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Book review: Posting Peace, Douglas S. Bursch

Posting Peace: Why Social Media Divides Us and What We Can Do About It by Douglas S. Bursch (InterVarsity Press, 2021) is a timely book with some extremely useful ideas and some disappointingly weak argumentation. The main aim of the book, which is to explore ways in which we can be more peaceful on social media, is an important one and by the end it has some useful, spiritually grounded and sensible suggestions. (By the way, I was sent a free copy of the book in return for this review by Speakeasy – what follows is my honest opinion.) 

If this book was a cake, it would have some delicious icing in top, a boring but adequate Victoria sponge middle layer, and the bottom would be an unpleasant soggy mess of cold porridge or boiled cabbage. When you eat a cake, you can pick the icing off the top and leave the rest, and that’s what I would like to suggest readers should do with this book. However, the soggy bottom layer is strongly present throughout the first half of the book. It has twelve chapters, and it improves rapidly after chapter 5, with the best bits starting at chapter 8. Let me take you through the three layers so you can see for yourself why I describe it this way.

Assumptions, generalisations, and lack of evidence

A charitable reading of what happened to the first part of this book might say that it must have been written in a hurry and without access to good library resources. The textual evidence suggests it was completed after the beginning of the pandemic and before the election of Joe Biden, so this is a fairly likely scenario. However, the unfortunate fact is that the author is very prone to making claims which might be true, and seem like ‘common sense’ from some perspectives, but which are not necessarily true and for which no evidence is provided. They appear throughout the background narrative which sets up this book: a story of change, a story of how technology made everything worse, and in particular how people’s cognitive and social skills are affected by the use of technology. There are lots of examples but I’ll run through three to give you the idea.

Page 25: “Television limited our attention spans, weakened our reading capacities, and shifted our focuses to visual stimulation over an auditory focus.” 

No citation or other evidence is provided for this claim. It might even be true, but how would we know for sure? I like to watch TV but I also have the reading capacity to, err, read and review this book, so it obviously didn’t completely change what’s possible. Did the whole population really have an auditory focus before? Maybe they did to the extent that they were used to listening to the radio, but films and photography also existed, and visual art, forms of drama, and storytelling all go back as far as we can trace human history. I won’t even touch the thing about attention span, which depends a lot on the individual, the task, and the situation, and I’m not convinced is shaped much at all by the medium involved. 

Page 28: “Although not everyone uses social media, the societal consequences of social media affect every person. What becomes normalized in our social media practices becomes standardized in our marriages, families, and friendships.”

This seems plausible at one level, but no evidence is given, and it’s easy to construct the opposite case. Context matters to human learning and communication – as people find out when they realise they know a word in their target language when using Duolingo, but can’t remember it when they try to use it in a sentence. Normal social behaviour in one context is not normal in another – if the way I act on social media is going to become normal in my marriage, why doesn’t it go the other way? But I’m pretty sure that I, and all the other married people I know, behave differently when alone with our partners to the way we behave online. Every day, most people also manage to behave differently and appropriately in lots of other settings, even on different kinds of social media. I don’t put the same things on my work Slack and my Twitter feed, and I don’t answer an email from my grandparents the same way I answer an email from a professional contact. That being so, it seems like this sentence and others like it were added to the text to build up the stakes and make the topic of this book seem important – but I think the people it’s for already knew that it mattered. If anything, a description of the positives of social media, explaining why it’s useful and interesting and fun and why people (especially Christians, given the wider focus of the book) should engage with it rather than distain it, might make this case in a more convincing way. And it might be easier to provide evidence for that.

Page 38: “Before humans had tremendous transportation mobility and almost unlimited access to numerous social networks, we were more likely to learn how to abide in functional ways with our families, neighbors, churches, and local communities. … If we got into a conflict with our neighbors, we had to learn how to reconcile. Otherwise, we would find ourselves alone.”

I’ve skipped a few sentences from this paragraph of fantasy about the past, but I think this is enough to give you the picture. I have two major questions about this whole idea. One is: when, exactly, is this? Fifty years ago before the internet? A hundred and fifty years ago before cars? Writing is about five or six thousand years old, and the oldest known boat is about eight thousand years old, so about nine thousand years ago before those technologies helped people travel and communicate more widely? The other is: at any point in all that history, were people actually good at this? Could it be that over history, a lot of people have lived in dysfunctional communities, been treated badly by their families and alleged friends, wanted to leave home and start a new life, been left alone or killed, and found ways to connect with people who shared their interests rather than their geography? Of course, both of these things can be true. Some people in the past have done amazing reconciliation work – and some are doing that work now. Others have been alone, or worse – executed, imprisoned, transported, tortured – because they were in conflict with others around them. Relevant to another aspect of this book, about two thousand years ago a preacher is said to have been tortured to death by a colonial government.

Vague mainline Protestant theology

The aforementioned preacher, usually in his more theologically laden guise as the Risen Christ, is mentioned a lot and gets a small amount of explicit discussion in this book. I think this divides potential readers in three groups. If you are a theologian looking for a robust discussion of the theology of social media, this book makes a start but it’s likely to leave you hungry for more, because the reconciling work of Christ is the context for reconciliation work between human beings rather than the main event. If you are not a Christian but interested in how to improve social conditions on social media, the background assumption of Christianity might confuse or annoy you. That leaves the target audience at people who are happy to assume a shared Christian background and want to consider social media use in that context – probably a large section of the American book-buying public, so a reasonable decision in that context.

To my mind, the discussion of theological issues is largely uncontroversial within a Protestant Christian context. The most interesting part is the account of Bursch’s own spiritual experience as a chronically ill teenager, where he does a good job of expressing his connection to the God and misses another opportunity to talk about the benefits of internet use. (See page 83, where he lists texts, Snapchat, and Zoom among other technologies now available – I was a teenager with a chronic illness in 2000-2005, and getting online was one of the best things that happened to me.) He also talks about Paul’s conversion and themes of reconciliation in the Gospels, with a few standard comments about the cross and some more interesting reflections in the final chapter on how Jesus handled crowds. This material is the boring but adequate sponge cake part. Unlike the unsupported claims I discussed in the previous section, the theology does do what Bursch needs it to do to hold up the rest of his argument.

Bringing reconciliation to the internet

I think there are four helpful contributions which readers might take away from this book – the icing on the cake. Those contributions are:

1. Trolling as a verb, not a noun

Bursch doesn’t deny the existence of various forms of trolling behaviour, and he’s happy to accept that there are times when the right thing to do is to block or mute people. His reasoning goes beyond avoiding hurt, though, to say that by blocking someone who is hurting us we also do them a favour, preventing them from continuing to sin by hurting us. He argues that we should avoid labelling individuals as trolls because this is dehumanising and suggests that they can’t change; identifying specific trolling behaviours is more productive – so “don’t enable trolling” rather than “don’t feed the trolls”. Of course, some people self-identify as trolls when they choose to embrace trolling as a practice, but in general I think this is a fair point. It doesn’t make trolling okay but it may change how we respond or how we feel about the situation, especially if we can see our own potential to hurt others reflected in the hurtful behaviour we see around us. “When we view them [people who troll] as humans, made in the image of God, making terrible decisions, we can see how their behavior is also expressed in and through us.” (page 135)

2. Contextual awareness and the refusal of simplistic rules

A lot of advice – about anything, but especially about newish things like the internet – is framed a lists of apparently simple rules. Never this, always that. This has its place but isn’t always productive, often depending whether you agree with it or not – only the Sith deal in absolutes, as Obi-Wan Kenobi reminds us. Bursch is at pains to avoid giving “a set of laws” but instead offers “five questions I try to keep in mind during every online interaction” (page 118). These deal with motivations, priorities, and grace – number 5 is “What is the Spirit Saying?” To me as a Quaker reader, his emphasis on asking God and listening for answers is intensely familiar and seems practical. “Asking God a yes or no question [‘God, do you want me to post this?’] might seem odd to some,” he writes, “but I find a clear resolve rises up in my heart when I intentionally stop to inquire of God’s will.” (page 125) That allows for a wide range of responses to different situations, and takes into account your needs and as much as you can know (maybe more, depending on your understanding of prayer) about the needs of others. It doesn’t prejudge what the Spirit will say. Nor does it make claims about correctness: God can want you to refrain from arguing even when you’re right, and want you to articulate your perspective even when you’re wrong. 

3. Emphasis on giving humanising responses (even though it sometimes provokes further attack)

Bursch’s approach is not conflict-avoidant – it sets out to create opportunities for reconciliation by trying to remember the human. He gives some nice examples of this, including some where the person he is trying to reconcile with responds by doubling down on an attack. I think peacemakers will recognise this from other situations (not everyone is ready for peace or justice; not everyone is in a position to respond humanely), but it’s useful to be reminded that this is a part of trying to do the right thing, not a route to sweetness and loveliness all round, and it will be difficult and painful at time. His focus is on responding in a way which is caring, even when he disagrees: “when we participate in the most meaningful discussions, we demonstrate that we genuinely care about the individuals having those discussions.” (page 155) This is another place where he does begin to articulate what is good about social media – it’s an opportunity to join in and to show what you care about. For Bursch, that includes social justice and peacemaking.

4. Practical suggestions and a hashtag for community building around this theme

Throughout the book, Bursch suggests exercises, often including using the #PostingPeace hashtag, which might help readers build a more peaceful online community. He doesn’t suggest that this will be easy or even that we will succeed. “It’s hopeless. We’re doomed. The internet is too powerful and social media is too corrupting for any of us to make a difference. Social media forms us into really divisive, dehumanising, cantankerous people.” (page 164) But this position will be familiar to anyone who takes a stance in favour of an ideal – pacifists, campaigners for equality, etc. – and I don’t stop thinking that war is bad just because I don’t succeed in stopping them all (or probably any!). Instead, as Bursch puts it, “we seek first the kingdom of God, wait upon the Lord, and allow God to set the agenda of our online communication.” (page 171) 

I agree with Bursch that we as individuals, or even all the readers of this book or this blog, are unlikely to be able to change the tone of general internet conversations, but we can do our best to exist peacefully and justly online as in the rest of life. And some things might even catch on.

Overall, I found this book thought-provoking. I would recommend giving it a careful reading, alert to what is supported with evidence and what is assumed to be obvious, and looking for how it can be useful.

Blogging elsewhere: how to explore a new book of the Bible

I wrote a blog post for Woodbrooke’s blog about my process for exploring a new-to-me book of the Bible: https://www.woodbrooke.org.uk/how-to-explore-a-new-book-of-the-bible/

Search terms: “rhiannon grant jesus”

What I love about this search term is that it’s suggestive, but ambiguous. What did the searcher actually want to know when they put “rhiannon grant jesus” into the search engine of their choice? They could have been implying that I am Jesus, but that seems unlikely. (Not impossible – the Quaker idea that Christ is within us all can come to something similar – but unlikely.) Perhaps they wanted to know about a course I’m teaching soon, with my colleague Mark Russ, called “Who is Jesus?” Or perhaps they wanted to know what I think of Jesus. What do I think of Jesus? That’s a simple question to pose and a complex one to answer.

Sometimes I think of Jesus as a character who appears in the Gospels and other stories in the New Testament. I think of him as a character when I’m thinking about things like how he compares to other characters – how he is like and unlike Adam or Moses, like and unlike Osiris or Odin. I also think about him as a character when I think about the symbolise of the actions he takes – about what performing a healing might mean as a metaphor, for example, rather than a story about physical health conditions. 

Sometimes I think about Jesus as a historical figure. I usually bounce of this pretty quickly, though, partly because I’m pessimistic about how much historical fact is included in the records we have, and partly because that’s not the question about Jesus which interests me most.

Sometimes I think about Jesus as an example which tells us something about a broader situation. I can think about Jesus and the stories about him as an example of the kinds of things the Spirit would do if the Spirit had a body. I think this is the closest I get to understanding what is meant by ‘incarnation’ and I might call this a view of Jesus as Christ – Jesus not as an individual but as part of a story about how God works, one particular version of a story which had happened before and continues to happen as the Spirit or Light of Christ speaks to people and supports us to act in God’s ways.

Sometimes I find Jesus profoundly annoying. Some versions of the story make him seem smug and know-it-all. Some of his followers hate my body and sexuality and are convinced Jesus would hate me too, which doesn’t make him seem friendly. Sometimes the Spirit asks me to do things I really do not want to do, and it can be tempting to blame that on Jesus. Sometimes he really is shown, in the stories we have, doing things which are either profoundly challenging (that is, doing things I should do but don’t want to) or profoundly disturbing (I don’t want to do that kind of thing and can’t understand why Christ would either). Of course, the story also says he got put to death by the Roman authorities, so perhaps this annoyance is a way into understanding the situation – and noticing what I cannot understand about his actions and why I sometimes find them baffling as well as annoying may be important to applying the lessons of this story to modern situations.

One way I don’t usually think about Jesus is as a saviour or redeemer. Those versions of the story are very important to some Christians, but I can’t make them fit with my other understandings of the world and God. 

Overall, thinking about Jesus always makes me think about what I don’t understand, both emotionally and intellectually. I have never experienced the personal closeness with some people feel with Jesus. I’ve had experiences I think are similar in some ways – a sense of the movement of the Spirit in my life, visions of and direct encounters with Brigid and Hecate and other goddesses – but the Jesus story doesn’t speak to me that way. Similarly, I’ve studied theology at various levels and although I can follow the philosophical moves well enough, the metaphysics around incarnation, redemption, and resurrection continue to feel weird to me. I’ve been reading up on Hebrews recently and one of the commentaries I looked at noted that the ideas often seem alien to modern readers. Perhaps they should: paradox and mystery are always part of the theological process.

The Voice of the Book?

On the Book of Discipline Revision Committee, we have sometimes been talking about the voice of the book – what do we want it to sound like? What tone should the book take, and how is that created? Sometimes we talk about a singular voice, and at other times we recognise that many voices will be present in the final result – the committee and the yearly meeting, and the individual or corporate authors of sources we use for extracts (and not just written ones, but the creators of images and music and videos we use as well). In order to explore the question of voice in books of discipline, I went looking for some examples, and in this blog post I want to offer close readings of three passages, all from Quaker books – all passages from sections on Yearly Meetings – but which have markedly different voices. Close reading is as much of an art as writing, and you may not agree with my conclusions if you hear different resonances in the passages I discuss. I have chosen three passages from sources which are available online so you can go and read more for yourself and come to your own conclusions. Please share them!

The first passage is from the 1806 “Rules of Discipline of the Yearly Meeting of Friends, Held in Philadelphia”. Like most books of discipline of the period, it is divided into chapters which are then arranged alphabetically. The chapter on Yearly Meeting is short, with only a few extracts from previous minutes laying out different aspects of the process. The first paragraph reads:

It appears by the records, that our first yearly meeting was held at Burlington in New Jersey the thirty-first day of the Sixth Month, 1681, O.S. for the provinces of Pennsylvania, and New Jersey; that in 1685, it was agreed to be held alternately at Burlington and Philadelphia; that in 1755 the time of holding it was changed to the Ninth Month; that in 1760 it was concluded to be held at the same time at Philadelphia only; and that in 1798, the time of holding it was altered to the third Second-day in the Fourth Month, as it now is; the yearly meeting of ministers and elders to be on the seventh day of the week preceding; and both to begin at the tenth hour.

Some of the features which first stand out to a modern reader are the fashions of the time – for example, the use of semi-colons to make sections, almost a list, where modern writers would be more likely to use full stops and create more but shorter sentences, is an obvious aspect of the writing here but may have as much to do with the expectations of the time as a deliberate choice creating the voice of the book. However, the decision to use Quaker-style dates (“Sixth Month” rather than July, and so on – to avoid using pagan names) is a very deliberate one and would have been knowingly at odds with surrounding society. 

The voice of the book is also created by the decisions about content. What did the creators of this book think their readers wanted to know? About history, obviously. About dates and changing practices, about which it’s necessary to give some level of detail. About what’s done now – after this passage, the reader of 1806 knows to expect Philadelphia Yearly Meeting to begin at 10 o’clock on the the third Second-day in the Fourth Month (that is, the third Monday in April). Readers who do not know what Yearly Meeting is or what it does, however, would be very little better off after reading this passage than they were before – it’s a meeting which happens yearly, and has for a long time, but what do people do at this meeting and why? The book assumes readers already know this. The voice of this book is of an insider speaking to an insider – “our first yearly meeting”. It is pedantic, recording details most people would be unlikely to remember, and perhaps designed to remind rather than to teach. It does not rhapsodies or relate personal experience at all, but sets down facts without comment, even though that leaves many questions unanswered about the whys as well as the hows.

Here, by way of a contrast, is the beginning of the chapter on Yearly Meeting from Australia Yearly Meeting’s “Handbook of Quaker Practice and Procedure in Australia” (seventh edition, 2020)

In the previous chapter, consideration was given to the first meaning of Yearly Meeting, the organisation of the whole body of Quakers in Australia, denoted by AYM. Now this chapter is about the other meaning, the annual gathering of Australian Quakers, denoted by YM. One purpose of Yearly Meeting is the reaching of decisions on AYM policy and conduct. Other reasons for Yearly Meeting are the enriching of fellowship between Friends, mutual support in spiritual growth and the discussion of current issues. 

Yearly Meeting is usually held for seven to eight days in January, and is hosted by each Regional Meeting in rotation. A Summer School (6.3.4) is held in association with Yearly Meeting.

There’s no shortage of technical language here but it is handled differently, with a specific effort made to explain most of the terms used (‘regional meeting’ was also covered elsewhere). The voice of this book is more didactic, explaining the purpose of this chapter (“about the other meaning”) as well as the purposes of the Yearly Meeting itself. Unlike the voice of this blog post, which uses words like ‘didactic’ even though I had to use Google to check my spelling, the voice of this book seems to be trying to use plain language even when talking about more emotionally laden elements – “enriching of fellowship between Friends” is a flowery as it gets. However, that turn of phrase is noticeable for its use of a standard play on words; in a book which usually refers to the group as ‘Quakers’ (in this passage, for example, it’s a “gathering of Australian Quakers”), the switch back to the older ‘Friends’ implies the ordinary sense of ‘friends’ as well. “Fellowship between friends” is almost a tautology – if you don’t have fellowship with your friends, are they really your friends? – but the capital letter opens the dual meeting “fellowship between Quakers/fellowship between friends” and makes it worth saying. Note that the use of the phrase ‘Australian Quakers’ also means there are no pronouns here – the group are named rather than being designated as ‘us’ or ‘them’. The resulting impression is more removed than the discussion of ‘our yearly meeting’ in the previous example, but perhaps easier to follow for readers who do not consider themselves part of the group. (Including me: I am a Quaker, but not a member of Australia or Philadelphia Yearly Meetings.)

Finally, here’s the first paragraph from the chapter on Yearly Meeting in Britain Yearly Meeting’s 1994 Quaker faith & practice. This is the start of a lengthy section which brings in both history and commentary.

Our yearly meeting grew out of a series of conferences of ministering Friends, some regional, some national. We may think of that at Swannington in 1654 or Balby in 1656 (the postscript to whose lengthy letter of counsel is so much better known than the letter itself) or Skipton the same year, or the general meeting for the whole nation held at Beckerings Park, the Bedfordshire home of John Crook, for three days in May 1658, and attended by several thousand Friends. This in some ways might be considered the first Yearly Meeting were it not for the fact that the 1660s, through persecution and pestilence, saw breaks in annual continuity. The meeting in May 1668 was followed by one at Christmastime, which lasted into 1669, since when the series has been unbroken. It is 1668, therefore, that we have traditionally chosen as the date of establishment of London Yearly Meeting. But many (though not all) of the meetings up to 1677 were select, that is, confined to ‘publick’ (or ministering) Friends: from 1678 they were representative rather than select in character. Minutes are preserved from 1672.

There is a good deal of detail here, but rather than simply reporting facts the voice of the book is working to persuade us. It gives several examples (assuming that these are known to us already – “we may think” – and of course readers already know about the letter from Balby… if you don’t, here’s a brief introduction) before arguing that in fact none of these was the first Yearly Meeting. Both the issues of continuity and representativeness are raised as characteristics of a Yearly Meeting which will count as such – while the reader drowns in dates much as in the 1806 Philadelphia example, and is assumed to be an insider, a lot more information is given (like details about locations and attendees), and it is possible to infer some things about the purpose of the meetings from the way in which some examples are judged to be ‘in’ the series and others not. The people are called ‘Friends’ throughout and the arguing voice, the reader, and previous generations of Friends are all included in the decision to be made: “we have traditionally chosen”. The method of presenting facts in support of multiple possible interpretations, especially done so quickly in a single passage, is reminiscent of an academic project such as an essay. The vocabulary is extensive, background knowledge is assumed (‘pestilence’ presumably refers to the outbreak of the Black Death in 1665, for example), and only some technical terms are explained (‘publick’ is glossed with the more familiar, although still technical, term ‘ministering’).

I’m not sure that I want the voice of our future book to copy any of these. I hope, though, that a careful reading of three examples shows something of the range of what is possible – even without adding a diagram or a video – and how the details of choices add up to create an overall impression. There are the issues of vocabulary – ‘we’ and ‘our’, ‘Quakers’ and ‘Friends’, ‘ministers and elders’. There is the question of sentence length and style – how many subclauses is the reader expected to be able to follow, for example? And these issues cannot be separated from the issues of content and audience. In order to decide what the voice of the book should be like, we as a Revision Committee will be thinking about questions like: who is reading this book and what do they want to find out? Are they knowledgeable Quakers who want to double-check a date? Australian Quakers or strange people on the internet who want to analyse language use by Australian Quakers? People who have been to yearly meeting before, or people who are considering whether it’s worth giving up a week’s holiday to go for the first time?

Reflections after our wedding

Ten days ago, my partner and I married each other in a blended Quaker meeting for worship. There’s so much I could say about this I’m not entirely sure where to start – in this post, I want to share some reflections about the process and our experience partly in case they can help others but also to remember them for myself.

Overall, it was a lovely day and we were very happy. Looking back, we’re pleased that we went ahead at the earliest reasonable date: worries about unstable health and employment situations, not to mention possible future changes to coronavirus restrictions, seem easier to face with the certainty that our partnership is solid, recognised in law, and supported by our communities. It wasn’t easy to hold a pandemic, especially to get the people physically present in the meeting room down to only six, including ourselves. However, that did make it obvious that we needed a Zoom connection with all the technology and global connectivity that goes with it, and we were delighted that people were able to join us from around the world. That included people who wouldn’t (because of other commitments or the time and cost involved) have been able to join us in person even without the barriers created by the pandemic. As we weren’t able to have a reception at all, we hope to hold a big party for our first anniversary!

One of the things we couldn’t do was get someone else to do our hair or anything. Flower crown made by me. My beautiful bride all her own!

We both cried a bit during the ceremony. I cried when my mother gave ministry about a couple who had spoken during Britain Yearly Meeting’s 2009 discernment process, at the end of which we agreed to try and treat same-sex marriages equally with opposite-sex marriages. (I know, and we knew at the time, that this language doesn’t reflect the full richness of human sex and gender… but it’s the language we chose at the time because it was the language of legal discussions on the topic.) That Yearly Meeting was a big one for lots of reasons, for the Yearly Meeting as a community and for me personally. (For example: I went in thinking that we should abolish marriage because it’s patriarchal, and finished the week accepting that maybe we should have marriage as a thing, so it was a big step towards where I am today!) The moment that my mother remembered in her ministry was a talk from one member of a gay couple whom we had met at a course a few years previously. While one of them was speaking, his partner was close by, silent but attentive and supportive. Those testimonies – both what was articulated and the relationships made visible in the process – helped to bring the community to the point of recognising that some same-sex Quaker couples were already married, and that we would need to make an accurate record of God’s work in this area. I’m glad we have come so far since then, and aware of the challenges we still face as two women getting married, and I wished my mother could be there in person, and I’m glad she could be with us on Zoom.

A pre-wedding picture while the sun was shining. A lot of people helped even if they could only attend the wedding on Zoom – by taking pictures or recording music beforehand, for example. Among the special things I had with me on the day were a lace collar, hand made by my mother (starting slightly before I was born!), and a shawl, hand made for the occasion by a friend.

A few minor things went wrong. One was the weather – we had planned to move outdoors as soon as possible (less chance of passing the virus) but of course it rained. I’m assured this is good luck! Two other problems were to do with Zoom, one in the physical room and one online. Both were actually the unforeseen results of sensible decisions. Online, our Zoom host locked the Zoom room just after the start of the meeting for worship. We didn’t want late-comers to miss the introduction and be confused (as with many weddings, for the majority of our guests this was their first experience of unprogrammed Quaker worship, and coming into a completely silent Zoom room can be strange!). However, this also meant that some people who logged in, but then had a connectivity problem, left the Zoom room and weren’t able to return. In the meeting house, we muted the microphone at the beginning of worship, giving us a chance to settle into the silence and any last rustles not to disturb people online. But we were sitting well away from the laptop and when I made my declaration, only the people physically present could hear me! Fortunately, I realised what had happened, asked my sibling to unmute us, got a nod from our registering officer, and tried again. I recount this here mainly because I was very glad in that moment that I’d heard a story from a couple who had forgotten to hold hands during their declarations (the Quaker wedding certificate says, ‘taking each other by the hand…’) and also had to repeat themselves!

More generally, getting married led me to reflect on the coming out process. As a bi woman, I always need to come out some more – I’m in a lesbian relationship but that doesn’t make me a lesbian (similarly, dating a man wouldn’t make me straight). Mentioning ‘my wife’ in casual conversation is an easy way to come out, but I have to remember it doesn’t give the whole picture. And however much I am out and proud, when I post publicly on social media about relationships, there are always some people who need to tell me their views. Is it really two women? they want to ask, or they can see what’s happening and need to let us know that it’s satanic. 

If I could send a note six months back into the past, to us in November when we were just starting to plan this, my top three tips would be:

  • Prepare for people’s reactions and their complicated feelings about weddings, and have some standard lines or plans (e.g. delete homophobic comments as soon as you see them; not on the guest list = not a guest, here is our copy-and-paste reply explaining that if you haven’t had an invitation by now you’re not invited).
  • Talk to your registering officers ASAP and if there’s anything complicated, get it sorted (and the official answer in writing) earlier. No, earlier than that. (As it is, thank goodness the change of wording to the Quaker wedding certificate, allowing Zoom guests to sign it, could be made by the simple expedient of covering one line with an extra piece of paper!)
  • Actually count how many flowers you need – a standard small wedding is apparently larger than ours was! Or don’t, and relax and enjoy living in a florists’ for a week.
Flowers everywhere. Pictured here: flowers in the bath. This is good because water doesn’t spill on the carpet but bad because you have to move them every time you want to shower!

Besides those, I would say that for me this was an experience of adding the emotional depth to something I understood in theory. I had actually taught a Woodbrooke course about the theology of Quaker marriage, and I have been to more Quaker weddings than any other kind of wedding, and the stories about my parents’ Quaker wedding were often told in my childhood… so at one level I had a very good idea what I was getting into. I wasn’t surprised by the feeling of the gathered meeting supporting us, or the lovely and varied ministry people gave, or the patience needed for the processes and paperwork. But it is one thing to know these things in theory, and another to live them. It is very powerful indeed feel with someone you love the anxiety of the openness, unplanned space with 100 people… and the gratitude when they are, in fact, open to the Spirit and the Goddess speaks among their words. 

And here we are, newly married and getting covered in confetti.

Barclay’s Apology – Woodbrooke post

I wrote a post for Woodbrooke’s blog about Robert Barclay, his Apology, and reading it today.

Writing: sometimes erratic and boring

From time to time, I resolve to share more about my writing process, to let people know what I’m working on. It should, in theory, help me build an audience of people who want to read the books I’m writing, and create a community of writers who are going through similar things.

Every time I make that resolution, though, I come up against twin problems. One is that some stages of my writing process are delicate. I don’t want to share the details too early, in case they change. Last year, for example, I mentioned on Twitter a Quakers-in-space sci-fi novel I was working on, or maybe at some level am still working on… but it got halfway into the first draft and stalled, so it may be some time. (But the one before that which stalled is now the one I’m working on, so I do sometimes come back to them in due course.)

The other is that quite a lot of stages of the writing and publishing process are boring. I work intensely on something for a while – months or years – and then there are long periods of waiting. Sometimes this is a good wait, the kind with a definite end: people who like my Quaker Quicks work can look forward to the publication of Hearing the Light in September 2021. (For those who are following the larger projects, this is the accessible version of the material I researched for Theology from Listening, Brill, 2020 – if you want the footnotes, that’s the one you need.) Sometimes this is a wait which, the longer it lasts, the worse the news is likely to be. In late 2019 I wrote a novel set in North Wales just after the Romans left; it has romance and adventure and religion and horses, and for almost exactly a year now I’ve been submitting it to one agent or publisher after another with no success. Not the good kind of waiting! 

It also doesn’t help that I am often working on more than one project at once. For example, sometimes someone asks me how my current project is coming, and I have to pause to remember whether they are a Fiction person or an Academic person before I answer, because the (possibly misguided) way I am apparently dealing with lockdown stress is by working on two books at once. My current theory – see above re. changes to details – is that one of them is a novel, set in Iron Age England, picking up hints from the Classical authors about multiple marriages in that society, and the other is an academic book, building on my previous work on multiple religious belonging and using Wittgensteinian approaches to create an entirely new way of thinking about what it is to participate in a religious tradition. But only the other day I threw out my entire previous chapter plan and started again with a new structure, so who knows what will happen between here and a finished manuscript, let alone whether it will ever see the light of day.

An elderly friend in one of my previous Quaker meetings used to ask whenever he saw me: are you still writing? He died some time ago but I remember his encouragement and, even if the day by day work of it isn’t exciting or easy to share, I can definitely say: yes I am.

What does membership mean to you?

I’m on a subgroup of the Book of Discipline Revision Committee which is looking at how we understand and describe membership. I wrote the following as part of our initial reflections; I’ve written before about membership and I know lots of meetings and committees have considered it in various ways. How do you feel when you think about membership? What do you think the Revision Committee needs to know about the current situation?

When I think about membership I feel happy and annoyed and sad and the ache of a missed opportunity. I’m happy to be in membership: I’m happy to be part of crew, to be trusted to do Quaker work, and to make a public statement of my commitment to the community. Sometimes I feel annoyed that I didn’t get a birthright membership, and that my process of applying for membership felt like paperwork and not deeply spiritual in the way some other people describe. It sometimes bothers me that membership doesn’t actually mean the difference between crew and passengers: we trust lots and lots of attenders to serve in all sorts of roles, including handling our money and encouraging other people into membership. And although I’m pleased we are flexible about membership in some ways, no longer insisting on a written letter and finding less intimidating ways to have visits and other conversations, there are so many people out there who are Quakers, who are doing Quaker work in the world, who are in or known to our meetings, who participate in Quaker worship other than with a local meeting, who could be better supported by our communities but aren’t in membership because they can’t attend on Sunday mornings or don’t find the community as welcoming as it should be or aren’t sure they would be accepted or think they aren’t ‘good enough’… so many of them that I can’t help feeling we are not using membership as well as it could be used. 

Membership at the moment is very geographical. This doesn’t reflect my life or experience – of moving repeatedly for study and work, and struggling to move my membership in a timely way; and of worshipping online with international communities, some not tied to geographical structures. 

It can also have a very different focus depending who is looking at it. It would be possible to describe membership mainly from a nominations perspective in terms of people being available for roles or not. (Suppose we gave membership as a gift to anyone who accepted a significant nomination – the membership list in many meetings would undergo some major changes.) It would be possible to describe membership mainly from a resources perspective, looking both at who gives money and energy to the meeting and who receives support from the meeting. (Suppose we gifted membership to anyone who donated to us or to whom we wanted to give practical or financial support – the membership list in many meetings would be quite different.) It would also be possible to describe membership from a spiritual perspective, finding those who are most deeply rooted in the Quaker tradition, give most in ministry (not just spoken ministry) and are most important to the quality of worship. (Suppose we gifted membership to all those who deepen and enrich our worship – the membership list would look very different again.) In fact, some of these forms of membership have existed or do exist: nominations committees in local meetings tend to have a de facto ‘active’ list of names to consider, treasurers know who to send a schedule for donations, and the identification of people who have a gift for improving worship might be compared to the historical process of recording ministers. We just don’t call them ‘membership’.

At the moment membership seems to often mean a problem and a debate. Many of those who have it cherish it. I would be sad if we abolished it and I felt I had lost something. But I also know that sometimes we have to knock down an old building in order to clear the ground and create something better, and membership seems to me to be crumbling in some places. It has been renovated repeatedly, but there’s still a steep staircase and some other bumps which exclude people, bits of ancient plaster fall off the ceiling sometimes, and even when you’re inside the space it isn’t always ready for modern life – like that charming hotel room with the exposed wooden beams where there’s only one plug socket.

You can find out more about the revision process, including how to contact the committee directly, on Britain Yearly Meeting’s website.

Queer History in Fiction

One way to approach queer/LGBTQ+ history in fiction is to set stories in the past and create lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and other queer characters there. That’s the approach I took in Between Boat and Shore, and it’s been done by lots of other writers as well. However, I realised recently that I’ve read three books which take another approach, setting a story in the present and giving characters evidence of a queer past to reckon with now. I think this is interesting for the way it allows authors to explore both the possibilities of the past and how we, as a modern interpretative community, relate to it. In this blog post, I want to talk briefly about these three, all very different, books and comment a little on what insights they might have for other readers and writers of both real and fictional LGBTQ+ histories.

The three books are:

The Bones of Our Fathers, Elin Gregory

Documenting Light, E. E. Ottoman

Little Fish, Casey Plett

The three are very different in style and genre. Gregory and Ottoman are working within the romance genre, with their focus on a couple; Plett’s novel is more literary, with the focus on a single central character. All three involve some difficulty, and Ottoman’s deals with poverty, illness, and the closet, but Plett’s is noticeably grittier in tone, with poverty, suicide, alcoholism, and sexual abuse recurring themes. Gregory’s central characters are gay men, while Ottoman’s are a trans man and a nonbinary person, and Plett’s is a trans woman. The narrative voices tend to be clear about this, taking advantage of the modern setting to use explicit language, but at times older confusions surface: can the past be understood in modern terms, and is it possible for someone who thought of himself as a gay man, for example, to have actually in some sense been a trans woman? An advantage of exploring these questions in fiction, as opposed to academic or other theoretical writing, is that they can be approached indirectly and their complexities and unanswerableness given space.

Another difference between them is the explicitness and nature of the evidence each author creates. I think all three are fictional but plausible. In Gregory’s novel, the archaeologist main character is excavating a Bronze Age burial cist (small stone chamber) in which two men were placed together – I don’t know of a case exactly like that, but the Weerdinge Men, a pair of bog bodies initially assumed to be a male and female couple because of their pose but now interpreted as two male bodies, would provide a very similar example. In Ottoman’s novel, an old photograph is the central piece of evidence – again, one of the main characters has professional expertise as an archivist, although perseverance is shown to be just as important in the research process. Old photographs with similar aesthetics, if not the same level of known background, circulate frequently online and some have been researched and published. The evidence Plett gives her main character is thinner, less concrete – stories from someone who knew her grandfather, a letter which says nothing explicitly – and extremely plausible. Having an ancestor about whom there are suggestive stories or some things which make you wonder is a common enough experience that the situation felt familiar to me. There are few ways to prove or disprove such theories, though. 

What they have in common is the challenge of discovering more about the past. This is most central in Ottoman’s novel, a bit less so in Gregory’s, and more like a background or framing device in Plett’s. Together, they ask questions about the relationship we have with the past. Does it matter whether people long ago had similar experiences to our own? Is it useful to know whether they were happy or sad in their situations, whether they embraced their sexual desires and expressed the genders they felt, or whether they embraced social or religious rules which encouraged them to focus on family, tradition, or heaven? Many of the characters in Plett’s novel are Mennonites and the religious background of the community heavily shapes what can be said and done both by the main character, Wendy, and her grandfather. In contrast, in Ottoman’s novel the characters’ own hesitations about what they can claim to know become more of an issue.

As both a reader and a writer of queer stories in historical (and prehistoric!) settings, these books helped me to think about the kind of emotional feedback I and others like me might be seeking in such stories and in historical and archaeological research. There is a sense of recognition, of seeing oneself in history, which is similar to the desire to be represented and see oneself in fiction set in the present. (And these novels also do that – for example, although Plett’s main character is trans and I’m cis, she has sexual relationships with both men and women and I found her reflections on changing sexual attraction over time very relatable.) However, I think it goes beyond what can be broadly characterised as representation. Finding or creating historical characters who are LGBTQ+ also allows the creation of a continuity. It’s not an accident that in Plett’s novel the potentially queer historical character is literally family, the main character’s grandfather. In Gregory’s novel, the connection is more about locality, the place in Wales where the burial is found – but the title, with its reference to ‘Our Fathers’, makes the image much more explicit. And in Ottoman’s writing, the theme of kinship and recognition, knowing about the past by finding something there which matches present experience, becomes a key research tool for the characters. 

To give an example from another area of life, I had accepted that being vegetarian was a modern thing and, while convinced about the moral rightness of my decision, it hadn’t occurred to me to look for other people in the past who made the same choice. There are plenty throughout the centuries, of course, but the possibility only really opened up to me when I read a label in a museum which identified the bones of an Iron Age man who, according to a chemical analysis of his remains, derived his protein mainly from plants. Bam! An ancestor in the tradition. (If memory serves this was the East Riding of Yorkshire Museum in Hull, but I don’t have details of the find location etc.) Finding examples like that enables us to broaden our imaginations and widen the network of connections in our chosen families. This is important in many areas of life, but especially if – as many people who are other gender conforming and straight are – you are told that your experience is a phase, a trend, etc. 

It also enriches our understanding of people in the past – however much I know intellectually that people in the past were the same species with the same cognitive and emotional skills (and diversity) as people today, just with different technology and culture, it can be hard to understand this. That’s especially true of prehistory (someone said of my novel that it was a surprise at first to read about Neolithic people speaking in such a modern way – but genetically, they were modern humans the same as us, and their language would have felt modern to them), but it can also be true of much more recent periods. When I was at school, there was a brief attempt to help us connect with history by working backwards from our family trees towards the Victorians… but even though that is only a short gap, even though I remember meeting my great-grandparents who were born only ten years after Victoria died, it can still be difficult to make that imaginative leap if the people described there seem to have little or nothing in common with you. The evidence of queer pasts explored in these novels helps the characters to make that leap in various ways, and to look at the past with insight and compassion, even love.

With all those factors in mind, my conclusion at the moment is that the emotional impact of that connection is strengthened when it is personal and felt directly in some way: family connections, connections through place or religion, connections through shared experiences of some kind. Sharing this experience with a fictional character through reading a novel about it might help readers to create those pathways for ourselves, and seeing the possibility of ancestral connections can bring us to the existing evidence in new ways. This might help us to create a more accurate image of the past – one which gets closer to taking into account the full range of human experience – but also opens up new directions for telling stories about the past. All historical work involves interpretation, always drawing on our own experience and ideas as well as original artefacts and documents, and although these examples are stories of fictional pasts as well as fictional presents, understanding better the motivations and feeling involved in interpretation can help us to navigate the complexities of it better.

29.04 – anti-vivisection?

This blog post is part of my series on passages in Quaker faith & practice which were written specifically for it, in 1994.

The status of the passages in the final chapter of Quaker faith & practice is a little different to the rest of the book: this chapter, called ‘Leadings’, is an attempt to predict which issues Quakers in Britain might deal with in the future. Since we are now in or beyond that future – I think that, twenty-seven years on, we’re probably past most of what the 1994 Revision Committee could have called ‘the foreseeable future’ – we can ask whether or not the community did move in the directions predicted.

As far as I know, the Yearly Meeting as a whole did not in any formal way take up the challenge presented in 29.04, which asks us to oppose vivisection, the testing of medical and cosmetic products on live animals. This is partly because wider society moved fairly quickly on one part of the issue: other methods were created and testing cosmetics on animals was banned in the UK in 1998. Animal testing in medical research is heavily regulated but also still an important part of the process for some fields. I haven’t heard debate about this among Quakers recently. I get the impression that there’s a general acceptance of a minimisation of harm: a small amount of carefully regulated testing on animals which enables us to relieve suffering in humans is a balance a lot of people can live with. Even if we have worries about it and hope other processes for medical testing will be found in future, it’s a compromise which reflects the reality of a complex situation at the moment. Or perhaps it’s just something people don’t talk about at the moment.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a good deal of concern about animal welfare among Quakers. Quaker Concern for Animals is still going strong and with increasing awareness of the role of animal agriculture in the climate crisis, arguments for reducing or removing animal products from our diets are more visible in wider society than ever before. With convenient vegan foods becoming much more widely available, and debates about the role of sheep in damaging the ecosystem and the role of cows in creating greenhouse gases reaching the mainstream media, Quakers are also engaged in these discussions. 

Of course, the situation is not simple. We need to pay attention to the circumstances in which human beings produce food, including ensuring there is fair pay for work done. The non-human animals involved are not just those which might be killed and eaten, but all those which live alongside crops: the mice in the wheat field and the bees pollinating the fruit as well as the cows who produce milk and the male chicks thrown out because they won’t lay eggs. And some animal involvement in a wider farming practice supports the fertility of the soil, and issues about what can be farmed (or picked or caught) locally and what is a sustainable use of wild resources and what is culturally appropriate all factor in as well. Mention veganism or plant-based diets in a general Quaker Facebook group and you are likely to hear from people concerned about all these aspects and more – and trying, as we saw with the example of animal testing in medical development, to hold all these perspectives in balance at once. Working out what is best for people and plants and ecosystems and the earth and every living thing is not simple and the rules of thumb we develop to make decisions on a day-to-day basis, like, ‘I’ll try and eat only plants whenever I can’ or ‘I’ll try and eat things produced as close to home as possible’ are compromises which let us get on with life but cannot be pushed as universal solutions.

In 2021, animal ethics are important to many Quakers but in the Society as a whole they tend to be positioned within a wider discussion about sustainability rather than an end in themselves. If I had to guess, I would predict that over the next thirty years, some other aspects of animal ethics might come to the fore – perhaps through debates about rewilding in Britain and the role of native animals (say, wolves, beavers, and wild boar, rather than the animals our Neolithic ancestors brought from the Middle East), and perhaps through ongoing research about animal intelligence and the complexities of ecosystems (involving all animals including humans but also plants, like the recent work on tree communication). In this process, Quakers might become more sensitised to our interdependence with the whole of existence, less focussed on single issue campaigns and more aware of the endless web of connections.

Am I right that Britain Yearly Meeting didn’t take a formal stance on vivisection? Are there Local or Area, Preparative or Monthly Meetings who have made minutes on these issues?

Am I right that vivisection is now not so commonly discussed, with animal ethics debates focussed on other issues? If I am right, is that change happening because of the move I describe in towards a focus on sustainability or for other reasons?

Where do you think this discussion will go in the next thirty years? Are there factors you think are relevant to this which aren’t being considered at the moment?