My book review of C. Wess Daniels’ book, A Convergent Model of Renewal: Remixing the Quaker Tradition in a Participatory Culture, appeared in the March/April issue of Friends United Meeting‘s Quaker Life Magazine. I recommend this book for Friends/Quakers, and also for people from other denominations who are looking for a framework for figuring out what it looks like to remain firmly grounded in a religious tradition while also attending to one’s present culture, context, and place. Since Quaker Life is currently not online (their website was hacked, apparently!), I’m going to copy my book review here so that others can read it, and be inspired to read Daniels’ book.
(Disclaimer: Wess is a friend of mine! But…I don’t like every book I read by everyone I know. I simply only post about the books that I like.)
Also, it was fun reading the rest of the Quaker Life issue, which contained articles by several other Friends with ties to my home Quaker meeting, North Valley Friends: Paul Anderson wrote “On Peace Prayers and War Prayers,” James Tower (who attended North Valley when he lived in the area) wrote “On Callouses and Callousness,” and Colin Saxton, who is now the general secretary of Friends United Meeting but used to go to/pastor at North Valley, wrote his usual column, “Out of My Mind.” You can buy copies of Quaker Life here. Without further ado, here is my review of A Convergent Model of Renewal.
I don’t know about you, but I sometimes feel a bit fearful about the future of Quakerism. I hear news about Friends forming battle lines against one another, yearly meetings splitting, meetings leaving, and bitter theological disputes at meetings for worship with a concern for business. These disputes sadden me to no end because I care deeply about our Quaker tradition and the truth it offers to my life and to the world.
Therefore, C. Wess Daniels’ book: A Convergent Model of Renewal: Remixing the Quaker Tradition in a Participatory Culture, enters the Quaker conversation at an appropriate moment. His proposed convergent model of renewal articulates a way forward for traditions experiencing epistemic crises. Daniels’ main premise is that through remixing tradition and present context, and by drawing on resources from other related traditions, a successful faith community will be able to move forward into its present context with renewed vigor. As he talks about this type of remixing, he simultaneously practices it through placing Quaker tradition in conversation with philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, missiologist and contextual theologian Stephen Bevans, and media and pop culture critic and scholar Henry Jenkins, among others. Along the way, Daniels weaves together stories of the failures and successes of Liberal and Evangelical Friends, and everyone in between.
Using philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre as a conversation partner and guide, Daniels stresses the necessity of tradition, over against the Enlightenment’s rejection of tradition: we are all based in a tradition whether we want to admit it or not, even if our tradition is the rejection of tradition. The question is whether our tradition is robust enough to continue across a number of eras and contexts, or whether it will peter out and die with the culture and language that gave it birth. If a tradition is to continue, it requires “apprentices,” or those willing to learn the original language and context of the tradition and translate it into the present context. It requires the flexibility and creativity of those apprentices and their communities as they “remix” their received tradition within their cultural context and the resources available in other similar traditions, all the while telling the stories of continuity with former iterations of the tradition. Daniels points to Quaker philosopher Rufus Jones as an example of one from our own tradition who remixed his received streams of tradition while reintegrating threads of early Quakerism. He also utilizes the work of Quaker missionary Everett Cattell in a similar fashion.
After showing the problematic elements of Enlightenment thought for faith communities and implicating both Liberal and Christian Friends as heirs of foundationalism, Daniels provides a way forward through the contextual theology articulated by Stephen Bevans. Daniels connects the idea of contextual theology superbly with Quaker tradition, with its focus on personal experience of God as the basis for meaning within the Quaker system of values. He presents the origins of Quakerism in itself as a form of contextual theology, responding to the needs of its day with a radical refocus on tradition (“primitive Christianity revived,” as William Penn put it). Following and adding to Bevans’ understanding of a “synthetic model” of contextual theology, Daniels suggests a similar movement within our present Quaker context: drawing together the useful and necessary contents of our tradition, placing them alongside elements borrowed from other traditions, engaging in dialogue with the present culture, and enacting faith in a way that synthesizes these strands into something that can speak uniquely to our own time and place.
Finally, Daniels brings his convergent model of renewal into the 21st century with a look at fandom, participatory culture, and convergent culture: the practice of remixing and finding a depth of meaning—or even co-opted, new meanings—in cultural artifacts past and present, from Harry Potter to Jay-Z to the Occupy movement. These remixes are by definition based on a previous model or narrative, but they move the genre forward into new and innovative territory. In so doing, they bring along the older forms of the tradition and keep them relevant and active by introducing them to a new audience in a form that is understandable, meaningful, and appealing. Important in this process is the fact that these remixes are participatory and represent a convergence of knowledge and innovation that is not dependent on or beholden to a hierarchy of power, but instead represents the collective intelligence of the members of that group.
The three concluding chapters of Daniels’ book explain his convergent model of renewal, show how it matches the practice of early Friends, and present a case study of a current Friends meeting attempting to live out this convergent model of renewal: Freedom Friends Church, an unaffiliated meeting in Salem, Oregon. Of his proposed model for renewal among Friends, Daniels states:
[C]onvergent, participative renewal takes place when apprentices or participants are in dialogue with the original texts, practices and interpretations of their tradition and current context…through a process that (1) remixes the original texts of the tradition with new texts and interpretations, (2) fosters authentic resistance through the participants [sic] authentic expressions of their subjective experiences and (3) is structured as an open work where many voices can participate, power is shared, and the work is open-ended and expandable. In doing so they will (4) create a renewed participatory community that is both rooted in their tradition and in their contemporary context and done in a way that draws on the contributions of all of those within the apprenticing community. (Daniels, 2015, p. 210)
I appreciate Daniels’ careful explanation of the necessity for both tradition and renewal, his application of this renewal model to Quakerism, and his contribution to Quaker scholarship placed in conversation with the broader field of theology. For readers unfamiliar with the work of MacIntyre and Bevans, this text may prove overly detailed in its conceptual framework, but the basic ideas of Daniels’ model as examined in the last three chapters can probably be understood apart from the scholarly frame.
One question I still hold after reading this book is whether there is a difference between a Quaker convergent model for renewal and any other renewal or remix present in other denominations, other faiths, or pop culture. He acknowledges the need for further study in these areas, but my question is whether the particular focus of Quakers on the leading of the Present Spirit impacts the way Friends might live out this model compared to renewal movements in other traditions. Does it make a difference whether the renewal and remix are Spirit-led? Daniels gives excellent criteria for recognizing successful transition into a remixed version of a movement, but this does not include a great deal of reference to recognition of the Spirit at work in that renewal, though the leading of the Spirit is a major part of his telling of the story of Freedom Friends. Cognizant of the fine line Daniels attempted to walk in the writing of this text, making the convergent model of renewal specific to Friends theology but also of use to those outside the Friends tradition, he did an adequate job of outlining the model and providing examples, but I would also like to see further study in the process of applying this model within a Friends context.
After reading this text, I can more easily envision a way forward for Friends, and I am grateful for the ample room for remixing present in our received tradition. At the same time, I remain apprehensive for the near future of our denomination. Will we be able to enact this healthy synthesis of tradition and current context with an ear to our Present Teacher? Will we be able to remix our current patterns into a new framework in ways that continue our testimony of peace and reconciliation? For me, it helps to see the whole road of translation and renewal laid out ahead through looking at the stories of those who have gone through similar experiences in the past. I hope and pray that we as a Society of Friends will catch a communal vision for this process, trusting the Inward Light of Christ to guide us through the upcoming decades as we learn and grow together, continuing to live out our peculiar faith in ways that lead to love, justice, and depth of spiritual connection to the Living God in our time.