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NaNoWriMo and Me

NaNoWriMo, (Inter)National Novel Writing Month in full, or NaNo for short, is a writing challenge in which people aim to write a short novel – 50,000 words – in a month, specifically the month of November. It’s a Marmite sort of thing – some writers love it, some hate it. Some will explain to you at length what is wrong about it or why it’s the best thing ever. I’m sympathetic to some of those arguments, on both sides. It’s true that 50,000 words isn’t a full novel in most contexts, but it’s a nice round number which is simultaneously big enough to be a real challenge and low enough to be manageable in a month for many people. It’s about 1667 words a day, or 12,500 words each weekend. Other writing challenges or suggested disciplines give similar results: three morning pages at 500 words a page, for example. Of course, morning pages are about getting words down, not completing a novel… but for me and probably many others, so is NaNo. 

Anyway, NaNo is not the only way to write a novel, and I write at least 400 or 500 words a day all year as far as possible, often more. (These days I use 4TheWords, because I like the gamification, and because it has a good system for missing a day or a few without feeling bad about it.) But I enjoy NaNo because it pushes me to work on a single project in a single rush. For me personally, it creates the need to do the research in advance or fix it later. It encourages me to get on with the bit of writing which I enjoy the most, and it gives me the opportunity to share some of that experience with a community. It says: if you don’t know what happens next, add a dragon. Which is always fun.

Knowing that if everything goes wrong, I might add a random dragon anyway, I have chosen to start with a fantasy universe in which a time-travel spell is a key feature… I’m not going to say too much about the project yet, partly because I know these things change when I get going, and also because at the moment my plan is simply to have fun. If it becomes the core of a manuscript which I develop and add to and eventually find is publishable, good – but last year I wrote 60,000 words, the first half of a sci-fi novel, and stopped dead mid-story because my original plot plan was not going to work and I still haven’t come up with a better option. 

I’m not going to post word counts as I go, but will try and summarise the day’s progress with a gif or similar on Twitter

#OcTBR report

This Twitter challenge asks you to take your To Be Read pile (in my case, shelf and ebook collection) and read as much of it as possible in October. I started the month with 33 books on my physical To Read shelf, and 4 on my Kindle. (And lots in my to-obtain shelf on Goodreads and my samples folder on the Kindle, but we won’t talk about those.) I read 28 books during the month – all 4 from my Kindle, 22 from my physical to-read shelf, one from the circulating library I belong to, and one which came out during the month. I now have one book on my Kindle (newly bought, the thing I’m now reading there), and 25 books on my physical to-read shelf, because of course I didn’t stop buying books or going to the library or accepting books my wife has read and recommended. 6 of them are books which were there at the beginning of October.

Before: my to-read shelf on 1st October 2021.
After: my to-read shelf on 31st October 2021. Books to the left of the yellow sunscreen bottle arrived after the beginning of October.

I read 16 fiction books, including 10 graphic novels and manga volumes. I read 11 non-fiction books, including 1 graphic novel. Those covered neuroscience, history, religion, LGBTQ+ topics, poetry, politics, and nature writing. The oldest book was first published in 1911 (although I read a recent reprint), and the newest was published this year.

I also did not finish some books. I had two books about Derrida on my to-read shelf which I had brought home from the office mid-pandemic, but I accepted that I am not actually going to read them at this time and moved them. I started the Journal of Katherine Mansfield, but I found it too bitty to follow without first knowing much more about her, so I stopped.

I can’t pick a favourite, but here are highlights in four categories.

Most fun graphic novel: Ms Marvel Team-UpEnjoyable superhero stories – I’m not a big fan of Spiderman but he wasn’t too annoying in this story (I see other reviewers on Goodreads called him out of character, and that’s also a plausible reading), and the Captain Marvel team-up was good.

New discovery in a novel: No Surrender. I made this category ‘new discovery’ because I couldn’t pick ‘best’ – I read a bunch of novels across very different genres and Gods Behaving Badly, Jane Unlimited, Sistersong, and Jacob’s Room are all excellent in very different ways. But I hadn’t read a Suffragette novel which was actually written during the campaign before, and it made for a very interesting read. 

Best academic book: Kenyan, Christian, QueerAgain, this was a difficult pick, and Empire of Guns is a very close second. Kenyan, Christian, Queer has a lot to offer both in terms of new content and good methodology, though, and I recommend it to anyone interested in LGBTQ+ experience, understanding Kenyan culture, or questions about fieldwork in religious studies.

Best popular nonfiction book: On the Red Hill. I really enjoyed the way that nature writing, historical and cultural exploration, and personal stories came together in this book. It was especially interesting as a follow-up to A Little Gay History of Wales, which I read earlier this year, and Queer As Fact’s episode on Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners – all tend to add nuance to the image of cities as accepting and rural life as rejecting LGBTQ+ people. 

Overall, I managed to do a lot of reading in October. I read more graphic novels than usual and fewer academic books, partly because I was doing a lot of teaching and partly because my wife reads graphic novels and then lends them to me. I read books from about 12 sources – four different library systems, Amazon, big bookshops, little bookshops, secondhand bookshops, bookstalls at museums.  I was well above my personal average (I usually read about 16 books a month). I don’t know whether I’ll keep it up next month, because November is NaNoWriMo – see next post! – but it was a pleasant challenge.

The complex futures of blended meetings for worship

Is your Quaker community struggling with decisions about online worship, in-person worship, and how and when and whether to combine them? If not, great. But if your community is finding this difficult, it might help to know that you’re not alone. In this blog post, I want to share some things I’m hearing from Quakers in meetings around Britain, and pose some questions which I think need further exploration. Please share your own experiences in the comments – there are clearly a wide variety of situations and it’s beneficial for all of us to hear from as many as possible.

So far, I’ve heard…

…that some meetings are having a lot of success with blended worship (with a group in a room together, perhaps in a meeting house or rented space, connected via microphone, speakers, camera and screen to a group online, usually on Zoom). When it works well, it gives everyone the option to attend in-person or online as they choose, it brings the whole meeting together, and everyone can see and hear each other. Even when there are minor problems, it shows a willingness to work to include everyone, and we can keep improving. It needs enough people to act as hosts and elders and provide technical support, and when it works, it can be flexible and gathered and moving. I put this first because although it’s not everyone’s experience, it’s important to know that it is good for some communities.

…that some meetings are experiencing conflict over the options. This is often a hard thing for Quaker communities to admit, because we would love to be wonderful peaceful loving harmonious pacifist groups, but we also need to be truthful about it. In a way, it would be surprising if we didn’t have some conflict over major and complex transition periods. The last nineteen months have been hard on everyone, but the effects have been very different, and some people have experienced bereavement, illness, loss of income, isolation, and other effects of the pandemic much more directly and extensively than others. As the pandemic continues but social expectations shift again, everyone is constantly renegotiating everything from meeting locations to mask wearing rules, and this affects our Quaker meetings as much as any other community. So it’s not really a surprise, even if it can be difficult to accept, that there might be painful disagreements and arguments over questions like the use of technology in worship and the range of worship options we offer at the moment.

…that some Quakers need, or really benefit from, being able to attend meeting for worship online. That might be worship in general, or it might be a specific Quaker community. It might be because of distance, health, personal preference, risk, or other things. It might be to do with the pandemic, or something which existed anyway. It might be related to the individual’s risk factors for coronavirus or to the infection risk they carry to others. This message has been around for a long time (and some Friends with long distances to travel or other situations preventing them attending in-person worship were meeting online before the pandemic), but the forced move online prompted by lockdown meant that it has been understood much more widely. I hope that we won’t lose it in the next round of changes.

…that some Quakers don’t experience online worship as fully gathered. The awareness of physical separation, the distractions of being at home, the intrusion of computer screens and other kit, difficulty settling down, loss of body language and other nonverbal connections, emotional and spiritual reactions to the situation, and probably all sorts of other things make it difficult or impossible for some Quakers to worship online, or enjoy the same quality of worship online. This is also not a universal experience – there are plenty of people who report that online worship is just fine or better for them – but it’s widespread and important. Some of the issues apply to computer screens, microphones, and other kit in the physical meeting room as well as to meeting entirely on Zoom.

…that it’s easy to unthinkingly talk about one experience as ‘real’ or ‘better’ and put down the other side. All sorts of comments can reflect assumptions that either online or in-person worship is the actual meeting and the other kind is an add-on. These might be based on markers that Quakers do traditionally take as important. For example, consistency in attending worship is often valued, so people who worship every week online might think of themselves as the real community when people who only attend in-person seemed to vanish during lockdown. (Even when we know intellectually that it’s an illusion, we can feel or speak that way.) Alternatively, some people put a high value on physical presence with people or in a specific place, and might think of returning to in-person worship as restarting real worship after making do without or with a feeble approximation. If both of those views are present in one community, at least some people are likely to feel put down and dismissed!

…that Quaker communities are already working on, and sometimes struggling with, decisions about how to move forward. Learning about the spiritual and practical needs present in a worshipping community, finding ways to meet them, balancing different and sometimes conflicting needs… none of this is new, but it has taken new forms, and lots of communities are facing decisions about online, blended, and in-person worship at the moment.

With all that in mind, questions I’m interested in exploring further include:

  • Do you recognise yourself and/or your community in the things I’ve said here? What else is happening?
  • How do we make sure we are finding out about the needs of everyone in our communities? What about people who are on the margins or who want to join but can’t or who aren’t made welcome? How does internet technology affect our ability to discover these things?
  • What do our discernment processes need to do to enable our communities to make good decisions about these issues?
  • Whatever format our worship takes, how do we ensure its quality and depth? What helps to make a meeting gathered? How do we detect that, how do we talk about it, and how do we support one another to participate in worship as fully as possible?

Which of your books should I buy?

With the publication of my third Quaker Quicks book, Hearing the Light, I now have six published books and a few people have asked questions about what distinguishes them. It seems like a good time to share some observations about all my published books so far – especially who might want to read each of them.

The two academic books, British Quakers and Religious Language and Theology from Listening, were both published by Brill. These are mainly for people who want all the references and the details. Practically, the price restricts readership to those with deep pockets and those with access to university libraries. The first one was based on the Quaker part of my PhD thesis and looks at how British Quakers use the list format as an inclusive way of naming God. The second one details my research on the core of liberal Quaker theology, based on a wide range of books of discipline and an analysis of some key popular and academic publications.

My first novel, Between Boat and Shore, was published by Manifold. It’s a lesbian love story set in Neolithic Orkney. Unfortunately, Manifold have now closed and the ebook is now unavailable, but you can still buy paperbacks from a few places, including the Quaker Centre bookshop and direct from me.

And that brings me to my Quaker Quicks books. 

The first one, Telling the Truth about God, is about how British Quakers speak about the divine, some of the challenges involved, and how we use lists and other inclusive structures to both name and contain the diversity of theological views in the community. It’s based on my PhD research and my experience running workshops on the topic. It has two introductions, one for Quakers and one for everyone else, and might be of interest to anyone who has struggled with discussing the ineffable. For Christmas or other present-giving occasions, buy it for: Quakers who have questions about words, non-Quakers who have questions about Quaker nontheism, people who sit in worship services wondering what we could say instead of ‘Lord and Father’, anyone who reads ahead on the carol sheet and changes the words.

The second one, Quakers Do What! Why?, tries to give short and accessible answers to a wide range of commonly asked questions about liberal Quakers. It’s based on a lifetime’s experience of being asked questions about Quakers, from the ordinary to the strange, and trying to answer them quickly and clearly. It’s aimed at people who don’t yet know much about Quakers but want to know more, but it might also be useful for people who know some things already. If you’ve found this blog post by searching the internet for ‘Quakers’, and haven’t yet read much else, you could start with this book. If you’re thinking of buying for someone else, this book might be good for: that friend who doesn’t come to Quaker meeting but always asks questions about it, someone who’s come to meeting a few times and looks puzzled during the notices, people who seem like they would get ‘Quaker’ if they took an internet quiz about what religion to be.

The third and most recent one, Hearing the Light, is an attempt to describe the core of liberal Quaker theology. It argues that liberal Quakers do have a theology – one which is embodied in our practice of unprogrammed worship – and that enough of it is shared that it can be said to have a core. (Spoiler: the core is the process of watching for the Spirit moving.) It talks about how Quakers make decisions and why. It talks about how we know things, how we record and share what we know (especially through books of discipline/faith and practice), and how readers can experiment for themselves with Quaker ways of doing things. The main audience for this book is Quakers who want to explore our tradition further, but it will also be of interest to people who ask questions about why Quakers feel they can trust what they discern in meeting for worship for business. You might want to buy this book if: you have questions about the Quaker tradition and how worship and decision-making relate, you want to explore our worship process further, or you want to know more about liberal Quakers beyond your Yearly Meeting. It might make a good gift for someone getting further into the Quaker way, or someone with questions about Quaker discernment.

Of course, you can recommend all of them to your library! All three Quaker Quicks books would probably be a good fit for a local meeting library, and many other libraries will consider buying them if you ask. Similarly, asking for them at your local bookshop helps to raise the profile of the whole series and supports your local bookshop, so that’s good all round. You can also find them all on the usual online bookshops, including Amazon and Hive.

If you have other questions about these books or any of my other writing projects, please drop a comment below or come over to my Goodreads profile where you can ask questions for everyone to see.

Thoughts after Britain Yearly Meeting

It’s taken me a while to get my thoughts together after Britain Yearly Meeting. That’s partly because there was a lot to think about – with dozens of events over three weeks, plus two weekends full of formal sessions, it was longer and in some ways more complex than even a week-long residential Yearly Meeting Gathering would be normally. It’s also because I’ve got a lot else on – other work, holidays with my wife, books to write, washing up to do, the usual. But I think I do have a couple of reflections it would be helpful to me to write down and perhaps helpful for others to read.

The first reflection is about who attended our Yearly Meeting this year. It’s not a big surprise, after the findings of the surveys which Woodbrooke and Britain Yearly Meeting ran last year, to find that the profile of people attending Quaker stuff changes when it moves online. At Yearly Meeting, I heard a number of people clearly articulating a pattern we identified in the survey: there are significant groups of people who cannot attend in person but who want to be involved. Some people have disabilities, caring responsibilities, travel cost barriers, and other circumstances which make attending online possible when attending in person is impossible. Some were new to Quakers and attending their first Yearly Meeting; others have been involved in a local meeting or other Quaker community for a long time and were attending Yearly Meeting for the first time having wanted to attend but previously been prevented. That’s a huge thing and something to celebrate about meeting online.

On the other hand, there were clearly people missing. Our main sessions didn’t reach the big numbers we sometimes see in person, and although a lot of people participated in some of our Yearly Meeting Gathering, my sense – this is difficult to measure, but comparing notes across several people who tried things like ‘looking for everyone from my area meeting in this session’ I think I have a rough idea – is that a much smaller group than usual attended every formal session of Yearly Meeting. (If you have stats or better information, I would love to be corrected or have more evidence on this, so please contact me.) That stands to reason in some ways, especially because when you have travelled and are all on the same university campus, there’s not the same competition. When you’re at home and have the option to join a session online, you also have the option to… whatever else you want to do. And you may be asked to refrain. Even very supportive family members who are not Quakers may only tolerate a certain number of hours spent on Zoom over the weekend! It might also change the balance of participation, though, and the online format means that some people for whom Yearly Meeting is normally a highlight didn’t enjoy it in the same way this year.

I don’t have a neat conclusion to this point – meeting everyone’s access needs is always complex – but having done this experiment, I hope that we’ll learn from it, even if the answers aren’t simple.

My other main reflection is about the three Yearly Meeting theme sessions and how we share it. We produced three important minutes, on becoming an anti-racist community, on welcoming trans, non-binary, and other gender non-conforming people, and on climate justice. I have learned that I will also be glad these things went as far as they did, and disappointed that they didn’t go further. (I remember coming home from Canterbury in 2011 wishing we could have gone further, especially wanting us to adopt a numerical target for carbon footprint reduction, and gradually understanding why we couldn’t do that at the time. Many thanks to the Friends who talked it through with me at the time, and have done the same after several Yearly Meetings since.) I want us to go further with all of these issues. But I also know that we have to take the whole community with us, and I see Quakers sharing articles which attack trans women, and hear white Quakers using infantilising language about adult Black men, and… and I don’t even know where to start on all the ways we haven’t yet integrated a justice perspective into our work on the climate crisis. And those are only the things I notice, and I’m a white cis Quaker whose home isn’t yet experiencing damage from climate change, so I have reason to think that I’m missing a shedload of stuff which privilege hides from me.

Given what I said about attendance, about who was there and who was not, I have found myself asking: how will we share this? Obviously our epistle is an important way to share it, and this year’s is particularly full of detail about the themes Yearly Meeting worked on. My local meeting had a discussion about the epistle, which helped to balance out the fact that it was so long that elders chose not to read the whole piece out loud in meeting for worship. (Alas, I didn’t make it to the session… one can only spend so long on Zoom, as previously discussed!) But in the longer term we will need to keep developing work in these areas. What can we do to make sure that these things are considered whenever they are relevant, and not just in discussions dedicated to them? Should we ask more often? Rewrite Advices & Queries so that language we hear regularly reflects these priorities? Find experts, from within and outside our community? Try and step back and pass the microphone so those more directly affected can be heard?

I still don’t have any neat answers. But in the spirit of that last suggestion, I will finish with links to some relevant videos and posts by others:

Clare Flourish, blog post on Britain Yearly Meeting on Zoom

Lisa Cumming, blog post on Everyday Solidarity and what British Quakers are doing to put love into action

Sophie Bevan, blog post about Black Lives Matter

Chloe Schwenke in a video about her journey as transgender Quaker

Vanessa Julye in a a video about Quakers and racism

I’m sure there are lots I’ve missed – please share in the comments if you feel led to do so.

Fiction: From Long Barrow to Museum

(In a new departure for this blog, I thought I’d share this short story which explores time, change, wishes, and the uses of West Kennet Long Barrow. Content notes: death, burial, human remains.)

I was expecting to be visited. When my daughter moved my bones into this little side-chamber, after I’d been staring at the sky for a month while the red kites and the ravens took the flesh from my body, I was expecting that she, and her boyfriend, and my son and his wife and their children and hopefully one day their children’s children, would visit me in the way I visited my parents. I remember my father bringing the long bones of his family out from the tomb every year. His people are gathered together in a pile, in this same side-chamber with me, and because he brought them out to spend time with them every year their thigh bones and skulls are jumbled up with their arms bones and all their smaller bones have been lost to the cracks in the stone floor. 

They are still here, too, of course. They don’t talk much. My father used to talk about his mother and father by name, but further back than that he just called them ‘ancestors’, so now I’m here with them I don’t know what to call them. My father is here and sometimes I tell him that I expected my son and daughter to visit. “I didn’t expect you to arrive so soon,” he says to me, every time. I hoped I wouldn’t arrive so soon, either, but to be honest I worried about it from the moment I realised I was pregnant again. A woman with an almost adult son who carries another pregnancy… it’s always risky, you always get close to death when you give birth, in fact I thought I was going to go both times before, and this time I was right. 

My children did visit for a while. The ones who lived, that is. The baby is almost here. I never met her in life but I feel her next to me sometimes, or maybe she crawls around. I hear her crying. My father says, “Hello, baby,” when that happens. I’d like to comfort her but what can I do? The worst actually did happen. I can’t feed her, we don’t sleep. I’m not sure we’re really awake, either, though. To begin with the daylight would come down the passage on my right and my bones would be touched by it, not much but a little indirect light, and I’d remember that days and nights come and go. That was when my daughter would visit. But they stopped bringing everyone’s bones out, and my bones stayed mine, instead of mixing in with the other ancestors.

“You’ll join us soon,” my father says, but I won’t if my daughter doesn’t come and look after all her ancestors. 

The daylight doesn’t come in any more. I think they blocked up the entrance – there’s darkness, and no air movement, and no visitors. My bones are just resting here. My baby’s bones are next to me, but they’re almost gone, and my father’s bones and his ancestors’ bones are in the pile to my left. There are other chambers in the tomb, other families, but we have to shout to speak to them and there’s nothing to say. 

At first we heard ceremonies outside. The visiting stopped but the singing, the dancing, the fires, went on. I wasn’t the last in, either – they brought someone into one of the side chambers on the other side of the entrance – but it’s been a long time since then. I hoped it meant that nobody had died, that everyone was healthy and happy. But I think it means they buried them somewhere else. It’s been too long. 

It’s been much too long, actually. With no days and no movement, no sleep and no meals, time slips away from me unmarked, but I know it has passed. Soil has settled into all the gaps around the stone which blocks the entrance. Water seeps through when there’s a heavy rain, and sometimes the root of a plant or a little earthworm comes and goes, somewhere in between the huge stones of the roof. Nobody visits. I assume the sun rises and sets. I wonder if the stars still turn above us. Recently I started to hear humming – sometimes almost a buzzing or a whine, something a distant drone. Maybe it’s an insect, or some sort of music, far away.

Well, this makes for a change. I do get visitors now. I’m not sure where I am anymore, but most of my bones are still here and my baby’s bones beside me, and people come to see me. The lights seem very bright and the air is dry. I was in a stone-walled room, in the tomb, and the air was damp with the rain from above and the water in the chalk underneath. Here I’m in… I think it’s a large room, I can’t see it all, and there’s something strong and clear around me. Visitors who lean towards me can’t touch me. I haven’t been put in with the bones of my ancestors, although I sometimes hear them nearby. I hear my father asking where we are. 

At first I thought we were in another tomb. Maybe we are, but people have changed their ideas about death since our day. They have lights on around us, almost every day, and they’ve put a lot of our cooking pots and things in another box with a clear front where I can see them. That seems weird. They aren’t usually supposed to be in tombs. And there are things I don’t recognise – pots with odd designs. 

The people who come to visit carry odd things. They have shoes in interesting colours and clothes that rustle like no fabric I’ve ever known – more like the leaves in the trees in autumn. They have little boxes which glow on one side. I don’t understand what they say. I recognise the children, of course. Exploring, poking in the corners, staring at my bones wide-eyed. That’s normal. That’s how my eldest was, always wanting to go a few steps further than I’d like. She fell in the stream once. I thought of that the other day when a little one carrying a carved animal – teeth like a wolf but the skin had been painted greeny-brown, more like an adder – anyway, this little one with his strange toy wanted to touch everything. He couldn’t touch the pots, and he couldn’t touch my bones, and he couldn’t touch the stone knife they’ve displayed on the other side of me, and he wept bitterly over every one of those things. I thought of my daughter wanting to touch the water and falling in. I thought of her wanting to touch my bones, but the big old tomb being shut up, and my bones left separate with the family pile just over there.

I can’t touch them from here, either. My father and my ancestors are gathered within sight, but these clear boxes in this new tomb separate us.

A woman who came to visit was very sad to see me here. She didn’t want to look at my bones at first. She turned her back, looking at the pots again and again, but eventually she looked at my skull. When she did, she looked and looked. She looked at the little squiggles on the side of the clear box, where they all look to start with, and then she looked at my bones for a long time. I wondered if she wanted to touch them.

She used the glowing box she held to show a friend who was with her a picture. She held the picture over my box and I could see it – and I recognised it. The trees have changed but the outline of the hill and the tomb are much the same. It was the place I was buried. I could see the big stones at the entrance, the new ones which closed the tomb, and the curve of the soil which covers the tomb. You see it against the sky from some places, and that’s the picture this woman was showing to her friend.

They looked from the picture to me, mouths downturned. I realised what they thought. They don’t want to touch my bones. They want me to go back to the old tomb. They think I should stay where I was put.

They did look at the pile of bones of my ancestors, but I’m not sure they understood. The picture disappeared and didn’t come back. They spoke, but the language has changed so much and I don’t understand them. I wish my daughter could visit me. I wish someone would bring out my bones every year, the way my father did, and put them back in a jumble with the other ancestors. I don’t mind this new tomb – at least there are visitors – and I’m glad my baby is with me, but I miss the whispers of the rest of my family.

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?