Quaker and Naturalist Too
By Os Cresson. Morning Walk Press, 2014. 177 pages. $18.50/paperback.
Reviewed by Harvey Gillman
Challenging, stimulating, exhilarating, and yet slightly depressing, reading this book is like being at a conference of many voices and wanting to go back to one’s own room to ask oneself why one has reservations in spite of agreeing with so much. At the end of the text, I wrote, “Yes, but . . .”
This penetrating book is an apologia for nontheism, describing both the part nontheists have in today’s Religious Society of Friends and the antecedents of nontheism in Quaker history. The tone is inclusive and welcoming. The words love, unity, and community abound. Definitions are given, which is important because, in spite of all the literature, I remain quite confused as to what nontheism means, as opposed to atheism and agnosticism. From what Cresson writes, it is a comprehensive word based on a rejection of the concept of a personal, intervening, supernatural reality and speculative, non-provable ways of thinking; at one point, however, he includes in it pantheists and wiccaists, which surprises me.
Reading the book I was introduced to people I had not heard of or knew little of before. I found it a useful anthology of open Quaker and near-Quaker thinking, and I feel that I shall long need to reflect on what these people have to tell and teach me. So why the reservation, not so much with the text, which has its purposes, but with the approach?
Although this book aims at inclusivity, there is an underlying dichotomy in its thinking between religion and science. Quakers stress action, experience, and ways of living. These are indeed observable phenomena. Like scientists, we live experimentally. Theological speculation may well lead us in circles and be divisive, especially if we think it will lead us to Truth (if it exists with a capital T). But we are living in a world where the scientific method itself may be seen to be culturally conditioned. We observe and measure with great objectivity, but the conclusions we draw from these activities may well themselves be subjective, however much we seek to put a distance between ourselves and what we discover. To me the religious life, or better the spiritual life, is about knowing one’s limitations, accepting not-knowing, respecting the dark as well as the light, standing in awe. Religion is not the ultimate revealer of truth, but neither is the scientific enterprise.
There is little in the book about meeting for worship, although the word worship is used throughout. Yet it is worship which is at the heart of the Quaker community: worship not simply as a time for calm speculation on the problems of the day or how to solve the many problems of the world—noble enterprises as these both are—but worship as communion at a deep level where self is transcended. Are Quakers of the silent persuasion just a vaguely religiously tinged humanitarian talking shop made up of nice intellectual middle-class people who enjoy an hour mostly of silence and who want to attract more of the same? And what of those people who do not fit sociologically into this category? What of those of narrower education? Those less articulate? So what are we for, in a way that humanitarian organizations or debating societies or college communities or self-help therapy groups are not? If we cannot answer these questions, why would the seeking soul come to us?
What came to me in the book was an old dilemma revamped: Are we a church of the saved (in modern terms, those who have made it intellectually and abound in good works) or a church of the sinner (in modern terms, those of us who know we need the community; who get things wrong because we are human; who try and fail and sometimes succeed; who need forgiveness; who need to embrace the dark and light side of self and the other; for whom the words theist, atheist, and nontheist are too big or too small; who may not seek great knowledge or intellectual definition but just a little wisdom from time to time)?
Friends will never agree on what God is, nor should we. To me the basic question is whether there is any transcendence possible in this life—whether there is just us, or whether there is any energy/power/force (you name it) that is both within us and beyond us. There are quite a few Friends who would call themselves nontheists, so any discussion of where Friends are today must take account of these members. This book makes a fine contribution to this discussion.
Born into a Jewish family, Harvey Gillman has been a seeker for most of his life. As outreach secretary for British Quakers, he wrote A Light That Is Shining. Other works include A Minority of One and Consider the Blackbird. He has led workshops and has lectured in many places in the Quaker world. He is a member of Brighton Meeting in England.
A Quaker Astronomer Reflects: Can a Scientist Also Be Religious?
By Jocelyn Bell Burnell. The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Australia, 2013. 54 pages. $15.95/paperback; $5 PDF on Quakers.org.au.
Faith, Hope & Doubt in Times of Uncertainty: Combining the Realms of Scientific and Spiritual Inquiry
By George Ellis. The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Australia, 2008. 69 pages. $15.95/paperback; free PDF on Quakers.org.au.
Universe as Revelation: An Ecomystical Theology for Friends
By Jo Farrow and Alex Wildwood. Pronoun Press, 2013. 186 pages. $14/paperback.
Three titles reviewed by Rob Pierson
“We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion-year-old carbon, / And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.” —“Woodstock” by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young
Well, “Woodstock” got it right: we are, in fact, stardust—children of the light, you might say—or else nuclear waste. Science stands aside on interpreting the matter but asserts that all of the (multi)billion-year-old carbon in our bodies and the equally ancient oxygen we breathe exploded into space in the nuclear death throes of a supernova. But what do we make of this revelation?
Quakers, who three centuries ago began studying the garden of creation in their vegetable plots, eventually turned their telescopes to the skies, doing research that informed modern cosmology. At the same time, Friends sought to reconcile the world revealed by their scientific instruments with the world revealed by faith—to propose what the Quaker physicist Silvanus P. Thompson called “a not impossible religion.”
In his 1929 Swarthmore Lecture, “Science and the Unseen World,” the pioneering Quaker astrophysicist Arthur Stanley Eddington waxed mystical about the history of the universe and the seeking that drives both science and faith. Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s 2013 Backhouse Lecture, “A Quaker Astronomer Reflects,” continues in Eddington’s tradition. As a teenager, the future astronomer was drawn to both science and silent worship. Now, at age 70, having served as both president of the Royal Astronomical Society and clerk of Britain Yearly Meeting, she reflects on how science and faith have remained “comfortable bedfellows” over the years.
Burnell takes us on a guided tour of her home, the universe. We visit its planets, stars, and galaxies, and witness the threads of matter and energy stretching like filaments of cotton candy across distant space and time. The universe she shares with us explodes, evolves, and continues to expand due to pervasive but mysterious “dark matter” and “dark energy” that we do not understand. As a scientist, Burnell finds no reason to give God credit for the beauty of this universe, nor to blame God for its suffering. Yet the universe somehow inspires spontaneous reverence, gratitude, and joy. Nothing in nature proves nor contradicts her “working hypothesis” of a living, loving God who works through people, and calls us to hope and action.
So how do science and Quakerism relate? Burnell points out that scientific theories (contrary to popular misunderstanding) are always provisional, unprovable, and often tested until they fail. Testing depends on a scientific community sharing its common experience. In a similar way, Quaker spiritual truths are provisional and ultimately unprovable but tested in the shared experience of the faith community.
In either case, science or faith, we have to learn to live maturely with the unprovable. Our openness to new insight depends on our willingness to doubt and let go of previous assumptions. Burnell says that certainty, not doubt, is the opposite of faith.
George Ellis’s 2008 Backhouse Lecture, “Faith, Hope, and Doubt,” also highlights the role of doubt in inquiry. But when Ellis looks out at the universe, he finds something surprising: the self-emptying love that Christians have historically called kenosis.
As a South African mathematician and theoretical cosmologist, Friend Ellis easily summarizes the main issues in the ongoing science-faith dialogue and counters popular attacks on religion. Scientific materialists, he notes, limit their vision to only physical causes, i.e., the tennis ball flies because the racket hits it. This narrow vision ignores other types of causes at play in the universe, including intention. After all, the tennis ball wouldn’t fly if there weren’t a tennis game and a player who intended to hit the ball.
From this perspective, values, aesthetics, and ethics matter because they determine what is done and what is left undone. Ellis makes a strong case that ethics are discovered rather than invented. Our spiritual experiences, our sense of the sacred, provide valid data about the reality of which we are part. Most significantly, kenosis has real transformative power wherever it is discovered, and our Quaker history provides evidence of something powerful at work.
Science itself depends upon kenosis. One can’t seek truth without the willingness to give up even one’s dearly held theories. Like Burnell, Ellis concludes that we must remain uncertain but full of hope, or we will not be willing to take the essential leaps of faith.
In Universe as Revelation, Jo Farrow and Alex Wildwood pick up where cosmologists like Ellis and Burnell leave off. They accept the universe revealed by science and look at implications for faith—Quaker faith in particular—in a time of spiritual and ecological crisis.
Farrow, who served earlier in life as a Methodist deaconess and later in life as general secretary of Quaker Home Service, brings a background in feminist Christian theology. Wildwood, another convinced Friend, was shaped by wider influences, particularly Buddhism, and leads retreats helping British Friends explore their spiritual diversity. The two authors alternate their voices throughout the book, singing counterpoint rather than a single tune. They (particularly Wildwood) also include a chorus of supporting quotes, a kind of cloud of witnesses that sometimes borders on a distracting fog of chatter.
For Farrow and Wildwood, the story of the cosmos and the plight of the Earth reveal our core self-deception, that we think ourselves separate from, rather than deeply embedded in our world. The ecological crisis that threatens our existence also offers us a chance to grow up, to come of age. People want a spiritual story that helps in this context, and science increasingly inspires while traditional churches disillusion people by packaging faith as doctrinal belief offered for evangelical sale.
Ecomysticism celebrates our connection to the living systems of the Earth, which reveal themselves to us as sacred, interconnected, and engaged with us in an ongoing process of transformation. By accepting the cosmos itself as our primary revelation, ecomysticism splits decisively from traditional religions which offer faith as a comforting certainty. In ecomysticism, faith becomes a verb—not a fixed answer but a way of being at home in the midst of uncertainty.
In the face of such faith, a fundamentalist backlash—a clinging to certainty—becomes inevitable. Friends are not immune. Farrow notes our tendency to idolize the past and imitate a supposed golden age of Quaker conformity that never was. George Fox was the ultimate individualist, and imitation is not faithfulness to Spirit. Instead, spiritual diversity and openness are Quaker tradition needed for our time.
Even among liberal British Friends, Farrow discerns “fossilized” vestiges of Western theology that stand in the way of accepting a faith at home on the Earth. Are we heirs to the medieval theology of ascent away from Earth through obedient struggle? (Even the traditional path up Pendle Hill ascends by the steepest route, bypassing the wild hillside.) Are we separate from and superior to nature? (Both dominion and stewardship assume that we are.) Do we understand Spirit in the Western sense Fox inherited as the disembodied voice of Christ, or embrace the Eastern Orthodox view of Spirit as the breath that embodies itself wherever new life stirs?
Most tellingly, do we unconsciously accept a traditional Father God who will always lead us like children rather than encourage us to grow up and find our way? We emphasize light and God’s mystical presence, but Fox’s life alternated between periods of light and dark. In this time of crisis, we may need to live with the darkness and unknowing that shatters our old idolatrous images of God and allows new seeds to grow.
So in the end, these three quite different books look out to the cosmos as a source of revelation, and all three propose a close sympathy between science and Quakerism as complementary ways of knowing reality. But because we can never attain certainty in any absolute sense, we must learn how to live maturely with our science, faith, and hope grounded in our experience here and now.
Read Burnell for her quick tour of the universe, her understanding of science and Quakerism as bedfellows, and the “working hypothesis” of her faith. Read Ellis for his vision of a universe where values and intention matter, and kenosis offers the power to transform. And read Farrow and Wildwood to expose the hidden fundamentalisms that hold us back, and the ways we can place our faith firmly on the Earth to face the ecological crisis that confronts us.
All these works build upon modern cosmology: we are, in fact, stardust, and there may be no way back to the mythical garden except by accepting that reality and passing through, as it were, the flaming swords of galaxies twirling in our night sky. But perhaps, like Fox, we will find ourselves where “all things were new” and “beyond what words can utter.”
Rob Pierson is a member of Albuquerque (N.M.) Meeting, a systems engineer, and a graduate of Earlham School of Religion with an abiding interest in science, faith, and their interrelationship.
The Complete Antislavery Writings of Anthony Benezet, 1754–1783: An Annotated Critical Edition
Edited by David L. Crosby. Louisiana State University Press, 2014. 304 pages. $49.95/hardcover or eBook.
Reviewed by Cameron McWhirter
Anthony Benezet was one of those fierce Quaker characters that are so rare today—maybe they always were. He was humble yet devoid of meekness, audacious but without arrogance. He wanted to change the world, and hoped to be forgotten as soon as he left it.
When Benezet died in 1784, the well-known Philadelphia teacher was buried among other Quakers and freed slaves at the Arch Street Meeting House. Benezet demanded no headstone and said if Friends insisted on a marker after he was gone, it should read: “Anthony Benezet was a poor creature and, through Divine Favor, was enabled to know it.” His friends abided his request, and he has no headstone. Today he is buried somewhere around the meetinghouse. No one knows exactly where.
He was a man of many strongly held ethical positions. He taught white boys, but he also founded one of the first girls’ schools in the colonies—and gave free lessons to black children. He aided Native Americans and French Acadians forced out of Eastern Canada by the conquering British. He was a strict pacifist and vegetarian. Invited to eat at an acquaintance’s home, he learned the family was serving poultry. “What, would you have me eat my neighbors?” he said and promptly left.
But Benezet’s importance to the modern world was as an anti-slavery pioneer. Around 1750, he began a sustained and vocal campaign for abolition among fellow Quakers, other colonists, British political and religious leaders—anyone who would listen.
His logic was straightforward and at the time revolutionary: blacks were equal with whites in all respects, and any social system not grounded in that equality was immoral. “[T]he notion entertained by some that the blacks are inferior to the whites in their capacities is a vulgar prejudice, founded on the pride or ignorance of their lordly masters, who have kept their slaves at such a distance as to be unable to form a right judgment of them,” he wrote.
He organized one of the first abolitionist societies in the world and wrote numerous pamphlets, published at his own expense, attacking the institution of slavery and the slave trade as inconsistent with British, and later American, political concepts of individual liberty.
Benezet’s efforts influenced many people on both sides of the Atlantic, including Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, and John Woolman in America, and abolitionists Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson in the United Kingdom. He helped form a movement to abolish the slave trade throughout the British Empire, and launched an anti-slavery movement among Quakers and others in America. Benezet and Woolman knew each other and were allies in the cause, though Woolman is better known today.
After his death, Benezet’s importance was largely forgotten, perhaps as the humble man would have wanted. Yet Benezet’s efforts so long ago deserve the attention today of anyone interested in social activism and bringing ethics to public discourse.
Thankfully, recent interest in the rise and fall of transatlantic slave trade has brought some attention to this extraordinary man. In 2006, Irv A. Brendlinger published To Be Silent . . . Would Be Criminal: The Antislavery Influence and Writings of Anthony Benezet. Now Louisiana State University Press has brought out The Complete Antislavery Writings of Anthony Benezet, 1754–1783, meticulously annotated by David L. Crosby, an emeritus professor at Alcorn State University in Mississippi.
Crosby has done excellent work compiling all of Benezet’s known anti-slavery writings and has provided detailed notes to put the material in context. Crosby’s effort to track down Benezet’s references to African kingdoms and places is extraordinary.
The book, however, does have some flaws. In an effort to be thorough, Crosby has reprinted every extant pamphlet that Benezet produced. Benezet often reused his own material in various publications. Compiled in one book, that repetition can weaken the average reader’s experience with Benezet. Another problem is not Crosby’s, but his publisher’s. The price is costly at nearly $50 for hardcover, with absolutely no art.
Still, it’s good that Benezet’s anti-slavery treatises, which once inspired so many, now can reach a wider audience. More people—especially Quakers—should pay attention to the life and work of this extraordinary man.
He was an extremely persuasive man. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting once considered requiring all members to emancipate their slaves. Some slave-owning Friends resisted. At a meeting over the issue, it looked for a while as though consensus could not be reached. Then a weeping Benezet rose and called out, “Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God” (a quote from Psalms). The meeting reached consensus: Benezet’s position carried the day.
Cameron McWhirter is a journalist and the author of Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America. He is a member of Atlanta (Ga.) Meeting and serves on the board of trustees for Friends Publishing Corporation, publisher of Friends Journal.
How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee
By Bart D. Ehrman. HarperOne, 2014. 404 pages. $27.99/hardback; $15.99/paperback or eBook.
Reviewed by Douglas Bennett
I have been a member of Quaker meetings in which the conviction that Jesus is God’s Presence among us is a daily-told certainty, and also a member of meetings in which Jesus’s name is so rarely spoken as to make his naming a palpable disturbance in the holy silence. The rift over Jesus is so striking among us that we all have reason to pay attention to Bart Ehrman’s new book, How Jesus Became God.
Some Quakers see ourselves as the authentic Christianity revived; others prefer to avoid thinking of us as Christians at all. To both sides of Quakerism’s Bible divide, it can seem as if those who call themselves Christians have always believed that Jesus was God and always defined his divinity in identical ways. Ehrman shows that simply is not so.
His argument moves through three stages. First, in the ancient world, the separation of the human and the godly was not nearly as sharp as we think it today. Jesus was hardly the only human regarded by many to be a god. Greek and Roman mythology have many accounts of gods taking human form and humans becoming divine. Roman emperors were widely regarded as divine figures. Moreover, the Bible is replete with godly figures—especially angels—that lie somewhere between God and man. Claiming divinity for a human was not as unusual as it is today. One could see Jesus as godly without seeing him as the one true God, and likely some of his early followers did.
Second, Ehrman subjects Paul’s letters and then the four Gospels to close analysis to demonstrate that they do not have a consistent view on whether or how Jesus was divine. He argues that Jesus’s preaching as it is conveyed to us through the first three Gospels makes no claim to divinity, only that the day of judgment was coming soon. It is in John where the strongest affirmations that Jesus is God are to be found. It was the crucifixion and resurrection that led his followers to begin to see Christ as divine. Among these early Christians, views of Jesus’s divinity progressed from those that ascribed no divinity to Jesus, to those that saw Jesus elevated (exalted) to divinity at his death, to those that understood Jesus to be God incarnate from his baptism or his birth, to those that understood Jesus to be simply God incarnate out of all time.
Finally, Ehrman traces the wrangles over the first four centuries of Christianity, in which theologians tried to work out a coherent, shared view of Jesus’s divinity. He shows they regularly declared as heretical positions that had been accepted as orthodox a few decades earlier. He lifts up the Nicene Creed (323 C.E.) as an Empire-sanctioned, unity-seeking compilation of now-orthodox views written to name and condemn a succession of such heresies. Even that agreement did not stop the wrangles.
You do not have to agree with every one of Ehrman’s arguments—especially regarding whether Jesus considered himself to be divine. But you do have to take to heart his demonstration that Christian views on whether, how, and when Jesus became God have been hotly contested ground at least since he was crucified.
Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. On the very first page, Ehrman lets us know that he was once a believer, but now considers himself an agnostic. He writes the book not to denigrate belief, but to invite us all into deeper consideration of what we know and believe, and why.
Why should we accept that there is only one God but also that God has three persons (Father, Son, Holy Spirit)? That Jesus was One, but equally human and divine? That he was begotten but eternal? Taken today as orthodox, these views are simply the ones currently being enforced as authoritative. Ehrman terms these “orthoparadoxes”: attempts to affirm all the apparently conflicting passages in the Bible lead to paradoxical affirmations. Why not instead see them as alternative possibilities in the divine mystery?
Perhaps if all Friends acknowledged the tensions among the various accounts we have of Jesus, we would find it more possible to talk together about his life and teachings. Even more likely, progressive Friends would find it easier to speak of Jesus if they knew the range of views Christians have espoused about Jesus as God.
Douglas Bennett is president emeritus of Earlham College. He is a member of First Friends Richmond in the New Association of Friends, the group recently set off from Indiana Yearly Meeting. He lives in Maine and worships at Brunswick Meeting.
By Lloyd Lee Wilson. Pendle Hill Pamphlets (Number 427), 2014. 36 pages. $7/pamphlet.
Reviewed by Paul Buckley
The parable of the Good Samaritan has seeped so deeply into our culture that we cannot imagine how it sounded—or how it felt—to Jesus’s audience when he first told it. Lloyd Lee Wilson has written a plea that we recognize and acknowledge the Samaritans in our lives. He invites us to have the courage to name those who are the enemies we are called on to love. Even harder, he wants us to actually love them—not theoretically or from a distance; he wants us to love them in-person and as persons.
Who is a Samaritan for us today? For our kind of Quaker, a Samaritan is a white, male, social conservative. A Samaritan stands outside an abortion clinic, pleading with the women coming up the sidewalk to turn around. She attends an evangelical megachurch, votes Republican, and works in public relations for a coal company. He has a concealed carry permit and takes his handgun with him whenever and wherever he can.
This pamphlet rests on the premise that we—not just Friends, but all humanity—are called to live, here and now, in the Kingdom of God. This requires us to turn our backs on the blandishments of our culture and follow the teachings and example of Jesus in our everyday lives. Wilson lists three fundamental principles for doing so: inclusiveness, kenosis, and nonviolence. We might identify these with the testimonies of equality, simplicity, and peace, but Wilson is calling for something deeper than our usual practice.
Inclusiveness requires us to truly love the rich and powerful, the politically unenlightened, the bigoted and narrow-minded, just as much as we love the oppressed, the needy, and the disadvantaged. The Kingdom of God includes those who are whiners, vindictive, and spiteful. If we live there, these are our neighbors.
Kenosis is the theological term for the “self-emptying” of Jesus when he took on human form. As it applies to people today, it starts with simplicity and selflessness, but it also compels us to admit the pride we feel for being simple and selfless, and to shed it.
Perhaps hardest of all, Wilson asks us to recognize how often coercion creeps into our nonviolence. The Kingdom of God will not be ushered in by shaming, legislation, or sanctions. When we attempt to achieve undeniably good results by coercive means, we are adopting the ways of what earlier Friends called “the world.” Well-intentioned coercion can change outward behavior, but it does not change hearts.
While you can profitably read this pamphlet alone, its message is multiplied when it is explored in the company of others. Part of what Wilson is asking of us is to renounce the wider culture’s cult of individualism. Living in the Kingdom of God entails accepting that we are members of communities and assuming the obligations that membership brings.
Read this with your meeting. Wrestle with it and with each other. It will strengthen you and your community.
Paul Buckley is a member of North Meadow Circle of Friends in Indianapolis, Ind. He is the author of numerous articles and books on Quaker history, faith, and practice. His most recent book is The Essential Elias Hicks.
Spiritual Accompaniment: An Experience of Two Friends Traveling in the Ministry
By Cathy Walling and Elaine Emily. Pendle Hill Pamphlets (Number 428), 2014. 36 pages. $7/pamphlet.
A Friend who feels a nudge, or urge, or leading, or call to travel in the ministry often seeks to learn from those who have gone before, and therefore reaches for journals of earlier Friends who experienced the same leading. But we do not have a rich supply of written experiences of those called to accompany, or elder, or mentor those led to a more visible ministry. In the past few decades, there has been a renewed interest in eldering. One of its manifestations is accompaniment. In an effort to begin to fill the void of written experiences that might offer guidance along the way for other Friends led to this form of eldership, Cathy Walling and Elaine Emily offer this honest account of their experience traveling to Australia in 2008. It is not intended as a template for the way accompaniment eldering must be done. Ministering Friends differ widely in their temperament; willingness to depend upon the Spirit in the moment; physical condition (health, strength, and endurance); and emotional stamina. A mature accompanying Friend is very important for keeping the one bringing the ministry grounded and in helping the message come forth.
For those readers nervous about the whole idea of eldering, this is the definition offered: “the practice of nurturing, affirming, and supporting the movement of the Spirit within the monthly meeting and within individuals.”
Those who confidently assume they can travel in the ministry alone may not be going deep enough, or surrendering sufficiently into the Life of the Spirit. The kind of ministry described here is different from facilitating a workshop, no matter how competently it may be accomplished. Jesus sent his disciples out in pairs, as did early Friends. We are now rediscovering how and why that is so important when working with matters of the Spirit.
The pamphlet tells of the process leading up to the trip with the multiple levels of discernment involving other Friends. This reflects a sense of participation in a larger, unfolding plan. Patience is both a requirement and a natural fruit of right order. It is not a question of making the trip happen but of obediently taking each step as way opens.
Walling recounts in some detail the contents and process of Emily’s workshop at the Australian Yearly Meeting sessions. She also holds up “reflections” on their process. Their roles as “minister” and “elder” were complementary and fluid, rather than rigid. There is a sense of inward joy at being rightly used, and being given inwardly everything that is needed. These are things that are recorded in old Friends journals and that I have experienced in my own yokefellowship with Connie Green. There is an interesting internal difference between the work one does when “on,” allowing the Spirit to minister through one, and the rest of life where one works out of one’s own intellect, strength, and experience. The difference is often observable to onlookers, as well.
Walling tells of the experience of night wakefulness and prayer, of ideas appearing while in bed. She writes of their ongoing discernment of how to spend their time, of the importance of remembering that the ministry is paramount and must be protected. Friends are hungry for spiritual leadership or assistance, and there are situations that can be emotionally and spiritually draining. The level of strength or tolerance varies widely among individuals, and a wise elder can be of great assistance in shielding a minister who has gone very deep and feels raw and exposed.
Walling is quick to label what others do as “ministry.” This helps evoke gifts that the community needs, and underscores the Quaker experience that each of us can be a minister. The danger comes if the label is applied too quickly so that the experience of ministry is cheapened and blurred with “kindness” or “hospitality.” Ministry is a spectrum, and these things minister, too. Spirit-led ministry is dependent upon God, and its possibility is cultivated by an intention to reorient one’s life to listen for and obey divine nudges. This is the antidote that our Society and “this age” so desperately need.
This pamphlet isn’t necessarily for everyone. But those who are looking for examples of accompanying eldership will find it offers some individual experiences, as well as more general helpful advice. Discussion questions are provided.
Marty Grundy, a member of Cleveland (Ohio) Meeting and Lake Erie Yearly Meeting, was the first clerk of Friend General Conference’s Traveling Ministries Program Committee. She and Connie McPeak Green have accompanied one another while traveling in the ministry.
Gaza Writes Back: Short Stories from Young Writers in Gaza, Palestine
Edited by Refaat Alareer. Just World Books, 2013. 205 pages. $20/paperback; $9.99/eBook.
Reviewed by Steve Tamari
Quaker engagement with Palestine goes back to the founding of the Friends Girls’ School in Ramallah in 1869. American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) was at the forefront of relief efforts for refugees flooding into Gaza in 1948. Since then, Gaza has been traumatized by a series of wars which have intensified in recent years. Since 2006, Gazans have been subject to a severe Israeli military blockade. In 2008–09, the territory suffered a bombardment which left over 1,400 dead, mostly civilians. As of this writing, over 2,200 Palestinians—again, the majority civilians—have been killed in the latest Israeli campaign.
It was not easy to concentrate while reading these stories by young authors responding to the 2008-09 bombings. Even as I read their words, they endured another more brutal assault. Editor Refaat Alareer’s brother Hamada was killed in late July. I wonder about the fate of the others and their families and friends.
Alareer, who teaches English and literature at the Islamic University in Gaza, wrote the introduction, which summarizes the events of 2008–09 and introduces the writers as a new voice in Palestinian literature and activism—where women writers outnumber their male counterparts and where the Internet and social media have transformed the literary and activist landscape. Alareer writes in the introduction:
Gaza Writes Back comes to resist Israel’s attempts to murder these emerging voices, to squander the suffering of the martyrs, and to bleach the blood, to dam the tears, and to smother the screams . . . Gaza Writes Back provides conclusive evidence that telling stories is an act of life, that telling stories is resistance, and that telling stories shapes our memories.
Alareer has collected 23 short stories from 15 writers, 12 of them women, and all in their early 20s. The majority are graduates of the English Language and Literature Program at the Islamic University of Gaza. Several are bloggers and media savvy human rights activists who are fighting for the sake of their compatriots, with keyboard and the Internet as their weapons of choice. The book includes short bios and photos.
The buzzing of drones, the roar of Merkava tanks, and the pounding of missiles launched by F-16s punctuate many of the stories. Characters in more than a few are trapped in underground tunnels or beneath destroyed buildings. In Rawan Yaghi’s “Please Shoot to Kill,” the narrator says, “I was never trapped in so little a space. My world felt so narrow.” The Gaza Strip itself is only 25 miles long and 5 miles wide with a population approaching two million. Yaghi’s story makes narrowness within narrowness palpable.
I was captivated by the portrayal of Israelis in several of the stories. In Noor El-Borno’s “A Wish for Insomnia,” Ezra, an Israeli soldier responsible for atrocities in Gaza, is wracked by nightmares in which he can’t distinguish between his victims and his own family. In “Canary” by Nour Al-Sousi, a dance of death unfolds when a female Israeli soldier begins to act on her attraction to another soldier. He turns out to be a Palestinian terrorist posing as an Israeli. As she approaches him, “Their eyes met. Fear and frustration flowed. It filled the place. Her finger was on the trigger. His finger was on the trigger. Death carried them both to the unknown.”
If these authors believed that death and destruction spelled the entirety of Gaza’s experience, they would not have been compelled to “write back.” These stories are grounded in a love for the land and its people and the conviction that justice will prevail. Hanan Habashi’s “L is for Life” captures the mix of attachment to family and land that keeps Palestinian hope alive: “It is when darkness prevails that I sit by the window to look past all those electricity-free houses, smell the sweet scent of a calm Gaza night, feel the fresh air going straight to my heart, and think of you, of me, of Palestine, of the crack, of the blank wall, of you, of Mama, of you, of my history class, of you, of God, of Palestine—of our incomplete story.”
Indeed, the story remains incomplete as one punishing chapter follows another. I am willing to wager, however, that all these authors will keep “writing back.”
In April, Alareer and contributing writers Yousef M. Aljamal and Rawan Yaghi did a national tour co-sponsored by AFSC. You can see an interview and a reading from the tour at afsc.org.
Steve Tamari is a member of St. Louis (Mo.) Meeting and has lived in Palestine. He teaches Middle East history at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and is the son of a Palestinian father.
Outing the Bible: Queer Folks, God, Jesus, and the Christian Scriptures
By Nancy Wilson. LifeJourney Press, 2013. 182 pages. $14.99/paperback; $9.95/eBook.
Reviewed by Mitchell Santine Gould
I expected Reverend Nancy Wilson’s arguments for the appearance of same-sex love in the Bible to be rather superficial. However, she successfully exposes the entire tradition of biblical scholarship in covert or overt instances of homophobic editing. Modern scholarship conclusively explodes the popular myth that the Bible provides any significant advocacy for the inflammatory “one man, one woman” agenda of today’s fundamentalism. On the contrary, it’s inarguable that the Bible was the product of a polygamous culture, and as Wilson points out, Jesus himself could be pointedly dismissive of the institution of marriage, as was Paul subsequently.
Wilson begins by addressing the “clobber verses” used to demonize sexual minorities. But more essentially, Outing the Bible deals with the mystery of the eunuchs, whose frequent and prominent appearance throughout both the Jewish and Christian books has been anxiously minimized by nervous theologians. Wilson provides many cogent reasons for thinking eunuchs were not necessarily literally castrated males. However, Matthew 19:10–12 is the only proof one needs to see that Jesus himself understood the term to describe a variety of reasons a eunuch might be “cut off” from straight society: he could have been born that way; he could have been “made that way by others”; or he could have “made himself that way for the kingdom of heaven”!
At the same time, Wilson has very much of great importance yet to learn about the historic intersections of gay spirituality with religious traditions. For example, she writes: “The ‘love that dare not speak its name’ did not dare to theologize much about itself—or even to philosophize much—until recent times.”
Mitchell Santine Gould enables financial advisors to collect data for use in emergencies. Curator of Leavesofgrass.org, he is the leading authority on Walt Whitman’s rise among “sailors, lovers, and Quakers.” Together with the LGBT Religious Archives Network, he documents the historical intersection between Quakers and gay people.
Qur’an in Conversation
By Michael Birkel. Baylor University Press, 2014. 292 pages. $39.95/hardcover.
Reviewed by Ellen Michaud
With Qur’an in Conversation, Michael Birkel—author, scholar, and professor of religion at Earlham School of Religion—has opened a significant conversation with 20 North American Muslim scholars, professors, and imams that illuminates the evolution of what Birkel terms a “distinctively North American expression” of Islam. Birkel writes:
While it is admittedly not an easy season to be a Muslim here in an age of such suspicion, distrust, and misrepresentation, at the same time it is intellectually and spiritually an extraordinary time and place to be a Muslim thinker and believer. Muslims from a great variety of ethnic and sectarian backgrounds meet here and respond to the particular challenges and opportunities of North America in the early twenty-first century. Political and social realities that created tensions among these groups in their places of origin often have less meaning in this new context, allowing for a vibrant coming together of people and ideas. Just as Muslims found unique and pertinent manifestations in other lands and cultures, distinctly North American expressions are evolving in response to contemporary needs and conditions.
Drawing together myriad voices that reflect this emerging Islam, Birkel reveals an Islam rooted in reverence for the Qur’an “as it is understood, and lived out in North America.”
The result is a significant gift. In a series of 24 reflective essays focused on verses and themes within the Qur’an, the voices Birkel has gathered—including those of nine women—speak with clarity, intelligence, passion, and devotion to God.
While too many North Americans tend to view Muslims as “backward people from far away” who practice a religion that is “oppressive of women, intolerant of other faiths, zealous to impose a tyrannical theocracy, and incapable of freedom of thought,” the conversations to which Birkel’s essayists contribute challenge that view and show us a completely different people. They reveal Muslims who are concerned with not just the “right” way to read the Qur’an, but with reading it in the light of its core messages—messages that emphasize mercy, justice, kindness, good deeds, care for others, and religious diversity as a divine intention.
The conversation Birkel opens among his contributors is particularly important because while American Muslims have been having these conversations among themselves for 50 years or so, the North American non-Muslim has generally not been a part of the dialogue.
This book invites us to listen in.
Ellen Michaud is a former book review editor of Friends Journal and past Writer-in-Residence at Earlham School of Religion. She is the author of Blessed: Living a Grateful Life (which was named by USA BookNews as the #1 Spiritual Inspiration Book of the Year in 2011). She is a member of South Starksboro (Vt.) Meeting.
Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but Not Religious
By Linda A. Mercadante. Oxford University Press, 2014. 323 pages. $29.95/hardcover; $19.99/eBook.
Reviewed by Phila Hoopes
“Spiritual but not religious”—what comes into your mind when you hear those words? By some definitions, the phrase could be an apt description of Friends, as we seek the inward Light rather than the outward forms of religiosity.
However this term is defined—and there seems to be a unique definition for every person who self-identifies so—it is one of the monikers for the fastest-growing faith demographic in America today. Also known as “Unaffiliateds” and “Nones,” they represented at least 20 percent of the population in 2012, outnumbering mainline Protestants!
More than anything, these are experiential seekers (as found by author Linda A. Mercadante through nearly 100 in-depth interviews with “SBNRs” across the United States) who are turning away from pro forma, exclusivist institutional religion, and top-down dogma. In Belief without Borders, Mercandante, a former SBNR now ordained as a Presbyterian minister, chronicles her own changing approach to organized religion as she explores the perspectives of those who are choosing the periphery.
Make no mistake: this is an important book. Timely, topical, and scholarly, it’s exhaustively researched, endnoted, and indexed. Far from being a dry statistical study, however, it’s juicy and riveting, exploring some of the deepest questions and most pervasive trends in our culture today.
From an intellectual curiosity about the SBNR cultural phenomenon, Mercadante was propelled into their world through a personal brush with cancer, as “with my diagnosis came a free ticket to any number of classes, seminars, and lessons that dealt with the same spiritual practices my interviewees pursued at great expense.” Her journey led her through yoga and meditation centers, retreat houses, medical centers, and churches, and she came away “convinced that a profound spiritual change is going on in America.”
After putting the movement into a historical context, she lays out the framework of her research. Her interviewees ran the gamut—a bell curve ranging from the Greatest Generation (born between 1901 and 1924) through the Silent Generation (born 1925–1945) and the Baby Boomers (1946–1964) to the Gen Xers (1965–1981) and the Millennials (1981 and later).
Mercadante approached each interview with questions based on four themes: (1) Transcendence: Is there anything larger than myself, any sacred or transcendent dimension, any Higher Power?; (2) Human Nature: What does it mean to be human?; (3) Community: Is spiritual growth primarily a solitary process or is it done with others?; (4) Afterlife: What will happen to me, if anything, after death?
Emerging from a wide variety of religious heritages (Christian, non-Christian, atheist, and agnostic), the interviewees were grouped into five general categories: Dissenters (people who stay away from institutional religion); Casuals (for whom “religious and spiritual practices are primarily functional”); Explorers (characterized by a “spiritual wanderlust”); Seekers (those looking for a spiritual home); and Immigrants (who “have moved to a new spiritual ‘land’” and “were trying to adjust to this new identity and community”).
Mercadante dives deep in following her interviewees, their stories, and their thoughts on each of the themes, and—as an SBNR myself—I found her selections powerfully resonant. Some, for example, found a “righteousness of not belonging,” patching together interspiritual assortments of beliefs and practices, virtually creating religions of their own or finding other alternative approaches to personal faith and practice. Many were pursuing healing paths of personal development, feeling that this would automatically radiate out into the world. Some balanced precariously between personal goodness and doing good in the world through volunteerism and professional nonprofit work, though these were a minority. (For this latter group, a further theme, that of outward vocation or calling, fairly screamed its absence. The question was not asked, nor was it answered, even implicitly. Incredulously, I wrote to ask the author about this silence, and she verified: no one brought the topic up at all.)
With this in mind, I found Mercadente’s closing analysis particularly thought-provoking. She projects the implications of the growing SBNR movement on the future of religion in America as “authority, trust, belief, and divinity itself (are moved) from ‘out there’ to ‘in here.’” While this is laudable and healthy, she asks, what happens in a generation or so if institutional religion and all it provides to the culture—not only spiritually but also in terms of social services—is no longer a significant force? What happens when learned dogma and religious ethics have ceased to provide even an influence for building personal belief systems? What is valuable in institutional religion, how can it be healthily reframed for a changing population, and what should be allowed to die?
This is a conversation, I believe, to which the historically mystical and prophetic Friends could have much to add.
Phila Hoopes is a freelance copywriter, poet, and blogger (soulpathsthejourney.org), a student of creation spirituality and permaculture, with a passion for tracking deep connections in the mystical experience of the Divine across faith traditions. She is a member of Homewood Meeting in Baltimore, Md.
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
By Robin Wall Kimmerer. Milkweed Editions, 2013. 384 pages. $18/paperback or eBook.
In the Light of Justice: The Rise of Human Rights in Native America
By Walter R. Echo-Hawk. Fulcrum Publishing, 2013. 279 pages. $19.95/paperback.
Two titles reviewed by Pamela Haines
How does one sit with great love and great wrong? How does one look at brokenness all around one’s beloved people, treasure what is whole, and use the wisdom in one’s tradition to point a way forward for everyone? These books are guides on that journey. In the Light of Justice, by Walter Echo-Hawk, uses the framework of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People to suggest a way to address the human rights of Native Americans in this country. Robin Wall Kimmerer, in Braiding Sweetgrass, includes among her indigenous people the native plants and animals, braiding together that people’s wisdom, her botany expertise, and her deep and personal love for the land.
These books couldn’t be more different in tone. Echo-Hawk, a lawyer for decades, lays out the main points of his argument carefully at the beginning, then works his way methodically and exhaustively through them. Kimmerer, a storyteller as well as a botanist, draws you into her world from a variety of angles, pulling you ever deeper into her knowledge of the unity of all things. One speaks more to the head, the other more to the heart. Both expose the wounds that a colonist-and-settler mentality has inflicted on the natives of this land, and on all of us.
These unhealed wounds are familiar, though we don’t like to think of them: Native people defined as less than human—tricked, lied to, pushed off their land; children torn from families into forced assimilation in Indian schools, leaving a swath of trauma, poverty, and despair; virgin forests clear cut, prairie soils washed and blown away, wetlands filled in for monocultures and industry, leaving a traumatized, polluted, and impoverished land, struggling to support the life that depends on it.
We know all of this. We don’t want it to be true. Our hearts break, and many of us look away. Neither Echo-Hawk nor Kimmerer has the option to look away. Yet as they look back to the wrongs of the past and survey the damage in the present, they both are rooted in what is right and whole, and how that can light a way home.
Echo-Hawk argues that a major missing ingredient in the quest for justice for Native Americans has been a foundation of human rights law. While our country was founded on the these ideals, Native Americans were essentially written out of the contract, and a hodgepodge of mostly blatantly racist legal precedents has been built up over the years to address the vexing “Indian question”: “Tribal communities resemble the scene of a terrible crime, where residents reel from inherited suffering and scars of depression, prolonged unresolved grief, substance abuse, and suicide. And what is the crime? It is the legacy of conquest.” This legacy, he says, “sorely impugns our self-image, core values, and origin myth; and we cannot face those inner demons without being overcome by paralyzing guilt. Our legal system of remedial justice is adept at righting wrongs against victims who present individual claims, but it stops short at reparative justice for collective wrongs committed against groups, especially when the wrongdoer is the American nation.”
He sees the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People as offering the best new possibility in over 150 years to change this situation. Ratified in 2007 by 144 nations, with the United States finally signing under the Obama administration in 2010, its basic principles have been enacted into law in many countries. It creates both international precedent and a platform for similar action in the United States.
To begin mapping a way forward, Echo-Hawk considers the precedent of the decades of legal work led by the NAACP and Thurgood Marshall that culminated in the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education ruling. He also draws on the peace and reconciliation process and restorative justice models to imagine how something more than a legal remedy can come to pass.
In the Light of Justice is strong—if dry and repetitious at times—in its consideration of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People and the history of laws and Supreme Court rulings on Native Americans (including the ten best and the ten worst). Once he moves from legal ground into creating a movement for change, Echo-Hawk has more questions than answers, but the central point is one for all of us: grave injustice must be addressed if we are to be whole, and the Declaration might provide the impetus to help our country complete its nation-building process.
Braiding Sweetgrass defies easy description. With no narrative arc, it is more like a potter’s wheel, offering reflections and stories that center around a common theme. Whether she is contrasting the unity of indigenous knowledge with the separation required for a Western botany degree, discussing the symbiotic relationship between basket weavers and the plants they use, describing the riches of a cattail marsh, talking of salamanders and xenophobia, considering the elements of an honorable harvest, or reflecting on the lessons that her people’s creation and destruction tales might have for our times, Kimmerer is never far from grace. At the center always are learning from the earth, paying attention, connection and reciprocity, wholeness, gratitude, and love. How can I choose what to share from the riches of this book when doing so will leave out so much?
Reflecting on the grammar of native languages, she considers the implications in English of consigning everybody except human beings to the status of “it”; and what if our places were also verbs, so that their “beingness” was made explicit? What, she asks, if we in the Northeast claimed citizenship in the Maple Nation? Rather than a Bill of Rights, we would more likely have a Bill of Responsibilities. The Maples clearly fulfill theirs: providing oxygen, shade and natural air-conditioning, firewood, and syrup. Are we doing our share to sustain our communities?
Kimmerer calls forth the ancient ceremonies of the people whose lives were linked with the Chinook salmon, mourns their loss, and ponders the need for ceremonies that celebrate the land today. As a nation of immigrants, we brought our ceremonies of family and food with us, but left those of the land behind. Describing the heart-sickening destruction of a sacred lake through industrial waste and pollution, she considers different kinds of land restoration: just covering despoiled earth with something green, growing plants that help heal the environment, restoring a functional ecosystem, creating a home. She compares pioneer species that grow in a clear cut—flourishing on unlimited growth, sprawl, competition, and high-energy consumption—with the cooperation and stability of self-sustaining old-growth forest ecosystems, and the old-growth cultures that live in symbiosis with them.
These books hold wisdom for us. I learned a whole new body of information from In the Light of Justice, and I was pulled in, shaped, and nourished in ways I didn’t even know I needed by Braiding Sweetgrass. Looking toward the future, Kimmerer wonders what it will take for a nation of settlers to become indigenous to place, to lose the “species loneliness” that estranges us from the rest of creation. Echo-Hawk, in turn, notes that decolonizing the way that we look at the land goes hand-in-hand with decolonizing the way we look at Native Americans, and he suggests that restoration of their rights opens a door to a new land ethic.
He points out somewhat caustically that “some people care, but would rather be haunted by the legacy of conquest than do anything,” and notes that, while healing unresolved grief may be painfully difficult, it is not rocket science. Kimmerer calls for grieving and action as well, in the context of her recurring themes of reciprocity and gratitude, and I will close with her words: “If grief can be a doorway to love, then let us all weep for the world we are breaking apart so we can love it back to wholeness again. . . . More than anything, I want to hear a great song of thanks rise on the wind. I think that song might save us.”
Pamela Haines is a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting.
This Light that Pushes Me: Stories of African Peacebuilders
Edited by Laura Shipler Chico, photographs by Nigel Downe. Quaker Books, London, 2013. 71 pages. £12 (about $20)/hardcover.
Reviewed by Rosalie Dance
Do you feel that of God within you pushing you forward? This new and beautiful offering from Quaker Books in London gives us intimate accounts of the spiritual “push” that drives the work of each of 25 African Quakers (mostly) who work to build peace in Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.
The 25 one-page stories were chosen from interviews with 40 peacemakers and edited by Laura Shipler Chico, program manager of Peacebuilding in East Africa, an arm of Britain’s Quaker Peace and Social Witness. She has arranged each one beautifully on the page, often including a poem built by arranging words from the interview into a poetic format. The interviewees interviewed each other using a set of structured questions designed for the task.
Collectively, the stories convey journeys from violence to healing to activism. The circumstances of the journeys are all different: experience during a genocide, sexual violence, life in a refugee camp, child abuse, violence between Muslims and Christians. One peacebuilder said, “I think in this world there is no one who is holy. We need to come together and find an answer.” Another said, “And when I reached the place I fled to, . . . / There were people with wounds, / People who had been raped, / People who had witnessed their family being slaughtered. / This is the time that I got this light / that pushed me / to start helping / these people.”
To learn how to help, a pastor said, “We started with ourselves because we cannot offer what we do not have.” And another person spoke it this way: “Someone can’t forgive with a broken heart. / We need first to heal our wounds, our deep wounds. / Then / Start the work of peace and reconciliation. Heal, then forgive, then love.”
With each story is a photograph of the interview subject. The photographer, Nigel Downes, has given us the opportunity to look so deeply into the eyes of each of these committed and spiritual Friends that we feel we can see into their hearts.
This little book challenges us to renew our commitment to peace, justice, simplicity, and truth; it is a book that can give us courage to act. These 25 peacebuilders show us their courage to walk in the Light, with simplicity; they are beautiful examples, every one.
It is available from quaker.org.uk/shop for £12, and may also be purchased by sending $25 earmarked for the book to African Great Lakes Initiative at Friends Peace Teams, 1001 Park Aveue, St. Louis, MO, 63104.
Rosalie Dance is a member of Adelphi (Md.) Meeting and a sojourner at Stony Run Meeting in Baltimore, Md.
With Our Eyes Wide Open: Poems of the New American Century
Edited by Douglas Valentine. West End Press, 2014. 185 pages. $18.95/paperback.
Reviewed by Catherine Wald
This revealing and searching collection of poetry about how the rest of the world sees the United States is long overdue and, I hope, only the opening of a long and sustained conversation.
The title was inspired by Sam Hamill’s poem, “Eyes Wide Open,” which ends the book:
In Okinawa I wore the uniform / and carried the weapon / until my eyes began to open, / until I choked on Marine Corps pride, / until I realized / just how willfully I had been blind. / How much grief is a life? / And what can be done unless / we stand among the missing, among the murdered, / the orphaned, / our own armed children, and bear witness with our eyes wide open.
This devastating perspective on the unique American combination of innocence and imperialism is a fitting introduction to the many previously unheard voices in this book, and might have served better as the first poem in the collection rather than the last. Other poems give airtime to individuals quashed by poverty, political situation, or gender—like this one titled “Now do not tell me of men!” by Turkish poet Muesser Yeniay:
my womanhood / a moneybox filled with stones / a home to worms, woodpeckers / a cave to the wolves climbing down my body.
These howls of rage and loss, epitaphs to the innocent, indictments of the powerful, and prayers to an Entity that may or may not exist are well worth hearing.
I did find myself wishing that editor Douglas Valentine, who calls his role “an honorary title,” had taken a firmer hand in shaping and annotating the selections, which have much to offer on many different levels but often lack needed context.
I believe that if you are presenting startling new—and newly translated—material to a general readership, you need to present some background on of each poem as it is being read. Instead of needed information, consistently formatted, the book has only notes, some with the poems and some in the back of the book. I sometimes went back and forth in the material looking, for example, for a poet’s nationality without finding it.
Still, this illuminating collection makes a compelling read. As Friend David Morse says in his poem “Cell Phones Burning,” “Something is happening. Not here, never / here, but somewhere.” This book reminds us that we need to pay attention.
Catherine Wald is a poet and freelance writer whose first chapbook, Distant, Burned-out Stars, was published by Finishing Line Press. She is a member of Amawalk (N.Y.) Meeting.
A Permeable Life
By Carrie Newcomer. Available Light, 2014. 102 pages. $11.99/paperback. 12 tracks. $14.99/CD; $9.99/MP3 album.
Reviewed by Sandy Robson
Carrie Newcomer’s most recent album, A Permeable Life, speaks with a wisdom that only a deeply contemplative soul can articulate, and a coherence that only a seasoned songwriter can convey. With crystal-clear lyrics delivered by resonant, earthy vocals, Newcomer’s album is bold and deliberate, calmly signaling that she has important things to say and welcoming us to her hearth to listen.
The album eschews intellectual superfluities and instead offers the raw harvest of Newcomer’s long-cultivated relationship with God. It eagerly longs to reveal the magic that she has discovered in the present moment: to “listen more intently to something wordless and remaining, sure and ever changing, in the quietness of now.” This love of the Spirit overflows into an ever-increasing appreciation and concern for other people. ”The Work of Our Hands” expresses her gratitude to nurses, farmers, and everyone who spends their days doing physical work. “The Ten O’clock Line” tells the story of a broken treaty made with the native peoples of Indiana, and the upbeat “Room at the Table” joyously invites us all to keep our hearts open to those at the margins of society. Her sense of humor shows through on “Please Don’t Put Me on Hold,” which laments the frustrations of being caught in a labyrinthian customer-service call system.
Decisive swells of cellos, pedal steel, cooing harmonies, and softly pulsing hand drums add poignance to a core fingerpicking guitar part throughout several tracks. Newcomer’s musical vision for each composition is distinct and well-executed—every instrument makes a valuable contribution to an overall feeling. These are the marks of an experienced artist, so it comes as no surprise that A Permeable Life is her twelfth album. She knows what she is doing, and she does it well.
Newcomer has far more to say than can fit on a compact disc, so she released the album with a companion book of poetry and essays, also titled A Permeable Life. A number of the pieces are informed by her experiences traveling as a cultural ambassador to India, to Kenya performing at schools and hospitals, and to the Middle East visiting organizations dedicated to nonviolent conflict resolution through the arts. It is heartening to hear from so accomplished an individual that rather than rushing to achieve as much as possible in our short lives, we ought to slow down and make more room in our days for love:
Perhaps the goal / Is not to spend this day / Power skiing atop an ocean of multitasking. / Maybe the idea is to swim slower / Surer / Dive deeper / And really look around. / There is a difference between / A life of width / And a life of depth.
It is a singular blessing that Newcomer has created such an effective vehicle to share her life of depth with the world. Relish it and be inspired.
Sandy Robson is an Americana folk musician, performing under the name Letitia VanSant with her band the Bonafides. She works at Friends Committee on National Legislation and is a member of Stony Run Meeting in Baltimore, Md.
Nearly a Chinese: The Life of Clifford Stubbs
By Charles Tyzack. Book Guild Limited, 2013. 224 pages. $24/paperback; $8.91/eBook.
A biography can be an excellent way to enter into history. In the case of Clifford Stubbs, an English Quaker who was a university professor in pre-revoluntionary China, the tale is a tragedy. Stubbs was murdered in China; the title of the book comes from the highest of all praise his Chinese students could give a foreigner. It is ironic that Stubbs may have been attacked because he was a foreigner, since his insistence on respecting the Chinese people, culture, and history may have been unusual in an Anglo. A casual look at the book’s pictures piques the curiosity: Stubbs and a Chinese man at work with shovels, arms draped casually across one another’s shoulders; a portrait of the Stubbs household where the English sit with their Chinese cook and staff; the women included (though segregated from the men) in the university’s classes. This story is a way to learn about the long and complicated relationship between two countries who struggle for a relationship on equal footing, and the unfortunate loss of one who saw clearly the need for that equality.
By Iola Mathews with Chris Durrant. Wakefield Press, 2014. 320 pages. AU$29.95/paperback; US$7.99/eBook.
The great-great granddaughter of early Quaker settlers in Australia, Mathews tells the story of her ancestor and his brother carving out a life in an unknown land. They did very well in several different lines of business for a time, and then there was a major economic crash in 1841–43. When Mathews, a journalist, found a trunk of their letters, she decided to tell their story, including their success and the later events that “chequered” their lives.
Broken Mind, Persistent Hope: A Memoir of Recovery from Brain Damage and Manic Depression
By Thomas E. Hartmann. Tate Publishing, 2014. 320 pages. $18.99/paperback.
Thomas Hartmann courageously shares his story of mental illness and brain injury from a car accident, occurring together early in life. The memoir begins in his childhood, far earlier than the accident, but the whole picture he paints is a generous sharing of the confusion, obstacles, vulnerability, courage, and persistence that have been the center of Hartmann’s story, and of his recovery. It is always good to have stories to point the way to help others deal with similar situations that are initially confusing and frightening all at once. Hartmann offers his story for greater understanding and guidance not only for people who have these problems, but for the doctors who treat them.
Out of the Silence: Stories from a Quaker Life
By Judith Daniel Leasure. Self-published, 2013. 122 pages. $10.99/paperback; $2.99/eBook.
This is the memoir of a “Beatles girl” who grows into an adult who asks tough questions of Quakers today. Do we live as boldly and are we as willing to stake our own comfort and freedom on using our lives to speak for that of God in everyone? Leasure shares her insights as wife, mother, and grandmother, as well as friend to the marginalized, and reminds us that we are called “to prepare our children to be abolitionists for as long as it may take . . .” This memoir is a graceful weaving of story, fact, and observation, but it’s also a challenge to Friends today.
Crucified People: The Suffering of the Tortured in Today’s World
By John Neafsey. Orbis Books, 2014. 126 pages. $18/paperback.
Neafsey is a psychologist who treats survivors of torture. This book includes, in addition to his clinical insights (the book has an index as well as endnotes), chapters such as “Torture and the Cross: Christ Suffers in Ten Thousand Places.” It moves through chapters on the nature and scope of torture worldwide, some political analysis, and the wounds that result and persist. Toward the end, chapters focus on caring for survivors and the healing of nations. It is a difficult subject that needs to be raised up, and this book contributes to our awareness.
A Speaking Silence: Quaker Poets of Today
Edited by R.V. Bailey and Stevie Krayer. Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2013. 136 pages. £9.95/paperback.
This anthology contains both established British poets and newcomers. Like other British writing, it has words we seldom use in American English, like “jots and tittles,” but that we recognize. The variety of voices is the product of anthology, so there is much to explore. Like American poetry by Quakers, the content is all over the map, if you will, and not only devotional in content. I was solemn, amused, and surprised in just half a dozen poems.
Quaker Poems: The Heart Opened
By Stanford J. Searl Jr. Self-published, 2014. 119 pages. $9.99/paperback; $2.99/eBook.
The Quaker manner of worship, never mind a Quakerly way of living, calls us to listen. Over decades, Stanford Searl listened to subtle sounds, and the long distillation of their interplay with his life gives us these poems. It is no easy thing to compose poetry, and here we have the work of decades—over 50 poems—collected by a thoughtful Friend.
By William H. Matchett. Antrim House, 2013. 126 pages. $20/paperback.
Friend William Matchett had a long career as a literature professor and continues to write poetry, sharing through words the solitude, beauty, and peace of home; harmony with the natural surroundings; life’s transitions; and of the time to reflect.
We Learn to Swim in Winter
By Paul Lacey. Xlibris, 2013. 97 pages. $15.99/paperback.
This collection of poems opens with a meditation on the possibility of imminent death, and then touches sometimes gently, sometimes wryly, sometimes in joy on individual moments as well as meditations from throughout the author’s life. There is even one “goofing around poem,” which to me is a testament to the difficulty of composition. Memory is powerful, and here it is shared with compassion and wisdom.
A Sense of Place
By Earth Mama. Round House Records, 2013. 10 tracks. $14.99/CD; $9.99/MP3 album.
Joyce Rouse, a.k.a. Earth Mama, is a singer/songwriter/eco-activist who uses music to share the spirit of Southern Appalachia in particular, and the special joy of belonging. “Bloom where you’re planted” could well describe the sentiment of Earth Mama’s songs about family, home, and the natural world. She uses various instrumentation and musical styles to encourage listeners to love; respect; and protect the native species, water, and land of wherever they call home. Earth Mama has recorded at least eight other albums, most recently Blessings of the Universe.