25 November 2022

Innocence (partly a repost)

to USA readers:

Thanksgiving blessings!

Sources: left, right.  

Anthony Doerr's Cloud Cuckoo Land and Emma Donoghue's The Wonder are two of the most recent books I've read. You've probably already heard about both of them, but I'll give a brief summary before I tell you what longstanding fascination of mine they both touched on.

Cloud Cuckoo Land is, among other things, a tribute to the power and fragility of books. In this story, the original Cloud Cuckoo Land is a fictional fantasy novel very loosely based on a real (but mostly lost) novel written by a second-century Greek writer, Diogenes. Pieces of the fantasy appear in Doerr's book, but between those pieces we meet some of its readers at various times and places, ranging from inside and outside the walls of besieged Constantinople, to present-day Idaho, and to a future starship on its way to colonize a planet.

In comparison with Doerr's novel, The Wonder is very "local," taking place over a period of less than two weeks in one small village in Ireland in the 1850's. A Florence Nightingale-trained nurse, just back in England from serving in the Crimean War, is sent to this small village with a specific mission: to find out how an eleven-year-old girl continues to live months after she has stopped eating. Is she a miracle, as her family and community assert, or is there something else going on? It's a psychological thriller with deep questions on family dynamics and boundaries, but also a meditation on religious enthusiasm.

Here is what these very different novels have in common: threads of innocence are woven throughout both. Some of the central characters in both novels are trying to make sense of the world for various reasons—for the sake of honest curiosity, and for their own survival, but not for gain or gratification. Not everyone around them is as pure in heart, but as important as the various mixed motives are in setting up the central tensions in both novels, the numbers of villains are few, if any.

Children play central roles in both of these novels. Children were also central in the dream that I had fifteen years ago—the dream with which I began my first post on innocence:

In one of my dreams, I'm standing on a riverbank watching a small tourist riverboat float by. In front are the adults sitting in chairs, in back are children playing on the deck. The boat begins to sink; the adults' chairs begin sinking into the water. Apparently the deck is just a wire mesh, like a link fence. As the boat passes by, I see to my horror that the children are starting to slip under the water's surface. I shout as loudly as I can to alert the adults to the children in danger behind them, but my voice seems lost in the wind. Nobody responds.

Someone pointed out that a lot of my dreams are about innocence, its preservation and its loss. What's that all about?

Interestingly, that dream river is behind a motel—one that is used by lovers for their rendezvous. I'm in the lobby, but I'm not a guest there. When a motel staffer approaches me, I busy myself looking at the tourist brochures in order to look like I have a reason to be there. It's one of those brochures that tells me about the river behind the motel. Why was I at the motel in the first place?

Hidden agendas seem to me to be the opposite of innocence.

Robert Barclay's systematic Quaker theology, known as the Apology, tackled the subject of the human being's fallen nature. Barclay was explicitly concerned to take a middle path between what he saw as the error of believing we can overcome sin through our "natural" light, and the opposite error, that we are already damnable sinners at birth:

We come now to examine the state and condition of man as he stands in the fall: what his capacity and power is and how far he is able, as of himself, to advance in relation to the things of God. Of this we touched a little in the beginning of the second Proposition; but the full, right, and thorough understanding of it is of great use and service; because from the ignorance and altercations that have been about it, there have arisen great and dangerous errors, both on the one hand and the other. While some do so far exalt the light of nature, or the faculty of the natural man, as capable of himself, by virtue of the inward will, faculty, light, or power that pertains to his nature, to follow that which is good and make real progress towards heaven. And of these are the Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians of old, and of late the Socinians and divers others among the Papists. Others again will needs run into another extreme, to whom Augustine, among the ancients, first made way in his declining age, through the heat of his zeal against Pelagius, not only confessing men incapable of themselves to do good, and prone to evil; but that in his very mother's womb, and before he commits any actual transgression, he is contaminate with a real guilt whereby he deserves eternal death; in which respect they are not afraid to affirm that many poor infants are eternally damned and forever endure the torments of hell. Therefore the God of Truth, having now again revealed his Truth that good and even way, by his own Spirit, hath taught us to avoid both these extremes.

[The fourth proposition, at Quaker Heritage Press.]

After years of hearing modern and postmodern people argue against the doctrine that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," I am utterly persuaded that the doctrine is pretty much correct. Inside myself and inside others, even in the absence of dramatic and scandalous sins, I've seen over and over again our capacity to spin, to rationalize hidden agendas, to one-up our theological or ideological opponents, to objectify our enemies, to romanticize our addictions, to shift blame, to minimize ourselves or others.

At the most basic level, even "good" people are prone to the sin that Anthony Bloom calls "loss of contact with our deepest self—the place where we meet God."

Early Friends were not "liberal" in comparison with other theologies of the 17th century. They were in full agreement that we, by ourselves, cannot overcome our fatal propensity to sin. No false optimism there. But as pessimistic about humans as they were, they did not leave humans without hope. Though vulnerable without God, we are in fact born innocent. We lose that innocence when we make self-centered choices, but God invites us to put our trust in Divine power to make different choices. Living in that trust, putting our personal "territory" back in the Paradise of God, we are forgiven of all of those self-centered choices we made. Our task then: living in innocence when our eyes have been opened, and when we have tasted of the fruits of self-centered choices. The original innocence is no longer possible; we can't pretend not to know what we know. Now we see why Paul encouraged us to "pray without ceasing."

Accepting the doctrine that "all have sinned" does not permit us to use that doctrine in a shaming or controlling spirit. It is a refreshing realism that applies equally to the one doing the shaming, and the one being shamed. This biblical realism does not license any form of pseudo-Christian leadership cult that gets to sort out the blessed from the damned. Nor does it justify self-minimizing and self-flagellation. Again, Anthony Bloom, within a few pages of describing the sin of loss of contact with our deepest selves, also reminds us that God loved us into being in the first place. We can stand before God with the full status of being God's beloved. The "all have sinned" doctrine is diagnosis, not condemnation.

Mature innocence is not simple. We're aware of things pushing and pulling against us. Our earthly and earthy selves were made for legitimate pleasure, including the complicated pleasure of beauty. Our dynamic task is to keep our face towards God and to keep the channels of prayer open. We don't keep two sets of moral books or live in a naive denial of the forces that constantly try to distract us (some more than others, I'm sure) from our Godward orientation.

I don't equate innocence with sentimentality, but I do relate it to happiness. An innocent person is happy. A person who has been disobedent and sinful and is coming back into innocence with God's help, will experience a different kind of happiness. It is a happiness tinged with knowing—both the awareness of personal vulnerability and awareness of tragedy and evil, danger and death. But happiness is nevertheless part of God's plan. The contemporary tendency to outdo each other in overcommitment, drivenness, and anxiety, does not to me seem consistent with mature innocence. Maybe I'm wrong.

I do not want happiness at the expense of awareness of what the Principalities and Powers are doing to my brothers and sisters. On the other hand, nobody benefits from a self-important severity in my attitude toward world problems. And it's probably a pretty universal principle that these issues of balance (self-care and self-giving) are best worked out in dialogue, in community.

Speaking of happiness, I love these words from philosopher Paul Ricoeur during a visit to Taizé:

It seems that there are two levels: the best of Greek philosophy is a reflection on happiness, the Greek word eudaimon, for example in Plato and Aristotle, and on the other hand I am very much at home with the Bible. I think of the beginning of Psalm 4: “Ah, who will teach us happiness?” It’s a rhetorical question, but it finds its answer in the beatitudes. And the beatitudes are the horizon of happiness of an existence placed under the sign of kind-heartedness, because happiness is not simply what I do not have and what I hope to have, but also what I have tasted. [Full text here.]

Tears are part of my understanding of innocence. For me to allow tears to flow is to admit that I am not in control, that I'm not behind a facade, that I'm not insulating myself or others from reality. Tears of joy and tears of grief both wash away pretense.

(Originally posted as "Thoughts on innocence" on 22 March 2007. Here's a link directly to the comments.)

Right Sharing of World Resources has shared its fourth quarter newsletter, which includes its annual report.

Martin Kelley's Quaker Ranter blog has published an announcement and link for the new podcast, Quakers Today.

With help from Marilynne Robinson, Vance Morgan thinks about what has happened to the Christian "brand" in the marketplace of ideas and influences.

In my high school years, when radio was how I connected with the world, one of my heroes was WFMT radio personality and oral historian Studs Terkel. Here's an audio-only treat for your Thanksgiving weekend: Studs with Mahalia Jackson, another of my heroes of that time.

17 November 2022

Squeezed for time

The protostar within the dark cloud L1527. Estimate of its age: practically a newborn, only 100,000 years old. Image from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope; source.

Our entrance: where the two buildings meet,
it's the right-hand doorway in the corner.
After a long day of teaching, the final stage of my walk home from our college in Elektrostal' sometimes seemed the longest, even though it was just the distance between the entrance to our courtyard and our building's front door. In the winter, the courtyard's layout seemed to form an icy-cold wind tunnel, and I would have to urge myself forward step by step, propelled by the promise of the warm kitchen awaiting me.

I often enjoyed playing a time trick on myself. Maybe you've tried similar experiments. As I began that last stretch, I would imagine that at that very moment I was already in the kitchen, flexing my cold fingers back and forth and preparing the teakettle. The sensation was so vivid that the time it would still take me to lumber across the courtyard simply vanished.

Last week Judy and I went to St Olave's Church on Hart Street, about fifteen minutes' walk from where we're staying, to attend one of their lunch hour recitals. The first thing that startled me about the church was seeing a Norwegian flag displayed in the sanctuary. Since I don't usually approve of national flags in worship spaces, I was surprised and a bit embarrassed at my own reaction -- feeling oddly moved.

(Full disclosure: I was born in Norway.)

There was an explanation for the flag, of course -- the church reflects a thousand-year-old tradition of venerating Norway's patron saint, who had in his career apparently fought for the English king against the Danes, and who later seemed to have gained credit, however controversial, for Christianizing Norway.

Whatever the real story behind St Olave's reputation, a wooden church in his honor was built in this location in 1060, just a generation after his death. Two reconstructions later, the stone version of 1450 survived the Great Fire of 1666 but was nearly destroyed, almost all but the crypt, by German bombs in World War II.

The church's connection with Norway was reinforced by that war. King Haakon VII sometimes worshipped with this parish during his exile in London. He returned in 1951 to lay a commemorative stone at the start of the building's restoration, and again in 1954 to attend the rededication service.

I came to the church not knowing all this history. Sitting there, I had another odd experience of time. Maybe, again, you've had similar experiences. So many of the furnishings and commemorative tablets seemed linked to the passage of centuries -- but I was brought up short by the stained glass window above the altar. It was dated 1953. That was the year I was born. Either the window is not ancient, or I am.

The commemorative stone in front of me as I sat among the recital audience was just two years older than the window. But for the passage of 72 years -- an eye-blink, really -- I could have reached out and touched the king during the stone-laying event.

Speaking of eye-blinks, I was impressed by yesterday's publication of a photo taken by NASA's James Webb Space Telescope. It shows a protostar, a future star whose fusion engine has not yet ignited.

Apparently this protostar is just 100,000 years old. That is, after 100,000 years it's still in the "earliest stage of star formation." No sense in rushing things. After all, the universe itself is 13.8 billion years old, we're told. It's interesting to contemplate such a short span of time in cosmic terms; when the foundations were laid for that protostar (disregarding for a moment the time it took for the light of this image to reach us), humans were already around on our planet and may have just started using language.

Einstein's special relativity theory says that, in plotting coordinates of time and space, all observers' viewpoints are equally valid. He didn't explicitly insert God as an observer in his theory, but God's omnipresence throughout the universe leads me to assume that God doesn't (so to speak) experience time as a progression. God truly encompasses the beginning and end of everything. As God's beloved creatures, we may feel insignificant and overwhelmed by our tiny share of space-time, but we already have a share in eternity.

Why drag God into it? For me, God is the most obvious answer to the mystery of the universe's origins that lie beyond the ability of science to answer, but God is also the most obvious answer for why there was an origin. More than that: if everything that exists now will eventually dissipate into a cosmic deep freeze somewhere beyond 10100 years from now, it might be reasonable to ask why we should care about our own share of creation here and now, in the face of (a) unsustainable global warming, and (b) the persistence of human cruelty and preventable suffering. There is a biblical equation as basic as any in science: God is love. To have a share in God's eternity is to have a share in God's love of creation. The passage of time, as we experience it, isn't just because we don't have the advantage of a god-like view of creation. Time is granted to us to learn the ways of love.

...Between the relinquished past and the untrodden future stands this holy Now, whose bulk has swelled to cosmic size, for within the Now is the dwelling place of God himself. In the Now we are home at last. The fretful winds of time are stilled, the nostalgic longings of this heaven born earth-traveler come to rest. For the one-dimensional ribbon of time has loosed its hold. It has by no means disappeared. We live within time, within the one-dimensional ribbon. But every time-now is found to be a continuance of an Eternal Now, and in the Eternal Now receives a new evaluation. We have not merely rediscovered time; we have found in this holy immediacy of the Now the root and source of time itself. For it is the Eternal who is the mother of our holy Now, nay, is our Now, and time is, as Plato said, merely its moving image…

[Thomas R. Kelly, "The Eternal Now and Social Concern" in A Testament of Devotion (1941).]

Speaking of time, Luke Harding remembers a very specific moment, a February night in Kyiv: the night everything changed

Tamuna Chkareuli takes a night train across war-torn Ukraine.

Mimi Marstaller contemplates why we size up and categorize those who deliver difficult messages before they even speak. Her example: Mark O'Brien, Breathing Lessons.

Greg Morgan: A Chaplain's Prayer.

Becky Ankeny continues her series on Jesus and his Bible: Had God really forsaken Jesus?

Jason Ricci and Lurrie Bell, "Help Me," a song associated with Sonny Boy Williamson II.

10 November 2022

Mark V and the Eugene demoniac

There's something you could do that would make this blog post/review a lot easier to write. And it will only cost you $20 plus postage, and perhaps a certain amount of trust.

Here it is: go to this Web page and order Mark V: The Opera. Fair warning: read the description before buying. Also see Judy Maurer's interview with author Derek Lamson here.

Mark V: The Opera was written by Derek, illustrated by John Williams, and lettered by Brandon Buerkle. In retelling the story of the Gerasene demoniac liberated by Jesus, set in contemporary Eugene, Oregon, it has all of the advantages of a graphic novel. It can switch times and contexts instantly, shift in and out of dream mode, and drop in little visual puns and Easter eggs specific to Eugene--but those same advantages might lose their magic in the hands of a conventional reviewer.

Instead of a linear summary of the book, here are some questions that might hint at the connections Derek Lamson makes as his hero, the graphic Derek, composes his graphic opera: 

First, Derek looks at the Biblical record. "I was trying to understand how the [Gerasene] demoniac [from Mark 5:1-20] went crazy, because he wasn't always crazy, he wasn't born broken, any more than I was." How did Derek the opera-dreamer envision the effect of Roman imperialism on the Mark V demoniac from Gerasa? 

What social forces have cycled around to marginalize and bedevil people today? Can our own ancestors help us understand how we got here? Can today's addicts and others living in bondage open our eyes? When we're under attack by our own addictions and demons, do we know whom to call?

When Jesus comes to us, prepared to remove our chains, how will we receive him? What will he ask of us? Will anyone at all believe our story? ("We're Eugene--we don't do religion!" "...How I became a zombie for Christ and now you can too. Have your credit card ready--operators are standing by!")

Along the way, Derek furnishes his story with a rich series of signposts and symbols, some whimsical and some definitely not. Drops of blood. Quakers and ghosts and guardian angels. The graveyard at night (specifically the Eugene Pioneer Cemetery at East 18th Ave. and University Street). The city of Eugene itself (well, and Veneta). Voices. Demons. Ezra Pound. An edgy tee shirt about "nice Quakers." And panhandlers--voluntary and involuntary--maybe reminding you that you've met each other before, and asking a haunting question:

"Can you spare some change?"

Mark V book readings/signings on November 20 in Portland and December 10 in Eugene--see this page for details on time and place.

On Ukraine: I'm sure that you're keeping up with events in Russia's war on Ukraine and aren't depending on my weekly blog posts to stay current. However, did you see the comments from the high priest of the Church of Satan on recent Russian charges that Satanism is gaining ground in Ukraine?

Concerning the possible Russian retreat from Kherson: what's the logic, and why the "fanfare"?

Prayer for Ukraine and peace: the weekly online meeting for worship under the care of Friends World Committee for Consultation, European and Middle East Section, will continue at least through the anniversary of the war's start. I'm there most weeks. Details at this EMES page.

The heads of several Quaker organizations wrote this joint statement on the Peace Testimony and Ukraine.

As I write this post on Thursday evening, London time, the balance of power in the U.S. Congress after Tuesday's election is still unclear. I found yesterday's post by Heather Cox Richardson to be helpful in this in-between moment. For now I'm taking an occasional look at The Guardian's election results Web page.

Last week I wrote about Quaker Shaped Christianity, the book by Mark Russ that's scheduled to be released in about a week. Woodbrooke is hosting an online book launch on December 5. Sign-up information for the event is on this page

Adria Gulizia asks, "Why do Friends worship?" Good question, thoughtful answers.

Bobby "Blue" Bland and B.B. King, enjoying each other's company. (1977.)

03 November 2022

Quaker Shaped Christianity

If there’s one thing Christians have in common, it’s arguing about what it means to be a Christian! This book is a contribution to that argument, not an attempt to end it.

-- Mark Russ, Quaker Shaped Christianity: How the Jesus story and the Quaker way fit together.

Spoiling for an argument? Treat yourself to this refreshing conversation. Whether or not you agree with the author at all points, I think you'll be delighted.

So: how do the Jesus story and the Quaker way fit together? Mark Russ makes his case with a rare, wonderful combination of clarity and humility. He links the ethical heart of Quaker faith and practice with the liberating power available to all who put their trust in Christ. 

These days, that case may seem easier said than done. One by one, Russ examines the false scandals that alienate many Friends from the depth and simplicity of Christ's invitation to follow him ...

  • threats of hell for those who have made mistakes in behavior or doctrine
  • misuse of the Bible as journalism or codebook
  • linking the execution of Jesus to a wrathful God and our own fatal flaws
  • the use of sin-talk to shame and dominate individuals without regard for sinful systems.

He also discusses the various work-arounds that Friends (particularly liberal Friends) tend to use to avoid these scandals ...

  • forms of universalism that claim an impossible (and condescending) objectivity
  • admiration for Jesus as a great moral teacher while stripping away his cultural location, his resurrection, the cross, and his origin story--all the elements that fixed his reality in the minds of his followers, and whose testimonies about him make no sense without those mysteries
  • early Friends' faith as limited by their cultural restrictions rather than enriched by insights into the radical immediacy of the Holy Spirit's work in them
  • the list of Quaker don'ts (the church ceremonies we don't have) that are not simply sectarian markers but actually signs that we are living in the unfolding presence of Jesus. Or as Russ puts it, the early Friends "... saw other Christians as still waiting for Christ to come again, and worshipping in 'meantime' ways. In their experience, Christ had arrived, meaning that all 'meantime' practices had to stop."

So far I've focused on the "argument" dimension of this sparkling book, but its real power is Mark's own voice, his transparency about his own life and his path into Christian community. He lived through the sorts of experiences that have brought many refugees out of authoritarian, narrow, or homophobic religiosity, and into our Quaker communities. He treats nobody with scorn or disrespect for their different interpretations, but shows, intelligently and winsomely, that there is another conversation to be had.

To be a fully convinced Quaker and a passionate follower of Christ in Britain Yearly Meeting has its challenges as well as joys. The popularity of those skeptical work-arounds is part of the picture, but there's also a human reality:

I’ve found being a Quaker-shaped Christian requires a “patchwork” approach to my religious life. Being a Christian, I find it important to spend time with others for whom Jesus is central. I’m part of a house group with Christians from other churches, occasionally visit cathedrals, go to Franciscan monasteries on retreats, and follow lots of Christian theologians on Twitter. But I’m also Quaker-shaped. I “speak Quaker.” I feel at home in Quaker settings. I know what it feels like to be called to speak in Quaker worship.

When I joined Friends in Canadian Yearly Meeting, I also found this "patchwork" necessary. I loved my Friends meeting, but I was also part of a house church. I attended a charismatic fellowship for a while, was involved in a Christian-Marxist dialogue, and attended the Ottawa Lay School of Theology with a couple of my new Quaker mentors.

The 73 pages of the main body of this book (in the "Quaker Quicks" series) are delightfully personal and very accessible. At the back of the book, if you choose, you can find sources for some of the ideas and influences that the author found valuable--and why. In that sense, the book contains far more than its deceptively compact size, but you decide how much farther to go.

Mark Russ is familiar with the varieties of Quakers around the world. "Being a Quaker in Bolivia can look very different from being a Quaker in New Zealand or in Kenya" he writes. "Quakers in Britain, where I live, can be described as “liberal” Quakers, and this is the sort of Quakerism I write about in this book."

I'm not sure I dare define the principal audience for the book. I hope it attracts readers far and wide, inside and outside the Friends church. But there are two groups of potential readers I particularly want to recommend this book to. I know some of these people personally. First, those who describe their current faith as being under deconstruction or are in some form of exvangelical journey. Without exhibitionism or sensationalism of any kind, the author puts an honest, healing touch on the toxicity that can get between Jesus and the people Jesus loves.

The other audience I have in mind are evangelical Friends who are curious about the liberal Quaker world, and willing to explore it in the company of Mark Russ. Not only might they find an unexpected companion in conversation, they might also gain a deeper understanding of why the evangelical subculture, particularly the white American evangelical subculture, does not always serve the cause of Christ.

One final word about the book: its emotional range. Many Quakers who write about their faith are very cautious about expressing its emotional dimension. We often resort to defensive and cerebral phrases or a defensive script. Mark Russ expresses a devotion to Jesus that comes from a deep center rather than a need to define a boundary. Here's how he puts it:

Choosing Jesus as my guiding star doesn’t mean I’m closed off to those who don’t see Jesus in the same way. There is a type of closure, in that Jesus reveals who God is. In the character of Jesus we glimpse the character of God. God is Love, and that doesn’t change. But there is also immense openness. Although Jesus is my center, the horizon of my Christianity is limitless.

Quaker Shaped Christianity: How the Jesus story and the Quaker way fit together by Mark Russ is published by Christian Alternative Books, an imprint of John Hunt Publishing Ltd.

Another way to continue the conversation with Mark Russ: his blog at Jolly Quaker.

Getting to know the Friends of Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends through our newsletter ... this time, we meet Derek Lamson.

Another Friend of our Yearly Meeting, Mari Kay Evans-Smith, founded and directs the Friends International Medical Teams.

Andre Audette and Shay Hafner on the politics of church-shopping. And Lifeway Research asks, do churchgoers prefer congregations that share their politics?

What Nancy Thomas might feel when someone says to her, "Oh, I already knew that."

Kim Wilson with Nathan James and band: "Tomorrow Night," a song I associate with the great Junior Wells. (Link to his version, audio only.)

27 October 2022

Elon Musk and Twitter: Why should I care?

The Atlantic graphic accompanying this article:
"How Elon Musk could actually kill Twitter."

"Elon Musk reportedly fires top Twitter executives as he takes over company": an online Guardian headline this evening.

A similar headline was the top item in this evening's Washington Post online edition. You don't need me to list the world and regional news stories that a reasonable person might judge as outranking the corporate drama at Twitter in importance.

I've been on Twitter for about five and a half years, and over that time I've had two uses for it. The high-minded use is this: it's a handy feed for news articles, sometimes directly from the journalists writing them. It's convenient then to pass good links on to others I've come to know in Quaker Twitter and Russian Twitter, and in turn to receive their recommendations.

But it's hard to deny that Twitter also been a source of entertainment, a peek through the bars of our political zoo. There's a sadness to this, too, of course, as we see how little regard for nuance there is in this arena. In any case, when I read about all the rude, vicious, and aggressive behavior on Twitter, I realize that my experience is nothing like that. Not that those observers are wrong, but I've subscribed to the people and organizations I want to follow, and so I probably live a sheltered life on that site.

A couple of years ago, I joined another online network, Telegram. Many Russian journalists and news organizations are now on this network, and since February 24 it's become my only online link with some of our contacts from our years there. Telegram offers many of the personal communication features of other social networks, but (aside from those few individual contacts in Russia) I only use it to read news and commentary. It has become much more important to me than Twitter for that purpose.

With Telegram for news and (yes, still) Facebook for relatives and friends, I imagine that Twitter will fade away for me. If so, why should I care about today's headlines? Does the takeover of Twitter by one eccentric billionaire threaten us in ways I've not personally experienced? Does Twitter help to cause, or does it simply display, our country's (and world's) bitterly polarized public space? And how far do those influence ripple beyond Twitter's own active participants?

As Victoria Scholar noted on BBC Newshour today (the segment, mainly about Meta and Facebook, starts at 26:30), "Consumers of social media switch from platform to platform very quickly." That's me ... I started with forums on CompuServe and mail list services (remember Quaker-L?), then went to MySpace and LiveJournal, then abandoned them in favor of starting my own blog. I eventually added Facebook to stay in touch with people during our years in Russia, then added Russia's own near-clone of Facebook (Vkontakte) to connect with many of our students, and now I'm on Telegram. But I never got involved with Instagram and TikTok and probably never will. Nevertheless, Scholar's point is valid: these platforms inevitably cycle in and out of popularity. Charlie Warzel's article in The Atlantic, "How Elon Musk could actually kill Twitter," lists any number of ways Twitter's new owner could contribute to its demise.

(I've not mentioned YouTube, but it's in a somewhat different category, at least for me. I use it for content, not socializing.)

It's tempting to simplify dilemmas around social media by making their wealthy founders and owners outsize heroes or villains, when it might be more important to learn, and help each other learn, how to exercise healthy oversight over their channels' behavior—and over the influence we allow them to have on us.

Left side: When they murder you, when they rob you,
when someone is being raped.
Right side: When someone wrote a comment in VK,
when someone reposted something,
when someone downloaded a picture.
Vkontakte, VK for short, used to be a lively place with lots of activity from our students and friends in Russia, and their peers. However, these days it seems to have dried up. 

I have 426 people and organizations on my list of "friends," but now only about half a dozen of my individual contacts post regularly, along with a few groups—the public library in Elektrostal, one of the local weekly papers there, the local television station, a Doctor Who fan channel and a few other topical channels, an amateur theater group in Noginsk, and that's about it.

I suspect (but have no evidence) that among the reasons for this decline is self-censorship, in view of the risks of posting unfashionable political views. Equally likely, I suppose: just as with LiveJournal and Myspace, tastes change. And there are lots of other places now for posting cute pictures and videos....

If you're a current or former VK user, I'd love to know how things have or haven't changed for you.

From Mark V: The Opera. Source.
Pew Research Center: "64% of Americans say social media have a mostly negative effect on the way things are going in the U.S. today." As for their effects on mental health, here are some comments from Columbia University's Claude Mellins and Deborah Glasofer. In this article on the Wharton School Web site, marketing professor Jonah Werberg comments on an important risk factor:

... [T]here is an addictive quality to social media, and that is a big issue, says Berger. “Social media is like a drug, but what makes it particularly addictive is that it is adaptive. It adjusts based on your preferences and behaviors,” he says, “which makes it both more useful and engaging and interesting, and more addictive.”

Speaking of addictive, the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago gets its own Internet home. (I don't apologize for this particular fascination.)

In Friends Journal, Keith Barton says that the Bible and early Friends cautioned us against the misuse of images. Nowadays, we're drenched in images. "The chief question we can reasonably ask, then, is whether this visual bombardment in the modern world is salutary or destructive."

More images! Barclay Press publishes its first graphic novel, Derek Lamson's Mark V: The Opera, with collaborators John Williams and Brandon Buerkle.

Night and day, Albert Collins sings about the "Same Old Thing." Incredible musicians! (These are both reruns on my blog, but who remembers stuff like that?)

20 October 2022

"We have no other options..."

Screenshots from Russian state TV talk show
60 Minutes. Sources: first three; fourth.

A widely-reposted excerpt from Russian channel Rossiya-1's news and talk show 60 Minutes testifies to the state media's tolerance of open support of genocide in Ukraine.

One of the guests on this show, Duma member Andrei Gurulyov, lists approvingly the expected results of the drone/missile/bombing campaign on Ukraine's infrastructure: People will be deprived of electricity, water, sewers, heat for the winter, banking services, jobs, food and places to store food; epidemics will threaten their health. Services that depend on Internet technology, such as transport, can be shut down simply by bombing the servers. All of this has, he said, one goal: to drive the population across the borders and out of Ukraine.

Program host Olga Skabeeva responded that she needed

... to take one second to make a ritual comment about the civilians: We're by no means gloating. We feel sorry for everyone, we love everyone, but we've been driven to this; we have no other options left. They want to destroy us, we're forced to react. Sadly, we're forced to react and we will react.

The very heart of the message is exposed: genocidal actions are justified because of the danger to Russia, a danger that never existed. The commentators' cruel logic made my blood freeze. There are always options! There is no trap except the traps Putin himself set. At his sole command, Russia could cease fire and begin its withdrawal this very evening.

During most of this TV commentary, scenes of destruction from Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities, and footage of a drone striking a building in Kyiv, were cycled over and over in the background.

(Today's 60 Minutes program featured another ray of hope for Russia: If the Republican party wins control of the House of Representatives in the upcoming elections, U.S. support for Ukraine may be reduced, according to the featured clip from Fox News.)

These scenes of destruction and death—the ongoing consequences of a decision made by one man, Vladimir Putin, and initiated in a surprise attack on February 24 after months of denial—can begin to deaden our senses. As in so many other preventable disasters, compassion fatigue can set in. Is it starting to feel like this is the world we now live in? Do our horizons narrow in sheer self-protection? After all, organized human cruelty is on blatant display in Yemen, Haiti, Iran, and Palestine, just to start the list. How do we cope?

Here are a few ways I'm trying to cope—and I would love to hear from you!

  • I'm resisting the temptation to tune out. I'm staying in touch with Russian and Ukrainian sources of information, and with our own contacts there. I want to hear from sources close to the ground and not depend on mass media. I want to pray for specific people and specific situations as well as for everyone caught in the systems of evil, Russian and Ukrainian alike. And Americans, for that matter. Whatever happens, I don't want this season's festival of cruelty and objectification to become normalized.
  • I think I understand the impulse among many, inside and outside Ukraine, to isolate Russian people, but I cannot agree with it and won't cooperate with it. For one thing, the Russian anti-war movement exists and we ought to support it. I know personally, and receive daily evidence, that Vladimir Putin and the captive Russian mass media do not define Russia. I think everyone knows all this theoretically, but this isn't a season for theories to flourish.
  • The little community that gathers online each week, organized by Friends World Committee for Consultation's European and Middle East Section to pray for an end to the war, is a precious source of sanity for me. For information on this weekly opportunity to pray for Ukraine, see this page on the FWCC EMES site. Other online prayer opportunities are listed on this page of the Friends House Moscow Web site.
  • This blog has been a place where I can think out loud about things that have become intolerable. Thanks for your patience and support for all the times I've struggled to put words to my feelings and to my modest attempts at analysis. I'm sure others are experiencing similar struggles, inside and outside the country. Some of you are experiencing and risking much more than I am, but if I couldn't speak out this way, I think I'd explode.
  • And there are times I get angry and times I grieve. Do you? It's not wrong.

One scripture that I've always cherished has become even more important to me. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: 

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.

Rejoicing and thanksgiving may seem unlikely in the face of grief and pain, but I see it differently. Rejoicing every day in the love of my family and my church and my Creator, giving thanks for every day of life, is how I defy and deny the power of fear. Nobody can take those gifts away from me! At the same time, I consider that the main business of the rest of my life is to continue learning to pray without ceasing. I want prayer to become like breathing, both when I'm rejoicing and when I grieve.

I want to be honest: progress is slow. But being public about this goal is one way I try to stay accountable.

Related: Ukraine and the dilemmas of pacifism; the fog of war, part two.

Speaking of praying without ceasing ... one of my Russian friends sent me this link to an amazing and inspiring interview with a Russian monk at a downtown Moscow church that's very familiar to Judy and me. The interview is in Russian, but there are auto-generated subtitles in several languages. They're better than nothing. I may translate some passages of this interview here on this blog before too long. So far 1.7 million people have seen the interview, and there have been thousands of comments testifying to the hope that people have experienced as a result of watching the interview.

Georgia's white evangelicals (or many of them) embrace Herschel Walker. What might we conclude?

Greg Morgan on practicing hope. (If you haven't read Greg's blog before, I recommend this introductory post.)

Too much (Quaker) politeness? Martin Kelley interviews Johanna Jackson.

Dorothy Norwood, Inez Andrews, and Albertina Walker, "Mary Don't You Weep." Thanks to Peggy Lear for the link.