AS a sociologist, Art Farnsley’s insight into people must be as sharp as the tomahawks he throws in competitions at the national muzzle-loading rifle gatherings, which he regularly attends.
And it just so happens that those two strangely different topics converge in his latest project that he claims allows him to be “part professor, part redneck.”
The former Columbus resident recently completed his six-year effort, “Flea Market Jesus” (Cascade Books, 128 pages, $16). In the volume, he weaves his personal connections to the people in Friendship at one of the nation’s largest flea markets and gun gatherings, with their mistrust of everything from government officials to organized religion.
Flea market dealers gush as openly over such subjects as angelic protection as they would enthusiastically pitch a great item for sale. But most of them rarely, if ever, attend church services or read the Bible they say they believe in literally.
“That badge of church affiliation is just not important to them,” Farnsley said, speaking from his Indianapolis office at the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture in the IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI.
Their alienation from the standard institution of church is similar to the latest Pew Research findings showing nearly 20 percent of Americans have no affiliation with any religion.
Farnsley grew fascinated with flea marketers’ individualism for a simple reason.
“Americans live their lives through institutions,” he said. “We are shaped by the rules governing education, the marketplace, the political arena.”
The author calls flea market dealers “America’s most solitary, and alienated, entrepreneurs.” Thrown into the mix in the book are the 1,000 people attending the National National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association event highlighting guns and frontier life alongside the 500-dealer Friendship flea market.
Through the voice of a composite character, Cochise, Farnsley targets the frustrations of flea market dealers toward business, politics and, especially, religion.
“It’s definitely unique,” said Rodney Clapper, an editor with Cascade Books based in Eugene, Ore.
It’s also among Cascade’s better sellers currently, attracting readers in circles ranging from professors to those simply interested in issues of faith.
“I think one of the strengths,” Clapp said, “is the personal insight he has into the folks he’s looking at and the different kinds of interest they show in spirituality, and their relationship to government and organized religion.
“And it’s written in a very accessible manner with his first-person narrative.”
Farnsley, raised as a Southern Baptist fundamentalist who has long since strayed from the religious fold, paints a picture of a group of people embracing their staunchly stubborn and individual ideas of faith — and a glaring lack of faith in religious hierarchy, political figures, you name it.
They believe that God intervenes supernaturally in the everyday, but see no point in their intervention in much of society.
They’d sooner be a horrible shot before they would actually think that real democracy, and not big money and manipulated power, directs America. That explains why few of them vote.
“These people see economic, political and religious developments as something that is being done to them,” Farnsley said. “They essentially see themselves as powerless.”
Many have been raised in a culture of alienation religiously and economically, finding themselves underemployed or unemployed.
Farnsley switches between the people’s views and his own, even fondly recounting his earliest days in Friendship in 1973 with his shotgun-toting father.
He presents a sympathetic picture of the dealers and the buckskin-clad primitive people. Though he and his wife, Gail, have been knee-deep in corporate and other institutions — his spouse is a former Cummins Inc. vice president — part of him relates to their cynicism and distrust.
“I’m right there with them,” he said.