Tag Archives: Publications

Book review of Michael Wright’s ‘Jesus today – a Quaker perspective’

Book review: Michael Wright’s  ‘Jesus today – a Quaker perspective’
by David Parlett (extracted from our forthcoming NFN Newsletter)

Isn’t it remarkable how some of the best books on Jesus are written by former clerks of the Nontheist Friends Network? (David Boulton’s Who on Earth was Jesus?, published in 2008, became – and maybe still is – a standard text book in some RC seminaries following the enthusiastic recommendation of Henry Wansbrough, general editor of the New Jerusalem Bible.)

Now Michael Wright has published Jesus Today – a Quaker Perspective, to add to the collection. Michael was an Anglican priest for 40 years before leaving ordained ministry and becoming a Quaker, so he knows whereof he speaks. Furthermore, his knowledge is up to date: while most of his quotations are from the bible and Quaker Faith and Practice, he also draws on valuable material from such writers as John Spong, Karen Armstrong and Marcus Borg. ‘What I am seeking to share with those who read this’, he explains, ‘is a fresh appreciation of Jesus, his life and teaching, which is not trapped in the mindset of the past’. He regrets that ‘Few [Quakers] refer to Jesus or the gospels in meeting for worship. Mention of him can even be unwelcome to some. I hope now to stimulate an interest in the significance of his teaching from which we can draw inspiration for our values and practice today… There is a significant contrast between Jesus’ original teaching and behaviour and the authoritative doctrines and orthodoxies later developed and then imposed by the institutional churches. Quakers have largely either challenged or sidelined these since the foundations of our movement in the 17th century.’

If Chapter 3, devoted to ‘some elements of the Quaker way’, will serve well for newcomers and enquirers who find some of our language and attitudes unusual and perhaps baffling, chapter 4, ‘A Quaker approach to the bible’ is essential reading for many of us who think we know it well enough already. ‘Quakers share the biblical narrative with other Christians, and we value the scriptures without taking everything at face value. We pay attention to the spirit who gave the scriptures, rather than abiding by the letter of them.’ (This is almost word-for-word Robert Barclay). ‘Our approach to the scriptures is distinctive and not widely understood, even among Quakers’. Rather than adopt creeds, he adds: ‘The early Quakers […] delved into the scriptures and drew from them inspiration to shape their lives in the circumstances of their own time. This we can do in our day. Our Quaker testimony to truth and to integrity, to equality and justice, to peace, to simplicity and sustainability, all spring from gospel principles which Jesus taught’.

Michael then looks at the four gospels, using an image that particularly appeals to me. As a former journalist, he likens the style of Mark to The Daily Mirror, Matthew to The Daily Telegraph, Luke to The Guardian, and John to The Sunday Times as it used to be.

Chapter 6, ‘Revising our understanding of the Jesus story’, precedes ‘Some Quaker Responses to Jesus’, in which we are reminded of George Fox’s central experience of discovering Jesus within himself and of the impact of the Quaker message in English life when first shared publicly. But the scene in Britain today is very different from the 1640s: ‘Then Christian religious practice and teaching was the shared experience of just about everybody, although there were lots of disagreements between different groups about what should be taught and practised. Today Christian congregations are clearly a minority, in which the distinctive Quaker voice is a minority within a minority’.  David Parlett

Michael Wright’s Jesus Today – a Quaker Perspective is published by Sixth Element Publishing, 2019 (ISBN 978191221857-8). Michael has very kindly allowed us to add it our website at: https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/2019/07/23/jesus-today-book/ (182 pages pdf), but if you would like a nice printed copy try Friends House Bookshop.

Steering Group Meeting at Lancaster 24 July 2019

Your Steering Group spent the day at Lancaster Meeting House on Wednesday (7 SG members in attendance) to discuss plans for the coming year.

There was a lot of discussion of possible amendments to the Constitution around issues of membership and aims but in the end it was decided that no changes should be recommended to our aims or structure as reflected in the Constitution and the only change to the latter required to be put to the next AGM for ratification is that the phrase ‘listed informal group’ in paragraph 1. needs to be updated to ‘Quaker recognised body’ to be technically correct.

Alternative arrangements for an Annual Conference and AGM in 2020 were also discussed and the current intention is to go ahead with a weekend conference at Woodbrooke, perhaps with 3 principal speakers, on the topic of Spirituality and with the title ‘That’s the Spirit! – Dimensions of spirituality’.  It is hoped to find speakers who would span the wide range of views, both amongst Quakers and elsewhere, about Spirituality.  Further details on the website and by email/newsletter as they become available.

We also agreed to take a booking at Britain Yearly Meeting (weekend gathering) in Bath for next August, topic to be arranged.

Our finances were reported to be in good order and it is hoped we will be able to publish a booklet of talks from the 2020 conference.

One item of some concern is that although we now have 125 ‘followers’ on the website and email the Newsletter to more than 80, only a significantly smaller number of NFN members have yet paid their £10 subscription for 2019-20 which was due from 1st April.

If you receive the Newsletter (a further edition shortly) and have not yet joined the Network or paid your subscription up to date, the steering group would much appreciate it if you did so now!

The Republic of Heaven

More on Soul and Spirit?

I’ve been reading ‘Becoming fully human – Writings on Quakers and Christian thought’ by Michael Langford, published by Friends of the Light, 2019.

This is a compilation of Michael’s writings over several years and includes his ‘A Friendly way of being Christian’ and ‘Our Christian Roots: a Quaker perspective’, both available separately but almost a quarter of this anthology (108 pages) is taken up with ‘The book of Revelation for Quakers’ – and it is a revelation.

I may attempt a review of the book later but I highly recommend it for ‘theist’ and ‘nontheist’ Quakers alike. Michael was a language teacher and writes about the importance of language and the possibilities of differing interpretation of words including the literal, non-literal, metaphorical, poetic and prophetic.

In a way, this extends the vision of ‘God, words and us’ and in many ways resolves any differences between theist and nontheist or humanist approaches to God and religion.

At the same time I also started reading ‘Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being’ by Paul Mason and found remarkable the congruence of ideas between this self-identifying Marxist and Michael Langford, Quaker.

Michael writes, in his closing pages:
‘Although the Bible teaches that to know God is to love one another and do justice (Micah 6.8 etc.) the atheist can still argue that belief in God usually makes things worse. Many prominent atheists today, and our Quaker ‘non-theists’, are not what the Bible calls “fools who say in their hearts there is no God”, because the Bible defines such people as being corrupt and doing foul deeds (Psalms 14 and 53:1-2; Romans 3:10-18). The hearts of most professing atheists seem to be in the right place and this is in striking contrast to the attitude and behaviour of very many Bible-loving Christians.’ (p. 446)(My bold and what a judgement!).

He continues:
‘If your faith allows you to inflict pain and misery on others and to damage the creation, you are worshipping the wrong god. Dressing up your false god as Christ, Allah, Buddha or whatever, makes no difference. God is revealed in what you are and what you do. If some ways of imagining God are no longer helpful, they must be scrapped – but we must be careful because images that we do not like may still be helping others.’ (p. 448).
(Paul Mason would have the ‘false god’ as the neo-liberal consensus and Mammon.)

Michael comments in his closing chapter on ‘Contract or Covenant’:
‘Karl Marx had made a very sound, but godless, analysis of how humanity got itself into its present mess, and ended with a vision of Communist society that sounds just like the Christian New Jerusalem; but his pseudo-scientific dictatorship of the proletariat was a catastrophe.’ (p. 445).

‘The Christian gospel is not a book or an old, discredited system of beliefs; it is a liberating power that has only been acted on fitfully – and here and there – by dedicated minorities. It asks for revolution not reform, but this is to be an inward or spiritual revolution.’ (p. 448). (Paul Mason says something quite similar in personal and secular terms at the end of his book).

On the last page, Michael quotes George Fox, Romans 8:14 and Irenaeus (twice) before concluding:
‘A faith is a way of being as lived by people in that community. Its truth depends on how they live and affect the lives of others. Individuals can tinker with this or that set of beliefs and mythologies and come to provisional, personal conclusions; but a real faith asks for lifelong commitment to a chosen path in the company of a chosen community – a practical demonstration of what it is to be human. The more human it is the more God will be known as present and active.’ (p. 449). Minus the last sentence, Paul Mason would probably be in sympathy with that conclusion. But, here’s a thought, doesn’t that final sentence define God in away that is quite acceptable to humanists and atheists? The metaphorical, allegorical, imagined God who has ‘only these hands’?

Meanwhile, my wife Georgina was listening to Philip Pullman talking about literature for children (and God, the King, is dead) on her Audible books which led to an internet search for ‘The Republic of Heaven’. Amongst other gems, the search yielded David Boulton’s review of Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ in The Guardian, 2003: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/apr/05/religion.uk

David manages to squeeze in:
In my new book, The Trouble With God: Religious Humanism And The Republic Of Heaven, I try to grapple with the question of what such a republic might look like. To my surprise, I find it is not very different from the kingdom of heaven described by Jesus a couple of thousand years ago. (Another edition? is entitled The Trouble with God: Building the Republic of Heaven).

 

NFN November 2018 Newsletter

The November newsletter with our latest news, book reviews, details of the 2019 conference, short articles as well as news from nontheist Friends in America has now been added to the website.

NFN members and others who have signed up to receive this will have had it in their email a week or so ago.

As with all the other newsletters, please see under ‘Articles –  Newsletters’ above.

God, Words and Us – another view

God, Words and Us
Quaker Books – November 2017   £8
A review by Hugh Rock

The slight extent of this book, 98 pages, belies its heavyweight testimony. It is a conclusive demonstration of Quaker Faith. But it does not recognise this. It masquerades as an attempt to discover what the unifying principle of Quaker Faith might be, and assumes a starting point of doubt and conflict.

The subtitle ‘Quakers in Conversation about Religious Difference’ is a euphemism for the nagging subject of nontheism, that was identified by the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group as top of the list of topics that worried Friends and required more discernment before any revision might proceed. The twenty-four prominent voices gathered in these pages were engaged to discern, and concluded, (Hooray! Hooray!) that the polarising labels are a ‘misrepresentation’ (p79), ‘misleading and unhelpful’ (p80). Nobody identifies themselves as a theist, and the nontheists are themselves a mighty mixed bunch.

The chapter contents need some explanation beyond their headings:

Telling our stories’ reads like eighteen miniature Swarthmore Lectures. They are diverse confessions of faith.

Bringing our full selves to the conversation’, is a preparatory catechism for dialogue respectful of everyone’s feelings.

Sharing experiences of core Quaker practice’, assembles various views on prayer and Meeting for Worship.

Exploring the language of “theism and nontheism” ’, turns out to be a decisive rejection of any such simpleton polarity.

Reframing the issues: developing some alternative models, seeking new vocabulary, rediscovering Quaker insights’, is an ode to Isaac Penington’s ‘The end of words’ 1, 2. It sings the vain hope that at some deeper level the irreconcilable clash between believing in God and believing that there is no God, can be resolved.

So, what is the paradox of doubt, and conflict with no apparent answer, that this book contradicts? It is, in itself, an exercise of the unifying principle of Quaker Faith. It exercises the simple faith that, out of mutual respect for varied spiritual experiences, we can, and must, distill collective action of love for the world. Twenty-four people of varied persuasions listen hard, respect and validate the significance, for others, of worldviews that they do not hold themselves. That, in these times especially, is a pearl without price.

The Revision Committee have no need to fiddle with the ancient language of Quaker Faith and Practice. ‘God, words and us’ can stand as a supplement: it is definitive testimony to what Friends can say in their twenty first century cultural environment.

 

‘God, words and us’

God, words and us‘ is the title of a new 100 page book from Quaker books, edited by Helen Rowlands which summarises the findings of the ‘think-tank’ set up by the Revision Preparation Group (RPG) of Meeting for Sufferings to consider some of the issues prior to any possible revision of Quaker Faith and Practice.

NFN’s David Boulton and Michael Wright were part of the think-tank in a personal capacity (ie. Not representing NFN).

Here they offer a synopsis of the new book (Michael Wright) (pdf) and a succinct review (David Boulton) (Word.doc).

David will be one of our three speakers at our 2018 conference and Michael Wright will lead a discussion of the book at the conference on the Sunday morning.

You may also like to read what Rhiannon Grant, another member of the think-tank, and I believe the ‘RPG’?, has to say about ‘God, words and us‘. (I have used a link which also gives some bonus items from her blog!)

Godless for God’s Sake on Kindle

I’m not sure if everyone reads the comments (see below in right hand column) so I’m copying my comment on the Kindle edition as a post here:

It has taken me all of 7 weeks (49 days precisely) to notice James Riemermann’s post on the US Nontheist-Friends site of 6 September 2017 which has popped up at the top of the left-hand column here* – our feed from the US site – to say there is now a Kindle Edition of Godless for God’s Sake.
If you follow James’ links there, it comes up on Amazon UK at £4.64.
The links to ‘customers also bought’ there are quite interesting too!
I’d rather have the paper-back and not buy it from amazon but I suppose a Kindle version has to come from amazon so if you haven’t already read it or want it on your Kindle (or phone) there you go.
Trevor
*(at the bottom on a small mobile device!)