Thursday, February 24, 2011

Participatory culture: frameworks & sensibility

Several of us have already blogged about Wess Daniels’ recent talk on Quakers and participatory culture at Quaker Heritage Day. (See posts by Wess, Robin, Rik, and me.)

After hearing Wess’ ideas, I recommended that he look up the work of Nina Simon, author of The Participatory Museum and the blog Museum 2.0. Now I’m trying to draw parallels to Quakerism from a blog post by Nina about museums. She writes:

At one point, [Mark Allen] commented that there's a difference between the "framework" and the "sensibility" for engagement. The framework is the format or setup for how community members are invited to participate. The sensibility is the content and the style with which the engagement happens.

In terms of Quakerism, I think “framework” would apply to the forms of our practice: how we worship, how we conduct our business meetings, how we nominate people to committee service. “Sensibility” might apply to how we welcome newcomers, how transparent we make our practices, how we handle announcements and e-mail within the meeting, what kinds of events we schedule and where they are held. (Any thoughts on whether these are the right analogies?)

After sharing some museum examples, Nina writes:

It's easy to assume that an informal sensibility implies an open framework and vice versa--but that assumption doesn't bear out in reality. A museum can be friendly, or serious, or funny, while maintaining a traditional relationship with visitors as consumers of experiences. And alternatively, an institution can conduct co-creative projects with community members without altering its external sensibility or institutional tone.

I’m aware that our Quaker frameworks have a lot of hidden structure, in many ways quite formal, but we’re somewhat reluctant to define it clearly. Some of it is spelled out in the Faith and Practice of various Yearly Meetings, but we often expect people (including our children) to observe our peculiar ways and figure them out by osmosis, and may only offer explanations when we think someone is doing it wrong.

Our sensibility varies widely from one monthly meeting to another:

* In general, we’re not very welcoming. Vanessa Julye’s ministry has raised up for many of us how this can alienate people of color, but it’s broader than that. Many visitors come once, and don’t find anyone approachable during coffee hour.

* Newcomers who do stick around can easily fall into the assumption Nina points out, “that an informal sensibility implies an open framework”. It can look like our framework is more “do it yourself” than it really is, so hackles and misunderstandings can be raised when someone with little seasoning among Quakers plunges in enthusiastically.

Do we expect people not to be full participants until they’ve been around us for a while? Isn’t this a mystery to most people new to Quakerism? There’s clearly some hurdle to membership; how do people know when they’re ready to leap over it?

Nina closes her post with some queries:

These days, I spend a lot of time working on new models for both framework and sensibility. It's hard to say which is more important--or challenging--to transform. What's more interesting to you--changing the voice and sensibility with which you engage audiences, or changing the framework for doing so? Do you see these as separate, connected, or conflated?

Some meetings, such as those pointed out by Micah, are experimenting with different frameworks. I suspect most of our meetings would be reluctant to make changes that go beyond how we do our announcements. Are we willing to experiment with our sensibility, and how we reach out to engage newcomers?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Quakers and Remix Culture, Part I

This past weekend, Berkeley Friends Church brought C. Wess Daniels to be the speaker at their annual Quaker Heritage Day. I love the format of this event: a full Saturday morning and afternoon, with someone who has thought a lot about Quakerism sharing some background on a topic (often from Quaker history), and inviting the whole group to reflect on how this fits with our experience as Friends. People attend from programmed and unprogrammed meetings across California. The same speaker gives a sermon at the church on Sunday.

Wess is the pastor of Camas Friends Church in Washington, and a doctoral student in theology at Fuller Seminary. He talked about the characteristics of participatory culture, and the parallels he sees to Quaker tradition. I’m looking forward to whatever Wess posts about that on his blog, and won’t try to reiterate it all here. Some of the writers he cited were Vail Palmer, Lawrence Lessig, and Henry Jenkins.

One of the most intriguing (and perhaps the most approachable) of the characteristics was “remix culture.” Wess’ basic description was that many people are moving from a “read-only” encounter with texts, to a collage or remix which brings their own experience into an interaction with pieces of different existing works. The resulting new creation may challenge the intent of the original works. Some of Wess’ examples of remix were:

• YouTube videos that sample classic songs, and reinterpret them in combination with newer ones
• Early Friends’ epistles that quoted the Bible extensively without citing sources
• James Nayler’s 1656 re-enactment of Palm Sunday
• A disciple needing to integrate and live a master’s teachings, rather than trying to preserve them unaltered.

It strikes me that Quakers are actually quite well-practiced at remix culture. Ever since George Fox wrote that “this I knew experimentally”, we have been challenged to integrate spiritual messages into our own lived experience. And his spoken ministry of “What canst thou say?” gave Margaret Fell the conviction not just to listen to others’ professions of faith, but to seek and speak of what she learned through continuing revelation. The juxtaposition of many voices in our messages in worship and business, and responses to queries, have most of us in the habit of contributing to collages.

I am challenged by ministry that was given to me on Sunday, in the open worship after Wess’ sermon. I had a visual image of a kaleidoscope, in which we are all pieces of different colored glass. In our business meetings, we are shaken up and moved into different arrangements, and our decisions settle into an order which none of us might have imagined. We let our meetings start to die if we stop seeing each other as translucent, if we assume that anyone is opaque, or do not let ourselves be open to the Light that might shine through us.

When have I seen others as opaque, in my meeting, my family, my workplaces? When do I appreciate that “my” light can blend with and be changed by that which shines through others?

Quakers and Remix Culture, Part II

In my experience, remix happens when I’m willing to let ministry work on me over time. Sometimes a message comes to me in worship half-formed, and I discern that it needs more seasoning, so I carry it with me for a week or more between meetings to see what I have to learn from it, before it rises (or doesn’t) to the level of spoken ministry. Many times, I’m worked on by a lesson that keeps presenting itself in multiple forms: messages in meeting, conversations, and ideas I hear or read. God often gets my attention through a convergence of coincidences.

Here is a personal example of experiencing, creating and sharing a remix.

Early in 2008, I heard Laura Magnani speak at an adult education session on Quaker testimonies, sharing some of what she learned while serving on the Discipline Committee that produced Pacific Yearly Meeting’s 2001 Faith and Practice. What I understood from her was that written testimonies have traditionally been statements of what Friends were already practicing in their lives. Thus, the process of arriving at a written testimony required us to first to live into it.

Soon after her talk, the Michael Jackson song “Man in the Mirror” got stuck in my head, and wouldn’t go away for months. The chorus says:

I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer:
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself and make that change

I felt a strong leading to sing this for Family Night at Yearly Meeting, which required a group who could hold their parts on dissonant harmonies. The chorus spoke to me strongly, but the verses didn’t address what moved me to share the song with PYM: our ongoing discussions about a testimony on unity with nature. I thought about trying to write new verses, but nothing came.

A week or so before Yearly Meeting, I heard Holly Near’s song “I Am Willing” for the first time. The lyrics spoke very much to my condition and to the idea of living the testimonies, but I found its hymn-like melody too repetitive. Soon the idea arose of combining Holly’s song with the chorus of “Man in the Mirror.” I went to the library for sheet music to “Man in the Mirror” and typed the lyrics to “I Am Willing” to bring to Yearly Meeting. A few Friends worked out the harmonies and sang this medley/mash-up together for Family Night.

There was a lot of energy in moving from Holly’s last line into Michael’s first: her “lift me up… to the light of change” would have held out “change” like a prayer, but instead it became the first beat of a driving rhythmic line describing a first step to bring that prayer into action. Others told me they experienced what we sang as ministry.

There’s no video or recording I know of from the PYM 2008 Family Night, but here are the pieces:

Video of Holly Near and Emma’s Revolution singing “I Am Willing” at the School of the Americas Watch (2007)

Video of Michael Jackson and choir singing “Man in the Mirror” at the Grammys (1998)

Lots of sparks of inspiration can feed into a remix. Many thanks to Laura for her talk; to Michael and Holly for their songs; to Carl, Kristina, Callid, Hannah and anyone else whose ear I bent while the remix was seasoning; to Faith, Gail, Mark and Stephen for collaborating on the arrangement and singing with me at Family Night; to Kathy for taking this picture; and to Wess for inspiring me to think through this example.

Does remix work on any of you in similar ways? How do you let messages season over time? How do lessons present themselves? When is it important to create and share something to express what moves you?