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The Colonial Mind

Main Currents in American Thought, Vol. 1: The Colonial Mind, 1620-1800Main Currents in American Thought, Vol. 1: The Colonial Mind, 1620-1800 by Vernon Louis Parrington
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I often walked the Parrington Oval while a student at the University of Oklahoma. And I remember the photo that hung in Dale Hall of OU's former head football coach who was a Pulitzer Prize winning historian. This is the book that won Vernon Parrington the prize in 1928.

Parrington has a strong position in favor of the Jeffersonian philosophy--agrarian, egalitarian, and democratic--and opposed to the Puritans, Tories, and Federalists. So it was interesting to read his takes on various thinkers. He was a big fan of Roger Williams and Benjamin Franklin and deeply critical of John Winthrop and the Mathers. He thought Jonathan Edwards had great ability which was squandered on his Calvinism. Hamilton he thought of great ability and very successful at achieving his goals of establishing the national economy, but he thought Hamilton completely wrong about what direction America should head and that we were still saddled with problems he had created. Strangely, he writes the only vigorous defense of Philip Freneau I've ever read.

Parrington has blind spots. He lauds Jefferson, though we now have a far more critical view of Jefferson, especially his hypocrisy.

But Parrington is a fun read. He is eloquent and witty with his descriptions of all these thinkers and movements. I enjoyed getting a perspective very different from my own.

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Call It Grace

Call It Grace: Finding Meaning in a Fractured WorldCall It Grace: Finding Meaning in a Fractured World by Serene Jones
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Serene Jones has written about the life of faith as a prominent theologian, combining personal and family stories and experiences with the intellectual concepts of the great theological thinkers. A beautiful exploration of how those of us who study Calvin, Barth, Kierdegaard, Cone, etc. make sense of our lives and integrate the intellect with experience. This book will be particularly good for those who don't understand theology, not because it is an intro to theological thinking for it is not, but becuase it describes how the theological imagination works.

Jones is a fellow Oklahoman, so I was drawn to how central the Oklahoma experience is to her theological reflection. I have been slowly working on a project for the last 13 years or so to develop a theology of plains, first focused on Oklahoma but then expanded to include Nebraska when I moved in 2010. Her chapter on Prairie Theology was fun to read.

Large parts of the book are memoiristic, but they are not strictly memoir. As someone who has published a memoir, I felt there were places that her innovative genre allowed her to avoid some of the hard work of memoir. One can't and shouldn't always move to lessons and morals from one's experience. Also, she was able to pick and choose from her experience in a way that papered over some, probably because they didn't fit the genre she had created. I also felt some experiences and relationships were insufficiently examined. But many of these criticisms are somewhat nitpicky.

But I was bothered by two times when she got her facts wrong. The first was when she described leaving her Tuesday morning class and then learning about the OKC bombing (a key event in her narrative). The bombing occurred on a Wednesday. The second was the time of death for Timothy McVeigh. She only got that one wrong by an hour. But what puzzled me is that she didn't doublecheck her memory for these central stories. Nor did any of her readers or editors correct her. Nor did her editor look up all the look-up-able facts as my editor did. Strange.

While it suggest sloppy editing, it also demonstrates the way trauma scrambles our brains.

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Harold Stevenson or The Prominent Artist I Knew

Harold
Last night I was reading an e-mail from a friend in Norman, Oklahoma and it mentioned friends of hers who had died this year.  I had missed in the news in October that Harold Stevenson had died.

Harold was a prominent artist who never quite reached the fame and popularity of his contemporaries.  You can read an excellent obituary here that gives you some of his history, which includes working with Andy Warhol and having one of his paintings exhibited on the Eiffel Tower (it was taken down when it caused a giant traffic jam).

The New Adam

Harold's masterpiece was The New Adam, the most monumental male nude ever painted by an American artists (the actor Sal Mineo was the model).  The paintings is forty feet long and was intended to be displayed wrapped around three walls of a gallery.  It was to appear in a show at the Guggenheim in 1962, a show that made names such as Robert Rauschenberg famous, but the painting was rejected at the last minute.  The Guggenheim finally purchased the work in the early Aughts, though it hasn't been on display in a while.  In 2005 a detail from the painting was selected for the cover of the book Male Desire: The Homoerotic in American Art.  I reviewed that book here.

So, how did I know this prominent gay painter?

He was from Idabel, Oklahoma, a small town in the pine woods of southeastern Oklahoma where he returned in his final years and he was friends with people I knew in Oklahoma City.  It was my privilege to hang out with Harold on a few occasions.  A few times he attended the church I pastored in Oklahoma City, including once being there for the annual pet blessing.  He gave me a signed print.

Harold was a delightful person, funny and smart, and full of great stories of some of the most significant characters in twentieth century American cultural life.

Harold's other masterwork is less well known, though it has been exhibited in Paris.  This work is entitled The Great Society, and now belongs to the Fred Jones Museum of Art on the University of Oklahoma campus, though it is also currently in storage.

The Great Society

The Great Society is 100 larger than life size portraits of the citizens of Idabel, Oklahoma painted by Harold in 1966.  In 2006 the paintings were exhibited in Norman, Oklahoma and I reviewed the opening for Hard News Online (which no longer exists, though you can read the opening paragraphs of the review here).  That night Michael and I were fortunate to be part of a small group that went to dinner with Harold after the premiere, where we peppered him with questions.  That night, in answer to one of my questions about the paintings, Harold responded, "You must understand, Reverend Doctor, that each one was spontaneous; after the session, I never touched them again."

I hadn't seen or talked with Harold for some time, one of the losses of moving to Nebraska, but I was sad last night to learn of his death in October.  He was a fascinating figure--this great erotic gay artist from rural Oklahoma who returned there and in one of his greatest works elevated its ordinary citizens into the world of fine art.  


Boom Town

Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-class MetropolisBoom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-class Metropolis by Sam Anderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Yes, Oklahoma City is a weird city, and here is an outsider affectionately chronicling some of that weirdness.

OKC was also an adopted city for me. I grew up in the NE corner of the state with Tulsa as more of my metropolis and in the 80's it was the far superior city to OKC. But I went to college 45 minutes from downtown OKC and ended up living 14 years in the metro area, 5 in OKC proper. And most of those other years of my life visiting regularly for the family and friends that live there.

The contemporary parts of the book are largely set in a time when we didn't live there and focus on the city's boosterism around the Thunder. But the chapters about the 80's and 90's are very familiar and the parts about the bombing and the May 3, 1999 tornadoes made me emotional.

I was surprised when I first saw a book about OKC being reviewed and reviewed glowingly in the national press. The work is as good as the reviews say.


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Between the Rockies and a Hard Place

Between the Rockies and a Hard Place: A Drive Along the 100th Meridian from Mexico to CanadaBetween the Rockies and a Hard Place: A Drive Along the 100th Meridian from Mexico to Canada by Alan Wilkinson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I picked this book up in 2016 while in Red Cloud, Nebraska intrigued by how an Englishman might perceive the Great Plains.

The book has some interesting moments, but there is not a lot of depth of exploration of terrain, culture, or people. In fact, the author keeps complaining that he doesn't have the time to do that.

The best chapters are near the end. He is better acquainted with Nebraska, for instance, and so writes well about it. The chapters on the Dakotas are good. The earlier chapters less so.

The chapter on Oklahoma was the worst. I felt he spent no effort on trying to understand western Oklahoma but was rather in a hurry to get through the state. He traveled along the westernmost roads in the state, but I too have traveled those roads and know that while bleak there are also interesting discoveries worthy of richer exploration than what is given here.

But I'm glad to add another title to my abiding interest in better understanding the history, culture, and geography of the Plains.

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A Letter to Rep. Sally Kern

Rep. Kern,

Many years ago when we debated on Flashpoint and in our few interactions afterwards, I was always very polite with you, believing that kindness and rational discourse are essential for democracy and because of my Christian faith.  In my sermons, public speeches, and private conversations with others I always encouraged them to speak kindly of you because you too are a beloved child of God and deserving of our grace and mercy not hatred or cruel speech.  Sometimes encouraging folks in this way was more difficult than other times.
 
Your words all those many years ago that gay people engaged in the democratic process were a bigger threat to the country than Islamic terrorists were reprehensible.  I never have understood your failure to comprehend that.  I was puzzled by what seemed like a form of irrational relativism in your insistence that the words didn't mean what everyone told you they meant, as if meaning is private instead of objectively created by a language community.  I was puzzled by your failure of Christian character--the lack of grace, mercy, and compassion in your stance, as if you had never experienced forgiveness or redemption.  For someone who had experienced God's grace and forgiveness would surely comprehend the need to ask for forgiveness for words that hurt and damaged others as your words had done.  And I was puzzled that an educator would seem to be so uninterested in learning about others and their perspectives and truly listening.
 
The truth is that I have pitied you.  You seemed so bitter and angry and confused, so closed off from the liberation and joy and hopefulness of God.  I have prayed for you so often over these years.
 
But always to no avail.  Watching from afar after my move to Omaha in 2010, your political stances seemed only to worsen, your attempts to harm others became ever more severe.  
 
And today, the world your words and actions helped to create has come into fruition with the largest mass murder in our nation's history committed by a terrorist against LGBT people enjoying and loving life.
 
We never were the bigger threat.  You were always wrong.  Your words and actions were always sinful.  And this is the evil wind that they have inherited.
 
May God have mercy on your soul, for I am too much of a sinner to be able to offer you mercy anymore.
 
Rev. Dr. Scott Jones

Oklahomo: Lessons in Unqueering America

Oklahomo: Lessons in Unqueering AmericaOklahomo: Lessons in Unqueering America by Carol A. Mason
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I met Carol when she was teaching at OSU and I was living in Oklahoma City. She was presenting on the connections between anti-Semitic discourse and the anti-abortion movement, which figured into her previous book. Later she invited me to participate as a presenter at a conference at OSU on reproductive justice along with a number of significant figures in the movement. It was an honor to participate, especially the after hours discussions over cocktails in her home.

This book is about the attempt by religious and economic conservatives to "unqueer" America, focusing specifically upon Oklahoma. She begins in the present and works backwards, with state representative Sally Kern up first. Of course, I dealt with Kern in my years in Oklahoma City, including our appearance together on Flashpoint, a televised debate show. Plus, I have a published academic article on her famous "gays are a bigger threat to America than Islamic terrorists" speech. So, the chapter on Kern was very personal for me.

The entire book resonated with my own personal story, and I think contributes some of the historical background and academic analysis for understanding my still unpublished memoir.

After Kern comes Anita Bryant, a chapter which also includes the ways Green Grows the Lilacs was unqueered in the making of the musical Oklahoma! This is also a chapter about the rise of the New Right.

Next is a discussion of Billy James Hargis and his evangelical empire built first on anti-communism and later on opposition to the sexual revolution and how Hargis himself was exposed as a sexual hypocrite. The white supremacist connections of the anti-gay movement are revealed in this chapter.

That's followed by a discussion of Bruce Goff, the great architect who was ousted from his position at OU as part of the anti-gay red-baiting of the McCarthy era. But Goff himself stands for a level of acceptance of the queer in the rural heartland before McCarthyism. Though Mason doesn't draw on it, I once heard a historian speak to how Oklahoma had been far more gay tolerant from the 1890's to the 1940's largely because of its frontier status, oil boomtowns, and military encampments.

The final chapter is about how Wal-Mart (founded by Oklahoma native Sam Walton) created a global retail version of homogenized rural family values which unqueers the real stories of the heartland. Particularly in Oklahoma where Native American narratives were also erased.

A cursory reading of Oklahoma history introduces you to a wild and eccentric group of characters. And much of the early twentieth century is filled with progressives. My own essay, "Capitol Ironies", develops that theme.

Sadly the current image of my home state is a very homogeneous, white, Republican, evangelical fundamentalism that betrays our heritage.


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My Thirties: Place

Wichita National Wildlife Refuge 029

In 2007 as Oklahoma celebrated the centennial of statehood, I decided to immerse myself a little more in Oklahoma itself, reading its history and visiting places I'd only heard of.  The highlight of this endeavor was a November trip in Western Oklahoma.  Having grown up in Eastern Oklahoma, there was much of the western part of the state that I had never seen.  So, I packed up may car, took along a handful of books on Oklahoma history, and spent almost a week visiting places like Quartz Mountain, the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site, Antelope Hills, Boiling Springs, Alabaster Caverns, Little Sahara, and the Gloss Mountains.

24 -- Approaching Antelope Hills from the South

Also that autumn, our congregation was visited by Susanna Labsch on an ecumenical visit from the Union of Evangelical Churches in Germany.  Over dinner at Iron Star Urban Barbeque, we were discussing Oklahoma history and how the stories were biblically resonant when she mentioned that it was filled with suffering and displaced persons.  I found these intriguing theological concepts.

That conversation, combined with my fascination of the bison skull with the red lightning bolt discovered at the Cooper Site and on display at the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History (something I've spoken, preached, blogged, and written about numerous times), fired my imagination to compose an "Oklahoma Theology."  An idea that expanded, once I moved to Nebraska, to write a "Theology of the Great Plains."  This remains an idea in the works and maybe a liftetime project, though I do continue to work on it in a more informal sense, mostly in themes developed in my preaching.

51-Salt plain

While in Oklahoma, I began to enjoy spending my days off hiking and visiting places--Fort Reno, Roman Nose, the Great Salt Plains, Chickasaw National Recreation Area, the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, etc.  And, fortunately for me, Michael was also into inexpensive little trips in the area and excursions to quirky sites and fun diners.  Memorable was our night in the Price Tower during a thunderstorm.  Or the St. Valentine's Day weekend spent at Quartz Mountain.

Anniversary Weekend 2008 027

St. Valentine's Day Weekend 027

When we first arrived in Omaha, we made a plan to see sites in the area every other weekend.  That didn't last once we got to know more people and got busy with other things, but we've continued to enjoy the excursion here and there (and have made plans to renew this idea this year).  We've enjoyed eating at the Black Crow in Beatrice, admiring the State Capitol, and visiting the Antiquarium in Brownville.  We also get into Iowa some, where we've enjoyed weekends at Lake Okoboji, shopping for antiques in Walnut, driving through the Loess Hills, and I even went fossil hunting in the Nishnabotna.

Beatrice for our 3rd Wedding Anniversary 009

Brownville 042

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Our first day in town, we went to Barnes and Noble and I bought travel guides and books on Nebraska history.  I've also immersed myself in the rich literary tradition of the state--Cather, Neihardt, Sandoz, Aldrich, Kooser, etc.

So, one theme of my Thirties has been the development of a richer sense of place.