Remix Culture and the Church

During Quaker Heritage Day one of the key themes I discussed was the idea of remix culture recently written about by Lawrence Lessig in his book with the same title. ((You can download Remix for free from here)) Remix culture has a long history that began back with the advent of the record player (here is a lecture by Lessig covering some of this history). Much of remix culture is based on who has permission to publish and disseminate content? Remix has most clearly been developed through the advent of DJs and Hip-Hop culture, where sampling is heavily relied upon to create music. Here sampling is a building upon often well-known loops from other songs, which (at its best) carries the meaning (or subverts the meaning) from that original piece into a new and creative way.Often in remix the artist transgresses the text’s original intent, blending it with other popular or personal “texts.” These new readings challenge “the sanctioned expert interpretations and readings of the text.” ((Jenkins 1992: 25)) Remix is the difference between Read-Only material (copy-write protected) and Read-Write (free or remix culture). The “one emphasizes learning. The other emphasizes learning by speaking. One preserves its integrity. The other teaches integrity. One emphasizes a hierarchy. The other hides the hierarchy.” ((Lessig 2008: 87)) Remix is about leveling the playing field for what counts as a legitimate production of culture; it does not have to come just from authorized places.

One of my favorite examples of this kind of creative usage of meaning in new contexts and styles is  Jay-Z’s remix off the Annie broadway musical “A Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem).” ((You can listen to the Fresh Air interview with Jay-Z where he talks about this song)) Another aspect of remix culture is social websites like YouTube that offer easy access to creating remixes of popular songs, sometimes meaningful, sometimes silly. Lessig, a copy-write lawyer, has seen a major increase in prosecutions of young teens because they are remixing popular (copy-write) content and putting it online on sites such as YouTube. Their creativity and free use of copy-write material has once again brought to light questions around remix.

Quakers and Remix

Questions around copywrite at first don’t seem all that connected to the church. But if you begin thinking about it within the context of who gets to be the authority on a particular question or interpretation or Scripture for instance, the connection starts to appear. If remix is a challenge to authorized readings and interpretations then we are brought to the Early Quaker movement as a potential example of remixers. In the early parts of the Quaker movement, Quakers challenged the “read-only” interpretations of Scripture.

This is seen in how they read the Bible. T. Vail Palmer Jr. calls says that early Friends had “an empathetic reading” of Scripture. One of the ways they remixed the biblical narrative was by incorporating its words into their own voice without citation or quotation. For example, in only one and a half pages of Edward Burrough’s “An Epistle to all the Saints Whom God hath Called” (1657) there are at least fifty different biblical references without quotation or citation: “Clearly, Fox and Burrough [the two authors in Palmer’s initial study] did not seem to be appealing to these quotations and citations as external sources or as authorities to which they were asking Friends to conform themselves.” ((Palmer Jr. 1993: 43))

The early Friends ministries can be read along these lines: they are re-enacting the biblical drama in a theatrical way. Palmer argues that some early friends “repeat precisely the actions of some of the biblical characters.” ((1993: 45))  This witness through reenactment was part and parcel of their entire way of carrying out what they understood their message to be. They were both the carriers of a message and the message; they were co-heirs with the apostles and prophets helping the biblical drama unfold. Early Friends’ lives were mediated through “the words and lives of the prophets and apostles.” ((Ibid))

Remix and Reenactment

This understanding of remix as reenactment also challenges some of our understandings around particular actions early Quakers participated in. For instance, James Nayler’s act of riding a donkey into Bristol while those around him said “Hosanna” got him charged with blasphemy, branded a heretic and ultimately cost him his life.  It is understandable that his act would be understood as heretical if Scripture is a read-only text, not to be remixed. But within the Quaker understanding and practice of entering fully into the biblical narrative, there is another way to understand Nayler’s action. He was remixing the biblical narrative through reenactment. Taking the original intent of Jesus’ riding into Jerusalem and then remixing it in his contemporary setting.

For those who have a read-only understanding of the Bible and follow a “sanctioned expert interpretation” of Scripture there will always be a charge of heresy for those who enter the story empathetically and remix it. (This sheds light on the current debates around Rob Bell, Universalism and Calvinism – which has always held a sanctioned expert view and seems to be quick to use the term heretic! (also see)).

This reenactment, the remix of the old into the new, enabled them to create a space for a something new within Christianity to emerge. One of the many examples Palmer advances as something new emerging from the Quaker way of empathizing with Scripture is related to the issue of women preaching in public worship. This is one area where Quaker theology sharply contrasted with a majority of Christian theology in that time. From the beginning, Quakers identified and created space for women ministers. Elizabeth Hooten was the first female preacher among Friends (even prior to 1652), and she was certainly not the last. ((Palmer Jr. 2010: 5)) Women were among the early Quaker missionaries to travel across the British Isles, to America, Turkey, and beyond (Ibid). There were a number of Friends who wrote in support of female preachers. Besides Margaret Fell being thought of as the “nursing mother” of Quakerism, she also wrote a still-profound and popular tract on the equality of women called “Women Speaking Justified” (1666).

Finally, what I like about remix is that it is a good example of how tradition (original material) gets remixed in innovative ways. It shows that being rooted in tradition and apprentices of it (as with Folk music, Jazz and Hip-Hop) allows the practitioners of those traditions to remix and create in ways that are both faithful to the tradition and yet innovative in particular ways (see my essay here). I see this as a similar concept to convergent that a number of Quakers use today.

Thus, remix has found both contemporary expressions in Hip-Hop and participatory culture and has its analogues in early Quaker understandings and practice of reading Scripture.

Further Resources

Other places I have discussed remix culture, the church and Quaker perspectives.