March Madness in the Evangelical Ozarks

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Today March Madness turned into March Sadness in the Evangelical Ozarks as the Missouri State University Bears basketball team went down to defeat at the conference tournament in St. Louis. It was a far cry from the mood just one week ago when the Bears vanquished Wichita State University in front of a hometown crowd of 11,000 that included Congressman Billy Long and Senator Roy Blunt.

Now MSU's fans must wait for the verdict of the NCAA selection process. Although the Bears had an RPI of 37 going into this afternoon's game, they have been passed over before. In 2006 they had the unenviable distinction of having the highest RPI for a team left out of the big dance.

Living in a region long relegated to the periphery of American life, the people of the Ozarks are used to such slights.

Most recently, Ozarkers watched as the locally-filmed Winter's Bone failed to win any awards at the Oscars. Nominated in four categories, it was dubbed "the year's most stirring film" by New York Magazine.

Despite the fact it was filmed in Christian County, the Nixa Walmart did not carry Winter's Bone at the time of the Oscars. Thanks to a marketing decision by Walmart's movie vendor, friends of the cast (including Nixa's own Casey MacLaren and Cody Brown) must drive to nearby Springfield to purchase the film. The same goes for Daniel Woodrell's novel by the same title.

They better get to the local Borders fast. Due to the restructuring of the bookselling behemoth, the Springfield store will soon close. In 2009 it was one of the top sellers of Sarah Palin's Going Rogue. This afternoon the front table groaned under the weight of Mike Huckabee's Simple Government. Yet strong sales of conservative books were not enough to save it from the reorganization axe.

Springfield book buyers can still browse in a large Barnes & Noble and several evangelical bookstores. Residents of Nixa are not so lucky. Within the city limits, there is only a single used bookstore. According to the web site of the Nixa Book Mark, its most popular authors are Lee Child, Sue Grafton, Robert Ludlum, and Louis L'Amour. Visitors to the Price Cutter supermarket will find over twenty hunting and fishing magazines but very few books. Like many Evangelical Epicenters, Christian County gets by without a single new bookseller, unless you count the James River Bookstore at a local megachurch.

The very mention of James River Assembly highlights one area where the Evangelical Ozarks does hold a commanding lead: growing large congregations. According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, the area boasts no fewer than five churches with over 2,000 attenders. In 2009 JRA was the the fourth largest congregation in the Assemblies of God.

With the 2010 census, Christian County won another distinction. In a decade when new subdivisions and elementary schools sprouted all over Nixa, it was the fastest growing county in Missouri.

Since the early nineties the region has included the nation's second most popular vacation driving destination: Branson, Missouri. The musical heritage of the Ozarks is also reflected in the national exposure given to bands like Ha Ha Tonka and Big Smith. The latter were featured in the 2005 film Homemade Hillbilly Jam, a documentary praised in Toronto and New York City.

Though strong churches, good music, and a surging population may not win the Ozarks an Oscar or an NCAA bid, they are enough to confirm something that residents already know: The region is an interesting place to live.