Happiness in Happy Valley

March 30, 2012

On summer mornings I used to bicycle for an hour into the wilderness beyond Sun City West, Arizona, and on my way home stop at a gas station and convenience grocery at the junction of Grand Avenue and R. H. Johnson Boulevard.  There I would drink a can of strawberry-banana juice, read the New York Times, and watch the BNSF freight trains as they started their journey into the desert.  This is the only gas station that I know where the trains would stop so that the engineers could buy their morning coffee.

One morning in early May, I first stopped at the station to read the paper, and then bicycled across the tracks, turning northwestward onto the wide shoulder of Grand Avenue—also known as U.S. 60—to follow the trains into the wilderness.  At Wickenburg, where highway and railway turn more directly to the west, I would go with them through the McMullen Valley to Salome, where I planned to spend the night.  The next day, I would follow the tracks as they turned in a more northerly direction, taking the Parker cutoff to the Colorado River.


The paragraphs above are the lead to a Bicycle Diary (first published in 2001) that describe a 150-mile bicycle journey through some of the most interesting cycling terrain in Arizona. My purpose for the trip was to attend the annual conference of District 5490 of Rotary International. My local club, Surprise-Grand-Bell, consisted of an interesting mix of year-round residents from retirement  communities west of Phoenix and people from snowy country who spent their winters in the Arizona sunshine.  The trip was sponsored by Rotary friends, and the proceeds were to be used for international service projects.

This travel story recounts a few aspects of highway-rail history in Arizona’s Outback. It also introduces Dick Wick Hall, one of the most colorful figures in Arizona’s life during the opening decades of the twentieth century. The following quotation from one of his writings expresses an attitude that I need to cultivate, especially on days like the today (March 30, 2012) when the Pacific Northwest where I live is in the middle of a two-week long slog of constant rain.

Soak up a little sunshine to cheer you on your way, and don’t fuss about tomorrow but be glad you’re here today.  A smile will make you feel at home and fill a heart with song—so be glad you have reached Salome—and Pass A Laugh Along.  What if you’re short of money and the road seems long and rough?  A laugh makes life seem funny and three meals a day enough.  You’ll take nothing when you leave here on the trip that goes one way, so why sit around and grieve—Let’s Have a Laugh Today.

To read the full essay, click Happiness in Happy Valley.

Landscape, culture, and cuisine in two great deserts

March 26, 2012

During my recent sojourn in southern Arizona, I spent a few minutes shopping at one of the most important small stores in Tucson. It is operated by staff and volunteers of Native Seed/SEARCH, a not-for-profit organization that “conserves, distributes and documents the adapted and diverse varieties of agricultural seeds, their wild relatives and the role these seeds play in cultures of the American Southwest and northwest Mexico. We promote the use of these ancient crops and their wild relatives by gathering, safeguarding, and distributing their seeds to farming and gardening communities.”

In addition to stocking up on Spicy Chile Hot Chocolate Mix, I bought a book by Gary Paul Nabham: Arab/American, Landscape, Culture, and Cuisine in Two Great Deserts (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2008). Three of his earlier books are treasured volumes on my short shelf of southwest desert literature, and I was eager (because of a review some time ago) to acquire this book of trans-cultural essays.

Although Nabhan grew up in Gary, Indiana, he belongs to a family with many relatives in the Middle East, and the two branches of the Nabhan clan maintain active connections with each other. An ethnobiologist, he has spent most of his adult life in southern Arizona, specializing in the history, culture, agriculture, and nutritional aspects of the Tohono O’odham people, who from ancient times have lived as agriculturalists in one of the most arid parts of the world.

Nabhan is currently associated with the Southwest Center of the University of Arizona, and he and his wife operate a farm near the little town of Patagonia. One of the highlights of my bicycle tour in the winter of 2011 was a brief visit to this community, including time for coffee and a sweet roll in a shop on Main Street. Native Seed/SEARCH operates its farm where it renews old seed stock somewhere close to Patagonia and while I am still able to move around I hope to see it myself.

Arab/American consists of nine chapters, divided into three sections. The first focuses upon “cultural, ecological, and culinary connections between deserts.” As a bicyclist interested in names, places, history, and human experience, I find this section illuminating. One reason is that Nabhan gives a good summary of the history of camels in the American desert. I intend to write on this portion of the book some time soon.

The second section gives attention to “bridging identities and family histories in two worlds.” More interesting to me as religious historian, however, is the third section, which Nabhan entitles “conflict and convivencia.” He begins with a close study of aggression in humming birds in the desert and then offers extended remarks about the history of human aggression. The final chapter of the book is a moving discussion of the importance of place in human society.

At a time when turmoil in the Middle East is spinning out of control and American practices are increasingly misdirected and unproductive, Nabhan’s sorrowful narrative and call for economic justice deserve a wide reading. There is much for people of religious faith, whether Christian, Jewish, or Arab, to ponder in Nabhan’s narrative. Its deep sorrow and the rightful longing of displaced peoples everywhere are expressed in these lines, which Nabhan quotes, from a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, Palestine’s poet laureate:

I belong there. I have memories. I was born as everyone is born.

I have a mother, a house with many windows, brothers, friends, and a prison cell with a chilly window! I have a wave snatched by waterbirds, a panorama of my own.

I have a saturated meadow. In the deep horizon of my word, I have a moon, a bird’s sustenance, and an immortal olive tree…

I have learned and dismantled all the words in order to draw from them a single word: Home.

Are Mormons Christians?

March 19, 2012

What does it mean to call someone a Christian?

 In response to my review of Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition by Jan Shipps, a subscriber to my blog asked me if George Romney is a Christian. It took me a paragraph to respond, but the conclusion I offered was “Yes, but…” The question deserves a fuller response.

A good place to begin is with the origin of the term Christian. Acts 11:26 reports that in Antioch “the disciples were first called Christians.” At that time, the more commonly used terms were disciples and saints, but gradually Christian came to be the standard term for describing people who identified themselves with Jesus.

Four factors are involved in fleshing out this term.

High regard for Jesus:  A Christian is someone who holds in high regard the person who appears in the four gospels as wisdom teacher, healer, exemplar, prophetic preacher, and representative of spiritual power.

Readiness to affirm certain ideas about Jesus: From early times, followers of Jesus have developed a set of theological ideas that describe how Jesus is related to the One God of the Bible, to ordinary human beings like the rest of us, and to the reconciliation of the people of the world with God. These ideas have been developed in innumerable ways, and they are held with widely differing degrees of certitude. Despite this variation, they are part of the definition of who is called a Christian.

Participation in a community of like-minded people: While the religious life always has a strongly personal and private dimension, there is also a larger community of people who follow a similar pattern of life and religious practice. Christianity is one of the major faith traditions that emphasize the corporate aspect, which means that ordinarily people who are called Christian are regular participants in a church.

Practitioners of a Christ-like way of life: In the New Testament “followers of the way” was a phrase sometimes used to refer to the people who gave their allegiance to Jesus. While the specific disciplines of a Christ-like way of life have changed over the years, character, morality, prayer, worship, and ethical behavior have always been included in the expectations of people called Christians.

These four factors can be precisely defined and insisted upon rigorously, in which case the definition of a Christian is narrow, and the title is given only to people who hold orthodox theology, belong to one of the historic forms of the church, and live according to currently recommended patterns of “the Christian life.”

In contrast, these four factors can be held in a relaxed manner. When doctrines pertaining to Jesus, church participation, and life practices are understood in a broad and inclusive manner, the result is that many people can be called Christian whom the closely defined ecclesial systems would be unwilling to include.

When the question is asked concerning Mormons, most people would be willing to say that there is an allegiance to Jesus, a strong and commendable way of life, and participation in a church-like community. The uneasiness arises at three points: a theology about God and Jesus that is significantly different from that held by most Christians in traditional churches, the use of a large body of recent writings (including The Book of Mormon) as of canonical value comparable to the Bible itself, and an ecclesiology (doctrine of the church) that differs significantly from the ecclesial doctrines of most other churches.

The question that people have to answer for themselves is whether the Mormon respect for Jesus and Jesus-like way of life substantiate their claim to be Christian despite the significant differences in theology about God, Jesus, and the church. Or do these differences move them so far outside the circle of Christian faith that they need to be referred to by some other name?

Early in the New Testament period, the followers of Jesus still thought of themselves as Jews because they used the Jewish Bible (what has come later to be called the Old Testament), worshiped the God of Abraham and Moses, and maintained a way of life that was consistent with Judaism. By the end of the New Testament period, however, most people recognized that the followers of Jesus—despite their continuity with major elements of Judaism—had become something else. It no longer was reasonable, either for Jews or for Christians, to claim that Christians were simply Jews with a difference. They had become something else.

At this point in my understanding of Mormon faith and life, I have no difficulty in saying that Mormons are “Christians, but with a difference.” Will the time come when the “difference” becomes the important identifier?

I don’t know. Whatever name they bear, Mormons are an important presence in the religious landscape of our time and deserve our respect.

Second thoughts about a Garmin

March 15, 2012

My first bike blog, nearly two years ago was entitled “Giving Up My Garmin.” In it I described my non-techie response to a device that was more complicated and required more constant care than I had anticipated. It soon found a new home with someone who could meet the technical challenge and who in half a day made better use of it than I had in a month.

During my recent Cactus Classic bike tour in Arizona, I spent a week riding with a friend much younger than I who is fully at home with electronic devices, including a Garmin GPS designed for use on bicycles. During the early days of the week, I noticed that there was a 2% difference in the mileage he reported in comparison with the one I recorded on my relatively low-tech wireless bicycle computer. More interesting was his ability to describe how much elevation we had gained or lost

One evening he emailed me a link to his online Garmin account, and at that moment I realized how much more the Garmin can do for a cyclist than I had even tried to do. Every evening he had been uploading his day’s report. Day 4, with identifying factors cropped out, is the graphic just above. There it was, the whole day laid out on the screen in bright colors and crude map, with summary information along the edge.

Furthermore, my friend explained, he has reports of his training rides and other invitational tours and events.  Here he has the kind of record that enables him to monitor closely his performance on the bicycle. The graphic below is another example of the information that the Garmin displays.

I have used my friend’s figures to tabulate statistics for our six days on the road–three days out and three days back, with a little twist at the end of the final day. We traveled 477.3 miles in 29:21 hours on our bike and 37:57 hours of elapsed time, for an on-bike average of 16.3 miles per hour. Our shortest day was 61.7 miles, which took us 3:41 on-bike and 4:26 total time. The elevation gain was 978 feet. Our fastest day was mostly at a slight down grade, even though the Garmin reported an elevation gain of 930 feet. We rode 87 miles in 5:05 hours on-bike for an average of 17.1 mph.

The average for the entire week was about 1 mph faster than I can manage on my own. The two explanations are that my young friend pulled me along at a faster rate than I could have maintained as a solo rider, and my new bike (I like to think) helped me stay with the pace he set.

I probably won’t rush out to buy a Garmin for use later on. There are too many other things on the want list for spring and summer. Maybe in time for Desert Camp next year.



“The most brilliant book ever written on Mormonism”

March 12, 2012

The Multnomah County Library’s central depository in downtown Portland contains an entire section of shelving devoted to books on Mormonism. With so many books on the subject, Richard L. Bushman’s statement about Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition is all the more impressive: “This may be the most brilliant book ever written on Mormonism.” Although other important books on Mormonism have been published in the two decades since this book appeared, it still remains as a highly useful introduction to Mormon studies.

The significance of Bushman’s evaluation is heightened by the fact that he is a highly regarded academic historian and a lifelong practicing Mormon while Jan Shipps, the author of the book, is an equally faithful lifelong non-Mormon Methodist. In 1985, when her book was first published, Shipps had already devoted twenty-five years to a careful study of Mormonism, working as professional historian and scholar in the field of religious studies (on the faculty of Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis).

It is clear that she has an encyclopedic knowledge of primary and secondary literature dealing with the history, theology, and social structure of Mormonism. Furthermore, she is well versed in a wide range of scholarly literature that interprets religious practice and religious institutions. All of this makes it possible for Shipps to combine description and interpretation in a way that makes her book unique.

She presents Mormonism as “a new religious tradition,” related to classical Christianity in much the same way that early Christianity was related to classical Judaism. Thus, she frequently compares moments or processes in Mormon history to corresponding points in the emergence of Christianity as described in the New Testament and then continued into the second century. In this way, she helps readers, many of them broadly familiar with Christian beginnings, to understand what was happening in Mormonism’s first century of life. It may also allow these readers to develop a somewhat more positive view of the process, both of Christian beginnings and of Mormon beginnings.

One of Shipps’s purposes is to tell the story of Mormon beginnings as it was perceived by Mormons from the inside, which sometimes gives her book, she acknowledges, an apologetic tone. Her purpose, however, is not to defend or advocate, but to describe and interpret. She “closely reads” the documents in order to “tease out” the insights therein contained.

The first three chapters describe “Mormonism’s foundational tripod, a metaphorical support unit composed of prophetic figure, scripture, and experience—Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the corporate life of the early Saints.” Chapters four and five describe the consolidation of the earlier elements in which it became clear that the movement was more than a reformation of Protestant Christianity but instead was a radical restoration or reconstruction of the Jewish and Christian systems of ancient times. Here Shipps also explains the process by which the LDS church canonized and controlled its history.

The last two chapters of the book may be the most interesting to many readers because Shipps describes the process around the turn of the twentieth century when Mormonism made significant changes that allowed it to retain central elements of its historic character, move into the American mainstream, and become a religious tradition with world-wide appeal.

These chapters include a brief summary of Mormon theology (quoted verbatim from a 1916 speech by the president of the church), a description of the hierarchical, all-male governing structure of the church, and an account of weekly gatherings of the faithful and the relation of these to the annual and semi-annual gatherings of the saints in the tabernacle in Salt Lake City.

For many readers, the most interesting part of this slender book will be her last three paragraphs in which she gives her answer to “the now oft-asked question of whether Mormonism is or is not Christian.” At this point, I am not giving away her answer except to point to the sub-title of the book: “The Story of a New Religious Tradition.” I hope to return to Shipp’s book in other postings, highlighting features of this story that I find especially interesting.

Note: The quotation from Richard L. Bushman appears on the back cover of the Illini Book edition of the Shipps book. The Bushman quotation includes a second sentence referring to the book: “It is insightful, inspiring, and original and sure to become a landmark on the subject.” Martin E. Marty, church historian long on the faculty of the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, also is quoted on the back cover: “Shipps’s research is thorough, her logic compelling, her literary expression quietly forceful, and her reflections illuminating.”

World’s Smallest Bike Shop Goes “Steampunk”

March 9, 2012

On sunny afternoons, Dale Matson, bicycles to The Claremont Velo (242-B, W Foothill Blvd), which he describes as “the world’s smallest bikeshop.” He leans his bike against the front window of his tiny storefront, which is completely filled with his rolling stock, some bikes ready to be sold and some still in the process of reconditioning. He puts his sign “Cash for Bikes” on the sidewalk near Foothill Boulevard, and then sets up his repair stand on the sidewalk closer to the store. Dale is ready to meet the world.

His specialty is classic steel bikes like a 1972 Paramount, with original equipment including Fiamme sew-up rims. He also deals in old bikes that he fixes up for town and campus use. He tells his buyers to bring them back and he’ll repair them for free.

My Claremont lodgings are next door to The Velo, which was especially good for me on this year’s visit. I arrived with a front wheel that would go flat and a frame pump that didn’t seem to work right. For $14 Dale provided new tube and labor on the wheel and may have coaxed my pump into action once again.

Then he showed me the bike he’s riding right now.

It’s a 1955 Olmo, with the paint removed and finished with non-glossy clear coat. It has a 3-T adjustable shop stem, a very early T. A. front rack, and leather wrapped grips. A Lord and Taylor leather purse (bought at a yard sale for $1.00) hangs on the handlebars and provides easy access to stuff he needs as Dale rides around town. The rear rack is early Jim Blackburn, dating back to the time when Blackburn was doing the work himself. Other components are from earlier times, and the modern Honjo fenders seem to fit the ensemble.

“It’s my steampunk bike,” Dale explained. When I indicated total ignorance of the term he continued, “Google it and you’ll find out what I mean.”

I did and discovered that the term steampunk was first used to describe a certain kind of literature but has expanded until it now is a genre of literature, a design aesthetic, and a philosophy. A blog entitled steampunk.com explains the idea.

“To me, Steampunk has always been first and foremost a literary genre, or [at] least a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy that includes social or technological aspects of the 19th century (the steam) usually with some deconstruction of, reimagining of, or rebellion against parts of it (the punk)…But steampunk has become a lot more. What with all the cool contraptions in the stories, it was only natural that some people would decide to make some of them (or at least things like them). Thus, steampunk gadgets came into the real world. People has [sic.] ‘steampunk’d’ everything from computers, desks, telephone, watches and guitars to cars, motorcycles, and whole houses. These objects can vary from a grungy look of a forgotten antique to the shiny overwrought newness of a Victorian gentleman’s club. Think brass and copper, glass and polished wood, engraving and etching, and details for the sake of details. So, steampunk is also a design aesthetic.”

The blog quotes Jake von Slatt: “To me, it’s essentially the intersection of technology and romance.”

A web search brings up pictures of bikes that have been steampunked more elaborately than Dale’s “Red1” (“redone, spread out,” Dale explained).

As I bicycle around Portland, I see many city bikes that would be good candidates for steampunking: old steel frames, fixed up with improvised appointments, bikes that defy the passing fads of fancy bike shops. Dale, of course, will stay in Claremont where the California sun always shines.

But despite Portland’s rainy skies, this is a town where steampunk is right at home.

Searching for new rituals for death and dying

March 4, 2012

Until recent times, funeral directors and clergy provided professional services for most people at the time of death. The proper care of “the remains,” was the necessary focus of their work, with the funeral director responsible for the physical aspects of the process and the pastor focused on the rites of transition—for the deceased into the “for ever after” and for the survivors into the next phase of their lives right here and now.

The work of these two sets of community servants came together in the funeral services that were normal practice even for people who had not been participants in religious communities.

During the past quarter of a century, however, attitudes and practices related to death and dying have changed dramatically. One result is that clergy are no longer the necessary provider of mandatory rites at the time of death. Even long-time members of their congregations may turn to other ritual sources when loved ones die.

A recent gathering of the Northwest Association for Theological Discussion, meeting at a conference center on the western slope of Mt. Hood, devoted one of its sessions to this topic. Following the association’s standard practice, one of its members prepared a research paper on the subject of the day and a second member prepared a response. Then came the general discussion by the association members.

Larry Snow, Senior Pastor of the Murray Hills Christian Church in Beaverton, Oregon, presented the paper which he entitled “Grief and Grieving—Rituals and the Church.” Near the conclusion of the paper, he made these comments.

But reasons aside, if the point of rituals is to connect us to a large myth and to move us to a new place, perhaps the need is for the development and institution of new rituals, reflecting different myths, connecting people in new ways, and moving people to new places. In fact, perhaps this lack of ritual isn’t so much a problem as it is an opportunity to give birth to new rituals. Thinking both theologically and pastorally it seems to me that we need rituals:

  • That both honor the life of the deceased as well as restate the Christian hope in eternal life.
  • That express a belief in the sacredness of life, dying, death and grief.
  • That move people together in mutual love and support both for the time
  • immediately following the death and for some time afterwards.
  • That move people in relationship with God who is our source and strength. Read more Grief and Grieving – Larry Snow

The response was prepared by Nancy Gowler Johnson, pastor of First Christian Church of Puyallup, Washington. Her paper was entitled From Here to Somewhere Over There: A Response to Grief and Grieving–Rituals and the Church.” She concludes her paper with this paragraph.

Thomas Long argues compellingly for ministers to regain control over the design and content of the Christian funeral. He names the current trends in funerals/memorials a “‘personalized’ funeral…one that is caught up in all of the current cultural anxieties about selfhood and identity, such that what constitutes a “self” is a set of lifestyle circumstances and consumer choices.” Although he comes down clearly on the side of tradition, Long does encourage the incorporation of local customs into a historic liturgy. I agree with Long’s great love of historic liturgies, but I remain suspicious of the motivations behind clerical protests. I wonder if at least a portion of this critique of modern funeral practices is the religious establishment wanting control in a shifting culture?

Christendom is in its own death throes; is it any wonder that the church no longer plays a central role in funeral rituals? Perhaps we need to pay more attention to what people are choosing to do in these times. If Wuthnow is right, and rituals are not a separate action but are a dimension of all human activity, professional religious folk may need to step back and listen. Are there rituals that we do not recognize or condone simply because they bear little resemblance to traditional rites?

In a ritual, the world as lived and the world as imagined, fused under the agency of a single set of symbolic forms, turns out to be the same world. –Clifford Geertz  Read more From Here to Somewhere Over There – Nancy Johnson 

Both writers include extended bibliographies, which indicate the body of literature that is available for people who are interested in the notable shifts in public ritual in American society. One fact is clear, death and dying are facts of life that are as inevitable now as they have always been. Another fact is just as certain, although we may be less aware of it, is that we will continue to ritualize the process, with clergy and funeral directors, or without.

Larry Snow and Nancy Johnson can help us think about these matters in informed and useful ways.

The Northwest Association for Theological Discussion is a long-standing association of clergy most of whom are related to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Although most of its approximately thirty members serve as ministers of churches in the Pacific Northwest, several members hold academic appointments.