Even at 81, there’s work to be done

October 30, 2012

On All Hallows Eve, I celebrate my 81st birthday. In addition to enjoying pumpkin pie, which is part of our family’s tradition for the day, I will be thinking about my writing projects for this next year. Two books I’ve read in recent weeks will serve as models.

The first is Bernard Lewis’s Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian. As I began reading this book, my first response was surprise that he was publishing this interesting volume when he was 95 years old. Although he has been retired for a quarter of a century, he has continued to be an active scholar, consultant, and writer. By his example, Lewis encourages all of us who are moving into the late decades of life to keep on doing the work that is important to us.

Lewis also provides a model for how to do our work. He calls it “closing down one’s files.” His most productive period of publishing books was after retirement. He could do this, he explained, because over the years he had kept files on various topics that interested him. Then, when he had control over his working schedule, he gathered these notes together, finished up research as needed, and new books were the result.

Although my files are much skimpier than Lewis’s must have been, I do have half a dozen half-finished projects, some of which I hope to complete. Among them are a history of the Consultation on Church Union, a history of First Christian Church in Portland, Oregon, and a book on bicycling past seventy.

Another file that needs to be closed is a memoir based on my career as a scholar and teacher in the field of Christian worship. Here Lewis provides a model that helps me think about the project. The key words in the title of his memoir are notes and reflections. Although he gives us a reasonably complete scenario of the major events in his life, the book is not an autobiography nor is it a recounting of his personal and family history.

Rather, Lewis provides an orderly account of how he came to be a middle east historian and  then unfolds, in a systematic manner how his public career and scholarly investigations developed over a period of some eight decades. This account is interrupted from time to time by his reflections on specific issues, such as the character of historical research and the differences between Islam and Christianity.

This interaction of professional autobiography and interpretation will show me the way to improve and complete the theological memoir that now sits half-finished on my shelf.

The second book that is helping me think about my work during this next year is Ziauddin Sardar’s Reading the Qur’an: The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam. The book has 52 chapters, which signals its origin as a year-long series of weekly blogs published by a major news outlet in the United Kingdom. Since my blog is self-directed, without editorial oversight or the disciplines and incentives provided by a commissioned assignment, my writing on this blog won’t be so tightly focused.

I have other interests in addition to a systematic unfolding of how I understand the Christian faith in our time. For example, I plan to publish occasional research briefs based on other projects I’m engaged in, and I will continue to comment on current issues in the field of religious studies. I am intrigued, however, by the idea of explaining how I see things now in a continuing series of short, focused, and connected columns. When they come, I’ll call attention to what they are.

Will anybody care enough about what I think about these matters to read my blog? The realistic answer: maybe, but at best only a few.

I’ll do it anyway, because putting my thoughts down on paper with an “ink pen,” which is how many of my blogs begin, is still a satisfying experience, a way to think things through and to pray about them as I write. Transcribing them into digital form is much more satisfying than what I used to do, which was pile up these hand-written notes—stacks and stacks of half sheets of paper with unfinished thoughts—and then throw them away. Now I can push the “publish” button, and out they go into the wide world.

Every now and then someone comments online, by pen and ink or phone, and sometimes face-to-face. The conversation keeps us going in friendship and in life. It helps me follow the injunction at the close of Psalm 90:

“So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”

Note: The photo at the top shows me on the day my life as a scholar began, my first day of school, September 7, 1937. A more recent photo below.

Modernization and heresy

October 22, 2012

In his 1979 book The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation, Peter Berger states the premise that all human beings, regardless of their culture or intellectual disposition, live in a cultural and religious context that differs dramatically from the one in which their foundational faith tradition developed.

Yet, in significant ways that foundational faith is still a necessary part of their life today, and all people are required to decide how they will affirm that tradition in this new world. In so doing, everyone has no choice but in some way to become a heretic. “Modernity is the universalization of heresy.”

As a life-long member and long-time historian within the classic Protestant version of Christianity, I have been aware of this tension most of my life, and I am also at ease with many of the devices that churches in this tradition have used to interpret our basic text, which is the 66-book canonical Bible.

Recently, I have started reading about two other faith traditions, Islam and the Latter Day Saints, which also hold the Bible in a position of respect. Each of these traditions, however, has been shaped by one or more books that were composed at later dates and which augment or supersede the Bible and shape the distinctive elements of their religious movement.

In a series of posts, I have reported on these studies, and now have gathered them together into one document. My purpose has not been to discuss the contents of these later sacred writings, although that is something that needs to be explored. Rather, I am interested in the interpretive methods which are used to build bridges that are anchored in both old texts and contemporary life in a western, secularized context.

My goal is twofold: to see how people whose significant books are greatly different from my own develop their respective bridges; and to look for elements in their work that can help me make my own connections between ancient texts and modern times.

The title of this paper is “Living by Old Texts,” and you can read it by clicking on the title.

Fantasy ride around a big mountain

October 19, 2012

Taking my lead from the Perimeter Bicycle Association of Tucson, Arizona, I have fantasized about making a grand circuit on my bicycle around Mt. Adams, which is a great snow capped peak in the Cascade Mountains just north of the Columbia River. This snowy eminence figures prominently in Native American tradition and culture in this part of the Pacific Northwest. This 400-mile route would take me along the edges of two more peaks in Washington State, Rainier and St. Helens (pictured above).

My intention has been to do this ride in order to attend the Turner Lectures on religion that are held every October in Yakima, Washington. Although I have previously cycled over half of the route, I have been fascinated by the thought of doing the round trip.

Because of logistics dealing with route, the schedule of the lectures, and my own time commitments, it has been difficult to devise a feasible plan. I have spent hours trying to figure out ways of doing it, with modest dependence upon public transportation to ease some of the logistical challenges.

My most recent plan was to take Amtrak from my home in Vancouver, Washington, to Centralia, Washington, and then take two days cycling on U.S. 12, over White Pass, and on to Yakima on the edge of one of the nation’s most productive agricultural regions.

After the conference, I would cycle through the Yakama Nation to Toppenish, and then over Satus Pass on U. S. 97, and westward on Washington S.R. 14 to the town of Washougal, where I would get on a local bus to do the last few miles.

Everything was ready to go, until the rains came. After a record-breaking summer without precipitation, the skies opened up. Although the Cascades didn’t get the six inches, with a little snow on White Pass, that some had forecast, the weather was windy, wet, and disheartening. I drove to the conference rather than risking the bike ride.

As modest compensation for my disappointment, I used the trip to explore some of the unknowns that will help me bicycle the trip next time. Here’s what I learned.

My plan for the Amtrak-U.S. 12 trip to the conference is reasonable, and the two and a half day trip home by way of Satus Pass is well within the range of possibility.

There is a route from the motel in Yakima to the church where the lectures are presented that cyclists could use with relative safety, even at night if they have good lights (as I do).

U.S. 12 is a challenging ride for cyclists because it has virtually no shoulders for the 70 miles from Yakima, over White Pass, to the town of Packwood. Traffic is fairly light, however, and storekeepers along the way tell me that cyclists do use the route.

I have satisfied my intense curiosity about Forest Service Road 25, from the village of Randle, down the eastern slopes of Mt. St. Helens, to Spur S.R. 503 to Cougar and on to Vancouver. This route is doable on a bike. It’s paved and challenging, but with little traffic. The photo at the top shows Mt. St. Helens as seen from Forest Road 25.

From Randle to home on this route, however, is a full hundred miles, and there’s hard climbing on the northern edge of Clark County as I come toward Vancouver. It probably makes sense to take the easier-going road from Cougar to Woodland and hope for a city bus for the rest of the trip home.

Will I ever take this fantasy ride around the great mountain? At the point, I don’t know, but for another twelve months, as I wait for next year’s Turner Lectures, I live in hope (or is it fantasy?).

Attempting to think as Joseph Smith thought

October 15, 2012

Using old texts in the modern world: number six in a series

In the preface of his 740-page biography of Joseph Smith, Richard L. Bushman describes the challenge he faces as “a believing historian.” He cannot “rise above” the battles that rage around his subject nor can he “pretend nothing personal is at stake.” He has to “look frankly at all sides of Joseph Smith, facing up to his mistakes and flaws.” He has to be careful that his defensiveness as a believer does not compromise his historical exposition.

Not only for Bushman writing on Mormon topics, but for all persons of faith who address issues that matter to them, a keen sense of self-awareness is the first component of an adequate methodology.

A second component in Bushman’s list is to use good models for the book he wants to write. For this biography, he cites W. Jackson Bates’s biography of Samuel Johnson and Karen Armstrong’s biography of Muhammad. Even though she subscribes “to no particular religion herself,” Armstrong’s “irenic viewpoint” enables her “to write about Muhammad’s visions as if they actually occurred, giving readers unimpeded access to his mind.” Noting that the “contradictions and incongruities” in Joseph Smith’s record have to be dealt with, Bushman states that his book “attempts to think as Smith thought and to construct the beliefs of his followers as they understood them.”

These two methodological factors make it possible for Bushman to develop a finely tuned exposition of the complex mixture of necromancy, legend, superstition, social unrest, and religious ideas in early nineteenth century America. While locating the Prophet in this world and acknowledging that to a considerable degree he was shaped by these elements, Bushman identifies specific moments, especially in 1828, when he experienced important turning points that defined his prophetic role.

A third methodological feature in Bushman’s biography is that he unflinchingly describes the hard-to-believe details of one of the most challenging aspects of Joseph Smith’s story, the transcribing (which is the verb that Bushman prefers) of the golden tablets. Furthermore, Bushman outlines the various interpretations given to these episodes, including the efforts to explain it all away, and carefully points to strengths and drawbacks to each one of them.

Although he stops short of endorsing the conclusions that “believers” would choose, Bushman arranges his exposition so that readers—whether or not they believe—can readily perceive the reasonableness of the believing options.

A fourth element in Bushman’s methodology is to be precise in his identification of what the Book of Mormon claims to be and to insist that evaluations of its truthfulness and value have to be based on those claims. For example, while the Book of Mormon includes accounts of ancient migrations to North America and of subsequent episodes in the history of people on this continent, it does not claim (Bushman makes clear) to be a pre-history of North America. Furthermore, its appeal to believers in Smith’s time and ours has not rested on claims that it is an historical exposition.

Near the end of treatment of the emergence of the Book of Mormon, Bushman calls attention to important themes that it contains. In each case, he shows how the book confounds readers by presenting unexpected, often unsettling, explanations about the purpose and meaning of the alternative narratives that it presents.

One of Bushman’s keenest sentences is this one that comes after he identifies contradictions in the efforts to “situate the Book of Mormon in the nineteenth century.” Here’s the sentence: “The book elusively slides off the point on one crucial issue after another” (italics added, p. 99).

Thus the question for Bushman and for anyone trying to understand and be instructed by the Book of Mormon is this: What kind of book is it anyway?

Bushman answers the question of authenticity by stating that the Book of Mormon presents itself as a new Bible suitable for America. It justifies this role by claiming that this was God’s intention, that an additional witness to the gospel would arise that was pointed toward life in this part of the world.

The Book of Mormon, therefore, can be understood as an alternative narrative for America, one that could be claimed by people who found themselves alienated from the narrative that prevailed in their time. Bushman lists seven reversals in the narrative, the first being that it “proposes a new purpose for America: becoming a realm of righteousness rather than an empire of liberty” (105).

Sooner or later, readers of the Book of Mormon have to decide in their own way the questions of its historicity. What Bushman has done is to shift the focus away from the details of the history-like narrative on which the teachings rest. Instead, the focus of historicity is placed upon the remarkable character of how the book came to be. Did it happen the way Smith said it did, or did it not?

In either case, the emergence of the Book of Mormon is without parallel in American history. However one answers the historicity issue, the book and its message, the way of life it contains, and the community it inspires command respect.

Blood doping, a cautionary story for all to ponder

October 12, 2012

My reading about the Armstrong blood doping scandal includes three reports that illuminate the moral ambiguities that are part of the life experience of most people. Not only sports heroes, but business executives, highly trained professionals, and ordinary people pursuing their life dreams are easily and often trapped by conflicting values and pressures.

A sweet drug goes sour: EPO is the easy way of referring to a drug that Kathleen Sharp describes as “one of the deadliest prescription drugs ever.” In her column prompted by the Lance Armstrong doping case she gives a brief history of the “drug to quicken the blood.”

The prescription form of this drug was developed by Amgen, a start-up company, which through a marketing partnership with Johnson & Johnson, became “the world’s largest biotech company.” Sharp describes EPO as a “naturally occurring hormone that “stimulates red blood cells.” After Amgen developed a way to genetically engineer the drug, “its use was multiplied as an energy-producing drug that would work in all kinds of conditions for which it had not been licensed. “And many doctors went along with these off-label promotions.”

Sharp continues the story of EPO’s conflicted history, including the fact that “it can be lethal. Yes, it multiplies your red blood cells. But too many red blood cells turn your blood to sludge and make the heart work overtime.” Her concluding sentence makes a point we all should ponder.

“It’s too bad about Lance Armstrong. But the real shame is that, in our get-rich, quick-fix, more-is-better culture, we are all culpable in this blood-doping scandal—both on and off the race course.”

When passion yields to corruption: Juliet Macur reports that “Christian Vande Velde cannot remember life without cycling,” In earliest childhood, he fell in love with cycling, partly because it was so much a part of the life of his father who had competed as a cyclist in the 1968 and 1972 Olympics and continued to ride hard and often.

In 1997, when he was 21, Christian signed a contract with Lance Armstrong’s U. S. Postal team. When he asked Armstrong about drugs, he was told not to worry about it. Yet, he could see that something was going on, and as his standing with the team rose higher, he was gradually initiated into the surreptitious and skillfully administered doping regimen. In 2002, fearing failure in his performances, he yielded to pressure and “stepped up his doping.”

In 2003, he left the U. S. Postal team and began to wean himself off of drugs. By 2008, he was clean.

Macur reports that Vande Velde regrets the bad choices he made. “He said his decision to dope ruined the sport’s simplicity, which he embraced as a boy as he peddled furiously next to his father on those morning rides.”

“But more painful than coming clean to the public will be coming clean to his father, he said.” When the reporter phoned, he was doing the chores around home, taking the garbage can in and still doing the dishes as his wife wanted him to do. His comment: “I guess life really does go on.”

Cornered and succumbing to the pressure: “Cycling was a refuge for me,” David Zabriskie is quoted as saying in the New York Times. “Long, hard training rides were cathartic and provided an escape from the difficult home life associated with a parent with an addiction.”

“Seeing what happened to my father from his substance abuse, I vowed never to take drugs. I viewed cycling as a healthy and wholesome outlet that would keep me far away from a world I abhorred.”

Rather than helping him escape from drugs, however, cycling “which was rampant with doping” pulled him into the very thing he had vowed never to do. “I questioned, I resisted, but in the end, I felt cornered and succumbed to the pressure. … It was a violation — a violation not only of the code I was subject to, but my personal and moral compass that I had set out to follow.”

Zabriskie accepts full responsibility for what he did, the report continues, and wants to do all that he can to “ensure a safe, healthy and clean future for cycling.”

Wretched man that I am: As I ponder these cautionary stories from real life, lines from the writings of Paul, one of the church’s first theologians, keep running through my mind: “I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

The reports quoted above indicate that some of the people caught up in the bicycle doping scandal are finding release from their distress. May it be so for all of us in our times of testing.

Note: Kathleen Sharp’s column and Juliet Macur’s report appeared in New York Times, October 12, 2012, and the report on Christian Vande Velde appeared on October 11, 2012.


Historical fact and religious faith: a Mormon perspective

October 8, 2012

Interpreting ancient texts in the modern world: part five of a series

In earlier parts of this series, I have discussed how some Muslims and many Protestant Christians use sacred writings from long ago to make decisions about life in the world today. It now is time to turn to a third faith tradition, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Like Muslims, Mormons use the Bible as one of their foundational books, but add more recent writings to their list. Mormons are distinctive in that their additional books were written in the United States rather than the Middle East and in recent times. Joseph Smith transcribed the Book of Mormon scarcely a generation following the adoption of the U.S. Constitution.

Because the book came into existence so recently and also because of the historical narratives it contains, issues of historicity are especially important in understanding how this sacred writing can be understood and used. Here, I turn to the work of Richard L. Bushman, a preeminent historian with Harvard degrees and a long career on the faculty of Columbia University. Bushman has published highly regarded books, including From Puritan to Yankee: Character and Social Order in Connecticut, 1690-1765, for which he received the Bancroft Prize in 1967.

In 2001 Bushman, who is a deeply committed Mormon, wrote an essay, “A Joseph Smith for the Twenty-first Century,” which was published three years later in Believing History, a collection of essays and addresses prepared primarily for Mormon audiences.

When he wrote the essay, he was writing a biography of Joseph Smith, and he delivered it at a symposium at the Joseph Smith Institute symposium on writing Mormon biography.

Bushman reports a conversation with Alfred Bush, who was curator of Western Americana at the Firestone Library at Princeton and also a person with Mormon background. In the forthcoming biography, he was told, Bushman would have “to address the question of the historicity of the Book of Mormon. “The historian is responsible,” Bush declared, “for determining whether or not the book is true history” (p. 264).

In his written response to this challenge, Bushman refers to Dan Vogel, “one of Joseph’s best-informed critics,” who offers three choices: Joseph Smith consciously deceived people, unconsciously deceived them, or told the truth. Bushman calls this the “strict enlightenment” position in which Smith’s visions, and also Mohammad’s, St. Theresa’s, Native Americans’, and St. Paul’s “encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus” and hundreds of other accounts, “are conscious deceptions, or they are the product of the visionaries’ imaginations and thus are unconscious deceptions” (p. 267).

Today, Bushman continues, this strict enlightenment view has moderated and even people like Vogel are ready to classify people like Smith (and I suppose many others listed above) as “a sincere believer.” Bushman states a widespread point of view this way: “We grant visionaries the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge that they may have had experiences beyond conventional understanding and knowledge. They are part of a grand human effort to discover meaning through poetry, art, and revelation. We can delight in the diversity of human experience and rejoice in all that God has wrought among his children” (p. 268).

Bushman believes, however, that believing Mormons will not be satisfied with this condescending acceptance of Smith’s revelations. “By giving in to tolerance, there is a danger that Mormonism will be treated like voodoo or shamanism—something to examine in excruciating detail and with labored respect, while privately the ethnographers believe these religious manifestations are the product of frenzied minds and a primitive, prescientific outlook. Wouldn’t we prefer to be taken seriously enough to be directly opposed rather than condescended to?” (p. 269).

The test case for Bushman is the golden plates. Did Smith receive them from an angel? “Was he guided by heaven, or was he not? There is no hiding behind the marvelous workings of the human spirit in explaining the plates. Either something fishy was going on, or Joseph did have a visitor from heaven?…the old issue that has hovered over accounts of Joseph’s life from the beginning: Did God speak to him or not?” (269, 270).

In the 2001 essay, Bushman offers only glimmers of how he as a mature historian on American life, culture, and religion answers this question. His full-orbed answer appears in the Smith biography, a 740-page book that was published in 2005 with the title Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, which Bushman describes as “a cultural biography of Mormonism’s founder.”

Although Bushman’s discussion of historical fact and religious faith has special relevance for Mormons, his treatment is instructive for all people who affirm faith and at the same time are serious in their regard for historical truth. My next entry in this series on using ancient texts in the modern world will present my understanding of Bushman’s careful and constructive treatment of this topic.

Gino Bartali, the cyclist who inspired a nation

October 4, 2012

Road to Valor: A true story of World War II Italy, the Nazis, and the cyclist who inspired a nation, by Aili and Andres McConnon (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012)

Gino Bartali, writes Elie Wiesel, was “a simple citizen and great athlete [who] chose to oppose a cruel and racist dictatorship by saving Jewish victims in Italy.”

In this one sentence, Wiesel provides the plot line for a book that portrays the destructive character of World War II, the radical evil of the Nazi/Fascist movement in Germany and Italy during that period of time, the aggressive persecution and genocide of Jews across Europe, and the efforts of a few Gentiles to help Jews escape.

All of this is in the biography of Gino Bartali, an Italian cyclist who won the Tour de France two times—once before the war and again afterwards. In the lost decade between these two tour wins, he quietly and at great personal risk joined a secretive venture organized and maintained by the Cardinal Archbishop of Florence. On his bicycle, he became a courier transporting forged ID papers, stuffed into his bicycle’s seat tube, that enabled hundreds of Jews to escape the death camps.

Bartali came from a working class family as did most cyclists of his era. His first bicycle was a rusty fourth-hand machine, but on this decrepit mount he soon began to challenge the racing community and quickly moved into competitive status. Although his father strongly opposed Gino’s racing, he persisted and soon was joined by his younger brother who also showed great promise as a cyclist.

Their father’s opposition seemed to be justified when the brother died of injuries suffered in a racing accident. Gino kept on racing and soon became one of the most celebrated young athletes in the nation.

At this point Mussolini was coming into power and wanted to use sports as a way of establishing national pride and connecting it with his fascist movement. This meant that Gino and his cycling companions were swept into politically controlled processes over which they had no control.

The political maneuvering poisoned cycling, and major events like the Tour de France were suspended during the war. During this period, ordinary life activities were increasingly stressful as people lived with food shortages, lawlessness, destruction of their communities because of wartime conflict, and constant personal danger.

With someone like Bartali, already in the public eye because of his remarkable activities as professional cyclist, the danger was even greater. Thus, he was placed in a very difficult position when Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa asked him to join in a special venture that he and others in the Church were developing. From early years, Bartali had been a devout Catholic and the Cardinal had been his father in the faith. He could not easily turn down the request.

Despite the personal danger to himself, his wife, and son, Bartali decided that he had to do it. In part, it was because some of his close friends were Jews who lived in a secret hideout in constant fear of discovery. Moreover, Bartali was one of many Italians who opposed the anti-Semitic policies which seemed to become ever more intense as the Allied forces gradually moved northward up the Italian peninsula.

When the war was over and the national bicycle tours were started up again, Bartali wanted to return to racing. Despite having cycled thousands of miles as courier, his training methods were erratic, and he could no longer count on explosive strength as a way to win races. An ever-growing part of the cycling community decided that he was too old to win any more. Disappointing performances in races seemed to confirm what they were saying.

In the Tour de France of 1948, however, a tour marked by terribly severe stages and snow storms in mountain passes, Bartali found new reserves of emotional power and physical strength. He won the tour in one of the most remarkable races in the century-long history of this most demanding of athletic events.

Road to Valor is a fully and carefully researched historical narrative, written in a style that is suitable for serious biographical literature, but told in a way that reveals the dramatic character of the people and events of this important period of time.