I had the Jon Watts experience twice while he was at Earlham School of Religion, once when he was performing at the Peace forum and once when he did a program called “Clothe Yourself in Righteousness” with his friend Maggie Harrison.
Jon Watts is that rarity, a young friend, and he has created a buzz with YouTube videos. In one, a group of Quakers in a meeting at Pendle Hill get up and start dancing. In another, at Guilford College, a group of Quakers purportedly “get naked” at the end of a meeting for worship … except they don’t actually get naked (at least not in the video I saw). They get underweared.
At the Peace forum, Jon talked and performed music. He had been at Guilford College and he then went to Portugal, but didn’t like living in a city there. He would walk the streets, wondering why humans paved over nature and killed animals and created this terrible thing—the city. Then one day, as he was walking and thinking, he met someone’s eyes—and realized he was communicating hate to that person. Not good. He realized that destruction comes from the pain and brokenness we feel as a culture. How to heal ourselves?
On Tuesday evening, for “Clothe Yourself in Righteousness,” held in the Quigg worship space, Maggie took center stage, talking about early Friends who had stripped naked and run through the streets as a witness to the need of people to clothe themselves not with outward apparel but with inward righteousness.
Maggie—and Jon when he performed—connected the physical nakedness of (some) 17th century Quakers with a metaphoric stripping down of our defenses, our false selves. If the word weren’t so overused into meaninglessness, we might say the two made a plea for living authentically. Today, as in the seventeenth century, the term “nakedness” is more powerful than authenticity---blunt, unguarded, provocative, vulnerable.
I found the session Tuesday night oddly comforting. Maggie’s unvarnished presentation modeled authenticity/nakedness. I found appealing the argument that it’s OK just to be yourself. It was soothing to attend an event that didn’t really have a point except to be about being. Just being. Not even being naked, really, because that, of course is a “statement.”. You were there in Quigg, and it was OK. You didn’t have to do anything. You didn’t have to be worried about factory exploitation in Indonesia or violence in the Gaza strip. You could just sort of chill. It was therapeutic. Young people came. There were a lot of big wrinkled cottony scarves, some bare feet, many boots. If the Quigg could ever be said to have a clubby, coffee house feel, it did that evening. I kept waiting for Allen Ginsberg to stand up and start reciting “America.” Well, OK, no…
Not to change the subject, but while I like their attempts to stir the pot, it nags at me that Jon and Maggie and their friends didn’t get naked in their get naked video. It seems a tease. If you’re going to say you’re getting naked, then get naked. The integrity testimony comes into play, in terms of “possessing what you profess.” Stripping down to your underwear is … faux daring. Safe daring. (What happened to streaking?) So that bothers me. Jon talked about getting to peace through shaking things up—“coming up through the flaming sword,” as the early Quakers called it. Stripping to your modest underwear on a video is not exactly the flaming sword. Going fully naked—yes, maybe.
On the other hand, Jon and Maggie evoked a mood and created a “space” for thinking about how we live. And beyond that, I didn’t really want Jon and Maggie to get naked. I was actually relieved that they didn’t, because I didn’t know how I would react to “too much information.” And that gets back to a thought about nakedness — Tell the truth but tell it slant. Get naked, but have the light and shade beams shining through the meeting house windows so that the most private parts stays private.
So I value the message Jon and Maggie are communicating. But I wish they would tweak it a little. We may need to strip down, but how about — like Jon and Maggie -- only to our underwear? How about getting naked-er? Or at least that’s my thought—and perhaps it says more about me and Jon and Maggie holding back from really shaking things up than anything else. Maybe, in the end, Jon and Maggie are just upholding the status quo, not really making us uncomfortable? What do you think?