At Great Plains Yearly Meeting this year, the featured speaker was not a Quaker at all. He was a member of the Lakota Nation and a very evangelical Protestant Christian.
And not only was he not a Quaker, he had practically no knowledge of us and our historic version of Christianity. — But of course, knowledge of us was not why he was invited.
For much of two evenings, and for a good part of one afternoon, he preached his own version of Christianity to us — something he had half-discovered, half-invented, in the course of his personal journey to Christ. And if you’ve never been evangelized by a fervent, articulate, creative, born-again native American, I think you’ve missed something interesting. It’s lots different from being evangelized by an Anglo!
His name is Richard Twiss, and his message began with an account of his past. He came of a broken family, and grew up on the reservation. He was exposed to Catholicism as a child, and wasn’t impressed with it. He spent his teen years rejecting Christianity as the white man’s religion, and went through an alienated, militant-radical-hippie-Indian phase of a sort that was fairly common among intelligent young native American men in the early 1970s. (Remember the standoff at Wounded Knee?)
Then Twiss experienced what Friends might, perhaps, call a visitation from Christ, in the midst of a bum trip on a hallucinogen; when he prayed to Christ for help in getting out of the bum trip, it ended abruptly, and he experienced something of Christ’s transcendent peace.
He turned to an Anglo Protestant pastor for guidance, and the pastor told him, among other things, that Anglo culture was the true culture of Christianity, so that he’d have to give up his Indianness in order to be a true Christian. Twiss invested himself so heavily in this interpretation that he wound up as a Protestant pastor himself, dressed in the standard suit and tie, and for more than a decade he shepherded a predominantly white Protestant congregation in Vancouver, Washington (a suburb of Portland, Oregon).
Eventually, though, he began questioning all this, and took a fresh look at his roots, asking himself how he could take these back, and reclaim the things he’d learned and valued as a child and a young man, without betraying Christ.
To answer that question, he was forced to reinvent his Christianity.
Twiss’s answer somewhat resembles George Fox’s, in that he, like Fox, has concluded that Christianity went astray. But Twiss’s analysis of the way in which Christianity went astray is very much his own.
He points out that Judaism itself began as a tribal religion, as tribal as any native American religion. Like native American religion (though unlike the modern bigotry that banned tribal ceremonies on native American reservations), the Judaism of the Old Testament used musical instruments and dance. The Mediterranean basin in Christ’s time was still broken up into tribal populations, and Christianity spread from tribe to tribe across it. It remained tribal until, on entering Europe proper, it became the property of post-tribal nation-states.
And Twiss notes that the nation-state varieties of Christianity are now in decline. Western Europe is now basically post-Christian, with less than ten per cent of its population attending church; Canada is not far behind Europe; and the United States seems headed down the same road, with attendance at churches diminishing.
(Let me add in passing, though, that these claims are unsettled, and their significance questionable. According to a mid-1990s survey by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, reproduced on-line here, forty-four per cent of U.S. adults attend religious services at least once a week, as compared with forty-five per cent of adults in Italy, thirty-eight per cent of adults in Canada, twenty-seven per cent of adults in Britain, etc.
(Twiss’s position is based on the work of other researchers, described on-line at the same location, whose findings suggest that people lie about their church attendance, and that only twenty per cent of U.S. adults, and only ten per cent of Canadian adults, actually attend church once a week or more. But all this must be seen against the background of the fact that, according to the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) of 2001, better than seventy per cent of U.S. adults self-identify as belonging to some specific Christian denomination. Low weekly church attendance may thus say less about diminishing U.S. attachment to nation-state varieties of Christianity, than about changing attitudes toward Sunday leisure time.)
In any case, Twiss says that the nation-state versions of Christianity have not been terribly successful in making converts of native Americans and other indigenous peoples. Half a millennium after Columbus, only three per cent of the native Americans in the United States are actively Christian. That has to be regarded as a significant failure of evangelism.
Twiss concludes that the modern Christianity of nation-states is an aberration — and, quite likely, an unhealthy one. Certainly there was nothing right about the fact that after Columbus arrived in North America, “Christianity was dropped down on us” native Americans (that is, imposed from above) “rather than being shared” as between equals. Nor is there any real good in the fact that competing denominations divide members of native American communities that had formerly been in unity, and alienate them from each other, so that Baptist Lakota can no longer simply be brothers with Catholic Lakota or vice versa.
So the things that stood between Twiss’s Christianity and his desire to reclaim his native American heritage are revealed as bankrupt — a nation-state-based approach to Christianity that hasn’t worked and is now being rejected world-wide.
And thus Twiss concludes that a return to “First Nations” approaches to Christianity — incorporating things like tribal music and costume, and dances and even sweat lodges, that have always meant a great deal to indigenous peoples — would be a positive step forward, consistent with the way that the “first First Nation”, the Hebrews, worshiped God.
He concludes as well that denominations and other nation-state influences can now be left behind. A healthy Christianity is one that returns fully, not just superficially, to tribal thinking. Twiss therefore regards himself simply as a follower of Christ, of the Lakota people, without any denominational labelling.
And finally, Twiss concludes that indigenous peoples, such as native Americans, are now in a unique position to bring a truer Christianity to the world — because they are fashionable all around the world, because they are presently capable of seeing Christianity with fresh eyes, and because a healthy tribal sort of Christianity comes more naturally to them than to others. Thus the native American heritage that Twiss has reclaimed for himself is not only compatible with Christianity, it is positively the next step in spreading the Word.
Richard Twiss dancing, from his website.
Empowerment is a big component of Twiss’s vision, though he didn’t use the word in his presentation. He leads an actual movement at this point, with several hundred native Americans coming to the Christian Powwows that his organization, Wiconi International, sponsors. Clearly these people are electrified by their newfound power to restate Christianity in terms that work for them, as well as by the idea that they have a special rôle to play in the salvation of the rest of the world.
And from the standpoint of native Americans who, like Twiss himself, seek to be Christian without having to deny their heritage, this is a wonderful development. It means that Twiss’s reworking of Christianity works; that Twiss’s insights are valid.
From the standpoint of Anglo Christians who want all native Americans to come to Christ, it is likewise pretty exciting.
From my own standpoint, though, it does raise questions.
It bothers me that Twiss’s version of the gospel contains internal weaknesses that seem to limit its ability to empower. The most significant of these — in my personal estimation — is Twiss’s inability to find a genuinely nondenominational approach to Christianity. This is absolutely not Twiss’s own fault; the problem is that Christianity has evolved into a self-strangling position where every conceivable “nondenominational” approach is actually already closely identified with some specific family of denominations, and already rejected by various other denominational families. But even though it’s not his fault, it’s an obstacle to what Twiss hopes to do.
Twiss’s omission of the old church traditions so dear to Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran, clearly mark his approach as low-church Protestant, and unacceptable to High Church types who feel that the wisdom of the great Catholic and Orthodox saints and theologians and the great church councils possesses such weight that we cannot afford to discard it.
Twiss’s habit of Biblical proof-texting (he peppered all his talks with chapter and verse numbers), his anti-intellectual approach (he condemned “reductionism” and “rationalism”), and above all, his Protestant-revival presentation of what is required to be saved (sola fide, sola scriptura, but without any mention of the importance of membership in the Church, or of obedience to any sort of ecclesiastic or corporate discipline, or of good works generally), mark his Christianity as a variety of Protestant Restoration revivalism. “Nondenominational” U.S. Protestant preachers have been taking that sort of approach, and for similar reasons to Twiss’s, ever since the Restoration movement in the early nineteenth century.
But although Twiss’s approach strikes me as a variant on standard Restoration revivalism, he didn’t give us any tent-revival stuff — no shouts, no hallelujahs, no call-and-response stuff, and no pleadings for repentance. Maybe he does that elsewhere, but he gave no sign of it. What he showed us, instead, was a celebration of Christian praise worship, native-American-style. (It was beautiful, too, or at least I thought so.)
Likewise, in the videos he showed, there were images of unchurched people accepting Jesus as their Savior, but I saw none of unchurched people accepting a call to repent of their sins (no tears of penitence apparent).
So Twiss’s version of Restoration revivalism appears to me to be a praise-church version, not a fire-and-brimstone version. And yet it is certainly revivalist for all of that; for the term “revival” simply means “a bringing back to life”, and within the revivalist world, the life in question is a passionate, enthusiastic Christianity. One can get to passion and enthusiasm quite easily by the route of native-American-style dancing.
But still, many people outside the revivalist world don’t believe that any sort of revivalism whatsoever — be it the old fire-and-brimstone or the newer praise-church style — is sufficient to impart real Christianity. They look at the large number of people “saved” by revivalism who don’t visibly become better or kinder or more moral people, because they haven’t developed any real spiritual discipline — and they also look at the many “saved” who subsequently re-reject Christianity, or who simply drift back into their old irreligious lives.
And there is truth in this criticism. Certainly revivalism has its successes, people whom it reaches and who are changed for life. But its failures go a long way toward explaining why it has never actually managed to win over the world.
Would Christ have endorsed a revivalist approach? I suppose you could argue that the excitement he stirred up in his years of ministry was a form of revivalism. But from what the Biblical accounts suggest, Christ apparently spent several years inculcating his discipline in his disciples, without any recorded shouts or hallelujahs or feathered costumes or dances or drums or sweat lodges, never seeming to have expected even the best of his followers to become stable and well-grounded on the path without extensive hands-on training and reinforcement — and he treated this training in discipleship as being far more basic and central than the transient excitements of the crowd.
Early Quakerism and traditional Quakerism, too, demanded this kind of patient training in discipleship — years of learning to overcome one’s own pride and ego, not as a private individual but with the intensive help of one’s elders and one’s whole community, until one could finally hear and obey the inward Light even when what it says is painful and hard to confess to. The community approach to the matter, taken both by Christ and the apostles, and by early and traditional Friends, is illustrated by passages like Matthew 18:15-17 that both the early church and early Friends made very heavy use of.
But as soon as we agree that such corporate discipline is at the very heart of Christ’s path, I think that the argument against the existence of denominations starts to run into trouble. For denominations — organizations larger than a single church community, uniting church communities and holding them to a stable practice — exist precisely in order to make it possible for there to be communities with a meaningful corporate discipline in them; to practice any given corporate discipline, you have to join the denomination that is committed to that discipline.
And there is plenty of room in the world for a zillion different denominations; it’s not that having multiple denominations is wrong, but only that they need to remember to work at reconciliation when friction arises.
So these are, it seems to me, weaknesses in the internal logic of Twiss’s approach. They’re not fatal, not by any means. But they bother me.
Twiss preached his message with all good will, clearly not knowing that what he preached was a tad at odds with the historic gospel of Friends. I found his enthusiasm infectious, and at a break in the schedule, I added my name to his mailing list.
But I still have to confess that seeing him play such a big rôle in the Yearly Meeting session made me rather sad. After all, I do believe that our own version of Christianity, or should I say George Fox’s and the Valiant Sixty’s, is far more right than Twiss’s. (If I didn’t believe that, I’d never have become a Friend.) I would rather have seen our version preached from the front of the room than Twiss’s. And that wasn’t happening.
Maybe we need to talk about this phenomenon. For bringing in outside speakers, who then proselytize us for their own version of religion, has become common practice throughout our Society. Pastoral Friends meetings bring in Protestant evangelists; FGC Friends meetings bring in leftist theologians, native Americans and Buddhists; my own Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) brought in a speaker some years back to present the Catholic practice of “centering prayer”. Friends clearly enjoy these speakers.
But how wise a practice is this? When we bring in such speakers, we lead Friends who are not well grounded in Quakerism, and outside observers too, to believe that what these speakers are preaching is compatible with Quakerism — even in matters where it is actually quite different from the gospel of George Fox and the Valiant Sixty. In this way we muddle our message, both in our own communities and before the world — and we muddle it more with every generation.
The pastor who arranged for friend Twiss to address us, told me that he was hoping Twiss could help us see how to reach out more successfully to the native American population. I think he has a very good idea there, and I’m glad to see Great Plains Yearly Meeting wrestling with that challenge. But I also think it will take a very discerning eye to separate out the parts of Twiss’s approach that are suitable for Friends, from the parts that fail to advance our Quaker gospel.
And when I say that, I’m thinking in particular of Twiss’s praise-focused approach.
In the Quaker world, we have a lot of pastoral congregations nowadays that focus on the worship of praise, just as we have many unprogrammed congregations that focus on a practice of meditation. But neither praise nor meditation is the actual point of Quakerism, the heart of the true Quaker gospel.
Great Plains Yearly Meeting Friends, assembled before the church after the session’s close. The great majority of those who attended were present for this photo. Clicking on the image will download a larger, clearer version.
The heart of the Quaker gospel was the astonishing realization — and happy proclamation — that the voice in our conscience that says to us what Christ himself would say, regarding what’s right and what’s wrong, is in fact divine, is in fact a face of the Holy Spirit, is in fact Christ within, is in fact worthy of our complete submission to it. That was the discovery that George Fox made, and all the first Friends with him. And it has remained an exciting discovery to Friends in every new generation since.
This was a discovery that Friends made, not by hearing sermons or singing hymns or any sort of worship of praise, but by actually immersing themselves in the experience of that voice and discovering, lo and behold, that if you give your awareness to it completely enough, and submit yourself wholly to its guidance and correction, its divine character becomes pretty obvious.
So can this amazing discovery be communicated to someone new by the worship of praise? I don’t think we have a definitive answer on that, but we certainly do have people who came to traditional Quakerism from praise churches because they were not finding it there.
But can the setting up of congregations around a religion of praise, nevertheless further the communication of our true gospel, our amazing discovery? I don’t think so. I think congregations that gather around a practice of praise, have a demonstrated tendency to stop there, and not go on into the process of what we call convincement.
I personally think, then, that the challenge that Friends face — native American Friends and Anglo Friends alike — in seeking to reach out to indigenous peoples, is a different challenge from the one that our friend Richard Twiss is addressing. We are not called to win people to the verbal profession of Christianity and the worship of praise — for all that those things are good — so much as to bring them to that living God in the heart and conscience who has come to teach His people Himself.
What place, then, do drums and feathers and tribal dances and tents and sweat lodges have in the Quaker world? I personally think the answer is a friendly place to be sure. They can always be welcome and at home here. But they shouldn’t be mistaken for any part of our central business as Friends.
Still, others may have a different answer, and if so, I want to hear it.
I’ll be looking forward to next year’s Great Plains Yearly Meeting, and the one after that as well, because I think that such different answers might perhaps be articulated there. We shall see.
…The cause of true religion is advanced not by churches becoming full of men but by men becoming full of God.
— Howard Spring (novelist and journalist), And Another
Thing… (London: Constable and New York: Harper &
Brothers, 1946); quoted in A. J. Muste, Not By Might:
Christianity: The Way to Human Decency (Harper &
Brothers, 1947), p. 155