Category Archives: Books & Book Reviews

The Separation Generation: A Continuing Challenge

Blogging about the divisive agony which is overwhelming Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting & Association (SAYMA — described here) was not on my agenda when we planned the Zoom session set for tomorrow, November 11, at 4 PM. (Register at this link:   bit.ly/3k6eDBZ )

But stuff happens. Even in theology.

And that post usefully (if sadly) shows that the forces which produced the five splits chronicled in The Separation Generation series are not confined to the pastoral and evangelical branches, and their theological universe; but can be stirred anywhere, on many issues.

There isn’t space here for a detailed comparison/contrast; and likely it’s too soon. But that time will come. And as we discuss the books tomorrow, my thinking will not only be about this near past, but also about the present. These books are a resource for such immediate work.

This was pointed out by a reviewer on Amazon, Canadian Friend Ian Davis, writing of Indiana Trainwreck:

Ian J. Davis — 5.0 out of 5 stars

It would be easy to say that this was a dry read about recent events in a place very distant from my own.

But nothing could be further from the truth. At core this is a careful examination of religious conflict in a Quaker context; how it arises, how it festers and just how destructive it can be.

There is a strong tendency for religious movements to seek safety in their own creeds and dogma and to insist on uniformity of thought. This desire invites those who disagree with the righteous to be labelled heretics in need of either correction or expulsion.

But there is also a strong desire among Christians to be mindful of the teachings of Jesus, and in particular to love one’s enemies. This is particularly true of Quakers who have historically rejected creeds and dogma, partly on the grounds that such artificial rules (regarding who is to be deemed in, and who out) are divisive, and invite coerced pretense rather than informed spiritual growth.

The conflicts described in this book center around the issues of faith, practice, acceptance of individuals in the LGBTQ community, and the issue of support or opposition to same-sex marriage. It is the ever repeated conflict between those inclined to impose uniformity versus those inclined to welcome diversity.

But it is also the conflict between those who seek God’s will, and those who seek to impose God’s will. Readers of this book are offered front row seats where they can better observe the bloody action unfold. [The coauthors have] done the world a service in documenting so carefully and in such a readable manner the human tendency to forget “thy will be done” in favour of “my will be done”. I rather marvel at [their] own fortitude in staying on the train, while this train wreck was in progress.

Thanks, Ian!
In 2008, a Quaker meeting in the West Richmond Friends Meeting of Richmond, Indiana quietly adopted a policy statement affirming the presence and participation of LGBTQ persons in all aspects of its fellowship, and posted this new statement, called a Minute, on its website.

Officials in the meeting’s regional association, Indiana Yearly Meeting, took exception to this new statement, and told West Richmond to remove it from the site. West Richmond declined. The resulting controversy unfolded over the next five years, and resulted in a major division in what had once been among the largest Quaker communities in the United States.

For historians, it is a unique resource for research. For general readers, it is a rare closeup view of issues that reverberate widely across our culture, and have implications far beyond the boundaries of a small Midwestern religious sect. Indeed, the Indiana virus spread, and parallel conflicts soon convulsed several other American Quaker associations.

In mid-2014, a blast of church schisms blew into the three-century old North Carolina Quaker community like a line of summer tornadoes.

A purge was demanded to “purify” their ranks of congregations deemed theologically “liberal” or friendly to LGBTQ persons. It was much the same wave that had already sundered Quaker groups in Indiana.

Yet the targeted meetings in Carolina stood up eloquently in their own defense, and the purge attempts repeatedly stalled. So how far would the crusaders go? Were they, like U.S. troops in Vietnam, ready to destroy their Quaker “village” in order to “save” it? Did the struggle have to end with a “Murder at Quaker Lake?”

The last time such a broad wave of separations rolled across the American Quaker landscape was in 1827-1828. These recent divisions were reported on as they happened for both a Quaker and a general readership by two projects: the journal Quaker Theology, and a blog titled A Friendly letter.

Murder at Quaker Lake is Volume Two of The Separation Generation, a three-volume series which brings together these reports and related documents, as both an unique initial historical record and a singular resource for those concerned with the course of contemporary religious evolution and controversy.

While Quakers (formally called the Religious Society of Friends, or Friends Church) are a small denomination, they encompass a broad range of theological perspectives and socio-political outlooks, and have experienced controversies similar to those that have shaken many larger denominations in recent times.

In Shattered by the Light, parallel conflicts over sexuality, the Bible and church governance erupt in and tear apart two Quaker associations half a continent apart.

Their stories, in the Pacific Northwest and southern Midwest, were part of a larger wave of divisions that echo and illumine recent struggles in numerous other churches, and in American culture at large.

This book is Volume Three of The Separation Generation, a unique three-volume series which brings together reports and related documents about five such conflicts, all distinct but related, in American Quaker circles since the beginning of this century. This book and the series offer both a unique historical record and a singular resource for those concerned with the course of contemporary religious evolution and controversy, which continues and reverberates far beyond the bounds of one small denomination.

(You can see the three coauthors live and ask questions on Thursday, November 11 at 4 PM EST: in person at Earlham School of Religion, or by Zoom, and later on the ESR website. To get the Zoom link, register NOW at this link:   bit.ly/3k6eDBZ )

 

Presenting The Separation Generation: November 11

Not since 1827 have so many American yearly meetings split in such a short time.

That 1827 struggle was so traumatic that a fully-researched study of it (Quakers In Conflict, by H. Larry Ingle) was not published until 1986, one hundred and forty-nine years afterward.

This time, between 2003 and 2018, four YMs broke, and a fifth disappeared completely after 320 years. But unlike 1827, what was dubbed The Separation Generation was reported in real time, defying the pandemic, and chronicled in three books.

The three co-authors of The Separation Generation will discuss them, the yearly meeting upheavals which produced them, and answer questions in a live presentation on Thursday, November 11 at 4 PM – EST at Earlham School of Religion (ESR). It will also be livestreamed on Zoom, and for those present at ESR, will be followed by a reception.

The three coauthors include Stephen Angell, the Leatherock Professor of Quaker Studies at ESR; Chuck Fager, a retired activist, journalist and editor;  and Jade Rockwell, an activist and student at ESR.

“These books fill a big accountability gap about these conflicts,” said Chuck Fager, who edited the series.

“The gap was created on one hand by the fact that too many YM and local meeting officials — like many other church & corporate bureaucrats— prefer to bury or ignore bad or unflattering news. They often act like like bent cops & shady politicians. (But there were also, the books show, staunch Friends who stood up for Truth and fair process.)

“And these coverups have usually been enabled by Quaker publications which lack the skills & the backbone to seriously report them.

“So as these five separations developed, nobody was covering & documenting them. So we stepped up. Others could do it again, when the need arises (and it probably will, if Quaker history is  any guide), and I hope they will.”

The five yearly meetings involved were:

>Indiana and Western, two once very large bodies whose struggles over Universalist theology and LGBT affirmation left them scattered and shrunken. They are covered in Vol. 1, Indiana Trainwreck.

> North Carolina (FUM), which faced internecine warfare over biblical and church authority, LGBT acceptance, and did not survive; its self-destruction fills Vol. 2, Murder at Quaker Lake.

> And Northwest and Wilmington YMs, two quite distinct bodies, the former evangelical and West coast-centered, and the latter straddling a stretch of the heartland from Ohio to Tennessee. While facing some similar issues, their outcomes differed, and their diverse stories make up Vol. 3, Shattered By The Light.

The Separation Generation series, available in paperback and ebook, offers a unique combination of journalism, theology, old & new; over 150 pages of documents backing up the reporting; and some limited speculation & opinion.

The coauthors worked mainly as volunteers, starting when each had a day job.

Documenting our Quaker history as it happens is accountability work that can be done, & needs to be done. That way we can learn about what’s happening to us, especially amid the deep cultural & political upheavals we’re surrounded by today.

“I’ve been doing independent reporting among Friends since 1977, in various forms,” Chuck Fager said,  “almost 45 years, on a shoestring budget and alongside regular day jobs.

“I believe projects like this will likely be needed again, in various media. I’m very grateful to ESR for upholding the involvement of Steve and Jade, and for bringing the results of our work forward among Friends.

I hope Friends watching this program at 4 PM EST  on November 11 or on the web afterward, will consider taking up this concern when it’s needed again, and encourage others who do.”

Both the live presentation and the Zoom stream are FREE and PUBLIC. For more details and to receive the Zoom link, please register by clicking this link:  bit.ly/3k6eDBZ

 

 

A Quaker Theologian for Our Hard Times.

A substantial Holiday Weekend Read:

I always feel uneasy when finding myself in agreement with rightwing Catholic pundit Ross Douthat. But in his August 31 NYTimes column, he nails it, mocking the spectacle of :

”  . . . generals and grand strategists who presided over quagmire, folly and defeat fanning out across the television networks and opinion pages to champion another 20 years in Afghanistan. You have the return of the media’s liberal hawks and centrist Pentagon stenographers, unchastened by their own credulous contributions to the retreat of American power over the past 20 years.

“Our botched [Afghanistan] withdrawal is the punctuation mark on a general catastrophe, a failure so broad that it should demand purges in the Pentagon, the shamed retirement of innumerable hawkish talking heads, the razing of various NGOs and international-studies programs and the dissolution of countless consultancies and military contractors.”

But I’m not nodding to Douthat today about Afghanistan. It’s more the “general catastrophe,” or cascading crises, that have been similarly botched and booted by our rulers and most of our reigning “elites.”  And rather than piling on, I’m looking for some help in getting through and making some hopeful sense in the aftermath, if there is to be one. Someone outside the discredited mainstream pundits and bemedaled poseurs.

Which brings me to Jim Corbett.

Continue reading A Quaker Theologian for Our Hard Times.

Let’s Go Goatwalking, Friends

Jim Corbett was a fascinating guy, but like all of us he had his faults. In his amazing first book, he way overdid the self-deprecation:

”Goatwalking is a book for saddlebag or backpack —to live with a while, casually.  It is compact and multifaceted, but for unhurried reflection rather than study.  It is woven from star-gazing and campfire talk, to open conversations rather than to lead the reader on a one-way track of entailment to necessary conclusions.  I prove no points.  This is no teaching.“

Like heck he didn’t prove points. And baloney his pages are “teaching-free”; they’re teaching-packed. (He was probably right about the saddlebag; tho I’m guessing on that.)

But don’t take my word for it. Read Goatwalking yourself and decide. And now you can, because on August 10, after a 30-year hiatus, the book is back in print, in modestly priced paperback and E-book versions, right here.

For that matter, Corbett writes tellingly about being and acting as a Quaker in our turbulent times, in ways that go far beyond our usual, Prius-with-the-correct-(but not too many)-bumperstickers  mode. But here he also overdoes the mock-humility thing: Continue reading Let’s Go Goatwalking, Friends

Coming Soon: Maybe the Most Important Book I Never Wrote

As I begin this post, Portland and Seattle are roasting, a Florida beachfront condo has collapsed, the lake keeping Las Vegas afloat is  disappearing, and many more out West are dreading the start of fire season. Here in the East we’re keeping a wary eye on Xs and Os on the Atlantic hurricane map; and everybody should be concerned about those virulent variants.
Amid all these budding disasters, pieces of a paragraph from the early 1990s keep popping into my head:
I have a confession to make. I want my grandchildren to learn how to goatwalk . . . . I’m a survivalist where they’re concerned. Industrial civilization has destabilized the earth’s climate beyond the point of no-return. The fair-weather agriculture on which our civilization depends is doomed. In the course of the next century, much of North America will probably become desert. Even if it doesn’t, annual rainfalls and temperatures will fluctuate too wildly to sustain the agricultural systems on which we now depend. If humankind doesn’t self-destruct, my grandchildren will have to get along without industrial agriculture as it now exists. Maybe a more sustainable industrial adaptation will emerge, but I want them to know enough to survive the old-fashioned, nomad way, in case that’s a viable choice.
Learn how to Goatwalk? I have great grandchildren now, and why should they be learning to walk with goats?
To explain why, let me say something first about a bucket. Or more precisely, a Bucket List. We can start with mine.

Continue reading Coming Soon: Maybe the Most Important Book I Never Wrote

U. S. Black History: 1619, 1776, or What? How About 1962?

Let’s see: Racism & U. S. History. 1776 or 1619? The New York Times, or Trump’s “Patriotic Education” commission? The truth is rising, or the sky is falling?

Pick your side, get in line, join the Culture War’s latest rehearsal for Armageddon.

Really?

As some once-legendary movie mogul once said of another sketchy deal, “Include me out.”

It’s not that I think the spat is irrelevant or of no consequence.

Oh, no.

What it is for me, at least, is old hat. Yesterday’s news. Dumpster fare.

I’ve been here before.

In fact, when I first heard about it, a toddler named Barack Obama was just three years old. Maybe still in training underpants.

That would be 1964. Continue reading U. S. Black History: 1619, 1776, or What? How About 1962?

A Banished Quaker Prophet: Josh Humphries (Updated)

Friend (or rather, ex-Friend) Joshua Ashlyn Humphries, a banished Quaker and Anabaptist prophet/theologian, is dead, at 39.

Josh Humphries, in a happy moment. He deserved more of them.

Dead, and it’s a damn shame.

A  shame for Quakers, Mennonites, and some others. I feel shamed too. But he was not an ex-Friend to me.

The official obituary does not say how or where he passed; presumably in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he had lived for more than ten years. It settled for the piously evasive: he “went to be with the Lord on Thursday, April 29, 2021.”

Yeah, sure; but what ticket did he ride?

The silence here leaves many questions: Josh had serious medical conditions (of which more anon); but just a couple of days earlier, in his last Facebook posts, he was both worn out — and intellectually busy: Continue reading A Banished Quaker Prophet: Josh Humphries (Updated)

Garrison Keillor Goes Contemporary

My buddy Garrison — well, I did meet him once, and he even told me a couple of his secrets, which I blabbed here in 2016.

And we’re the same age; we always are, except for the sad months of September until early December. He gets older first.

And now he’s charging into the post-pandemic, and I’m glad to see it, and will let him tell much of his new story right here, as a guest post. Not least, because he starts out with a truth that applies to us both:

GK: I don’t need another career, but once a writer, always a writer–

Continue reading Garrison Keillor Goes Contemporary

Broken Churches, Broken Nation (Again?)

“History doesn’t repeat,” Mark Twain supposedly said, “but sometimes it rhymes.”

Are the conflicts within so many American churches over LGBTQ and associated issues part of some cruel karmic sonnet?

The Separation Generation’s three volumes approach this question in prose, by chronicling disruptions among five American Yearly Meetings extending roughly from 2011 to 2018 (along with sketches of some precursor struggles). This wave of division was likely the most damaging to Quakerism since the “Great Separation” of 1827.

In a larger cultural/political context, this period roughly parallels the era of the Religious Right, the Tea Party ascendancy among Congressional Republicans, and then a successful insurgent presidential campaign followed by a highly disruptive administration, culminating in a violent insurrection at the Capitol in January 2021.

Also in the background is the 2015 landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized same-gender marriage nationwide, but did not end the conflicts over that or related issues.

It’s hard to draw direct connections from these notable outside events to the specific disagreements among Quakers. In Quaker worship, Quaker business process and other contexts, we’re supposed to be listening to God speaking through the Light of Christ in each of us. Thus one would (in theory) not necessarily expect to find direct influences from the broader culture, as Quakers seek to commune with and to learn from a God that presumably transcends culture.

That’s the theory. In practice, as we gain more distance from these momentous events, evidence of such broader influences becomes clearer. We eagerly await further insight from Quaker memoirs, scholarly research and blog posts from those who have been most involved in this often difficult and Quaker-world-changing series of events. Continue reading Broken Churches, Broken Nation (Again?)

David Zarembka’s Memorable Writings: A Sampler

Besides his work and example, Friend David Zarembka also left a valuable and underestimated resource of writings for Friends and others.  We’ll sample that legacy here, and point to where more can be found.Zarembka -Book Cover

Besides some personal contact, I learned most about Dave from his book A Peace of Africa. Here’s part of that context from my review: Continue reading David Zarembka’s Memorable Writings: A Sampler