The August issue of Friends Journal looks at the physicality of the places where we live our our faith.
The August issue of Friends Journal looks at the physicality of the places where we live our our faith.
Continuing my recent post in reimagining blogs, I’m going to go into some contextual details lifted from the Quaker publications with which I’m either directly associated or that have some claim to my identity.
My blog at Quaker Ranter dates back to the proto-blog I began in 1997 as an new homepage for my two year old “Nonviolence Web” project. The new feature was updated weekly with excerpted material from member projects on Nonviolence.org and related organizations that already had independent websites. We didn’t have RSS or Twitter then but I would manually send out emails to a list; we didn’t have comments but I would publish interesting responses that came by email. The work was relaunched with blogging software in 2003 and the voice became more individual and my focus became more Quaker and tech.
The articles then were like they are now: reversely chronological, with categories, tagging, and site searching that allow older material to be accessed. The most important source of archive visibility is external: Google. People can easily find material that is directly relevant to a question they’re addressing right now. In many instances, they’ll never even click through to the site homepage, much less categories, tags, etc. As I said in my last post, these first-time visitors are often trying to understand something new; the great majority bounce off the page and follow another search result on a matter of a few seconds, but some small but important percentage will be ripe for new ideas and connections and might be willing to try new associations.
But it’s random. I’m a bit of a nerd in my chosen interests and have been blogging long enough that I generally have at least a few interesting posts on any particular sub-topic. Most of these have been inspired by colleagues, friends, my wife, and random conversations I’ve found myself in.
Some of the most meaningful blog posts – those with legs – have involved me integrating some new thinker or idea into my worldview. The process will have started months or sometimes years before when another spiritual nerd recommended a book or article. In the faith world there’s always books that are obscure to newcomers but essential for those trying to go deeper into their faith. You’ll be in a deep conversations with someone and they’ll ask (often with a twinkle in their eye) “have you read so-and-so?” (This culture if sharing is especially important for Friends, who traditionally have no clergy or seminaries).
A major role of my blog has been to bring these sorts of conversations into a public realm – one that can be Googled and followed. The internet has helped us scale-up this process and make it more available to those who can’t constantly travel.
When I have real-world conversations now, I often have recourse to cite some old blog post. I’m sharing the “have you read” conversation in a way that can be eavesdropped by hundreds.
But how are people who stumble in my site for the first time going to find this?
The issue isn’t just limited to an obscure faith blog. Yesterday I learned about a cool (to me) blog written by a dad who researches and travels to neat nature spots in the area with his kids and writes up a post about what-to-see and kid-issues-to-be-aware-of. But when it’s a nice Saturday afternoon and I find myself in a certain locale, how can I know if he’s been anywhere nearby unless I go through all the archives or hope the search works or hope his blog’s categorization taxonomy is complete?
What I’m thinking is that we could try to create meta indexes to our blogs in a wiki model. Have a whole collection of introductory pages where we list and summarize relevant articles with links.
In the heyday of SEO, I used to tag the heck out if posts and have the pages act as a sort of automated version of this, but again, this it was chronological. And it was work. Even remembering to tag is work. I would spend a couple of days ignoring clients to metatag each page on the site, only to redo the work a few months later with even more metadata complexity. Writing a whole shadow meta blog indexing the blog would be a major (and unending task). It wouldn’t garner the rush of immediate Facebook likes. But it would be supremely useful for someone wanting to explore an issue of particular interest to them at that moment.
And one more Quaker aside that I think will nevertheless be of interest to the more techie readers. I’ve described Quakerism as a wiki spirituality. Exhibit one is the religious movement’s initial lack of creeds or written instruction. Even our pacifism, for which we’re most well known, was an uncodified testimony in the earliest years.
As Friends gained more experience living in community, they would publish advices – short snippets of wisdom that were collectively-approved using consensus decision making. They were based on experience. For example, they might find that members who abused alcohol, say, or repeatedly tested the dress code might cause other sorts of problems for the community and they’d minute a warning against these practices.
These advices were written over time; as more were approved it became burdensome to find relevant advices when some issue started tearing up a congregation. So they were collected into books – unofficial at first, literally hand-copied from person to person. These eventually became official – published “books of disciplines,” collections of the collective wisdom organized by topic. Their purpose and scope (and even their name) has changed over the ensuing centuries but their impulse and early organization is one that I find useful when thinking about how we could rethink the categorization issues of our twenty first century blogs and commenting systems.
Came across an 2004-era page of mine (the Baby Theo homepage) via an Archive.org search today. Here was a description on the sidebar:
This website is part of a informal emerging network of Friends that are reaching across our institutional boundaries to engage with our faith and with each other. The “ministry of the written word” has often sparked generational renewal among Friends and there’s something afoot in all these comments and linkbacks. There are lots of potential projects that can be launched over the new few years (books, workshops, conferences, etc) so if you like the direction of this site and the questions it’s asking, please consider a donation to the nonviolence.org site.
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2012 Presidential Candidates Religious Backgrounds | Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
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Warning: this is a blog post about blogging.
It’s always fascinating to watch the ebb and flow of my blogging. Quakerranter, my “main” blog has been remarkably quiet. I’m still up to my eyeballs with blogging in general: posting things to QuakerQuaker, giving helpful comments and tips, helping others set up blogs as part of my consulting business. My Tumblr blog and Facebook and Twitter feeds all continue to be relatively active. But most of these is me giving voice to others. For two decades now, I’ve zigzagged between writer and publisher; lately I’ve been focused on the latter.
When I started blogging about Quaker issues seven years ago, I was a low-level clerical employee at an Quaker organization. It was clear I was going nowhere career-wise, which gave me a certain freedom. More importantly, blogs were a nearly invisible medium, read by a self-selected group that also wanted to talk openly and honestly about issues. I started writing about issues in among liberal Friends and about missed outreach opportunities. A lot of what I said was spot on and in hindsight, the archives give me plenty of “told you so” credibility. But where’s the joy in being right about what hasn’t worked?
Things have changed over the years. One is that I’ve resigned myself to those missed opportunities. Lots of Quaker money and humanly activity is going into projects that don’t have God as a center. No amount of ranting is going to dissuade good people from putting their faith into one more staff reorganization, mission rewrite or clever program.It’s a distraction to spend much time worrying about them.
But the biggest change is that my heart is squarely with God. I’m most interested in sharing Jesus’s good news. I’m not a cheerleader for any particular human institution, no matter how noble its intentions. When I talk about the good news, it’s in the context of 350 years of Friends’ understanding of it. But I’m well aware that there’s lots of people in our meetinghouses that don’t understand it this way anymore. And also aware that the seeker wanting to pursue the Quaker way might find it more closely modeled in alternative Christian communities. There are people all over listening for God and I see many attempts at reinventing Quakerism happening among non-Friends.
I know this observation excites some people to indignation, but so be it: I’m trusting God on this one. I’m not sure why He’sgiven us a world why the communities we bring together to worship Him keep getting distracted, but that’s what we’ve got (and it’s what we’ve had for a long time). Every person of faith of every generation has to remember, re-experience and revive the message. That happens in church buildings, on street corners, in living rooms, lunch lines and nowadays on blogs and internet forums.We can’t get too hung up on all the ways the message is getting blocked. And we can’t get hung up by insisting on only one channel of sharing that message. We must share the good news and trust that God will show us how to manifest this in our world: his kingdom come and will be done on earth.
But what would this look like?
When I first started blogging there weren’t a lot of Quaker blogs and I spent a lot more time reading other religious blogs. This was back before the emergent church movement became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Zondervan and wasn’t dominated by hype artists (sorry, a lot of big names set off my slime-o-meter these days). There are still great bloggers out there talking about faith and readers wanting to engage in this discussion. I’ve been intrigued by the historical example of Thomas Clarkson, the Anglican who wrote about Friends from a non-Quaker perspective using non-Quaker language. And sometimes I geek out and explain some Quaker point on a Quaker blog and get thanked by the author, who often is an experienced Friend who had never been presented with a classic Quaker explanation on the point in question. My tracking log shows seekers continue to be fascinated and drawn to us for our traditional testimonies, especially plainness.
I’ve put together topic lists and plans before but it’s a bit of work, maybe too much to put on top of what I do with QuakerQuaker (plus work, plus family). There’s also questions about where to blog and whether to simplify my blogging life a bit by combining some of my blogs but that’s more logistics rather than vision.
Interesting stuff I’m reading that’s making me think about this:
I’m still trying to figure out this idea I have of video interviews on practical faith. I’ll just do some and see how they go. Wess at Gatheringinlight.com was willing to be guinea pig #1 – thanks!
It’s been a fascinating education learning about institutional Catholicism these past few weeks. I won’t reveal how and what I know, but I think I have a good picture of the culture inside the bishop’s inner circle and I’m pretty sure I understand his long-term agenda. The current lightening-fast closure of sixty-some churches is the first step of an ambitious plan; manufactured priest shortages and soon-to-be overcrowded churches will be used to justify even more radical changes. In about twenty years time, the 125 churches that exist today will have been sold off. What’s left of a half million faithful will be herded into a dozen or so mega-churches, with theology borrowed from generic liberalism, style from feel-good evangelicalism, and organization from consultant culture.
When diocesan officials come by to read this blog (and they do now), they will smile at that last sentence and nod their heads approvingly. The conspiracy is real.
But I don’t want to talk about Catholicism again. Let’s talk Quakers instead, why not? I should be in some meeting for worship right now anyway. Julie left Friends and returned to the faith of her upbringing after eleven years with us because she wanted a religious community that shared a basic faith and that wasn’t afraid to talk about that faith as a corporate “we.” It seems that Catholicism won’t be able to offer that in a few years. Will she run then run off to the Eastern Orthodox church? For that matter should I be running off to the Mennonites? See though, the problem is that the same issues will face us wherever we try to go. It’s modernism, baby. No focused and authentic faith seems to be safe from the Forces of the Bland. Lord help us.
We can blog the questions of course. Why would someone who dislikes Catholic culture and wants to dismantle its infrastructure become a priest and a career bureaucrat? For that matter why do so many people want to call themselves Quakers when they can’t stand basic Quaker theology? If I wanted lots of comments I could go on blah-blah-blah, but ultimately the question is futile and beyond my figuring.
Another piece to this issue came in some questions Wess Daniels sent around to me and a few others this past week in preparation for his upcoming presentation at Woodbrooke. He asked about how a particular Quaker institution did or did not represent or might or might not be able to contain the so-called “Convergent” Friends movement. I don’t want to bust on anyone so I won’t name the organization. Let’s just say that like pretty much all Quaker bureaucracies it’s inward-focused, shallow in its public statements, slow to take initiative and more or less irrelevant to any campaign to gather a great people. A more successful Quaker bureaucracy I could name seems to be doing well in fundraising but is doing less and less with more and more staff and seems more interested in donor-focused hype than long-term program implementation.
One enemy of the faith is bureaucracy. Real leadership has been replaced by consultants and fundraisers. Financial and staffing crises – real and created – are used to justify a watering down of the message. Programs are driven by donor money rather than clear need and when real work might require controversy, it’s tabled for the façade of feel-goodism. Quaker readers who think I’m talking about Quakers: no I’m talking about Catholics. Catholic readers who think I’m talking about Catholics: no, I’m talking about Quakers. My point is that these forces are tearing down religiosity all over. Some cheer this development on. I think it’s evil at work, the Tempter using our leader’s desires for position and respect and our the desires of our laity’s (for lack of a better word) to trust and think the best of its leaders.
So where does that leave us? I’m tired of thinking that maybe if I try one more Quaker meeting I’ll find the community where I can practice and deepen my faith as a Christian Friend. I’m stumped. That first batch of Friends knew this feeling: Fox and the Peningtons and all the rest talked about isolation and about religious professionals who were in it for the career. I know from the blogosphere and from countless one-on-one conversations that there are a lot of us – a lot – who either drift away or stay in meetings out of a sense of guilt.
So what would a spiritual community for these outsider Friends look like? If we had real vision rather than donor vision, what would our structures look like? If we let the generic churches go off to out-compete one other to see who can be the blandest, what would be left for the rest of us to do?
I guess this last paragraph is the new revised mission statement for the Quaker part of this blog. Okay kids, get a step stool, go to your meeting library, reach up high, clear away the dust and pull out volume one of “A portraiture of Quakerism: Taken from a view of the education and discipline, social manners, civil and political economy, religious principles and character, of the Society of Friends” by Thomas Clarkson. Yes the 1806 version, stop the grumbling. Get out the ribbed packing tape and put its cover back together – this isn’t the frigging Library of Congress and we’re actually going to read this thing. Don’t even waste your time checking it out in the meeting’s logbook: no one’s pulled it down off the shelf in fifty years and no one’s going to miss it now. Really stuck?, okay Google’s got it too. Class will start shortly.
Photo: A new publication of the Neo Post Convergent Diaper Set. An irony I have to point out is that I’ve agreed to have the boys raised Catholic, the faith to which Julie returned after eleven years with Friends. Can I help it if the kids look so dern photogenic in front of Quaker meetinghouses? Enlarged photo.