Three months ago I traveled to the Sierra Friends Center in California to take a break from the spotlight… I had been traveling in the ministry and performing all over Philadelphia Yearly Meeting for two months. It was my intention to get some rest and do some discernment about my next steps, including some experimentation with internet outreach.
While on tour in PYM the previous April, I had arranged for a short filming session for what was to be my first music video, set to my most blatantly Quakerism-oriented song, “Friend Speaks My Mind”. Now, four and a half months after that afternoon filming session, filmmaker Ben Schilling sent the final edit. Great… we released it on youtube, hoping it would get a bit more attention than the videos already posted, all wavering around 100 views.
I returned from camping with my brother and his family the next day to find the video had 1,500 views overnight. In a week it would have 8,000. I had an inbox full of emails from all over the United States and England – from all sorts of folks… Friends missing Pendle Hill and joyful to see it depicted, other artists wanting to introduce themselves, old f/Friends who I hadn’t connected with in years. One email was from a Pee Wee Herman-esque talk show host in Italy (no joke… hi Mr. Zed, if you’re reading this!), a self-described ‘secret’ Quaker. Amidst all of the enthusiasm and joy there was also a more hesitant thread… some simple comments clarifying the historic relationship between Quakerism and Christianity and others more critical, even some hostile messages.
When asked by one Friend why I thought that there were such strong reactions to the video, my answer was long. There were so many different reactions to the video, many of them strong for different reasons. With regards to the discomfort with that particular line in the chorus, my response is: the splits are here, the splits are real and the splits hurt.
The internet is ushering in a new era for Quakers, I am learning. The small-world immediacy of the web is bringing a broad spectrum of Friends into the same space, whereas they would have never normally occupied the same physical/social space. It is one thing for me to recite “I’m not a Christian but I’m a Quaker” in the safety of the community from which the song originated, and another thing entirely to share it in a setting in which the culture described in it is alien and incomprehensible and possibly even offensive. Sharing the song online could easily have been neither. I have been posting my music on the internet for years and 99% of it has gone almost completely under the radar. This video, on the other hand, became both.
Being unprepared for the video to go viral was a big mistake (though to be fair, I had no experience with this type of success online). If I were planning on sharing the song in an Evangelical Friends Church, for example, I would do a great deal of preparation beforehand with my elders and with a support committee. I would be ready for anger, confusion, joy, distress, and… everything. All of the emotion directed at me would travel through me and fall into the lap of God, who would know what to do with those feelings. Strangely enough, I did less preparation for the release of this video, which now has over 14,000 views, than I normally do when I perform for a Meeting of 20 people.
Unprepared as I was, I was tossed about like a ship in a storm… responding to a gushingly positive, enthusiastic email in one moment, absorbing a scathing criticism the next. I was away from home, community and support and – ungrounded as I was – easily fluctuated between knowing that I have done something powerfully alive and full of Spirit and wholeheartedly agreeing that I somehow represent the downfall of Quakerism (as was alluded to in more than one reaction).
In one particular email interaction, I was told that my work in this song and video is counter to the truth. I was directed by this Friend to seek deeply and see how God may be calling me to reverse myself. Unsure of anything other than Spirit’s ability to get me through this, I happily obliged, retreating deeply inward.
I know that there were many Friends praying for me during this time and I am very grateful. I believe that many of the Friends who delivered criticism were also directing prayers toward me. I feel that I have been held up to the Light (in it’s many meanings) by a large part of the body of the Religious Society of Friends.
It is only in these past few weeks that I have been emerging from my inward retreat. I emerge feeling clear that I am not called to reverse myself, that I have created a piece of art that is powerfully alive and full of Spirit. I do understand the concerns that I’ve heard about the lyrics of the song… and whether or not the protagonist in the song accurately characterizes the whole of Quakerism, the future of Quakerism or the movement’s past, I believe it is a true story, a story worth telling, and a story that I have been called to tell for a reason. And… it was a whole lot of fun.
My one ongoing concern is upon seeing the reaction from some as though the song is a sermon rather than a narrative… I suppose that only time will demonstrate that I am not an emerging religious leader gathering a base of followers behind the rallying cry: “I’m not a Christian but I’m a Quaker!” but a storyteller who saw a story worth telling.
So. I don’t know how hung up folks are going to stay on the controversial elements of that one song that I wrote, but it’s time for me to move on. There is just too much other art and beauty that I’ve been called upon to love and hold up – and too much that I have already done that most folks haven’t yet heard of – to get stuck on it myself.
I do hope that Quakers can find a way to peacefully dialogue about the differences among us*. There is so much more that should be asked of us, but that seems to be quite enough for now.
*in those times for which dialogue about differences is necessary