How to Win a Cosmic War and other readings in American religion: prospects for 2014

January 27, 2014

AslanFinishing my book on  the Consultation on Church Union and sending the manuscript to the publisher have occupied most of my working life during the past several months. Meantime, books that bear upon my interests in American religion have been stacking up.

It now is time to replenish the reservoir of information and ideas that undergird my continuing work as a church historian. My plans for reading in 2014 can be organized into several categories.

Religion and Society (with special attention to violence): At this moment, three books vie for my time. How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror, by Reza Aslan (2009); For a Culture of Life: Transforming Globalization and Violence, by Konrad Raiser (2002); and Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, by Mark Juergensmeyer (2000).

Aslan was recently added to my bookshelf and I have read part of Raiser. I read Juergensmeyer soon after the book was published but plan to reread it in light of more recent events and publications.

The Ecumenical Protestant Churches: Here, too, three books are calling for my attention. After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History, by David A. Hollinger (2013); The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline, by Elesha J. Coffman (2013); and A Lover’s Quarrel: A Theologian and His Beloved Church, by Joe R. Jones (2014).

These books continue themes that are central in my forthcoming book The American Church That Might Have Been. In addition, I will be following other lines of research and analysis dealing with progressive Christianity and the ecumenical movement.

Christians in interaction package-228x228Strategies for Church Life and Leadership: Three books by Bob Cornwall, pastor near Detroit, are on this list: Faith in the Public Square; Worshiping with Charles Darwin, and Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening. A recent book by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson is also on this list: From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church (2013).

Inclusive Yet Discerning: Navigating Worship Artfully, by Frank Burch Brown. I read this 2009 book, which gives special attention to music in worship, soon after its publication, but my continuing interest in reforming Christian worship leads me to reread this vigorously written exposition.

Books of General Interest. Titles keep turning up. My next report will focus on Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Silence: A Christian History (2013). Who knows the other times that will turn up as the year moves along! Thank you for consulting these reports on keithwatkinshistorian.

How much longer before the desert fights back?

January 13, 2014
North Beach at Salton Sea

North Beach at Salton Sea

One of my best bike rides ever was a 2004 trip through the southwestern desert, from Claremont, California, to Phoenix, Arizona: Through east L.A. County along Route 66, over the Palms to Pines National Scenic Byway, through resort cities and farming towns of the Coachella and Imperial Valleys—the lowest-lying land of the western hemisphere—and on U.S. 60 through the western half of Arizona.

The focus for this trip was the Salton Sea, a strange, human-caused lake in a region once called the Valley of Death. This solo journey fulfilled a long-held hope to see this inland sea, and it increased my understanding of the challenges Americans face as we engineer the natural world that keeps fighting back.

During this trip I learned that the American Southwest has a long history of alternating periods of drought and somewhat wetter weather that have shaped the destiny of the societies that have developed in the desert. Between 600 and 1350 CE, the Hohokam civilization in central Arizona created a network of ditches and canals that stretched about 150 miles.

The Hohokam people failed, however, because (as Frank Waters wrote in Arizona Highways in 1990) they were unable to develop “an enduring civilization.” The reason: “the desert’s eventual assertion of its own inviolability against reclamation.”

In the decade since making that trip, I have bicycled another 3,500 miles in the desert Southwest and hope to continue the practice a few years longer (including 450 miles with PAC Tour in mid March).

It is increasingly clear that all of us who enjoy western United States are living on borrowed time. Populations continue to grow, water resources diminish at a time when drier climatic conditions seem to be returning, and engineering fixes that allow southwestern cities to thrive are nearing the end of their ability to ward off disaster.

What the region now needs, write B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam, is “a new policy of balance and cooperation.” Near the close of their book The West Without Water, they offer their readers this proposal:

“The past century has pitted ecosystems in the West against an economic imperative of growth by an ambitious western society. Yet with each drought or flood, the costs mount—both to the ecosystems that are collapsing and to the economy that reels with each disaster. An alternative paradigm for the future would consider the relationship between sustainable water use and the delicate balance of life within an environment that has evolved over many millennia.

Dry Wash at Salton Sea“Human society must find its place as part of the delicate balance, not apart from it. Achieving this balance will be both increasingly important and increasingly difficult in the future should the region’s climate, as predicted, become drier and punctuated by more floods. Now is the time for policymakers and residents to move toward a new, overarching policy of collaboration, to act together for the collective good and the survival of the region” (218).

According to Ingram and Malamud-Roam, the western society that has developed during the century-long hydraulic era is marked by five features: (1) remarkable control of water, (2) suppression of the natural regulators of water control, (3) multiplication of population, (4) major stress on plants and animals, and (5) an attitude that pays no attention to where the water comes from.

My bicycle-rider response to the impending crisis is that there are two action-oriented attitudes will help us respond to the threat that the west will soon run out of water. The first is that we need to support public officials, environmental scholars, and business interests as they develop policies and programs to restore natural processes that are harmonious with the long-term climatic realities of the American West.

This action is especially important because the factors that have controlled weather over the millennia are now being intensified by carbon buildup in the atmosphere, which is largely the result of human activity. Because this weather-making, climate-changing factor is human-caused, its diminishment can only come about by human action.

The second action-oriented attitude is that we can begin the process of reducing our personal water footprint. Ingram and Malamud-Roam report that “the amount of water used to produce a single, six-ounce serving of steak is 2,600 gallons. . .Forty-nine gallons of water are used to produce a single eight-ounce glass of milk” (214). In simple terms this means that bicyclists (and everyone else) should eat a lot less steak and eat a lot more red lentil soup.

According to The West Without Water, there is little doubt among the scientists that we are facing another period when much of the West could experience a new, more severe dust bowl than the one in the 1930s. We seem, however, to lack the sense of urgency that is needed to ward off this coming disaster.

These are some of the unsettling ideas that trouble me during my rides along the Columbia River and even more as I bicycle through the desert Southwest.

Rust Belt Resistance

January 9, 2014

Bush, Perry. Rust Belt Resistance: How a Small Community Took on Big Oil and Won. Kent State University Press, 2012

BushThe small community referred to in the book’s sub-title is Lima, Ohio, which the author describes as “a weathered industrial city of about forty thousand, set against the flat and prosperous farmlands of northwest Ohio.” The antagonist is British Petroleum (BP) “one of the most powerful and wealthy corporations in the world.”

The struggle revolved around a refinery on the edge of town that was for the city a source of identity and an essential factor in its economic base. For BP executives in London, however, the refinery was little more than a pin on a map of the world, despite the fact that it had been transformed by local initiative and become a highly profitable facility. The economics of global capitalism determined that the refinery should be shut down, but the economics of community well being demanded that it continue as a vital element in the city’s industrial life.

The most important actor in this story was David Berger who came to Lima in 1977 while preparing to be a Catholic priest. Before completing his studies, he established his residence in Lima and in 1989 was elected mayor. A second actor was James Schaefer, “commercial manager for British Petroleum’s Midwest operations” who came to the Lima refinery in 1991 when the aging facility was in decline and the workforce demoralized.

A new spirit of innovation emerged within the workforce, based on traditional blue-color pride in one’s work and diligence in pursuing goals. The refinery was transformed and became a model for BP’s installations around the world.  Schaefer was pulled by two loyalties—to the corporation for which he worked and whose decisions he had to obey and the workers whose labors had transformed the plant on which their well-being depended.

The BP executive who most fully embodied the power of global capitalism and possessed the power of decision concerning the Lima refinery was the company’s chief executive, John Browne, whom Bush describes as “an ambitious and sometimes ruthless  workaholic” much like other oil company executives. Unlike other executives, however, he often stressed in his speeches “the kinds of social responsibilities that BP owed the world,” even to the point of participating in the struggle against global warming.

After introducing Browne, Bush summarizes the book’s deeper story. “In the Lima metropolitan region in the mid-1990s, local people presented Browne with a perfect opportunity to put such fine words into practice. The ensuing confrontation between an aging and economically battered industrial city on the one hand and a powerful global corporation on the other would reveal a lot: about the real extend of the corporate social conscience, about the core issue of corporate personhood, and even the extent of real agency left to industrial communities” (10).

The conclusion to the Lima—BP struggle is that the small town won. By its constant and highly skilled resistance, led by the mayor and his associates but empowered by the deeply established values of the people of the community, Lima forced British Petroleum to find a way to preserve the refinery and save the city from impending disaster. As a morality story, the Lima-BP drama concludes with the mayor continuing in office, his work honored by the people whom he had served so skillfully.

In contrast, British Petroleum’s chief executive suffers disgrace. A succession of disasters from 2001 onward caused terrible environmental damage and cost BP hundred’s of millions of dollars in fines. “A growing chorus of critics pinned much of the blame for the oil leaks and explosions on Browne’s ruthless cost-cutting, which had led to neglect of routine maintenance” (245). In addition to these criticisms of his leadership of the company, Browne also faced charges of illegal conduct related to his private life. The “proud and cultured oilman watched his glittering career come to a sudden end in scandal and public disgrace.”

The major narrative of this book includes three sub-plots. The first is indicated by the sub-title of the book: the struggle between communities and larger political entities and vast economic powers. In Bush’s narrative, Cleveland and Ohio were similarly challenged by British Petroleum’s brand of global capitalism. It is important that political entities both great and small understand the nature of the battle.

The second sub-plot describes how global capitalism actually works, with the amoral maximization of profit as the essential purpose of corporations. The third sub-plot, and perhaps the most important, is the metamorphosis of the American democratic system in ways that citizens of every political persuasion should heed.

Perry Bush, who teaches at Bluffton University, sixteen miles from Lima, has written an interesting, perceptive, and prophetic book that deserves a wide reading.

When body and mind flit about

January 2, 2014


My thanks to everyone who flitted about during 2013 and in the process clicked onto keithwatkinshistorian 27,000 times. I plan to continue these musings during 2014 and in this, my first blog of the new year, I am summarizing my intentions for the 60 or more columns I intend to post during the next twelve months.

As in the past, they will focus on the two aspects of life about which I have been publishing online as Keith Watkins Historian: American Religion and Bicycling.

These statements, which usually vary in length from 750 and 850 words, are personal statements about things I’m reading, doing, thinking about, or trying to figure out. Although I usually spend two or three hours—often more but rarely less—writing each statement, they still are musings and reflections more than polished and completed units of though.

Christy Wampole, an assistant professor of French at Princeton University, helps me understand the character of these postings. In a column published in the New York Times on May 26, 2013, she discusses essay as a much-used form of writing. By essay, she means a “short nonfiction prose with a meditative subject at its center and a tendency away from certitude.”

Introducing the word “essayism,” Wampole says that it “consists in a self-absorbed subject feeling around life, exercising what Theodor Adorno called the ‘essay’s groping intention,’ approaching everything tentatively and with short attention, drawing analogies between the particular and the universal.

“Banal, everyday phenomena — what we eat, things upon which we stumble, things that interest us — rub elbows implicitly with the Big Questions: What are the implications of the human experience? What is the meaning of life? Why something rather than nothing? Like the Father of the Essay [Michel de Montaigne], we let the mind and body flit from thing to thing, clicking around from mental hyperlink to mental hyperlink.”

Of course, as an aggressive bicyclist, the bodily flitting about discussed in this column features two-wheeled travel most of the time, but sometimes I branch out to related forms of activity. Coming soon, for example, will be notes prompted by my recent rereading of Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins. My interest in the well-being of the earth continues to be expressed in this column, as can be seen in the current series of essays prompted by the book The West Without Water.

Getting Ready for 2014Some of the blogs during 2014 will be prompted by my own bicycle ventures of the year, including a few days of cycling in Florida (if it quits raining), a four-day ride down part of the California coastline in February, and PAC Tour’s Century Week in March. Some of these columns will be descriptive, but I will also spend more time trying to describe “the meditative subject” at the center of these rides.

Some of my bicycle writing will focus upon cycling, public policy, and safety. Here, my opinions are strong enough that I may find it difficulty to maintain the “tendency away from certitude” that Wampole cites as one of the characteristics of essays.

Over the years, I have written and self-published some two dozen travel narratives featuring bike trips I have taken. This coming year may allow me the time and provide the motivation to bring them together in two book-length manuscripts that could be shopped to publishers as real books. This blog will likely serve as a venue in which I begin shaping the central narrative for these manuscripts.

As religious historian, my mindful flitting about will be shaped by three intentions for the year. (1) I hope to conclude one unpublished (and perhaps unpublishable) book-length manuscript in the field of local church history. (2) I intend to post several blogs on issues and implications related to the ecumenical Protestant churches that have come to my attention while writing my forthcoming book, The American Church That Might Have Been. (3) I will try to outline a new book in which I describe my pilgrimage of faith and where it has brought me.

All three of these topics are rife with blogging possibilities. These columns will serve as miniature essays. In them I will approach everything “tentatively and with short attention, drawing analogies between the particular and the universal.”

According to the year-end summary that WordPress sent me on December 30, this blog was viewed about 14,000 times in 2013. It it were a public lecture at the Sydney Opera House, which holds 2,700 people, it would have taken five sold-out performances for that many people to hear these presentations. As blogs go, that’s a very small number. Even so, I am grateful to readers who have found their way to I hope that you and many others will continue reading these brief, tentative, wide-ranging essays during 2014.