13 August 2009

Publishers of Truth

Summer in Elektrostal
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ulitsa Mira
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Interior of a large city
block--almost village-like
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Corner of Mir and Tevosyan, with
Institute billboard
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Tevosyan Square, with statue of
steelmaker Ivan Tevosyan, and
School 13 in background
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New decorations in our
complex, including these
on the building opposite ours
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murals on a utility building
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... and new play equipment
and flowerbeds
We Quakers have been publishers and pamphleteers from the very start. But maybe our priorities have changed.

In the 1600's, we issued calls all over the English-speaking world and beyond--to know Jesus personally, and as a result, to change worship, church government, stewardship of resources, and social ethics. There was passion, wonder, discovery, urgency, and fearlessness.

As we live with the results of the 19th-century divisions among us, the stuff we put out often reflects where we are in the complex geography of today's Friends. We evangelical Friends write more about Jesus (and with less emphasis on metaphor). At the universalist end, there's a lot of speculative material, and much that emphasizes how to be more quakerish. There's a lot of material in the middle, but so much of it, from whatever source, seems to be, well ... tame. I think a lot of it is intended just to fine-tune us, to make us more sophisticated or more well-adjusted within our present categories.

Some of this material is great. But two related elements often seem to be missing. The first is the excitement and urgency of a movement that once believed it was bringing something new and crucial into the world, that lives and destinies depended on getting these new experiences and insights expressed persuasively. As William Penn says at the beginning of one of his tracts, "Hear and be entreated for your soul's sake!"

The disappearance of this element isn't necessarily a simple or entirely bad thing--that original fire might have been 90% inspiration, but surely there was a danger of arrogance and narrowness. We were, after all, claiming the very mantle of the apostles themselves! But has all of that confidence completely evaporated, and (aside from misplaced arrogance) what have we lost as a result?

(The late Lewis Benson was a Quaker scholar and prophet who tried to restore a sense of the wholesale apostolic claims of early Friends. He once told me, "I don't have an ecumenical bone in my body.")

The second missing element is the expectation of an external audience. We issue timid mating calls to try to attract people as much like ourselves as possible, and nobody else. We pander to prejudices--some of us saying "we're really just another safe, Bible-believing, evangelical denomination (water baptism on request)" and others, "don't worry, we won't intrude on your private spiritual space; we're all on various paths up the mountain, and we just like each other's company." There are a few Quaker books out there for non-Quakers, but with some exceptions they seem to portray us with an aura of quaint unworldliness and a uniformity we no longer have except in isolated pockets.... --I don't dare give examples lest I step on toes.

There's an in-between zone--for example, pamphlets for inquirers and newcomers. The series that Paul Anderson wrote for Barclay Press is good, but the vast majority of that genre is narrow, prim, derivative, overly intellectual, and often still fighting modernist-fundamentalist battles that are now largely irrelevant to spiritually hungry people.

Here's my complaint, in summary: Our publications and public communications generally seem directed at enhancing our personal sense of righteousness (however our branch of Friends defines righteousness) without a guiding vision of global relevance. I'm sure someone will tell me that the the context is there; it's just implicit. I will respond that if the non-Quaker can't detect it, they can be forgiven for believing it's not there.

What set off this train of thoughts was a question that has been raised in one of the committees I'm on, concerning choosing Friends materials to translate. It's not the first time I've been involved in discussions of translating Friends publications into or out of English, but this time I just had a brief but shocking intuition: what if the material we publish and distribute gives an impression of a tiny, fastidious, legalistic, joyless, rootless group of theoretically progressive philistines? Do we resemble anything so much as 19th-century middle-class spiritualists, gathering for seances? Do our evangelicals really take Jesus seriously, or are they just stuck on the old-time cliches because that's the safest thing to do? When will the liberals acknowledge Jesus again as prophet, priest, and king among us, and get rid of all those sophisticated post-Christian excuses for avoiding his claims on us?

In all fairness, I don't think that we Friends have made a corporate decision to project a tiny and timid message, if any at all, to the world. But where is the forum to discuss widely what kind of message we should project?--not a message about us and how wonderful we are or how safely innocuous we are, but about the world, the state it is in, its bondages on people's lives and souls, and what God demands of us?

We don't have to be tongue-tied! We don't need to settle for a tiny vision of parochial specialness. We have thousands of years of salvation history to draw on freely, including two millennia of Christian experience and the specific prophetic openings of Friends:
  • Jesus has come to teach his people himself!! (a message that every pretentious religious hierarchy and its captives need to hear!)
  • Personal discipleship, to have integrity, needs to have a social dimension; just as bondage is multidimensional (spiritual, social, economic), so believers' response must be multidimensional. Not that every individual needs to cover all this territory; that's what a gift-based, mutually respectful division of labor is for; that's why we have business meetings, recorded ministers, etc, etc.
  • The community of Jesus's friends needs to be trustworthy: able to sustain mutual support and accountability within and a dynamic, accessible, honest, hospitable relationship with the wider world.
Can we say some things along these lines in clear language that doesn't require the brains of a Douglas or Dorothy Steere to understand?--and which doesn't assume that the recipient is totally allergic to faith? If so, who will get the ball rolling? To get from here to there, we need a forum to confront drift and promote vision; and we need to encourage visionary leaders. I'd love to see every popular ad-carrying Web site, every military recruiting display, every laundromat, every grocery store and DVD rental bulletin board, every cable television outlet, carry some manifestation of this kind of publishing Truth. As for paying for it, we not only need to raise money, we may also need to spend some money from our precious unrestricted reserves. This isn't a time to hoard resources.

(Continued on August 20.)



Righteous links:

Our own Friendly prophetic heritage: how it empowers us, and what happens when we let things drift--A case study from Pam Ferguson.

A somewhat related link: "Why did the [Quaker] testimonies weaken among orthodox and evangelical Friends?" (From the Web site that I put together as part of my Ferguson Fellowship at Woodbrooke.)

Consortiumnews.com: "Christians largely mum on torture."

The "one like a son of man" (Daniel 7:13): Robin Perry asks, "Who is this caped crusader?"

Sergei Karagonov writes on "The Unfinished Cold War."

Has my country gone nuts--again? The health insurance reform battle has brought out some of the worst in demagoguery, alarmist manipulation, and fake outrage. On the most extreme manifestations, identity politics seem to have taken over from responsible thought--if the celebrity that I associate with my identity says "Obama wants death panels," apparently I have no obligation to check for myself, or even to ask myself whether such an assertion is reasonable! I appreciate this listing from Lynn Gazis-Sax of useful issue-related links.

Once again, Anne Jackson writes beautifully about confronting visibility and fear (this time with the help of Donald Miller's new book).

Blues Unlimited podcasts (thanks to Chris Sitler for reference)--including a nice grouping of tracks from the American Folk Blues Festival.



More from Magic Slim & the Teardrops: "I'm a Bluesman."

12 comments:

Mary Ellen said...

Eloquently put. I can remember having a stronger sense of urgency about sharing the transformative power of Meeting for Worship, and wonder where that went.

Bill Samuel said...

Quakerism today isn't all that much like early Quakerism. To distribute material implying the contrary would be dishonest. I don't think it's a problem of communication. I think it's a problem of the product. Since contemporary Quakerism, at least in the West, is mostly unexciting, it is only right that the literature promoting it be unexciting.

Meetings/churches which are on fire hopefully would be able to communicate that, but I expect they are a very small percentage of the total and not representative of the larger conglomerations that mostly are responsible for the literature.

We should serve Christ, not a denominational history or identity.

Johan said...

Mary Ellen, I confess I went to one of your blogs and promptly started following the rabbit-trails of the other sites you linked there. I was deeply into the stories of Extranjera and El Vikingo when I finally remembered that I needed to respond to these comments! Thanks for visiting and commenting.

Hello again, Bill!

We should serve Christ, not a denominational history or identity. I agree theoretically, but we are social animals, and we serve Christ in a social context. My social context is Friends, who have a history replete with wonderful resources for discipleship and renewal, and for some reason I've not given up on the stewardship of those resources, as under-used as they may be.

Yes, denominational identity is decidedly secondary, but how I love the PEOPLE I meet among Friends. Northwest Yearly Meeting left me nearly intoxicated with the sheer pleasure of knowing them. I might have a similar experience among Methodists or Russian Orthodox people--but my actual ties of mutual accountability are with Friends. So I have some responsibility for going beyond vague admiration and good feelings, to asking bluntly: What ARE we doing with the stewardship of our history? If we have drifted far from our origins, as you correctly point out, am I being led to confront that drift and ask us to ratify or correct it explicitly?

I don't feel trapped among Friends. If there is a way to be more faithful to my own conversion experience by moving outside Friends, I hope I'll do so. But for now, I feel that many Quakers have invested a lot in me over the years, and I in them, and these bonds of love are part of what I call serving Christ.

Martin Kelley said...

Do I really have to say again how much I love your posts Johan? That quote from Benson is pure gold, enough in itself but the whole post is very needed and too true. As someone who spent eight years working on liberal Friends publications, I was sad how many of them were made for internal consumption. The most widely circulated pamphlet for new Friends is from a 1952 speech by Howard Brinton than few liberal Friends could unite with.

The need for "a forum to confront drift and promote vision" is why I started QuakerQuaker of course, but in a way it just proves your point, as there's no formal status or backing (few official bodies even give it a link). But I'm the first to admit it's not enough. I'd love to have a long weekend to hang out with you and dream up what some of your vision would look like. In the meantime, keep writing and challenging us.

Mitch said...

I agree strongly with this post. (However, note that your use of the comparison to spiritualists works contra your point. You made the mistake of using them merely because you find them absurd, and that's not a sufficient reason. In contrast to modern-day Friends, the spiritualists were quirkier, more colorful, more disputatious, and more dedicated, even if their rather tenuous belief system was best described by their modern-day motto: "I *want* to believe.")

Ultimately, however, I feel that your analysis of the milktoast flimsiness of most Quaker writing today describes a symptom rather than the thing itself.

The thing itself, I fear, is even harder to address: namely, Quaker meetings are pretty much just a machine designed to crank out solace and comfort. Everything that happens, and all decisions that must be made, are ultimately weighed against whether they generate the most amount of solace for the most amount of believers.

Ergo = don't rock the boat. This leads to milktoast writing--and a largely milktoast life.

Johan said...

Martin--thanks for your kind words. I still have enough commitment to Gospel order to believe that we'll really only make progress when actual Friends meetings (monthly, quarterly, yearly, FUM, whatever) start taking on this priority. I've always thought that a prime reason for the gathering of quarterly and yearly meetings is to work out together the query "Does Truth prosper?" and organize responses to that query. (Were Philadelphia Yearly Meeting's recent sessions a start in that direction?)

But the communities of Friendly bloggers and visiting ministers may have the crucial role of seeding the conversation. I think we can see this happening now. Many bloggers seem not to be willing to have our beloved church shrink to the status of a niche offering in the Western market of boutique religiosity.

Mitch, I appreciated your thoughtful critique of my use of 19th-century spiritualists for comparison. I don't care too much about whether we Quakers or those spiritualists of the past have/had a greater capacity for colorfulness, absurdity, disputatiousness, and so on. We do pretty well in that regard, I think. My imperfectly stated point concerns vision, scale, social inclusiveness, and wholehearted embrace of the Mission of God that is the engine powering the Christian movement in the world. What do we Friends uniquely bring to that movement that is strategically powerful for the Lamb's war? Whose bondage is prolonged through our obsession with internal fine-tuning?

Raye said...

Johan, Thanks for thy faithfulness. I think the Lord wanted to make sure I get the message, since I have recently taken on some various publishing responsibilities among Friends.

Bless thee.

Inez said...

Thought-provoking, timely post. While I generally loath slapping Jesus' name on a bumper, I think "Jesus has come to teach his people himself" as a bumper sticker would get a lot of conversations started. And I'm reminded of a man who wrote a thoughtful response, years ago, to my "Eve Was Framed" bumper sticker and put it under my windshield wiper -- maybe bumper stickers have become a valid point of discussion.

forrest said...

Another message of early Friends was that the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord was coming... and here it comes!

Art thou comfortable with this? It scares the human emotional fluids out of me!

God (with some clueless human help) just destroyed the porch where Anne & I & various friends had room to paint, and this ticked me off more than 9 years of cruel wars and government-approved persecution of various poorsouls; this was personal! How am I going to feel when the traffic stops moving and the places where I now buy a few essentials go out of business because all the financial circulatory fluid has pooled in the national appetite-center edema, leaving everyone of my class broke?

Ursula Jane O'Shea in _Living the way: Quaker spirituality and Community_ was the first Quaker author I found who really pointed out the connection you're talking about, between our degeneration as a religious people and the world's desperate need for the spiritual flood in which our predecessors once let themselves be washed away! And she ended, had to end, by pointing us to God as our only adequate means for renewal!

We need to own Jesus as our essential teacher, as the historic embodiment of the only government fit for human beings!

And we also need to recognize 2000 years of subsequent teaching, through many human beings tuned into various branches of that same channel--not necessarily branches labeled "Christian".

You don't throw out your Teacher if you've got any sense of how much you need him!--of how much what he said was just too simple and urgent for you to get! People who think they can put Jesus in second place just don't know how much they haven't learned from him! But there are other useful teachers; I have been finding Erich Schiffmann's yoga book extremely helpful, for example. Why? Because his emphasis is on practical details for seeking God's guidance within the lives we're actually in, with the little faith (and vast resistance) we actually have!

Where we go wrong, seeking the mantle of Early Friends, is in our yearning to see a triumphant Kingdom of God. A whole lot of wreckage needs to be cleared away for that, and our oncoming task may be less to save the world than to rescue our fellow refugees! (And for now, to be gentle with ourselves & others!)

Brent Bill said...

Strikes me funny that Lewis Benson told you he did't have an ecumenical bone in his body considering that in Catholic Quakerism: A Vision for All Men he wrote "Is there a third possiblity. I believe there is. Fox once suggested that there ought to be a permanent discussion taking place at all times between all the deonminations in Christendom." Though his hope was that the other denominations would see the that Quakerism was "the right way for all," it still sounds pretty ecumenical.

Johan said...

Brent--Thanks for this quotation! I can't believe (but sadly can't verify) that, with his comment to me, Lewis literally meant that he was opposed to any ecumenical conversation. I think he was hyperbolically saying that his vision of Friends is "catholic" as opposed to sectarian. In Benson's interpretation, George Fox did not intend for Friends to be a niche sect, meekly and amiably occupying a little slot between the Puritans and the Anabaptists, but were to be a standing challenge to the whole Christian establishment.

R. Guy Pharris said...

What troubles me, as someone historically minded, is that when I read Fox, et al., I come away from them with the impression of people who have found IT (God). And they were quick to point out to others who had not found IT why they had not found IT. And they were quick to identify the errors of false religion. The early Friends "knew", in the strongest sense of knowing, that they had recovered primitive Christianity, and that is what makes them worthwhile to study. Today, however, evangelical Friends (I stayed down the hall from you at Yearly Meeting in Newberg last year) seem very muddled about their beliefs.