Max Carter gave the Bible Association of Friends this past weekend at Moorestown (NJ) Friends Meeting. Max is a long-time educator and currently heads the Quaker Leadership Scholars Program at Guilford College, a program that has produced a number of active twenty-something Friends in recent years. The Bible Association is one of those great Philadelphia relics that somehow survived a couple of centuries of upheavals and still plugs along with a mission more-or-less crafted at it’s founding in the early 1800s: it distributes free Bibles to Friends, Friends schools and any First Day School class that might answer their inquiries.
Max’s program at Guilford is one of the recipients of the Bible Association’s efforts and he began by joking that his sole qualification for speaking at their annual meeting was that he was one of their more active customers.
Many of the students going through Max’s program grew up in the bigger East Coast yearly meetings. In these settings, being an involved Quaker teen means regularly going to camps like Catoctin and Onas, doing the FGC Gathering every year and having a parent on an important yearly meeting committee. “Quaker” is a specific group of friends and a set of guidelines about how to live in this subculture. Knowing the rules to Wink and being able to craft a suggestive question for Great Wind Blows is more important than even rudimentary Bible literacy, let alone Barclay’s Catechism. The knowledge of George Fox rarely extends much past the song (“with his shaggy shaggy locks”). So there’s a real culture shock when they show up in Max’s class and he hands them a Bible. “I’ve never touched one of these before” and “Why do we have to use this?” are non-uncommon responses.
None of this surprised me, of course. I’ve led high school workshops at Gathering and for yearly meeting teens. Great kids, all of them, but most of them have been really shortchanged in the context of their faith. The Guilford program is a good introduction (“we graduate more Quakers than we bring in” was how Max put it) but do we really want them to wait so long? And to have so relatively few get this chance. Where’s the balance between letting them choose for themselves and giving them the information on which to make a choice?
There was a sort of built-in irony to the scene. Most of the thirty-five or so attendees at the Moorestown talk were half-a-century older than the students Max was profiling. I pretty safe to say I was the youngest person there. It doesn’t seem healthy to have such separated worlds.
Max did talk for a few minutes about Convergent Friends. I think we’ve shaken hands a few times but he didn’t recognize me so it was a rare fly-on-wall opportunity to see firsthand how we’re described. It was positive (we “bear watching!”) but there were a few minor mis-perceptions. The most worrisome is that we’re a group of young adult Friends. At 42, I’ve graduated from even the most expansive definition of YAF and so have many of the other Convergent Friends (on a Facebook thread LizOpp made the mistake of listed all of the older Convergent Friends and touched off a little mock outrage–I’m going to steer clear of that mistake!). After the talk one attendee (a New Foundation Fellowship regular) came up and said that she had been thinking of going to the “New Monastics and Convergent Friends” workshop C Wess Daniels and I are co-leading next May but had second-thoughts hearing that CF’s were young adults. “That’s the first I’ve heard that” she said; “me too!” I replied and encouraged her to come. We definitely need to continue to talk about how C.F. represents an attitude and includes many who were doing the work long before Robin Mohr’s October 2006 Friends Journal article brought it to wider attention.
Techniques for Teaching the Bible and Quakerism
The most useful part of Max’s talk was the end, where he shared what he thought were lessons of the Quaker Leadership Scholars Program. He
- Demystify the Bible: a great percentage of incoming students to the QLSP had never touched it so it seemed foreign;
- Make it fun: he has a newsletter column called “Concordance Capers” that digs into the derivation of pop culture references of Biblical phrases; he often shows Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian” at the end of the class.
- Make it relevant: Give interested students the tools and guidance to start reading it.
- Show the genealogy: Start with the parts that are most obviously Quaker: John and the inner Light, the Sermon on the Mount, etc.
- Contemporary examples: Link to contemporary groups that are living a radical Christian witness today. This past semester they talked about the New Monastic movement, for example and they’ve profiled the Simple Way and Atlanta’s Open Door.
- The Bible as human condition: how is the Bible a story that we can be a part of, an inspiration rather than a literalist authority.
A couple of thoughts have been churning through my head since the talk: one is how to scale this up. How could we have more of this kind of work happening at the local yearly meeting level and start with younger Friends: middle school or high schoolers? And what about bringing convinced Friends on board? Most QLSP students are born Quaker and come from prominent-enough families to get meeting letters of recommendation to enter the program. Graduates of the QLSP are funneled into various Quaker positions these days, leaving out convinced Friends (like me and like most of the central Convergent Friends figures). I talked about this divide a lot back in the 1990s when I was trying to pull together the mostly-convinced Central Philadelphia Meeting young adult community with the mostly-birthright official yearly meeting YAF group. I was convinced then and am even more convinced now that no renewal will happen unless we can get these complementary perspectives and energies working together.
PS: Due to a conflict between Feedburner and Disqus, some of comments are here (Wess and Lizopp), here (Robin M) and here (Chris M). I think I’ve fixed it so that this odd spread won’t happen again.