19 January 2006

Scale and perspective

from wikipedia.orgThis BBC bulletin just came in: Wilson Pickett has died. Aside from the sad implications for his family, it feels like a link to my youth has also died.

As I grew up in a family that was a weird, rigid, angry outpost of supposed Northern European superiority, Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour" and "Mustang Sally" and Land of 1000 Dances" were part of my American formation. Thank you, Wilson Pickett.

Today the New Horizons mission to Pluto began with a successful Atlas 5 launch from Cape Canaveral. It's sobering to think that the mission will take almost a full decade to arrive at Pluto, even though this spacecraft departed from earth at a record speed—so fast that it will cross the moon's orbit in only nine hours. (Earth to moon was a three-day journey in Apollo's time.) Think of all the things that could happen here on earth while that craft slips silently across the solar system.

This evening's BBC TV1 10 p.m. news broadcast included a fascinating dispatch from Antarctica. To liven up this report on greenhouse gases, the correspondent, David Shukman, was videotaped lowering himself into an ice crevasse to show us the ice-trapped gas bubbles that enable scientists to compare atmospheric samples from as far back as 800,000 years ago to today's atmosphere. The British station where this report originated is located on the Antarctic Peninsula, which is, according to the BBC, the place where the temperature is increasing more quickly than anywhere else on the globe. The scientists are interested in comparing air samples to help figure out why the peninsula is shedding ice so rapidly. In particular, what documentable effect does the relatively recent impact of human behavior have on the melting of Antarctic ice, and the consequent increase in the speed of rising water levels?

It's not surprising that British researchers care: their island nation is 1/60th the size of Antarctica. "Small" increases in ocean levels have big implications for all inhabited coastal regions, especially places where almost the whole country is "coastal."

David Ignatius' column in the Washington Post (thanks to Karen Street for this reference) suggests that issues of scale and perspective could be causing us to ignore "the biggest story in our history." We may pay an incalculable price for the foreshortened time scale of our journalistic perspective. To support this contention, he quotes Elizabeth Kolbert, author of a New Yorker series on climate change. She says, "It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing."

Will we make any progress on a wider perspective, linked to wiser policies and healthier governance processes, before today's newly-launched spacecraft reaches Pluto?

Vesti via utro.ruLocal warming: Is it too much to ask for some of that Antarctic warming to reach European Russia? Temperatures have reached minus 30C and below in some cases (for perspective: -40C = -40F!). According to www.utro.ru, one of the bridges in Orekhovo-Zuevo, not far from Elektrostal, cracked and had to be closed to traffic. One of today's headlines: "Moscow's energy system is strained to the limit."

Local energy shortages can put people in serious danger, and homeless people are in even greater peril. BBC's evening news showed Moscow authorities dispensing cabbage soup and tea to street people. I pray for those not in places visible to the international media, and for the charities, agencies, and others trying to help...or simply trying to stay warm.

In the meantime, the international media can't help but notice that, despite temperatures colder than at the South Pole, some Russian Orthodox people continue the Epiphany custom of cutting holes in the ice and taking a frigid swim. (Documentation at this weblog!) As one of the swimsuited women on the BBC broadcast said, at least the temperature in the water is warmer than the temperature above water! That was indisputable. Viewers saw the intrepid BBC reporter in full winter garb with furry hood telling us that he was freezing as he stood near men and women in bare skin and bathing suits. I guess we know who really won the Cold War!

Marcia Ball did not disappoint. After years of listening to her recordings, I was delighted to hear this famous blues pianist live last night at SE Portland's wonderful Aladdin Theater.

The evening had several surprises. In person, Marcia Ball looks cool and elegant, and her set started out almost subdued. There was absolutely nothing amateurish about the evening, but I saw very little showmanship either. The band was as good as their reputation, but there was no playing for effect. Marcia spent most of the evening sitting at her keyboard. Her right leg was crossed over her left leg, swinging away most of the time she was playing. Her eyes frequently closed as she moved her head with the sheer delight of her rolling keywork. Sometimes they'd open very wide for a fraction of a second. In between songs, she spoke directly to us, unscripted ... about the songs, about her previous visits to Portland, about what was going on in New Orleans, gathering recommendations for Mexican food in Portland.

As the evening progressed, she never modified her almost classical elegance, but the music had its own cumulative effect. More and more people got up to dance. The concert atmosphere subtly changed into a party. I was delighted to see how much fun a big roomful of people could still have without any shocks or special effects.

One of the best surprises was the band that opened the evening—the Rose City Kings. It wasn't surprising that they were so good; I already knew that. I hadn't realized that they were even on the bill. One minute I was sitting in my front row seat, straining to read my New York Times Magazine in the dim light, waiting for Marcia Ball to begin. The next minute the Rose City Kings were tearing up the stage. A great evening.

Quaker bloggers are writing so much thoughtful stuff, it's getting hard to keep up, although Martin Kelley's quakerquaker.org has made it easier than it might otherwise be.

I was very moved by Claire's thoughts on evangelism, a subject dear to my heart. A couple of years ago, Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre gave me a wonderful opportunity to think at length about the subject of Friends testimonies and their relationship to evangelism. Much of my (and my far-flung collaborators') work is archived here, but there's so much more to think and say and practice on the subject. For now, I'll just repeat here my "definition" of evangelism in a Quaker context: Evangelism is

... the persuasive communication of the Christian good news, accompanied by an invitation to experience the community formed by that good news. Evangelism is incomplete without access to the community that is formed by the message. The elaboration of this definition would involve understanding what makes a message persuasive—what builds genuine credibility, including the quality of the relationship formed between the evangelist and the hearer.

I contrast evangelism with proselytism, which can be defined as the process of inviting a person to change their religious allegiance from one faith to another, not necessarily taking into account whether that change would be fundamentally good for the person being proselytized. When I hear the old cliché that “Friends don’t proselytize,” I agree, and then say, “but we do evangelize!”

(from Quaker Life, October 2004.)

There are a couple of other aspects of discipleship where I'd love to see Friends do more thinking—and if more thinking has been done already than I'm aware of, I hope to hear about it. One is the very practical issue, raised occasionally in the weblog network I'm most aware of, of how we Friends practice stewardship, and how we link our own earning and spending patterns with larger issues of poverty and environmental degradation. There are probably a lot of scattered threads out there on this subject; has anyone put together a list?

The second is not unrelated, but worth listing separately: how we understand and confront evil. I feel an essay on this one forming, but it isn't ready yet.

Another related topic: how simplicity relates to what might be called "inner plainness" and living an un-addicted life in a temptation-oriented culture, even as we resist having someone else's ascetical formulas forced on us.


David Carl said...


I'm not clear on the distinction you make between evangelism and proselytism. How do you harmonize "persuasive communication of the Christian good news" with not "inviting a person to change their religious allegiance from one faith to another?" Or is the additional qualifier "not necessarily taking into acount..." the operative phrase here? That is, would "evangelism" be an invitation to change allegiance once we've made a determination that that would be fundamentally good for the person? Or is it something other than an invitation to change allegiance?

Johan Maurer said...

I don't entirely harmonize them; I'm completely open to the charge of inconsistency here.

To me it seems important to make room for two slightly contradictory concerns: first of all, to let our communication be charged with urgency, if that is how we're actually wired. Not all of us are cool and cerebral and "objective"; some of us actually think that God wants Quakers to grow numerically, whatever the risk to our folkways. If we truly ARE cool and cerebral, fine, don't change on my account! But I believe that passion and conviction have a persuasive power; they say "take me seriously, please; I've put all my eggs in this basket." Evangelism is an invitation to cross a threshold, not a journalistic description.

HOWEVER, I also want to establish a basic principle, sort of the evangelists' version of the Hippocratic Oath: our true goal ought to be the well-being of the person/people with whom we're communicating. We should have some standing queries along these lines: Have I seriously considered whether their present spiritual affiliations might already be their true best fit? Am I willing to have a relationship of genuine friendship with them, regardless of whether they come into the Quaker community? Maybe only a relationship with that level of integrity can bear the weight of true spiritual exchange, an exchange that includes the persuasive quality of my own testimony.

One attempt to express this balancing act (in language that is a bit more technocratic than I'd have used, but still helpful) is the book Permission Evangelism: When to Talk, When to Walk, by Michael L. Simpson.

A final note: Although we should be as sensitive as we can, I don't think we need to have our rhetorical and relationship ducks all lined up in a perfect row before we make the attempt to communicate our faith persuasively. We will fail sometimes and be wrong sometimes. If we mistime things and lose our tongues or screw up in one way or another, it is not the end of the world. (Or my world would have ended long ago!)


Anonymous said...

I think we can share the Good News we and others have found with enthusiasm, and not be in the mold of seeming to say "I have this box you should squeeze yourself into." Evangelism is sometimes seen as generally being the latter, and proselytism even more so, although this is not necessarily the case.

In the Emerging Church movement, many are using the term missional as the way to describe living and sharing the Good News in a way that may be quite different, and much more open, than what people often think of when they hear the term evangelical.

Johan Maurer said...

Hi, Bill. I've been fascinated by the fertility of the words "mission" and "missional" ever since I read David Bosch's wonderful history of Christian missions.

It's hard for me to imagine any word that will not eventually generate opposition from those who are temperamentally and permanently set against any communication based on a definable faith, or any display of confidence in one's calling or findings. That shouldn't keep us from trying to keep our advocacy creative and fresh and modest as well as evocative.