Tempations, shared paths and religious accountability

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?

  • Raye

    Every thought I have about this con­tains a para­dox, and at least one point that can be argued against. I am going to send this any­way, because I would like to think that we are capa­ble of being open to the Spir­it and being taught how to live with para­dox as we build our community.
    The prac­tices that hurt and hin­der include, I think, the ways in which we watch our­selves and each oth­er in mat­ters of practice.
    The reg­u­lar hon­est response to queries can help. Tricky parts are wip­ing one´s men­tal slate clean from thoughts like, “I answered this LAST year. No one is going to lis­ten to this. This takes so much time.” I find that lis­ten­ing to and respond­ing to queries is very help­ful. It is also help­ful to real­ly lis­ten to the respons­es of oth­er mem­bers of my meeting.
    If a per­son has decid­ed to par­tic­i­pate, in the inter­est of strength­en­ing the meet­ing and indi­vid­u­als of the meet­ing, queries can start some use­ful com­mu­ni­ca­tion. It can get at some of the dirt that can get swept under the rug.
    Anoth­er tricky part is get­ting Friends to see them­selves as peo­ple who can help the com­mu­ni­ty become health­i­er (this includes moral behav­ior). Many of us seem stuck in a Peter Pan (par­don the world­ly lit­er­ary ref­er­ence) per­sona — we do not feel grown up enough to address behav­iors that may be wound­ing indi­vid­u­als or the com­mu­ni­ty. Ignor­ing harm­ful behav­iors hin­ders our spir­i­tu­al lives.
    At times it seems we mis­in­ter­pret the gold­en rule to mean, “leave me alone and I will leave thee alone.”
    If I am going to get the speck out of someone´s eye, my own log must be removed. The admo­ni­tion Jesus gave did not, I think, imply that I can nev­er get the log removed from my own eye. I think it implies that that is job num­ber one, not that it is impossible.
    I think that log removal is a painful process. But after it has been done, it can leave a per­son very sen­si­tive to the needs of peo­ple who could use some guid­ance, and there­fore reduces the like­li­hood that instruc­tion will be taint­ed with pride or pow­er lust.
    It helps if there is agree­ment that the spir­i­tu­al health and matu­ri­ty of the meet­ing (at any lev­el — mon­thy, quar­ter­ly, year­ly) is a BIG pri­or­i­ty. If it mat­ters to me, then I will be more recep­tive to cor­rec­tion or instruc­tion or redi­rec­tion, because that is help­ing me get some­where I want to go. So anoth­er hin­drance is fail­ure to dis­cuss and come to agree­ment on the impor­tance of health and matu­ri­ty of the society.
    I find a num­ber of prac­tices help­ful spir­i­tu­al­ly. One is mak­ing time to wan­der over to the neigh­bors´ and vis­it, espe­cial­ly if I can bring a gift, like gar­lic just out of the gar­den, or berries or flow­ers. Anoth­er is lim­it­ing expo­sure to pop cul­ture. In my case, the choice of songs I learn and play on my evo­harp (chord­ed zither) mat­ters. I pre­fer gospel songs and hymns. But some oth­er songs speak spir­i­tu­al truth and I include them in my reper­toire. I think very hard about venue. Most of my play­ing has been for wor­ship ser­vices. Once I played at a wed­ding, once for a cou­ple of hun­dred inner city high school stu­dents as part of Diver­si­ty Day (I´ll Fly Away and Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross).
    Chop­ping wood and grow­ing food are very help­ful to me. Just the sense of how much labor goes into obtain­ing the basics has giv­en me bet­ter perspective.
    Time to send this on. Thanks for the posts on this. It mat­ters to me (as thee may have guessed).

  • Mar­tin
    Thank you for your thought­ful post. I’m look­ing for­ward to hear­ing more about Thomas Clarkson’s take on Quakers.
    For a full-on ear­ly Quak­er cri­tique of music from a ‘reformed musi­cian’ (as in ‘reformed alco­holic’), you could try Humphrey Smith’s ‘To the musi­cioners’ (http://home.att.net/~quakart/texts/hs-orig.htm). Amidst the rant (the blo­gos­phere has noth­ing on the pam­phle­teers of the Eng­lish Repub­lic) it’s just about pos­si­ble to make out the thread of an argu­ment, or at least an asso­ci­a­tion of ideas: Music and danc­ing are the prod­ucts of a vio­lent, urban, lux­u­ri­ous soci­ety and a sign of the stiff-necked pride of peo­ple who have for­got­ten their Lord and instead idol­a­trous­ly wor­ship God’s crea­tures. “When the Harp and the musike goe they must wor­ship the Image in the world’s fig­ure.” What would he make of MTV?
    Smith only real­ly con­sid­ers music in its wild, uproar­i­ous, good-time aspect, and he finds it nat­ur­al that the Israelites in exile should have hung up their harps in sor­row. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that music could also be sor­row­ful, calm­ing, gen­tle, or an expres­sion of human sol­i­dar­i­ty. Some­thing as essen­tial to human well­be­ing as well, erm, ritual.
    For these rea­sons I can’t go along with him, or the ear­ly Quak­ers gen­er­al­ly, when it comes to music. Did they real­ly not sing lul­la­bies or dandling-songs or counting-rhymes to their chil­dren? I’m cur­rent­ly sep­a­rat­ed from my wife and daugh­ter (thanks to UK immi­gra­tion rules), and whilst hav­ing a coher­ent con­ver­sa­tion over the phone with a two-year-old is very dif­fi­cult, singing instant­ly re-establishes the bond between us.
    Hav­ing said that, I think you’re right in sug­gest­ing that the Quak­er cri­tique of music still has some­thing to teach us. For a start, much music-making seems to be bound up with idol­is­ing oppres­sive social hier­ar­chies, as Smith clear­ly sensed. With clas­si­cal music it’s the mys­tique of the aris­toc­ra­cy and the old high bour­geoisie. With pop­u­lar music it’s the tyran­ny of cool, of the beau­ti­ful, sexy peo­ple over every­one else. And of hav­ing to con­form to this or that con­sumer tribe so that I can give a street-credible answer to the ques­tion­ers who ask, “What music do you like, then?” Next time I’ll be tempt­ed to answer, “I’m a Quak­er, so I don’t lis­ten to world­ly music.”

  • Mar­tin Kelley

    Thanks to both Raye and Jere­mi­ah for inter­est­ing additions.
    I do want to reit­er­ate that I per­son­al­ly don’t feel led to give up music. Being the typ­i­cal GenX Quak­er male I play the gui­tar enough to bang out chords and I like singing out loud when the house is emp­ty. I try to keep up with musi­cal trends and actu­al­ly talk a lot about music over on my Twit­ter feed. My inter­est in Clarkson’s dis­sec­tion of Quak­er scru­ples around music was his expla­na­tion of its ratio­nales. I do think we should be con­scious of how we con­sume media, not just music but now TVs and com­put­ers, and how our par­tic­i­pa­tion active and pas­sive strength­ens or hin­ders our spir­i­tu­al journey.
    For what it’s worth, Jere­mi­ah, I’ve strick­en from my vocab­u­lary the argu­ment that starts “I’m a Quak­er, so I [do or don’t].” If I can’t explain it with­out appeal to author­i­ty then I have a myth on my hands! Ah but I’m get­ting ahead of myself once more: plain dress will prob­a­bly be next and will talk about lifestyle & author­i­ty more.

  • Mar­tin
    Only jok­ing! I’m not even a Quak­er (yet), only an atten­der. And the “I’m a Quak­er, so I [do or don’t]” line prob­a­bly con­tributes to the Quak­ers’ rep­u­ta­tion for self-righteousness.
    I too long for a com­mu­ni­ty prac­tis­ing col­lec­tive inquiry, instruc­tion and account­abil­i­ty. And that did it with­out falling under the yoke of oppres­sive legal­ism, (think of the Brethren in Lake Wobe­gon plac­ing each oth­er under the ban over hot baths and women wear­ing slacks…)

  • jan­drewm

    Music is deeply impor­tant to me (per­haps too impor­tant), and espe­cial­ly the expe­ri­ence of singing or play­ing with oth­ers: this cre­ates a pow­er­ful sense of com­mu­ni­ty that can have pos­i­tive effects elsewhere.
    Too, music can be a way of express­ing truths and artic­u­lat­ing lived expe­ri­ence through the body. I’m think­ing for exam­ple of what Du Bois called the “sor­row songs” of African-Americans in the 19th cen­tu­ry, who saw in music a pow­er­ful way to make sense of their tragedy of captivity.
    So I’m com­mit­ted to a vision of music as mean­ing­ful and spir­i­tu­al­ly ground­ed. That said, I also cher­ish the Quak­er tra­di­tion of cri­tique you’re explor­ing here, and see it as a nec­es­sary part­ner in that inter­nal dia­logue I will con­tin­ue to have about the rela­tion­ship between aes­thet­ics and faith. I do think that these aes­thet­ic ques­tions are real­ly impor­tant for a spir­i­tu­al life, and I thank you for direct­ing me to a text (Clark­son) that can fur­ther my explo­ration of the theme.