A**holes & Rabble Rousers: Comments for Jon Watts


Some thoughts on Quaker musician Jon Watts and his interview in the Fifth Month issue of Friends Journal . . . .

John Watts & FJ quotes marked as JW; Chuck Fager’s comments marked CF . . . .

JW: I went through Baltimore Yearly Meeting’s camping program and Young Friends program, and I also regularly attended the Friends General Conference summer gatherings. The attitude that I picked up in these programs taught me to mostly reject popular Christian theology (Jesus as Savior; the afterlife; anything resembling mainstream Christianity, really).

CF: I get that, and the general indictment is completely correct. But at least as far as the camps are concerned, that’s not all there is to it. I’m in the second generation of watching-shepherding my progeny go through the BYM camping program, and my conclusion is that it has more Quake-ish impact than one might think. It seems to tie many who have Quaker backgrounds to the Society in ways that last, tho they may also take a lot of time to sort out. Same goes for Friends Music Camp, which has a similar “no-Christianity-please-we’re-Friends” ethos, yet turns out fiercely loyal alumni.

All four of my kids went thru such camps, and now two grandkids. It’s left lasting marks on all of them; and two of my four kids have stayed with the RSOF explicitly; the other two have let me do my best to Quakerize their kids. I call that a good investment in Quaker formation, tho incomplete.

JW: After graduating from the Quaker Leadership Scholars Program at Guilford College, I had more of an understanding of the fundamental role of Christianity in shaping Quaker practice and so less of a knee-jerk rejection of anything Christian. I came to feel a bit under-tooled or misled by the Quaker institutions that had brought me up. I still share and respect a certain level of skepticism but generally feel that by rejecting Christianity altogether, we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

When I asked God what to do with the angst and rebelliousness I was feeling against the Liberal Quakerism that had raised me, I was given the song “Friend Speaks My Mind.” It is an anthem for Liberal FGC Quakerism—a love song, really.

CF: Again, without minimizing the “under-tooling” you were subjected to, I feel a need to point out that there is a “minority stream” in recent Quaker thought that has been grappling with this “baby-bathwater” thing for a good while. I’m an example of it, with a paper-trail going back more than 30 years. There are others. It’s been a disappointment for me that your generation, so far as I can discover, has not seriously engaged with this substantial body of work. I wouldn’t mind at all to see it critically examined, pointing up where it may fall short.

The lack of engagement here is not for me a sign of “rebelliousness and angst,” tho. Quite the contrary. It shows you all are in this respect almost fully socialized into and accommodated to this “under-tooling” Quaker culture. That’s because one of its most salient features is a rock-hard anti-intellectualism about religion, especially its own. That’s strange, given the level of multi-degreed folks among us. But it’s true. And the Guilford QLSP, for all its many virtues, doesn’t seem to make much of a dent in this attitude/culture.

The few YAFS who are making the trek to the Dandelion doctoral program in the UK may become the exceptions, but those who prove the rule. Not that everyone needs to become a major scholar of Quakerism. But when so many ignore the stacks of relevant writing and thinking on the shelves (and the net), and then complain that no one is helping them sort out their (and our) plight — well, frankly that looks more like slackerism to me than productive religious seeking and witness. Just sayin’.

JW: FRIENDS JOURNAL: How did that conversation [About your “Dance party” video] go? Were there any techniques you found to transform a conversation?

JON: I think this is a great question for modern Friends: how are we dialoguing on the Internet about our faith? When you read the comments on YouTube, you’ll often find that they dissolve into bitter bickering. Quakers aren’t really the exception online.

CF: You’re right, but my experience with Facebook, the other major platform, is more positive. Yes there are flame ups, clashing stereotypes, wandering threads, some messes and too many cute cat photos (of which I’ve uploaded my share). But I’ve also had many good conversations there across lines of both theology and generation with thoughtful Friends, not only in the US but as far away as Australia. And some have involved actual information exchange, not just “I FEEL this” or “I FEEL that.”

I don’t know where all this talk is going. It’s not a “program” started by some well-meaning “ministry” (thank god). But it feels good and promising. So I resonate to your comment that

JW: I’m trying to be patient with it, because I think that we should be dialoguing between branches. We have something to learn from one another.

CF: You add, correctly, that

JW: Quakerism has always been a microcosm of the wider culture, which is currently bitterly divided between religious folks and secular humanists. So imagine how powerful Quakerism could be for modeling a loving conversation between those who deeply believe in Christianity and those who have been deeply hurt by it or feel dismissive of it! This is God’s invitation to us: to be witnesses to abundant love by letting it flow in the most difficult circumstances— when our house is divided.

CF: Yet I think this diagnosis, while good as far as it goes, is significantly incomplete. Our culture is also divided in another way that I think crucial: between those who remember, and those who are accepting of the amnesia that our media culture invisibly enforces. (An example: this morning’s paper has a piece by a columnist who told some buddies about plans to go to Normandy in France for a commemoration of the US invasion there during World War Two. His buddies didn’t know what he was talking about. Many other examples could be cited.) This is evident every day among my Quaker contacts.

This pervasive amnesia is a key to our present plight: on one side, it leaves us at the mercy of the false, oppressive narratives of the Establishment and its media. On the other, it deprives us of access to the alternative stories of our tradition, which can challenge and undermine the Official Story. That happens, though, above all via the retrieval and claiming of memory, in our case especially that of our Quaker subculture.

This amnesia runs the spectrum from left to right, Christian and secular, but I’m most concerned with its impact on the RSOF in its various manifestations.

The struggle against this amnesia, and for our Quaker memory, proceeds on many fronts. And it takes WORK. I’m grateful for your efforts in this direction (Solomon Eccles, I’m looking at you!), and hope they continue.

But good grief, here’s the silliest question in the interview:

JW: FRIENDS JOURNAL: Should we be avoiding the Internet?

CF: WTF?? They might as well say, “the air is polluted, so should Friends stop breathing?” Your response that Friends need to get into it as “content producers” (an ugly phrase that; but we’re stuck with it, I expect) is right on, with the precedent of early Friends exploiting (I use that term without shame here) the new medium of printing backing you up.

I’m much more ambivalent about your additional comment that,

JW: Those of us with ministries on the Internet aren’t acknowledged by our meetings. We’re left to our own devices as individuals: no support, no accountability.
This is dire indeed . . . .

CF: I’m not so sure it’s dire. Maybe we need to have a conversation about this.

When I look at RSOF history, I see the era of the most “support and accountability” (late 1600s to about 1865) as being an era largely characterized by stifling, smothering, enforced conformity. (I’m not alone in this. Geoffrey Kaiser, in the latest version of his huge wall chart history, speaks frankly of the “Quaker police state”. Rufus Jones said much the same thing, more elliptically.) Yes, there were some good things — antislavery, women ministers; but the list is a lot shorter than one might think. and culturally, I don’t hesitate to say it was mostly a desert.

Finally there was a rebellion (several, actually), and things Quaker got interesting again. But the uprisings also ushered in the era of “ministry-on-your-own,” which we’re still in. That has its drawbacks too (especially financial); but that’s my take on the whole era of what some call “Quietism,” and I’m sticking to it. So personally I’m very uneasy about efforts to reconstruct these old arrangements, even piecemeal.

JW: FRIENDS JOURNAL: But what does [Solomon] Eccles’s story have to say to us today?
Reply: My whole generation right now is asking: “Why Quakerism? What does Quakerism have to offer me?” I think it’s the wrong question. You’re going to the get the most out of something that recognizes your gifts as vital. That’s when you’re going to feel the most full of Spirit.

CF: My experience is somewhat different. In my Bible study, I note that many of the most important spirit-filled and eloquent voices there (prophets especially) were not “recognized and nurtured” by their communities in any formal ways. Quite the opposite. They said what they had to say, often doing so with great art, because the Spirit left them no option, and in the face of stiff opposition from their key audiences, especially those in authority. That’s not just dusty history. Much of my life experience and observation reinforce these models, I regret to report.

But then again, it’s true that they were “held accountable.” Yeah, sure: jail, attempted murder and exile for Jeremiah; Isaiah supposedly killed; Amos banished. And don’t get me started on that guy from Galilee, whose complaint in Matthew 23:29-39 about the prophets’ experience with “accountability” was soon enough followed by a repeat of it.

Jeremiah - saved from drowning in mud
Support & accountability, biblical style: Jeremiah the prophet, rescued from being drowned in mud for his messages

And I just had a flash: I wonder if what your lot isn’t yearning for is a warm-fuzzy Camp Catoctin setting for what is basically a sacrificial, cross-carrying vocation. There may be days where you’ll get that good feeling; but overall, they don’t compute. They’re karmically mismatched, one might say. Too much campfire, not enough Bible and Christianity.

This affects my response to your rousing conclusion:

JW: So I say: “Prophets! Activists! Visionaries! Come back! Warriors and assholes and rabble-rousers! Abrasive, contrarian punks! Come back! Quakerism needs you!”

CF: You’re quite right; bring them on. But those “assholes and rabble-rousers” who come back and expect to be met with flowers (or joints) and offers of gigs with regular paychecks to do these things — well, they’re in for a serious round of disappointments. Even in better times, there were mighty few such slots that I ever heard of. Those who carved out a viable niche did the carving pretty much by themselves. BTDT.

JW: Many people in my generation feel that we’ve inherited a Quakerism that we’re not satisfied with. We have all this analysis about what’s wrong with it. I think it’s good for us to analyze and even sometimes to complain about it, but at some point we need to take ownership and move Quakerism into territory that feels more vital for us. . . .

CF: A-fucking-men. Here’s what I’ve decided is one of the key markers for adulthood, especially among Friends: when one quits blaming us geezers for things not being the way you want them.

I mean, hey — so I got a little busy trying to cope with four major wars and three recessions plus one actual depression in my adult lifetime, not to mention my own stumbling effort to grow up, while raising a family, trying to pay the bills, and learn how to be a writer. Okay, so maybe in the process there were a few things that got shorted — like remaking Quakerism to you-all’s specifications, which BTW you didn’t give us til a few years ago. You want ownership? Come and get it. Seems like thee and me are in agreement on this; hope the idea spreads.

JW: There are many Quakers who have vital things to say about Quakerism and who risk confronting the empire that surrounds and permeates us. I want everyone to have access to these incredible resources, and I’m tired of waiting for someone else to do it.

CF: Now you’re talking (singing). What about a punk/hip-hop Quaker video opera that features Jim Corbett starting the Sanctuary movement in the 80s; Elizabeth Watson insisting on being a minister when everyone told her women couldn’t do that; Bill Kreidler creating a ministry from addiction and AIDS and rediscovering the saints, which was so rich that his life couldn’t hold it all; and Tom Fox . . . .

Maybe your new project is a kind of equivalent to that. Good luck with it.

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