Numero Uno—“I was not more than ten years old when I first heard mention of the Quakers. The grown-ups of my family were talking among themselves, speaking of an uncle of mine who lived in Philadelphia and operated a pharmacy near the university. I had never seen this uncle and was curious about him, so my ears were open. Presently a reference to the Quakers caught my attention. I wanted to know who the Quakers were. What was told me then I have remembered ever since. The Quakers, I was told, are people who wait for the spirit to move them.A picture formed in my mind. Many a time I had seen my grandmother sitting quietly, an aura of peace around her as she sewed or crocheted or did her beautiful embroidery work. So I pictured older people, most of them with white hair like my grandparents, all with kindly faces, gathered in silent assembly, heads bent slightly forward, waiting to be moved. It never occurred to me that young people, boys and girls of my age and even younger, might be present and participating.
As the word ‘spirit’ meant nothing definite to me, I could have no idea of just what would move the Quakers, but I had a sense that it would be something within them, perhaps like the stirrings that sometimes moved me, and I may have had a vague notion that this something within them was somehow related to what people called God. I never thought to ask what the Quakers might do after they were moved.
Had I been invited in those days to attend a Friends meeting for worship I would have gladly gone. I would have gone because my picturings had given me good feelings about the Quakers. I would have gone because, young though I was, I liked to be silent now and again. Sometimes my best friend and I would sit quietly together, happy that we were together but not wanting to talk. Sometimes I would go off by myself on walks to look at the wonders of nature, to think my own thoughts, to dream, to feel something stirring in me for which I had no name. Or I might withdraw for a time from the activities of the boys and girls and sit on the porch of our house, my outward eyes watching them at play, my inward eyes turned to an inner life that was as real to me, and sometimes more wonderful than my life with the group.
Certain experiences I had when alone, certain experiences I had with my young friends, attitudes and feelings that would suddenly arise in me at any time or place—these made up the mainstream of my religious life. Such religion as I had was life-centered, not book-centered, not church-centered. It arose from the well of life within me, and within my friends and parents. It arose from the well of life within nature and the human world. It consisted in my response to flowers, trees, birds, snow, the smell of the earth after a spring rain, sunsets and the starry sky. It consisted in my devotion to pet rabbits and dogs, and to some interest or project that caught my imagination.
I had been taught several formal prayers. One of these I said every night, regularly, before getting into bed. But I am thinking of the unformed prayers that welled up in me whenever I had need of them. I had been read some stories from the Bible and some of the psalms, and from these I had doubtless gained attitudes of reverence. But I am thinking of the worship that spontaneously arose as I beheld the wonders of the world which God created. Young eyes are new eyes, and to new eyes all things are fresh, vivid, original.
It is sometimes asked if children and young people are capable of the religious life. Certainly they are not capable of sustained effort towards an unswerving aim. Certainly they cannot hold themselves to a consistent discipline. They cannot engage in the religious life as a conscious way of living. These abilities come only as we grow up and subject ourselves to training. But, just as certainly, young people do have religious experiences, and these often are more vivid and glowing than those of the elders. That is it—children can glow. They can light up. This capacity to glow is at the very heart of what we are talking about.
To be sure, people young and old need instruction. We need instruction in the Bible, in poetry, in all literature that contains truth and beauty. We need to be helped to struggle against our faults, to overcome our imperfections. And we need to be curbed on occasion, as the only way in which we may eventually become able to curb ourselves. But it should not be forgotten that all people, especially young people, have poetry in them. And, more than that, according to the faith of the Friends all people have within them something of the very spirit that created the scriptures.
Religious education, it seems to me, is on the wrong track if it assumes that religion is something that must be drilled into people. It is on the right track if it recognizes that the source of religion is within us as a native endowment, and that the function of education is to call this endowment forth, supply it with the nourishment it needs in order to grow, and guide it in ways that promote maturing. People should have reason to be assured that formal religion is not contrary to the springs of innate religious experience and longing, but is in accord with the life and light within, and simply seeks to direct and develop this spiritual life.
Had a Friend approached me in those days with some such understanding and assurance, and had I been able to understand what he said, I would have had still another reason, and this a compelling one, for attending a meeting for worship. And so I would have gone. I’d have sat there with the others, feeling much at home, perhaps feeling I was in a holy place. I’d have sat as quietly as any for the first ten or fifteen minutes. I would not have worshiped in any formal sense, for I had not been taught any form. But I would have practiced my kind of inwardness, thinking my own thoughts as I did when alone, dreaming wonderful dreams, feeling a life stir within me. Had there been a spoken message or two, I would have listened attentively, tried to understand, and honestly responded.
Presently, however, I would have begun to fidget. Not knowing what I should try to do in a meeting for worship, I would have had nothing to fall back on when my thoughts ran out, no purpose for curbing my increasing restlessness. Through the windows my eyes would have caught sight of the world outdoors, and I’d have wished I were out there having fun with the boys. Time would have dragged. I’d have asked myself, “Will the meeting never end?” And when finally it did end, I’d have been as glad for the ending as I had been for the beginning.
What should we try to do in a meeting for worship? What do we hope to attain through it? Why is silence desirable? What is the main idea behind the Friends manner of worship? It is true that Quakers wait for the spirit to move them. Why wait? Wouldn’t it be better just to go ahead? Besides waiting, what more is to be done? Can we not pray and worship when we are alone, or as we go about our daily affairs? Why is it necessary to meet together? What is worship?
These are not questions that you answer once and for all. You continue to think about them and continue to increase your understanding. But it helps us to think if we put our thoughts in order and study the thoughts of others. So I am going to write down some of the thoughts that have come to me. We shall think about worship and the central faith of the Friends, and let the answers come as they may.
WORSHIP AND LOVE
Worship is the action of the spirit. It springs up from our depths, as love does. It is a form of love, and just as desirable, and just as necessary to human life at its fullest and highest. To worship is an innate need of man. It is not imposed upon us from the outside, though the way we sometimes go about it may make it seem an imposition.
Suppose you are hungry. No one has to tell you to eat. No one has to force you to take food. Suppose you are in love. Must you be told to think of the person you are in love with? Must you be forced to yearn for the loved one?
Worship is a hunger of the human soul for God. When it really occurs, it is as compelling as the hunger for food. It is as spontaneous as the love of boy for girl. If we feel it, no one needs tell us we should worship. No one has to try to make us do it. If we do not feel it, or have no desire to feel it, no amount of urging or forcing will do any good. We simply cannot be forced, from the outside, to worship. Only the power within us, the life within, can move us to it.
But others can guide our preliminary efforts. They can help us to prepare to worship. Such preparation, as Rufus Jones has said, is the most important business in the world. Others can provide conditions, such as the Friends meeting for worship, thanks to which the desire to worship may spring up and grow. The meeting for worship came into existence because the early Friends were powerfully moved to worship together and meet the spiritual needs of one another. I use the word needs. Their spiritual needs were more dynamic than ours—or theirs—for food and shelter. Neither threats of violence nor active persecution could keep them away from their meetings.
Why is it that some of us would rather go to a movie, or listen to the radio, or see a ball game, or read an exciting book? One reason, it must be acknowledged, is because our meetings today are sometimes dull and unliving. We assemble in our meeting houses, but nothing happens. A related reason is that many of us have not yet awakened spiritually. Our bodies are active. Our minds are alert. But not our spirits. Such awakening, however, will come in due time, if we encourage it, if we do our part to prepare for it, if we live honestly and are true to ourselves, face life with clear eyes, and continue growing.
The main reason why we do not worship, or do not want to, is that God is not yet sufficiently real to us. He is not as real to us as our human father. His power is not as real to us as the power of man’s brain and muscles, as steam power, as electricity. Worship expresses man’s relationship to God. How then can we worship if we are not aware of this relationship, if the main party to it is unreal to us?
Some people speak of worshiping things that are not of God. God being unreal to them, their relation to Him being unrecognized, they turn to what is real to them, and engage in various so-called worships: money-worship, hero-worship, ancestor-worship, the worship of material power and machines, the worship of political States and their rulers. These are false worships. God is the sole object of genuine worship—God and His power which He manifests to us as love, light, and wisdom.
All forms of true worship arise from an experience of the fact of God, from the realization that God is. Men such as George Fox and John Woolman had their first experiences of God early in life. Most of us come to the experience gradually and later on, if at all. What are we to do meanwhile? Most religions offer formal official statements of what they believe God to be. They say what God’s nature is, and set forth His attributes. Friends make no such pronouncement; and I, for one, am glad there is none. Man’s words about God cannot substitute for a first-hand experience of the living reality. Friends are directed to seek for the reality within themselves. Meanwhile, we are called upon to have faith that God exists and that it is possible for us to meet with Him. We are called upon to prepare ourselves for this supreme experience. We are urged to try to sense God’s presence, daily to practice His presence. By such practice, if we persevere, we shall surely come to have a convincing experience.
Worship is our response to God’s reality, a reality which is, to be sure, within men, but which also is the radiant foundation of the entire universe. In trying to worship, we turn ourselves Godwards. We yearn for Him and endeavor to know His will. Our lives are pointed toward Him. If, and as we succeed, we make contact with God, and by this contact He is made real to us. When He becomes real to us we spontaneously love Him.
Can we see a sunset without responding to its beauty? Can we witness those we love, in their goodness to us, without being touched and moved? Can we hear the voice of our best friend on the phone without eagerly listening and eagerly replying? Be sure, then, that when we come into God’s presence we will be touched and moved beyond our greatest expectation.
Nothing so deters us from wanting to worship as the notion that worship is unliving. If it is unliving it is not worship. If it seems dull, tedious or difficult, it is because we are not truly worshiping. We are, perhaps, preparing ourselves to worship. There are difficulties to be overcome in the preparatory stages. Or, we are but assuming the appearance of worship, there being no life, no yearning within, we being more dead than alive inside. Indeed it is dull and tedious to hold the posture, if it is not backed up by a quickening life of the spirit.
True worship is a living experience. By and through it we enter into a life so vital, so vivid, so large and glorious that, by comparison, our life of ordinary activities seems narrow, dull, dead. By bodily action the body comes alive. By mental action the mind comes alive. So by spiritual action the spirit comes alive. Worship is spiritual action. By means of it our spirits awake, mature, and grow up to God.
All human beings, except those who have been badly damaged by man’s inhumanity to man, are moved to love. Some love animals, some flowers. Others love the sea or farm lands or mountains. Some love truth, some love beauty. All of us want and need to love and to be loved by our families and friends, and we would be happy were we able to love all people everywhere. To love and be loved is a universal human urge. Is it any wonder, then, that we are moved to seek God’s love? It is inevitable that we should desire this supreme form of love. The First Commandment expresses our innermost desire as well as God’s will.
There is nothing incredible about our wanting to love and to be loved by God. The incredible fact is that it can actually happen, does happen. Some day we will experience it. Then our doubts will end. Then we will worship God through love of Him.
Here is what two religious men of advanced spiritual development had to say of their experiences. George Fox wrote, “The word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘My love was always to thee, and thou art in my love.’ And I was ravished with the sense of the love of God.” Brother Lawrence wrote, “You must know that the benevolent and caressing light of God’s countenance kindles insensibly within the soul, which ardently embraces it, a divine and consuming flame of love, so rapturous that one puts curbs upon the outward expression of it.”
It is to this divine love that we are called. This is the high promise of man’s life. We are called away from indifference, from meanness, malice, prejudice and hate. We are called above the earthly loves that come and go, and are unsure. We are called into the deep enduring love of God and man and all creation. Worship is a door into that love. Once we have entered it, our every act is a prayer, our whole life a continuous worship.
THE BASIS OF FRIENDS WORSHIP AND OTHER INWARD PRACTICES
Some people believe that whereas God’s nature is divine, man’s nature is depraved. God is good, but men are evil. God, according to this view, exists in heaven, remote from us. We exist in sin, remote from Him, in hell or next door to it. Human beings are completely separated from the Divine Being. The only possible connection between men and God is that brought about by the mediation of the church and its authorized officials. Friends have never held this view.
Friends, beginning with George Fox, realized that something of God dwells within each and every human being, and that, therefore, He is reachable by us through direct contact, and we are within His reach, subject to His immediate influence. This is the well-known basis of Friends worship.
Since God is within us, Friends turn inward to find Him. This is not a matter of choice or inclination; it is a matter of necessity. Turning inward, we turn away from all externals. Friends practice inwardness. Rufus Jones writes, “The religion of the Quaker is primarily concerned with the culture and development of the inward life and with direct correspondence with God.”
Some number of Friends in the early days of the movement not only sought God but found him, though it would perhaps be better to say were found by him. It was because they found God that they had such living worship, such vital meetings. It was because they truly worshiped and had vital meetings that they progressively discovered God and came increasingly within his power. The one led to the other. Without the one we cannot have the other.
That there is that of God in every man was, as already implied, more than a belief or a concept with the early Friends. It was an experience. It was a recovery of the living Deity. As he made and continued to make this recovery in himself, George Fox went about his apostolic work and laid the foundation of what came to be the Society of Friends. What did Fox aim for? How did he regard his ministry? Let him answer in his own words. “I exhorted the people to come off from all these things (from churches, temples, priests, tithes, argumentation, external ceremonies and dead traditions), and directed them to the spirit and grace of God in themselves, and to the light of Jesus in their own hearts, that they might come to know Christ, their free Teacher.”
Pointing as they do to the basis of Friends worship, these several considerations do not, of themselves, throw light on the reason for certain other inward practices. The basis of these other practices is, unfortunately, less simple and less well-known. Why is there need of particular occasions for prayer and worship? Why need we gather together and sit quietly? Why practice waiting before God? If He is in us, why does He not manifest to us continually, why does His power not always motivate our actions? Why do we have to practice His presence, and why is this practice so difficult? To answer these questions we are forced to adopt a somewhat complex and non-habitual view of the situation.
Suppose we are approached by a person of inquiring mind who says, “You say that there is that of God in every man. All right, I am prepared to accept that as truth. But precisely where in us does the divine spark exist? Is it in our bodies? Is it in our ordinary minds and everyday thoughts and emotions? Do you mean to say that God exists in ignorance, in man’s prejudices and hatreds, in human evil?” How will we reply? Obviously God does not exist in our trivial actions, nor in our godless thoughts and feelings. Certainly He does not exist in our ignorance and evil. But these things exist in us. They constitute a part of us. This part of us, then, is separated from God, while another part is related to Him. Insofar as we identify with the separated part and believe it to be ourselves, we exist divorced from that of God in us.
The attitude, in brief, is this. There is that of God in every man. Therefore man, in his entirety, is not separated from God. But man is divided within, and against, himself, into two different and opposing aspects, and one of these aspects is separated from God. This is my view of the situation. If I understand the writings of the early Friends, this was their view of the situation.
The early Friends had names for the part of us that is separated from God. They called it the “natural man,” the “earthly man.” I shall sometimes refer to it as the “body-mind” or the “separated self.” The early Friends called the part of us that is related to God and in which God dwells the “spiritual man,” the “new birth,” the “new creation.” I shall sometimes call it the “inner being,” the “spiritual self.”
It is of course the separated self that presents the problem. It obstructs our attempts to relate ourselves to God and to our fellow men. It interferes with worship as well as with love. It is because of this self that we do not pray and love as naturally as we breathe. The separated self stands in the way. Therefore it must be overcome. For divine as well as genuinely human purposes it must be subdued and eventually left behind. Every real religious practice, whether of Friends or of others, either directly or indirectly aims to enable human beings to transcend the separated self in order that we may be united with the spiritual self or being which is near God because He dwells therein.
In the light of these facts we can understand the need and the purpose of certain specific inward practices, such as the practice of contending with oneself (Isaac Penington called it “lawful warring”) and the practice of gathering silently and waiting upon God. Since the separated self exists, and is an obstruction, we must contend with it. We contend with it so as to remove it and, at the same time, activate the spiritual nature. Gathering in silence and waiting upon God is necessary for the same reason, and is another means to the same end. More will be said of this presently.
The early Friends, while proclaiming the good news that there is a spiritual man in each and all of us, that God dwells in this part of human beings and is, for this very reason, close even to the earthly man, regarded the earthly man as unregenerate, sinful, blind and dead to the things of the spirit. Only by rising above the earthly aspect of ourselves can we pass from sin into righteousness, from death to life, from that which exists apart from God into that which exists as part of God. Only by yielding to God’s power can the earthly man be regenerated. To the degree that this happens, we are unified with our spiritual natures. Thus we are mended and made whole. What formerly was a separated and contrary part, becomes the instrument of expression of the resurrected spiritual being.
If the earthly man is dead to the things of the spirit, then, as long as he remains so, he obviously can neither truly pray nor truly worship. Nor can we, as long as we remain identified with him. Should he try to pray, he but prays according to his own ignorant and faulty notions. Should he try to worship, he but worships in his own will, not according to the will of God. Robert Barclay called this kind of worship “will-worship.”
Will-worship was what the Friends condemned and tried to avoid. They aimed for true spiritual worship. They wanted to worship God by and through the workings of His spirit and power in their spiritual beings. How were they to fulfill this aim? What, specifically, were they to do? Try, by all available means, to quiet and subdue the earthly man, to lay down his will, to turn the mind to God. But, having done this, they found that something more was wanted. They discovered, as you and I have or will, that it is one thing to still our habitual thoughts and motions, but quite another to cause the spiritual self to arise. By our own efforts we can subdue the body-mind to some extent. Few of us, by our efforts alone, can activate our spiritual natures in a vital and creative way. We need God’s help. We need the help of one another. But God’s help may not come at once. Our help to each other, even though we are gathered in a meeting for worship or actively serving our fellow men outside of the meeting, may be and often is delayed as regards our kindling one another spiritually. What are we to do in this case? There is only one thing we can do—wait. Having done our part to overcome the separated self, we can but wait for the spiritual self to arise and take command of our lives. Having brought ourselves as close as we can to God, we can but hold ourselves in an attitude of waiting for Him to work His will in us, to draw us fully into His presence.
So the early Friends engaged in silent waiting, humble yet expectant waiting, reverent waiting upon the Lord, that they might be empowered by Him to help one another and to render to Him the honor and the adoration which, as Robert Barclay said, characterizes true worship; that His power might come over them and cover the meeting; that He might bring about the death of the old, the birth of the new man.
Friends waited, both in and out of meeting. They waited for God to move them, quicken them to life, make them His instruments. They waited for the power of God to do its wonder-work, lifting up the part of them that was akin to Him, gracing them with the miracle of resurrection. Waiting preceded worship. Waiting prepared for worship, and the springing up of new life. By waiting they began worshiping. The stillness of the meeting house, the silence of the lips, the closed eyes and composed faces were the tangible signs of the preliminary period of waiting.
It is instructive and reassuring to note how frequently, among the early Friends, the practice of waiting did have the desired sequel. This seeming inactivity led to spiritual action. Out of this chrysalis what a life was born! God found them in the silence. Blessed and renewing experiences came to Friends, experiences which enabled them to be agents of the divine spirit in every situation of human life. It is instructive because it points us, of this day, to a religious practice that is effective. It is reassuring because from it we may have sound hope that, if we rightly and faithfully engage in this and other inward practices, we may reach and even surpass the high level of religious experience and service attained by Friends in the days when the Quaker movement really moved. In our present-day lives and meetings there can be soul-shaking events. The Light can invade us. Truth can take hold of us. Love may gather us. Above all, God himself may become real to us as the supreme Fact of the entire universe.
We of this modern age are inclined to be more lenient in our views of the earthly man. We are disposed to consider him a moderately decent fellow except when under the active power of evil. This makes us more tolerant, less intense. It makes us more likely to indulge our fondness for the earthly world and its things and pleasures, less moved to seek God and His Kingdom. Nevertheless if we examine our experience we shall recognize characteristics of the earthly man that are similar to those seen by the early Friends. The outside world has changed considerably in three hundred years, but man’s constitution is much the same now as then in all essential respects.
The earthly man, whether we regard him as good, bad, or indifferent, is evidently an exile from God’s kingdom. Our body-minds, namely our everyday persons, are out of touch with our spiritual natures most of the time, hence out of touch with God. We, as ordinary people, are not by inclination turned towards God, but, on the contrary, are turned away from Him. Day in and day out we do not even think of the possibility of loving God and doing His will, but think of ourselves, and are bent to enact our own wills, have our own way. Whether we, as earthly men, can truly pray and worship is a question about which there is likely to be disagreement. But who will deny that when we are absorbed in our affairs, as we are most of the time, we do not pray or worship? Recognition of these several facts will lead us to a position similar to that of the early Friends, and point us to the same needs as regards what we must do if we would truly pray and worship, and, indeed, truly live. We too must endeavor to subdue the body-mind and turn the mind Godwards. We too must try to overcome the separated self and re-connect with our spiritual natures. We too must practice waiting. We too must strive to attain the Quaker ideal so well expressed by Douglas Steere, “to live from the inside outwards, as whole men.”
When compared with bodily action, what could seem more inactive than waiting upon God? The modern world asks, “Where will that get you?” Young people say, “We want action.” Yet, as we have seen, it was precisely through this and other apparently inactive means that the early Friends came into a power of whole action that surpasses anything that we experience today. We say we are activists, but often lack the spiritual force to act effectively. They said they were waiters, and frequently acted as moved by God’s light and love. I think that we in this age of decreasing inner-action, of ever increasing outer activity, have a profound lesson to learn from the early Friends. We had best learn it now, and quickly, lest the faith and practices of the Friends become so watered that they lose their character and flow into the activities of which the world is full, and are absorbed by them, and Friends cease to be Friends. I do not say we should go back to the old days. That is impossible. Let us move forward, as we must if we are to move at all. But let us build upon those foundations, not scrap them. Let those past summits show us how high men can go, with God’s help.
Friends are by no means the only ones who realize that the body-mind presents a problem; that, in its usual state, it is an obstacle to worship and to all forms of the religious life. Friends are not alone in recognizing that when the separated self is uppermost and active, the spiritual self is submerged and passive, and that we are called upon to reverse this. All genuine religious people, whatever the religion, have recognized the problem and have endeavored to solve it in one way or another. Generally speaking, there are two ways of dealing with the situation. One way consists of the attempt to lift the body-mind above its usual condition, so that it may be included in the act of worship. The body-mind is presented with sight of religious symbols. It is given sound of religious music and of specially trained speakers called priests or ministers. It participates in rituals, ceremonies, sacraments. This way may be effective. When it is, the body-mind actually is lifted above its usual state, the spiritual nature is evoked. But when this way is not effective it merely results in exciting the body-mind and gives people the illusion that this excitation is true worship. Or it may result in a sterile enactment of outward forms.
The other way is just the opposite. It consists of the effort to reduce the body-mind below its usual state, so that it will not interfere with worship. All externals are dispensed with. No religious symbols are in view. No music is provided, no rituals, no appointed speakers. The external setting is as plain as possible, so that the body-mind may be more readily quieted. Internally, too, the attempt is to remove all causes of excitement, all of the ordinarily stimulating thoughts, images, desires. The one thought that should be present is the thought of turning Godward, seeking Him, waiting before Him. This way may be effective. When it is, the body-mind is subordinated and ceases to exist as the principal part of man. The spiritual nature is activated and lifted up. When, however, this way is not effective, it merely produces deadness.
In both cases the test is this: Does the spiritual nature arise? Friends have chosen the way of subduing the body-mind, of excluding it from worship except insofar as it may act as an organ of expression of the risen spirit. Having chosen this way, we are called upon to do it effectively, creatively. If we succeed—and we sometimes do—our inner life is resurrected, the whole man is regenerated, and a living worship connects man with God. But if we fail—and we often do—the spiritual nature remains as if dead, and, on top of this, we pile a deadened body-mind. What should be a meeting for worship, a place where man and God come together, becomes a void. There is no life, only a sterile quietism. Sterile quietism is as bad as sterile ritualism.
Sterility, in whatever form, is what we want to avoid. Creativity is what we must recover—aliveness, growth, moving, wonder, reverence, a sense of being related to the vast motions of that ocean of light and love.” Jean Toomer, An Interpretation of Friends Worship; Introduction, Chapters One & Two, 1947
Numero Dos—“In the May 24, 1998 issue of The New York Times, there appeared a
3,200-word essay about the Marvel Entertainment Group, for years the dominant publisher in the comic book industry (Bryant, 1998).
The illustration that accompanied the story was a drawing of two angry figures slugging it out in a fierce battle royale. However, this article did not appear in the entertainment section, the arts section, or even the book section. It appeared in the business section. The article was not about the hottest titles, characters or artists, but instead about stock values, junk bonds, and corporate assets. And the two figures pummeling each other were not fictional superheroes, but rather caricatures of two Wall Street moguls, Ronald Perelman and Carl Icahn. In fact, the news article focused specifically on the dire nature of the comic book market and the struggle for control over Marvel, the industry leader, that took place between these two financial tycoons.
This article joined a series of news reports from 1996 through 1998 that appeared in other business venues like The Wall Street Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Financial Times of London.
Such articles collectively presented a troubled image of the economic and industrial dynamics of the comic book industry in the late 1990s. This chapter will focus on these dynamics from the perspective of political economy, arguing that the comic book industry is characterized by increased conglomeration and ownership concentration. Such characteristics do not just affect corporate investors, but have profound implications for the future of the industry, both in terms of its economic stability and the ideological diversity of its content.
16 McAllister Political Economy and Media Ownership A political economy perspective of media focuses on the “interplay between the symbolic and economic dimensions of public communications” (Golding & Murdoch, 1991, p. 15). It asks how the economic makeup of media industries—including such issues as market concentration/diversity, media organization ownership, institutional power and revenue sources, and state intervention—influences democratic life (Mosco, 1996). This perspective connects issues of media production to issues of media content, media access, and economic equality. Political economy assumes that the ideal media system for a democracy would have certain characteristics, including content diversity, open access, and political relevance. Approaching media from a decidedly normativeand evaluative perspective, this perspective often argues that what may be in media organizations’ best economic interests is not always in society’s best democratic interests.
Political economy has been especially valuable in understanding recent directions in modern communication systems—including increased economic influence over media systems by advertising (Andersen, 1995; Baker, 1994; McAllister, 1996) and the global reach of media conglomerates (Barnet & Cavanagh, 1994; Herman & McChesney, 1997). Political economy analyzes the reasons for these trends; their social, cultural, political and economic implications; and possible avenues for change.
One significant example of a trend targeted by political economists is the concentration of ownership and market control by large media conglomerates. In fact, Mosco writes about this research perspective that “one of the principal substantive themes in North American research draws from political economy’s general concern with ownership concentration” (1996, p. 89). As McChesney (1997) points out, Ben Bagdikian, a leading critic of the growth of media conglomerates, has long documented with each new edition of his much-cited book the increasing power in a decreasing number of dominant media: from 50 in 1984 to 26 in 1987; from 23 in 1990 to less than 20 in 1993; from 10 in 1996 to just 6 in 2000 (Bagdikian, 2000). Such giants have influence in many different media industries (such as Time Warner’s presence in film, television, publishing and other media) and/or dominate one particular media industry (such as Ownership Concentration 17 the newspaper chain Gannett). Critics have raised serious concerns about this development (Aufderheide et al., 1997; Bagdikian, 2000;
McAllister, 1996; McChesney, 1997; Meehan, 1991). The control of information in so few hands grants these leading corporations the ability to influence cultural and economic trends, political policy, and technological development in ways that may benefit the short-term quarterly report but not the long-term society. Similarly, the diversity of information produced by corporations driven by the same basic corporate structure and economic forces and moving the same media images through a variety of outlets may be minimal.
Political Economy and Comic Books
Although several scholars have analyzed economic and industrial issues with comic books in the United States (McAllister, 1990;
Gordon, 1998; Nyberg, 1998; Rhode, 1999; Rogers, 1999; Sabin, 1993), the majority of comic book scholarship since the 1970s has focused on message criticism and analysis (McAllister, 1989). Yet a political economy approach toward comics is important for several reasons.
Although the industry experienced a major economic downturn in the mid-1990s, comic book sales reached approximately $425 million in 1997, down from $850 million in 1993. The “direct market”—the more than 4000 comic book shops across the United States— generated $241 million of this, with the remainder coming from such outlets as mass market retailers like Wal-Mart and newsstand distribution. The industry employs approximately 12,000 people. In the grand scheme of media economics, such figures are relatively small. Comic books, however, have additional economic impact. Besides comic book revenue, licensing activities (the sales of comicbook-related merchandise) brings in many more millions. Marvel alone generated $15 million in licensed properties in 1995 (all of the above statistics from Pearson & Miller, 1996; Miller, 1998a; Miller 1998c). The licensing practices of the comic book industry also influence the creation of motion picture and television productions that collectively generate revenue in the billions of dollars. The movie 18 McAllister that generated the biggest domestic box office ($250 million) in 1997 was Men in Black (“1997 box office report,” 1998), published by Malibu Comics and later acquired by Marvel. The X-Men, based upon another Marvel property, brought in over $54 million in its opening weekend in 2000, one of the largest motion picture debuts in history.
A second reason for a political economic perspective is that we might better understand issues surrounding the content and accessibility of comic books through an understanding of the economic structure of the industry. By spotlighting the economic incentives and makeup of the industry, a political economic perspective helps to explain why certain comics may be available and others not available—either because they were not published at all or were not distributed or exhibited.
Finally, analyzing the political economy of comic books can help scholars to better understand the economic behavior and consequences of media generally. Many of the trends discussed below are not peculiar to the comics medium, but are also found in other media.
In fact, because of specific dynamics of the comic book industry in the 1990s, trends of modern media industries may be particularly illustrated and effects of these trends starkly revealed. The comic book industry since 1993 has experienced a severe downturn in sales, for example. This downturn can be understood in terms of the industry’s political economic behavior, and may help us to understand modern media performance in similar economic circumstances.
Similarly, the comic book industry is potentially a revealing microcosm of the increased concentration and conglomeration of media industries as well as of the potential reasons for and effects of this concentration.
Ownership concentration was perhaps the most salient industrial trend of the comic book industry in the 1990s. Two dominant facets of concentration of ownership are discussed below, both having profound implications for the economic health of the comic book industry and for comic book content. The first trend is the high degree of horizontal control found in the contemporary comic book industry. The second is the emphasis on synergistic growth among the major comic book producers, a growth that has increased ownership concentration and placed the comic book industry in jeopardy.
Ownership Concentration 19
Horizontal Integration in the Comic Book Industry
Although such terms as horizontal integration and vertical integration are commonly used, their definitions may vary (Mosco, 1996). This chapter defines horizontal integration as occurring in a media industry when one or a few key companies control one level of the industry: production, distribution, or exhibition. Three types of horizontal integration are therefore possible. Vertical integration occurs when one company internally has production, distribution, and exhibition resources. Thus, a newspaper company is a vertically integrated organization as it produces the newspaper itself, distributes the newspaper to circulation managers it employs, and exhibits the newspaper via a home delivery system using carriers.
At the turn of the millennium, the comic book industry is dominated by two types of horizontal integration. Oligopolistic integration occurs at the production level, and near monopolistic integration occurs at the distribution level.
Horizontal Integration of Comic Book Production
One way to determine the degree of concentration in an industry is to look at market share: to what extent is industry revenue controlled by a few companies? By this standard, the comic book industry is characterized by an oligopoly at the production level. The direct market accounts for about 80% of all new comic books sold. In 1997, the “Big Two” companies controlled over 60% of direct market sales— Marvel Entertainment Group, Inc. (33%) and DC Comics (28%).
Image Comics, created in the early 1990s, accounted for 17%, and Dark Horse rang up 6%. The other 16% was divided among the 496 smaller publishers. This large number of publishers is deceptive, however, because more than a third of them only published one issue of one comic book during 1997 (Miller, 1998b). In mass market retail outlets, such as in Wal-Mart, the Big Two historically dominate even more (Stuempfig, 1994b).
Although figures can vary widely from month to month, both DC and Marvel’s direct market share probably increased in the late 1990s, or at the very least stayed level. In August 1992, for example, the two 20 McAllister combined controlled 56% of comic book shop sales. The increased/ sustained concentration has occurred mainly for two reasons, the first being publisher and talent acquisitions by the Big Two. In November 1994 Marvel increased its share of comic sales by acquiring Malibu Comics, which publishes the popular Ultraverse titles (Thompson, 1994), and controlled about 5% of the market before the acquisition (Stuempfig, 1994b). A similar move took place in 1998, when DC bought WildStorm Studios, formerly affiliated with Image comics (Miller, 1999a). The second, more significant, reason concerned sales trends. As noted above, beginning in mid-1993 the comic book industry entered a “bust” period in which direct market sales were halved. The “boom” period that had helped the comics industry in the early 1990s was fueled largely by comics investors—those who bought large quantities of the same issue of certain comics hoping these books would increase in value. In 1993, as publishers played to the investor market with manufactured “special issues,” the investor market became oversaturated and collapsed (see, for instance, Bryant, 1998; Evanier, 1996). As a result of economic hardship, many midrange publishers such as Acclaim, Defiant, Innovation, and Eclipse ceased publishing comics.
However, just looking at market share is not an adequate measure of industry concentration. One should also consider “strategic alliances” in the industry, in which direct ownership is not a factor but competition between separate companies is nevertheless suspended while they share resources for special projects (Mosco, 1996). If industry leaders are involved, such joint ventures accentuate the economic concentration in an industry. Such alliances often undermine the diversity and innovation that economic competition brings, as the dominant companies create connections and partnerships for their mutual benefit.
In comics, the most common version of the strategic alliance is the inter-publisher cross-over—a story or series of stories where the characters of one publisher interact (translated as fight in the comics world) with characters from another publisher. Such strategic alliances have exploded in the mid-1990s. There were at least 29 different publisher cross-overs in 1996 involving 17 different publishers (Pearson & Miller, 1996). By far the most publicized of the cross-overs was the one involving the two industry leaders, DC and Marvel. Using a Ownership Concentration 21 reader polling system to determine readers, the Marvel vs. DC books (published by Marvel) and DC vs. Marvel books (published by DC), featured such contests as Superman versus the Hulk and Captain America versus Batman (‘DC takes on Marvel,’ 1995). Other crossovers, between the two companies as well as between Marvel and the third-place leader in the industry, Image, followed. As one industry observer noted, ‘Things got out of hand when the Punisher met Archie—yes, that Archie’ (Voger, 1997, p. 56). …
It would be kind of nice to have ownership that allows us to have a longer term viewpoint. It’s difficult to have long-term planning when you don’t know who your owner is going to be and what direction or strategy they would have for the company. You have to be careful that you’re looking ahead, but you also have to be careful that you’re not doing anything that someone would want to come in and undo. (O’Neill, 1998) Finally, the Marvel fiasco also highlighted a very real effect of modern corporate life: a dichotomy between ‘haves and have nots.’ To cut expenses during its downturn, Marvel laid off 40 employees in January 1996, 115 employees in November 1996, and several more in October 1998 (“Marvel to cut,” 1996; Thompson, 1996; Miller, 1999a). This is in contrast to Ronald Perelman, who made an Ownership Concentration 33 estimated $50 million off the sale of Marvel bonds, and who, according to Forbes, was the 16th richest American at the height of the financial crisis (“Anticipated End-of-Year losses,” 1996; Norris, 1996).
It is also in contrast to Scott Sassa, the former CEO of Marvel hired the same month as the November 1996 layoffs. Near the time Marvel filed for bankruptcy protection, Sassa reportedly paid $10 million for a Manhattan townhouse (Dean, 1997a).
Such is the picture that a political economy analysis paints of the comic book industry, especially during the 1990s. Increased concentration at both the production and distribution levels undermines innovation by stressing economic predictability (and the conventionality that accompanies such predictability, such as violent superhero story lines), and disadvantages smaller publishers and retailers. Real and perceived economic instability may prevent new voices and resources from entering the industry and may cost the industry some of its most ideologically complex publishers. In addition, the movement toward licensing and synergy also promotes a mainstreamed, superhero version of content while also encouraging a ‘home run’ mentality that may weaken comics producers.
Although the picture is grim, the industry is still very much in flux, and the future direction of the industry is not determined. The industry has had time to adjust to the financial upheaval of 1995 and 1996. Marvel achieved economic stability by the end of the 1990s, decreasing its corporate debt by divesting itself of such assets as Panini and SkyBox (‘Marvel Sells,’ 1999; ‘Topps Lands,’ 1999).
There were also signs of industry-wide recovery (Miller, 1999b). In terms of diversity, the ease of physically publishing a comic book has created more publishers than ever before, even if a large percentage of these publishers release only one issue. The Internet has also become an outlet for comic art, granting international distribution possibilities for those with access to a server. Perhaps new visions of what the comics have the potential to do can find and open new cracks in the market.” Matthew McCallister, “Ownership Concentration in the U.S. Comic Book Industry;” Chapter Two in Comics & Ideology, 2001
And when you start with mixed and equal schooling, in a society where the school is also the meeting house, the club, the dance hall – the very focus of young life – how do you prevent people from approaching and at last accepting the final equality of love and marriage?
The Custom of the Country, edited by David Meghan, is absorbing because the reporting is so vivid, but it is also disturbing because it is so honest. We see into the mind of an educated, liberally disposed humanitarian confronted by the daily life of people in the South who happen to be black. About 165 of the original letters touch on race relations between 1946 and 2003. The editor has selected 47 here, of which 44 have not previously been available in book form. As he writes in his discerning introduction to the selection, some observers might have ducked the ugly truth of racial injustice in the South. Alistair Cooke does not. Some of his admirers will wish he had. Cooke’s abiding love of the romance of the South collides with the realities of Jim Crow. He indicts the sins of white supremacists whose segregationist policies are “conceived in hate and spawn illiteracy”; he condemns the “evil delinquents” who spat on the black schoolgirl entering Little Rock; but he exhibits an excess of understanding for the South’s historic excuses. He adopts, as his own, the position of the ruling elites that if the critics would just leave them alone, they’d gradually enter the civilized world. Instead of a cry of pain at the manifold oppressions over decades, we get from Cooke an eloquent cry for tolerance of the intolerable.
These are not sentiments that would win Cooke the sophisticated following he had in his heyday – but that is precisely why this collation is so valuable. Cooke’s own feelings are a remarkable portrait of white liberal opinion at the time – North as well as South. I know his observations to be right on the mark because I followed in Cooke’s footsteps. He was a native of Lancashire in the north of England who won a Harkness Fellowship, a kind of reverse Rhodes scholarship, for two years of study and travel in the U.S. Me, too. Cooke began his travels in the mid-thirties, when pictures of Franklin Roosevelt were the only decoration in the sharecroppers’ tarpaper shacks. I started across the country 20 years later. In economic terms, the ebullient (“I like Ike”) fifties were wholly different from the Depression era of Cooke’s travels; in human terms, the country had not changed at all. The black population in the South was still stuck where it had been since Reconstruction, suppressed in one-party white dictatorships dedicated to white supremacy in 17 Southern and Border States. Negroes, as they were still called, had access only to degraded services and employment, segregated in schools, colleges, hospitals, churches, parks, swimming pools, restaurants, restrooms, streetcars, waiting rooms, elevators, theaters, cinemas, libraries, beauty parlors, bowling alleys, prisons and cemeteries. In many parts of the Deep South they risked their lives if they wanted to vote, and were certain to be convicted of anything a white man alleged against them.
Most Americans, decade after decade, never gave a moment’s thought to the indignities and injustices. Ralph Ellison’s introspective novel The Invisible Man, which came out in 1952, described what it was like to be looked through as if you were as transparent as air. White Americans, north and south, did not “see” the national predicament of the Negro when they hailed a graying “boy” for their bags at the hotel, never noticed that there wasn’t a single black face in the church and on the sports field. They weren’t all racists. They were just oblivious, as Cooke was oblivious in his early years in America. The empathy thought characteristic of his work was absent for people in what he chose to call “darktown.”
Cooke recoils from bigotry and violence. He blames the outrages in the South on the “white trash”, and there were certainly a fair portion of goons among them, but he quite fails to appreciate that the mores and practices of society were set by the elites who charmed him as they charmed me so many years later. “Leave the South alone. We’ll solve our ‘problems’ in our own good time. We understand our ‘nigras’.” I heard it as frequently as he must have 25 years before. Their own “good time” had still not arrived. In the South, the distinctiveness of individuals and publications regarded as enlightened was not that they favored desegregation – they didn’t – it was that they were opposed to lynching and the poll tax. The business and community leaders in the White Citizens’ Councils forswore violence while they organized civil repression – the denial of work, credit, supplies, housing, and of course the vote. As for reform, everywhere in the country, north as well as south, the condescending assumption was that improvement in the condition of the black population would come as today’s good deed from white patronage. Almost no one in the mainstream anticipated that the blacks would lead a civil rights movement, whereupon even leading powers in America’s vaunted free press – North and South – got into a fret that their fellow citizens were demanding rights they themselves had always taken for granted as the air they breathed. They tended to deplore “extremism” on both sides, equating the white mob with the non-violent activists. The attitude began to change after the spectacular March on Washington in August 1963, followed the next month by the Birmingham church bombing.
It bothers me, as no doubt it will bother his many admirers, that over a span of years Cooke’s letters about race reveal less sensitivity for the feelings of the powerless minority than they do for the apprehensions of the majority who could summon the coercive powers of the state. I like to think that a generation later he would have felt as discomfited, even angry, as I did. The notes I took at the time, which found their way into my autobiography (My Paper Chase), reflect a deep aversion to the “customs of the country” he’d defended. Perish the thought that I was merely vindicating Cooke’s charge that for lack of self-examination I was one of those liberals who could not resist “the gorgeous impulse towards self-righteousness.” (I was certainly naïve in assuring my Southern hosts that black immigration would never ruffle British society.) At the same time, the letters do suggest a certain evolution in Cooke’s attitude. One intriguing clue David Meghan came upon was in Letter 734, broadcast in 1962. Cooke typed: “I believe with all my heart (I am not quite sure about my head) in the sense and the sanity of having Negroes enjoy the basic political rights that the Constitution boasts…”
But Meghan did not find the chilling parenthetical caveat in the broadcast archives. Second thoughts had prevailed at the microphone. And in two passages I’ve put together from 1994 and 1997 he wrote and spoke of his misgiving:
I marvel sometimes to look back and realize how painlessly, how casually we – a stranger like myself – took for granted this strict social separation as – well, simply the custom of the country.
It struck me as strange at first but then I knew that President Franklin was an uncommonly far-seeing and compassionate leader, but I doubt he ever lost a moment’s sleep thinking about the white signs and colored signs “only” in railroad waiting rooms, public toilets, the galleries, for Negroes only, in theaters – the wholly white worlds of baseball, football, eating, golf. To think of Roosevelt (or, if you’ll excuse the expression, of me) as crassly insensitive and prejudiced is to make the same mistake as calling Thomas Jefferson a hypocrite because he proclaimed to the death his concern for human liberty and yet kept slaves. It is the cruel mistake of judging a man outside his time.
The letters are, in fact, a literary dramatization of a serious and sensitive observer living what Gunnar Myrdal called The American Dilemma, the conflict between the egalitarian American Creed and the inequitable reality of black life. The South did not have a monopoly of prejudice. Some 63 percent of Americans were opposed to the non-violent protests of the Freedom Riders in the civil rights movement’s summer of 1961. The New York Times tut-tutted that they were “’challenging not only long-held customs but passionately held feelings.’ Time magazine called it ‘a confused crusade.’ How many today remember that an entire succession of future presidents – Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush vigorously, and Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford vaguely – opposed part or all of the three major bills of the period: the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1968 Fair Housing Act? They became law because decent opinion yielded to the moral imperatives of Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon Johnson, two leaders foremost in challenging the obduracy of received wisdom.
Alistair Cooke’s delayed drop should be a jolt to the complacencies of today. Even with a black president, we are still witnessing the fulfillment of the prescient Senator Patrick Moynihan’s prediction that black poverty, crime and low educational achievement would continue without jobs, retraining and a restoration of black family life.” Harold Evans, “Letters Reveal a Troubling Side of Alistair Cooke,” 2012