Have you seen the dead bunny yet? It's making its way around the internet and is bound to appear on national television, probably on The Daily Show, which seems to relish reporting on the latest madness coming out of the state of South Carolina.
In the days before Easter, an evangelical church in Conway, which calls itself the Rock, sent out postcards to a number of unsuspecting citizens. It carried a photograph of a dead rabbit lying on the side of the road, surrounded by a crushed Easter basket and numerous shattered Easter eggs. The caption read: "Bunnies Stay Dead. Jesus Didn't."
The postcard met decidedly mixed reviews from recipients, and the local media hopped on it, launching it on a whole new career that will surely take it far on the internet and beyond. Are you listening, Jon Stewart?
The lead pastor at the Rock is the Rev. Kevin Childs, who defends the mailer, saying that if it brought one person to Jesus this past Easter, it was worth the postage and the ridicule.
I know a little bit about Conway. It's the seat of Horry County, home of Myrtle Beach, the most famous, most visited, most lurid town in South Carolina. And I say that with all fondness. I have visited it many times, and I'm sure there will be many future visits.
My most memorable stay began in 1999 and lasted until 2002. Out of that experience, I wrote a regrettably out-of-print book, Banana Republic: A Year in the Heart of Myrtle Beach, in which I played historian, anthropologist, reporter, and shrink to a city of strip clubs and carousels.
One thing I found intriguing about Myrtle Beach was its public expression of religion. Until fairly recently it was a small Baptist beach town, with all the passions and prejudices that expression carries. In fact, it looked like much of the South Carolina cultural landscape. Then it was carpet bombed by millions of tourists and the billions of dollars they bring, and everything changed.
The culture wars that have wracked the nation in recent years were magnified along the Grand Strand as the Chamber of Commerce and local churches went to war over the future of the town. Nowhere was that clash more vivid than on Easter weekend each year.
Since the mid-1990s, someone has been "crucified" on Ocean Boulevard each year on the Saturday before Easter, compliments of Living Faith Church. The theatrical performance features a faked crucifixion, a crown of thorns, and copious amounts of stage blood. I witnessed it in 1999. There, at the height of spring break, with pickup trucks and SUVs cruising the boulevard, lined up bumber-to-bumper for 30 blocks, packed with drunks and bikini babes, with hip-hop music blaring from every window, the stage was set for the great drama.
To quote from Banana Republic: "Families, couples, drunks, tourists, spring breakers — all stared in stunned disbelief at the writhing, bloody man being 'nailed' to the cross before them. A man grabbed his wife's arm and said, 'Let's get out of here.' At the nearby Florentine Hotel, fraternity boys jeered. Others gasped and sobbed." The good folks from Living Faith Church handed out pamphlets to passersby who were not repelled by the sight.
It's easy to say that the collision of powerful evangelical passions with the hedonism of spring break tourism created this grotesque expression of Christian faith, but some version of the Ocean Boulevard crucifixion has probably occurred in many places over the years in South Carolina and beyond.
As historian David L. Smiley reminds us, Southerners "comprised the largest block of Protestant Christian evangelicals to be found anywhere, and at times that impelled people to attack the alluring temptations of flesh and mind." They also seem to have avoided the temptation of good taste.
The horrific death of Jesus, as depicted in the Gospels, seems to feed into the South's morbid and gothic sensibility. Indeed, it may be the basis for much of that sensibility. While many people see in Jesus a story of comfort and reassurance, of peace and hope, white Southern evangelicals find only a warning of damnation.
In some ways, the ugly picture of the dead rabbit is similar to the "crucified Jesus" on Ocean Boulevard. It is not so much a promise of salvation as a threat of damnation, and it fits comfortably within a traditional white Southern message of fear and conformity in social and political affairs. In the Old South, it was not safe to be racially tolerant, intellectually curious, gay, feminist, or atheist. The warnings were clear, and one pursued such beliefs at his own peril.
I don't know if the folks at the Rock saved any souls with their tasteless little postcard, but somewhere a bunny died for their sins.