The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa

January 17, 2015

A review of The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa, by Neil Peart (Lawrenceton Beach, Nova Scotia: Pottersfield Press, 1996).

Peart-Africa“Some people travel for pleasure,” writes Neil Peart on the second page of this book describing his bicycle adventure in Cameroon, “and sometimes find adventure; others travel for adventure, and sometimes find pleasure. The best part of adventure travel, it seems to me, is thinking about it.”

Travel takes you out of your context, he continues, away from home, job, and friends; “traveling among strangers can show you as much about yourself as it does about them. That’s something to think about, and if you try you might glimpse yourself that way, without a past, without a context, without a mask. That can be a little scary, no question, but you may get a look behind someone else’s mask as well, and that can be even scarier.”

Since I rarely listen to Classic Rock, I had not heard of Neil Peart until recently coming across another of his books, Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road, which describes a motorcycle trip around much of North America as grief work following the deaths of his daughter and wife. One of my coffee shop friends in Portland, however, tells me that Peart is one of the finest drummers in the world, and one of the highlights of his own activities was the privilege of chauffeuring Peart when his band Rush played here.

In The Masked Rider Peart describes a trip, “Cameroon: Country of Contrasts,” that he took with four others in 1988. David, who made his living taking groups on bicycle journeys in Africa, told them that this was the hardest trip he offered, which may have been one reason why only four had signed up for it even though he had been advertising it for a year.

David, Neil, Leonard, Anna, and Elsa carried their personal gear on their bikes, bought their meals in restaurants or wherever they could, and found lodging in whatever accommodations they could find in the towns and villages they passed through. Their route sometimes took them on paved roads and streets, but most of their cycling was on unpaved, often unimproved, roads, trails, and rough territory that made cycling virtually impossible.

The European language most often used by people in Cameroon was French, and only Neil and David could speak it. Neil says they used “survival French,” but even that was better that the meager amount of French they frequently met among the people with whom they dealt. The other three travelers had virtually no knowledge of the language that could have helped them communicate in their own right.

Even so, all five of these cyclists, including the two women, soon were willing to travel alone, sometimes riding out ahead of the others and sometimes lagging back. After agreeing on where they would meet on down the road or in the destination village, they were bold enough to travel by themselves part of the time.

For an entire month they traveled this way. They maintained a civil relationship, but did not bond with one another in an intense relationship as might have been expected.

Neil made the trip because he was fascinated with Africa. The previous year he had visited the East African savanna, where he could easily see animals but found it difficult to become acquainted with people. After the bike trip in Cameroon, he vowed never again to bike that way, but he soon changed his mind and the next year took another bicycle trip, this one through Togo, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast.

Neil’s tendency to use travel as the stimulus to think was augmented by the books he took with him on this trip: Aristotle’s Ethics and Dear Theo, Vincent van Gogh’s letters to his brother. Frequently he refers to passages in these books and also to other books about Africa that he read in connection with this Cameroonian adventure.

More important in understanding the book, however, are the many passages where the author comments about his companions and muses about his own attitudes and actions. The fact that that the book was published eight years after the trip may have given him the freedom to speak so candidly about the actions of the other members of the troupe.

Even more important than these features is one more: Neil’s reflections on human life, happiness, attitudes toward life’s experiences, and religion. These will be treated in part two of this review. Online booksellers indicate that Neil Peart’s The Masked Rider is available in hard and soft cover books, as an ebook, and as an audiobook. Even if you are not an adventure cyclist, this book is worth reading.




Reforming Islam

January 13, 2015

Noteworthy Speeches of 2015 

As the new year begins, I intend to comment from time to time on speeches that focus attention on topics that attract attention. The first in this series was delivered by Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, president of Egypt, to Muslim clerics at a meeting held to honor the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday.  I have not yet found a link to the speech itself and am depending upon a report by Sarah el Deeb and Lee Keath, distributed by the Associated press and published January 9 in the Vancouver, Washington, newspaper The Columbian. 

Because of the terrorist events in Paris during the early days of 2015, it is easy to overlook the speech on January 1 by Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. The reporters write that this speech was President el-Sissi’s “boldest effort yet to position himself as a modernizer of Islam.” He hopes “to purge the religion of extremist ideas of intolerance and violence that fuel groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State,” and inspire events like those in Paris.

According to Mohie Eddin Affifi, a religious leader in Egypt, the president’s intention is to promote “a contemporary reading of religious texts to deal with our contemporary reality.” The sacred texts themselves would remain unchanged. Instead, the focus of attention would be the textbooks used in the large network of grade schools and universities” operated across Egypt by al-Azhar, a 1,000-year-old center of Sunni Muslim thought and teaching. “Texts on slavery and refusing to greet Christians and Jews” are examples cited in the Associated Press report.

This speech is one more example of el-Sissi’s effort to present himself “as a pious proponent of a moderate, mainstream Islam.”

An important criticism of el-Sissi’s approach to reform is that he “is clearly seeking to impose change through the state, using government religious institutions like al-Azhar.” Although this organization “has always claimed to be the bastion of ‘moderate’ Islam,…it has moved to silence progressive and liberal re-interpretations just as often as radical ones.”

A contrasting approach to the challenge facing Islam was featured in “The Saturday Profile” published by the New York Times on January 10. Written by Alison Smale, it features Mouhanad Khorchide, a Palestinian scholar now professor of Islamic pedagogy at the University of Münster. He is described as being “part of Germany’s effort to offer an alternative both to those who criticize and fear Islam and to Muslims seeking to practice their religion without extremes.”

His work is important because it is helping to “groom some of the thousands of teachers needed as Germany’s 16 states gradually shift to teaching Islam in primary and secondary schools, putting it on par with the Christian and Jewish faiths.”

The reporters offer only one example of Khorchide’s interpretation of Islam, and it is drawn from his book entitled God Is Mercy, which is available in English only as an e-book. Since the ninth century, he teaches, “the spirit of the Muslim world has been restrictive”—and that “the relationship between God and the individual is a loving one.” This idea comes as a shock to Muslims “raised only to fear God.”

Khorchide’s method of teaching differs sharply from the approach advocated by el-Sissi in his New Year’s Day speech. While the dominant method in Islamic countries is for students to learn to repeat back opinions and ideas that their teachers have delivered, Khorchide wants students to ask questions and develop answers. He hopes that they will experience what he refers to as an “aha!” moment while practicing their faith.

Commenting on the recent shootings in Paris, Khorchide told the reporters that “Such events force us to discuss openly about theological positions. . .It is too simple to say, ‘No, no, that has nothing to do with Islam.’ These people [referring to jihadists] are referring to the Quran, and we must confront these passages in the Quran.”

Some of the people who justify their violent actions carry this sacred book in their backpacks and have said “With the Quran, I am strong.” Yet when asked if they have read it or know what it says they answer “No.” Khorchide then said that he calls this “a hollow religiosity,” like “the thin and fragile peel of a fruit.”

Smale says very little about Khorchide’s approach to interpreting the Quran, nor does she indicate whether he discusses his principles of interpretation in his book. My preliminary online search did not bring up a listing for his e-book, but it gave links to reviews of the book and interviews with the author, one of which was reported in with the title “God Is Not a Dictator.”

He also is listed as one of three editors of a book that has been published in English with the title Religious Plurality and the Public Space: Joint Christian-Muslim Theological Reflections.



The mellowing of an aggressive cyclist

January 2, 2015

Second in a series on bicycling my way through 2014

Crossing I-205 on the Marine Drive Bike Trail

Crossing I-205 on the Marine Drive Bike Trail

When I started my blog in 2014, it was easy enough to describe one of the identifying descriptors I would use: religious historian. I intended to write about a wide range of topics in American religion, thus continuing work I had done during my career in academia.

Choosing a descriptor for the blog’s second focus was the problem. Bicycling, yes; but what kind of cyclist am I? What kind of cycling would I write about?

Competitive? Although I have never raced or ridden time trials, I do like to hold my own with any group with which I’m riding. Even though my family laughs at me when I say I’m not competitive, this descriptive term doesn’t seem right. It suggests racing rather than the constant hard-charging that has been my style.

Serious? This word suggests giving constant attention to cycling—to its technology, techniques, history, and literature. Again, the word fits. Cycling is important to my intellectual life and to my bodily activity, enough so that serious fits well enough that it would be a better choice than competitive. If only it had more bite to it.

Avid is another word that often appears in descriptions of the kind of cyclists with whom I ride, but the word has always felt insufficiently serious. Avid cyclists are spirit-filled, enthusiastic, ready to head out for a ride, but I have never been able to use that word with any degree of comfort. It has seemed superficial. An unabridged dictionary suggests another reason not to like the word avid. Its first meaning — “craving eagerly : desirous to the point of greed”—doesn’t describe the way I feel about cycling.

So I chose aggressive, by default rather than by careful analysis. The word has one advantage, that it catches people’s attention. The word is brash, pushy, hard-edged. Aggressive describes the way I have always felt about climbing steep grades and keeping up the pedaling cadence at the end of a day of hard cycling. Aggressive includes focused attention, impatience at impediments, and the determination to keep going, no matter what.

During 2014, however, this word has been losing its luster. The negative side of aggression seems more prominent than I had realized. One reader recently suggested that this word will turn off the very readers who interest me, especially older cyclists who want to keep on riding even as their energies and abilities diminish.

Another reason why aggressive seems like the wrong descriptor is that my ability to ride long and hard is diminishing. My doctor, a cyclist himself, tells me that this is inevitable for someone my age. “No matter how disciplined your training and determined your attitude,” he explained, “you’ll keep slowing down; so get used to it.” He said it gently and with understanding, but it’s still hard to take.

But during 2014, a third factor has arisen that makes it necessary to think about a different term: my inner push and self-confidence have wilted. In recent years I had already modified some of my ground rules, stopping earlier in the day because I knew that I was less resourceful than in earlier years.

With my wife’s death earlier in the year, however, I have become aware how much my mood and manner were supported by her love, loyalty, and trust, and even more by the way I had come to depend upon her response as I told her about the riding I wanted to do. Now that I’m only half of what I used to be, the aggressiveness has lost its punch.

So, if aggressive no longer fits, what descriptor should take its place? Midway through 2014, I toyed with the phrase open road cyclist, even posting a blog on what the phrase means. More recently contemplative has come up as a contrast to competitive. The one term describes a readiness to ride in all kinds of places under a wide range of conditions. The other term indicates the bookishness of everything I do, including cycling.

For now, Aggressive Cyclist will continue on the blog’s masthead, but sometime during 2015, when the metamorphosis is complete, a new descriptor will take its place. Which will it be? Open Road? Contemplative? Or another characterization still to come? Let me know what you think.

Desert Sign

Essays on religion in America: anticipations for 2015

January 1, 2015
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

As the masthead for my blog indicates, one of my primary interests is American religion. My graduate studies were in this field and my career in the church and academy has always focused upon the historical dimensions of religion and life in America. Even in retirement, I continue to read and write on historical topics, as my recently published book The American Church that Might Have Been makes clear.

With a relatively clear desk and a new and very portable computer, I’m ready for the new year, and here are the historically oriented topics which will occupy my attention and therefore often appear on the blog keithwatkinshistorian.

The twisting flow of water: As cyclist, citizen of the world, and religious historian I have been increasingly preoccupied by the challenges revolving around water—its availability to people around the world, its role in political and economic life, and the ethical and religious issues pertaining to water. Because this field already is so vast and complex, and because it continues to grow, I will never be able to claim mastery.

I may be coming to a place in my work, however, when I can draft an extended essay on this subject, and this is my first goal for the new year. It will include a review of literature that has influenced my understandings of water in the world and proposals for how Americans, and especially the religious communities, should respond to the emerging crisis. Since I am committed to doing a paper on this topic for the Northwest Association for Theological Discussion in early February, this project is number one on my list.

Death and dying in America: This aspect of American life and religious practice was part of my regular work as professor of worship for more than thirty years. Because of my wife’s long illness and recent death, I have been involved in these matters in a new and very personal way.

During the past several months, I have posted columns about these matters and I have developed a preliminary draft of a paper on the church’s ministry at the time of death. One goal for 2015 is to continue my work in this field, reporting these labors from time to time on this blog, and by the end of the year write an extended essay on this subject.

The heretical imperative: In a slender book entitled The Heretical Imperative, Peter Berger has discusses the challenge that comes to all people, which is to  develop a viable synthesis of the traditions on which life is based and the constantly changing social systems within which our lives are lived. During recent months I have posted blogs on this subject, including reviews on how the Qur’an and Book of Mormon are understood and used by contemporary scholars who are committed both to their classic religious texts and to secular canons of scholarship.

Since my retirement from academic life twenty years ago, I have lived in an environment marked by two unsettling characteristics: a disparaging attitude toward the classic Christian tradition and an indiscriminate acceptance popular values and practices. I feel an increasing pressure to resolve the tension I feel.

My reading in this field has been occasional and not well focused, but I hope that in this new year I will be able to bring some kind of order to the process. One way of doing so may be to collect some of the book reviews and incidental reflections that I have already composed and shape a third extended essay that would serve as a progress report on a project still under way.

Could there be a book in the making? In recent years, my friend Joe R. Jones has published two books of essays, sermons, and other occasional writings that he has composed during retirement years. The model appeals to me, and one of the guidelines that I intend to use in shaping the extended essays described above is to bring them together in that kind of book.

So what do you think? Your ideas and evaluations are hereby invited and encouraged.


Open road cycling for people past 70

December 27, 2014

First in a series on bicycling my way through 2014

On the River Road South of Corvallis, Oregon

On the River Road South of Corvallis, Oregon

“Your cycling journals are different!” This was Susan Notorangelo’s response to my 20-page essay on a week’s ride with PAC Tour, the travel company that she and her husband Lon Haldeman have conducted for about 30 years. I’m not sure what she meant, but think that she was surprised by the way description, historical background, and personal interpretation are intertwined in my travel narratives.

During the 40 years of my aggressive adult cycling, I’ve written 15 to 20 of these accounts, some only a few pages in length and others as long as 40 pages. Two of them describe the solo cross country trip that I did in the spring before I turned 70, and several describe rides that I’ve done with PAC Tour, including the 1,100 mile Albuquerque—Grand Canyon and Return ride in 2010.

At the beginning of 2014, one of my writing goals was to revise 8 to 10 of these later travel narratives and meld them into a book with the working title Open Road Cycling for People Past 70.

During the early months of 2014 I was in the final stages of completing a book on religion in America (published in November; click here for more information). As soon as that manuscript was approved by the publisher, I began serious work on the cycling book. At the same time, my wife’s 8 years of living with cancer entered a new phase that imposed a different plan for the second half of the year. For several months the bicycling book has languished, but early in 2015 I plan to resume my work on this project.

In its current form, the book has an Introduction and 9 chapters: Dry Lands on the Southern Tour, Wet Lands on the Southern Tour, *Bicycling through Time on the Wilderness Road, Columbia Gorge Explorers, Reengineering the Engineered World, *Bicycling Along George Washington’s Rivers, *Sky Island Soliloquy, *Traveling through the Open Windows of Time, and Learning to Ride at a Gentler Pace. An appendix contains my counsel about bikes, equipment, and cycling strategies for cyclists in their 70s and 80s.

Earlier versions of the above titles marked with * are posted on the Bicycle Diaries page of this blog.

The last two or three chapters need more work in order for this first phase of editing to be completed. Then will come a second editorial phase which will help determine whether these chapters can be melded into a book with a coherent thesis that ties them together or if they remain a set of individual travel narratives.

I intend to write the first draft of a publishing proposal by mid February when I am registered for week one of PAC Tour’s Desert Training Camp 2015. There are 27 registered riders, plus a crew of 9, and we’ll be cycling 50 to 60 miles a day on a tour of historic hotels in southern Arizona.

The proposal, which will consist of 100-word summaries of the book’s thesis and each of the chapters, will serve as (1) a guide for revising the manuscript; (2) a way of soliciting evaluations and suggestions from representative cyclists in target audiences, especially from my PAC Tour companions, and (3) the first step in looking for editorial counsel and a publisher.

In all probability, I’ll post the revised proposal on this blog so that a wider circle of readers can comment on the shape the book is taking.

Happy cycling in 2015.

Jesus on a bicycle

December 23, 2014

Originally posted on Keith Watkins Historian:

“Flight” . . . design by Yusuf Grillo of Nigeria, contributed to benefit UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund

The scripture text and sermon in church this morning (December 29, 2013) told about Mary, Joseph, and Jesus fleeing for their lives because King Herod was determined to destroy this baby whom he perceived to be a potential rival to his political power. It reminded me of the column I posted three years ago, which shows the Holy Family’s “flight into Egypt” on a bicycle. The story is eternal, the image is haunting, and its timeliness is always with us.   

I bought the UNICEF Christmas card with Grillo’s painting more than thirty years ago, and it continues to be one of my most cherished depictions of Jesus. As a work of art, it is striking in its composition, color, and emotional impact. As a theological statement, it surpasses most sermons…

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A Proposal Toward the Reunion of Christ’s Church

December 4, 2014
James A. Pike and Eugene Carson Blake in 1960

James A. Pike and Eugene Carson Blake in 1960

On Sunday, December 4, 1960, the National Council of Churches convened its triennial assembly in San Francisco. Leaders of the nation’s major Protestant churches, as well as representatives of other churches and councils of churches from around the world had gathered for this multi-day conference.

On his way to the assembly the most prominent Presbyterian leader in the nation, Eugene Carson Blake, was interviewed by a reporter from the New York Times and announced that he was preparing to make a major proposal about Christian unity just as the assembly was about to meet.

Word leaked out to the nation’s news media and to many of the denominational officials as they were making their own journeys to San Francisco.

Blake made his bold proposal in a long sermon at the Sunday Eucharist in one of the nation’s most storied churches, Grace Episcopal Cathedral, where another nationally known church leader, James A. Pike, was diocesan bishop. The sermon made national headlines and generated widespread interest. Church leaders around the nation were divided in their response, but those in favor of the idea were clearly in the majority. The opening paragraphs of the sermon announce what Blake would say:

Text: Romans 15:5-7

“Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be like-minded one toward another according to Christ Jesus! That ye may with one mind and with one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Wherefore receive ye one another as Christ also received us to the glory of God.”

This is a significant occasion. When I received the gracious invitation from your Dean and Bishop to preach in this pulpit, on this particular morning, it became clear to me at once that the occasion demanded not only as good a sermon as God might enable me to prepare and preach, but also a sermon that would deal with the unity of the Church of Jesus Christ realistically—neither glossing over divisions with politeness nor covering them with optimistic generalities.

Led, I pray, by the Holy Spirit, I propose to the Protestant Episcopal Church that it together with The United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America invite The Methodist Church and the United Church of Christ to form with us a plan of church union both catholic and reformed on the basis of the principles I shall later in this sermon suggest. Any other Churches which find that they can accept both the principles and plan would also be warmly invited to unite with us.

I hasten to make it clear that at this stage this is not an official proposa1. My position as Stated Clerk of my Church’s General Assemb1y gives me no authority to make such a proposal officially on behalf of my Church. I speak this morning as one of the ministers of my Church privileged and required to preach under the Word of God. I speak as a minister especially privileged—and therefore under a special requirement—especially privileged to have represented my communion for the past nine years in many formal and informal relationships with other communions both inside and outside the ecumenical movement. I speak as one minister of Jesus Christ who believes that God requires us to break through the barriers of nearly 500 years of history, to attempt under God to transcend the separate traditions of our Churches, and to find a way together to unite them so that manifesting the unity given us by our Lord Jesus Christ, His Church may be renewed for its mission to our nation and to the world “that the world may believe.”

Before setting forth the basic principles of the union propose, it is, I think, important to make clear the compelling considerations that have moved me to believe that union ought now to be sought by us and to clear away some possible misunderstandings of reasons and motives for seeking it.

To read the entire sermon and response click A Proposal Toward the Reunion of Christ’s Church.

My new book, The American Church that Might Have Been tells the 40-year story of this serious effort to create a new and better church to serve Christ and the needs of people across the nation. It can be purchased from the publisher Wipf and Stock or from Amazon.



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