Tag Archives: book review

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.

Book review: When a Pagan Prays, Nimue Brown

When a Pagan Prays, Nimue Brown, Moon Books, 2014

When I picked up this book, I was interested in learning about Druidry with a eye to expanding my own practice  – how do other Druids, or at least one other Druid, relate to prayer? What might I use in creating a Druid prayer practice? Reading it, however, I found something with a much wider interest. Brown does speak from her own Druid perspective – indeed, one of the best aspects of the book is the way in which she shares her personal as well as research journey with the subject – but she also deals with a wide variety of possible approaches to deity. Of particular interest to me, and I suspect to other Quakers as well, is the combination she creates of space for atheist and rationalist perspectives while also addressing the possibility of religious experience including the irrational and inexplicable. For example, on page 43 she writes, “Sacredness is a condition of being that could belong to almost anything, and does not require deity.” As she explores different approaches to and forms of prayer, she always holds open the possibility that there will be no reply and that prayer may not work in the ways we hope for or want – while also demonstrating that this need not be a final block, that there are always other ways to look at things or alternative techniques to try. She not only suggests that she may be mistaken, but shows the reader in detail ways in which she changed her mind as she gained more knowledge and experience. This is a great gift, especially for those who may be experimenting in a similar way with this or another spiritual question.

Brown is also refreshingly upfront about the risks of prayer – what happens if your prayer is answered? This includes unintended consequences but also, less commonly addressed in religious literature, the social and personal aspects. If you say ‘hello’ to God (or Gods, or Goddess, or spirits – Brown’s Druidry is not committed on this) and something says ‘hello’ back, what are you going to make of it? Brown acknowledges that “few things would be more terrifying” (p37) but also addresses the many ways in which those responses might appear. Hearing a voice which says ‘hello’ is not the most common experience, although not entirely unknown. The Pagan communities which Brown is discussing don’t have the Quaker idea of listening together to have a shared experience of being spoken to or led to a specific action, and perhaps the book is slightly poorer, philosophically, for leaving out that possibility. On the other hand, Brown does come to three conclusions which are closely aligned with the Quaker perspective. One is about the importance of listening itself and the difficulty of that process: “the hardest thing to do in prayer is to sit in true silence and listen.” (p140) Another is about the ways in which, rather than changing the world, prayer and related practices can change us. She is direct about the need for the person prayer to be open to transformation: “If you aren’t willing to change then don’t pray. If you aren’t willing to be confused, frightened, overwhelmed or intimidated sometimes, don’t pray.” (p109)

The other way in which Brown reaches a Quaker-like conclusion is her focus on experiment and personal experience. Of her research method for the book, she says that as well as reading a lot and having conversations with other Druids on these topics: “If I wanted to understand, I was going to have to experiment, and pray, every day.” (p181) And when she talks about the ways in which the process has changed her, it is clear that she has had an experience of being helped and changed by prayer. For me, the most telling line in that discussion was on page 114, when she talks about the way her relationship to her work has changed: “I feel that I’m doing the work I need to be doing, bit by bit, and that certainty changes a lot of things for me.”

Of course, the similarities to my own perspective are only one aspect of the book’s usefulness. Although there are a few places where Brown comes close to describing something like Quaker worship – like this comment about improvisation in ritual: “In truly inspired improvisation, it can be hard to decide whether the prayer even comes from the person who voices it” (p136) – for the most part, her focus is on other forms. She explores Pagan ritual, intercessory prayer, and linguistic issues such as the tone in which we address our deities as well as philosophical and theological issues about to whom prayer is directed (and how we pray when we don’t have solid answers to this question) and the social and ethical aspects of prayer. And in the later sections, I also found some answers to my original questions – how do other Druids pray? Brown offers an extended discussion of two Druid prayer texts which are in common use in Britain, the Druid’s Vow or Druid’s Oath and the Druid’s Prayer or Gorsedd Prayer. As in much modern Druidry, her emphasis is on the reader developing skills to create their own relationship with, understanding of, and perhaps version of, these classic texts, rather than apologetics or finding ways to defend the existing tradition. 

I would recommend When a Pagan Prays to anyone wanting to think about the complexities of prayer, not just Pagans but those in any tradition considering their prayer life and wanting to develop it independently.

Book review: The Faithful Spy

Note: I was sent a free copy of this book for review by Speakeasy

The Faithful Spy is a graphic novel which tells the true story – or at least, selected highlights of the true story – of German Lutheran theologian, pastor, and Nazi resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The format makes it an accessible read, and the content contains some hopeful notes, although ultimately Bonhoeffer and his group do not succeed in killing Hitler. (Spoilers – which are a matter of historical fact, fairly widely know, and I give here because I think in this case knowing the ending enhances appreciation of the storytelling – they made three attempts, and most of the conspirators including Bonhoeffer were executed for it, some of them very shortly before the end of war.) As well as travelling to the UK, the USA, and other countries around Europe and choosing to return to Germany, Bonhoeffer spends a considerable amount of time in prison. 

The Library of Congress Catalogue codes on the end-paper of this volume all list it as ‘juvenile literature’. On the one hand, I agree that the illustrated format, straightforward story telling style, and important historical content make this suitable reading for some teenagers. On the other hand, I have two objections. First, I worry that some readers without a reasonable historical background might not be able to grasp the context of this story (which centres Christians rather than Jews, for example – a sensible choice for a book about the life of Bonhoeffer, a somewhat problematic choice if it’s your first introduction to the story of the Shoah). Secondly, that such a label might mean some adult readers who would benefit from it, might miss it. 

Readers of all ages might, rightly, be disturbed by some of the content. There are no graphic deaths, but there are details of assassination attempts and prison conditions, and torture, war, poverty, and death are a constant background. The insights into Hitler’s rise to power are important and need to be read and remembered – but this isn’t a cheerful book or one to escape into if current politics is getting you down. It might be one to study if you are thinking about ways to channel your anger.

So who would benefit from reading this book?

  • People who already know a fair amount about the Second World War and want to fill in more details or get a different perspective. ‘Assassinate Hitler’ has become an almost proverbial option – would you or wouldn’t you? how would it affect the timeline? – and here is the story of a man who was involved in several attempts to do just that, and who grappled in a serious and informed way with the moral implications of such an action.
  • People who study theology and want to think about the ways in which a life shapes someone’s theological ideas. In particular, Hendrix shares a very clear narrative about the ways in which Bonhoeffer was influenced by the Roman Catholic and American Black churches, and about the ways in which he struggled to fit ethical principles to complex realities. 
  • People who are looking at a dangerous political situation and considering when and how to act. Before the famous ending, there are a lot of other steps Bonhoeffer and his friends try out. They find ways to help Jews out of Germany. They build theological arguments which counter the allegedly Christian positions being taken by the German churches under Nazi orders. They form a revolutionary theological school in a remote place where they can teach alternative ideas. They enlist the help of Christians outside Germany. They build communications networks, search for allies, and draw inspiration from other, more or less comparable, movements. 

Overall, I was impressed with the research and story-telling in this book. Direct quotes from historical sources are clearly marked, and despite some simplifications I’d happily recommend this to a student wanting a quick overview to get started with Bonhoeffer’s work as well as to casual readers. Well worth picking up, with no easy answers but a thoughtful and accessible engagement with important questions.

Review of ‘Nephi’s Courage’

Nephi’s Courage: Story of a Bad Mormon by Rory McFarlan is about a man who is actually a good Mormon, but also gay. The story follows his life as he tries to balance the demands of his church with his real beliefs about a loving God and his own nature. There is so much here that interests me! And some things which had me questioning or made me uncomfortable.

If you are interested in religion and sexuality I recommend this book, with a few caveats. The first of those is that it might be a very distressing read – the whole plot turns on homophobia, which is extensively and realistically depicted, including the horrible consequences it can have (family conflict, psychological distress, need for mental health support, drug abuse, suicide), and there are cases of family abuse. The second is that the writing is not always great. There’s a lot of dialogue which is sometimes stilted – not bad, but slightly short on contractions and sometimes full of info which the reader might need but the characters would already have. I found I was reading some of it in Data’s voice, which is enjoyable in a different way but not I think the intention! With those things in mind, I thought it was a good example of a niche book which wouldn’t find an audience at all pre-internet, but can now be shared internationally and reach people, like me, who are interested in this specific subset of things.

There will be spoilers in this post, so if you want to read the book unspoiled please go and do that now and come back!

I learned a lot about the Church of Latter-Day Saints from this book. I was already reasonably well informed, I think, and had read up on feminist Mormon perspectives before. However, because Nephi is both deeply committed to the religious practices (and loves them, and so they are described from an insider and sympathetic point of view) and deeply entangled with the community and its structures (which don’t always treat him well), there’s a level of detail which I didn’t have before and an engaged and affectionate perspective which is sometimes difficult to get. For example, I was aware of the practice of performing rituals, including baptisms, for deceased family members – like many amateur historians and genealogists, I’ve benefited directly from work done to enable this, but also like many people outside the church (and as a member of a faith community which is specifically not interested in baptism) I’ve thought of this as ethically disturbing because it feels like imposing a religious ritual on someone who can’t consent. Seeing this from Nephi’s point of view, where the sense of love and desire to be close to his ancestors is strong, puts a different perspective on this.

I already knew a good deal about homophobia, and although some of the details of the depiction are interesting, what makes the story compelling is Nephi’s commitment to bringing together his faith and his sexuality – having tried living alone, he decides to try and forge a new path, one in which he keeps not just God and Jesus but the church in his life, while also dating and then marrying a man. There are some tragi-comic episodes as he experiments with the wonderful and confusing world of online dating (perhaps not handled entirely realistically, since most people would do some Google searches to find out about otters and bears and twinks… but Nephi’s decision to ask a friend instead produces some entertaining scenes, so I’m not complaining). Among other things, Nephi comes into contact with a series of people who are also in his position but making different decisions or failing to cope with the tension between the church and their lives. One character is rejected by his family and dies by a drug overdose. Another rejects the church, and some within the church fail to understand why anyone gay would want to remain.

This is the core conflict of the novel and one which is very relevant to me – and resonates with Tina Beattie’s The Good Priest which I reviewed last year. In a church where being gay makes you a bad church member, how do you strive to stay right with God? (Side note: I know you all know this, but just in case – this is not all churches and certainly not all religions, lots of people who believe in God are also gay and happy about it, so if reading about this is filling you with dread why not check out some affirming faith groups instead?) One of Nephi’s answers is to try and stay as involved with his church as that church will allow, even when they’re trying to kick him out. His consistency in this, and struggles to balance his need to attend church with other demands (like his partner’s desire that they attend a Pride parade together), is admirable even as it sometimes reaches the point of damaging stubbornness.

Another of Nephi’s answers, and a more theologically interesting one in some ways, is that he tries to work out what God’s commandments for a gay man would look like if they treated homosexual and heterosexual relationships fairly. Accepting as much as he can of the church’s rules, and taking on board – after a struggle – his own conviction that he is loved by God and worthy of human love, not called to remain entirely single or celibate, he tries to adjust the rules the smallest amount possible to make space for his own happiness. From a Quaker perspective, this story of trying to incorporate new light, fresh revelation not accepted by the hierarchy, into an existing structure is perhaps especially compelling – and frustrating, since nobody shows much sign of listening to him. For example, he knows he can only be attracted to men and decides to pursue a relationship with another man, but he commits to not having sex before getting married. (I really thought he wouldn’t succeed… but we don’t have Vegas in the UK!) Although eventually convinced, people around him find this very hard to believe – and after his marriage, he continues attending church services in a single’s ward, partly because he now has a group of friends there but also because the church don’t recognise his marriage.

Overall, I enjoyed this book and found it well worth reading. I braced myself to be horrified at several points (as well as the homophobia, there are extensive shooting and hunting sequences, which were actually fine for this relatively unsqueamish anti-gun pacifist vegan, but could have been much harder to read). I had questions sometimes (I can’t always tell what’s artistic license for the sake of the story and what’s genuinely vastly different systems in terms of the treatment of mental health, for example – there’s a massive lack of waiting lists). I recommend it to anyone interested in the overlapping issues of religion and sexuality, especially if you want to learn more about the Church of Latter-Day Saints, and I hope Rory McFarlan will continuing exploring these questions in fiction.

Of alphabets and aims

This year I’m planning to return to my habit of alphabet blogging. This came from an idea in the Pagan blog community years ago – if you write a blog post every week, 52 weeks a year, you get two posts per letter of the English alphabet. It’s very tidy and it gives a simple set of prompts, open enough to allow for flexibility but firm enough to steer me in the direction of actually writing something! In the last few years, I’ve been tending to write fewer, longer blog posts, as compared to the regular short posts of the alphabet years. It seems like a good time for a return to regular writing and so I’ve decided to try again. Of course, my blog, my rules, and so I reserve the right to break them at any point!

So that’s one aim for 2020: a blog post every week. Among my other aims for 2020 are to keep going with other things – to finish projects I began in 2019 and to keep life ticking over. (I have recruited help with this in some areas: for example, the ‘keep the flat clean’ project will be assisted by the new NooNoo, my robot vacuum cleaner!) In 2019, one of my resolutions was to learn as much Thai as possible in a year. I’m pretty sure I didn’t manage to learn as much is theoretically possible – I didn’t even try most of the things which would let one reach that level, like an immersion language course or even a regular class – but I did learn some of the alphabet and some useful words. In 2020 I want to expand this, to learn more grammar and practice more vocabulary, and look for ways to get over one of my major language learning hurdles – being too much of a coward to actually use what little I’ve learned with people who speak the language better than I do.

Another ‘a’ aim for 2020 is my allotment. Again, this is a ‘keep on going’ project, rather than something new. This will be my fourth year as an allotment holder and every year I make some progress and some new mistakes, and try to learn from everything. I hope to spend more time there, since knowing what to do is all very well but you have to actually do it, and will be reporting progress on social media – encouraged by several people who gave me seeds as Christmas presents!

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A selection of this year’s new seed packets for flowers and vegetables – some from the Heritage Seed Library, others gifts from my family and partner.

Finally, in 2020 I am embracing doing more advertising: not so much to sell things, but to keep mentioning stuff even if it’s older, to make sure casual readers as well as my regulars know what I do. In that spirit, here’s a 2020 review of a book which came out in 2018. The new edition of Quaker Studies has appeared, and it includes a review of the first four volumes in the Brill Research Perspectives in Quaker Studies series, one of which is my British Quakers and Religious Language. About that, Ben Wood writes, “Perhaps the most attractive feature of Grant’s study is its richly textured depiction of British Quakerism in the early twenty-first century. Such Friends speak in multiple spiritual accents, idioms and tongues, and yet find ways of worshipping and acting together. What explains such unity amid such radical multiplicity? Grant shows the reader the ways in which the notion of ‘spiritual diversity’ functions as a constructive value that permits Friends to both cherish shared spiritual experiences and permit considerable variation in beliefs and symbolic expression.”

Review: The Mystery of Suffering and the Meaning of God, Anson Hugh Laytner

(Disclaimer: I’m reviewing this book because I got a free electronic copy from The Speakeasy. What follows is my honest opinion, but I was asked to give it.)

Anton Hugh Laytner sets out to explore suffering, in ways which are in keeping with his experience – his direct experience of suffering and death, his spiritual experience of the presence of God, and his religious experience as a Jew. The book begins with an consideration of the lessons of the book of Iyov (Job), moves through descriptions of Laytner’s life experience and the horrible things which have befallen his family (so I’d give lots of content warnings: mentions of the Holocaust and the AIDS epidemic, some descriptions of illness and hospital stays, and a detailed description of someone dying and the mourning process), explores anger and protest prayer before reaching a new idea of God which is not tied to traditional pictures – Laytner releases two out three of the classic ‘omnis’ – but which is still present and can move us to fresh and loving action. Laytner calls his position “radical monotheism”: everything has its source in God, but this is not a God which intervenes, not a God which has personal characteristics, and not a God we can ever understand. Instead, this is a God we experience alongside us and one who can cope with the honest expression of our full range of emotions.

Early on in the book, as well as warning that the Bible study section at the beginning will be harder to read than the rest – which did match my experience – Laytner says that he tries “to do theology in a creative way, the ways artists and poets and authors do their work”. I think he succeeds in this. The later sections of the book in particular, as he gets more personal and more passionate, have a lyrical quality whereby the argumentation is enhanced by the writing style. There is still argumentation – the book remains firmly with the theological genre, building a case from experience and texts – but presented in a very rich way, not the dry style sometimes associated with the need to establish each point. In fact, Laytner sometimes notes that he might not be convincing the reader, and it sometimes seems like looking in at his process rather than being asking to agree with him. For something which is so entwined with personal experience, this is a helpful approach.

Who would benefit from reading this book? People who want to engage with faith and religion, perhaps who want to believe in a monotheistic God or participate in religious rituals, but who find that difficult because of the problem of suffering. It might be especially useful to people who have rejected some aspects of traditional monotheism; it isn’t quite a full-on nontheist book, but it does confidently question lots of monotheist assumptions and only keeps those ideas which Laytner can base on experience. Although Laytner only mentions Quakerism very briefly, and doesn’t explore the tradition in depth, I think his experiential approach has much in common with liberal Quaker approaches to theology. Since liberal Quakerism sometimes struggles to engage deeply with suffering and evil, Quakers who want to think about those topics would definitely benefit from reading this.

Find out more and buy it from the publisher’s website or via Google books.

Review of ‘The Good Priest’

Tina Beattie’s novel, The Good Priest, is a gripping read with an engaging central character – John, the eponymous good priest – and an intriguing premise. In this review there will be some spoilers, although I’ll try and steer clear of the main plot. I won’t be discussing the murders, which are a significant feature of the novel, but I will talk about sex and sexual abuse.

It is a deeply Catholic book, as one might expect from the title and the author (Beattie is a well known Roman Catholic theologian), but I’m not a Catholic and it isn’t for me to assess the quality or impact of her description of the church. I did look to see whether others had already covered this in reviews, but didn’t find anything with a deep level of engagement – and some obvious venues, such as The Tablet, have yet to review it. It seems to me as an outside that it is deeply loving and equally critical – but perhaps this is an effect of her excellent writing rather than the content. I also think it might turn out to be a novel of the moment; in the same way that some twentieth-century writing is identifiable as ‘post Vatican II‘ or similar, in a few decade’s time this book might seem ‘post sex abuse scandal’. This doesn’t detract from it; indeed, it might make it all the more important to read it now. However, rather than going into this aspect in detail, I want to focus on what it might have to say to two audiences to which I do belong: Quaker readers and queer readers.

Queer readers, I think, may find it compelling, comforting, and disturbing, in various ways. The good priest of the title, John, is gay. He’s clear and straightforward about this even when it comes as a surprise to others – towards the end of the book, he says so plainly in public, on the street, and another character responses with a startled, “You’re wot?” She knows what he means, may even already have known this about him, but is not expecting a Catholic priest to be calm and open about this aspect of his personality. In this, she might serve as a stand-in for the reader, because the calmness and acceptance with which most characters throughout the book, including John himself, treat this fact is noticeable. Sometimes it is highlighted by the narrative, as when a dying parishioner makes a point of mentioning it, but often it is simply there. This is the comfort.

It is interwoven with other aspects of the narrative, though, inextricably so: I read a comment from someone on Twitter who wished Beattie hadn’t ‘made him gay’ – not an option, it is vital to this character’s interaction with the world and especially the church within which he lives and has his livelihood. This is, for me, one of the most compelling aspects of the novel. Sexuality is not bolted on, but nor is it the main focus. Things would go equally badly wrong if he were straight and subject to similar temptations and stresses, but the details of what happens are intimately related to his sexuality (and to his intimate relationships, platonic as well as erotic). It is also related to the gendered structure of the social world within which he lives: both priests and the most ardent atheists are men, while women occupy a host of positions but are disempowered by their society, even though they often have agency within the narrative. In the same way, although a review in the Church Times suggests that the focus on sex is “verging on prurience”, I didn’t find this so at all. The sex is dealt with in mainly a factual way, and a way which brings out the conflicts, sometimes the horrors, associated with it. The only non-abusive, fully consensual sex is fade-to-black, so much so that I almost wondered whether it had actually taken place.

It is those horrors, faced directly and from both perspectives, which make the book disturbing, but are also one of the important parts of the narrative. John realises during the course of the novel that he has both abused and been abused, another example of the moral complexity which makes the novel compelling. Of course, by writing a gay character in this position, Beattie runs the risk of further associating homosexuality with abuse and continuing a pattern of false charges against the gay community as a whole. However, it could also work the other way: John’s horrified reactions to realising that he unknowingly had sex with a child, and his subsequent compassionate responses and adult, if difficult, relationship, subvert that frequently told story about the role of homosexuality in social life.

And what about reading from a Quaker perspective? Perhaps there is a temptation at first to feel smug about how much more equally Quakers treat LGBTQ+ members of our communities, even while acknowledging that we can always do more to be welcoming and to make sure everyone is treated justly. But Beattie is a Catholic and it is clear that she has a great deal of compassion for the situation John is in, and is critiquing the ways in which his church makes life more difficult for him. For those Quakers with little knowledge of the Roman Catholic tradition, too, the focus on the rituals of Lent and Holy Week – and especially confession, which is pivotal to the plot – may be difficult and alienating. However, I found that the way John’s perspective leads the reader into the rituals and their spiritual meanings was easier to deal with than much teaching on these topics. It didn’t make me want to go to confession, but I think it did help me see why some people might find it helpful. (And the novel doesn’t shy away from the practical and theological problems it creates, either.) It might be worth reading for that interfaith understanding.

It might also be worth Quakers reading for the reminder than there is significant disagreement within the Catholic church – not just on social questions, but also on theology. In the course of the novel, characters who doubt and lose their faith, characters whose faith takes on new forms, and characters who disagree about interpretations of theological questions are all treated as fully part of John’s community. I am told frequently by Quakers that it must all be easier in churches where they have creeds and everyone believes the same thing and there aren’t any doubters… but having a written creed, and all agreeing with it, and nobody doubting are three very different things. In this story, as in real churches, disagreement and lapsing flourish alongside co-operation and multiple patterns of engagement.

In conclusion, if you are interested in murder mysteries, novels with religious characters, and/or books which grapple with moral complexity, I highly recommend this book.

Qui-Gon Jinn, most Quakerly Jedi?

I’ve been saying for years that I think Qui-Gon Jinn, as well as being the most important character in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and probably the most likeable character in the prequel trilogy, is the most Quakerly Jedi in the Star Wars universe. I’ve just read Claudia Gray’s new novel, Master & Apprentice, and I think it proves me right.

Before I go any further, let me clarify the limitations of my claim. I’m not arguing that the Jedi are Quakers, or that Qui-Gon Jinn is a Quaker. Jediism, both as a fictional faith and a real one, has both significant commonalities and differences with Quakerism: Jedi and Quakers both like being calm and aware of their connectedness with the world; fictional Jedi often use violence while Quakers usually reject it; real Jedi usually adopt that faith as adults, like most Quakers today; Quakers have at least a historical connection to Christianity and often a role for Jesus in their spirituality, while Jedi don’t (counter-arguments involving members of the Skywalker family on a postcard, please); and there are more nuanced cases – in some other post perhaps I’ll compare the minister/elder system used by the Valiant Sixty with the master/apprentice structure.

The Jedi are not Quakers. Some of the Jedi are deeply unQuakerly – and not just the ones who become Sith, but also those who accept the status quo, use violence before other methods, and support their political leaders in immoral courses of action.

That said, there are general similarities between some aspects of the Jedi way and some parts of the modern Quaker way, and in Claudia Gray’s novel Qui-Gon Jinn becomes a spokesperson for them. I’ve picked out three short passages which will illustrate what I mean. There are minor spoilers in what follows, so if that’ll bother you, go and read it first. (It is worth reading: it’s an excellent example of what Star Wars extended universe writing does well with a great mix of mission-focused plot and character exploration).

In the first passage which caught my attention, Qui-Gon Jinn is talking to Rael Averross, a fellow Jedi (and fellow student of Dooku’s, cue ominous music). Rael has gone a bit off the rails before and during a long stay on the distant planet Pijal, and seems to be going further. Here (p124), he and Qui-Gon discuss the Jedi code.

It had been a long time since Rael Averross felt the need to justify himself to anyone on Pijal, but as he walked Qui-Goon to the door, he found himself saying, “You know, there’ve always been a few Jedi – let’s be honest, more than a few – who see celibacy as an ideal, not a rule.”

“I’m coming to believe that we must all interpret the Code for ourselves,” Qui-Gon said, “or it ceases to be a living pact and becomes nothing but a prison cell.” Which sounded nice and all, but was a long way from letting Averross off the hook.

Point one is another difference: Quakers have had different codes of sexual ethics over time, but have never embraced celibacy as a path for the majority, let alone something enforced! Point two, though, is a similarity about the relationship expressed here between the rule, the Jedi Code, and the way it is lived out. Rael suggests a difference between an ideal (presumably a good idea but not a realistic one) and a rule. Qui-Gon suggests that what matters is not so much the rule itself or the way the Jedi act, but the relationship between people and Code.

What’s Quaker about that? Well, it could be compared both to a traditional Quaker approach to the Bible, and to the relationship Quakers have with their own tradition. The first of these could be illustrated with an old but still much quoted passage from first-generation Quaker Margaret Fell, who became a Quaker when she realised that she and her existing church had not made the Bible into a ‘living pact’: “we are all thieves, we have taken the Scriptures in words and know nothing of them in ourselves” (link to longer quote with context). As a movement, Quakers have acknowledged the need for each generation to make the tradition its own. This is sometimes explicit, as in these words from Young Friends in 1926: “each generation of young Friends by its experiments must discover for itself the truths on which the Society is built if it is to use those truths and to continue and enlarge the work of the Society”. Sometimes it’s built into the practice, as in the ongoing process of revising the very book from which those quotations are taken. Like the Jedi Code which Qui-Gon follows, it contains rules – but it is meant to represent a “living pact” not a “prison cell”.

The next passage is from much later on in the story (p217). Qui-Gon has had a vision of the future, and has decided that although he will act on it, he won’t share it with his superiors, the Jedi Council.

Qui-Gon had not yet shared his vision with the Council, nor did he intend to. They would spend all their time bickering about the viability of the hyperspace corridor. They were too bound to Coruscant. Too bound to the chancellor. Too far from the living Force.

They were no longer the sort of Jedi who could trust in a pure vision.

It shocked him that he was that Jedi. That he could still find it in him to believe so profoundly, so unshakably, in pure mysticism. Qui-Gon had so often felt out of step with the Order as a whole, but never to this degree.

He had also never felt this close to the Force.

There are more differences here, of course. Although I know some Quakers who study and interpret dreams or Tarot cards, having visions of the future isn’t part of Quaker tradition generally. However, I think Quakers could easily come down on either side of the hyperspace corridor debate (it has political elements familiar from closer to home: questions about economic justice, access to transport, political representation, slavery, and the power of large corporations are all involved). And there is a deeply Quakerly element in Qui-Gon’s rejection of authority in favour of trusting his own connection to the Divine. For him that Divine is the Force, and it might be known as God or Spirit in traditional Quaker understandings – but Quakers use many, many words to talk about God and some of them are remarkably similar. I’ve heard terms like Energy, Universe, and even the Force used in workshops! However they understand it, Quakers seek to contact the Divine directly, not needing any particular person or practice to mediate their knowledge of the Divine. They can use a group process but also listen for leadings from the Divine – much as Qui-Gon does in this passage.

My final passage also comes from a discussion between Rael and Qui-Gon. (Another similarity with Quakers? Jedi in this book seem to discuss their beliefs mainly with each other, and mainly when they disagree, never explaining to non-Jedi characters!) Rael starts by putting a case that if the light and dark, good and evil, sides of the Force should be in balance, their actions are irrelevant (p259):

“…the darkness would be just as strong as the light. So it doesn’t matter what we do, because in the end, hey, it’s a tie! It doesn’t matter which side we choose.”

… “It matters,” Qui-Gon said quietly. “It matters which side we choose. Even if there will never be more light than darkness. Even if there can be no more joy in the galaxy than there is pain. For every action we undertake, for every word we speak, for every life we touch – it matters. I don’t turn toward the light because it means someday I’ll ‘win’ some sort of cosmic game. I turn toward it because it is the light.

One point here is that the language of ‘light’ and ‘dark’ is very popular with Quakers, even though it can be racist – and I think the Star Wars use, where light and dark map directly to good and evil, is also problematic in that way.

If we replaced ‘light’ with ‘good’, here, though, there would still be another similarity to Quakers: something which might be called idealism or working from principles rather than pragmatism. In a piece of research which involved interviewing Quakers about social justice work, I found they often mentioned the way in which a long-term, ideals-focused approach won respect from other campaigners. These campaigns are not run in order to win (although, as described in that link, there have been successes along the way). Rather, campaigns against war and for equality are based on a Quaker faith in the importance of doing what is good and what God asks.

Would Qui-Gon Jinn be accepted for membership if he applied to a British Quaker area meeting today? I’m not sure – at the very least, there would have to be a serious conversation about lightsabers and maybe a chat about gambling. But based on the evidence I’ve gathered in this post, I think that theologically he might fit right in.

“Our Child of the Stars” – Quaker Narnia?

Our Child of the Stars, by Stephen Cox, is a sci-fi story about a couple who find themselves looking after a strange child – when a spaceship crashes in their town. (Disclaimer: I know Stephen personally and was sent a free e-book for review.)

Having read it, I’ve been thinking about it on and off anyway, and yesterday I heard a presentation by Centre for Research Studies researcher Jonathan Doering which brought me back to it. Jonathan’s research into connections between Quakerism and creative writing raises a whole set of questions about what makes a piece of writing Quaker or Quakerly or not. Is it the self-identification of the author? Does the opinion of the Quaker community matter? Does the content of the writing matter? (Did you know that T Edmund Harvey, Quaker politician, had a brother who wrote horror stories?)

The opinion I’m going to put forward in this post (comments are open for everyone who disagrees) is that ‘Quaker literature’ is most interesting when it has Quaker content – but that Quaker content is not necessarily things which name Quakers, but content which is inspired by Quaker approaches to life. My example for this is Our Child of the Stars. In Our Child of the Stars, although there are some minor explicit mentions of Quakerism, and the author is a Quaker, these aren’t the things which, in my opinion, make it interesting reading from a Quaker viewpoint. Instead, the key factor which makes this a Quakerly book is the way in which two people love and adopt Cory, a child whose strange origin and appearance make many others reject him – and do so before his charming personality has a chance to work on them.

In my title to this blog post, I compared the book to C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series, by which I probably just mean The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The comparison is not one of style or content (although both a well-written in their own ways, and have some kindred adventure elements) – instead, it’s theological. If Aslan is ‘Jesus for Narnia’, a fantasy embodiment of Lewis’s theology of access to salvation, Cory is the ET-style embodiment of the Quaker principle ‘that of God in everyone’. In loving him and seeing him as special and worth protecting, Molly and Gene Myers provide a model of the ambition to see everyone in this way.

In doing so, they are often able to convince others to join them in this viewpoint. If only it were that easy in real life!

 

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Book review: Paul Among the People, Sarah Ruden

Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time, Sarah Ruden

Paul is, as Sarah Ruden rightly points out, a misunderstood, misinterpreted, and widely disliked author – and one who is generally regarded as, at least, down on women, sex, and fun. Ruden does a good job of arguing that much of this is misunderstanding, brought on chiefly by a complete lack of contact between people who study the Bible in Greek and people who study other Greek texts written at around the same time. Ruden, having started out as a Classicist reading material from the polytheistic Greeks and Romans, is in a good position to bridge this gap by bringing her knowledge of the classical languages and cultures to bear on Paul’s writings.

In fact, in this slim volume that’s most of what she does. It’s often effective, sometimes shocking, and often challenges accepted views of the Greek world as well as common views of Paul. For example, she challenges the view of the Greek world as a “gay idyll”, arguing that reading Plato but not other texts, less philosophical and perhaps closer to reality, has given a misleading picture (p58). On the one hand, I’m a bit sad to see this picture torn down, because a picture of a society in which sexuality is viewed very differently is a useful one in all kinds of ways. On the other hand, my feminism survived the destruction of the myth of a matriarchal past, and these pictures can be useful even when known to be fictional.

In quoting extensively from classical texts and trying to offer a more accurate picture of what Paul was saying, Ruden uses blunt and modern translations which do not shy away from sexually and other explicit language – which is, I’m sure, to the benefit of the translation. It’s easy to see why people might not want to read this in church – but also easy to see an argument that this is because some of them have a mistaken, overly prettified, view of what is acceptable in church. I found her section on Galatians 5, one of the rare cases in which she takes on the King James Version directly, especially interesting. She offers transliterations of the Greek words in cases where no suitable translation is available, and goes to some lengths to point out how far from that worldview we are now. (She attributes much of the change to Paul – and I’m sure he had a big influence, although I can think of some other possible candidates as well.)

One drawback I found in Ruden’s writing style was a tendency to make her point, and offer her evidence – and then move on to the next point, without wrapping up neatly and restating the conclusion. Sometimes this worked well, and at other times I found myself going back to the beginning of a section to read it again and understand properly how this evidence support that point. However, I didn’t find points which weren’t supported by anything at all – and many of the points she makes suggest that readings of Paul should change a long way from those currently accepted in the traditions of Biblical interpretation (mostly ‘ordinary’ or folkloric) which I encounter most often.

I didn’t come away from the book as converted to Paul-following as Ruden obviously is. (I think that would be difficult to achieve anyway.) I still find writing attributed to Paul, and some probably genuinely by Paul, used as ‘clobber passages’ or turning out to be ‘texts of terror’. However, Ruden is doing her bit to change misinterpretations, and filling out Paul’s context with suitable Greek and Roman material is obviously a helpful step in that direction.