Review: A Convergent Model of Renewal
By C. Wess Daniels. Wipf & Stock. Reviewed by Chuck Fager
A Convergent Model of Renewal: Remixing the Quaker Tradition in a Participatory Culture. C. Wess Daniels. Pickwick/Wipf & Stock Publishers. 224 pages. Paper, $21.60.
There’s more than little déjà vu about Wess Daniels’ book project. Quakerism, his book argues, will be renewed by the coming together of Friends from the fringes of the various branches, particularly younger members and seekers. Or as he puts it: “It could be said that convergent Friends signal the emergence of a new Quakerism that transgresses the boundaries of any one Quaker group.” (D 16f)
Why déjà vu? Such a sentence could have been written in the 1920s, either for young Friends in the Northeast, or the “All-Friends Conference” of 1928. Then again in the late 1940s through the 1950s for gatherings of Young Friends of North America (YFNA). Or in 1977 for the all-branch Friends gathering in Wichita. Or in 1985 and 2005, for the two World Gatherings of Young Friends, in Greensboro, North Carolina and Lancaster, England. Nor let us forget the YouthQuakes of the ’80s & ’90s. (And there were more.)
So such “New” Quakerisms have been heralded many times in North America in the past century.
These events and groups faced various obstacles, but were by no means all failures. For instance, along the way, they helped bring together the fractured Hicksite and Orthodox branches in the East, which was no mean feat. And without fanfare, some participants from various branches stayed in touch; a few even married; others collaborated as way opened, in war and peace.
Still, in two major respects these twentieth century pioneers did fail — first, by failing to be remembered; and thus we find this book continuing their erasure by looking back to the 1660s and the 1670s, but skipping over this long chain of more recent efforts as if it had never been forged. Too bad.
Their second “failure” was even more egregious, and the more offensive because it was unavoidable: the “New” Quakers of the 1920s grew old, as, in turn, did all their successors. And as those readers who are now “old” will know, we become steadily more invisible as the decades pass.
Ah well, we live in an amnesia-producing culture, where remembering much beyond this week’s mass-produced version of “reality” is an act of both resistance and dogged, unremitting effort. And the seeming fixation on youth, we ex-youth have now learned, has more to do with making sure each new mass market cohort is thoroughly trained and embedded in the consumer matrix before they can make other arrangements.
And so we come to the new “New Quakerism,” that of “Convergent Friends,” a trend that has been much talked about in recent years.
There have been gatherings, blogs, enthusiastic articles, and not a little ageist snark at us Old Fart Friends who have screwed things up so badly. The innovation here, as Robin Mohr, who is credited with coining the term, describes it, is that they are bringing together “Friends from the politically liberal end of the evangelical branch, the Christian end of the unprogrammed branch, and the more outgoing end of the Conservative branch.” (17)
Which is to say, they’re doing pretty much what their predecessors did, with a few novel twists such as social media. While it’s too bad they don’t seem to know or care much about earlier efforts, this doesn’t mean their impulses are unwarranted.
After all, many of the jabs at older Friends are on the mark: despite the labors of all the previous bands of New Quakers, the Society in North America, their “renewals” have not prevented many yearly meetings from hemorrhaging members. And even tho some Friends from the fringes of various branches have scaled the walls of division, most of the walls outside the Hicksite-Orthodox orbit not only remain, many American Quaker bodies seem to be facing a new round of divisions.
This is the case in Daniels’ own Northwest Yearly Meeting, where the current fault lines involve efforts to ward off any acceptance of LGBT persons, and to avoid any loosening of their evangelical doctrinal stance; and the outcome is by no means clear.
Daniels does not address this controversy specifically. But indirectly his agenda is clear: it’s time for these doctrines to be re-examined and “remixed” in a looser, more open form by a new generation, and as part of that process, for programmed Friends to get past the insistence on traditional heterosexuality as the only permissible way of life and love.
While reading his book, I kept wondering if his arguments seem likely to sway any of those now moving to expel heretics and sexual subversives from his and other groups. It’s not his fault that I doubt it very much.
But what about “renewal”? Can the Convergent Friends reverse the decline of numbers and perceived vitality in American Quakerism? Several of the more vocal convergents, whom Daniels lists, have occupied some key slots in the Quaker infrastructure: the editorship of Friends Journal, FWCC’s Section of the Americas, a handful of yearly meeting staff jobs, and in Quaker Voluntary Service, promising startup project. With Daniels’ book, they hoped to have a theoretician and a theory.
The underlying theory for his program is drawn from the work of philosopher Alasdair Macintyre, who sees “authentic” renewal coming from re-examination of a tradition’s history & key texts by “apprentices” who take it seriously but who are ready to revise it to cope with new cultural and historical challenges.
Daniels aims this counsel mainly at his evangelical establishmentarians whose grip on Quakerism’s actual history and “distinctives” is often so loose as to slide seamlessly into the Baptist or generic Wesleyan camps. But it applies just as well to the many liberals whose Quaker holy trinity boils down to Penn, Prius & NPR.
Daniels situates his new New Quakerism in today’s burgeoning “remix” and “participatory culture,” replete with social media. His treatment of this new environment is illuminating (if too long and repetitious). For him, the more Quaker remix, the more slicing and dicing of traditions into new sacred salads, the better, it appears.
I wonder. After a lot of razzmatazz about new media and “contextual theology,” the New Quakerism here looks mostly like an evangelicalism with a looser grip on doctrine and an openness to LGBT persons; or a liberalism whose “spiritual journey” brings it to a ghost town populated by dust-and-cobweb covered artifacts of Christianity and the Bible, presided over by a sheriff with initials JC, all of which turn out to be not quite the zombies the pilgrims were expecting.
All of which would be fine with me. But can the convergents bring it off? Unfortunately, there is as yet no hard data about how widespread convergent sentiment is, or if it has had any actual impact. And to fill this yawning blank, Daniels stakes his case on a single case study, that of Freedom Friends Church (FFC) in Salem, Oregon. And to speak plainly, to me itcame across as too weak a reed to bear the weight of his remixing ardor.
Freedom Friends is an independent, “semi-programmed, lightly pastored” church that was founded by two members of Northwest Yearly Meeting who wanted a church that would be open to LGBT folks, but remain identifiably Christian. And to be sure, FFC has been an interesting experiment, and I wish them well.
But Daniels presents it as the new convergent epitome. He sets up the profile by citing the dilemma articulated by John Punshon in his 1987 book Reasons for Hope about the decline in many evangelical Friends groups. Punshon said they’re failing because they don’t fill a “distinct niche” in the religious ecosystem, yet he insisted there was indeed such a niche — big one — just waiting to be filled, with Quaker “distinctives.” Wess identifies FFC as this distinctive turnaround niche-filler.
Except it isn’t: FFC started small, it has stayed small, and is declining, as indicated by its recent “State of the Church” reports. In the profile, Daniels featured a key member in a dramatic, several-page “convincement narrative.” But as the latest FFC report notes, that member is now gone: she committed suicide. There’s hardly anyone left.
Moreover, FFC’s high social media profile (Facebook page, website, blog, fast-selling Faith & Practice) is, well, not exactly special in 2015 – Friends meetings and churches all across the spectrum have them, and some (mainly among the traditional evangelicals) have plenty more gadgetry besides.
Indeed, while his treatment of today’s burgeoning “remix” and “participatory culture” is in many ways admirable, I wish he had taken it further, into some critical reflection on this frenetic, totalizing environment: is it really the church’s role to jump right in and get “contextualized” (i.e., swallowed up) in it? Or is this galloping techno-tsunami due for a word of judgment and challenge, along with the rest of a fallen creation? I hear occasional ambivalence and hesitation from other “Convergent” voices about all this; but not in these pages. I wonder.
Of course, experiments don’t need to “succeed” to be useful. And FFC’s salient features have been these: its independence; its openness to various gender, sexual and personal conditions; and its effort to maintain an authentic Christian Quaker identity while also being non-creedal and open to other theologies among its participants. This reviewer hopes these features can survive and spread, especially in the programmed and evangelical world, even if
FFC doesn’t. For that matter, if this combination is unique in their region, the elements are not unknown elsewhere. And maybe Daniels’ work can bring encouragement to other similarly-inclined groups far from Oregon.
To maximize this potential, however, the text needs a thorough proofreading and rewrite. Publisher Wipf & Stock did Daniels no favors in their editing, if in fact they did any editing at all. Regrettably, a plethora of gaffes gets in the text’s way throughout. As an editor-author, I know we are now in the era where being sticklers about grammar and typos is increasingly obsolete, and my own performance is by no means flawless. One even gets the sense that it is bad form for an older Quaker writer to chide a younger one about this; so call me hidebound or whatever.
But truth requires saying that this text is internally defaced beyond any scholarly work I have seen in a long time. If The Oxford Handbook of Quaker Studies, from Oxford University Press, had typos on practically every page (which it did; see QT#24 ), Daniels’ text has them in almost half the paragraphs. And not just typos: there are chronic grammar issues, such as frequent subject-verb disagreement, and jarring misspellings. The reader might pass by when John Bellers is rendered John “Bellars” once; but after the sixth occurrence, attention must be paid.
The text is also highly repetitive; it could be cut by half or more, and be tighter, more reader-friendly and persuasive.
It would be better still if the revisions could include a survey of the movement’s numerous predecessors, the greying ranks of ex-young “New Quakers”. While everything else about its future may still be uncertain, the one sure thing is these are the ranks they’ll soon be joining. If they’re very lucky, the next batch may even remember them; but they better not count on it.
[This is an excerpt from Quaker Theology #26, which has just been published in a hard copy edition, available for order here. The full issue will be uploaded to the Quaker Theology website shortly.]