Learning about the Latter Day Saints

December 31, 2011

One of my goals for 2012 is to develop a basic knowledge of Mormon history, faith, and culture. One reason is to be able to participate more intelligently in current political discourse since prominent figures in public life are Mormon, including Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, and Harry Reid. A second reason is to provide a religious focus to a journey by bicycle through the desert southwest, a part of the country where Mormons long ago learned how to flourish.

My previous knowledge of this rapidly growing religious movement has been marginal at best. During family travels long ago, we toured sites in downtown Salt Lake City and in later years my wife and I have visited Nauvoo in western Illinois and St. George in southern Utah. The only academic interpretation of Mormon history that I received was one lecture in graduate school in which the professor stated that Joseph Smith stole the manuscript of the Book of Mormon from a print shop where it was being prepared for publication and made up the story of the golden plates.

My guide as I begin my personal study of Mormon history is Jan Shipps, an emeritus professor of history and religious studies at Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis. Although a life-long and active United Methodist, Shipps has specialized in studies of Mormonism and has received high honors from Mormon scholars and from her colleagues in the academic disciplines of American history and religious studies.

Although I met Professor Shipps years ago, when I was teaching at Christian Theological Seminary, also in Indianapolis, I have only recently begun reading her books and essays. My starting point is Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years among the Mormons, which is a collection of her essays and addresses on Mormonism. Shipps has written brief autobiographical introductions to each section of the book. Thus the volume serves as a chronicle of her academic career and a report of how her understanding of religion and life have developed over time.

Each of the seventeen essays in the book includes extended notes, which provide a guide to a broader range of literature and opinion. I’m using this volume to help me select other articles and books to read so that I can be confident that the information is reliable and the interpretations are reasonable and defensible.

Perhaps the most important realization that has come from my initial exploration on this topic is that there are approximately 10 million Mormons worldwide, and the number is growing rapidly. Shipps freely talks about Mormonism as a new faith tradition that is related to Christianity in a way that is similar to how the early Christian movement was related to the Judaism from which it came.

Shipps demonstrates that the essential character of this new faith was well established during the early years when Joseph Smith was the controlling figure. Shipps delineates three distinct layers of theology and doctrine that have developed during Mormon history, and she describes this theology as complex and comprehensive.

During the first century of Mormon history, there was a strong emphasis upon the formation of a tightly knit community in which all aspects of life were integrated according to Mormon ideas. During this period, most Mormons lived “beyond the mountain curtain” where they “turned the desert into a suitable place of habitation.” It is this aspect of Mormon history that will be especially interesting to me as a bicyclist through sunny, arid parts of the Southwest later in the year.

Shipps frequently suggests that Mormons developed an ethic identity, a deeply ingrained culture for life that persists even among people who no longer are observant with respect to Mormon religious practice. She shows how in more recent generations Mormons have learned how to create dispersed versions of their intense communitarian way of life so that it can flourish in little communities around the world, thus permitting Mormonism to become a world faith.

This aspect of Mormon life has been so impressive to Shipps that it has affected her own religious practice as a United Methodist. “Yet the idea of a calling proved to be catching, and I soon found myself thinking of the responsibility I was asked to assume at the First United Methodist Church in Bloomington, Indiana, as a calling—even though my assignment was chairing the ‘Conversation and Coffee’ program committee, a pretty un-Mormon assignment” (p. 279).

I don’t know where this study of Mormon life and lore will take me. The next two books, however, will be Jan Shipps’ Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition and Fawn McKay Brodie’s controversial No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet.

Note: A 28-page, fully annotated review essay of “Sojourner in the Promised Land,” was written by KLAUS J. HANSEN, a member of the history department of Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada, where he has taught the history of American thought and culture since 1968.   

End of the semester break

December 14, 2011

Since beginning my online journal on American religion and aggressive cycling, I have posted 159 columns. With an approximate average of 750 words per post, they multiply out to some 120,000 words on these two topics. According to one analysis of writers’ habits, this body of written material has required at least 40 full days of serious work. With my current pattern of devoting two full days a week to serious writing, the online journal has taken about 20% of my scholarly time during the year and three quarters that it has been on the web.

It’s time for an end of the semester break, which during my 40 years in higher education (as student and professor) I learned to cherish. For the rest of the year, Keith Watkins Historian will be quiet. When the column is resumed, there may be some subtle revisions in the way the journal works. We’ll all have to wait and see.

Topics in some stage of development include:

Reflections based on Evangelical vs. Liberal: The Clash of Christian Cultures in the Pacific Northwest by James K. Wellman, Jr.

Rudolf, Santa Claus, and the Christmas angels: telling stories in church, myth, legend, fable, and issues of truth and responsibility.

Designing a new bike for an old man.

Theological drama in Paul’s epistle to the Romans

Bicycling through outposts of Mormon country

A sojourner’s guide to the Mormon faith and western history (with thanks to historian Jan Shipps)

Mishkan T-fillah: A Reform Siddur and how this progressive Jewish tradition can inform liturgical practice in progressive Protestant churches

A bicycle guide to old roads in southwest Portland

To my readers, thank you for reading—and sometimes commenting on—the essays and columns I have posted. I appreciate your friendship (especially if we have never met in person) and your interest in my random thoughts on many things.

May this season be a time of rest and renewal.

Bicycling in the city: a grown-up manual for adult cyclists

December 9, 2011

“I’ve been thinking about getting a bicycle,” friends sometimes tell me. “I haven’t been on a bike since I was a kid, but I have to do something to get more exercise and lose a little weight.”

Two responses quickly come to mind. On the one hand, I want to encourage them in their interest. Cycling is something they can keep doing even as they move into their older years. On the other hand, cycling calls for skills and disciplines that need to be developed if the cyclists’ goals are to be realized.

Fortunately, James Rubin and Scott Rowan have just published a book—The Urban Cyclist’s Survival Guidethat can serve as a manual of instruction. One of the authors commutes some 200 days a year in downtown Chicago, and the other rides his mountain bike in the Hollywood Hills near Los Angeles. As the title of the book indicates, they are interested in helping adult cyclists ride effectively and enjoyably in cities.

They write in a straightforward, practical way that cyclists and non-cyclists alike can understand and appropriate. Cyclists accustomed to hard, fast riding over long distances will find only a little help for their specialties, but people like many of my friends will be able to learn much of what they need to know by paying attention to what these cyclists tell them.

I have crafted a set of questions that potential new cyclists might ask and provide short answers based on Rubin and Rowan’s book.

Can people lose weight by cycling? Yes, the authors say, and then explain how to ride in order to achieve this goal.

What kind of bike should I buy? Buy for the kind of rider you are, they respond, and then they describe the choices available and offer their pointers for making the choice.

Where should I buy it? They acknowledge that suitable bikes can be bought in several kinds of places, but explain why bike shops are usually the better choice. They also offer a list of characteristics to look for when choosing a shop.

How do I know the bike fits? What about saddle shape and other things like that? Rubin and Rowan offer their advice, based on personal experience and the comments they have gathered from bike shops and cyclists around the country.

How should I dress while biking? “There is no right way,” they answer. “Cycling is the supreme individualist’s sport. You ride who you are.” Although I commuted by bike for twenty years, suit and tie the whole time, and understand the suitability of ordinary clothes, I value cycling-specific clothing, including stretch shorts and special shoes, more than the authors do. Most of the people I see in Portland streets, however, are wearing jeans and ordinary shirts rather than black tights. For people new to urban cycling in our time, Rubin and Rowan point in a good direction.

How do I keep my bike from being stolen or vandalized? With common sense, vigilance, and good locks, they respond, and then offer good advice on which kind of locks to buy and how to use them.

How can I ride safely on city streets? “Survive by being bold and following the rules of the road,” they respond.  “Think risk-reward.” They explain approximately twenty aspects of bicycling on public streets. I really like this heading: “Being predictable will save your life (and aggressiveness is your ally).” Rubin and Rowan offer a solid discussion of how to ride in traffic with a good sense of security. They recognize, however, that things can go wrong and give wise counsel on dealing with road rage and what to do in case of accidents. They give their pointers on repairing flats and other basic repairs on the road.

In a number of places I would have said something a little different from what these authors present. I am a strong supporter of the use of handlebar-mounted bags, for example, which they ignore, and their dismissal of Brooks saddles is misleading. The book says little about the long distance cycling that now constitutes much of the riding that I do.

Yet, the spirit of the book suits me well, and most of what the authors write is practical, down to earth, and doable. It is just the guide that people like my friends can use to think their way into cycling. Whether readers are new to cycling or long-time riders, Rubin and Rowan provide words of wisdom for us all: No matter what happens, get on your bike and ride. In their own words:

“Get away. Be happy. Enjoy your life.”

New harmonies for old churches

December 5, 2011

Even in classic Protestant churches, most people will acknowledge that the music used in Sunday worship changes from one generation to the next. Many of these worshipers accept the fact, perhaps grudgingly, that the pressures to change are more intense right now than was the case a generation ago when their churches occupied the center of mainstream American culture.

But at this point the practical consensus disappears. It is not at all clear to church people what they should sing, what kinds of service music they should use, and what kind of musical instruments should be featured.

Two essays in the November 29, 2011, issue of Christian Century discuss these issues in provocative ways. They provide case studies of several churches—Lutheran, Reformed Church of America, United Church of Christ, United Methodist, and Baptist—that are developing distinctive patterns of church music.

Describing these churches, Steve Thorngate, himself a Lutheran church musician, says that they “are creating cohesive, inclusive, excellent music” in ways that go far beyond the old dichotomy or trichotomy of traditional, contemporary, and blended. Some of these churches, he says, “revel in eclecticism,” and others “have developed a singular approach and sound.” By their music, they provide ways of doing “something other” worship, to use the phrase of liturgical scholar Thomas Shattauer (permission to post granted by author).

Several issues can be seen in the musical ventures of the churches described in these articles.

Some of the music now in use is marked by “limited thematic vocabulary.” Some of the music features “pie-in-the-sky escapism, holier-than-thou piety and blood-and-guts atonement.” The musician in one of the churches brushes off this criticism by saying that his church has a high tolerance for contradiction and approaches this music “with a sort of second naiveté.

Many members in classic Protestant churches, however, have strongly engrained theological convictions and will not be willing to dismiss theological issues so casually.

A second issue is the tension between accessibility of the music and its aesthetic value. One musician refers to the “church’s love of excellence” while admitting that it keeps some congregants from participating in the liturgy’s music making.

The incorporation of secular music and secular spirituality into worship is a third issue. The spiritual themes of some of these songs are “rendered thin in the light of Christian worship.” The musician making this point, who wrote his doctoral thesis on the spirituality of rock music, insists that music “has to be good and it has to connect with real life.”

There is much more in these two essays to stimulate vigorous conversation and creative experimentation. The articles could be used by pastors, musicians, choirs and ensembles, worship committees, and worship study groups to stimulate constructive analysis of the musical culture of their congregations and the wider society within which they worship.

One thing is clear to me as I attend worship in classic Protestant churches. The musical tone of worship resembles too much the fussy formalism of post-World War II propriety. A second thing is clear: one of the most constructive ways to move into a new period of vitality is to establish a new musical culture in their services.

Third, each congregation has its own distinctive characteristics and community setting. None of us will do things quite like any of the churches described in these two articles. Yet, the examples they offer can be highly useful in developing new harmonies in old churches.

We sure do need it to happen!

Bicycle swarms in Paris 1968

December 2, 2011

The bicycle swarm that has been created during the Occupy Portland movement of 2011, brings to mind Daniel Behrman’s sympathetic but cynical remembrance of another place and time—Paris in 1968—when ordinary people on bicycles became a constructive part of drama in the streets. Although the two stories differ in major ways, both portray the humane and peaceful roles that bicycle riders can play in the never-ending tragic comedy of people against power.

Behrman was an American writer and editor who worked in Paris for much of his career. His book The Man Who Loved Bicycles: The Memoirs of an Autophobe recounts his life as aggressive cyclist and impassioned social critic.

I must confess that Behrman’s account of Paris leaves me confused. Prominent among the players in his morality play are the Gaullians whom he distinguishes from the Gaullists he had known in 1944 when he was part of the U.S. Army liberating France. “Gaullians never strike out,” he says, “Gaullians always win.  If the scoreboard says they’re losing, they get a new scorekeeper.”

Gaullians are people with enough money and position to be relatively comfortable and easily threatened. They need enough order to feel safe and enough freedom to leave town when they feel threatened. They know how to use the possibility of disorder to control the people. So it was, says Behrman that the street drama in 1968 “gave de Gaulle a stick that he used a few days later to beat the living fear of God into the middle-class middling muddling Parisians. Now things were serious, la patrie might or might not have been in danger, de Gaulle certainly was.”

Augustans are the second group in the Parisian street drama. They are named for the month of August, when the Gaullians had fled the city and only a few had remained behind enjoying the empty city with “boulevard, cafés and avenues aslumber.”

Behman numbers himself among the Augustans, a name he likes “because it has dignity.” During the Paris uprisings, he bicycled all around the action, observing what was taking place, talking with people, and noting the contrasts and contradictions. “At the nadir of the Gaullians,” be observes, “there were no more wheels in the streets of Paris, except for the high-spoked whirring discs of bicycles, mind and others.”

As I reflect upon Behrman’s narrative, and the Portland story so many years later, I realize afresh that the struggle between people and power continues across the generations. It often is staged in the streets, with different players and varied plots. As is the case with well-crafted drama, we know how it will end, even though we do not know the twists and turns of how that denouement will be reached.

Even when movements of the people achieve remarkable success, with the Civil Rights Movement a notable example, privileged power reemerges, perhaps with different personnel and patterns, but with similar characteristics to those that have existed across the generations. Jesus once said that the poor are always with us. He might also have reminded us that so are the Gaullists.

The people properly rejoice in subtle changes that improve their lot and open the way to new possibilities. Talking with a “freedom fighter” following the May drama, Behrman said “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”

“No they don’t,” the man retorted, and then he recounted the changes that had occurred in the government office where he worked: greater dignity between supervisors and staff, modest improvement of hours and working conditions, and significantly increased sensitivity among the executives who had taken privileges for granted.

Bicycle riders who come and go irrespective of times and conditions, are distinctive players in dramas in the streets. On their fragile but highly mobile machines they combine impertinence and patience in a way that enables them to lighten moods and maintain a humane quality in encounters between stress-filled masses in the streets.

One final thought, which in Behrman’s narrative is the most important: Augustan bicyclists are people who stick it out and stay even when the passions have played out and the drama has come to an end. He concludes his chapter by referring to another demonstration when “five or six thousand young demonstrators on bicycles tied Paris up in April 1972.”

Although he was in Brittany at the time, “two of my bikes were there [in Paris], borrowed by a couple of American girls.”

“I do not know exactly what the Paris bike-in was all about,” Behrman continues. “What I do know is that the following week, on a cold wet day, I was riding a bicycle in the city and, as usual, was an oddity. Out in the rain, I had only the traffic cops for company. The summer soldiers and sunshine cyclists were nowhere to be seen.”