| Steps Toward a Quaker Media Practice
Part 1: Introduction
by Pamela Calvert
This article is the first installment of four based on the author's thesis presented
at the Pacific School Of Religion.
For the last several years, I have found myself awakening to a need for discernment around my professional life. My work has most centrally revolved around using media for social change, but this secular point of view no longer speaks to my condition. I'm led to make my work a ministry, grounded in faithfulness to Spirit, in a form as yet unrevealed. There has been light to take one step at a time, leading me currently to a brief program of study, similar to ESR's Theological Reflection Year, at Pacific School of Religion. Here I've had the opportunity to think aloud about how Friends (like me) can take a more visible role in making and using media with integrity, being prophetic witnesses for peace in the "culture wars." I feel like this message has been seasoning within me for a decade; this paper represents the first fruits of vocal ministry.
I find myself in unmapped territory. As I've noted, there are no role models whose lives teach, no Pendle Hill Pamphlets, no guidance in Faith and Practice. The closest thing we have to a denominational production unit is the Communications Office of the AFSC, which is obviously neither denominational nor a production unit. So what follows is for the most part prescriptive rather than descriptive, at least as far as Friends are concerned. Where I use examples to illustrate a practice, then, they will necessarily be from non-Quaker sources. Indeed, I am not asserting that anything I am proposing below is something new under the sun in terms of media practice. Rather, in speaking to my faith community, I hope to illuminate those practices which will arise naturally from Friends' beliefs, forming an implicit testimony.
A note on religious labels: one could reasonably substitute "Christian" in the place of "Quaker" in most instances below, and indeed this is preferred by the theologically conservative Friends colleges which are most actively involved in media education (noted below). However, I hope to address the full range of Friends with these words: since many modern Quakers do not necessarily identify as Christian, and a body of distinctive writings, beliefs, and testimonies has been built up in our religious tradition over the past 350 years, I have chosen the sectarian term in order to be simultaneously narrower and more inclusive. There is a vast literature on Christian communications, but, as I have noted, nothing to date which addresses Quaker distinctives in this discipline.
Similarly, while I have consulted authors across a representative range of theological viewpoints, this paper is ultimately grounded in liberal Quaker theology, based on what I know best as a member of first, New York, and now Pacific Yearly Meetings. Knowing Friends as I do, I expect there will be room for each reader to bristle at or be mystified by specific choices of vocabulary and analogy. I invite and welcome a lively dialogue with Friends from across the spectrum, contributing additions and refinements to the theology, and drawing out the implications for practice.
Finally, this paper will mostly address issues of independent film and video production, primarily documentary, again based in my own experience. I imagine that the approach I describe may be extrapolated to other forms of media, including photography, print and broadcast journalism, feature film screenwriting and production, and various forms of new media.
Like a set of advices and queries, this paper lays out ideals for convictional and prophetic engagement with media. Not every principle proposed will be possible to a Friend in a given situation. Many may seem unrealistic or even "ridiculous" to "those that walk in the broad way," as William Penn warned. But without a sense of the goal-Gospel Order, the Peaceable Kingdom-there is no way to measure one's faithfulness or growth in the Light. Lloyd Lee Wilson notes, "In any individual or corporate circumstance, there is among the alternatives a choice that is in keeping with the gospel in all its fullness. It is incumbent on Friends to help one another discern that one choice among the many that may be open, and to carry it out faithfully." 
So this then is my project, my offering of the measure of light I have found. What follows is presented in three parts. First, I discuss Friends' historic approach to public communications, worldliness, and the arts. I then propose a Friendly approach to media production and use, from pre-production through distribution and reception. Finally, I explore the ministry of Quaker post-secondary institutions in educating media professionals.
As might be deduced from the brief comments above, while early Friends were taking an active role in the world, they were most adamantly not of it. All forms of entertainment and the arts were anathema, thought to lead people into vanity and away from more useful pursuits. The very foundation of theater, for instance, was impersonation and falsehood, and the subject matter was unlikely to be in keeping with the gospel. Even hymn-singing was considered to be an "empty form" carrying the risk of singers' "professing without possessing" the lyrics and thus falling out of the Truth. As John Punshon observes, "Underlying their attitudes to the arts and also education and moral life was a view of how you should occupy your time, a fundamental conviction about what you are here for and how your life should be lived."
Internal institutionalization, as the Quaker 'movement' grew into a 'Religious Society,' and external repression, particularly during the Restoration period of the late seventeenth century, combined to damp Friends' evangelical fires. In the eighteenth century, the Society turned inward for more than a century of "quietism." Great emphasis was placed on exquisitely strict obedience to the discipline, enforced by sharp-eyed Overseers. Many living testimonies hardened into fixed custom during this period, including the repudiation of engagement in, or enjoyment of, the arts. It was not until the nineteenth century's Great Awakening that Wesleyan Holiness restored some measure of missionary fervor to Friends, as well as introducing innovations such as liturgical music. Still, apart from the startling appearance of the piano in some meetinghouses, the old prohibitions remained firm. By the time cinema and television were introduced in the twentieth century, Friends had a 300-year tradition of abstinence-and as "mass media" and the "entertainment industry" have evolved, they have certainly provided Friends with every good reason to continue to keep their distance.
In choosing to stay behind their "hedges," protecting themselves from the influences of popular culture, Friends have also inevitably abdicated any sense of responsibility for active engagement in, 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 only media George Fox had available to him were "tongue" and "pen." In light of his words above, can we have any doubt at all, had he lived in our time, that he would not have likewise exhorted Friends to master video camera and website, and put them to use as powerful forms of religious speech? Modern Friends have come to have few if any scruples about the purely personal enjoyment of dancing, singing, painting, or performing in plays. Some of us even have televisions (on which we only watch PBS, to be sure). It is, very simply, long past time for us to examine our peculiar pride about disengagement with mass culture, whether it is not in fact an "empty form" and "silly poor gospel" at that. We are called to "walk faithfully in our own time and place," to discover how we might bring the continuing revelation of Spirit into the strange new world of the third millennium. Frankly, if we abstain from "the conversation of the world," why should Spirit bother speaking to and through us at all?
Our far more difficult path is, and always has been, "holy worldliness." There is no question that this route is a slippery slope, paved with good intentions. To undertake a life of ministry in the popular culture requires faithfulness to the Guide, individual and collective discernment, and the united support of the covenant community-as with any other ministry. One bears in mind the apostle's admonition: "'Everything is permissible'-but not everything is beneficial. 'Everything is permissible'-but not everything is constructive." Indeed, everything is permissible-anything goes-in the mass media, but the Children of the Light are called to bring the "one thing needful" to the darkened theater: the Holy Spirit, at 24 frames per second.
It requires "gospel vision," the "eye of faith" to begin to see what part one might play in this great work. It would be the greatest betrayal of the Creator to believe that in order to be faithful, one must limit one's output to the pious and proselytizing, the dry, dour, and didactic. "There are no limits to the pursuit of culture as long as it is sought in the spirit of consecration and service. ... Pursued in the aim of enlargement and for widening the area of life and happiness, [it is] as legitimate, and as 'simple,' as the reading of Pilgrim's Progress or Piety Promoted." Insofar as we are Spirit-led, we may be called to bring our messages to Friends alone, one videotape at a time, or to the whole world via web and satellite technologies. With all due respect to many Friends who believe otherwise, Quakerism is not "a secret to be guarded," and however one might be led to articulate its salvific message, "the Quaker movement can only be true to itself by being a missionary movement." What follows is a set of preliminary guidelines for those "public Friends" who are called, as I am, to the mission field as ministers in media.
Next Month: Discernment Of Calling & Pre-Prouction
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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