Wednesday, July 15, 2015

ESR's Steve Angell reviews "Go Set a Watchman"

A Review of
Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman (Harper Collins Publishers, 2015)
By Stephen W. Angell

Harper Lee's new book, "Go Set a Watchman" (the title is from Isaiah 21:6), is her second published novel.  Her first novel, the highly acclaimed “To Kill A Mockingbird,” was published in 1960, some fifty-five years earlier.  “Go Set a Watchman” is set in the same fictional Alabama town as its predecessor, and it presents the lives of its characters twenty years later. However, “Go Set a Watchman” was completed as a manuscript some years before “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Lee’s editor at Lippincott, Tay Hohoff, a Quaker by upbringing and education, was most impressed by the flashback scenes in “Watchman” and convinced Lee to expand them into a novel focusing on the earlier period in the characters’ lives, the result being “Mockingbird.”  There was never any discussion at the time, or indeed during Hohoff’s lifetime, of publishing “Watchman” too.

From this historian's viewpoint, “Watchman” contains a penetrating and accurate portrait of the American South in the mid 1950s. It illuminates the important role of the Citizens' Councils (a more genteel version of the Ku Klux Klan) in the venomous segregationist backlash against the 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision. It has a visceral immediacy in its portrayal of the white backlash to the Supreme Court (and to the Montgomery bus boycott of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.) that is not to be missed. Andrew Manis in "Southern Civil Religions inContext" has this to say about the Citizens' Councils: "The most extreme response of the white South [to Brown v. Board] ... was the rise and growth of the Citizens Councils. Founded in the summer of 1954 in Yazoo City, Mississippi, the Councils expanded into an areawide apparatus claiming 300,000 members. It propagated its message through a newspaper, regional television and radio shows, and large numbers of speakers..... The Citizens Councils contributed greatly to the South's growing alienation from the rest of the nation, ... [as] many Southerners came to refer to the 'government in Washington' as they would have spoken of a foreign power." (p. 24)

Lee's book also illuminates the fear that many white Southerners had about the NAACP. She implies rather strongly that one reason that racial moderates like (the fictional) Atticus Finch became Citizens Council members was because of their fear of the NAACP. In fact, her reference to the Montgomery Bus boycott is set in this context: Jean Louise (the grown-up Scout of "Mockingbird") says, "I thought that Montgomery crowd spent most of their meeting time in church praying." A local Maycomb, Alabama, resident, Hester, responds, "Oh my child don't you know that was just to get sympathy up in the East? That's the oldest trick known to mankind." Both as a form of inspiration and a cause of fear, historians of this period have often remarked on the close ties between religion and politics among both whites and blacks in the South. It is commonly said, for example, that in the mid-twentieth century South, the black church was the NAACP on its knees.

We know in retrospect that this novel, based on a manuscript completed in 1957, was looking forward over a series of events that became known to us as the Civil Rights Movement. Lee's characters have another name for these events that are unfolding, an apt and revealing one. They call it a second "Reconstruction." This refers to the time after the Civil War when an interracial group of legislators gained power through the electoral process in many Southern states and introduced many reforms, but which was violently ended by a campaign of assassinations and targeted violence by the Ku Klux Klan and other similar white supremacist forces against African Americans, especially politicians and teachers, and white Republican politicians. Jean Louise's uncle, Dr. Finch, says at one point, "I hope to God it'll be a comparatively bloodless Reconstruction this time." A few dozen people gave their lives for the fuller realization of freedom that came out of the Civil Rights Movement, or the Second Reconstruction: four young Baptist girls in Birmingham, Alabama; three civil rights workers in Mississippi; Medgar Evers; Martin Luther King, Jr.; and others. But most historians, including myself, think that there could have been a much higher level of violence, and we are very thankful that these momentous changes were not accompanied by a higher level of violence. So, one could say, that Dr. Finch's, and Harper Lee's, hopes were largely realized.

I highly recommend this book. In some respects, it may not be up to the literary standards of its blockbuster predecessor, "To Kill a Mockingbird." But I have been writing here about the historical dimensions of the work, and I'll let others comment on the comparative literary dimensions. There is a vividness, a complexity, of presentation in this work that can provide us with a good deal of insight into some very important times, roughly sixty years ago. That reason alone is enough reason to read this book. In this work, we get to see literary characters change their views in response to real events. We may not always admire the ways that they change; the narrator certainly does not admire much of the change she sees. But an interesting part of the novel occurs when one of the other characters stimulates the narrator to reflect on her own changes in the aftermath of the 1954 US Supreme Court decision. So she is not the constant pole around which others are shifting; we are all responding to the events, small or momentous, that we experience around us.

Stephen W. Angell is Earlham School of Religion's Geraldine Leatherock Professor of Quaker Studies. His most recent book, Early Quakers and their Theological Thought: 1647-1723, is available here

Monday, July 13, 2015

Reflections on Intermountain Yearly Meeting 2015

ESR student Tracy Davis of Durango Friends Meeting shares her thoughts about Intermountain Yearly Meeting's 2015 Annual Gathering in Haiku form:

Again, at Ghost Ranch
Intermountain had Meeting
joyous gathering

ESR alums
Now functioning as leaders
present together

Bible worship share
photography, metaphor . . .
Weighty Rob Pierson 

Peter, Caroline
and Rosalee Anderson
Young Friends inspired

Trayce Peterson
invited Friends of color 
sharing at table

About our dear school
providing information
Tracy did her best

Staying connected
prayer and celebration
desert heaven sent

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Gift of Blessing

ESR Dean Jay Marshall delivered the following message during Earlham School of Religion Worship on April 29, 2015:

Many years back as I was sorting out what committed faithfulness looked like and what a call to ministry might involve, a group of charismatic Quakers were making their way around North Carolina, including the meeting where I was raised. Some good came from the affiliation, but theology, in part around the theme of blessing, ultimately caused me to seek elsewhere.
During an evening prayer session where one of the leaders was teaching about God’s love and abundance, she talked at length about how God wanted to bless us all. We had to be willing to stand on his Word and claim those blessings. Just that week, the devil had tempted her to unfaithfulness. In her recent prayers she had prayed for the new car she needed. Not just any car, but a Mercedes. (‘Cause nobody appreciates a sick ride like Jesus!) Maybe she had overdosed on Janis Joplin! That week she had seen a Mercedes that could have been hers and she was about to claim it as her own when she remembered --- she had wished for a red Mercedes, and this one was blue. Clearly this was a test of her trust in God to bless her with what she had requested.
I like songs with a bit of energy to them, which means when it comes to religious songs, I often like some of what comes out of the African-American Gospel tradition. Sometimes though, even when I like the rhythm I have to chuckle at the theology. One that is on my playlist currently is titled, “God’s Got a Blessing with your Name Written on it.” I don’t mind that sentiment. I even hope it is true. But one live recording I’ve heard includes the singer talking over an instrumental refrain and describing that blessing as tall, dark and handsome, about 6’4” to be exact.  I guess the heart wants what the heart wants!

I share these two anecdotes to illustrate that there is a personal dimension to blessing, and it frequently is tied to what we desire or what we lack. The provision of those things is one way that some individuals, both ancient and contemporary, interpret confirmation that God loves them and has blessed them. I’ve got to admit that some biblical passages encourage that thinking.  God’s blessing of creation in Genesis may focus on goodness, life, and new beginnings, but when God covenants with Abram, the visible parts of that blessing are offspring, land, a great name, plus blessing his good relations and cursing of his enemies. Land and children. Signs of wealth. As simply as that, blessing as the accumulation of things one desires to have a full life—not to mention status—is born. In the next generations mothers will scheme to position their sons to receive that blessing; brothers will deceive one another and even wrestle with the Divine in an effort to obtain what the other has. There is power in the blessing.
The beatitudes offer a corrective to the idea of blessing as excessive abundance by claiming that happiness exists in many of the conditions we ordinarily seek to avoid. Mourning, weeping, hunger. Those don’t typically make our bucket list of things to do before we die, though we seldom escape all of them.  But the NT also feeds this fascination with blessing as abundance. When Paul urges the Corinthians to give cheerfully, part of his persuasion is the assertion that “. . . God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.” (2Co 9:8 NRS) That sets the bar high for God to provide and for us to share.
High bar or not, I am a fan of the concept of blessing, but I acknowledge that thinking about it with so many variations is complicated -- particularly as we try to detach from consumerism and struggle with the realities of inequality.
          It is important not to hijack the idea of blessing to justify divine endorsement of our petty whims or excesses or to permit the lack of stuff to convince us that we must not measure up in God’s eyes. However, blessing is virtually inseparable from the idea of favor, protection, and provision whether in the story or proclamation. But with a bit reframing, even that doesn’t have to appear overly egocentric. Indeed, blessings are deeply intertwined with ideas like affirmation, courage, and hope—all of which fortify us as we undertake the journeys to which God is calling us.
When I reframe blessing, I start at the beginning of the biblical story where God paused, took a look at creation and said, “Now this is good.” I am pulled further into the story as it introduces the idea that God creates humanity in the image of the Divine. Whatever exactly that may mean, it suggests that blessing begins with being. Being made, and being in resemblance to God. All of us can be, because each of us is! I intentionally opt for “being made” rather than “being chosen,” as often happens in OT conversations. It dawned on me one day that even though Esau was duped of the blessing, when he and Jacob meet again years later, Esau, too, has received his own abundance in the form of what God promised Abraham and Sarah—he too was blessed. What a wonderful thing to realize that God’s care and provision can’t be corralled or monopolized by a select group. God’s blessing belongs to no one exclusively to withhold from others. Rather, it is woven into creation and being.
When blessing begins with being rather than the accumulation of things, it is no longer limited to or governed by wealth or material abundance. We are blessed because we are, for such is the gift of life itself. And what we are is part of this greater menagerie of Divine creativity, which presents us myriad possibilities of how to be, to relate, to contribute to the grand design. That is to say, in being blessed we are to become part of the blessing.

That was part of the message to Abram, as I read Genesis 12. He himself was not only a recipient of blessing, but he was to be a blessing so that others were blessed through him. So if blessing begins with being it continues as disposition. That is to say, blessing affects how we are in the world. It influences our posture toward the rest of creation. It affects how we choose to encounter it.  That has been brought home to me repeatedly by travel and conversation with persons in Central America. Initially it is difficult not to be shocked by the poverty one witnesses, but I was quickly, equally, struck by the joy so many possessed—their confidence in God’s care for them, their persistent hope, and the hospitality they demonstrated during my stay in their homes. They may pray for their next meal rather than a Mercedes, but they feel no less blessed and loved by God. God’s blessing is not responsible for creating the categories of have and have nots, but our sharing of the blessing is.

I consider blessing to be a subversive act. The disposition that chooses to encounter the other with affirmation and hope, instilling courage, is, in its own way, a subversive act. It challenges and interrupts an established system of inauthenticity, of detachment, of greed, and numerous other manifestations of a broken world in need of redemption. It intentionally seeks to inject goodwill, kindness, and hospitality into daily encounters. It doesn’t pretend that nothing is wrong; it maintains that what is doesn’t have to continue unchanged. That may sound minor, but it is a significant deviation from the norm that so many routinely experience. That disposition is a gift of blessing and it is one that you and I can offer to each other and to the world.
Over time, this disposition of blessing will assume the appearance of commitment, as our habitual blessing of others through the offering of our gifts, our words, our kindnesses, ourselves, invests and reinvests into the ongoing work of the Spirit that constantly moves among us. In words and in witness, in the affirmation we offer, in the hope we instill, our blessing one another conveys power that can break open both giver and receiver in surprising ways to the presence and accompaniment of God as these encounters touch the deep places of our lives.
There is a story in Acts 3 where daily a lame man is laid by the Beautiful Gate to ask for money. One day Peter and John pass by and the lame man makes his usual request for alms. Peter responds "Silver and gold I do not have, but such as I have I give to you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk." (Acts 3:6, NRS). That is the secret of the blessed life. We are not disabled by what we lack nor are we expected to give what we don’t have; rather, we must dare to bless one another with what is in our power to share.

The worship service concluded with Jay and the whole ESR community offering a blessing to graduating student Simon Thiongo (center) for his continued ministry and his new memoir, "An Amazing Journey of Survival."

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Sabbath Timeliness

Bethany Theological Seminary and Earlham School of Religion's Seminaries Librarian Jane Pinzino delivered the following message in ESR worship on Tuesday, February 3, 2015: 

Early one Friday evening, when I was a graduate student living in Philadelphia, I was walking home from the pub with Lana, a classmate in the program. As we strolled across the Walnut Street bridge, I was discussing in detail my views about a class in medieval paleography that Lana and were enrolled in. I was verbally processing the work of the week now done, continuing the trajectory from our Happy Hour conversation.  As daylight waned Lana became more and more quiet, apparently distracted, and finally visibly concerned.  Lana turned to me and politely asked whether we might move along more quickly, and I often remember her explanation, “The sun is going down and when it does, I put down my backpack.” I looked at her backpack and I looked at the sinking sun, and we picked up the pace.

We proceeded in silence while I digested this unexpected information about Lana’s way of life. Lana then shared with me, “And this is why I don’t normally go to Happy Hour on Friday with all our friends in the program; it’s not because I don’t want to be with all of you; it’s because I celebrate the Sabbath.” Lana rested at home from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. In  a bit confusion on that Friday, I offered to Lana that I would carry her backpack myself, but that idea was unrealistic since I was also carrying a backpack heavy with books. And in fact, Lana preferred carrying her own load, she simply wanted to reach home to put her own backpack down in her place, and begin the Sabbath celebration, lighting candles and enjoying rest at the end of the school week.  As we now walked along Walnut more briskly, Lana went on to describe how she observed the Sabbath in her home by refraining from schoolwork and spending a day that celebrated, received and reflected. Lana loved graduate school and the creative processes that she engaged in all week long through her writing, presenting, discussing, organizing, teaching; all of which she lay down every Friday evening for a full 24 hour period. My walk home with Lana that day started my own journey of claiming Sabbath rest as a vital part of a productive, industrious, full and rich life.
As your librarian I recommend four books, all of which I draw upon for my own spirituality and for this message: 1) the classic work by Abraham Heschel, entitled “The Sabbath,” 2) a work by Wayne Muller, “Sabbath: Finding, Rest, Renewal and Delight in our Busy Lives,” 3) Wendell Berry’s, “This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems,” and 4) a book from self-improvement literature by Neil Fiore, “The Now Habit: A Strategic Programfor Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play.” Through my practice, I learned years later one of the things that Lana was calling me to, on that Friday--what is called in Jewish tradition “Sabbath of the tongue,” which means not talking about work all the time. Rather, talk about the sunset, talk about wine, candles and flowers, share joys, abstain from grievances, and don’t talk at all, invite silence. In the Sabbath we consider not the results of our creation, but the mystery of creation itself.

We live in a culture that not only overworks, but may be unclear about what it means to rest. After the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt, they wandered their way to Mt. Sinai where the Lord delivered the Ten Commandments in their hearing.  And they distinctly heard God say, in the context of their new precious freedom, you are no longer slaves, celebrate the Sabbath Day and keep it precious.  We probably don’t need reminding that we should rest, but we may need support knowing understanding what rest might look or feel like.  From Abraham Heschel: “People of our time are losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating we seek to be amused or entertained. Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. To be entertained is a passive state--it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or a spectacle . . . celebration is an encounter, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one’s actions.”
Lana, as member of a Jewish community both local and global, had extensive law and literature to drawn upon to define work and rest.  While I have figured out a Sabbath practice for myself, centered in my home, it is mostly independent from a practicing community. A couple, or a couple with children, who relax together on the weekend may have a unique Sabbath celebration, even if they do not use the word “Sabbath,” but what I am unsure of, and remain unsure of, and ask your response about is, “While we may all agree that it is important to observe some semblance of Sabbath; is it important to observe the Sabbath, or to observe it all together?” The Orthodox Jewish community is in it together in ways and with a level of mutual support that really precludes the possibility of violating the Sabbath.  I have read articles and stories about Jews coming together for Shabbat who were otherwise complete strangers—in an airport--but in the Sabbath practice they became family. “The soul cannot celebrate alone,” Heschel says.
What about pastors and ministers whose work it is to lead worship on Saturday and Sunday? Really, when do they celebrate the Sabbath?  As you know, to be a professional minister, or an amateur one, or even an active church member, you work on the Sabbath.  Preparing sermons, teaching Sunday School, leading monthly meeting for business, building community; this is all work.  Ironically, it seems, those who may be most attuned to the spirituality of rest, are ones who may often find it lacking in their lives.
In the Pentateuch, according to Numbers 28:9, the Levite priests offered

two sacrifices every Sabbath, which doubled their regular daily workload of a

sacrifice each day; and according to Leviticus 24:8 the priests also refreshed the

altar bread on every Sabbath. Now the Levite priests did not own a parcel of

land in Canaan like the other tribes of Israel; their inheritance was God; ideally

they did not work the land like their fellow Israelites; they took care of the

Temple and worship. The priesthood in ancient Israel had their own set of rules.

And pastors today help to provide a Sabbath day for others, and may be left to

figure out on their own their Sabbath rest.

In my personal practice, on Friday evening, I come in the front door and I place my keys in the Shabbos box.  This is my Shabbos box that I brought in from home. A Shabbos box is something that Jewish families often have, and at the outset of the Sabbath they put in it whatever represents work; for me it’s my keys; some people put in their cell phones, or a list of work responsibilities that they will not do on Shabbat.  At the conclusion of Shabbat, you take the items out of the box, and work now resumes. I place my keys in the Shabbos box every day when I come home, and in addition to never losing my keys anymore, I leave the work day behind and frame my mind for rest.

Questions arise in our time and place: How do I rest at home when I work out of my home? How do we define our “home”?  How do we define our “family”? And how long to celebrate the Sabbath each week? Sundown Friday to sundown Saturday? One Jewish family told me, “We would, we really would, but the kids have all their music lessons and sports practices on Saturday. We can’t deprive the kids of their activities; the kids want to be involved with everything that goes along with Saturdays in the U.S.” So I follow the simple lead of this family, the Kasimow family: Friday evenings are sacred.  I spend them at home.  When I lived near the Kasimows, I often celebrated Shabbat with them.  My friends here, mostly non-Jewish, no longer expect me to do anything outside the home on Friday evenings; my response is “Shabbat Shalom.”
I bear witness for my household: if housecats were theologians, my two kitties would be sure to claim, “All of life is a Sabbath.” My family on Friday evenings are my loved ones, including those in heaven above, my ancestors, angels and saints with whom I have shared love.  I do refrain from my occupational work on Saturdays, though on Saturday I am not quiet in the way I embrace silence on Friday evenings.
Beyond Friday evening, we may cultivate Sabbath moments throughout the week. I celebrate the Sabbath and receive rest most powerfully through gardening. I grow flowers; I lose track of time when I dig and plant my flowers, when I enter into the processes of nature, watering and feeding, watching the buds come to life, the unfolding of petals.  I meet God in the garden. My favorite of the resurrection narratives is that found in John, where Mary Magdalene finds Jesus walking among the flowers, so at ease and present that she mistakes him for a gardener. Wendell Berry talks about that experience of Sabbath time, when time stretches to its fullest within us: “There is a day when the road neither comes nor goes, and the way is not a way but a place.” That place is home, where we celebrate the Sabbath.
          God knows however, I’m not fond of weeding, although it may be necessary for the health of the garden.  I procrastinate on the weeding.  Weeding is work, and not gratifying work, as far as I can tell. I dislike weeding, and I can’t even find someone to pay to do the weeding. When I weed my garden, I am conscious that I am working. My back hurts, my brow sweats, my labors don’t resolve anything; there are always more weeds. I console myself, I will just weed for 15 minutes each day; 15 minutes feels like an hour. When I water and walk among my flowers however, my heart is at rest.  That is a Sabbath moment. For Berry, “In time we are present only by forgetting time.”  Heschel defines Sabbath time in this way: “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”
And for all of us who are procrastinators, one of the gifts of taking time off weekly, punctually and without feeling guilty, i.e. without judging oneself to be a slacker--to take time not to do, but simply to be--is that it builds within a subconscious urge to work.  I anticipate with pleasure the return to work. Work, the return to work, the conclusion of the Sabbath, releases energy—I get my keys and list out of the Shabbos box, ready now to do what now needs to be done to sustain daily life. Berry offers it as an allegory of a turtle:
“Every afternoon the old turtle crawls up out of the river along the trunk of a drowned tree that slants out of the watery dark into the sun and the wind. In the wind and the sun he dries and ceases to shine. He grows warm. He looks slowly this way and that way. He thinks slowly, and his thought passes from satiety to hunger. And so he lets himself sink back down out of the air and light.”
In the deep of winter, most plants, flowers and trees, the soil itself goes through a dormancy period in order to flower and bear fruit in their time. The dormancy period of rest is one in which nutrients come together and penetrate the plant’s internal systems towards renewed productivity.  When a gardener plants bulbs in the fall, tulips, daffodils, crocuses, she must do so in a timing that ensures that the bulb has sufficient dormancy time in freezing weather before sending forth its green shoots to bloom in the spring.  We too require periods of lying fallow, resting and coalescing energies within, cultivating inner spaces where we find the energies of heart and the powers of peace.  The more we engage in unrelenting busyness, the more brittle and shallow our roots may become.

At this time of year, when the garden is frozen, I tend to the outdoor creatures that visit my yard in winter; this year I have even more birds on these cold days than I did any day over the warm and green summer.
A poem from Wendell Berry:
“The sounds of engines leave the air. The Sunday morning silence comes at last. At last I know the presence of the world made without hands, the creatures that have come to be out of their absence. Calls of flicker and jay fill the clear air. Titmice and chickadees feed among the green and the dying leaves. Gratitude for the gifts of all the living and the unliving, gratitude which is the greatest gift, quietest of all, passes to me through the trees.”
I am full of anticipation for the arrival of spring and the planting season. Anticipation for the Sabbath is one of the things that makes the whole six days worth it. Sabbath time is a taste of eternal time. “Eternity is not infinity. It is not a long time. It does not begin at the end of time. It does not run parallel to time. In its entirety it always was. In its entirety it will always be. It is entirely present always.” Shabbat Shalom. Let us lift up our hearts in open worship.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

An Old Testament Scholar reviews "Exodus: Gods and Kings"

Regarding the new Bible move, Exodus: Gods and Kings, all I can say is, Not only "no," but "hell no." Even as a generic fantasy movie (along the lines of Lord of the Rings) it is totally lame. As a retelling of the exodus story, it moves to horrid. As to what they got right: well there is a Pharaoh, and a Moses, and some slaves, and some plagues, and being caught between a sea and Pharaoh's army. But that's about it. It would be worth seeing only as an exercise in how to totally mangle a biblical story. It's not even their gap filling that I object to, though a lot of that was bad. It's what they left out. The aim seems to be to turn Moses into a fighting man. Here is my list of things that are wrong. It is by no means exhaustive.

The movie begins inexplicably with a battle between the Egyptians and the Hittites. Inexplicable because the major battle at Kadesh between those two armies took place during Ramesses II’s reign, not during his father’s. Plus there’s no mention of the eventual peace treaty signed between the two nations. The only point seems to be to establish both Moses and Ramesses fighting abilities and to round out one of the gap fills, an Egyptian prophecy that someone will save someone’s life, and then become king. During the battle Moses saves Ramesses. And that means what exactly?

Since the movie begins when Moses is already an adult, it entirely omits chs. 1-2. One of my objections to most movies about Exodus is that they fail to establish why Pharaoh enslaved the Hebrews (keeping in mind that Pharaoh pretty much enslaved everyone so there were always plenty of other slaves in addition to the Hebrew ones). But at the end of Genesis, the Hebrews are coexisting quite peaceably with the Egyptians. How do they go from friend to enemy? In the text it is because a new Pharaoh comes along who doesn’t know about Joseph. He looks around a sees a bunch of them and perceives them to be a threat (Exo 1:8-10). Gosh, might there be similarities between that and today’s debates about the changing demographics in the US? But that key plot point only comes up for a few seconds and is raised by the overseer of Pithom, not Pharaoh.

Also by omitting chaps. 1-2 t there is no Shiphrah and Puah. That’s two Exodus movies that don’t mention Shiphrah and Puah. Neither does Prince of Egypt. The actions of Moses' mother and sister are recounted to Moses by Joshua's father, Nun. Apparently Moses didn't know he was Hebrew and his Egyptian mother didn't tell anyone. She gave some story about an Egyptian general. Though how she accounted for not being pregnant is left as a gap.

Moses doesn't have to flee because he killed an Egyptian, but because he was outed as a Hebrew to Ramesses by the overseer at Pithom (who apparently is also flamingly gay).

When Moses is expelled, his Egyptian mother and Miriam are sent away on a cart, never to be seen or heard from again. So there's no Song of the Sea and no Miriam leading the song. Like Lord of the Rings, women play no substantive role, which is ironic considering that only women are actors in the first two chapters and without them there would be no Moses. The end result is to suggest that until Moses came along no one had ever considered resisting Pharaoh’s tyranny.

Moses "call" comes about apparently through traumatic brain injury. The movie also omits most of Exo 3-4 so there is none of Moses arguing with God about why his going to Pharaoh is a bad idea.

I was not surprised that they omitted Exo 4:24-26, that bit about where God tries to kill Moses and Zipporah comes to the rescue. No one wants to touch that episode.

God is a bratty 10-year-old boy with a British accent. They couldn't at least make God a bratty 10-year-old girl?? The only good thing I can say theologically is that at least there was some questioning of God's genocidal tendencies.

Egyptians probably didn't have luxurious pillows or mattresses on their beds. Hadn't anyone in this movie seen the head rests from Egypt?? (

Aaron is a total non-character. He mostly stands around and says nothing. The plagues just happen. There is no back and forth between Moses/Aaron and the Egyptian priests, much less between Moses and Pharaoh.

After they cross the sea and Pharaoh's army gets drownded (as the song goes), there's about 5 minutes of movie left. First they have Moses going back to get Zipporah and Gershom because they're "in love." Which might actually be an improvement over the Bible where Moses seems to divorce Zipporah at some unknown point of time (Exo 18:1-7).

Then there is a scene with Moses going up a mountain. In the distant background you see people, and lights (it's night) and something that looks like a framework for the golden calf. But that's the only reference to Exo 32-34. There is no other mention of it and the God character certainly doesn't say anything about it. If you didn't know the story of the Golden Calf you might never know that's what the scene was about. The "calf" structure wasn't very obvious so it might just look like people celebrating. So what was the point of it?

Then there's Moses chiseling the commandments on a stone tablet - apparently from left to right. (A reminder that Hebrew is written right to left).

And then the people are on the move and Moses is in a cart with a box in it, presumably containing the tablets.  Fade to black.

OK. Yes the special effects were nice. But like Lord of the Rings and the Star Wars 1-3, there’s just way too much computer generated stuff that looks computer generated. Mostly you think that everything looks fake and unreal. Which is a pointed contrast to the movie Noah, which actually looked like it happened in a real place to real people.

There you have it. And that's not even considering the race issue that all the leads are white people. (And what was the point of Sigourney Weaver's role??) I don't know what Ridley Scott was thinking, but there was really no point, that I can discern, to making this movie. Both Ten Commandments and Prince of Egypt do more justice to the biblical story than this does, and both of those have problems as well. One of my biblical studies colleagues posted the following on Facebook about the movie after she saw it. “Nice horses.” I think that’s all the good she found in the movie. Which is too bad because it’s not like there aren’t themes within the exodus story that are relevant to today.

So, if you see it, let me know what you think. Maybe you'll be more generous and charitable than I am. 

Nancy Bowen is Professor of Old Testament at Earlham School of Religion. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Steve Angell answers a Quaker Questionnaire

College student Samantha Siebert reached out to ESR's Leatherock Professor of Quaker Studies Stephen Angell to complete a questionnaire on Quakerism for a project in her religion class. Below are her questions and his responses. Do you think he got all of the answers right?

Quaker Questionnaire

Thank you for taking the time to do this questionnaire. Please fill out each question to the best of your knowledge.

1.      Please describe your affiliation with/connection to the Quaker religion?
I am a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).

2.      To the best of your knowledge, when was the Quaker religion founded?
The middle of the 17th century (about 1650).

3.      Please describe a typical Quaker service. What takes place? Is there a spiritual or prayer leader? What role does that person play in the service? What is that person called?
It varies from place to place. In some locales, such as the area of Philadelphia, the group meets in silence. If some one is given a message from God, they are free to share that with the group, but then the group returns to the silence. The role of the leader is to close the worship by shaking hands. She or he has no title. In other parts of the world, there is often a pastor who leads the Quaker worship. A short period of silence may be included in the worship, but generally there are lots of hymns, prayers, and a sermon.

4.      What is the house of worship in the Quaker religion called?
Sometimes it is called a meetinghouse. Sometimes it has been called a church.

5.      Does the Quaker religion have a formal liturgy? IF YES, how, if at all, has it changed since the religion was founded? Has it become more or less structured/formalized?
There is no simple answer to this question. (But see my answer to question 3.) Books have been written on it. (Pink Dandelion, Liturgies of Quakerism).

6.      What are the principle teachings/ethics of the Quaker religion?
The Quaker religion is often considered to be centered on certain testimonies that all Quakers believe in, but they may interpret differently. The testimonies are often listed as Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality.

7.      Do Quakers believe that humans can encounter God? If yes, how?
Yes. Most often Quakers encounter God in the silence, where they hear a “still small voice.” See I Kings 19:12.

8.      Where did the name "Quakers" come from?
In 1650, the founder, George Fox, on trial accused of blasphemy, told his judges that he quaked in the presence of the Lord. One Judge Hotham said, in derision, “Oh, you’re a Quaker.”

9.      Do Quakers believe in an afterlife? Reincarnation? Something else? Nothing at all? Please explain.
There is a diversity of views on these matters among Quakers.

10.  Do Quakers believe in Karma? Please explain.
Karma, being a Hindu or Buddhist concept, might attract some Quakers who are attracted to those religions. Belief in karma, however, is not deeply rooted in Quakerism.

11.  How do Quakers view people from other religions?
Quakers believe that all have the Light of God within them. That includes members of other religions.

12.  How does one become a member of the Quaker religion? Is there any sort of special rite of entry or a ceremony?
This varies from place to place, but one way this happens is that when a person requests membership in a Quaker meeting, a clearness committee is appointed to meet with them. The committee makes its recommendation to the whole meeting. If the meeting approves, they are a member.

13.  What is the Quakers’ stance on modern issues such as gay marriage or the death penalty?
Quakers are generally opposed to the death penalty. There is no agreed-upon stance on gay marriage. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Friends has approved its support of gay marriage, but some other yearly meetings oppose it, while others still have no position at all on the matter.

14.  Are there any issues, such as military service and taking oaths that Quakers oppose? If yes, why?
Quakers have historically opposed military service. Jesus has told us to love our enemies; it seems to us that loving them means not killing them, but finding constructive ways to resolve our differences. Quakers have also opposed taking oaths, because swearing on the Bible does not make something more true than it would be otherwise. Quakers regard it as a central point of life that we should always tell the truth.

15.  Are there aspects of a Quaker school that are different from a non-religious school?
There are plenty of Quaker schools in your area. Why don’t you go visit one and decide for yourself?

16.  If you could use one word to describe what being a Quaker means, what would it be?

17.  Do you think the number of Quakers will grow in the future or decline? Why?
In some parts of the world Quakers are growing, and in some parts declining. There are no simple answers as to why. Social and cultural factors undoubtedly play a part. In general, Quakers aren’t worried. If we listen to what God wants for us to do, that is enough. We must be faithful.

Want to learn more about Quakers? Be sure to check out ESR's Quaker Information Center:

Friday, December 5, 2014

Quakers Are Mystics

ESR MA student Tracy Davis completed this essay for her Quaker Mysticism course with Carole Spencer. You can find out more about Spirituality courses at ESR here, and our Quaker Studies courses here.

Quakers are mystics. Friends testify to a communicative Creator who is both transcendent and immanent, present among us, even within us. Our practices of silent waiting worship, corporate prayer, or verbal sharing in message or songs of admiration and gratitude, create an intentional inviting environment for awareness of the guidance and action of the Holy in our personal lives, in community and in all of creation. Dorothee Soelle understands that: The basic conviction of Quakers wasand isthat God reveals Godself without respect of persons’” (Soelle 2001, 173). God continues to reveal that which is real directly to any person or sincere group of seekers, no exceptions. Positive energy within a group enhances our perception of the brightness of the Light because humans respond to and open up their hearts more when nurtured in acceptance, respect and encouragement. As it should be mysticism is, indeed, at the center of Quaker praxis, both personal and corporate.
            From our meditative practice we each gain insight that guides our actions. Some receptive mystics hear, sense or dream very specific instructions while many intuit soft nudgings moving them forward. We have read in our books of discipline from the time of the earliest Quakers that it is important to have a personal time of retirement daily in which we separate from all of our worldly concerns to read of the Holy, to journal, to sit quietly and to nurture our souls. Our individual centeredness provides balance and maturity to support our community of Friends. A dedicated discipline of silence is challenging because it exposes our own thought patterns and emotional mind states. Change needed to decrease the burdens of resentment, guilt, self-cherishing and anger can only be implemented by our own surrendering of them based on self-awareness.  Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) writes: Every person, then, who awakens to consciousness of a Reality which transcends the normal world of sensehowever small, weak, imperfect that consciousness may be . . .The success with which he follows this way to freedom and full life will depend on the intensity of his love and will; his capacity for self-discipline, his steadfastness and courage (Underhill 1990, 445). The discipline begins in our private practice, and the fruits nourish the community. 
            Corporate discernment is crucial to ground and guide our decisions and direction. We make many mistakes due to our human limitations, frailties, and ignorance. Mature questioning is required, along with willingness to challenge one another aiming toward decisions that fulfill all righteousness and prevent needless harm. We are at our best when we take time to nurture one anothers strengths and to lovingly challenge or redirect any oppressive behaviors among Quaker brothers and sisters. Becoming vulnerable with one another and humble under G-d, we can operate at a higher vibrational frequency the more we open to the mystical.
            We Friends have not lost our mystical foundation, but it can be obscured by excessive rationalism or by distractions caused by either sincere attempts to meet the needs of work to support life and family or by the many attractive entertainments available toward which our time and energy are spent. I think Jesus warned of such useless preoccupation when he said: For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:22 & Luke 12:34).
             Friends must be willing to nurture Spirit despite the disapproval of the dominant culture focused on often empty promises of intellect and reason and on a false sense of security in material attainments. Friend Marcelle Martin writes of her life-changing commitment to a mystical path: I had come to the moment when I wanted nothing more than to discover the truth about life, when I was finally willing to give up being normal in order to do so . . .I believe I opened to mystical experience by opening first to the direct experience of my own emotions, including the most painful, and to a direct and feeling confrontation of my deepest questions and fears (Martin 1995, 1). Quakers have forever been known to be a peculiar and courageous people. We must remember that the spiritual journey often includes an acute awareness of the sufferings of life as well as the bliss of being united with the loving Source of all life.
            Although not widely acknowledged, there are Friends from programmed and unprogrammed traditions working together to support mystical engagement. Recently I learned of a newsletter entitled What Canst Thou Say? that a small group of volunteer Quaker mystics publishes. In it Friends share many varieties of religious mystical experiences. The vocabulary and symbolism used by way of description come from Early Quaker, New Age, Evangelical, Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi traditions, for example. In 1996 Pendle Hill hosted a gathering, Mystics Among Friends Today, which filled to its 50 person capacity and required a waiting list. Bill Taber, Marcelle Martin, Marty Grundy, Patricia McBee and Mike Resman led workshops there. In response, The Philadelphia Inquirer published an article entitled "Quakers Mystical Heritage." The Ben Lomond Center planned a similar conference scheduled one month later. Although I imagine most all Quakers to practice mysticism to some extent, there is small contingent among Friends who are deeply dedicated to this style of Divine experience. 
            If a rich mysticism were more evident among Quakers, it could only bring increased unity because by definition it would indicate more obviously the presence of G-d among us. Perhaps then we could say with Paul: If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31).

Coogan, Michael D. Ed.The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010

Martin, Marcelle. What Canst Thou Say? Friends Mystical Experience, and Contemplative Practice. Newsletter #5, July 1995

Soelle, Dorothee. The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001