Other CH101 Book Reviews
Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up, by David Bercot
A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, by David Bercot
The Doctrine of the Trinity, by Anthony Buzzard
The Christian's Secret to a Happy Life, by Hannah W. Smith
Flea Market Jesus, by Arthur Farnsley II
Did Jesus Exist?, by Bart Ehrman
Peter, Paul & Mary, by Bart Ehrman
Lost Christianities, by Bart Ehrman
A History of the Early Church, by Hans Lietzmann
Let me begin by stating that this is not the kind of book I would typically review, but I was asked by a good friend to read the book. It turns out that I really liked Arthur Farnsley's concluding chapters and feel like he is making an important contribution.
I am not a sociologist, thus it is a legitimate question as to whether I have any grounds or training to offer critical comments, but I will do so anyway. I have some critiques I would like offer regarding Farnsley's literary technique and I do have some other criticisms, but first I want to give a summary of the book from my perspective and offer a few reasons why I would recommend it.
Flea Market Jesus is a sociological study using the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association subculture as a population group. This group of midwesterners meet twice annually in Friendship, Indiana for a week of celebrating the western expansionism of the 18th and 19th centuries. During these weekly gatherings the mainly white, lower-class and middle-class gun owners, collectors, reenactors and tourists come together for various shooting competitions, tomahawk throwing, bartering at flea markets and just enjoying each other's company. Attendants live in campers, tents and some perhaps in the open air. A central Flea Market is another main attraction - pure capitalism where you are expected to dicker for an acceptable price. Farnsley grew up attending these gatherings with his father who had been laid off from his career job, thus he has a connection with this crowd. He spent several years doing interviews with various people in order to come up with something of a sociological sketch of this subculture.
In his last two chapters Farnsley distills the world view of this subculture with regards to politics and religion. In my opinion, Farnsley's thesis is the last paragraph of Chapter 2,
I just read this paragraph to another friend who asked me, "Why are you even reading this book?" I think Farnsley is touching on something very important for understanding white middle America: not white urban America, southern California white America, nor even where Farnsley admits is his "normal" environment, white liberal academia, but good ol' salt of the earth white America. What we call "good ol' boys" down south - just simple, blue collar people who would give you their shirt if you needed it.
I grew up in Alabama and graduated high school in south Alabama where I really learned about this culture. Reading about flea market dealers, trinket sellers, and gun owners/collectors reminds me of farmers, plumbers and mechanics I know, and how much I like this subculture. I am not a big gun guy, but I have fired an authentic muzzle loaded rifle from the Revolutionary War, a Civil War rifle, WWI and WWII rifles with a friend in Arkansas who owns a Rifle museum and makes Civil War reenactment leather goods (www.borderstatesleatherworks.com). It would not surprise me if he has attended this event in Friendship.
White Male Resistance and Alienation
It seems to me that Farnsley has captured the tone of "white male resistance and alienation." It is there and I think it is becoming more pronounced during these times of Recession, joblessness, and financial struggle. Lower to middle-class white males aged 40 to 70 have felt something like a target on their backs (in keeping with the gun motif) and the last several years seems to have confirmed it.
Farnsley illustrates the feelings of impotence against the politically correct power structures of politics, taxation and religion in our society. He uses the artiface, a literary device, of Cochise. Cochise is a somewhat fictional character and the mouthpiece for an amalgamation of things said by the 60 people Farnsley interviewed for this project. I think one of Farnsley's major points in this book is to show how many of us share the impotent feelings with this subculture. This is interesting because many of us struggle to relate with these people given their eccentric activities at this event.
As I read this book I thought of the famous 1988 paper by Peggy McIntosh, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. The thesis of this paper is that our society was built on the foundation of undeserved white male privilege and that we must do something to end this situation. I wonder if Farnsley had this paper in mind at all while working on Flea Market Jesus, but nonetheless, I think Cochise reflects some of the despair that has come from an aggressive application of "affirmative action" over the last 30-40 years. Yes, white men in a certain age bracket feel like the deck is stacked against them. Now understand, I am not saying that THIS is what Farnsley intends to show - he certainly does not say this - his last two chapters speak this to me.
This is why I recommend that you read Flea Market Jesus. It leaves the reader with a sense of impending change and not a good change. Several times Farnsley references the gun crowd by citing the famous NRA slogan, "I'll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands!" Farnsley uses "...cold, dead fingers," but the point here is that the right to bear arms speaks to a certain freedom. Freedom from the government or someone else trying to take from us; freedom to protect ourselves from violence - and as Farnsley rightly points out, this is part of the rugged individualism that helped to lay the foundation of our great nation.
Farnsley states that "interdependence and globalization will mean the end of individualism, or even the myth of individualism." (p.115) I hope he is wrong, but I fear that this is the goal (or at least an unintended consequence) of the "Progressive" movement. I will come back to this theme to conclude my review. I hope my particular understanding (or interpretation) of this book will incite you to either read Flea Market Jesus or at least to think about these issues I have mentioned. Now on to my criticisms of Farnsley's book.
The Literary Device, Cochise
Farnsley spends a good amount of time explaining "Cochise," a real flea market dealer, but also a literary device used to tell this story. Farnsley says that he spent a few years working on this book, interviewing around 60 individuals. He says that he had something of a set of interview questions and that he stuck to this rubric, though not rigidly. He then gives something of an apologetic for why he is using this literary device and simply says that the reader must trust him. (p.7) The reader must trust that he is giving an accurate depiction of what the subjects actually revealed by answering Farnsley's questions.
I do not like his use of Cochise. It would have been more credible to present the sociological data rather than use this halfway fictitious character. Cochise is a real person, but when I read statements from him in quotation marks I must remember that it is really NOT Cochise speaking - it is a composite, speaking for a "type" of individual. The whole device thing was stilted to me and became a constant nagging in the back of my mind, forcing me to question whether anyone had actually said what I was reading or if it was Farnsley speaking through his friend. Yet Farnsley has the nerve to suggest that if we listen "we can hear him speak for himself." (p.13) Wait a minute! I thought Cochise was a composite! Indeed, I chuckled more than a few times thinking, "Oh yes, this is Cochise...kind of like Farnsley's Harry the Rabbit." I will come back to this point in a minute.
This literary device actually would have worked IF Farnsley had just done one simple thing: used appendices. He could have listed his questions in an appendix. He could have given demographical data in another appendix: gender breakdown, ages and cultural/ethnic background. This subculture is basically presented as "white," but more details would have helped my natural skepticism. Lastly, an appendix with a decent sampling of responses to the various questions would have been good. I am not suggesting that Farnsley would have needed to go over every detail - but having the data as a reference would have taken away this criticism. Farnsley knew this was a weakness and he apologized for it, but stated that he did not have the normal university rules and thus, I guess, decided not to worry about presenting data.
Another problem I had with Farnsley's use of Cochise was that until the last two chapters Cochise hardly made an appearance. Chapter One was an introduction; Chapter Two was all about Friendship, Indiana for context (where Farnsley gave me FAR more detail than I needed); Chapter Three was...more context? After all the build up about how he is going to use Cochise...he hardly speaks. After 18 more pages of grueling details explaining what flea markets are, Farnsley finally quotes Cochise. We get around a page of comments from Cochise, then it is back to Farnsley explaining (interpreting) Cochise for me.
Chapter Four shares the title of the book and it is here where Cochise begins to speak, yet again not without Farnsley's commentary. I had grown tired of the autobiographical aspect in the first three chapters, thinking I had been promised something more of a sociological study. In this chapter I get Farnsley's personal commentary explaining fundamentalists and why/how he is no longer one. I realize that he is contrasting Cochise with his own journey, but I found it too...well, preachy. Farnsley tells us in the last chapter, "I do not believe in God...I have made a conscious, rational decision not to live "in faith"..." (p.115) This started becoming very clear to me in Chapter Four. For me this is another weakness of the book - too much of Farnsley's autobiographical thoughts and not enough detail of what this subculture says and thinks about their Jesus. At this point in the book I was beginning to think a more apt title to be "Flea Market Jesus: My Story of Alienation." This would have been more truth in advertising. Farnsley kind of warned us on page 16, but he spent far more time explaining Cochise and how he conducted this study of 60 subjects, etc.
At this point I want to encourage anyone reading this review, thinking you might purchase and read this book - Chapters Five and Six are good. Chapter Four is mainly good, so do not be overly put off by my critique. You now have the benefit of knowing that you will need to get through some autobiographical stuff; and you might really like it!
In my opinion, it seems that Farnsley is offering something of an apologetic to his Ivy League friends and academic colleagues for why he dresses up in buckskin trousers and moccasins, throws a tomahawk and owns guns. He uses southern, or rural slang regularly - I guess to show that he knows how to speak the language. Fine. For a liberal or someone from an urban lifestyle this might all be good for setting context. As an Alabama boy this was close to offensive for me. His use of "redneck" for me, is unnecessary. Amazing to me how progressives quickly call conservatives "bigot" or "racist," yet "redneck" is funny. But I digress. Well, since I am already on a roll: Farnsley has Cochise using the "N" word, the F-bomb and GD. All of this was gratuitous to me.
This next point is a bit picky, but worth mentioning. On page 77 Farnsley has been describing the spirituality of these flea market dealers when he says, "...I am entirely convinced that the folk believers really believe, by which I mean they both think and feel these ideas to be true. Indeed, I'd guess that they have, as a whole, a much stronger sense of the supernatural, of God's intervention in everyday affairs, than even most 'Big F' fundamentalists." It is clear that Farnsley has a certain respect for these people, which is good, I think. I appreciate that he is convinced that these people REALLY do believe, because he makes it clear that he finds it hard to believe that religious faith can still exist. (see page 117)
But this statement that flea market dealers "as a whole" have a much stronger sense of the supernatural than "most" Fundamentalists. This is just not the kind of unsupported statement a trained sociologist like Farnsley should make. Again, he has told the reader that he will not be following his normal rules, but come on!
His "proof" for this statement is to give some examples of supernatural stories told him by the dealers. Let me be clear: I am not doubting these stories. In fact, where Farnsley is convinced that these dealers REALLY believe these supernatural stories to be true (while he, of course, sees them as myth and magic), I tend to agree with the dealers - these stories could certainly be true! But for Farnsley to say that these dealers have a stronger sense of supernatural than "most" Fundamentalists is nothing but his personal opinion and, for me, reveals his prejudice towards the "Big F" fundamentalists. Why not interview 20 Fundamentalists to see how many of them tell stories of God's intervention? If he had said "some" it would have been easier to accept. It is an arrogant personal opinion.
I do not want to catalogue this kind of thing, but Farnsley makes numerous personal opinion comments like this which takes away from the value of his study.
But now let me conclude my review with how this study gave me a few voilą moments.
Lower Middle-Class White Male Frustration
Throughout Chapters 5 and 6 I found myself standing in solidarity with Cochise and the flea market dealers. Cochise feels like "the rules are made by somebody else" and there is "no realistic way to fight back." (p.83) He cannot trust the government to look out for him and the government does not trust him to take care of himself, thus the feeling of Big Brother constantly sticking his hands in my affairs...especially in my pockets.
For as many years as I can remember this lack of trust mainly was directed at the dreaded IRS. They could freeze your assets and basically take away your possessions. In the last several years that feeling has grown: now you worry about the TSA pulling you out of line at the airport, missing your flight, and you have no recourse; you worry that the EPA might post a notice on your property and take it from you, and you have no real recourse; you worry that DHS might deem you a right-wing terrorist and confiscate your property, and you have no real recourse.
Farnsley-Cochise makes several interesting comments about illegal immigration, racism and the gay/homosexuality issues. (pp.93-96) His interpretation of these issues did not surprise me at all, and in fact made me feel more confident that my feelings are reflected across much of upper-lower class through midrange middle class whites: "they just believe changes that work against them are being crammed down their throats." (p.93) Or referring to Hollywood's pro-gay TV shows and movies as "the elite culture's attempt to force them to call homosexuality normal." (p.96)
I have written about this several times on my site: Christians in particular do not like having anti-religious junk crammed down their throats (the Chick-Fil-A episode) and many middle-aged white men feel like ALL minority status people have been shoved to the front of the line which pushes them back farther. This goes back to the McIntosh paper, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. Cochise is voicing this feeling that the deck is now stacked against him.
Cochise and the dealers live "off the grid" as much as possible and will do better than most people if our society has the tragic collapse some economists are predicting. In another 30 years whites will be a minority in the USA, but in the job market many white males are feeling discriminated against already. Many feel they are already being attacked: financially, emotionally, politically and religiously. Cochise and the subculture he represents have figured it out: "If the system is unlikely to work for you, the best you can hope for is to get as far from it as possible." (p.99)
Flea Market Jesus is an interesting read. It opened my eyes a bit more to see that the plight of middle-aged, lower middle-class white men in America is being felt by more than I may have realized. Is it any wonder they hold so "tightly to their guns and their religion?"
Ph.D. Ecclesiastical History