Thursday, March 15, 2007

Mismatched: Quakers and the Mass Media

Seven of us who gathered last night to talk about "Quakers and the Mass Media" stumbled on an intriguing scenario.

Imagine the plight of some hapless journalist assigned to report on the state of our “unprogrammed” brand Quakerism.

(Quaker jargon such as “unprogrammed” is one of the first barriers our journalist would encounter. “So we have these ‘monthly meetings’ that meet weekly etc.”)

Nailing Jell-O to the wall and herding cats have nothing on reporting on us.

Think about it: We’re the ones who have no spokesperson/pastor (“non-pastoral,” we are lead by an inner "light"), no picturesque, visually alluring churches (we gather in modest “meeting houses” which are determinedly not churches), no fiery sermons (we worship in silence, although occasionally someone is “moved to speak”).

Want to know where we stand? Well, we have our “testimonies”: Peace, Simplicity, Integrity, Community and Equality. Just how those play out is up to the individual Friend (yes, Clark Kent, make note: the formal name for Quakers is “The Religious Society of Friends.”).

Want more about what we believe? Well, uhmmm. As we like to caution those who inquire, “If you’ve spoken to one Friend about what Quakers believe, you have spoken to ONE, and only one…Friend. There are a few thousand others who have their own take. (Come to think of it, multitudes of Catholics—and Episcopalians, Baptists and even atheists—have the same “problem”….)

If you, the reporter, wants to know where the Quaker meeting stands on a particular issue, we might have to get back to you on that. We’ll have to hold a meeting first. Friends reach decisions by determining the “sense of the meeting.” To me, it's a kind of “consensus—more or less”—and a topic for another day.

Whatever you call it, it can take a while—a very long while, even years.

Quakers can always refer our journalist to the exhaustive, which is totally without aesthetic pretense—in the manner of traditional Friends. The Quaker Information Center, another on-line source, is informative and attractive in a neat, no-nonsense, Quakerly way.

So after nearly two hours, our little discussion group concluded that when it comes to the press, Quakers are Friendly, friendly but not user-friendly.

Misperception, or even non-perception, is the inevitable result. I shared with the group a recent informal poll I took of my Portland Community College students’ understanding of the word “Quaker.” More than a few flat-out confused Quakers with the Amish, right down to the buggy whips.

How are we perceived, if at all? My own conclusion (remember, I am ONLY ONE Friend) is that most of the public comes to understand Quakerism, in fact, if not name, through encountering Quakers who are living out their beliefs.

If we have a medium, it is ourselves going about our lives, meeting and working with others, one-on-one, for some greater good.

That others may never associate the name “Quaker” with our beliefs doesn’t matter. What we believe and how we live is obviously far, far more important than the fact that we believe it and live it AS Quakers.

Still, as one in our group suggested, it might behoove us to start letting people know—as a matter of information—who we are and from whence we are coming.

In an age of theatrical mega-churches, hip-hop choirs and celebrity pastors, Friends are almost a-media. That which guides us is about as far from the mass media as we can get—worshipping together in a silence resounding with inspiration, insight and solace.

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Blogger Peterson Toscano said...

Well said.
In the past few weeks I spoke with writers from the NY Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Hartford Courant, The Crier (an Indie printed journal out of NYC) and People Magazine.

In each case I felt pleasantly surprised at how much they actually knew about unprogrammed Friends. The Wall St Journal religion reporter knew the most.

I also found surprising that most knew little to nothing about programmed Friends. When I shared some recent encounters I had at Friends' churches, they could not imagine Quakers who did not embrace all things liberal (well except maybe a praise band during worship).

Now when I recently met with folks at the Montel Williams and Tyra Banks TV Shows, I experienced blank stares when I shared that I am a Quaker. One person remarked, "Wait, I thought Quakers went extinct during the Civil War!

But it seems that most people I talk to in the media and other faith communities and in the LGBT communities know us for what we do and have done. That comforts me being recognized as doers of the Word.

4:05 AM  
Blogger markedixon said...

"Now when I recently met with folks at the Montel Williams and Tyra Banks TV Shows..."

Long ago, I was a newspaper. What struck me about your experience was the difference between people who work in print media and those in broadcast. Knowledgeable on the one hand and ignorant on the other. I wouldn't say that this is true in every case, just in most cases.

It worries me that more people get their news from TV than from newspapers.

7:41 PM  

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