Thursday, April 09, 2015

C. Wess Daniels and Remixing the Quaker Way

A few weeks ago I found a copy of C. Wess Daniels A Convergent Model of Renewal: Remixing the Quaker Tradition in Participatory Culture in my mailbox. I'd been looking forward to this book for a long time. So much so that I tore open the packaging on the long walk back from the road to the house and started reading it.

For those of you who don't know Wess, for the past more than five years he's been the released minister at Camas Friends Church (in Washington state), has been an adjunct professor, and has a PhD from Fuller Seminary. He also makes a mean sauerkraut and is a connoisseur of coffee. Wess has just been named the William R. Rogers Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College, succeeding Max Carter, who will retire this summer after 25 years there.

In my opinion Guilford could not have made a better choice.

Wess has been one of the foremost articulators of the "convergent Friends" movement and practices what he preaches about Quaker renewal. I've been fortunate enough to have had a number of conversations about the latter topic with him over the past few years. Which is why I looked forward to his book.

Shortly after I received it, I was bound for a series of airplane trips. I usually don't read on planes -- mostly (since I hate flying) I listen to tunes and try to forget that I'm on a plane.  This time I made an exception. I took the book and a yellow marker.  We had not taken off on the first leg of the trip before I had begun highlighting sections.  That's because there's much good stuff herein -- including sections like: 
"Each...formulated branch touts its own rival theories about the origin and core message of the Quaker tradition. Each polarization represents only a piece of the larger tradition." 

I could fill this blog with other such gems. Wess has a clear eye and views us Quakers honestly and provides a good analysis of the issues facing all of our various permutations -- Evangelical, liberal, middle of the road, and so on.  But since this is blog -- and not an academic review -- I need to be brief.

Here's why I think Wess' book bears reading.  It's an articulate, accessible analysis of the current state of North American (primarily) Quakerism. He also provides a cogent portrayal of the participatory and remixing nature of early Quakerism and why it had an such an impact on culture, faith, and life.  He offers a model "for participatory renewal" that has much to commend it. And I do mean much.  These pieces (plus Ben Pink Dandelion's foreword) make the book worth reading.

But, in the interest of integrity (since I am a friend of Wess' and don't want readers to think I didn't read the book critically because of our friendship), I also have to name my quibbles.  One is that there's one contemporary case study -- that of Freedom Friends Church.  Now I find Freedom Friends an amazing place that is doing good work, but I would have rather seen a summary of findings from a number of contemporary meetings/churches Wess feels are implementing the remixing/participatory model he outlines.  One example hardly feels convincing.

Another quibble is the emphasis Wess places on convergent Friends faith and practice as a base for his model. I love his model -- less the descriptor "convergent." Regarding convergent Friends as a model, well, I am not convinced -- never have been. That's probably due in no small part to my skeptical nature. But I think it also has something to do with having been a long-time congregational consultant and seeing how churches and meetings look for the one program/theology/resource/practice that will bring about renewal and then import it wholesale, only to find it doesn't fit them. 

The convergent Friends movement has much to commend it. But it is not, as a package one can import, for all Friends. Instead, I think each Friends meeting/church needs to wrestle with the points that Wess raises in this book -- have we abandoned Quaker tradition as irrelevant in our proclamation of Jesus or have we abandoned Jesus in order to practice our post-modern discover your personal truth with us? And everything in between.  Wess' book lays out some of the questions we all -- Evangelical, ultra-liberal, mushy-moderates, conservatives -- need to consider and struggle with. He shows the potential power of remixing vital tradition and spiritual experiences and language and culture into a vital Quaker way for today. But I don't think it's dependent on the convergent model.

When I mentioned my concern to Wess, he replied, "I only write about the Convergent Friends group a little and make more of it as a gesture towards holding onto both tradition and innovation. The hope of the model is that Friends, within whatever context they are in, will find ways to hold that tension, not so much become a part of the group of 'convergent Friends' who get together have pizza, chocolate chip cookies, and worship together. I guess what I am taking from them is that commitment towards both tradition and innovation more than extrapolating insights from what those groups do."

That said, I fully embrace his model and feel it can truly help Friends move forward in culturally and spiritually relevant ways.

In the book, Wess says:
As a highly participatory faith tradition, Quakerism is uniquely positioned ... in today's culture, reformulating the movement in ways that might bring about renewal.
I would drop the "might." I say that because that's what non-Quakers like Phyllis Tickle and Diana Butler Bass involved in the renewal and emergent movements among Christianity have been saying about the opportunity for Friends today.  Wess has hit the Quaker nail on the head here. His call to remix and become fully participatory is spot on.  

Get the book. Read it. Share it. Ponder it with Friends.

If you're interested in my own thoughts on Quaker renewal, check out the blog posts titled "A Modest Proposal" or download the booklet here


Bill Samuel said...

I haven't read the book so this is a comment on the post not really on the book. I'm inclined to think there's more opportunity for remix outside the denominational framework.

Right now I'm attending a nondenominational church, part of the Church of the Saviour network in the DC area. It has borrowed things from Friends in a transdenominational context. It is non-pastoral, uses the Quaker business method, and shares the understanding of the Gospel as about the social order here and now that Quakers hold. It takes being a part of the faith community much more seriously than contemporary Friends do, but which earlier Friends did. But there are also ways in which it doesn't look Quaker.

I am concerned with those that are trying to renew Friends from an insular Quaker perspective, rather than breaking the box and listening to the Spirit less within the constraints of a particular narrow tradition. You can only get so far that way, IMHO. I am not interested in preserving or even renewing Quakerism. Been there, done that, have the scars to show. I am concerned with building Christian faith communities which are Spirit-directed, alive and transformative; not with the label.

Brent Bill said...

I hear you, Bill, but I think the Quaker way has lots of possibilities if it adopts some of Wess' recommendations since it is about some of the things you mention. It is participatory, it remixes our tradition in relevant ways, it remixes theology (or lack thereof) for today, and more. You should read the book...