One more trip to Bisbee

March 29, 2013


Bicycling is a way of traveling that encourages people to spend time in places they ride through: to look around at the distinctive buildings, meander down quiet streets, savor the character of coffee shops, talk with people who live there. This kind of cycling, as John R. Stilgoe explains in his book Outside Lies Magic, is a liberal art because it liberates and often reveals secrets about the built environment in which we live.

Some cyclists, and I’m one of them, wonder about the history of places we pass through. We look for bookstores and local museums where we can learn the story of how these places came to be the way they are.

When traveling with tour groups, however, we are pushed by the schedule and tied to the designated route. There is little time to explore these interesting places. Even when I’m traveling on my own, the thicker story of these places often comes only after I’ve ridden through them and have done the research that I should have done before the trip.

The importance of learning about places before the trip has come clear to me as I read about Bisbee, Arizona. Even though I’ve bicycled to Bisbee, this unique mountain community, five times during the past fifteen years, I have failed until now to discover how this old little place came to be the way it is.

Copper Mine

The door into Bisbee’s past was opened for me by Richard Shelton’s award-winning book Going Back to Bisbee, which he published in 1992. I already knew that Bisbee was largely the creation of the copper industry, which flourished in southern Arizona in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Shelton, however, explains the industry’s history. He characterizes the social and economic layers of Bisbee’s people over the years, coming as they did from several parts of Europe and continuing many of their old-world patterns. Shelton also describes the economic vulnerability of the town and its people because of the volatility of the one industry upon which everyone depended. It is a hard story.

He helps us understand the challenges that come from building a community along the sides of steep canyons. Obviously, it takes strong legs, lungs, and heart to clamber up and down from one level to another. What should have been obvious, but had failed to register in my mind, was how vulnerable the town is to flooding because of these steep canyons that flow together into the main canyon where Bisbee’s central district is located.

Until reading Shelton, I knew nothing about the history of fires in Bisbee and the successive rebuilding of the town until finally a more fire resistant set of central buildings came into being.

Despite Shelton’s deep personal attachment to Bisbee and the romantic glow that he has infused into this text, Bisbee’s past remained largely a collection of facts until I read Conrad Richter’s novel Tacey Cromwell, published in 1942. Even knowing about this book I owe to Shelton who cites it a few times in his volume.

The story revolves four people whose lives unfold over a twenty-year period in Bisbee that is climaxed by a great fire, probably modeled after a conflagration that occurred in 1908. Tacey Cromwell, a prostitute from New Mexico who wants to start a new life, and her companion Gaye Oldaker, bring “Nugget” his eight-year-old runaway half brother with them and establish residence on O.K. Street on Youngblood Hill.

Soon after they arrive, a mine disaster kills their neighbor, a widower with infant son and eight-year-old daughter “Seely” who now are destitute. Tacey takes them in. The novel describes the systematic way in which Tacey molds all four of them into lives that are consistent with the patterns of the upper class people in town.

The crises around which the story unfolds are caused by the rigidity of the “better” people and their unwillingness to accept Tacey because of her former way of life. It is a somber book that in some ways ends the way it begins, with Tacey and Seely, Gaye and Nugget together again.

As we follow Seely and Nugget in their fast trips up and down stairways, over fences and walls, through yards, and across dangerous spaces, we begin to sense the precariousness of Bisbee’s geography. As we listen to the conversations with neighbors and townspeople, we hear various half-Englished dialects and recognize the sure signs of prejudicial attitudes among the more established layers of the social order. The Bisbee that I have experienced as a built environment becomes a multi-layered human community.

Now that I’m beginning to understand this strange place, I want to go back one more time, when I’m on my own schedule. The trip should include a night at the Copper Queen Hotel, with plenty of time for meandering.

One more trip to Bisbee! Maybe next year.

Coming into Bisbee

America’s last plan for church union

March 20, 2013
COCU's Final Documents

COCU’s Final Documents

On a blustery day in early spring, I decided to stay off of my bicycle and instead complete the second draft of my current research project, which is to write a history of the last effort to develop a comprehensive plan for church union in the United States.

I am using the word last in two senses. One is that the Consultation on Church Union, as this 40-year venture was called, was last in that it was the most recent effort. The more important meaning of last is that it is unlikely that any other project of this kind is likely to be attempted during the lifetime of anyone capable of reading this blog.

It’s hard to comprehend what American church life would be like today if COCU, to use the acronym by which the Consultation was most widely known, had succeeded. Imagine a 25 million member Protestant church comprising Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist (four denominations), United Church of Christ, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and International Council of Community Churches branches Christianity!

There is much more work to do in order to complete this manuscript, which (at 400 words per page) would print out to about 175 pages). Not least of the tasks is to find a publisher (if you have ideas and influence, let me know). The detailed table of contents outlines the story line of this saga of American Protestant church life.

The American Church That Might Have Been: A History of the Consultation on Church Union, by Keith Watkins (Table of Contents of Second Draft)

Part One: Moving from Vision to Plan (1960—1970)

Chapter One: The Bold Proposal (“Jesus Christ, whom all of us confess as our divine Lord and Saviour, wills that his church be one”)             

  • A Sermon to Transform the American Church
  • Principles and Patterns for Christian Unity

Chapter Two: The Challenge to Reunion in Concrete Terms (If the churches are unwilling to give this proposal full seriousness, they are “abdicating their ecumenical responsibility”)

  • Creating the Consultation on Church Union
  • Developing the Theological Foundation for a New Church

Chapter Three: Second Thoughts on Church Union (Pressing on to become an instrument for peace and reconciliation across all boundaries of nation, race, and class)

  • A Deeper Understanding of Ministry
  • The Resurgence of Hope

Chapter Four: Principles of Church Union (“A more inclusive expression of the oneness of the Church of Christ than any of the participating churches can suppose itself alone to be” )   

  • The Principles
  • Enlarging the Enterprise

Chapter Five: Responding to Issues of Structure and Organization (“The law of man is secondary. We move today under command of the law of God”)

  • Facing Organizational Challenges
  • The Unification of Ministries
  • Bringing Things Together in a Plan of Union

Chapter Six: At Last A Plan of Union (Whatever the decision may be, the lives of all of us will be changed  and the shape of the church will have been drastically altered)

  • Following Christ to the Cross
  • The Basic Elements of the Plan
  • Deliberations and Actions

Part Two: Negotiating the Terms of Agreement (1971—1988 )

Chapter Seven: Reaching for Balance and Equilibrium (Still “the best hope for a reconciled, revitalized Christian community”)

  • Empowering the Black Churches
  • Reclaiming the Sacramental Center

Chapter Eight: Changing the Focus from Plan to Process (Consensus on theology but still searching for agreement on organization and structure)

  • Paying Attention to What the Churches Had Said
  • A Different Kind of Next Step

Chapter Nine: Moving Yet and Never Stopping (A consensus struggling to find expression)

  • Dutifully Working at the Pragmatic Task
  • Christian Unity and Racial Justice
  • Consensus Struggling to Find Expression

Chapter Ten: The COCU Consensus (“A sufficient theological basis for  covenanting acts and the uniting process”)

  • Something Like a Compass for the COCU Churches
  • Second Revision, in Two Parts
  • Adoption of the Theological Basis for Unity
  • COCU at the Turning Point

Chapter Eleven: Churches in Covenant Communion (Pledging to walk together until we are visibly united in Christ)

  • The Idea of Covenant Takes Shape
  • Liturgies for Covenanting
  • One More Time Around

Part Three: Watching the Vision Vanish Away (1989—2002)

Chapter Twelve: Churches Uniting in Christ (Like a grain of wheat, COCU falls into the ground and dies)

  • The Responses by the Churches
  • Searching for a Way Forward
  • COCU Becomes CUIC

Chapter Thirteen: Continuing the Search for Christian Unity in America (The post-COCU agenda for the nation’s ecumenical protestant churches)

  • What COCU Tried to Do
  • Why This Venture Seemed So Promising
  • Why COCU Lost Momentum
  • COCU’s Achievements
  • The Post-COCU Agenda for Ecumenical Protestant Churches in America
  • Conclusion


Bicycling Back to Bisbee

March 16, 2013

Going Back to Bisbee, by Richard Shelton (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1992). This book won the 1992 Western States Book Award for Creative Nonfiction.

SheltonAgain this year my bike ride in Southern Arizona was an intellectual journey disguised as vigorous physical activity. It provided the incentive for reading about the historical, religious, and geographical territory through which I was cycling on week two of PAC Tour’s Winter Training Camp.

In an earlier blog (“A melancholy cyclist riding along the Santa Cruz River,” posted February 22, 2013) I reviewed a book, which I read before the trip, that interprets the history of the portion of the Sonoran Desert through which I would be cycling: The Lessening Stream, by environmental historian Michael F. Logan. This modest stream, scarcely 200 miles long, is one of the defining features of this year’s journey.

It is difficult to imagine how a book could differ from Logan’s more completely than the volume that I read during the ride itself: Going Back to Bisbee by poet and university professor Richard Shelton.

Whereas Logan’s self-avowed materialist point of view generated a strong sense of frustration and futility as I thought about the way that human activity has affected this desert river and its basin, Shelton’s personal narrative conveys a lilting sense of love for this arid river valley and its flora and fauna (including the people who have lived here over the centuries). Instead of melancholy, Shelton inspires joyful wonder.

Unlike Logan who grew up in Southern Arizona and moved away, Shelton first came to this country in 1956 as a draftee in the U.S. Army and has made this “baked land of chaotic hills and valleys” his home ever since.

Going Back to Bisbee begins on a monsoon summer day as Shelton drives his old van from Tucson to Bisbee—up the grade on AZ 83 to Sonoita, east on AZ 82 over the San Pedro River, south on AZ 80 through Tombstone, and onward over Mule Pass to Bisbee. It takes 319 pages of beautifully crafted prose for this poet-English professor to fill in details about the drive itself and the many associations that it brings to mind.

He describes the character of the Arizona monsoon season, portrays the strange beauty of yucca and other “stand-up-straight” desert plants that thrive in this dry land that has two rainy seasons. Shelton gives a detailed account of the ferocity of the marauding Apaches who terrorized this land for three hundred years.

His accounts of ghost towns in Southern Arizona are based on his own scrambles through the desolate places where crude piles of rain-destroyed adobe, now overpowered by mesquite thickets, are all that remain.

Whereas Logan stands back from his subject, trying to describe it with analytical objectivity, Shelton draws close, embracing this strange place with love. What Wordsworth said of poetry can be ascribed to Going Back to Bisbee. It “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”

As Shelton drives through fields overrun with cholla cacti, he explains in full detail the particularly painful characteristics of this desert plant. When he stops to watch a handsome coyote lazing along a pool of water in a canyon, he provides an extended discussion of the remarkable family life of coyotes and, as an extended aside, the ill-fated romance between one of his own dogs and a coyote from the Tucson hills.



The deep humanity of Shelton’s narrative is most fully expressed in the last third of the book in which he describes the geographical, architectural, and human history of Bisbee itself where he taught school for two years immediately after his two-year stint at Fort Huachuca.

The sensitive portraits of his junior high students during the late 1950s inspire confidence in the teaching profession. Shelton describes the complex ethnic mix of Bisbee’s neighborhoods and explains how the culture of copper mining has created this town that “never grew up, just got older and older.”

As religious historian, I was especially interested in Shelton’s characterization of Bisbee as caught between the hardships of life and the terrors of a Calvinist God, both of which were brought to Bisbee by the Phelps Dodge mining company.

The hardships of life, manifested in Brewery Gulch and the many brothels of earlier times, are self evident because of the rigors and dangers of mining and its destructive impact upon geography and the ecosystem, and also the fluctuations between prosperity and privation that are characteristic of a mining economy.

Less obvious is the religious side of the contrast, represented by Bisbee’s Presbyterian Church. The Phelps-Dodge-James family consisted of New England Calvinists, who brought their theology and their desire for order and propriety to this town that their company controlled.

Neither side of the social conflict won, and the Bisbee that Shelton remembers in the late 1980s, when he writes this book, contains ample evidence of both elements still living in tension.

Most of what Shelton tells us in this book was new to me, even though I have bicycled through this land several times. And now, having read this travel narrative, I am inspired to follow Shelton’s example by going back to Bisbee one more time.

Finding Faith in the New Millennium

March 11, 2013

Liberating Christianity: Overcoming Obstacles to Faith in the New Millennium, by Thomas C. Sorenson (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2008)

SorensonAfter earning a Ph.D. in Russian Imperial History, Thomas C. Sorenson decided that he would rather be a lawyer than a history professor. He earned a law degree and became an attorney. Then three things happened.

He began reading theology, starting with Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith. With his wife, he became an active participant in the process by which the United Church of Christ congregation to which they belonged became an open and affirming congregation in regard to “equal rights and dignity of gay and lesbian people.” He experienced a period of serious depression during which his pastor introduced him to Jungian psychology.

The result was that at the age of 48, Sorenson turned away from the law, earned an M.Div. degree, and became pastor of the United Church of Christ congregation in a community of 17,000 outside of Seattle. Early in his pastorate, it became clear to him that his congregation’s role “was precisely to be a progressive, Open and Affirming alternative to the religious conservatism that so pervaded the community” and its 26 churches (p. xxiii).

Sorenson is aware of the popular understandings of Christianity that dominate the news and have led many people to abandon Christian belief and practice. To counteract this tendency, Sorenson wrote a book, Liberating Christianity: Overcoming Obstacles to Faith in the New Millennium. These obstacles are: 1) philosophical materialism, 2) biblicism, and 3) the denial of grace.

In a very short Part One, Sorenson presents his answer to the first problem, the belief held by many people “that only the material, only the physical, is real.” His intention in this chapter and “A Philosophical Appendix” at book’s end is to show that “belief in a spiritual dimension to reality…is both reasonable and intellectually defensible.” While I affirm Sorenson’s line of thought, the subject needs fuller treatment than it receives in this book.

Part Two, three times longer than Part One, discusses the problem of biblicism, which to Sorenson is the foundation for much of the popular misunderstanding of Christianity. In contrast to much naysaying literature of our time, however, Sorenson does not begin this part of the book by denouncing views that he believes to be wrong. Instead, he develops a constructive line of thought, based on Tillich, concerning the nature of religious truth.

Its significant components are myth and symbol, which Sorenson describes as “images and stories taken from the world of ordinary sense perception and experience and applied to the spiritual, to which they point and in which they participate but cannot fully capture and cannot ultimately define” (p. 31).

Sorenson then discusses how biblicism, which insists that the Bible is literally and factually true, misunderstands what the Bible actually is and leads to conclusions and convictions that cannot be sustained by thoughtful people in our time. As might be expected, issues related to homosexuality are important illustrations in this section of the book.

A full half of Liberating Christianity is devoted to the third obstacle, which in my experience in liberal congregations today is the most serious. Sorenson identifies it as “the denial of grace,” but the range of his discussion is indicated by the four chapter heads which state his topics: beyond the classical theory of atonement, the meaning of the cross as a demonstration of God’s solidarity, the dynamics of salvation, and the teaching of Jesus for our time.

An example of his exposition is this except from his chapter on the meaning of the cross: “God’s solidarity with us demonstrated in the life and death of Jesus is, when we truly understand it, the best news there ever was or ever could be. It means that even in our times of greatest pain and greatest grief God is there with us, holding us in God’s everlasting arms of grace, keeping us existentially safe from harm. Though we die, God is there with us, dying with us, and keeping close in death and beyond death” (p. 124).

Throughout the book I noted places where I would develop Sorenson’s themes somewhat differently, but the book as a whole is an articulate and persuasive presentation of a version of Christianity that I readily affirm.

Sorenson believes that many pastors already understand Christianity in ways that are consistent with the ideas in this book. He urges them to be more forthright in preaching and teaching these ideas that can liberate the church.

He is convinced that a liberated church is liberating to people and that as a result they can affirm the Christian faith and live effectively as Christians. The book includes two or three pages of questions for discussion at the end of each chapter.

Liberating Christianity is a good book that deserves a wide readership.