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April 18, 2008

The Limits of History, II

Quaker history also presents a challenge to all of its modern tellers. Like the early Christians, early Quakers laid down their history after the initial flames had cooled, and re-told the stories in ways that reflected their comunity. We can't, however, see or hear what the early Christians were working with, while the early Quakers' original writings and edits of those writings are readily available to anyone who wants to take a look.

As John Nickalls put it in the Preface to his edition of the Journal of George Fox:

Thomas Ellwood worked on the instructions of the Second-day Morning Meeting, a committee of the Society of Friends in London, and in accord with the desire of Fox that his life and writings should be published. The Journal which Ellwood prepared was a composite work, presenting a continuous account of Fox's life in the form of an autobiography, in a more uniform, more polished, and more cautious style in many places than the various [manuscripts] which have been mentioned.

Some passages he considerably abbreviated. Ellwood worked with more freedom than would to-day be approved, putting passages into autobiographical form from other sources, but he was an able and a careful editor. He also adapted or omitted many of Fox's own vigorous phrases, his picturesque details his apparent overvaluation of praise, claims to psychic powers, and matter thought liable to cause political or theological protest, besides doubtful or unverifiable statements. (xxxix-xl)

It's hard to imagine a description like that appended to one of the Gospels, after all. (It would of course be interesting if they noted striking miracles out.) Knowing that Fox went through his letters and struck out language addressed to him that he thought was too exalted doesn't help the historical picture either.

Emphasizing the priorities set by professional history, though, doesn't particularly meet the needs of either religion or storytelling. A detailed, but deliberately scholarly biography of George Fox exists, generally free of hagiography. It attempts "to rescue Fox from poorly grounded, usually uncritical, and theologically oriented works." Although I cite it regularly, and strongly recommend reading it, it always feels to me like it's missing something, the spark that makes Fox compelling to his peers. Sure, Fox has (or borrows) some good ideas, and builds a following. But why exactly were people so convinced, so willing to follow that message into the prisons and to death?

Somehow, it's not there, despite the excellent research, despite the helpful footnotes. I don't think that lack is Larry Ingle's fault - it's just not really compatible with the approach of the book. (His earlier Quakers in Conflict has it easier with these problems, as the conflict built into the story brings its own fascination.)

It's possible, though, to reach a balance, if not necessarily one that will make professional historians cheer. I think, for instance, that William Braithwaite managed that in his early twentieth-century history, which had much of the same scholarly apparatus but was still told from a deliberately Quaker perspective, a Quaker talking mostly to other Quakers looking back on a shared history.

More recently, I think Doug Gwyn generally gets it right. He got scolded a bit by Larry Ingle for Apocalypse of the Word's reaching for a "Quaker Holy Grail" and mixing up opinions from different periods of Fox's life. Gwyn's later work more carefully follows a timeline, but it still keeps the excitement and the willingness to challenge its readers that his first book offered.

History written by humans is never going to be "objective", somehow written from a genuinely outsider stance with clean access to everything that happened. Not all of the information survives, and even the information that does survive will be filtered, arranged, assembled, polished, and transformed into a story rather than a collection of parts.

There are a lot of different stories we can tell about the early Quakers. I worry that a lot of what passes for Quaker history in conversation is more like Quaker sound-bites, brief tales told to illustrate particular points. I'd like to see more attention given to the complete stories. We need to remember, though, that Quaker history is part of Quakerism, and not very usefully separable from that religious context. It is, of course, a part of many things, as Christopher Hill reminds us in his work on the 17th century, but I can't imagine insisting on a clean separation between the light that created Quakerism and the light that today still illuminates it.

Like the early Christians, the early Quakers weren't simply documenting facts, but telling a story they believed would change - should change - those who heard it. We need to consider that change when we read Quaker history.

April 5, 2008

The Limits of History, I

Way back when, I wrote a couple of pieces on Albert Schweitzer, promising to write more about how his The Quest of the Historical Jesus related to early Quaker history and its relevance for today.

Like many of my promises here, I never got around to writing that. Nonetheless, it raised a set of questions that keep echoing in my head, especially as I gear up to write more about Seekers Found.

Unable to focus on just one book, though, I re-opened The Hauerwas Reader, a collection of Stanley Hauerwas' work that was so powerful that at one point I looked around, amazed that airport security had let me carry it on to a plane. And what did I find?

It is not my intention to settle to what extent we can know "the real Jesus." I am quite content to assume that the Jesus we have in Scripture is the Jesus of the early church. Even more important, I want to maintain that it cannot or should not be otherwise, since the very demands Jesus placed on his followers means he cannot be known abstracted from the disciples' response.

The historical fact that we learn who Jesus is only as he is reflected through the eyes of his followers, a fact that has driven many to despair because it seems that they cannot know the real Jesus, is in fact a theological necessity. For the "real Jesus" did not come to leave us unchanged, but rather to transform us to be worthy members of the community of the new age.

It is a startling fact, so obvious that its significance is missed time and time again, that when the early Christians first began to witness the significance of Jesus for their lives they necessarily resorted to a telling of his life.

Their "Christology" did not consist first in claims about Jesus' ontological status, though such claims were made; their Christology was not limited to assessing the significance of Jesus' death and resurrection, though certainly these were attributed great significance; rather, their "Christology," if it can be called that, showed the story of Jesus as absolutely essential for depicting the kind of kingdom that they now though possible through his life, death, and resurrection.

Therefore, though Jesus did not call attention to himself, the early Christians rightly saw that what Jesus came to proclaim, the kingdom of God as a present and future reality, could be grasped only by recognizing how Jesus exemplified in his life the standards of that kingdom.

But the situation is even more complex. The form of the Gospels as stories of a life are meant not only to display that life, but to train us to situate our lives in relation to that life. For it was assumed by the churches that gave us the Gospels that we cannot know who Jesus is and what he stands for without learning to be his followers. Hence the ironic form of Mark, which begins by announcing to the reader this is the "good news about Jesus, the annointed one, the son of God," but in depicting the disciples shows how difficult it is to understand the significance of that news.

You cannot know who Jesus is after the resurrection unless you have learned to follow Jesus during his life. His life and crucifixion are necessary to purge us of false notions about what kind of kingdom Jesus brings. In the same way his disciples and adversaries also had to be purged. Only by learning to follow him to Jerusalem, where he becomes subject to the powers of this world, do we learn what the kingdom entails, as well as what kind of messiah this Jesus is. (118-9, paragraph breaks added, originally from The Peaceable Kingdom.)

Theologically, this is a powerful statement, but seen from a modern historical perspective, it's earth-shattering. Historians have given up on most of their dreams of purely objective history, but this telling moves well beyond practices that acknowledge bias to what many would argue is sheer propaganda.

But can the story really be told in any other way, by people who believe it? I have to agree with Hauerwas that the authors of the Gospels weren't writing Christological treatises, but telling a story they believed would change - should change - those who heard it.

I think that dynamic, on a smaller scale, may also be operating in the narratives of early Quakerism, though there is more explicit "Christology" of various kinds there. Some people find the stories life-changing, and tell them in ways meant to change the listener, while others reject that style of story-telling all together. As with Christianity broadly, they may even reject the foundations of the story itself, while enjoying the cultural and spiritual benefits they believe it helped to create.

Last call for the Works

The New Foundation Fellowship reports in their latest Foundation Papers that their stock of George Fox's Works is almost gone. They printed a batch in 1991, and are working to publish a CD-ROM of them, but I have to admit that having printed copies (though they were expensive) has made it much much easier for me to explore Fox's writings. Having them in hardcover has made it easier for me to travel with them, too.

They apparently have (had) ten sets left, along with a very few individual copies of everything except Volume II, the second part of the Journal. They also have a set of Lewis Benson's Notes on George Fox available for $50, and are making a reprint of A Universal Christian Faith (formerly Catholic Quakerism) available.

They aren't very clear on how to order the individual volumes or the Notes, though I do see the set available online. There's a note about free shipping until May 1st, as well.