A Quaker Approach to Research: Collaborative Practice and Communal Discernment

Summary: An exploration of Quaker practices of group discernment in an academic or research setting. 

I picked A Quaker Approach to Research because the two main streams of Christian Discernment are the Ignatian or Quaker streams. I have a decent background in Ignatian discernment but only a little background in Quaker discernment. This book was free in the Kindle Unlimited library, so I was willing to try it even though it was not exactly what I was looking for.

There was a good introduction to the history of Quaker discernment. One of the new pieces of information I found was that early Quakers called themselves the “Religious Society of Friends of the Truth” before being known as The Society of Friends or Quakers. Discernment of the direction of the Holy Spirit or the “inward light” of God within them was central to the movement. Like the Ignatian stream of discernment, reason and emotion are part of the discernment process. Ignatian discernment is often done in partnership with a spiritual director, but Quaker discernment is usually done in a group, maybe with a facilitator, but a significant focus is on group silence or communal meditation. This communal meditation is part of the method of “moving evenly together.”

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Subversive: Christ, Culture, and the Shocking Dorothy L. Sayers by Crystal Downing

Summary: An exploration of the thought of Dorothy Sayers. 

I picked up Subversive because it was free to me as part of the Audible Plus Catalogue (books that Audible subscribers can borrow without additional cost other than the membership.) I have been slowly working through a couple of books by Sayers a year over the past decade. I have finished all of her Wimsey full novels, and both read and listened to her play cycle, A Man Born to be King. I also read a book about Sayers and CS Lewis’ friendship and the lost novel that Jill Patton Walsh finished. I was not new to Dorothy Sayers, but I am also not a scholar of Sayers, so I am a bit wary of being annoyed by this book but without enough academic background to defend my annoyance well.

I think part of the problem is that I came in with inappropriate expectations. I was expecting an exploration of Sayers’ ideas but more biography. Subversive is not a biography; it is closer, instead, an attempt to introduce modern readers to Sayers, someone who is fairly unknown but who has exerted much influence. Because I was expecting more biographical details, I am sure my unmet expectations played a role in being annoyed by Subversive.

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Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy by Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts

Denmark Vesey's Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy cover imageSummary: An exploration of how historical memory has changed over time using Charleston, SC, as an example. 

I have been fascinated with the concept of historical memory. I was introduced to the concept earlier, but the first book I read that concentrated on historical memory is Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory by David Blight. Since then, I have read several books that take on more aspects of historical memory, like Myth America and A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History by Jeanne Theoharis.

Denmark Vesey’s Garden is similar to Race and Reunion. Still, instead of an expansive look at a shorter time (a national look at the 50 years after the Civil War in Race and Reunion), Denmark Vesey’s Garden was a narrow geography but went from the Antebellum era until the 2010s. This means they complement one another well. What I wanted more from Race and Reunion was a more extended period, and Denmark Vesey’s Garden was able to show not just the intentional misremembering of history but also the movement back toward a more accurate memory.

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Maigret’s Holiday by Georges Simenon

Maigret’s Holiday (Inspector Maigret) by Georges Simenon cover imageSummary: Maigret goes on vacation. It doesn’t go well. First his wife ends up in the hospital. Then, he gets an anonymous note asking him to visit someone at the hospital, but the woman dies, and he ends up seeking a killer on vacation.

I am not going to write a long review of this. I have been dipping in and out of Maigret for about six years. This is the 7th of the series I have read. I continue to enjoy them enough to keep reading. But I continue not to be blown away by them.

In this one, Maigret is on vacation with his wife. But she ends up in the hospital, and he is a bit lost.

I recently read The Black Tower by PD James (part of the Adam Dalgliesh series). In both books, the main character is a police homicide inspector. In The Black Tower, Dalgliesh himself is recovering from surgery, but both are officially off duty and are a bit irritated that their professional life seems to be following them. (The fourth Inspector Gamache is also about the inspector being on vacation and a murder happening.)

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Bearing God: Living A Christ-Formed Life in Uncharted Waters by Marlena Graves

Bearing God: Living A Christ-Formed Life in Uncharted Waters cover imageSummary: At the funeral for her mother, Marlena Graves heard the Matthew 4 story about Jesus sleeping in the boat in a new way. And that frames the book’s discussion about what it means to live a Christ-formed life. 

I am currently on a reading project to explore what Discernment means for Christians and how we discuss and teach it. A couple of weeks ago, I asked for suggestions to add to my list of books. An internet acquaintance suggested Bearing God. Bearing God was on my list to read generally, but I had not considered it a book about discernment. So, I picked up the audiobook to listen to during a solo drive.

Too many books are fluffed up to add to the page count, but this novella-length book is exactly right. It has 80 pages of main content, and the audiobook was 2.5 hours. But I think I will put this at the top of my list of short, accessible books on discernment. It is not primarily a book about discernment. It is primarily a book about being a Christ-follower. But the book’s subtext, as well as one of the chapters, is explicitly about discernment. I previously read The Way Up is Down, and I have followed Graves on social media for years. Bearing God fits well with The Way Up is Down. Both are primarily about spiritual formation and how we incorporate spiritual practices into daily life, not adding them as yet one more thing to do.

It also matters that Marlena Graves is a Puerto Rican woman. I have been working on my 2023 reading stats. While I had almost exact gender parity this past year, the vast majority of the books I read were by white authors. Bearing God is a book that explores her life and spiritual walk, and her history, culture, and experience matter to how she perceives the world.

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Great Divorce by CS Lewis

Summary: CS Lewis imagines Heaven and Hell. This is the most recent Renovaré Book Club selection. My biggest problem with book clubs is staying on the schedule. I generally read too fast or too slow to stay with the group. The Great Divorce is a fairly short book and it is being split into five … Read more

Ignatian Discernment in Daily Life: Finding God in All Things by Timothy M. Gallagher

Summary: A series of lectures based on The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living by Timothy Gallagher

I previously read Gallagher’s Discernment of Spirits as part of my spiritual direction training. Because I thought it was a helpful book, I wanted to revisit it as I am more intentionally investigating discernment. This format is a series of lectures based on the book, but it is not the book’s complete text. Gallagher is conversationally discussing the content of the book. It has been several years since I read it, but I remember many of the illustrations and points.

Ignatius’ Rules of Discernment are intended as a guide for spiritual directors to help those they are working with to see patterns as they seek to discern the movement of God in their lives. Most of the rules are, in one way or another, about Consolation or Desolation. Ignatius relies heavily on emotion and internal feelings as one of the tools of discernment. He does not simply accept that emotion or feelings are God’s method of speaking to us. Sometimes, feelings are just feelings. Sometimes, they are part of temptation. But sometimes, they are part of how God communicates with us. If God has created us with a personality, experiences, giftings, etc., then getting in touch with all of that will be part of becoming who God wants us to be.

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When Religion Hurts You: Healing from Religious Trauma and the Impact of High-Control Religion by Laura Anderson

When Religion Hurts You: Healing from Religious Trauma and the Impact of High-Control Religion by Laura Anderson cover imageSummary: High-control religious communities can create harm, but there are ways to move toward health

Harm from religious communities and individuals is not a new concept. However, recent increased attention to sexual abuse within the Protestant church and earlier public Catholic cases has drawn attention to the ways that church government and church systems can foster abuse of all sorts. Laura Anderson is primarily writing to help people recover from high-control religious communities, but there are principles here that are broader than that.

Anderson is not avoiding the term trauma (it is in the subtitle), but she is also trying to suggest that there are different levels of harm and that the response to that harm can be different. Two people can grow up and experience the same home, but one can be traumatized by practices that are not traumatizing to the other, even if the practices were applied to both. Part of the difficulty is that the word trauma has shifting meanings, so a more general “harm” can be helpful to apply to more than just legally documented abuse.

One of my takeaways from When Religion Hurts You is that high-control religious communities control as a means of protection and mission. There are evil people who are trying to control people and build their power for their own selfish purposes. But I think more often, people are attempting to help others and fulfill the church’s mission from their perspective. This happens by setting up boundaries to prevent harm, which becomes rigid rules that can themselves become harmful.

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Christmas: The Season of Life and Light by Emily Hunter McGowin

Christmas: The Season of Life and Light by Emily Hunter McGowin cover imageSummary: Spiritual and theological reflections on Christmas and its traditions. 

Emily Hunter McGowin’s Christmas is part of a series of books on the seasons of the liturgical calendar. Esau McAulley is the series editor and author of the book on Lent. The series also includes Tish Warren on Advent, Flemming Rutledge on Epiphany, and Emilio Alvarez on Pentecost.

Christmas is a nostalgic holiday and one that is relatively modern. It is not that the trope of Christmas being a pagan holiday is true (the book handles this well.) But our modern focus on gift giving and family and sentimentality is relatively recent. The Holy Post podcast recently had two episodes that talked about this. One was about St Nicholas, and the other was about David Taylor’s Christianity Today article on American Christmas. Taylor’s article is about how Christmas was not celebrated widely in the United States until the late 1800s. Congress met on Christmas when it fell on a weekday until the 1850s. Celebrating Christmas was against the law in Puritan New England from the mid-17th century because of its association with Catholicism and because of the history of how the celebration had been associated with debauchery in England.

But as Taylor points out, Queen Victoria and her German husband started using Christmas Trees to decorate and modeled a family-centered celebration of Christmas that was more common in Germany. A few years later, Charles Dickens published a Christmas Carol. And when it was published, few people would have had Christmas off of work. But the story’s popularity did shame employers into giving Christmas day off.

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The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making by Elizabeth Liebert

The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making by Elizabeth Liebert cover imageSummary: An exploration of spiritual practices that can facilitate decision-making. 

Over the next several months I will do a reading projection around the concept, history, and teaching of Christian discernment. I picked up The Way of Discernment in part because one of the people I meet with for spiritual direction is processing through both individual and corporate discernment and it felt like a good time to do a personal deep dive.

I have some biases going into the idea of discernment that may change, but I want to say them out loud because they will likely keep influencing how I read going forward. First, I think discernment is a spiritual practice of seeking after God. Many people frame discernment as primarily about decision-making. And I fear that when the focus is the process and not the goal of seeking after God, we reduce what is a spiritual practice to a self-help checklist. Second, and related, developing discernment is about building character and virtue and orienting ourselves to rightly seeing God, not developing skills to interpret and decide or process information. Third, while I think there may be a “spiritual gift” of discernment, this is a general gift of the church, not limited to only a few. There are likely people who are better at discernment than others, but that doesn’t mean that discernment is only for the gifted. Fourth, the development of discernment is a part of the discipleship process. I started listening to a series of lectures on discernment by Timothy Gallagher, and he suggested that teaching about discernment was a third-level task. In this view, what comes first is to evangelize and introduce people to Jesus; then, once they have met Jesus, they need basic discipleship. Discernment was part of a more advanced discipleship work that requires people to be more intentional, introspective, and focused on their role in sanctification.

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