The bully, the Friend and the Christian

Lazy guy I am, I'm going to cut-and-paste a comment I left over at Rich the Brooklyn Quaker's blog in response to his post "What This Christian Is Looking For In Quakerism":http://brooklynquaker.blogspot.com/2006/04/what-this-christian-is-looking-for-in.html. There's been quite a good discussion in the comments. In them Rich poses this analogy:
bq. During the Great Depression and World War II, I have been told that Franklin Roosevelt rallied the spirits of the American people with his "fireside chats". These radio broadcasts communicated information, projected hope, and called for specific responses from his listeners; including some acts of self-sacrifice and unselfishness... Often people would gather in small groups around their radios to hear these broadcasts, they would talk about what Roosevelt had said, and to some extent they were guided in their daily lives by some of what they had heard.


Rich then supposes what a listener sitting in front of the radio might by thinking. I thought it was an interesting analogy and thought it provided another way of thinking about the relationship of Quakerism and Christianity and especially of a Quaker-styled Christianity. Let's start with a listener who's figured out that the speaker's a real person and not just electronic fuzz

The year is 1933.
Twelfth day Third Month.
"Cue Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first fireside chat":ftp://webstorage2.mcpa.virginia.edu/library/nara/fdr/audiovisual/speeches/firesidechat_01.mp3

Our listener sitting in front of the radio would hear FDR's voice without knowing who he is. The information would be there but there would be no particular weight attached to it. They might listen to it but they'd be just as likely to turn the knob and catch the much more entertaining Bob Hope special.
A bully sitting nearby in the room might rebuke the listener: "Don't touch that dial! Listen to what he's saying! That's the PRESIDENT!" The listener, knowing nothing about our political system, would just hear a call to unearned authority. The bully's rebuke would have the weight of fear--what might the bully do if I don't listen?!?--but it will have taken the listener's attention off of FDR and onto the bully.
Let's say that instead there's a gentle soul in the room who gives testimony. They share with our listener how valuable they've found FDR's advice to be in the past. They're simply saying, "it's worth listening to this guy, he says some good stuff."
As the listener starts appreciating FDR's counsel, our nearby friend might start teaching about the role of the Presidency in American history. They could introduce concepts like checks-and-balances, they could tell stories of past Constitutional crises, they would talk about other types of political systems. Our listener would slowly gain a vocabularly that wouldn't change the message but which would provide a way of talking about it. The friend would be tapping on the social history of generations of Americans who had struggled to understand how to organize themselves: the friend would be teaching our collective wisdom. By understanding it our listener would be in a better position to effectively act on FDR's advice (perhaps they'd realize they need to lobby their senators to get FDR's next budget passed).
A deconstructionist might argue that "The United States of America" is a social construct, but that doesn't mean the Declaration of Independence isn't an amazing, inspiring document that says something profoundly truthful about human existance.
Taking the analogy full circle, it's almost as if liberal Friends today are afraid of teaching the Declaration of Independence because it might offend the Russian, Italian and Korean immigrants. We still believe in it and most of the immigrants are figuring out pieces of it hit-and-miss, but we're just incredibly awkward talking about it since we've lost our language. If we just started speaking plainly again, that would give the immigrants a chance to say "hey that's interesting but you know we did it this way back in the old country." I wonder if we'd open up the conversation to a richer level of sharing?
The beauty of Quakerism is that we know that the quiet testimony and humble invitation are gifts we can share with one another and with all we meet. I'm thinking again of the Brian Drayton's formulation:
bq. We are also called, I feel to invite others to share Christ directly, not primarily in order to introduce them to Quakerism and bring them into our meetings, but to encourage them to turn to the light and follow it.
The message we share matters not simply because it's Christ's but because it's wise. We have much to share.
*Naming the Church*
The meeting I attend, "Middletown":http://www.pym.org/pym_mms/middletownpa_cdq.php, is going through Acts in Bible Study and today the clerk forwarded some fascinating commentary from "1863 by a fellow named J. W. McGarvey":http://www.ccel.org/m/mcgarvey/oca/OCA11.HTM. He talks about the names we give one another and the Source and it reminds me of the discussion over on Rich's blog. Here's a sample:
bq. The New Testament usage in reference to names is this: When the followers of Jesus were contemplated with reference to their relation to him as their great teacher, they were called disciples. When the mind of the speaker was fixed more particularly on their relation to one another, they were styled brethren. When their relation to God was in the foreground, they were called children of God. When they were designated with special reference to character, they were called saints. But when they were spoken of with the most general reference to their great leader, they were called Christians. A practical observance of the exact force of each of these names would soon conform our speech to the primitive model, and would check a tendency to exalt any one name above another, by giving to each its proper place.
The rest of the article is worth a read, though I can't whole-heartedly endorse it. It ends up arguing for the kind of non-denominational Christianity that I find kind of shallow (maybe I just watch too much of "Marcus Grodi":http://www.chnetwork.org/ewtn.htm Catholic conversion shows to buy into this simplicistic Protestanism, though I suspect Fox would have been more sympathetic to McGarvey than to Grodi).
*Coming together as church*
I'd like to give a shout-out to the Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative) ministers who came together a "worship opportunity last Sixth Night":http://www.localquakers.org/Ministers.htm (Saturday to you worldly folks) at "Marlborough Meeting":http://www.localquakers.org/Marlborough.html. The email invitation from Chip Thomas got wide enough circulation among Philadelphia Friends that I saw it three times. The ministry was tender and the fellowship afterwards very welcoming. It was nice to see this form of outreach from Ohio, I'd love to see more. Friends in the Philadelphia area will get another chance when Marlborough hosts another gathering of ministers on Sixth Month 24.

  • Let’s say that instead there’s a gen­tle soul in the room who gives testimony.Let’s say that instead there’s a gen­tle soul in the room who gives tes­ti­mo­ny..
    And I would add that Rich has cer­tain­ly been that “gen­tle soul” over at his blog these days. I like how you extend­ed the orig­i­nal anal­o­gy. Cool.

  • Tak­ing the anal­o­gy full cir­cle, it’s almost as if lib­er­al Friends today are afraid of teach­ing the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence because it might offend the Russ­ian, Ital­ian and Kore­an immi­grants. We still believe in it and most of the immi­grants are fig­ur­ing out pieces of it hit-and-miss, but we’re just incred­i­bly awk­ward talk­ing about it since we’ve lost our lan­guage. If we just start­ed speak­ing plain­ly again…
    This rather neat­ly sums up my first year among Quak­ers at ESR. If I dig a bit in what folks are say­ing, it’s often as Chris­t­ian as what I bring to the table. Folks won’t iden­ti­fy as Chris­t­ian or talk plain­ly about Chris­t­ian beliefs, though, and so many con­nect­ing points get lost in trans­mis­sion.

  • Hi Julie, weird, one would think that a sem­i­nary is exact­ly the place you want to put words and speci­fici­ties to the reli­gious expe­ri­ence. But I’m not sur­prised. I too have seen well-placed Friends stum­ble into off over the edge coher­ence try­ing to explain a basic Chris­t­ian Quak­er prin­ci­ple with­out using any words that might sound either Chris­t­ian or Quak­er. I’m hap­py when Friends try to preach with­out using code words or loaded lan­guage but some­times it feels like these Friends are oper­at­ing out of our kind of knee-jerk cul­ture of delib­er­ate ambi­gu­i­ty.