03 September 2009

Publishers of Truth, part three

One more quick addition to this theme. (See part one, and part two, including comments.)

I'm trying to pin down exactly why I'm so uneasy with the tendency among some of us Quaker communicators to be so fascinated by ourselves. Here's what I worry might be going on: We get some kind of unspoken pleasure from being peculiar. And I worry that this gratification will render us permanently irrelevant to all but a tiny minority of those who could benefit from Friends faith and practice.

By "peculiarities" I don't mean our teachings about discipleship, except in their corrupt form. I don't mean the prophetic message for the world represented by those teachings. When we say that God requires us to reject violence and weapons, to find our own place in the church--and our leaders--through spiritual gifts rather than social status, to exercise simplicity and economic discipleship, and to make church decisions based on corporate prayer and discernment, we are simply reporting what we have learned as a community from God. And God forbid that we substitute scripts and furniture borrowed from other Christian communities, no matter how worthy, to cover up our disbelief that God has spoken to us directly.

Nor do I want to criticize the different cultures that Friends have developed worldwide as they try to live out these Godly imperatives from generation to generation. We are humans, after all; we generally prefer the familiar. Example: Many of us in the English-speaking Friends world do not use titles such as Mr. and Mrs. among ourselves and find it awkward to do so in the larger public, especially if (as a result) the woman's first name disappears. So in these ways our refusal to glorify the world's social distinctions takes concrete form, and that's natural.

But corruption occurs when we begin to forget the "why" of our folkways and let them become filters that totally contradict the extraordinary wave of God's power that originally formed us as a community, and ought to be continuing to form us--from the full range of human variety! Our distinctive teachings are only "peculiar" because we've not gone far enough in making them available to all.

And there's my worry: maybe it's kind of nice to be a tiny society of reflective people holding advanced views, united by subtle signals. Once again, the signals themselves are not the problem--nobody will reject Friends simply because they happen to hear us say "I approve" or "I hope so" in business meetings instead of "Let's go for it!" The decisive factor is where we put our trust and energy. Do we look outwardly at the world, expectantly, hospitably, eager to find ever new ways of challenging the powers of oppression and objectification with the urgent message of Jesus, and throwing open the doors for those who want to be nurtured together with us by the same springs that nurtured this message? Or do we only look inwardly, guarding the peculiar boundaries around our shrinking society, and welcoming only those who are ready to admire us and imitate us as we think we deserve?

OK, enough on this topic. Why should I criticize Friendly self-absorption while practicing it myself?

Righteous links:

Open Source Theology: "Postmodern agency and doing the Christian life": ... "Christian is not a onetime choice that defines what you are for all time; Christian is how you live and do in the present. Christian is not a noun, but a verb. So, in effect, one does not pick up their cross once, but everyday they pick up their cross and more or less live as a Christian in world of flux."

What happens when Christian artists play roles?--"Alice Cooper banned from gig for anti-Christian values." (Thanks to mondaymorninginsight.com for the reference.)

"Should people of color go to Russia?" Marker on Buster's new site. Original post on Moscow Through Brown Eyes, with comments. Repost and comments.

Daily prayer: "What helps you?"

A hundred years of special effects technology in the movies.

Junior Wells and Buddy Guy together in 1986. A wonderful sample of one of the most fruitful partnerships in blues history.


Martin Kelley said...

Yes, it's the perennial question for anyone trying to be faithful to a lived tradition. What's essential and what's a leftover form from a previous time-and-place? Just look at all the ink Paul used up talking about circumcision and it's clear this isn't an issue unique to Friends.

My working yardstick is to ask two questions of a traditional practice. First: is it something that I could explain to a "average Joe" in a sentence without launching into a history lesson? Second: is it a testimony that I think all Christians should take seriously? If the answers are both "yes" then I don't care if it's unpopular or peculiar. Oddness for it's own sake is self-indulgence but if it reflects a universal, eternal spiritual truth then it can be a very powerful witness to our faith, trust and love of God. Friends have often been most effective when we were counter-cultural.

After we've decided on a testimony to retain, there's the follow-up question of how to put it in practice, but I always see that as a minor issue compared to the inward change that adopting it in principle has brought us.

Johan Maurer said...

Good working yardstick, Martin.

To my mind, being counter-cultural is not the same as being peculiar. The difference: I want us to be counter-cultural to change the culture. Quakers will probably never be a mass movement, but we should always potentially be a mass movement. The factors militating against our large-scaleness might be the world's resistance but it should not be either timidity or elitism on our part. Our goal is not to build ourselves up, but bring people to Jesus and let him build them up. If we are privileged to be part of that building-up process, so much the better.

Something I neglected to say: The job of our yearly meetings is not to say that everyone must be active in outreach and providing access. But we should finally provide enthusiastic support for those among us who are already gifted and led in that direction, and we should all be tender-hearted toward those who want to respond to Jesus by seeking us out. If those who seek us out don't seem to fit perfectly into our classic folkways, change the folkways!!!!!

Unfortunately, I don't have a clear to-do list for Friends to consider in reorienting ourselves to a more audience-centered approach to communication. What I'm trying to do with these posts is to contribute toward a reorientation of our perspective as Friends. I trust Friends business process enough that, with such a reorientation, the right follow-up steps will be found.

forrest said...

One thing about "peculiarity" for its own sake: It gives permission for everyone to stretch their limits. Let's face it--Sincere religion is a peculiarity in this culture, so that the willingness to be a fool for Christ (given that it IS for Christ!) requires the ability to be a fool period, and live with it!

"John the Baptist came fasting, and they said, 'He has a demon.' The son of man comes eating and drinking, and they say, 'A glutton who hangs out with sinners!'"

What we simply ARE, if we take that seriously, should be enough to warrant psychiatric evaluation by most secular standards!

Hmmm. Your previous post about good religious material from outside the Quaker thing... How about fiction, specifically _Shardik_? I think the theme of that is relevant: how as long as the guy was trying to exert power in the world, he couldn't set God's power free.

Christopher Parker said...

When I was younger I held onto Quakers peculiarity as an identity that served as a substitute for self-confidence. As I grew and have come into myself, I find that there was a lot of illusion wove into this.

I see this among evangelical Christians.

Among unprogrammed friends I see a different movement, a claiming the unique identity to create a refuge, a place of comfort. Lots of folks are done trying to be counter cultural when they find Quakers, they just want space to be themselves and practice their relationship to God freely.

Johan Maurer said...

Forrest--You have a useful take on the word "peculiar." Anything we do with devotion and self-abandonment will look peculiar to somebody! But to hide within peculiarity, or to flaunt it for our own self-gratification, or to institutionalize it as a hedge--these are dead ends, I think.

Fiction is a legitimate category. Among the writers that occur to me are Daisy Newman, Jan de Hartog, Joan Slonczewski, Jessamyn West... I'm not familiar with Shardik. However, few of their works confront one's personal spiritual and social condition as urgently as, for example, Lydia Millet's How the Dead Dream.

Christopher, thank you for the doses of reality. I don't think there's anything wrong with someone coming to Friends simply for space to be themselves and grow spiritually. (Likewise, long-time Friends also need seasons of withdrawal.) But Friends as a group, as a movement, should present our testimonies as normative discipleship--justice, after all, is not optional!--and as a message to the world, not just interior decorating for our own cozy nest.

No individual Friend should be told that discipleship looks the same for everyone, or that they must conform to a certain standard of activism. It's our orientation as a movement that counts--do we still serve as a way for God to bless and heal the world, or are we simply offering private lifestyle enhancements, "blessing" only those lucky enough to find us?

Stephen Dotson said...

"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?"

Hi Johan,
My name is Stephen Dotson and we met briefly at the QUIP conference last April. This next April, QUIP is planning to gather Quaker writers, publishers, editors, bloggers, etc. for a Writer's Conference in the hopes that we could foster a corporate discussion of just this sort. As the clerk of the conference planning committee, I am inviting you to come and participate. Your comments here have spoken directly to my condition as an aspiring writer who struggles with the Quaker context he writes. In younger generations there are many energetic and eager voices who wish Quakers would speak in more cogent and ecumenical ways.

Please consider attending, it will be in Richmond, IN from April 21-25th, more details can be found by following the link posted with my name.

Thankyou for your faithfulness and gumption!

Johan Maurer said...

Hello, Stephen! Can you send me an e-mail address for you? Or should I use the contact form on the QUIP Web page?

I'm at johanpdx at gmail dot com.