02 August 2013

Production values

Northwest Yearly Meeting, gathering for evening worship in Bauman Auditorium
When I attended my first yearly meeting sessions of Northwest Yearly Meeting, I was impressed by the excellence, the sheer polish, of the evening worship meetings. It was fascinating to see how the beauty of the location, contemporary audio/visual technology, talented singers and musicians, and inspiring content all worked together to create a memorable experience.

Linda Grimms reports on how "ordinary people" can serve God's extraordinary purposes.
I always love it when competence, intelligence, and dedication combine forces, so I was duly impressed that evening. But I admit that I had a tiny little itch of discomfort with so much perfection. I became a Friend in 1974 in Canadian Yearly Meeting; then, in later years, I either joined or sojourned among Friends in New England, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Indiana Yearly Meetings. In most of those places, I found a discomfort with polish, a preference for a sort of endearing amateurishness--and these preferences were generally shared by both unprogrammed and programmed Friends.

The traditional language of North Atlantic Quakerism reinforces this preference for the not-too-processed approach to spirituality. Friends of the quietist era often used indirect language to refer to God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit; and adjectives such as "acceptable" and "satisfactory" could be high compliments! Having come from an anti-church family, I appreciated Friends' built-in resistance to the blandishments of the religion industry. Even though my own conversion to Christian faith was very emotional, it was also very personal; I felt that God had spoken directly to my troubled past and my struggles with questions of trust. Theatricality would not have reached me (or so I'd like to think!). The words of the Sermon on the Mount, in my own Bible, in my own hands, in the quiet of my own room, did.

The Bible, lying on a table in the center of Ottawa Meeting's concentric squares, was one of the few adornments in the meeting room. On the wall was a cross (surprise!) but it was a "found cross," a tree branch that had somehow grown more or less cross-shaped, that someone had found and mounted in the meeting room. It was perfect (so to speak) for a culture that would have rejected any kind of obligatory symbol.

Of course such an attenuated, understated spirituality can acquire a sort of polish all its own. There's a right way and a wrong way to be Quaker--and if you don't have the requisite long attention span, dislike of any kind of flash, and so on, you might find it hard to feel at home. In all fairness, I think I'm describing a state of affairs that has eased up in the last thirty years, but I'm sure you can still find corners of the Quaker world where this is true.

One of the first people I ran into who challenged this cult of high-grade mystical understatement was Northwest Yearly Meeting Friend and philosopher Arthur O. Roberts. Maybe the first hint of this challenge that reached me was a review he wrote of a book by my hero Douglas Steere. Roberts gently accused Steere of name-dropping. Wow--it's possible to criticize this acceptable version of perfection practiced among unprogrammed Friends!

Even more shocking was something Arthur said at a Quaker Hill Conference Center retreat that he and I conducted on "Personal and Public Worship" sometime in the early 1980's. I wish I could remember exactly what he said, but basically he pointed out that excellence wasn't everything, mediocrity also had a role!

My biggest concern about an emphasis on outward excellence is its implication that participating in worship is reserved for people of high attainment, when really the best prayer in the world is sometimes the single word "help!" On the other hand, the understated approach also has a hazard: the observer not clued into the culture can easily conclude that we're uncommitted or indifferent, or something even worse: our subtle folkways are designed to keep out undesirable people. Maybe these different approaches actually share the same fault: they're both distortions of the genuine Friends values of diligence, directness, and simplicity.

Last week I loved being back at Northwest Yearly Meeting's evening sessions, enjoying the exuberance of the excellent musicians, singing along happily with the words projected crisply on the screens. And when the words on the screens occasionally didn't agree with what the lead singers were singing, I smiled--perfection isn't everything!

Some thoughts on "perfection" in leading worship: "Leading in Light of Christ's Perfection." See the comments, too. They led me to propose some queries: While honoring diligence in musicianship and sermons, how do we communicate a humble and invitational spirit?

Contemplative Scholar: "Unprogrammed Quakerism and Music: Complementary Spiritual Disciplines."

The role of the Church in discerning what's normative: Frederica Mathewes-Green, "Faith, Experience, and Theory." I see this essay as describing a sort of Eastern Orthodox equivalent to Friends' concept of gospel order.

While the U.S. Congress struggles with immigration reform, "Meanwhile, Love the Sojourner."

At the Waterfront Blues Festival a month ago... From Long Beach, California, USA, the Mighty Mojo Prophets:


Faith said...

Thank, Johan, for another thoughtful post about faith, Quakerism and how we're community together.

I found your reflection on NWYM sessions being possibly a little too perfect and polished really interesting as I had the very opposite reaction when I visited there in 2009. But I had just been at my home evangelical yearly meeting, at which I myself was uncomfortable with a variety of things, including the level of polish and perfectness in business and worship. In comparison, with singing led by just two people with a guitar and a drum most of the time and the superintendent in shorts and a t-shirt, NWYM seemed like a breath of fresh, low-key, informal air.

I share this not to discount or minimize your experience of discomfort, but just to add another piece to the puzzle of trying to figure out this balance between presenting something put together enough to be accessible to outsiders and something that makes space for our imperfection. I agree that it's definitely something we need to be attentive to and cautious of.

Johan Maurer said...

I can't imagine a yearly meeting more perfect than Northwest! )))

Seriously, thank you for your thoughtful comment, Faith.