Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Quakers and literature, Game of Thrones and Virginia Woolf

Sadly, the recent shooting in Orlando makes an appropriate backdrop for my topic: the debut of new book on Quaker literature and the question of how we can move towards a more robust imagining of peace.

Quakers and Literature raises pertinent questions about the role of literature in society.

The anthology, Quakers in Literature, will be officially launched this month at the Friends Association for Higher Education Conference in Woodbrooke, England. I would like to praise this book and juxtapose it to my viewing of the series Game of Thrones.

A beheading on Game of Thrones. It's not uncommon: this beheader ends up beheaded, but the take-away isn't that violence is bad: the take-away is win at all costs. 

Game of Thrones, though not without its entertainment value, is characterized by cartoonish characters, cartoonish violence and cartoonish plots. Violence and ritual humiliation substitute the sensation of shock for genuine feeling. In this series, a viewer can get a faux emotional jolt or pay-off (of sorts) without a real emotional investment. 

The show is set is some other time period--it's fantasy--presumably very long ago. It's Roman European-esque in feel (and Middle-Eastern-esque)--pre-Christian certainly, but with a medieval overlay. The people are barbaric as a matter of course, and so are constantly chopping each other's heads off (or delving axes into people's brains) and perpetrating other acts of violence. 

The Hound learns that peacemaking is for losers. He goes out and kills a bunch of people to avenge the peacemakers.

Recently, a man named the Hound who was left for dead reemerged. He falls in with a wayward wandering group that has decided to renounce violence. Their leader even makes a strong statement about how more killing isn't going to stop they cycle of killing. Lest you think this might open an alternative path in the series, no ... all but the returned hero, who happens to be away when it happens, are slaughtered (not that there is the least question this will occur), and the man who made the speech about peace is found dangling, hanged. This is replayed in the next episode too, lest we missed the message: peacemaking leaves you dead. Peace is for losers. Losers, losers, losers. Kill or be killed. Strike first and hard or die. 

The message dunned into the audience week after week --as was done in The Sopranos and Breaking Bad and who knows how many other series--demonstrates that the most violent man wins. All religion is a scam or evil, so don't look to that for help. Strong woman are routinely humiliated--for example,  a queen,  Cersei, is subjected to one of the most intense scenes of ritual humiliation I have ever witnessed --as a penance imposed by a priest of some cult, she must walk naked through the streets of her city while being pelted with rotten vegetables and jeered at. 

Cersei dared to be strong: men get to see her naked and humiliate her. Rape and threat of rape are common tools used to control women on his show.

As a Quaker and also as a sane person, I find this constant messaging advocating ultra violence disturbing. Of course, as with all these programs, the producers can coyly say they are depicting something outside of the societal norms of our world.  Naturally, they say they don't condone this behavior. But, as with  he Sopranos and Breaking Bad, everything about the rhetoric of these programs DOES condone it. Real men are validated for being ruthlessly violent. Ruthless violence wins. Compassionate morality is baggage for weaklings and nonentities. Who needs the Nuremburg rallies to whip up the base when you have Game of Thrones?

Therefore, it was refreshing to read an essay by J. Ashley Foster on Virginia Woolf's peace stance and the Spanish Civil War from the Quakers and Literature book--it's long but well worth reading. 

Woolf looking pensive in 1939, the year World War II began.

According to this essay, Virginia Woolf was involved with Quakers, such as Kathleen Innes, who published through Hogarth Press, (Innes published four books on the League of Nations with Hogarth) and they all advocated for peace. This article cites, of course, Woolf's Three Guineas as a feminist peace essay, but argues that, more fundamentally, "pacifism is one of modernism's idioms." This pacifism is internationalist in nature (rejecting fascist nationalisms). Woolf herself envisioned a fictional "Outsider's Society" in  Three Guineas made up of the daughters of educated men who would work for peace. Foster sees the corollary of this in peace efforts that emerged during the Spanish Civil War.

We remember there was a time when many non-Quaker women, and I think of Eleanor Roosevelt,  believed that women had a particular role in promoting constructive peacemaking--building the conditions that would lead to peace that lasted through "justice and the rights of all."  Woolf's aunt, Caroline Stephens, was a feminist Quaker whose pacifism informed Woolf's feminism, and Roger Fry's sister Margery was a Quaker. Quakers published through the same presses and belonged to many of the same political organizations as the Woolfs and other modernists, and the Woolfs sold manuscript pages of Three Guineas to raise money to  aid Spanish Civil War refugees.

The Spanish Civil War

It was comforting to me to remember that Woolf, who I often think of primarily as a stylist, engaged in serious peace work and political work during the Spanish Civil War and to review her strong commitment to pacifism and her strong belief in the connection between peace and feminism. I remember too during this period (late 1933-early 1935) Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also in England, dedicated to pacifism and trying to build international coalitions to fight National Socialism, most notably at the Fano conference in 1934. I wonder if the Woolfs and Bonhoeffer ever brushed shoulders, but that's an aside--what I care about is that  intelligent women speak out for peace--and I can't help but wish for our own Outsiders group to push back against shows like Games of Thrones. 

I also can't help but think that the male producers of Game of Thrones (I looked up their bios and saw no sign of military experience) are advocating a warrior mentality and articulating a position that validates ruthless slaughter without having an actual experience of war themselves, which makes this program all the more dangerous. 

This brings me back to Quakers and Literature. It's no wonder that a culture that leans relentlessly on violence as the only authentic form of power would produce a constant stream of individuals who try to express power through slaughter or that they would be attracted to ISIS as the most ruthless group of all. A question I raise in my essay in Quakers and Literature, called "Quaker Literature: Is there such a thing?" is why Quakers have been sidelined into homespun, nostalgic domesticating fictions when so many serious issues confront us. Is this really a time for escapism? Or do we need to be concentrating more effort on a literature--fiction and non-fictional--that imagines solutions to our problems through a Quaker lens? After all, without an imagination, the people perish. I would argue that a culture that pornographically repeats violent images over and over again has lost its imagination and its mooring. We who look at it outside a perspective of violence--we the Outsiders--perhaps have a responsibility to pick up the work Woolf started and advocate more imaginatively for peace. Where can we start?

Friday, June 3, 2016

My new book

My book is out: The Doubled Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran theologian who resisted the Nazis and was executed for his complicity in the July 20, 1944  plot to assassinate Hitler. 

The focus of The Doubled Life is on reinserting women back into his life story, but possibly of more interest to readers at this site is Bonhoeffer's connection to Quakerism.  My writing of the book was informed by my Quakerism, which raised issues of women's silencing and equality for me as I began to research Bonhoeffer. Another connection to Quakers is in Bonhoeffer's similarities to Thomas Kelly:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Some theological similarities between Bonhoeffer and Quakers:

Pacificism (peace testimony): Although Bonhoeffer, no doubt with some anguish, got involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler, he was, as mentioned above, a pacifist. He felt, however, that so many people were suffering and dying that he had to sacrifice his own desire for moral purity. Violating his conscience was less important than saving others. He thus rejected Kantian moral absolutes. We continue to debate this decision.  

Living your beliefs in the here and now (integrity): Like the Quakers, Bonhoeffer didn't invest his faith in "airy notions" (though he was more overtly theological, probably, than the average Quaker) but strongly believed that Christianity was meant to be enacted now, today, in this world. For this reason, he embraced the Old Testament (what we now call the Hebrew Bible) because of its emphasis on finding God "in the center of the village." That was a radical move in Nazi Germany, which wanted to eradicate the Old Testament along with the Jews. Like the Quakers, for him faith was expressed in what you do, not in what you say. Despite his highly troubled relationship with his fiancee, Maria, he admired the many ways she lived out her beliefs in action. 

Religionless Christianity: Related to living in the here and now, Bonhoeffer, like the early Quakers, wanted a Christianity stripped of its cant. For him, Christianity came to be defined as prayer and action. The crisis in institutional Christianity he  experienced is on going today. 

The Inner Light isn't your conscience: Like the early Quakers, most notably Robert Barclay, Bonhoeffer rejected the notion of "let your conscience be your guide," understanding this as a way for people to set themselves up as God. Like the early Quakers, he was interested in the light (though he would not have used that term) as way of discerning and doing God's will in the world. 

Community and Simplicity: Bonhoeffer invested enormously in his believe in the power of community to shake off the Nazi yoke. He found his deepest fulfillment in the several dissident seminaries he founded. Life in these communities was lived very simply. 

Equality: Bonhoeffer might not meet the bar on the equality testimony as we understand it, as he was a product of a hierarchical and patriarchal culture. However, it's worth noting how profoundly he was influenced by the black church in Harlem in 1930-31 at a time when many Americans were blinded by racism. Further, near the end of his life, he embraced the idea of what might be called "the community of good people" that transcended notions of class. 
Some further Quaker/Bonhoeffer connections:

During the course of a year in Manhattan at Union Theological Seminary, Bonhoeffer met Jean Lasserre, a fellow seminarian and French pacifist. Bonhoeffer was converted into a Sermon-on-the-Mount Christian pacifist by the encounter. Bonhoeffer and Lasserre travelled to Mexico in 1931 and were asked to address a Quaker group there, as it was so unusual at that time for a German and a Frenchman to be friends, given the animosity World War I and its aftermath had bred between the two cultures. (I'd love to know more about the meeting these two had with Mexico Quakers.)

When Bonhoeffer decided to run a seminary, one of the models was Woodbrooke, in Birmingham, England. He imposed a period of silent worship on his his seminarians, with which they found difficult to cope. (Further, the Berlin Quaker meeting was active in helping Jews and others during the Nazi era. If Bonhoeffer had a connection with them, which is quite possible, it would necessarily be submerged.) 

Thomas Kelly's brother-in-law picked Bonhoeffer up in Manhattan when Bonhoeffer traveled there in June, 1939. 

Bonhoeffer was friends with Quaker physicist and pacifist, Herbert Jehle, whose peace-loving ideas were considered quite strange in 1930s Germany. After the war, Jehle named his children Dietrich and Eberhard, after Bonhoeffer and his best friend, Eberhard Bethge. Jehle also helped Bonhoeffer's fiancee, Maria, come to the U.S. after the war, where she studied at Bryn Mawr. 

Like many early Quakers, Bonhoeffer did jail time. Like a few Quakers, he was executed. 

Herbert Jehle, Quaker

I began the book at Earlham School of Religion. Without the Quakers and Brethren I met there, this book never would have gotten off the ground. 

For Bonhoeffer, at the end of the day, the personal was the theological and the theological was the personal. My book concentrates on the life, with all its flaws, as an expression of a lived theology during a period of war and totalitarianism. 

The book can be purchased through Amazon. A $9.99 kindle version is available. If you would like an actual copy, the best price ($30.40) is via Chris Graham at .

I hope you will read the book. I know it's expensive (and I signed a contract that more or less insured I won't make any money on it) but I would love it to be read and discussed. Many of the issues Bonhoeffer faced remain eerily relevant to our own times. In addition, one of Bonhoeffer's best friend Bethge's biggest disappointment after the war was his sense that the Lutheran Church in Germany simply wanted to return to "the day before" Hitler took power: it seemed to Bethge not to want to learn from the experience of Nazism. Do religious institutions suffer because they haven't fully come to grips with the modern world or the aftermath of World War II? 

More on the book at: