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'Flea Market Jesus' release coincides with muzzle loading rifle championships and political fever

Flea Market Jesus
Flea Market Jesus


September 5, 2012

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INDIANAPOLIS -- With the presidential election just months away, a new book by an Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis researcher is particularly salient because of heightened interest in genuinely “undecided” voters.

"Flea Market Jesus" (Cascade Books, 2012) is the culmination of many years of research by Art Farnsley of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture in the IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI. In this book, the professor of religious studies illuminates American individualism by describing the lives and mindset of those the author says try hardest to separate themselves from the institutional control of mainstream politics, business or religion: flea market dealers.

The book’s release coincides with the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association Championships and surrounding events -- including two flea markets -- occurring Sept. 8 to 16 in Friendship, Ind.

In addition to being a professor, Farnsley is also a 22-time knife and tomahawk champion of the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association and will be competing again at this year’s Friendship championships.

In an interview follow-up, Farnsley referenced a recent New York Times article titled “A New Guide to the Republican Herd" that described five subgroups of today’s Republican Party. Members of the group the Pew Research Center called “the disaffected” are considered those “least loyal to the party, and least likely to vote.”

“These are the folks my book is about,” Farnsley said. “Flea market dealers fall into the group usually called ‘disaffected,' the people who think the rich have it all locked up through a combination of business and politics.”

But he cautions against assuming that these disaffected Americans vote Republican. “Pundits assume they lean Republican because they seem like conservative evangelicals or even like libertarians,” he says, “but they could just as easily be described as populists. If they are not on anybody’s side, it’s because they don’t think anybody is on their side.”

In “Flea Market Jesus,” Farnsley describes an entire subculture of white Midwesterners -- working class, middle class and poor -- gathered twice a year for the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association’s uniquely American celebration of guns and frontier life. More than 1,000 shooters compete with rifles and shotguns, many of them flintlock, as well as primitive bows, knives and tomahawks. Adjacent to the competition are two of the largest part-time flea markets in the Midwest, one with more than 500 dealers. “Friendship,” as regular attendees call the event, features a primitive campground where people live in tipis and wall tents and dress in pre-1840 clothing.

Farnsley says, “I have only missed Friendship once since 1985. I keep a small Scotty trailer on the grounds year-round. I wear buckskin pants, cotton print shirts and moccasins when I’m there. I’m not popping off in this book; this is what I know, and I think it gives me a perspective -- part redneck, part university professor -- you don’t hear every day.”

Part ethnography, part autobiography, "Flea Market Jesus," based on interviews at Friendship, is a story about alienation, Biblical literalism, libertarianism and deep-seated religious belief. It is not about the Tea Party, the Occupy movement or the Christian Right, but it shines a light on all of these by highlighting the potent combination of mistrust, resentment and personal liberty too often kept in the shadows of public discourse among educated elites.

Farnsley is also the author of "Southern Baptist Politics" (1994); "Rising Expectations: Urban Congregations, Welfare Reform and Civic Life" (2003); and "Sacred Circles, Public Squares: The Multicentering of American Religion" (2004). He is associate director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture as well as executive officer of the international Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. His articles have appeared on the cover of The Christian Century and Christianity Today magazines.

"Flea Market Jesus" is available in paperback for $16 from Cascade Books or in paperback or Kindle edition from