May your faith be spread like seeds across the earth... September 2002
Faithful Witness
Journal of the Friends Media Project
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Conversation Of The World

Quakers & Media Ministry
                                                 by Pamela Calvert

"Let all nations hear the word by sound or writing, spare not tongue nor pen..."
           - George Fox, 1656

Where are the Quaker voices in media? Three centuries ago, the Publishers of Truth took to the public squares and couldn't be silenced. Jail windows had to be boarded up to deter imprisoned Friends from their insistent proclamation. Exasperated opponents compared them to "mushrooms and toadstools springing up in a night ... they put themselves to work as soon as they are whelped." Now, far from "sparing not the tongue nor pen" of our times, a Friend is mildly embarrassed to admit even the ownership of a television (tuned exclusively to PBS, to be sure).

In choosing to stay behind our hedges, protecting ourselves from the influences of popular culture, we inevitably abdicate any sense of responsibility for, far less transformation of, that culture. This was by no means the intent of the Society's founders; here is William Penn, who was certainly in a position to know something of the world's snares:

The christian convent and monastery are within, where the soul is encloistered from sin. And this religious house the true followers of Christ carry about with them, who exempt not themselves from the conversation of the world, though they keep themselves from the evil of the world in their conversation. That is a lazy, rusty, unprofitable self-denial, ... patience per force; self-denial against their will, rather ignorant than virtuous; and out of the way of temptation rather than constant in it.[2]

As a Quaker, I believe that we are called to bring our good news into the "conversation of the world" so as to build the Peaceable Kingdom here and now. I believe that we are called to preach, in public, by any means necessary. The gospels were not written in Hebrew or in Aramaic, but in Greek so that they could be read by the widest possible audience. By contrast, we have allowed ourselves to become illiterate and invisible in the means of communications used by the vast majority of the world's people. We are called to "walk faithfully in our own time and place,"[3] and it is long past time for us to examine our peculiar pride about disengagement with mass culture, whether it is an "empty form" and "silly poor gospel" at that. Lloyd Lee Wilson writes, "If we are to be the Lord's hands and feet in bringing about the Kingdom of God, we have to leave the spot we are now and do new things in strange places."[4]

Friends educators must take on the charge of training ministers in the theology, craft and analysis of media that leads to epiphany and social transformation, a Quaker televangelism as it were. Malone College leads the way in articulating our mandate: "We commit to develop communicators rooted in communities, acting as agents of truth, reflection, transformation and reconciliation in a way that celebrates God's grace and faithfulness."

What might the fruits of a media ministry look like?   There are indeed distinctive practices in production, distribution and use that arise naturally from Friends' beliefs. After outlining this implicit "media testimony" at this summer's FAHE conference at Wilmington College, I was asked to lift up some films that have been made with the core of integrity and accountability that might show us a way forward in our own ministry. A brief list follows, with pointers to further resources.

  • "Stranger with a Camera"—Produced through the Appalachian media collective Appalshop, this film examines the 1967 murder of a documentary filmmaker by an eastern Kentucky landowner, spotlighting the complex role media plays in society and the responsibilities that those who produce media must assume.
    <> <>
  • "The Gleaners and I"—French director Agnès Varda compares herself as a filmmaker, a "gleaner of images," to those who glean the leavings from harvested fields, finding a use for what others discard. A very personal film about waste, trash, and right sharing of the world's resources.
  • "La Ciudad/The City"—Director David Riker spent five years in story workshops with Latin American immigrants, many of them undocumented, to be able to represent their lives truthfully. The narrative moves from isolation into community, and Friends may find the final garment factory scene to be a powerful and moving representation of a gathered meeting.
    <> (bilingual website)
  • "The Company of Strangers" (released in the US as "Strangers in Good Company")—A bus breaks down, stranding eight elderly women in the wilderness. For the next few days, they share survival strategies and life stories, and the film catches us by surprise in our assumptions of "fiction" and "truth." Mary Meigs has written a behind-the-scenes memoir of her experience as one of the actors, revealing much of the spirit animating the production.
  • "A Healthy Baby Girl"/ "Blue Vinyl"—Judith Helfand's two sequential documentaries are "toxic comedies" about corporate accountability, starting with her own recovery from cancer caused by fetal exposure to the endocrine-disrupting drug DES. Driven by a passionate ethic of justice and care for the earth, Helfand has taken her camera from "Cancer Alley," Louisiana, to a corporation on trial for murder in Venice, Italy. The production process itself becomes an organizing campaign, as Helfand involves ever-widening communities in her work.
    <> <>
  • "Trembling Before G-d"—Gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews must come to terms with what many feel are irreconcilable opposites—their spiritual and physical selves, the two most fundamental, indivisible, and undeniable aspects of their very identities. Sandi Simcha DuBowski's documentary has been an extraordinary healing force for families and communities in many conservative religious traditions, and has in turn led the filmmaker himself to a deeper faith conviction.
  • "Zenith"—Spirit moves through a tiny struggling farm community in Kansas, bringing individual and collective transformation through the production of "The Great Plains Passion Play." (Full disclosure: "Zenith" was co-produced by this writer under the weight of a clear leading.)
  • Making Waves: Stories of Participatory Communications for Social Change, available free from the Rockefeller Foundation.
  • "A Festschrift for George Stoney," Wide Angle March 1999, a tribute to the exemplar of committed, accountable and Spirit-led filmmaking.

Pamela Calvert is an itinerant televangelist currently studying media
and theology at Pacific School of Religion.

[1] Journal, cited in Britain YM F&P 19.32

[2] No Cross, No Crown (1897 ed.), p. 60

[3] Jim Corbett, Leadings (SEYM 1994), p. 12

[4] Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order, p. 74

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Copyright 2002 - Pamela Calvert - All rights reserved.
Published with the author's permission by
Faithful Witness - Journal of the Friends Media Project