Tag Archives: theology

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.

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.

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.

Quaker Marriage: couple, God, and community

One of the steps in applying for a Quaker wedding, for people who are not in membership, is to have two Quakers who are in membership check that the applicant understands the Quaker approach to marriage and the way Quakers do things. Because I’m in membership, I don’t have to complete this step – but my partner did, and talking it through with her in advance prompted me to think through some of the questions involved. In this blog post, I share a few personal reflections on them.

Who marries who? This gets framed in different ways at different times. For example, we can say that in Quaker practice, the couple marry each other rather than being married by a priest or other official. This explains what actually happens in a Quaker wedding, when each member of the couple stands, when they are ready, and recites or reads the words of the marriage declaration. We also say that in Quaker understanding, God marries the couple rather than it being a human act (it is “the Lord’s work, and we are but witnesses“). In order to bring those two approaches together, we need the Quaker understanding that God is present in human beings and can inform and guide human actions. In spoken ministry (even prepared ministry, like the exact words of the marriage declaration which have to be agreed with your partner and the registering officer in advance), human beings aim to say – and in this case also to do, since the declaration is a speech act – what God leads us to say and do. 

When does the marriage actually happen? It is solemnised at the wedding, and registered with the civil authorities at that point. However, God doesn’t always work on human timetables. A couple may have been married in a spiritual sense for some time before they get around to the human witnessing part, which involves a fair amount of paperwork and expense (and the legal possibility: some of the clearest examples of this are lesbian and gay couples who have been married in some sense since long before their relationships were legally recognised). On the other hand, it also makes sense to say that the couple get married, and while this doesn’t mark the beginning of the relationship, it may signal a change, not only in legal status but in the strength and commitment of the relationship. Perhaps it is more accurate to think of getting married as a process happening over a period of time rather than a single moment.

Why a Quaker wedding? It’s important to me to have a Quaker wedding for two reasons, one probably more important than the other. The less important reason is because I can. Because I am marrying a woman, and there are places in the world (including the place she was born) and religious communities everywhere in which our relationship would not be recognised as a marriage, just because we are both women. Quakers in Britain do recognise our relationship as possible and real and just as good and valuable as all other relationships, and it’s important to me to lean into that and appreciate the opportunity that gives me to be married in the context of my religious community.

The more important reason is about that community. Having a Quaker wedding isn’t just about the wedding – it’s about the longer term involvement in the community, the way that we can, hopefully, be supported by the Quaker community. I have some insight into this because my parents had a Quaker wedding and I grew up with that understanding, that the meeting was always there. (The meeting wasn’t always able to provide what I wanted from it, spiritually and practically, but those are issues for another post!) It’s important to me to be married in the care of a Quaker meeting because it’s an opportunity – on both sides: an opportunity for me to celebrate something special in my life alongside my religious community, and an opportunity for that community to come together to support us. 

I reserve the right to update my views on these issues – I’ve never been married before and my understanding will probably change over the next few years as we go through the process of having a Quaker wedding and continue our lives together as a married couple! Fortunately, blogging allows me to set a marker in time and write some more later. At the moment, I’m mostly just very happy to have discerned that marriage is right for us, to feel safe and confident celebrating our relationship in public, and to be marrying the woman I love.

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.

Theologising on Twitter: an experiment in non-linear teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

Details on the Woodbrooke website.

Clarifying

At the end of Telling the Truth about God, I suggest that Quakers – and maybe other people who struggle with these issues around religious experience and how we express it, but are committed to remaining a community – should “try, cry, and clarify”. The idea is that you have to say something, but it will fall short in some ways and you or others may be hurt by that, but then you try and work out what went wrong so that you can try again. In this post, I want to explore some more practical things which might be meant by ‘clarify’. If you’ve got to that stage, what can you actually do?

Listen to find out where the questions are.

Is there a misunderstanding? Is someone else in the conversation using the same words or metaphors, but in a very different way? (‘Lamb of God’ might be a gentle, rural image; it might suggest a vicious killing; or call for mint sauce!) Are you making a reference that not everyone gets?

Try telling your stories about the words you use.

By telling your personal story about a word – where you learned it and how you use it, what historical and cultural touchstones it brings to mind for you – it is sometimes possible to help others see the word in your way. Even if they can’t use it themselves (especially if it reminds them of very different cultural and historical connotations), knowing why the word is significant to you can help a lot.

Try a different word from the same framework.

If you’ve tried expressing your theology – here understood very broadly, your understand of God and the world – in one way, but it didn’t seem to work, you could try using different terminology. Within the Christian theological framework, for example, I hear Quakers switching between Christ and Spirit (perhaps to the confusion or annoyance of careful Trinitarians!).

Try a different framework.

Not everyone will feel comfortable doing this, but some people who have experience with more than one faith tradition feel able to switch between ways of thinking: to redescribe God Within as the Inner Buddha Nature, for example. This sort of move is encouraged by some of the lists of apparent synonyms which I discuss in Telling the Truth about God, and it fits with some versions of the Quaker universal approach to truth.

Try inventing a new word (or repurposing an old one).

This might not be an approach for every day, but sometimes it’s possible to coin a new phrase, pull a new word out of thin air, or take a noun and verb it, or something similar. If the words you have all seem to lead to confusion, clarity is sometimes achievable by making up something fresh. The trick is usually to use it: use it often and consistently so that others can learn the pattern you have in mind for it.

Listen some more.

Even when you’ve improved the clarity and all involved in the conversation have a greater understanding of each other, there’s bound to be something else to work on. Taking time in silence can help – but silence can’t be the last word. In my experience, we will eventually be led to try again.

Book structure

or, what have you been doing on your study leave?

I often ask research students about the structure of their paper, thesis, or argument. I ask this and sometimes people are ready to answer, but it also sometimes happens that people look at me blankly as if they aren’t entirely sure what the question means. That’s a shame, because I find it a really useful way to think about my own writing – and so, in order to show that I am willing to do the things I ask other people to do, I thought I’d take some time today to describe the structure of the book I’m writing.

The project is an overview of liberal Quaker theology (for, eventually, Brill’s Research Perspectives in Quaker Studies series). The aim of the book is to show that liberal Quaker theology exists, that it’s coherent, that it might sometimes seem vague or diffuse but is actually a single tradition – admittedly with multiple sub-traditions and complexities – which can usefully be analysed and discussed together. In order to show this, I look for places where liberal Quaker theology can be found and try to gauge their unity and diversity in different areas.

I start off in my introduction with an assessment of what has been said so far about liberal Quaker theology, and by clarifying how I’m using those terms. I make sure everyone knows what will count as Quaker or not, what it means to say that something in the Quaker tradition is part of the liberal sub-tradition, and what I think I’m looking for when I say that I’m looking for theology. I don’t, for example, think that theology can only be done if you have a university degree in theology – so it’s important to make sure readers know what I’m on about. Having set the scene in this way, and thereby laid the foundations on which I’m going to build a tower, I start looking at my three bodies of evidence.

In this first chapter, I look at one place where I expect to find liberal Quaker theology represented in a formal way, in statements which have the approval of the whole community. Quakers don’t write creeds but do have books, books of discipline or books of faith and practice, which try to bring together the important things they think they need to record and teach people within the community. They typically revise these books from time to time, when they seem outdated or something has changed in their community. Each Yearly Meeting might have its own, and can split up the material in various ways – but they all include the sorts of theological thinking I’m looking for. In order to get a really broad picture, I picked eight different examples of these books. I describe each one and analyse some key passages from it to look for the theological material. This is the evidence: if I find theology in liberal Quaker books of discipline, it’s evidence that there is liberal Quaker theology; if it’s coherent, or I can at least trace a continuity within the change through time and around the world, it’s evidence that there is a single liberal Quaker theological tradition. I was able to find both of those, so that’s brick 1 laid on my foundation.

book structure tower

A rough diagram of the book structure I describe – with a black line for my introduction/foundation, a nice solid rectangle for chapter 1, a square-ish shape at a bit of an angle balancing on top for chapter 2, a small but firm square for chapter 3, and a arching grey line down the left hand side to take it all in and be my conclusion: tower!

In the second chapter, I look at some works by individual Quakers or small groups which might be expected to be more diverse. They might be working outside an institutional context, or in a situation where a group has been specifically gathered to try and represent the theological diversity present within a Quaker community. I do find more diversity of theology, but I’m also able to show that everyone involved in engaged with some core liberal Quaker theological themes (as identified in the previous chapter). The tower is now taller and more likely to wobble, but I’ve got brick 2 balanced.

In the third and final major chapter, I extent the argument in one way – aiming to show that as well as ordinary theology, there is also academic liberal Quaker theology – and in order to do so within the space available, I compromise a bit. I let go of trying to show the full diversity and range of this area of work, and instead pick four examples which showcase some of the relevant ways of doing theology – not all, and without much spread in time or geography – and look at how each of these four examples relates to the picture of a coherent single tradition of liberal Quaker theology which I’ve been trying to build through the previous chapters. With brick 3 on, I’ve narrowed the tower a little bit, and that helps it to stay upright.

In the conclusion, I say… well, among other things, I make the structure of the book clear. I comment on how my new tower relates to other people’s towers and also talk about how it could be improved: what future work could build it taller or make it stronger? Among other things, I point out a brick I missed out on using. It’s only in the final chapter, when I look at a committee-produced document, that I bring in all the things which sit between the levels of chapter 1 and chapter 2 – things like minutes and epistles, things which might be written by individuals or small groups but are approved by large Quaker bodies without making it into a book of discipline. That could have been another brick. I left it out because I suspect it’s a difficult brick to get together – the documents aren’t necessarily easily available, they’d be in lots of places and understanding the context of each one would be time consuming – and even if I did, I wouldn’t expect it to show much that was different to both the books of discipline (which include that kind of material if it stands the test of time), and the books and other works by individuals and small groups (who are, at least at some level, the same individuals and small groups who participate in the meetings for worship for business which also produce the minutes and epistles. Differences between the highly tested books of discipline and the highly personal individual statements seemed much more likely (and indeed, I found some but none which were too damaging to my argument…!)

If I’d done the reading and found something different, I would have built a different structure. I had a fair idea going into this project that I was going to find something like this, but I was also already broadly familiar with all three areas of investigation. What did change was the order and the emphasis; looking back through my research journal, I can see that I considered and rejected structures based on history (so probably these kinds of materials, but in chronological order rather than themed by type) or topic (again, these materials but themed around issues which frequently arise in liberal Quaker theology) before working out this approach. The big emphasis it places on the books of discipline came from a comment made when I gave a conference paper on the project, and although I might have got there by another route I think it proves the effort of writing a paper was worth it!

Another way to think about the structure would be as a story – this kind of investigation is like a missing-person story, or maybe actually like three lost cats. The detective first establishes what cats she needs to look for (in the introduction), then hunts down cat one (surprise! it was at home by the fire, but it’s a striped cat and is almost completed hidden on the stripy rug), then looks for cat two (which has been all over but comes home for a favourite food), doesn’t spend that long looking for cat three (but shows that it has been seen chasing a laser pointer in next-door’s living room), and concludes that the cats, although thought to be lost, weren’t actually very lost at all.

So, there’s mine. What’s the structure of your project?

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.