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.
(Continued on August 20.)
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."