Sometimes it seems as if moderns are looking back at history through the wrong end of the telescope: everything seems soooo far away. The effect is magnified when we’re talking about spirituality. The ancients come off as cartoonish figures with a complicated set of worked out philosophies and prohibitions that we have to adopt or reject wholesale. The ideal is to be a living branch on a long-rooted tree. But how do we intelligently converse with the past and negotiate changes?
Let’s talk Friends and music. The cartoon Quaker in our historical imagination glares down at us with heavy disapproval when it comes to music. They’re squares who just didn’t get it.
Getting past the cartoons
Thomas Clarkson, our Anglican guide to Quaker thought circa 1700, brings more nuance to the scruples. “The Quakers do not deny that instrumental music is capable of exciting delight. They are not insensible either of its power or of its charms. They throw no imputation on its innocence, when viewed abstractly by itself.” (p. 64)
“Abstractly by itself”: when evaluating a social practice, Friends look at its effects in the real world. Does it lead to snares and tempations? Quakers are engaged in a grand experiment in “christian” living, keeping to lifestyles that give us the best chance at moral living. The warnings against certain activities are based on observation borne of experience. The Quaker guidelines are wikis, notes compiled together into a collective memory of which activities promote – and which ones threaten – the leading of a moral life.
Clarkson goes on to detail Quaker’s concerns about music. They’re all actually quite valid. Here’s a sampling:
- People sometimes learn music just so they can show off and make others look talentless.
- Religious music can become a end to itself as people become focused on composition and playing (we’ve really decontextualized: much of the music played at orchestra halls is Masses; much of the music played at folk festival is church spirituals).
- Music can be a big time waster, both in its learning and its listening.
- Music can take us out into the world and lead to a self-gratification and fashion.
I won’t say any of these are absolute reason to ban music, but as a list of negative temptations they still apply. The Catholic church my wife belongs to very consciously has music as a centerpiece. It’s very beautiful, but I always appreciate the pastor’s reminder that the music is in service to the Mass and that no one had better clap at some performance! Like with Friends, we’re seeing a deliberate balancing of benefits vs temptations and a warning against the snares that the choice has left open.
Context context context
In section iv, Clarkson adds time to the equation. Remember, the Quaker movement is already 150 years old. Times have changed:
Music at [the time of early Quakers] was principally in the hands of those, who made a livelihood of the art. Those who followed it as an accomplishment, or a recreation, were few and those followed it with moderation. But since those days, its progress has been immense… Many of the middle classes, in imitation of the higher, have received it… It is learned now, not as a source of occasional recreation, but as a complicated science, where perfection is insisted upon to make it worth of pursuit. p.76.
Again we see Clarkson’s Quakers making distinctions between types and motivations of musicianship. The laborer who plays a guitar after a hard day on the field is less worrisome than the obsessed adolescent who spends their teen years locked in the den practicing Stairway to Heaven. And when music is played at large festivals that lead youth “into company” and fashions, it threatens the religious society: “it has been found, that in proportion as young Quakers mix with the world, they generally imbibe its spirit, and weaken themselves as members of their own body.”
Music has changed even more radically in the suceeding two centuries. Most of the music in our lives is pre-recorded; it’s ubiquitious and often involuntary (you can’t go shopping without it). Add in the drone of TV and many of us spend an insane amount of time in its semi-narcotic haze of isolated listenership. Then, what about DIY music and singalongs. Is there a distinction to be made between testoterone power-chord rock and twee singer-songwriter strums? Between arenas and coffeehouse shows? And move past music into the other media of our lives. What about movies, DVS, computers, glossy magazines, talk shows. Should Friends waste their time obsessing over American Idol? Well what about Prairie Home Companion?
Does a social practice lead us out into the world in a way that makes it hard for us to keep a moral center? What if we turned off the mediated consumer universe and engaged in more spiritually rewarding activities – contemplative reading, service work, visiting with others? But what if music, computers, radio, is part of the way we’re engaging with the world?
How to decide?
Finally, in Clarkson’s days Friends had an elaborate series of courts that would decide about social practices both in the abstract (whether they should be published as warnings) and the particular (whether a particular person had strayed too far and fallen in moral danger). Clarkson was writing for a non-Quaker audience and often translated Quakerese: “courts” was his name for monthly, quarterly and yearly meeting structures. I suspect that those sessions more closely resembled courts than they do the modern institutions that share their name. The court system led to its own abuses and started to break down shortly after Clarkson’s book was published and doesn’t exist anymore.
We find outselves today pretty much without any structure for sharing our experiences (“Faith and Practice” sort of does this but most copies just gather dust on shelves). Monthly meetings don’t feel that oversight of their members is their responsibility; many of us have seen them look the other way even at flagrantly egregious behavior and many Friends would be outraged at the concept that their meeting might tell them what to do – I can hear the howls of protest now!
And yet, and yet: I hear many people longing for this kind of collective inquiry and instruction. A lot of the emergent church talk is about building accountable communities. So we have two broad set of questions: what sort of practices hurt and hinder our spiritual lives in these modern times; and how do we share and perhaps codify guidelines for twenty-first century righteous living?