Sunday, December 7, 2014

Quakers: Where, When, Now

"There is an experience of the eternal breaking into time, which transforms all of life into a miracle  ..." Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion

I have read many posts about the Quaker past, mostly positive about the glory days, and many posts about what Quakerism's future might be, most of them bleak and depressing. Two nights ago I experienced Quakerism's Now at an Olney Friends School coffeehouse. When I was there, living in what Thomas Kelly would call the divine center,  it came to me, hardly for the first time, that we worry too much about the past and future.

Olney coffee house. "The possibility of the experience of the Divine presence, as ... present fact ...transforms and transfigures life. ... This is the central message of Friends."

The Now is good. There's nothing new in that statement. In one of my favorite posts in recent months  someone stopped to appreciate what he loved about being a Quaker right in the here and now.

If we would simply dwell more in the Now, Quakerism's past and future would take care of themselves. (Let the dead bury the dead. Don't worry about what you will eat and drink but look at the lilies of the field. (Stop and look, really look, at the lilies.)). Haven't we heard this before?

The coffeehouse took place in the Olney dining hall amid the painted metal radiators, exposed pipes and double doors to the 1939 gym.

Christmas lights lit the coffeehouse in Olney's dining hall.  "Within the Now is the dwelling place of God Himself." 

The dining hall was and is simple, functional, unpretentious. It doesn't strive to be more than it is. It makes a good coffeehouse.

Audrey in a long floral skirt and bare feet, played and sang folk songs on the guitar. She brought the past with her and made it the present. She could have been from 1965 or 1975 or 1995. It  didn't matter.

Audrey played folk guitar. What year are we in? The Eternal Now. "This is the first fruit of the Spirit--a joy unspeakable and full of glory." 

Some young men, Chinese and American, performed in a rock band. They sang "Do you know what you're fighting for?" They could have been singing that 40 years ago. Did they know war they were singing about? It didn't matter.

Do you know what you're fighting for? "Why want, and yearn, and struggle, when the Now contains all one could ever wish for and more?"

Fireworks from Youtube showed on a movie screen. The fireworks came from all over the world, Hong Kong and Dubai and Qatar and other places They were beautiful, stunning sometimes, with great bursts of purple or flashes of white light filling the sky. The fireworks could have been celebrating the coronation of an eighteenth century king, but they also celebrated the coffeehouse.

Roger shared some chocolate mousse with me. I drank some coffee. Jamie, one of the teachers, came over and said kind things to me. I listened to the music. I felt at peace.

Is an Olney coffeehouse Quakerism? I don't know. The school is Quaker. Most of the students aren't, but some are. All I know is that many, many times over the past six years I have gone to events at Olney or just sat in the parlor and listened to a student playing Beethoven or Chopin on the piano. In those moments,  I have experienced something I wished I could bottle and pour out all over the world.

If we are simply being, not striving or using gimmicks, not worrying about the numbers,  not telling people what Quakers used to be or should be or must be in the future, then we are being Quakers in the world and Quakerism is alive and well. As long as we just keep doing it--being together as Quakers-- and trying not to fix it or glitz it or grow it or preserve it in a jar, we are alive. Because then we experience peace and wholeness, and we carry that out, "unspeakable, profound and full of glory," even if just for an eternal moment, into the universe. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

Sabbath: Kelleys Island

My friend Leon keeps the Sabbath. He is an atheist, his wife a rabbi. For years, when we lived in Maryland, we navigated sunrises and sunsets from Friday evening until Saturday evening so he could participate in our reading group. This meant we all had to slow down. I came away with a lasting impression that the Sabbath--a time to step out of our society and its rushing sickness--was both important and counter-cultural. It attests that less is more. 

Keeping the Sabbath is particularly social justice oriented. This commandment calls for a weekly day of rest not only for the elite, but for the servants and farm animals--those who need it most. It recognizes even non-humans as worthy of compassion. It symbolizes a humane society and a society that trusts enough in God's abundance that it doesn't have to work nonstop. I have often wondered that people in the Christian community are sometimes hostile to a formal Sabbath, perceiving it as rule-bound and restrictive rather than liberating.

For all that I believe in the Sabbath concept,  Roger and I still catch ourselves working around the clock until harried. It is so easy to get caught up in having so much to do that you feel compelled to use every minute. Technology always beckons. The idea of leaving the office after eight hours to go home and relax seems anachronistic. We make ourselves crazy trying to get things done. So last weekend, Roger and I took a sabbath break on Kelleys Island. 

Kelleys is a small island on Lake Erie. The first settlers stripped it ruthlessly of limestone until there was not a tree left, and you could see from one end of the island to the other. Now it has been reclaimed. It's beautiful and peaceful, full of nature preserves. It has allowed not one corporate chain in, so everything is local. 

 Lake Erie is supposed to be polluted, but the water on the north shore of the island is perfectly clear and see through, as the photos below show. 

Because no corporate chains have come to the island, it retains a local character and local businesses can thrive--and take time off when they need to. Profit does not rule everything. The photo below shows the main street. We ate at the brick corner restaurant shown on the left. 

Roger stands by the clear water of the north shore as evening falls. We had perfect weather and the autumn leaves were at their peak. I hope we take these breaks more often. I realize too that  the ability to take such Sabbaths bespeaks privilege--and that should not be. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Theopoetics II: A Reading of Amos Wilder's Theopoetic

I am reading Amos Wilder's seminal 1976 book, Theopoetic. Theopoetics, which I will define as the intersection of the literary with the theological, the manifestation of faith in art, has come to forefront as I have been thinking about Quaker literature.  I will, therefore, be working through Theopoetic in light of its relevance for Quakerism. 

In Theopoetic, Wilder begins with what theopoetics is not. First, it's not a shallow aestheticism. It's not ornamentation nor is it window dressing that prettifies religion by making it look more beautiful on the outside. It emerges from "the essential dynamics of the heart and soul." (2) Second, while it does not supersede love and action, it "orients" and "empowers" action. Third, a truly powerful theopoetic is neither sentimental nor nostalgic. Instead, a generative theopoetic is exorcising and revelatory: it challenges us, presumably by changing how we see ourselves or the world. Finally, it is not meant to displace but to enhance and enlarge tradition theology. (3) Part of that enrichment involves taking seriously secular literary criticism. (4) Renewing faith through renewing language is not a quick fix nor is it easy. "It is a costly transaction and cannot be manipulated." (5) 

Wilder notes that the work of the greatest theologians has been "shot through with the imagination." He lists Augustine, Calvin and Jonathan Edwards. (3) We might add to that list George Fox, John Woolman and Thomas Kelly.

In part II of chapter 1, Wilder mentions several motifs in the contemporary world he believes not adequately addressed in the current religious imagination. The first he calls a "hunger for innocence and naivete." (7) Another is the transformative "experience of glory" or "intoxication."  The intoxication theme also includes the "revolt of the beggars or vagabonds." Finally, he mentions the apocalypse, noting the "vision of an End can mean catastrophe to some, a new heaven and new earth to others." (10)

Quaker literature has been preoccupied in the last two centuries with a "hunger for innocence of naivete"--but in ways that look backward nostalgically rather than forward to become exorcising and revelatory. The social justice theme expressed in the revolt of the beggars, with its promise of transformative Jubilee, has been another Quaker preoccupation, but in its work in the world rather than its fiction. Would Quakers be better equipped for effective work with a more creative fiction? Finally, Quakerism is founded on a apocalyptic vision of a new heaven and new earth emerging  in the present moment. We live on the fumes of that vision today, but do little imaginatively to express this ecstatic future as a counterweight to the dark forebodings that dominate our times.

A Quaker fiction of the heart and soul would shatter us, not soothe us.

In the last section of this chapter, Wilder mentions the mingled joy and suffering at the root of the Christian experience. This is captured by the term kreuzseligkeit or "blessedness in the cross." This results not in "a masochistic cult of suffering" but invites participation in the divine activity, sometimes including suffering, through which evil is "encountered and transmuted." (11)  This experience is social and communal and woven into the fabric of everyday life "so that glory is associated with both its labor and its redemptive costs." (12)

Wilder finds limitations in the 1960s conception of "transcendence or ecstasy" because this vision lacks the spiritual courage to embrace the suffering inherent in the battle with evil. Both liberals and evangelicals, each caught in outmoded stereotypes, would do well to return their vision to  the cross "in  a way that would speak to all." (12)

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Theopoetics I: A Reading of Amos Wilder's Theopoetic

I am reading Amos Wilder's seminal 1976 book, Theopoetic. Theopoetics, which I will define as the intersection of the literary with the theological, the manifestation of faith in art, has come to forefront as I have been thinking about Quaker literature.  I will, therefore, be working through Theopoetic in light of its relevance for Quakerism. 

Theopoetic is first of all a response to the 1960s--a period crystallized in the social upheavals of 1968 whose effects are still with us--and the kind of creativity and turbulence that upheaval unleashed. That dizzying, revolutionary, futuristic backdrop of the 1960s, that sense of the whole world shaking and ready to tumble, couldn't, on the surface, be more different than our own frozen and backward-looking times. On the other hand, the 1960s represents the last heyday of Quakerism (whether a heyday of happiness or horror is a matter of perspective) and the fervor of that period harkens back even further to the revolutionary upheavals that produced the earliest Quakerism.

I see truths about Quakerism looking at it through the lens of its fictions. But let's first focus on Wilder, whose concern is the way Christian imagination had not, by the early 1970s, kept pace with the revolutionary changes he saw in the world around him.

"It is at the level of the imagination," writes Wilder, "that the fateful issues of our new world experience must first be mastered. ... Old words do not reach across the new gulfs, and it is only in vision in oracle that we can chart the unknown and new name the creatures. Before the message their must be the vision, before the sermon the hymn, before the prose the poem." (1)

We are motivated, he writes, by images and stories, because these move us more than ideas. Imagination is the life's blood of religion. Without it, "doctrines become ossified, witness and proclamation wooden ... litanies empty, consolations hollows and ethics legalistic." Without imagination, "doctrine becomes a caricature of itself" and begins to "suffocate" us. (2)

And thus ends his prelude.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

St. Matthew's Passion and participatory faith

At a Stillwater committee meeting Monday night, Earl Smith read Elton Trueblood about faith as participatory, not a spectator experience. This review of a performance of the St. Matthew's Passion shows how art can also function in a participatory way to embody faith:

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Not Quakerly: Revenge's Emily Thorne as the shadow Nancy Drew

If our art holds up to us a mirror of ourselves as a culture, what do we see? How as Quakers do we respond?

Imagine Nancy Drew's father, Carson, going up against the corrupt, nouveau-riche Tophams from Nancy's very first case, The Secret of the Old Clock--and losing. Imagine Carson framed for the Topham's fraud, ending up in prison, and dying behind bars as a result of a murder the Tophams have orchestrated to silence him forever. Imagine Nancy Drew in foster care and then juvenile prison. In this alternative scenario, instead of launching her on a successful run of solving mysteries that right injustices and help the downtrodden, Nancy's very first case leads to disaster.

In this new universe, by the time young adult Nancy learns of her father's innocence and inherits the fortune he has safeguarded for her, she's changed. A desire for justice has warped into a desire for revenge.

Say hello to Emily Thorne, the shadow Nancy Drew.

Emily Thorne

In Revenge, Emily's father has been framed as a terrorist who blew up a plane. The adult Emily, with a fortune and computer hacker friend behind her, plans to destroy the people who destroyed her father.

I didn't recognize the parallels with Nancy Drew right away. I knew Emily reminded me of someone, but the association lurked, fittingly, as a shadow that kept flitting out of view. It wasn't until I watched a Revenge episode with a masquerade ball and another  in which Emily saves a friend from a sinking boat that the similarity clicked into place. These are exactly the kind of situations in which Nancy finds herself.  Emily is Nancy, updated for a grimmer time.

Like Nancy Drew, Emily is a WASP. She has long golden blond hair, unlimited supplies of money, is slim, athletic, independent, and wears any number of pretty frocks that she doesn't really care about. She's multi-talented, highly intelligent and never loses her poise. As an added bonus, she has learned the arts of fighting and revenge from a mysterious Asian master. Although it's never spoken, she's old money against the declasse Graysons, the enemies who destroyed her father. They live in a monstrosity: an oversized fortress of a stone beach home decorated like a generic hotel chain; in contrast, Emily's beach house, which once was her family home, is a tasteful frame cottage--large, but never crass, windswept, cozy, understated, with sea foam colored walls and cosy wooden outdoor rockers on a big wraparound porch.

Emily succeeds at all she tries with near effortless aplomb and stays one step ahead of her enemies. Despite her passion to take people down, we know she's kind-hearted, caring and generous at core. She attracts loyal friends, who will do anything to help her. Men fall in love with her. Bad women see her as a dangerous rival; good women, like her friend from juvenile detention, want to be with her.

As we move back towards a 1930s world of great disparities between rich and poor, it's no wonder we recreate Nancy Drew. And at time when most people know the very wealthy have often amassed their fortunes at the expense of the hopes and dreams of the little people, as the Tophams attempt to do at the expense of impoverished widows and orphans, we look for the avenger--the Nancy Drew--capable of taking them on.

Yet today, our patrician angel is dark. This is nostalgia gone bad. If Nancy Drew met deviousness and deception with straightforward ingenuity and courage rather than moral compromise, our new heroine fights fire with fire, adopting the tactics of the enemy. On the outside she looks and acts like Nancy Drew. On the inside, she's follows the game plan of the morally bankrupt and ruthless Graysons.

I think this doubleness says something about the world we live in. No longer does it seem as if we can win following the straight ethical path. In The Sopranos, Carmela, wife of the Mafia boss, finally decides that what the Mafia does, while deplorable, is no different, morally, from the ways and means of the "legitimate" rich--it's all a rip off of the weaker. In Breaking Bad, high school teacher Walter White leaves the straight and narrow after a cancer diagnosis--and an inability to afford "good" treatments--convince him that only an illegal meth business, predicated on murder and exploitation, will get him ahead. Emily views the world through a hard Machiavellian lens of treachery that justifies lies, deception and cheating.

All three shows problematize their characters' actions. Emily's friends have increasingly challenged her quest for revenge and what it is doing to her, as well as the damage--and even death--it has caused innocent people. But none of these series offer an alternative to behavior that we might label evil--behavior that causes death and the destruction of lives. None of them challenges the basic premises under which our society operates. I also think it's not by accident that the more recent series, clearly aimed at white audiences, have chosen WASPs as their problematized protagonists: Walter White, blond haired Nancy Drew clone Emily Thorne.

Everyman gone bad: Walter White

If our arts--literature, movies, drama, painting--show us the part of ourselves as a society that we don't want to see, we might say that these series show us in dire straits: we've lost our moorings. Is it a measure of how powerless we feel that we can only imagine amassing power through cruelty, subterfuge and violence?

One could argue that in all these series, hardness, with its focus on the quick fix and ego aggrandizement, has become the substitute for strength. But more on that next time.

I am interested in what others might think. When did values Quakers stand for: lack of duplicity, honesty, straight dealing, peace and forgiveness, become laughable? What do we as Quakers--mostly WASP, most white, but definitely grounded in an alternative morality--have to say to the culture at large?

Saturday, September 20, 2014

On book contracts and dissertations

Far be it for me to use a cliche, yet I will: it never rains but it pours. As many of you know, not long ago I signed a contract with Cascade for my book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. At the same time, I received formal acceptance into the University of Birmingham to write a dissertation on Quaker literature.

As I wrote to one friend, signing a book contract feels akin to having a baby. Jane Austen called Pride and Prejudice her "darling child," and I understand the sentiment. Cascade had my manuscript for a longer time than I anticipated while outside scholars read it (they did give it, apparently, an enthusiastic response), and by the summer I had gotten half frantic about it: Would my darling  child ever be born?  Needless to say, the thumbs up from Cascade brought not only pleasure, but relief.

I had walked away from graduate school several decades ago, before the dissertation. I had even passed my oral exams. I needed--or thought I needed--to  leave at the time. Now, however, that unfinished business has been weighing on me. Now I have a chance to finish, working as a distance student and spending two long summers in residence in England. I am grateful for the opportunity.

If the book has the feeling of the "sword in the stone" archetype--and I am convinced now that Arthur came to the throne later in life, not as a young man--the dissertation fits the Oedipus paradigm, not in the Freudian sense, but in terms of the difficulty of escaping one's destiny. I ran from academe for two decades and when I arrived back in its arms at Earlham School of Religion almost five years ago, what I least expected was to end up ... in academe. I thought I would explore careers in conflict resolution or find a job doing good work on the Gaza strip or in a city--or work for AFSC. Well, no. What was I thinking? The moment I got back, I fell more wholly in love than I had the first time. From the moment I met Ben Dandelion, touting the Birmingham program, I knew.

Yet I hesitate at the altar, in my wedding clothes so to speak, and truth be told, dear Reader, the issue is money. I am in my 50s. The ship of a career in academe, beyond the kind of adjunct work I now do, has long since sailed. This project falls into the category unfinished business, of meeting a destiny I can't seem to escape. I can't expect a return on this as an investment. I hesitate at the door of the plane--do I jump? Do I spend the money?  My parents paid my undergraduate tuition in the days when such expenses were affordable, and I earned the graduate degrees in English and religion on assistanceship and scholarship--but now, the piper must be paid. This is the logical price of doing things out of sync. Do I pay? Do I like, Tess and Alec in Hardy's novel, pay to the last farthing? And yet how can I not do this? I have been through clearness committees--but clearness committees are  not divine.

The intense emotional upheavals brought on by a book contract and a dissertation have led me to fall back deeply into the spiritual life.  I realize none of this is that important in the larger scheme and that wisdom helps keep me grounded. What is important to walk humbly and attend to God, to try to be a whole, if flawed, human being. Yet I have to make a decision and soon, a decision based on money, and I find myself caught between two fears: fears that I will later need money and not have it weighed against the fear I will end up bitter and full of regrets if I don't do this thing. I would like to find the path of love through this, the path that offers true guidance. What, I keep wondering, is money for? What matters?  What does it mean to pay Caesar what is Caesar's and God what is God's? What is good stewardship of resources--resources that go beyond, but surely include, money? Why do I worry so when other people were willing to crash an entire world economy to earn a few more millions they don't need? When women of my age and class spend more on remodeled kitchens or luxury cars than I would on this degree?  When do we hold on to money? When do we let it go?

Friday, August 8, 2014

Report from OYM: Breaking Down the Hedge ... Loaves and Fishes

Do we have enough? At Ohio Yearly Meeting Conservative* this week we we discussed vision, addressing the question: What are we called to do corporately as a people of God? I hope we can continue this conversation and that more participate, including those outside the fold. 

A strong sense of the way forward came out of my small group. This echoed an inner voice I have been hearing: We need to break down the hedge. Since the eighteenth century, Quakers have tended often to  "hedge" themselves against an evil world in order to maintain their traditions and purity. 

Admittedly, protecting ourselves is important--and our spiritual home ideally functions as a place of comfort and acceptance. However, a spiritual home, like a family, exists, as we mature, as a place where we find support and nurture, including food and shelter, so that we can go out into the world and do our work. From the beginning, from the story of Adam and Eve in the garden, we have been called to work. Their work in the garden was good and balanced and literally fruitful, for they tended plants and trees. Our work may be more problematic, but we are still called to it. If we are a family that never or seldom leaves the house, people might rightly label us dysfunctional or mentally ill.

Numbers have dwindled in  OYM, and we tend to stay in our old-fashioned house. When we invite people in, we assume they want to be fixed to become good members of our family. We tell them all about ourselves as Quakers but don't ask them much about themselves. Rather than learn from them, we want to teach them how to be like us. Not surprisingly, few people respond to our invitation. 

Nevertheless, and for all our blunders, we represent a form of Christianity with a message that the world desperately needs. We are not the Christianity of power, politics and prestige that Dorothy Sollee has deemed "Christo-fascism." Instead, we are a group following a gentle agent of peace and forgiveness who cared for the broken and called them his friends. In a society in which it seems the first, second and last solution to any problem is violence, where screaming voices repeat the same soul-killing messages, and where cynicism routinely trumps idealism, Quakers can pour out a healing witness of peace, quiet and gentleness.

Then why is it so hard for us to venture out into the world?

As I flipped through Patheos blogs this morning, I came across "The Sarcastic Lutheran." In it, Nadia Bolz Weber blogs on the parable of the Loaves and the Fishes:  

If Quakers can bear to learn from a Lutheran, Nadia's insights offer wisdom. (As an aside, even Nadia talks of her own cynicism: it is pervasisve.)

Why were the the disciples afraid a few loaves and fishes weren't "enough" to feed the 5,000? Clearly, the numbers didn't add up, but beyond that perhaps the disciples felt more comfortable in a cozy corner off with Jesus and didn't want to mess up the arrangement by inviting strangers to share. They wanted to be a clique.

Or perhaps, Bolz Weber says, the disciples perhaps, unconsciously, experienced "greed ... They wanted to keep their food (and their church) and their Jesus all to themselves" As Quakers, we don't think of our inwardness as greedy, but I imagine a strong case could be made that it is. 

Or, perhaps, says Nadia, the disciples experienced a "total lack of imagination ....The old sin of thinking that all there is is all there is."
The reality is, there's always more than we have or think we have. The Divine source offers abundance. 

I also wonder if pride doesn't enter the equation. Quakers are often so proud of being Quakers. Do we want to face that in the wide world people might not be in the least impressed? 

I hope Quakers--myself included-- can hold onto the truth that there's always more than what we have and feel bold to step outside of the hedge. But how? What is our first step?

*Conservative indicates conserving a tradition, not a political stance.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Quaker Ponies, Part II: I have called you friends

"I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you". John 15:15
"If you meet me in the road, kill me." Buddha to his disciples

I remember an evening years ago on the porch of my Quaker meeting house in Maryland, discussing Thomas Kelly's A Testament of Devotion. A well-respected Quaker said she couldn't decide her opinion of the book. Why not, we asked? She would have to meet Thomas Kelly first, she said, and evaluate the man before she could evaluate his work. 

This, I think, lies at the heart at what encourages Quaker "poniness." A Quaker "pony"--pony rhymes with another word--is someone who professes more than he or she possesses, someone who pretends.

Poniness particularly stabs at the heart of Quakerism because we stake so much on integrity. Much of our identity lies in plain speaking and honest acting, saying what we mean and meaning what we say. We strive to be the same inside as out. 

But in a faith group that levels hierarchy, that has no paid priesthood and no accepted path to ordination that sets some apart as leaders and sages, we face the same problem as the Friend who didn't know what to think of Thomas Kelly: How do we decide who to emulate?  Whose wisdom should we trust and follow? How do we find our elders, mentors, and wise counselors?

In absence of other criteria, it often comes down to personality and presentation. Who presents best as a Quaker? Which person seems like one of us? Who most conforms to our image of what a wise or weighty Quaker should be? 

If you have been around Quakers any length of time, you know how a wise, weighty Friend is supposed to look, dress and sound. Weighty Friends speak in a quiet voice, reflecting the peace inside their souls. (How many times do elderly Friends have to ask weighty Friends to speak up?) Weighty Friends are serious and filled with gravitas. They speak slowly. They support the right kind of causes, preferably heavily tilted toward the ecological and social justice. They use the right language of Light, Peace and Love. They clerk Quaker committees. Ideally, they show up to conferences in a Priuses--or having hiked or biked with their tent in tow and wearing all natural fabrics.

Woe to the woman who wears too much makeup. Woe to the man who drives up in a Cadillac or talks too fast. Woe to John Woolman when he showed up in a white hat when white hats were disdained as a worldly fashion statement. His fellow Quakers condemned him on appearances, although he was following the simplicity testimony.

When everything rides on how you outwardly present, the temptation to become a "pony" can become intense. 

But how do we discern our mentors and elders if not by how they present--doesn't the mature soul in touch with the Divine Source shine outward like a light? Yes--and so do ponies. 

At a conference I recently attended, someone came into a workshop all aglow and announced with great excitement she had just found a new "mentor" to "guide her." The mentor, I thought, looked very much like her. Is she creating an echo chamber, I wondered, surrounding herself with people who mirror back herself?  How, after all, at the end of a one-day workshop could she know the soul--really know the soul--of a person she'd just met? Wasn't she responding, however sincerely, to an appearance?

Herein lies the real issue: should we be looking for elders or mentors at all? Some might rise up naturally to fill that role--but should we be seeking these people or trying, self-consciously, to be that person? After all, didn't Jesus himself explicitly shed that role? Didn't he tell his disciples, in plain language, don't look to me as master or mentor, but look to me as a friend? Didn't he say he had already given the disciples-- us-- what they/we needed? Didn't Buddha command his own followers to do essentially what Jesus enacted: If you see me in the road, kill me? Jesus let himself be killed. Buddha commanded, "kill me." 

Jesus said treat me as a friend, not a superior. Don't we need to pay attention to what he was trying to communicate?

Both Jesus and Buddha told people to be real. "I have called you friends" is simply a continuation of Jesus' admonition that his disciples not be constantly jockeying for position. To jockey for position almost inevitably leads us to become ponies. Because in the end, humbling as it might be, we're really not better than anyone else.

I admit to a certain weariness in attending Quaker events where people either try to be elders or hunt out elders. We border at times perilously close to a cult of personality. How much desperately needed wisdom and guidance do we miss because we spend too much time evaluating what "we" think of person A, instead of listening to what that person has to say? What if Thomas Kelly actually had been a jerk: Does that mean God couldn't use him as a messenger? Mightn't we have been called on the love him all the more?

The real secret hidden in plain sight is that we all fail and soar at times. No one can possibly be an elder every single of second of his life and nobody who relies wholly on another human can fail to be disappointed. 

But we can all be friends.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Could this explain Quaker stagnation?

This is from, originally from a Washington Post story. People would apparently rather give themselves electric shocks than sit with their own thoughts.

One caveat may make this study flawed: More men than women gave themselves repeated electric shocks. I wonder, given the machismo in our society, if the men--and some women-- actually got engaged in testing their pain endurance. In other words, was sitting in silence so odious that they would hurt themselves to avoid it or was sitting in silence not so bad, but less interesting than the  positive reinforcement feedback loop--a proof of masculinity (even in women)--created in withstanding repeated shocks? Were the participants so desperate to avoid their own thoughts they would do anything to escape them--or was the shocking a fascinating test?

"The experiment was simple. All the participants had to do was enter an empty room, sit down, and think for six to 15 minutes. But without a cellphone, a book, or a television screen to stare at, the assignment quickly became too much to handle. In fact, even when individuals were given time to "prepare" for being alone — meaning that they were able to plan what they would think about during their moments of solitude — the participants still "found it hard," Timothy Wilson, a psychologist at the University of Virginia and lead author of the study, told The Washington Post. "People didn’t like it much."

So the researchers decided to give each participant the option of doing something else, besides just thinking. But what they came up with wasn’t exactly pleasant because, instead of just sitting there, participants were now also allowed to shock themselves as many times as they liked with a device containing a 9 volt battery. Still, for many, that option seemed like a better deal.
Most of the people who decided to shock themselves did so seven times. These results baffled the researchers. "I mean, no one was going to shock themselves by choice," Wilson, told The Washington Post in reference to his initial position during the conception of the study, published yesterday in Science. One man even gave himself 190 electric shocks over a period of 15 minutes, Wilson told The Atlantic, but his data points weren’t included in the final analysis. "I’m still just puzzled by that."

Still, the fact that they chose to shock themselves at all, on their own, was unexpected. And this had nothing to do with curiosity about what the shocks would feel like, because the researchers made sure that each individual received a shock before the beginning of the session.
Yet, people voluntarily shocking themselves repeatedly wasn’t the only surprise. According to the researchers, men showed a marked preference for the negative stimulation. Out of 24 women, only six decided to shock themselves, but 12 out of the 18 male participants figured electric shocks were worthwhile. This, the researchers hypothesize, might have to do with the fact that men appear to be more willing to take risks for the sake of a intense and complex experiences than women.
The results of this study are tentative, however, and the sample sizes — a total of 11 experiments that included between 40 and 100 university students each — were fairly small, so researchers will need to repeat them. But for now, it would appear that humans, especially men, seem to prefer receiving negative, even painful stimulation, to suffering through the bouts of obligatory "mind-wandering" — which you could also call "boredom," depending on how you want to look at it."

The study was very small too. Yet if people can't bear sitting with their own thoughts--or in the Inner Light--for even a few minutes, this is food for thought. I believe the world desperately needs to get still and sit in the Light, but it may be that we are throwing people who really can't swim into the deep end of the pool without a life preserver when we ask them to jump into an hour of silence. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Ethics and Education: Dreaming of a better way

Why are there not more higher education conferences that bring together instructors across disciplines to discuss the ethics of education? How do we overcome our cynicism to make this possible?

Last Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Roger and I attended the Friends Association for Higher Education Conference, held this year at Haverford College. The theme was "Exploring Right Relationships."

From the moment of the plenary address Friday morning, on justice, given by Sarah Willie-LeBreton, I knew I had arrived at the right place. How do we bring as many people as possible to the table?

The Haverford campus is exceptionally beautiful: but why not a place
 like this for every student in the United States? 

The Haverford campus is especially beautiful, breathtakingly so. But part of me wonders: all this privilege for 1,200 students? I am glad those who attend the college can do so--I know some of these students--but I echo a question that ran through the conference: how do we promote the best sort of education, one that like Haverford's addresses the whole person? Instead of constant budget cuts and degrading facilities, lack of staff and resources, why not envision a United States dotted every few miles with such beautiful campuses as Haverford's serving K-12, not to mention college students? In the age of the one-room schoolhouse, the modern high school with multiple classrooms, a library, science labs, art rooms, stages, gyms and showers must have seemed as much a dream, if not more so. And yet at one time, we managed that leap forward. We are so much richer a country now: if we wanted to do, we could leap forward again. Yet all I hear are the voices shouting this down. 

Conversations at the conference offered hope. Every session I attended was excellent, but three stand out. Philosophy professor Laura J. Rediehs led a workshop based on an essay she wrote that the won a 2012 Carnegie foundation award answering the question: What is the  biggest problem facing the world today?

She wrote that our problems stem from using economics rather than ethics as the primary basis for decision making. She invited all of us into a discussion about how to bring ethics back into first place, especially in education, where getting a good job currently seems to be the only rationale for going to college.  

Her essay can be found here: The other essays that won along with hers were also good, I thought. I am planning now to use these essays in a course I will teach later in the summer. 

Julie Meadows, who shared a session with me, spoke of people advancing in academe by tearing other people down. Why is the academic world so cynical? Why can't we build on the foundation of each other's work, she asked? Having done my share of tearing down, I am thinking about what she had to say: certainly we need to hold each other to rigorous standards, but can we find more creative and supportive ways to do so?

Jeffrey Dudiak talked about getting beyond modernist perceptions of Quakerism that permeate both liberal and orthodox Friends to arrive at a wisdom that bridges our divides. 

I found the conference's meetings for worship Spirit-led and Spirit-suffused. Being in such a love-saturated environment helped me to recognize what a routinely cynical world I inhabit--so routine that it seems "normal" to constantly puncture everything. But it is deranged to live this way, so quick to knock down everything, a symptom, I think, of our profound fear of hope--and  I am part of the problem. My hope--and I will have hope, foolish as it sounds, is that some of spirit of possibility, of realistic sincerity, of a way forward that dreams of abundance for everyone, can be infused into this weary world. 

Yet I want to raise the question: how do we get beyond the cynicism that permeates our discourse? 

Monday, June 2, 2014

In Bruges: A Quakerly movie

At a critical point in Martin McDonagh's 2008 comedy In Bruges, one of the hit men lays down his gun.  It's a moment of complete surrender and the culmination of a transformation: this man refuses to participate in the cycle of "kill or be killed" that has defined his life.

Two hitmen are sent to Bruges. The city is a character.

Beneath its comic surface--and it can appreciated merely as a funny movie--In Bruges emerges as profoundly spiritual.  

The plot jumps into motion when the "boss" sends two Irish hit men, one remarkably dense, to Bruges, in Belgium, to escape after a hit gone awry. Bruges during the Christmas season enwraps the twosome in a magical setting of canals and churches. Repeatedly referred to as a "fairytale city," Bruges becomes a place where a fairytale--or more precisely, parable--will be enacted, one that raises profound questions about life and death, guilt and innocence, hell and redemption. The Bruges setting, a medieval city replete with churches and Christian artwork that the killers "kill" time viewing, becomes a part of the film's religious mediation. The much maligned Western tradition has riches to offer us, and, literally, a new perspective, if only we have eyes to see. 

In In Bruges, paintings become part of the story. This is Bosch's Last Judgment, which our "heroes" talk about. Western civilization has a tradition to offer us. Not by accident is the movie set at Christmastime. 

I don't want to provide spoilers or give away what makes the movie compelling, as I hope people will watch it. It is worth seeing if only for the lovely Bruges, the scenes set within the jarring context of a diminished language that fails to blind us to its beauty.

In a particularly Christlike sequence, one person dies to save another--an other who some might say has no right to live. We die for other people, the movie says, not because of the past--the past is never worth dying for--but for the sake of a future we cannot see and which may never come to be.  

Though far better, this movie reminded me of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Both are whimsical comedies in fairytale settings, where scenery evokes far more than it says. But Budapest sadly lacks Bruges humanity. Bruges, like Budapest, comes from a male perspective--women in Bruges are sex objects (pregnant, prostitutes, or sexually available young women)--but unlike in Budapest, they are not held up to ridicule or cruelty. Ironic, though the movie is about hitmen, we never see casual killing in Bruges. In Budapest we do, when a group of prison guards are murdered without a second thought, though as part of madcap, "light-hearted" prison break caper. Budapest, too, though named for a city, exists in a location out of place and time, an ephemeral moral limbo. 

Women are sex objects in In Bruges, but are not humiliated.

 Bruges, in contrast, is located precisely in history. It reflects on life and death--and suggests, through the rich medieval paintings it shows, that Bruges offers a the perceptive viewer an entree into the West's long meditation on meaning--and even, subversively, hints at the reality of hell.

But it is not a movie about fire and brimstone--it is a movie about hope.  

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Quaker "Ponies" part I

Let’s say that every summer Roger and I go to a Quaker “camp.” Every summer, “George,” let’s say, greets me with a smile and big hug. He remembers the names of my three children and asks after them. Then he sits down with me in one of the pairs of  colorful Adirondack chairs scattered around the camp’s lawn and asks how I am doing—and I tell him. He listens intently, nods sympathetically.

Naturally, I like George. But by year three at this camp, I begin to notice something: George’s friendly greeting seems, well, canned: same smile, same hug, same exact question about my three children and same period of seemingly intent listening in the Adirondack chairs. Everything's fine, but our relationship seems just as distant as it was when we first met, as if George is using all his friendliness to try to keep me at bay. 

That year, George invites a popular group of people to go into the nearby mountain town to listen to a talk about poetry. I am standing there too—and George, after all our conversations, surely remembers I am a literature person—but he pointedly doesn’t invite me after carefully inviting everyone else by name. Does he not want me to come or has he forgotten after all our conversations that I would love to go to a talk on Auden? Either way, I wander off.  

A week later, back at home, over breakfast, I ask Roger about George, knowing that Roger has always instinctively veered away from him. “He’s so friendly to me at the camp," I begin, "but I also start to get the impression he could care less if I lived or died. He always wants to hear what I have to say—and even got me an alternative to blueberry muffins the first year  [I am allergic to blueberries]—but he doesn’t seem to see me as a real person. Why does he do this? Why does he always act so glad to see me, almost overjoyed, if he doesn’t care about me? Why bother? I am no power. I am a nobody. I am not a weighty Friend.”

Roger stares at me as if to say, “how could somebody so smart be so stupid?” “Don’t you get it?” he asks.


“George is a word that rhymes with pony.”

A word that rhymes with pony. “Oh. That word.”

“Yes. A Quaker pony.”

It all falls into place. George is a good guy, but ultimately, at least in relating to me, he is a  … pony. And I realize he is not the only Quaker pony I've met. 

I think about this for a long time because I wonder why it is so hard for me to connect Quakers with  … ponyness. I wonder if I, too, am unwittingly, a pony.  It occurs to me that perhaps this is especially a concern for Quakers to grapple with, as “professing what you don’t possess--” another formulation for being a “pony”-- is particularly at odds with the Quaker testimony of plain speaking and plain dealing. So why do we do it? Why aren't we more honest? And yet ...

I think back, however, to a few summers ago at the same camp, when a cosseted young birthright Friend responded to a new Friend by stating “You know what? I don’t like you.” This new person, although good-hearted soul, had a nervous habit of saying borderline mean things as “jokes.” The Friend was right to be annoyed, but telling him she didn’t like him, if honest, was hurtful and not helpful. (It might have been better to say I don’t like it when you tell those ”jokes.”) In any case, an awkward few seconds passed, everyone as riveted as if she had slapped him, until he saved himself through abjection, saying, “You wouldn’t be the first one not to like me.”

So, “letting it all hang out” can also be destructive to community. Civility, gentleness and compassion matter. Surely we want to avoid being brutal, cruel and thoughtless.

But as I think back to “George,” I wonder, if, as is clear, he was fairly indifferent to me—which is fine, as we can’t all love everybody—why he went out of his way to pretend otherwise, to offer what might be deemed an excess of civility?

More next time, but any insights are welcome.

End of part I

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Thee or Thou continued

Ask and ye (or you) shall receive. Not only have Micah Bales and Marshall Massey offered wisdom, Gerald Grant provides a link to a 1938 article by Kenneth Morse that seems the definitive word on plain speaking grammar at:

Kenneth Morse in plain dress 1944.
HT: Quaker Jane, who also provided the link to his article.
Morse taught at Olney Friends School.

The consensus--or unity--position seems to be that Quaker plain speech derives from a northern English dialect that never used thou as a subject. As do plain speaking Quakers today, the Yorkshire people used thee for both subject and object and conjugated the corresponding verb in the third person singular. So, the phrase "Is thee going to the meeting?" is entirely grammatical within the context of this dialect.

Yorkshire, where "thee" reigned supreme.

The "thou art" formulations of the King James bible derive from the Midlands dialect.

The King James bible does not use Quaker plain speech.

I found Morse's article quite interesting.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Belle, racism, Quakers, Austen

In Amma Asante's movie Belle, as in history, Dido Elizabeth Belle is the mixed-race daughter of a white English admiral. A relative, Lord Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice of Britain, raises Dido as a lady, and almost, but not quite, an equal to whites. (Fit for Freedom, not for Friendship, the book documenting that ambivalent relationship of white abolitionist Quakers in America to blacks comes to mind as one watches the film.) I find Belle an important movie.

A portrait of Dido Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray,
portrayed in the movie as Dido's cousin, inspired Asante to make the film.
The portrait depicts both Dido and Elizabeth dressed in silks and jewelry,
posed as equals, unlike most depictions of blacks gazing adoringly at whites.

On a discussion list I participate in, WomenWritersthroughtheAges, one person commented that she found the film a whitewash: it presents an individual act of compassion toward a black person in a way that shows whites off well and glosses over the systemic horror of slavery.  At times, I too felt I was peering through the looking glass into a Wonderland that never existed, a place too good, the  "picture of perfection" that Jane Austen said in a letter to her niece, "make[s] me sick and wicked." 

Dido with Lord Mansfield at his almost impossibly beautiful English estate.

And yet the movie doesn't exonerate whites on the issue of slavery, for central to the story is the horrific reality of the Zong, a slave ship that carried too many Africans with too little crew. Realizing that much of the "cargo" was diseased and might die or be unsaleable, the ship's captain had the blacks chained together and thrown into the ocean to drown. That way the stakeholders could collect the insurance money, which would be unavailable should the Africans die or be too sick to sell after landing.

This illustrates the Zong, though here the captives are not chained together. The movie never depicts the massacre.

The insurance company, however, refuses to pay, asserting the ship's crew had no business throwing out a valuable cargo to collect the insurance. The ship owners counter that drinking water had been in short supply and the crew had to jettison the Africans to save themselves. A lower court decides in favor of the ship owners and the insurance company appeals, leading the case to land in the hands of Lord Mansfield, Dido's guardian.

Thus, an immoral act, perpetrated in pursuit of profit, supported as legal by the lower courts, becomes central to the movie. The uncertainty about whether or not justice will triumph over a legal system weighted to protect property rights emerges as the core conflict of the film. As soon as the legal case enters, it becomes difficult to retreat from the horror of systemic injustice into the rarified world of the English upper class, for the horror is at the core of what supports the wealthy and leisured. 

The film highlights systemic racial injustice, for it never suggests this mass murder is a rogue incident, as was the case, say, presented about the Abu Ghraib torture: Belle emphasizes that the drowning incident emerges from a larger system of injustice. Further, the drowning incident ties racism explicitly to the profit motive. Never does the movie leave us in any doubt that pursuit of money motivates the unspeakable cruelty that occurs. And going even further, the movie explicitly states that not only is  pursuit of profit a goal of the ship owners, as well as the insurance company, but the nation as a whole. We do not witness a case about a greedy shipowner versus a greedy insurance company, but glimpse a narrative about the basis of Britain's wealth. The movie makes explicit that many found it justifiable to ruthlessly drown hundreds of innocent people to support Britannia's comfort and prosperity. Thus, the movie ties racist ideology to a pursuit of profit that knows no humane bounds. We have racism, the movie says,  because it is profitable. This is important to note, because we often are led to believe that racism is either inherent or something that fell out of the sky. It bears repeating that money is behind racism.

Belle and Elizabeth lead a beautiful life supported by the slave trade.

Quakers are actually mentioned once in the movie. During the court scene in which Lord Mansfield decides the Zong case, someone worries that Quakers will "infiltrate" the courtroom. While that was unlikely, the 1783 case was important to Quaker history for it finally inspired London Yearly Meeting to formally oppose the slave trade. The meeting presented an anti-slave trade petition signed by 273 Friends to Parliament that year. One wonders what took the British Quakers so long, but as Howard D. Weinbrot outlines in his book Literature, Religion and the Evolution of Culture, the English in the eighteenth century feared the Quakers, along with other Dissenters, Jews and Catholics as the kind of "infiltraters" the movie alludes to, ready to subvert the British order and substitute an alien social system. One can imagine the Quakers spending much of the eighteenth century trying to convince the general population that they were not plotting the next revolution, and only near the end of the century--at least, before the French Revolution--being ready to jump into the abolition cause.

American Quaker Benezet travelled to England to campaign against the slave trade. 

Getting back to Belle, the domestic drama mirrors the national drama. On the domestic scene,  as on the mercantile, money is what counts, and the movie likens the marriage market to the slave market.

Belle has a large inheritance: despite being black, she gets a marriage offer from the second son of a landed, aristocratic family almost immediately upon coming out. In contrast, the white, and not just white, but fair skinned, blond, blue-eyed Elizabeth is rejected by the older son of the same family when it becomes clear she has no dowry. As soon as money comes into the picture, comically, the mother of the landed family immediately becomes not a racist. 

However, race speaks too: clearly, the family Belle proposes to marry into will treat her as second class. Like the slave traders, the landed family is out to strip Dido of her wealth and the movie strongly suggests that the older son will brutally rape her as soon as the opportunity arises.  Money, whether through the marriage market or the slave trade, draws darker and lighter skinned people together, and yet, as long as exploitation is the white person's motivator, blacks will get the worst of it. The domestic drama works tightly to underscore the national story. Only as Belle meets someone, who like her, wants something other than money can a better domestic future be imagined for Belle. Systemically, only as Lord Mansfield, albeit for ostensibly non-idealistic and narrow reasons, sides with the insurers (though the movie strongly implies he is influenced by moral concerns) do we get cracks in a system of legal injustice.

The movie strongly suggests that the older brother of Dido's fiance will brutally rape her, given the chance. The older brother is the shorter figure on the left. The fiance,  on the right, will marry her for her money.

The movie has been likened to a Jane Austen novel, and we can see the parallels, especially to Mansfield Park, in a young girl adopted into a wealthy family as a not quite equal. We can see too the concern for money, especially on the marriage market, as reminiscent of Austen. More importantly, Belle suggests Austen in all the ways minute domestic injustices can be read  as stand ins for larger social injustices. This movie be viewed as a feel good costume drama. It can be understood as a comforting, familiar narrative, in which whites, good and compassionate and moral, overturn the evils of racism on both systemic and personal levels. Or it can be read as troubling drama in which the profit motive is, both in the marriage market and the larger markets in which capital flows globally, the root of human misery. 

This profit motive still reigns supreme in the world today and continues to lead to ideologies that distort human relationships and community in truly grotesque ways. As with Austen's novels, Belle can be understood as much more subversive than its placid surface suggests. Unlike in Austen, however, Belle does explicitly (rather than implicitly) have a horror story at its heart.

As I watched the movie, I was reminded of the Gothic, for what could be more of a horror story than mass drowning the blacks, and I wondered to what extent eighteenth century Gothic expressed unspoken unease about the black Other. 

I was reminded too of Amazing Grace, the movie about Wilberforce, and of Spielberg's Lincoln. Lincoln and Belle seemed similar in depicting a dramatic moment in black emancipation within the context of a domestic drama, including the influence of blacks in the domestic environment. (If, as both movies posit, it takes a direct relationship with a person from an oppressed class for dominant class people to be influenced to do right thing (a premise I don't necessarily agree with) then let's bring on desegregation.) 

 I found the idealism and emotional intensity of Dido and Davanier compelling. Davanier is a young, poor law student who falls in love with Dido. Davanier is not a Quaker--in fact, he looks like an American minuteman in his blue coats with rows of brass buttons and unpowdered ponytail, but in his simplicity he suggests a Quaker-like alternative to the grander and more lavish upperclass life supported on human misery. His presence speaks to the importance of the simplicity testimony.

Davanier, who cares about people more than money, provides an alternative vision of what life can be.

I take away from this movie the need for an understanding of the context that supports unjust ideologies and the need to fight to change systems that perpetrate cruelty, no matter what the logic (and there always is a seemingly immutable logic) that justifies them. I also support the need for individual action. We need both: saving Dido from slavery was an important act of compassion, though no replacement for abolishing the slave system. Often, I hear that "personal" charity should replace systems of charity or conversely, hear that personal acts have no value; however, the answer is not either/or but both/and.

A question, however, arises. The movie is very Austenian in putting everything on a knife point. While the horrific drowning of the Africans lies at the center of the movie, we never see it enacted--we don't witness the chained slaves thrown overboard. The movie stays in England. The horror is thus both central and yet cerebral. The question becomes: does the movie make its point about the connection between greed/profit and horrific cruelty better by not showing us the image--would we tend to isolate the image from the larger context?--or would showing the image reinforce the movie's point?