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?