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. In the USA, it's available from Barclay Press Bookstore.

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 the Junior Wells version, audio only.)


Mark said...

Thank you so much for taking the time to read my book and write this wonderful review!

Nancy Thomas said...

You've convinced me. I've ordered the book and joined his web site. Thank you!