“Spirit Rising”: A Review in Installments — Part 1
356 pages, $17. 50. Published by Quaker Press.
“If we have done our job,” write the ten Young Adult Friends (YAFs) who edited this new book of writings by their Quaker peers, “. . . some pieces may surprise, confuse, alarm or even offend you.”
So okay, I thought, opening the book. Go for it: surprise, confuse, alarm or even offend me . . . .
After more than eighty pages, though, it hadn’t happened yet. I’m not sure my lack of intense response implies that the ten somehow did not do their job. Yet the statement is there.
The early sections show a reader that, for instance, young Evangelical Friends are strongly Christian, and maybe some liberal Friends aren’t. Which is just not a shocking discovery for me. Maybe once upon a time . . . .
It also shows that some of their generation have been talking to each other at least at the edges of the branch lines. That’s good; I approve. But it’s not news either.
We are repeatedly assured that the ten editors had a wonderful, and grueling, time working through the book project. And I’m going to read it all, for this review. But because my schedule does not permit the leisure to read the whole thing through in one or two sittings, this “first draft” review will come in pieces too.
All right then, a slow start. The editors also predict that we will find some pieces here that will “profoundly resonate with you and that are not at all consistent with your tradition of Quakerism or your cultural experiences.”
On page 91, I found a piece that fulfilled half this prophecy. It’s Evan Welkin’s “Quakerism Is More Than Man & A Motorcycle,” and it resonates well.
In it, Welkin sets out to discover the beloved, open, inclusive, accountable and theologically coherent Quaker community of meetings, from all the branches, riding up and down the East Coast on a motorcycle.
Instead, he finds himself beginning to come to terms with a rather human, fuss-budgety, culturally conformed bunch which could easily be dismissed as hardly worth the effort. And to gauge from his report, he mainly landed among unprogrammed liberal groups, which predominate on the Atlantic coastline overall.
His initial goal was to create “enriching spiritual dialogue” within and among the meetings he visited. And he was nothing if not self-confident: “If I were able to create this dialogue . . . I somehow felt Quakers and Quaker institutions would feel the immediate benefit of greater vitality and unity within them.”
Well, why not? In the 1650s Quakers hardly older than he set out to convert the Pope in Rome and the Sultan in Canstantinople, an ambition which came to seem hardly less expansive than livening up east Coast meetings in 2010.
And about as quixotic. Welkin admits that “as I finished my trip I felt terribly disheartened in general by much of the group behavior I witnessed within the meetings I visited.” It turned out that in a large number of cases, “many “Friends are Quaker for selfish reasons,” and their meetings were “more a cultural, ideological, and political support group for like-minded individuals.”
If this were the end of the story, Welkin would have indeed been at a loss. But not all the data fit his pictures. Again and again among these seemingly feckless groups, he kept running into “so many interesting, thought-provoking, eccentric, kind and inspired people” among them. A large number of these striking Friends don’t fit easily into their meetings, so there is a strange dynamic there: strong, spiritually weighty individuals, in wishy-washy politically correct ho-hum meetings.
He calls this dynamic a “dance,” which is fair enough; but it is just as often a struggle, and can be an uncomfortable one; you see, many of the dancers are like your humble reviewer – sometimes missing the group rhythm and clumsily treading on each other’s toes.
This discovery could have been disillusioning. But it turns out that the illusion to be lost was a vision of the RSOF as one long string of warm fuzzies – the dewy-eyed closing singalong at Quaker summer camp writ large into daily life in meetings, with a touch of your favorite Conservative Yearly Meeting thrown in.
The only things wrong with this vision are — well, history, for one. Theology for another. Human nature for a third, culture for a fourth. Oh, and the Bible too. (Other than that . . . . ) Besides which, even among the more lead-footed dancers, Welkin began to get the strong sense that God amazingly seems to have something useful even for them to do, which can be discovered by a careful, patient observer.
There’s the tale of a Catholic bishop who was told by Hitler or some such dictator that the Roman Catholic church was on the way to destruction. The bishop’s wearily defiant reply was that “our priests have been trying to destroy it for centuries, and even they haven’t managed to succeed.”
Something like that. Well, it begins to appear to Welkin that perhaps Quakers have not yet been able to demolish Quakerism on the Atlantic coast. But then, they’ve only been at it for three and a half centuries. Maybe they just need a few more years . . . .
And the other upside is that by the end of his journey, Welkin was re-evaluating his goals: “I began,” he admits, “to realize how subjective unity and vitality are.” And a bit later: “I wish I could say I knew this trip was God’s will, but the rhetoric with which many people have invoked God’s name in my life has blurred the lines between spiritual surrender and egotistical manipulation.”
Wow. All that revelation, with a frosting of humility on top. Now that’s what I call resonance, potentially profound resonance. Even though, as I said, it fulfills only half the editors’ prophecy, because Welkin’s report seems to deal most with the unprogrammed meetings most familiar to me.
But no matter. Good riddance to that romantic, and ultimately adolescent vision of the glorious group of tightly disciplined cadres; to really find them, Welkin would have had to turn his motorcycle west from Interstate 95 in mid-Carolina, headed for Fayetteville. He could pause here at Quaker House, but his actual objective would be Fort Bragg.
Because brother Welkin, be careful what you wish for. I have seen your sacred groups, with their mystical bonds of unity and internal accountability, even their own form of plain dress. They are here. They’re called called the US Army Special Forces; their job is stealthy killing, and they are very, very good at what they do. And a great many of them are fervent Christians.
Welkin didn’t get to Fort Bragg, but it appears he got the message. And in place of his initial “vision,” the trip provided him with the elements for finding his place in the stumbling Quaker “dance,” aka a mature relationship to Friends, solid gold for such a quest. Let’s hope he can recognize the gift and work with it, lead foot or not.
Stay tuned for further review installments drawn from “Spirit Rising.”
NOTE: Part II of this review is here