Guns in America: Beyond Talk to Faithful Action

January 22, 2020

Reviewing Common Ground: Talking about Gun Violence in America, by Donald V. Gaffney, Pastor and Sandy Hook Alumnus (WJK Press, 2018)

A quiet, sunny March afternoon in 1956 was shattered by pounding at the front door of my country parsonage. “Pastor! Hurry! Jim just shot himself!” With three or four teens who had come with the news, I rushed across the street to the township school where they and a dozen others were getting ready to rehearse the class play.

No teachers or other adults were there, but sixteen-year-old Jim was, stretched out on his back on the gym floor, the gun near his side, and a trail of gray brain tissue extending from a hole in the side of his head.

He had been the last one to arrive. Half-skipping into the gym, swinging a revolver in his hand, he had called out “Look, Russian roulette,” put the gun to his temple and pulled the trigger.

In this rural Indiana village where I, a twenty-four-year-old seminary student served as pastor, most people knew about guns. They were used to hunt game for sport and for the family table, get rid of varmints, start the butchering process, and give people the feeling of safety in their isolated homesteads out in the country. I was one of the few people who didn’t know anything about guns. In my childhood home there had been no guns. Although we never talked about firearms, it was clear that our family was against them.

None of us at the school that afternoon knew how the student had gotten hold of the gun and why he had acted in such a foolish way. Other townspeople were also puzzled. They knew how dangerous guns were and treated them with respect. Together, we grieved at the senseless death of this teenager from one of the best-known families in that part of the county.

Sixty-five years later I still know next to nothing about guns and the gun culture that has developed in our country. While I acknowledge the legitimacy of gun possession and use, at least in ways rooted in country life long ago, I am baffled by the use of guns as what seems to be the first resort to express anger and assert power, especially among urban teenagers. Virtually every morning of the week the local news leads off with reports of shootings, usually fatal, the night before. People decry what has happened and passionately declare that something has to be done. And then, random, half-hearted actions, and the trend toward violence continues on its upward track. Read more. . . . Guns in America

The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa

January 15, 2020

Most people remember Neil Peart, who died a few days ago, as a leading figure in Classic Rock, but my awareness of him was because of his exploits on a bicycle. Five years ago this week, I posted a review of his book on cycling in West Africa, one of the best cycling stories I’ve read.

Keith Watkins Historian

A review of The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa, by Neil Peart (Lawrenceton Beach, Nova Scotia: Pottersfield Press, 1996).

Peart-Africa“Some people travel for pleasure,” writes Neil Peart on the second page of this book describing his bicycle adventure in Cameroon, “and sometimes find adventure; others travel for adventure, and sometimes find pleasure. The best part of adventure travel, it seems to me, is thinking about it.”

Travel takes you out of your context, he continues, away from home, job, and friends; “traveling among strangers can show you as much about yourself as it does about them. That’s something to think about, and if you try you might glimpse yourself that way, without a past, without a context, without a mask. That can be a little scary, no question, but you may get a look behind someone else’s mask as well, and that can be even scarier.”

Since I rarely…

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Reading and Writing During 2019

December 31, 2019

In his little book, The Sage’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for the Second Half of Life, William Martin offers a description that suits me well: “that quiet older gentleman who sits and drinks his coffee as he writes at the corner table by the window.” Again, in Martin’s words: “That is fine with me” (p. 108).

The purpose of this report written on a cold, windy New Year’s Eve afternoon is to highlight the reading I’ve been doing this year during these long hours sitting by my window. A report on my writing during 2019 may come sometime after the new year begins.

Despite my aging eyes, I still can read extensively and write about what I read. Occasionally the books are on the history, theology, and practice of Christian worship, which was the focus of my academic career, but these books no longer hold my attention as they once did. Instead, I am drawn to books dealing with the intersection of religious practice and public affairs, and to others focused upon the environment, cycling, and biographical studies.

In order to remember and reckon with what I’m reading, I have to take notes, and the more challenging the book, the more important it is to write a careful response. Sometimes these reviews summarize a book’s thesis and plot line as they are colored by how the writer has affected me. Often, these summaries are written as blog posts, about 750 words in length, and sometimes as review essays ranging in length from three or four pages to ten to twelve pages.

I began my blog——in 2010 and one of its primary functions has been the dissemination of these occasional writings. Now and then, one of my review essays appears in Encounter, the theological journal published by Christian Theological Seminary. Although I have been busy enough throughout 2019, this year’s list of reviews is not very long. The yearly average of blog posts since 2010, many of them literature reviews, is 47. In 2018, I posted 19 times, but in the year now closing, the number is down to 11, fewer than one a month. My original plan was to post two 750-word essays per week. Just when I think that it’s time to discontinue the blog, someone writes a response like one I received this week.

A woman who had been one of my fellow travelers on a two-week bicycle trip from Albuquerque to the Grand Canyon and Return in 2010 wrote a comment about one of this year’s blogs in which I posted a summary of a solo cross-country bike ride I had taken in 1999.  Read more. . . .Reading and Writing During 2019

Peculiar Rhetoric: A Review Essay

December 12, 2019

Peculiar Rhetoric: Slavery, Freedom, and the African Colonization Movement

by Bjørn F. Stillion Southard (University of Mississippi Press, 2019)

Review Essay by Keith Watkins / December 2019

How do you describe a social practice that is legal, practiced widely, and defined as ethically appropriate even though it clearly conflicts with the basic standards of a society’s religious, ethical, and constitutional principles? This is the challenge faced by Americans beginning four centuries ago with the transporting of Africans to this country against their will and classifying them as slaves, totally subject to the will of their masters, with virtually no human rights, powers of self-determination, or means of escape.

And this in a nation established on the principle that “all men are created equal [and] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” including “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  During the 1830s, southern political leader John C. Calhoun introduced the term “peculiar institution.” This phrase acknowledged that the position of enslaved Africans differed from that of white citizens but it supported the practice as being suitable and for the benefit of all concerned.

Although white society defended the legitimacy of this system, allowing it to continue until the Civil War rejected its basic forms, black people objected with increasing clarity and power during the same years that white people were supporting it. From constant experience, they knew that slavery was a terrible way of life and was in sharp conflict with the principles that white society used to describe and support their own place in the social order.

In his book Peculiar Rhetoric: Slavery, Freedom, and the African Colonization Movement, Southard focuses attention upon three inter-connected aspects of the nineteenth century context for this rhetorical and political struggle: (1) growing unrest across the country because of slavery; (2) the emergence of debate about the peculiar institution aimed by some to support its continuing legitimacy and by others to do away with it; and (3) the emergence of organizations and processes, especially the American Colonization Society, intent upon overcoming this institution in ways that could be affirmed by white societies in the north and south. Southard is interested in the rhetoric that was in the middle, existing between competing traditions in white society, drawing ideas from each side without uniting them. Although this rhetoric may have reduced conflicts between opposing sides, it did not resolve these differences and thus found it difficult to motivate people on either side to act. Read more. . . . Peculiar Rhetoric


When cleaning mental closets, it’s better not to hurry!

November 6, 2019

FCC 1 

A blogger using the name thebeerchaser commented on my recent column “Cleaning Out the Closets of My Mind.” Citing his own experience, he encourages me to proceed with due care as I dump boxes full of old records and writings.

Currently, he is sorting his files, discarding many of them, and then reorganizing those that remain. His final sentence makes sense: “Perhaps they will ultimately all be discarded, but one never knows and if they are organized and don’t take a lot of space, keep the ones that are most meaningful to you.”

Some of my old papers do mean a lot to me and I might even use them at some point in the future. Taking his advice, I’ve spent the morning sorting through one stack of folders about seven inches high and will carefully reread “Liberal-Minded Religion in a Downtown Church,” the 200-page, unpublished book manuscript I wrote in 2003 that is based on these files. I need to decide if with a little more work the manuscript can be published (for limited circulation) or simply filed with my papers that are headed to an appropriate archive sometime in the future.

In contrast with the relatively useless files I mentioned in my previous post, these Portland-based folders have materials that other people could use. I have rearranged a few of them and prepared a table of contents. They now are ready to be consulted by me or by someone else. During coming months, I intend to do limited copy editing to the book and find a suitable way for a copy to be given to the church that is described for its archival collection. Conversations with a few friends at the church will help me decide whether to do any more work than that on this project that started nearly two decades old.

Between 1999 and 2003 when I was collecting these materials and drafting the manuscript, I was also doing preliminary research on a second history project related to the churches of downtown Portland. Although I would still love to write the book that was in my mind, there are two reasons why that will not be possible. First, it would require an extended period of time in Portland, which I would enjoy but which is not feasible. Second, and more important, I feel myself lurching into old age.

I remain committed to cleaning out the closets of my mind. According to Martin’s book The Sage’s Tao Te Ching, that’s one of the things that sages do. Some of my closeted ideas and the resulting paper trails are ready to go away right now. Others, like this Portland project, are going to take a little time.

Cleaning Out the Closets of My Mind

November 1, 2019


In a little book entitled The Sage’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for the Second Half of Life, William Martin writes that there is no need to cling to the things than no longer identify you. “The closets of your mind can be cleaned of ideas no longer needed” (p. 62). For a retired church historian like me, the mental closets of ideas usually are accompanied with old paper files of research notes and partially written drafts of essays

Today, while purging obsolete tax papers, I stumbled across a folder three inches thick entitled “Notes on 19th Century Revivals.” Most of the material consists of photocopied chapters from books such as And They All Sang Hallelujah: Plain Folk Camp Meeting Religion, 1800-1845, by Dickson D. Bruce, Jr (1974), and The Posthumous Work of the Reverend and Pious James McGrady Late Minister of the Gospel in Henderson, Kentucky, Ed. James Smith (1837). A small portion consists of hand-written reading notes taken from similar essays and books.

I was doing this research during the late 1980s and drew upon it for a paper that I presented to a section of the North American Academy of Liturgy. Almost simultaneously, the definitive work on this subject was published, Leigh Eric Schmidt’s Holy Fairs: Scottish Communions and American Revivals in the Early Modern Period (1989). My paper was later published in Discipliana, the journal of the Disciples of Christ Historical Society (Spring 1994, pp. 2-19) with the title “The Sacramental Character of the Camp Meeting.”

What should be done with files like these? The easiest course of action, and on the gray, rainy day when I am writing this note the one that could easily be accomplished, is to dump them into a box of old papers to be recycled. Another possibility is to arrange them more carefully and include them in papers I hope will be kept permanently in my archives somewhere. From my own experience working with the archival papers of others, however, I cannot imagine that researchers in years to come would ever take the time to use these papers for their own research.

Maybe another idea concerning proper disposal will come to mind before I empty this thick file into a box already close to being full. In any case, the topic, 19th century revivals, already has been cleaned out of the closet of my mind. All that remains is to get rid of the paper trail.

Restoring Value to the Food We Eat

July 9, 2019

Grain by Grain: A Quest to Revive Ancient Wheat, Rural Jobs, and Healthy Food, by Bob Quinn and Liz Carlisle (Island Press, 2019)

Bob Quinn is a third-generation wheat farmer from Big Sandy, Montana, about eighty miles northeast of Great Falls. He earned a PhD in plant biochemistry from the University of California, Davis, became a leader in the organic food movement, developed a group of closely inter-connected food-related businesses, created an ancient-grain business, and sponsored Montana’s first wind farm.

Early in the book he states his premise, that “economics is not just about what happens in faraway boardrooms or on the floor of the stock market. The real measures of economic health are in the fundamental goods that not only make our lives possible but also make them worth living: thriving communities, meaningful work, healthy land. At the center of this fundamental economy are our staple foods, our daily bread. If we hope to recover honest value in American society, we must redeem the original commodity, wheat” (p. 11).

Late in the book Quinn restates his thesis: “a regenerative organic food and agriculture system is the only way out of the chronic disease problems plaguing this country.” The reform he describes “could dramatically reduce the incidence of four of the top seven causes of death in the United States, lift thousands of Americans out of poverty, and fight climate change—all the while slowing the growth of marine dead zones and reversing pollinator decline” (p. 219).

Quinn is committed to the health and vitality of rural communities such as Big Sandy which in the early 1960s, when he was growing up, was a vibrant community with a population of nearly 1,000. It was, he writes, “a hub of activity” with many of the business and community institutions that people needed for their normal activities and services (p. 16). He shows how new chemically-dependent farming policies and practices have made it difficult for such communities to survive. One of his purposes as farmer, business and community leader, and author is to restore vitality to rural communities all over the country, and especially in places like central Montana.

While doing undergraduate studies in botany at Montana State University in Bozeman, he was introduced to ecology as an area of growing importance. During his graduate studies he deepened his knowledge of plant science and also learned major ideas and values of the way of farming that predated the industrialized agriculture introduced following World War II, and that his own family had practiced for many years.

When he decided to return to Montana and farming, Quinn came to understand that farmers like his father were caught in the changes that came about because what they raised—mostly wheat—had become standardized commodities rather than food. Increasing the volume of grain they could raise by using chemical fertilizers and herbicides, became their goal. The nutritional quality of what they raised lost importance and actually declined. Political objectives and economic policies were intended to reduce rural populations significantly, and the new farming methods impoverished the people so they fled—as had happened in Big Sandy.

As Quinn began his own farming career, he found his father to be simultaneously colleague and debate partner. Their debates helped both men understand what was happening and encouraged them to resist the new agriculture and seek to develop ways of farming that were adapted to their climate, soil, plants, and livestock and could thrive under those conditions.

Quinn established relationships with several farm-related organizations and became increasingly committed to values promulgated by the organic food movement, inspired by the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania. In order to advance and protect organic farming on the scale required by wheat growers like himself, he became politically active, shaping legislation that would define and protect the kind of farming and food that he believed in.

Along the way, Quinn began studying the energy inputs needed to grow food, comparing them with the energy outputs of the crops they raised. As a result, he found a plant adapted to his climate and soil that he could grow and turn into biofuel that would reduce these fuel imputs. Realizing that wind farms would work wonderfully well where he lived, he created necessary legislation and business leadership to establish such farms in his wind-swept part of the world.

When he was in high school (1964), someone at the county fair gave Quinn a few grains of kamut, an ancient wheat. Years later, when he was well established in his main career, he explored the origin and properties of this wheat. Discovering that it possessed highly desirable properties that had disappeared from commodity wheat, he developed seed stock and networks of farmers to produce it on a large scale. He also developed business relationships to market it around the world (one of which is Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods of Milwaukie, Oregon, whose products, including this wheat, I can buy three blocks from my home in downtown Indianapolis).

Grain by Grain is a personal story of one man’s career as farmer, environmentalist, community leader, and business leader. Quinn writes well, includes much factual material and ethical conviction, and commands the reader’s interest all along the way. The way of life for America’s farmers and food suppliers that he describes is radically different from patterns prevailing today.

Yet near the end of the book he gives a reason why we can believe that Americans may rise up to reverse what he describes as the plundering of the American people by corporate powers. “As value subtraction comes home to roost in our bodies, it may be that concern for our health is what will finally motivate us all to do something about it” (224). In the final six pages of the book he provides evidence that this transformation is now beginning to take place.

Liz Carlisle, who also grew up in Montana, is a lecturer in the School of Environmental Sciences at Stanford University. In the book’s prologue she describes how she became acquainted with Quinn and his work and offered to help him write a book about what he was doing. She helped him with some of the research and writing but left “her first-person voice aside” so that readers would “get to know this green economy cowboy” for themselves (xvi).