Learning from 2020
This is such an opportunity to take what we’ve all learned from the past year: from our own experiences, from our connections, and from the news (“Transformative Return for Quaker Communities” by Keira Wilson, FJ June). I welcome the uncomfy conversations that are desperately needed to keep the momentum of learning going.
When the COVID-19 restrictions were promulgated, we were immediately able to move worship online via Zoom; those possessing smartphones or computers were able to continue attending.
As somebody disabled by secondary progressive multiple sclerosis, I welcomed the departure from our normal physical meeting space. Our meeting space is on the seventeenth floor of a high-rise building and only accessible by lift, and the lift service is uncertain due to power outages.
Using Zoom also benefited regular attenders who lived far from the physical meeting place. They no longer faced the hassle of a lengthy commute to worship. It also enabled Friends in faraway places like Zimbabwe and the UK to join us in worship on a regular basis.
Meeting for worship for business has also been conducted via Zoom. Our clerks and minute-taking clerks seem to have been able to manage their roles adequately via Zoom. There are of course costs associated with Zoom. The meeting has purchased a package deal from Zoom and is subsidizing those who cannot afford the data costs of attending worship and meeting for worship for business.
Families with children are among those who too often drop through the cracks of practices and schedules. This is not true everywhere, of course, and there are Friends meetings and churches who create a multigenerational community with care and joy. I’ve heard sadness and worry that families have been less present in meetings because of the pandemic. People have wondered if they will come back. But the pandemic also interrupted old patterns and provided the opportunity to re-create our ways of being together, as the author shares so beautifully.
I hold a deep, almost desperate hope for our Religious Society here in North America that we will seek to transform how we gather and connect to better serve children and the adults raising them. Let’s ask why we do the things we do, re-ground ourselves in those truths, and reject “that’s the way we always do it” as the only reason to do anything! We can seek to create for our children a multigenerational experience of faith, where belonging to our worshiping community is preparation to live a life consistent with the principles of our Quaker faith.
Melinda Wenner Bradley
Glen Mills, Pa.
Fitting with Friends
I found a Quaker soulmate in Mary Linda McKinney (“Am I Good Enough to Be a Quaker?,” QuakerSpeak.com, Mar.). I thought I was the only one who didn’t fit into the “good Quaker” mold. After seven years, I realize that despite everything, it’s the simplicity, the Quaker ideals, and values that continually draw me in.
I am a birthright Quaker, but I identify with McKinney. There have been very few times when I haven’t felt comfortable in meeting for worship and haven’t “gotten much” out of it. Merely slowing down and opening one’s mind is therapeutic. I miss worship when I am unable to attend.
Opening up about mental health
Carl Blumenthal’s candid openness about his own struggles with mental illness as well as his comprehensive recounting of the history of some of the Quaker witnessing is inspiring (“Quakers and Mental Healthcare,” FJ Apr.). Particularly of note is his mentioning that this topic receives short shrift from all of the branches of Quakerism. We are urged to consider what might rectify this. It seems that early Quakers, both in Britain and colonial America, had the right idea that “retreats” were important for sufferers, including time in nature and time for rest and “moral, personalized attention, restoring self esteem.”
Unfortunately, our current societal approach to mental illness precludes much of this form of restful and reflective treatment. My own experience of hospitalization echoes this. Following the long illness and death of my husband five years ago and my undergoing a major physical illness that required treatment, I experienced intense insomnia, which led to heightened anxiety and a deep depression. I voluntarily admitted myself to be hospitalized at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn., which was founded in the 1830s as a retreat: offering the kind of restful experience for which early Friends were known. Its grounds, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, are still lovely. Sadly, none of us on my ward had any access to these grounds, nor many opportunities for silence, reflection, or exercise.
I was grateful for one staff member, a social worker who exhibited a great deal of humanity toward my condition. Sadly, many others did not. I believe that I healed not because of the hospital experience, but in good part because many Friends in my meeting and my family were there for me.
Mary Lee Morrison
Lots of opinions about teaching the Bible
When I was a teen, I successfully read the Bible from cover to cover a couple of times (“Being Honest about the Bible in Religious Education” by Donald W. McCormick, FJ May). Even then, I began to see flaws in literal approaches to the Bible, and I began to learn about problems encountered during translation and interpretation. In college, a course in historical linguistics showed me the complexities that arise when translating ancient texts. My approach has been to treat the Bible as literature but not to take it literally. Quakerism is a mystical tradition, and some Quakers have documented their direct experiences of the Divine. I am attracted to the Quaker focus on continuing revelation, and I focus on becoming aware of spiritual truths and spiritual growth in the course of daily experience.
Wilton Manors, Fla.
I think it’s important to emphasize that the Bible reading is a story. And then, what is most important is the meaning of the story in its original context, and its use in our context. The literal truth or falsity of the story may be a secondary issue of some interest but not of primary importance.
Can we infer something in a Bible passage has not happened if there has been a later insertion into the text? All biblical stories were originally passed on orally. The process of writing down passages occurred at different times. I believe scholars have generally tried to address the question of truth—in the sense of being historically accurate—by using the oldest texts as authoritative. But that is certainly not the only way to think about this admittedly vexing problem of historical truth. Why should a passage absent from earlier texts convince us that its content didn’t happen or wasn’t true? What if the content is true to the gospel message? Which of these two options—the literal or the meaningful—is more important to convey in religious education?
More broadly, approaching the Bible primarily as a historical record is arguably not the most fruitful way to teach the Bible, especially for younger folks. I believe we can discuss the Bible’s historicity, of course, but not reduce it to a history text; it clearly was not intended to be one. Its meaning and value can be assessed using other criteria.
We can take the Bible seriously without taking it literally, as many biblical scholars suggest we should. This is one of the several reasons I cringe at the too frequent DIY approach many meetings take to teaching First-day school. I highly suggest choosing curricula developed by people who have a strong grounding in biblical scholarship. Otherwise, we dismiss way too much of what’s really important in the Bible.
Mostly I end up looking to the Episcopalians because they’re grounded in solid scholarship. I really like the Godly Play curriculum for the younger grades, as it presents the sacred stories without turning them into moralistic tales with a tidy lesson. But Godly Play has its limitations: it doesn’t engage the kids’ intellectual curiosity as they grow older and want to probe that a bit more. The Episcopal Church Foundation’s Forma ministry is a great resource for learning about other curricula. There’s a great curriculum for older kids, including ones that simultaneously affirm the Bible as well as doubts/skepticism about it, something that preteens and teens need room to do.
If we don’t have strong scholarship as the basis for our teaching, we end up cherry picking Scriptures that seem to support the views we already have, and we completely miss the boat on many parts of the Bible that are carefully constructed to comment on social phenomena we don’t understand in our modern context.
I was raised in an Evangelical Friends parsonage, so I had years of Sunday School perfect attendance pins hanging from my lapel. As a small child, I was entertained by stories of all kinds, but as I grew older and wiser, I became aware that there were a lot of stories from “The Word of God” that just didn’t add up. This laid the foundation for a general understanding that I was being told to live my life by a book that did not match reality; life was difficult enough without the burden of unrealistic expectations. When I left home to attend college, the last thing that I wanted to do was drag God along so He could continue the onslaught of retribution. I have since witnessed a lot of folks who suffer under the burden of unfounded guilt, and they are certainly not happy Christians. I suggest teaching useful lessons rather than lies.
James L Borton
Grand Rapids, Mich.
Parents reading to their child don’t start a story with “there is no cat in a hat” or “green eggs and ham aren’t real.” They tell a story that has causes and consequences, no matter how unlikely.
An older child or young adult should be given the information in regards to historical accuracy as we currently know it, but reminded these are all important stories that teach lessons in life.
Our First-day school program does a three-year rotation: one year of Bible, one year of Quaker history, one year on the testimonies.
At the beginning of the Bible year, I took a couple sessions to talk to my third, fourth, and fifth grade First-day school class broadly about the Bible. Who wrote it? When was it written? What’s in it are laws, history, adventure stories, stories with a moral, love letters, songs, etc. Are these true? Some people believe every word is true, but there are contradictions, etc. Most Quakers believe some is probably true, and some isn’t. A question could be asked, why bother if it might not be? Some kids knowledgeable about evolution are ready to reject it all at the get-go.
We played the whispering “telephone” game with one answer to the question. We read a list of common sayings and expressions that come from the Bible. We passed around a stack of dozens of New Yorker and other cartoons based on Bible stories. We talked about continuing revelation. We talked about the fact that two and three thousand years ago people were trying to figure out the right way to live and what it’s all about, just like we are.
My only quibble with McCormick’s piece is the certainty with which the presumption that event X “did not happen” is made—just as vigorously, it seems, as others have presumed that event X “did happen.” When event X is something like the flight into Egypt, the question of its occurrence is an engaging intellectual exercise. But what if event X is “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son,” to take one example, or “When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene”? These are events that speak to the core of Christian faith for many people, events for which no independent verification exists, but many of us choose to believe did happen, despite that lack of corroboration, despite their profound improbability.
I assume that most of the time, the Bible’s authors, and even its redactors (like the people who put the story of the adulteress in later manuscripts of John), were honestly trying to give their audience a truth they thought was important enough to include in their book. (By the way, later manuscripts may actually be copies of earlier manuscripts that have been lost to us, so I don’t think we can assume much based on their dates.) Anyway, when teaching the Bible, we can follow the authors’ example and try to pass on the truth that we think is important enough to share with our audience, whoever they are. A unique genius of the Bible is the innovation of doing theology by telling stories.
I happen to think that the flight to Egypt might encode some connection with the Therapeutae, an Essene community in Alexandria’s very large Hebrew population. Did the family actually go to Egypt? Or is Matthew using the story to encode Essene influence on Jesus’s development? Or is he just trying to make another association between Jesus and Moses, which he makes explicit in Matthew 2:15, and which is a major theme throughout the gospels? This latter point is certain and offers the opportunity to read chapters 1 and 2 of Exodus alongside the story of the flight to Egypt, and to talk about Jesus as a prophet.
Reading others’ comments, I found myself hoping to see some reference to what I call the early Quaker hermeneutic, which I wish could be taught in all First-day schools: Does the Holy Spirit (or Christ, our Inward Teacher) “open” this Scripture for us today? How are the Scriptures opened? George Fox explained it in 1652 at a court appearance:
That which I was moved to declare, was this: “That the holy scriptures were given forth by the spirit of God; and all people must first come to the spirit of God in themselves, by which they might know God and Christ, of whom the prophets and apostles learned; and by the same spirit know the holy scriptures; for as the spirit of God was in them that gave forth the scriptures, so the same spirit must be in all them that come to know and understand the scriptures. By which spirit they might have fellowship with the Father, with the son, with the scriptures, and with one another; and without this spirit they can know neither God, Christ, nor the scriptures, nor have a right fellowship one with another.” I had no sooner spoken these words, but about half a dozen priests, that stood behind me, burst into a passion. One . . . said, that the spirit and the letter were inseparable. I replied, “Then every one that hath the letter, hath the spirit; and they might buy the spirit with the letter of the scriptures.”
John Jeremiah Edminster
I hope everyone who teaches Scripture to Friends also remembers what Barclay said about the Scriptures in his Apology:
Nevertheless, because they are only a declaration of the fountain, and not the fountain itself, therefore they are not to be esteemed the principal ground of all Truth and knowledge, nor yet the adequate primary rule of faith and manners.
It may not be hedging to say that we do not know for sure whether a biblical incident happened, more or less as described in the text. There are certainly incidents where we can say it can’t be so; e.g., there is archaeological evidence that the walls of Jericho did not collapse in the era reflected in the narratives about Joshua. But with regard to the stories about Jesus, I suspect that too many biblical scholars are tied to a document model of the formation of the gospels, without giving attention to the impact of ongoing oral tradition. Bishop Papias, who died c. 130 C.E., questioned informants who had heard from those who had known Jesus in the flesh; this is at least a generation after the assumed date when John’s Gospel was compiled. So oral and literary traditions run parallel; each can be accurate in some ways, distorted in others (think of our own family history stories, and of how Quaker stories are passed on). I am privileged to live in Aotearoa New Zealand, where continuing Māori oral tradition often coincides with and enhances written accounts and archaeological findings. So the story of the woman taken in adultery was being told about Jesus, and may have happened, but we can’t be sure. Still less can we declare that it was invented at the time it first appears in manuscripts. Let’s honor it.
Dunedin, Aotearoa New Zealand
Poetic truths are truths of the Spirit. The biblical canon is still being written. (See the American psalmist Emily Dickinson for one example out of millions.) I see the Bible in this way. I recommend the new translation of the gospels by Quaker classicist Sarah Ruden. Her introduction, glossary, and footnotes are helpful, as is her translation, from a purely scholarly, non-theological viewpoint. Her work gives new insights into our ho-hum readings throughout our lives.
If we are literalist, we are literally believing everything that is written in the Bible as though it were history. However, it was not a daily account, nor was it written by historians. It was never written at the moment events occurred but rather in retrospect. It is essentially a book of faith, not a book of facts. It uses poetic and metaphorical literary techniques to communicate truths about the human condition and our need to experience profound relationships through the eye of faith. This does not mean historical references are diluted or misrepresented; I suggest instead that they were recontextualized in the Light of faith.
For me, faith is the invitation to sit in the stillness and silence of not knowing, and accepting that I am unconditionally loved just as I am, here and now. “So do not fear, for I am with you” (Isa. 41:10).