Monday, November 16, 2009

Reading the Bible in the Manner of Early Friends

One of the pleasures of living in Barnesville, that "Quaker crossroads," is Friends Center, which holds weekend retreats on Quaker topics about four times a year. I spent this weekend there at a retreat/workshop on reading the Bible in the manner of early Friends.

Our facilitator was Michael Birkel, a religion professor from Earlham. Michael is a scholar with a gift for connecting with people. That made the weekend especially pleasant, as did the mix of people attending the workshop.

I already knew that the early Quakers read the Bible "in the Spirit" and were immersed in the Bible. It was, as Michael put it, "their mother tongue." I also knew that they read the Bible experientially, becoming co-participants in its story, which is also a post-modern way of approaching Scripture.

What was most interesting to me was to understand that the early Quakers read the Bible not in terms of "facts" or "truths" or "rules," but in terms of images. The images that we might speed through as metaphors or representations of abstract truths, they sat with and luxuriated in. These images--rivers and mountains, roses and lilies, roots and rocks, soil and seeds, fat and feasts-- had reality and resonance for them. As they were writing letters or pamphlets, one Biblical image of, say, a river, would trigger an association with another Bibilical image of a river or of water, and what would emerge would be a rich juxtaposition of Bible passages, ranging, say, from Exodus to Isaiah to Luke to Revelation. They gravitated to the Song of Solomon, a deeply-felt erotic imagistic love poem, as often reflecting their experience of the Light. Their faith was not abstract, but embodied, textured, tangible and sensual.

I love the idea of the early Quakers, whom we (or I) tend to think of as rejecting music and art and other forms of corrupting "riot and revelry," actually enjoying the richness and beauty and fecundity of Biblical images.

The emphasis on experiencing Scriptural images led them to a fuller understanding of Biblical truth. By not trying to immediately get "behind" a metaphor to its meaning, they were able to see the value of the metaphor itself. For instance, George Fox realized that the image of Jesus as the Lamb of God in the book of Revelation was not an accident but indicated the nature of the "warfare" Jesus will "wage" in the "end times." What kind of army would a lamb lead? Would "a lamb" lead troops armed with carnal weapons? Fox said, no, of course not, and tied the "warfare" of Revelation back to the "armor of God" described in Ephesians: the Lamb's weapons will be faith, truth, righteousness, peace. With these, love will defeat the carnal, militaristic powers of Satan.

It's a gift to us that the early Quakers were pre-modern, pre-Enlightenment thinkers. They felt no compunction to slice and dice the Bible scientifically, to approach it empirically, to boil it down to a set of propositions or rules. They were completely comfortable with experiencing it emotionally and in an embodied way as well as intellectually.

What do you think of their approach?


Hystery said...

This post really helped me deepen my understanding of Friends' historical approach to the Bible. I am beginning to realize that Friends' relationship to the Bible was very similar to my own relationship to the core literature of my childhood which I have continued to read as an adult. The images, lessons, metaphors, and even the cadence of the words themselves are so interwoven into my personal philosophy and imagination that they are often more real to me than the world of material things.

Bill Samuel said...

What has struck me is how full the early Quaker writing is of images and symbols, yet they totally rejected physical symbols and images. This seems very contradictory to me.

Diane said...

HI Hystery,

I'm glad you are still here. Thanks for the comment. Is there something special I have to do to get to your blog? I would love to know what books most resonated with you in childhood.

Hi Bill,

Yes, your point is interesting and you do wonder why it was so--if writing was somehow allowably "interior" in a way other image forms were not.Does it go back, I wonder, to Jewish notions that you can't represent God visually but you can write about God and his presence in the world. And then the Eastern Orthodox decided that icons were actually words, not representations-- and that distinction was important. Perhaps--at least in the pre-Enlightenment, before we developed metaphors of language as a clear plane of glass, words were considered imprecise enough not to box in or somehow misrepresent the religious experience? Anyway, all of this is very interesting.

Hystery said...

Of course I'm still here! You're a beautiful writer. My blog is Plainly Pagan.

The childhood books in which I still are those by C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L'Engle, both Christian authors.

In reading Bill's words and your response, my brain did this funny jump over to this lesson I teach about the development of the concept of privacy and the interior life in the early modern period that grows out of the increasing availability of printed texts and the increasing tendency of people to read (silently)to themselves which we contrast to earlier periods in which only the wealthy had access and/or books were read out loud in a communal setting. Of course, there was a far greater emphasis on visual imagery in a time with minimal literacy. The printing press changes all that and, and is partially to blame for the Protestant Reformation.

So anyhow, as people are reading quietly to themselves and creating their own private thoughts in their own private noggins, we start to see their inner lives reflected in their outer worlds. This is also the time when architecture begins to change to provide more small, private spaces for intimate conversations. There are more mirrors, portraits and other personal items in homes for decoration and a greater emphasis in social and political theory on individual agency and the autonomy and worth of the individual. It is a time of an enhanced understanding of the inner life and the depth of the imaginary/real worlds one creates with words.

It has struck me that it is no mistake that Friends seized upon the Johannine gospel with its emphasis on Logos. The amazing connection between Light and Word could not have been lost on them.

Diane said...

Hi Hystery,

I remember you mentioning Narnia and L"Engle.

The whole concept of private space is very interesting--of course, if you tour even someplace such as Blenheim Palace, built late!!--circa 1700--you are struck by the lack of privacy--nobody really had the "room of one's own." What's most interesting is that the early Quakers are in that time period that we would see as pre-Enlightenment, though obviously well post-Reformation and they are participating in this "interiorizing" moment--but apparently looking for commonalities and shared experience rather than individualism as we would later come to understand it.