, rather than conceived as a fixed, enduring, and stable identity, is a dynamic flow of intensity and affect, constantly differentiating itself anew as a non-unitary assemblage of culture, language, emotion, bodily composition, and desire.[10]

Yet if we are nothing less than the repetition of such affectual forces, then are we limited to one logical structure of becoming? Do the forces that constitute our experience predetermine and delimit our possibilities? No. The Deleuzian operation opens up new trajectories based on the multiplicity of difference—what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari name the rhizome—over and against the representational logic of the One that had plagued philosophy with its genealogical hierarchies. Rhizomes themselves are not coherent structures but rather constantly shifting, creatively evolving relational matrices determined by the traverse of vastly unrelated forces. Rather than the traditional philosophical tendency to explain all things as particular derivations of a transcendent universal category, such as Being, rhizomes present particularities in terms of relational movements, intensities, and random chance. Luke Higgins picks up on the usefulness of the rhizome for theology when, describing his “micro-pneumatology of Spirit Dust,” he writes that relational becoming “does not predictably unfold along pathways pre-charted by some transcendent logic. Rather, it spontaneously originates a pattern of continuity or consistency purely immanent to the specific relational field at hand.” Thinking rhizomatically takes the particularity of individuals and their entire relational world seriously. Because all relationships are spontaneous and unpredictable, all processes of becoming are viewed as radically and equally important.

It is within the concept of the rhizome that Deleuze develops the idea of “becoming-animal.” In his examination of the relational forces that lead individuals to “become-human”—music, politics, ecology, et cetera—Deleuze observes a close proximity to the forces that lead dogs, horses, or rats to “become-animal.” Deleuze isn’t suggesting a simple imitation of animals but “a plane of continuity with the non-human world such that non-human rhythms, patterns, even particular wisdoms, enter dynamically into our own becoming.”[11] His observation transgresses the boundaries of human and non-human in a way that opens possibilities for new alliances between the human and non-human, that is, the human and nature as a collectively evolving multiplicity. To “become-animal” is to find ways to break outside of dehumanizing social structures that delineate “human” and “animal” life and to actualize new, creative possibilities.

In The Logic of Sense, Deleuze puts forward a “quasi-causality” that relates this virtual plane of immanent (animal?) potencies, both fully real and not yet enacted, to the plane of empirical, experienceable actualization. Becoming-animal is one actualization. It is also a latching point for a particularly Appalachian understanding of pneumatology. Deleuze’s concepts help us to begin to find the basis for a politic of life where a Spirit falls not from the skies as a dove (Luke 3:22) but rises out of the creative rhythms of the earth, from bodies, indeterminate, surprising, terrifying. The insight that creative political responses can arise from even marginalized lives through the Spirit, when brought into contact with Appalachian religion, helps us to understand the ecstatic and communal state of catching the Spirit, or speaking in tongues, as a radically Appalachian mode of becoming-animal. Thus, through the conceptual insights of a midcentury Parisian philosopher, we find Appalachian ritual expressions activated in new and enlivened ways.

Deleuze’s becoming-animal finds ecstatic embodiment in remarkably Appalachian modes when Appalachian bodies catch the Spirit. In the midst of economic and ecological suffering, a creative transformation occurs in which Appalachian bodies are wrest into the collective reality of a broken place that becomes a sacred space. Writhing, dancing in joy, language whipping from burning tongues in the immanent mysticism of the moment, Appalachian bodies become-animal. The anxiety and strict boundaries of ordered subjectivity—what the dominant culture marks as hillbilly and backward—begin to fall away in favor of an affirming new freedom. The morality of Priest and State—moral codes that overdetermine what it means to be good and to be considered whole—are set aside as irrelevant for human bodies existing in uninhibited space, however briefly. The very face of representation, Platonic ideals so long favored over lived, concrete realities, crash down, if only for a moment.[12]

In these flashes of alternate becoming, forces and affects speed up; language veers away from its signifying functions; the human traces movements and bodily torsions of the non-human into its flesh and lives them as its own. The person expresses something outside the gaze of the “militarized surveillance architectures of State politics,” something without form, an exercise in the “violence of animal sequences,” “full of gaiety, ecstasy, and dance.” As Deleuze writes, “a fiber stretches from a human to an animal, from a human or animals to molecules, from molecules to particles, and so on to the imperceptible. Every fiber is a Universe fiber. A fiber strung across borderlines constitutes a line of flight or of deterritorialization.”[13] The mountain church in its radical and psychic vulnerability lessens the tragic aspect of this fragility through openness to both the pains and joys of intimacy with the full mystery of the divine, the mountains, and each other.

To construct the church as a space of emotional vulnerability and love speaks most fully to the agency and communal bonds that are essential to mountain folk’s survival. Mountain folk find in the Spirit “the principle of promiscuity, in divine terms at least,” that is, holiness.[14] This promiscuity, to quote Laurel Schneider, is a “quality of distinctly impure hybridity [that] stands in opposition to divinity understood as the pinnacle and epitome of purity and immutability.” Rather than find the flow of mystery, nature, and the body locked down by some transcendent order, Appalachian religion follows the promiscuity of Spirit by queerly dissolving the imposed structure, echoing Judith Butler: we undo each other, undo each other. This is becoming-animal, for it is the mountain church beginning to understand the suffering of mountain people in the same voice as feeling the devastation of bears and birds and fish, in the same way as feeling the poisoned mountain streams and mountains that have been blown apart. Caught in the Spirit, Appalachian bodies reassert themselves in the violent rush of mountain stream and holy wind. The church house becomes a place where bodies in all their fleshly particularity sweat, gyrate, and are taken into each other’s experience—“Often there was kissing all around, regardless of age or sex. On hot summer days, a water dipper was freely passed, and an atmosphere of spontaneity filled the church so that prayer and feeling could rise effortlessly.”[15] In this, they are made new and holy.

Troy D. Abell explains, “The tremendous amount of self-disclosure found in the smaller churches points to the importance of interpersonal relationships. There is a conscious awareness of the need for others.”[16] Through this individual and collective religious reality, Appalachians embody a better, more beautiful order that subverts the image of the hillbilly, of a life deemed suited only for poverty and paternalistic control. In the Spirit, the emerging social order pulses, sways, and feels in hope of something new, something untamed. It embodies a Spirit bursting with possibility that is unashamed of the scars of its suffering. It quilts these scars into glorious, unified memories of a deep and shared faith. It is a deep and shared reality between people in worship with the mountains, with all life, and with the stars that spin madly.

A Deleuzian framework of becoming-animal helps us recognize an “anarchist spirit” arising from the Appalachian people despite all efforts to suppress it. As hooks observes,

By dehumanizing the hillbilly, the anarchist spirit which empowered poor folks to choose a lifestyle different from that of the state and so called civilized society could be crushed. And if not totally crushed, at least made to appear criminal or suspect.[17]

Recognizing the particularly Appalachian form of becoming-animal helps us see the anarchist spirit of mountain life that is affirmed and celebrated through its own naturalistic symbols. Catching the Spirit becomes then a political act that transgresses the boundaries of what “Appalachia” is known to be. By encountering Deleuze, Appalachian Christianity finds the beginnings of a radical and liberating new theology, “a fearsome involution calling us toward unheard-of becomings.”[18]

[1] hooks, Belonging: A Place of Culture (London, UK: Routledge, 2008), 20.

[2] Howard Dorgan focused a long and distinguished career around the examination of mountain Baptist diversity; see Giving Glory to God in Appalachia (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1990) and In the Hands of a Happy God: The “No-Hellers” of Central Appalachia (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1997).

[3] Nathan L. Gerrard, “Churches of the Stationary Poor in Appalachia,” in Change in Rural Appalachia: Implications for Action Programs, ed. John D. Photiadis and Harry K. Schwarzweller (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971), 99–114; and Berthold E. Schwarz, “Ordeal by Serpents, Fire and Strychnine: A Study of Some Provocative Psychosomatic Phenomena,” Psychiatric Quarterly 34, no. 3 (July 1960): 405–29.

[4] See Jones, “Mountain Religion: The Outsider’s View,” Mountain Review 2, no. 3 (May 1976): 43–46; and McCauley, Appalachian Mountain Religion (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1995). Southern Appalachia has traditionally been delineated as the mountainous region encompassing East Tennessee, eastern Kentucky, all of West Virginia, and parts of western North Carolina and Virginia.

[5] Catherine L. Albanese, America: Religions and Religion (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1981), 225–26.

[6] McCauley, Appalachian Mountain Religion, 103–16.

[7] Troy D. Abell, Better Felt than Said: The Holiness-Pentecostal Experience in Southern Appalachia (Waco, TX: Markham, 1982). 31–35.

[8] Albanese, America, 236.

[9] Ibid., 242–43.

[10] See Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (New York, NY: Colombia University Press, 1995); Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 329; and Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1990), 1–5.

[11] Luke B. Higgins, “Toward a Deleuze-Guattarian Micropneumatology of Spirit Dust,” in Ecospirit: Religion and Philosophies for the Earth, ed. Laurel Kearns and Catherine Keller (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2007), 256–59.

[12] W. Paul Williamson and Ralph W. Hood, “Spirit Baptism: A Phenomenological Study of Religious Experience,” Mental Health, Religion and Culture 14, no. 6 (July 2011): 543–59.

[13] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 150, 249; and Irving Goh, “Becoming-Animal: Transversal Politics,” diacritics 39, no. 2 (Summer 2009): 37–57.

[14] Laurel C. Schneider, “Promiscuous Incarnation,” in The Embrace of Eros: Bodies, Desires, and Sexuality in Christianity, ed. Margaret Kamitsuka (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2010), 239.

[15] Butler, Undoing Gender (London, UK: Routledge, 2004), 19; and Albanese, America, 238.

[16] Abell, Better Felt than Said, 142.

[17] hooks, Belonging: A Place of Culture (London, UK: Routledge, 2008), 20..

[18] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 265.