Quakers Do What! Why?

My second book in the Quaker Quicks series from Christian Alternative Books is coming out soon – I have some early copies to sign and sell, as pictured – so I wanted to say a bit about this book. What is it and why did I write it?

A box of copies of ‘Quakers Do What! Why?’

At the core of this book is a series of questions. I’d been collecting questions for a while – all my life, probably, because I’ve been a Quaker all along and from the time I was at school I was trying to explain what I was on about and where I went on Sundays. In this book I try to answer the most common questions, and some of the most difficult. There are questions in here which I’m practised at answering: I didn’t have much problem writing an answer to “What’s this about Quakers who don’t believe in God?” because I’ve already answered it so many times. It’s not a simple answer, but it’s not especially difficult for me at this point. Actually, the hardest answer to write was for “Do Quakers have structures like parishes?” – the initial answer is ‘yes’, but when I tried to say slightly more, I had to try and cover all the possible options, and Quakers around the world have lots of different structures. 

At the impersonal level, I thought it would be useful to have a recent and brief book which addresses these issues – partly for Quakers who might find it useful as a reference work, but mainly for people who are new to Quakers or want to find out more. There’s a chapter on Quaker weddings and funerals, for example, since that’s a time when people often encounter Quakers for the first time. There are chapters on Quaker worship and things which are sometimes mentioned (but not usually properly explained) when Quakers get into the news, like the way we make decisions. 

More personally, I started writing this book from a sense of frustration. I like answering questions, and I’ll be happy to keep repeating these answers in conversation – but there isn’t always time to give a full answer. I can and do refer people to other sources – for some of the topics in this book, specific Quaker groups have already produced good leaflets or videos or other materials – but sometimes there’s not a single good source for follow-up reading, or the best descriptions are aimed at people who already know about how Quakers do things. So I wrote this book so I have given the full answer somewhere, and if I give a brief answer I know there’s a full version easily accessible as well.

You can preorder this book from Christian Alternative Books or any other bookshop of your choice. Or if you’d like a personally signed copy, email me at rhiannon.grant@woodbrooke.org.uk with your details and I can arrange to post you one (and ask if you’d like to buy Telling the Truth about God or Between Boat and Shore at the same time). There are only 25 in the first box, so get in touch now!

Search terms: quaker values as a unifying force

This phrase, ‘quaker values as a unifying force’, appeared in my search terms recently and I think it makes a couple of assumptions which are worth discussing.

Are Quaker values really a unifying force? Is that what brings Quakers together, or what helps us work with others? And what are ‘Quaker values’ anyway? Is this a useful way to think of what might also be called ‘testimony’ or ‘the testimonies’?

When people say ‘Quaker values’, I think they often mean the list of abstract words which, in the mid-twentieth century, began to be used to describe the actions we are led to take, the ways we make our faith concrete in the world. The list varies a bit, but it usually includes peace, equality, truth, simplicity, and sometimes community, integrity, sustainability, earthcare. These are often called the Quaker testimonies. This is both a strange way of using the word ‘testimony’ – think of giving testimony in court – and tends to make these things remote and sound acceptable to everyone. That has political uses, for sure. But it also hides the counter-cultural nature of many of them. Having an equality testimony could be mistaken for a belief or paying lip-service to equality, rather than actually behaving as if everyone is already equal – as we all are in God’s eyes, but very much aren’t in the social structures in which we live.

Instead of a list of abstract values, we can also see Quaker testimony as something more like the testimony we might be asked to give in court. Like in court, we’re called to give it – and the quality of it will be judged by our peers (the jury) and by the judge (God?). Like a witness statement, it will be individual – if I didn’t see the crime, I mustn’t say that I did; and if you and I both saw it, we might still have seen very different things. Multiple testimonies might point in the same direction (the butler did it!) but they can’t be reduced to that conclusion. Instead of a crime, though, we’re giving a witness statement about what we see as the truth of the world, revealed in our spiritual experiences and through meeting for worship. And as well as using words, we can give our testimony through actions – behaving as if the world we’ve glimpsed, the Divine Commonwealth or Kingdom of Heaven, is already here.

Will that be a unifying force? The list of values certainly can be unifying in some ways. Lots of people agree that peace, truth, and equality are a good ideas. What we tend not to agree about is how we should get there – the pacifist and the just war advocate both want peace, but they don’t agree about the route to it. Sometimes it isn’t obvious – I don’t use any titles because I want to achieve equality, but in some professional settings where sexism is a strong factor, not using my earned title, Dr, might prevent me from being treated equally with men who are my peers. Neither path is an easy or automatic route to equal respect for all people. Explaining our reasons, as well as acting and naming values, might be necessary in order to make common ground with those who agree with our aims but might be using different methods.

Another question we might want to ask is: do we want a unifying force? It sounds good, but it might not be that simple. I would need to think carefully before I declared myself in unity with, or even on the same side as, some of the people who are working for the same goals – but through means that I think are contrary to those goals. Consider, for example, the ‘this just war is this one which will bring peace!’ position. As a pacifist, who thinks that war is always wrong, does it help me to be ‘unified’ with people who hold that view? Or those who uphold ‘equality’ between some people by contributing to the exclusion of others – speaking out against that, rather than trying to be unified with it, might be part of my testimony.

Alternatively, perhaps the searcher was wondering whether the Quaker values are a unifying force within the Quaker community. I would say that they are to some extent. The list of values can be useful as a shorthand, a teaching device, or a test of knowledge – starting any analysis of anything by reference to ‘the testimonies’ can provide a shared structure from which to move forward. However, the existence of different lists in different communities, and the problem of explaining that the lists are recent convenient devices rather than a core or central truth of Quakerism, suggests that they are not as unifying as all that. The lists can also be a bit lacking or weak – why don’t they include Love and Justice, for example? Given that, would we want them to be the unifying force in Quakerism? Do we need anything extra to unify us as a community? This sometimes comes up in discussion where there’s an underlying anxiety about something else – that our theology is too diverse, that our practice of unprogrammed meeting for worship isn’t clear enough or lacks a shared understanding, or that our bonds of friendship and love aren’t strong enough to hold us together.

Articulating our testimony/testimonies can help us explain and teach our faith, and living a witness to the truths we know is part of that faith itself – but ‘Quaker values’ can’t stand in for other work we also need to do.

The Internet is Real

The internet is real. Things which happen online really happen.

Depending on your experience of the internet, this might seem anywhere from completely obvious to blatantly untrue. In this post, I want to explore why after some consideration I’ve decided that it is true, and why it matters.

Recently I hear someone describing a meeting from a while ago in which some of the people were physically gathered and some were present via an internet connection. In her description, she contrasted those who were ‘really’ there with those who were there ‘virtually’. I understand why and this is a common way of thinking about such situations – but I also think it opens up the path for a really problematic mistake.

There’s also a lot of discussion around at the moment about how a remote meeting, for example via video conferencing software, is different to one taking place in person. I agree that it’s useful to get at that difference and notice what does and doesn’t happen – but that difference only makes it a different thing, not an unreal thing.

A meeting held online is still a meeting. A person you talk to online is still a person. A relationship which happens through an internet connection is still a relationship and it involves a connection between two people.

Why is it a problem to say that the ‘virtual’ is different from the ‘real’? When I was young, I was taught that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. I spent a long time trying to pretend that was true – but it isn’t. Words and the lack of words, the way you are treated and the way people behave, has a very real effect. This is not to diminish the problems of physical violence: sticks, stones, fists, and bombs are all damaging and at the same time that lockdown is putting some of us in much more contact with the internet, it is also leaving some people in more physical danger from abusive relationships and other problems. It is to place a value on mental and emotional health which isn’t always present in the society in which I live. If it were true that words could never hurt, they could also never help or otherwise affect us. If it were true that the social world to which words belong had no effect on us, it might also be the case that stuff which happens online wasn’t real.

Words can hurt – and encourage and support. Someone in a video conference (as those who have been trolled or Zoom bombed know) can hurt – or help. At the moment, I’m talking to a lot of people, mainly in the Quaker community, who were previously aware of the internet as an option, perhaps for a limited range of activities or in a rather abstract way. They are now suddenly using the internet for almost everything, and finding steep learning curves with new software and being surprised by just how many things are already happening online. A lot of us are very grateful to have this option – and aware of those who don’t. Some are also puzzled or inclined to keep regarding it as unreal or second-rate. Saying that the internet is real doesn’t mean you have to like it, either: I don’t like mangoes, but they’re real.

There are things for which a purely online meeting is obviously not adequate: getting a massage or going to the dentist, for example. But a meeting held by video conferencing is still a meeting – it can make you feel better or worse, decide your action points and your attitude – even as you might struggle with the dissonance of the presence of faces and voices in the absence of bodies. And the chat you have on Facebook is real, and the connection you feel when someone posts is real, and the affection – and the annoyance and the ambivalence – we build up as we meet the same people again over time are all real. It’s virtual too, of course, but that’s the medium, not the message: a hologram of a dinosaur is a real hologram of a dinosaur.

Implying that things which happen online aren’t real, while perhaps useful for expressing frustration at what the internet can’t do or enabling you to dismiss things about it you dislike, doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the situation. For those who have made real connections through the internet – often an important source of social contact for disabled people, for those who are isolated, for most of us who are in lockdown or social distancing, and for those who anyway chose to connect online through social media, email, dating sites, and so on – hearing that online friendships aren’t real, online dating is disordered, or connections through the internet will never measure up to the standards set by those who can choose to focus on in-person connections, can be deeply hurtful. Please don’t even start down that road. Online stuff is real stuff.

Hotel Transylvania – a Quaker review?

Hotel Transylvania, and the sequel Hotel Transylvania 2, are cartoons about Dracula, who runs a hotel and wants to protect his daughter from dangers, such as humans. We watched them on Netflix and I liked them enough to go on thinking about them, although as you’ll see in this post I have some questions. Inevitably – spoilers coming, although this is genuinely fairly obvious as plot twists go – Dracula’s daughter not only meets a human but falls in love with him.

They’re funny films. There is some cartoon violence – they are, after all, monsters – although this is frequently subverted. Having watched them both, I found myself wondering what a Quaker reading of them might be. And saying ‘bleh, bleh bleh’ repeatedly. (It’s… I can’t explain, you have to experience it yourself.)

One possibility is to look at the themes around equality. Like a lot of other stories which involve ‘normal’ humans mixing with ‘monsters’ (usually human-like in many ways but with extra abilities or strikingly different bodies), the Hotel Transylvania could easily be read as incorporating metaphors for difference within the human population. The core ‘vampire falls for human’ narrative can easily be given a queer reading (as is often done for narratives like the X-Men). The story in the second film where there’s conflict over whether the child is really a vampire or really human could readily be taken as a story about racial equality (compare with the struggle sometimes seen over whether biracial children are ‘really’ black or white – I embedded my answer in the choice of the term ‘biracial’, of course). The emphasis on bodily difference – does the baby have fangs? can humans disguise themselves as monsters? – could be considered from the perspective of critical disability studies, asking, for example, why it is the monsters who have both extra abilities (vampires can fly) and disabilities (extreme sun sensitivity).

None of those themes is a perfect fit. Some of the narrative elements are extremely mainstream – although Dracula’s daughter Mavis falls in love with a human, the story rests wholly on the concept of a ‘one true love’, with whom you, in the film’s term, “zing”. This commitment to lifelong monogamy, and the idea that both partners (and the rest of the world) just know and accept that is distinctly heteronormative. The issues around race are dealt with in quite a shallow way, with one character’s misidentification of a very hairy man as a werewolf played entirely for laughs and an assumption that it is personal prejudice, not systemic issues, which are the root of the problem (‘humans like us now’, the monsters realise; and the aged grandfather who hates humans comes round as soon as he realises his granddaughter is happy with one…). Although the possible representation of disability is more complex, characters are shown easily overcoming physical limitations (can’t go out in the sun? just wear a big hat!) and the moves towards equality which are made by showing ‘monsters’ sympathetically are balanced or overwhelmed by the extent to which disabilities are always the basis of jokes.

There could be a peace theme. Although there are violent moments and attacks, the overall narrative also shows the end of a years-long conflict. Frankenstein (actually his monster, as Frank will explain when he gets a chance) is afraid of fire and all the monsters begin from a fear of humans, after lifetimes of being attacked. By the end, monsters and humans live in harmony – the vampire children’s camp has adopted human norms (mockable ones, of course, like friendship and health & safety), and the human family can come and visit Hotel Transylvania whenever they like.

It isn’t this simple, though. The monster attitude towards humans improves during the two films, but the proclamations that it ‘doesn’t matter’ whether baby is a monster or a human never quite ring true – everyone knows that it will affect his future. The human attitude towards monsters, at the same time, tends towards the touristy. Having got over fear, the humans we see in the wider world usually go for either hero-worship or requesting selfies. It’s nice in the short term but it doesn’t reflect genuine comfort. To return to my reading of the story as a racial analogy, it’s rather like the white woman who told me how ‘wonderfully colourful’ Birmingham is. Delighting in the exotic certainly feels to the oppressor like a step forward from fear or disgust, but it’s a long way short of true equality and can be extremely stressful for the oppressed group, who are often pressured to perform correctly in that exotic role.

Is anything about this film simple? Well, perhaps. Many of the jokes are plain farce or wordplay. The plots are mostly straightforward with easy-to-predict twists. If you don’t spend too much time thinking about it – sorry, after reading this post it may be too late for that – these are fun, kid-friendly films with enough going on to amuse adults, too. And staying at home and watching Netflix is a pretty simple thing to do, and very important at the moment. Of course, paying for Netflix and the kit to watch it on may not – especially in ordinary times – be a key feature of the stereotypical simple life, but in some ways it seems to be worth it!

Theologising on Twitter: an experiment in non-linear teaching

At the weekend, I’m going to have my first attempt at teaching via Twitter. This is a version of the Massive Open Online Course which has been around as a concept for a while – but in taking it to a social media platform, rather than using something designed for teaching, I’m experimenting with something which is new to me. It will be a pay-as-led course (that is, offered free, but with a request for donations). I don’t know how it will go (come and look at #QuakerGodTalk if you want to find out for yourself), but in this blog post I want to write about why I want to try it.

I think I have two main reasons. One is about ease of interaction, and the other is about the non-linear nature of Twitter discussions.

Ease of interaction is the more straightforward of the two reasons. In many online teaching platforms, there’s a clear distinction between the ‘delivery’ and the ‘response’, between a block of content which is delivered live (in a webinar) or arranged in advance and the participant’s responses. In some cases, as on Moodle, the content and the way of responding are several clicks apart – you watch or read, then go to another space, the discussion forum, before you can comment. Teaching on Twitter minimises this distance – the content is delivered in the same tweet format as responses are given, and to reply, retweet, or like is only a single click. I’m hoping this means people will talk to me. It’s like the difference between teaching in a lecture hall or a flat-floored room – both are good, but they have different dynamics.

Twitter’s facilitation of non-linear discussion is less obvious. Some things about Twitter are just as linear as any book – a timeline and a thread are both, precisely, linear. And yet – because Twitter is asynchronous, you can go back and look at (and interact with) something from the past. Because you can link one thread to another, you can loop back to a previous discussion. I don’t think you can make it completely circular, but it is possible to create a spiral, or a path with a series of branches, which individuals can explore at different speeds and in different ways.

To write a book about my topic (the book is Telling the Truth about God), I had to pick an order in which to present the ideas. It can be done in a linear way. But when I teach in the classroom I don’t force people to be linear about it – we loop back to earlier topics, bring things in as they seem relevant rather than in a particular order, form connections between ideas and approaches, and generally build a network of concepts. The book is like a guided bus tour of a big city – it picks out some important landmarks and presents them in one possible order. A Twitter conversation is more like being free to explore and stopping to chat to people at different points – the same landmarks will probably appear, but you can skip past things which don’t interest you and choose to spend longer with those which do.

I hope that this will enable a rich conversation to develop and draw in people from many different backgrounds, with a uniting interest in the evergreen challenges of talking about God. If you come and try it, please let me know whether it works!

Details on the Woodbrooke website.

Prayer and change – blogging elsewhere

I wrote a post on Woodbrooke’s blog about prayer in a time of Covid-19 and change in my spiritual life.

Life update

I haven’t written a blog post for a while, and that’s because all the ordinary things I might say didn’t really seem relevant to life today – for most of us in the UK, life now under a form of lockdown. My life has changed a lot because my partner has come to live with me for the duration. Moving into my space isn’t easy – I live alone for a number of good, clear reasons, and I have a flat which I’ve furnished to suit me – and we both have to make compromises. We have already had discussions about, for example, whether it’s helpful to fold someone else’s laundry, and what meat can be brought into my usually vegan kitchen. On the other hand, at least we have each other, a flat with several rooms, and a good internet connection; and we live close enough to a park to be able to go and exercise outside easily – our once-a-day outing, keeping a safe distance for people who aren’t members of our household, as permitted by the government.

I don’t know when I’ll get back to regular blogging. I’ve thought of lots of words beginning with F but none that I want to write about at the moment. I might leave that for later, or write about other topics. At Woodbrooke, we’re working hard to offer all sorts of stuff online, in new formats and experimenting with teaching through different technologies. I wouldn’t have wanted it to happen this way, but there is suddenly a surge of interest in possibilities which I have always thought were exciting – and if we can find ways to make our learning accessible to more people and help provide social contact alongside our physical distancing, that seems to me to be a good idea.

In an odd way, this situation seems familiar. When I was a teenager, there was a time when my whole life changed in a few weeks, when I went from living ‘normally’ to being stuck at home almost all the time. The internet became my lifeline then, too, so it feels natural to turn to it now (indeed, I’ve never entirely turned away, because communicating in writing suits me much better in some ways than this ‘socialising’ of which you speak). I don’t talk about that time of my life very much – the diagnostic labels I was given, like ‘ME/CFS’, seem to me to lack explanatory power and are more stigmatised than useful – but it seems right to mention it now because of that sense of familiarity.

So, for the time being, I’m working and waiting. I’m also still writing and checking book proofs and the other things which go into being an author – I’ll share publication information here when I have it.