Identity Crisis: Finding Congregational Tradition in the Disciples of Christ Church

Identity is a precarious thing. We are who we are by and through relationships with other people, past events in one’s life, and a look toward what a person might or might not want to be in the future. Mix a little heredity and cultural influence, and you have an identity, for better or worse. That is, identity is made of up both your own choice of who and what you want to be, but also is heavily influenced by the world and people around you. Feminist theorist Judith Butler sees identity as a stage on which we perform ourselves, where “stylized repetition of acts” produce who we are (Performative Acts, 1988). In this way, our birth or past – Butler speaks in terms of gender formation – doesn’t necessarily determine who we are, if at all; instead, our identity is filtered through our gestures, actions, language (both bodily and vocally), and (re)enactments within our social context. I think one of the primary places we can see this identity formation at work is within the Church, a social context exploding with cultural influence, physical gestures, symbolic actions, and ‘stylized repetitive acts’ of language and worship with others.

Looking at identity in this way, how in the world does a church, a gathering of people with their own inner struggles and opinions, come to have a unified identity? This fickle, loosely affiliated gathering of people held together by the fingertips of their hopes and needs for sociality and “something more” – how does it become something more than its parts?

I have been struggling to find identity in my church, a church within the Disciples of Christ tradition, one that broke from the Presbyterian church some decades ago in an attempt to get back to the roots of Christianity, to pure discipleship, while simultaneously getting away from the that which impedes discipleship – ritual, creedal statements, and “empty” ceremony – leaving only a confession of (1) Jesus as resurrected Lord, (2) ecumenism, (3) baptism by immersion, and (4) weekly communion as our identifying elements. What the Disciples of Christ were left with are vital and foundational facets of Christianity, but what they tried to leave behind was quite a bit of tradition and “ceremony” that had its own place among the building blocks of the church. The result was a denomination that was beautifully congregational, with loose hierarchy and to-the-point theological language, one that pushed welcoming all, constricted doctrinal points to promote unity among disagreement, in which, if you had those few elements and stuck with them, you could be a church and do it faithfully.

Within this framework, the Disciples of Christ are open and welcoming toward traditional liturgy, and many churches incorporate and utilize the long-standing Catholic and Anglican liturgical tradition in diverse ways. The flip side to this coin is that there is little continuity between churches, even less hierarchical influence on what and when to be liturgically and theological traditional, and almost no reasoning to why we choose to highlight one part of tradition or worship style over something else. For example, the use of liturgical colors and the observance of the Church Calendar is completely optional, varying greatly from church to church, especially in my home state, North Carolina.

The benefits and setbacks of this liturgical (and theological) freedom is what spurs my question, ‘how can a church be something more than it parts?’. Better put, how can a church that gets to choose what it does wrangle their needs and wants under an umbrella of continuity with what has come before, get back to the basics without demeaning the ritual and liturgy that helps articulate those basics, and how can people whose identity as individual autonomous actors perform together on the church stage? How do we tell people who we are without the answer being “a little of this, and a little of that.”

The easy answer to this question would be tradition. Liturgy, hymns, ritual practices like communion and baptism, accompanied by repeated words and traditional assumptions regarding worship and life together all contribute to a sense of collective identity; an identity that lives and works with what has come before and looks forward through the lens of prior conviction of those who paved the way and pushed the church to the present point. St. Tertullian said it in a different way – “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” – but still gets the point across that those before, along with their tradition and tireless work, have made possible the very creation and sustention of the church.

And I am not here to say that tradition cannot also be something contemporary, but it still needs to be checked lest we do whatever feels right, or use that meaningless phrase, “Well, that is just the way we have always done it.” The challenge that I face is taking in “what we have always done,” especially in a Disciples church that welcomes newness and fresh perspectives, while also stressing the need to ask ourselves, “why do we do this? What impact does it have? Why does this matter in our relationships together under Christ? What message might this convey? What worshipful symbolism can this hold?” With tradition, we can answer the ‘why’ of our communion actions, even if we want to throw those actions away. But if we replace those actions, we fill it with another thoughtful, liturgical, and theological ‘why.’

Like tradition, Butler suggests that on the individual level, we do not necessarily have an identity, but we “do” or “perform” an identity. On a collective level, that is the message of Christianity, and the value of liturgy – that what we do (together) fundamentally shapes who we are and what we can become. And in line with Butler, this collective “doing” cuts across those constructions which might break us apart – gender, race, and political allegiance – without destroying the individual. Thus, (re)enacting and (re)producing the Lord’s Table, or saying the Apostles Creed in unison moves individuals toward becoming something together, actually affects the constitution of our being.

We need things that are significant, that signify something more than us, and that symbolize a “why” as much as a repetition. When we having nothing to reproduce, or when we limit what we can re(enact), say, or remember together, then we quite literally limit who we can be, and how collective we can become. That is to say, we can only be so much of a “church” if we don’t do more church.

My Walking Dead Article is Published!

Last night, AMC’s The Walking Dead returned with bang, beating out the NFL with 17.3 million viewers attached to their couches to watch Rick and the gang fight the hungry people of Terminus. A couple weeks ago, ThePublicSphere.com published an article I wrote concerning the similarities between The Walking Dead and the current immigration crisis in Texas. Adding the Ebola crisis only makes it more relevant. I hope you will check it out.

http://thepublicsphere.com/roaming-land-immigration-crisis-walking-dead/

Life after Death: Coping with Loss as a Christian in HBO’s “The Leftovers”

HBO’s “The Leftovers” has become one of my favorite shows of the year. After an apparent rapture of 2% of the world population, the show details the difficulty its characters have moving on from this “departure,” and attempts not to answer what happened or why, but “what now?”. I think this show can teach us something about coping with death, especially as Christians.

The truth is American Christians have been riveted by stories of the apocalypse for decades now.  If this craze were a house, zombie horror movies in the 80s and 90s laid the foundation, Timothy LaHayes’ widely read Left Behind book series built the house, and AMC’s The Walking Dead raised twins and a spaniel in it. I think Christians are particularly adept to loving these shows and the overall narrative in the apocalypse genre for a few reasons: we actually think resurrection exists and is possible (even if we don’t act like it); we like to prey upon shows with any resemblance of Christian symbolism and imagery, even if it’s actually not there (I am guilty of this); and, maybe most importantly, we like to say these violent and bleak shows and movie have Christian motifs so we can warrant our obsession with something that is so morbid and mostly unimportant. Christians just can’t admit that we like to be entertained by things more interesting than Kirk Cameron’s movies.

The Leftovers has all of these draws. It’s fun to watch, gives you something to think about, and makes you question what a faith in anything looks like in the midst of such despair and confusion.  However, there are some serious differences, differences that I think set apart The Leftovers from the usual ramblings of apocalypse narrative that we Christians bandwagon.

Unlike zombie films and popular renditions of resurrection and life after death, The Leftovers is not about dead people coming back to life, or what happened to people who vanished in rapture-esque manner. It is about people who have lost loved ones to reasons unknown and what their lives look like as they try to cope and move one from this loss. Because no one knows where “the departed” went or what happened to them, there is a strong focus on the unraveling of lives trying to live with such questions. It show characters who try to date again after their spouse poofed into thin air; daughters who deal with their parents divorce after one of them joins a cult dedicated to smoking cigarettes, silence, and constant reminding of the departed; and sons who go looking for hope and truth in those who claim to have it, and being let down when they realize they truth doesn’t exist.

The shows still focuses on life after death that is so popular in resurrection/apocalypse narratives, but just not in the ways we are used to. “Life after death” for The Leftovers means actually looking at people’s lives after they experience death; it diverts our eyes away from those who die and find life again to those who witness death and have to live with it everyday. The attention in not to the miraculous return to life, but the daily grind of life itself. If The Leftovers was a story about Jesus, it wouldn’t be a gospel detailing Jesus’ miraculous return to earth or his ascension, but about the disciples who were left behind with feelings of abandonment and questions of “what next?”.

And that is exactly the questions that The Leftovers thinks matters. Not “Why?” but “What now?”. The show challenges us to think about the everyday struggle of moving on, of trying to get over what seemed impossible.

And we should be reminded that impossible things happen to each of us everyday. Three years ago my father took his own life, an action that still seems absolutely unreal and with which I am still trying to live. The truth is that death happens everyday and shatters our entire worlds, making it hard to carry on and imparting grief that seldom rests. As many of us experience, even as Christians try to profess hope in death it is hard to look any other direction than despair when we are faced with loss, even if there are better things we hope for like Heaven.

I appreciate that The Leftovers deals with the daily musings of what it’s like to live with and after death, not zombies, angels, and little kids who see God. I think this approach is more helpful, more authentic to human experience, and, honestly, far less corny.

The Leftovers shows us the dark side of the reality of resurrection and life after death. By giving an alternate view of “rapture,’ we are reminded that our obsession with apocalypse narratives has us looking in the wrong direction. The view of life on the ground is much more important and interesting, one that helps us move on to what’s next. Although an afterlife is a hope many of us share, we can’t forget about the dangers of focusing on it too much. Frankly, resurrection should scare us to death.

Geoff John’s Comments on why Superman is “The Most Relatable Character Ever,” and Why He’s Wrong

I been posting my thoughts on Superman’s super-ness over the last few weeks in my series, “Capes and Flags.” One of my points was that Superman embodies, even though he is an alien, what we like the think of as a human ideal – the perfect human body and moral code. This idealism is what I find quite alarming for two reasons: (1) What about us who are not white, male, muscular, handsome, and (questionably) morally exemplary?; and (2) we must consider, then, what effect Superman’s idealism has had on American culture and the adolescent minds over the last 80 years of his existence as a comics icon and a feature film star.

I say all of this in the respect to the recent comments by Geoff Johns, the mastermind behind the new Superman comics series, “The Men of Tomorrow,” and Chief Creative Officer at DC Comics. Johns said that Superman’s ideal is something beautiful and that he is the most relatable character ever. Here are few quotes from his interview over at ComicBookResources.com:

“Superheroes — I like to call them “good junk food.” On the surface, they look like they’re candy and they’re popcorn, but I think they embody ideals that all of us get drawn to. Especially Superman. You know exactly how Superman’s going to act. I think he’s one of the easiest characters to write, because you know exactly what he’s going to do.

 

“I think it’s important to keep these characters alive, because they do inspire people. Especially this one. This is the most inspiring super out there.

 

“Everyone’s like, “He’s so powerful, I can’t relate to him.” Are you kidding me? He’s the most relatable character ever. He grew up on a farm, he doesn’t have a lot of friends, feels isolated, he can’t tell everybody what his secrets are. He’s a great character. He feels overlooked — who hasn’t felt overlooked, or wanted to connect with people? All social media is, is people wanting to connect with other people. That’s all it is. Because people long to connect with other people. And Superman is the embodiment of that. He’s more relevant now than ever.”

Johns’ sentiment is respectable, especially considering his attempt to flesh out the humanity of Superman in recent comics. However, The reasons he gives for Superman’s relatability fall short considering what I have briefly detailed above, and what you can find in my other posts. Sure, he is from a farm, but he embodies the city and its technology, able to overcome its dangers and fight its crime. His isolation is no doubt relatable, but only if you take away his great power as the cause of his loneliness and replace it with fear, rejection, and weakness that normal humans, me and you, feel and have to deal with. In this way, Superman as an icon of the small town farmer, the one who is lonely, and those of us who are cast-out and overlooked, simply doesn’t work. Real human pain, I want to suggests, cannot be relatable if it has to be first filtered through great power that then causes pain and some arbitrary form of weakness. Superman is not truly weak, nor is his truly from a farm; the only reason his is overlooked is because he is borderline narcissistic about his self-sacrifice for the sake of others (primarily women; I should say, primarily women he loves and feels need his protection). Last years “Man of Steel” movie came as a prime reminder that Superman is hard to make relatable, even if you give him Kevin Costner’s ideals and a every-man’s hairy chest.

Most people think Superman brings hope to and something to which us fallen human can aspire (just listen to Russel Crowes’ words in the trailer for “Man of Steel”), that the Man of Tomorrow is what we people of today are reaching for, that Superman serves as a Christ-figure showing us the way, or at least giving us hope for being better. Now this all sounds great and powerful, and maybe it is on the surface; but underneath, as I have argued in my earlier posts, it’s simply a way to cover over very realistic pain and tragedy with masculine salvation.

And for those who think Superman is a Christ-figure: remember that Jesus died on a cross as a homeless man who was betrayed by all his friends, and, if you believe as much, resurrected still with scars intact. Jesus was so not-super it killed him, so intimately human that his story has lasted 2,000 years.  I think we all can relate to that guy regardless of our faith, but maybe not so much to the good-looking Superman that Geoff Johns’ is talking about.

Capes and Flags, Part 3: Superman’s “Manly” Salvation and The Rest of Us

In my last post, I explained how superheroes’ bodies matter, especially in the way that they serve as stand-ins for our fears and anxieties, beings who are able to overcome the things to which us normal people must bow down. Some of these fears included being blown up by bombs in WWI and II, being irradiated, falling off buildings, and, most of all, to ease the physiological burden of those moving from the rural country to the technological metropolises. I also pulled heavily on Scott Bukatman’s work to say that the way superheroes’ bodies look, are colored, and what nationality they identify are the driving force of comics and movies. In this way, superheroes embody not only our worst fears, but our most devastating biases, whether they be sexist, racist, or nationalistic.  What I want to deal with in Part 3 of my series “Capes and Flags” is how people relate masculinity with salvation, and the effects this relation has on things like racial and gender bias. Better put, if superheroes help us deal with our fears and embody our political concerns, how do they do so, and why is this protection usually overly masculine?

It’s probably best to start with Bukatman again, since he is my most respected authority on superhero bodies and their masculine tendencies.Warding off these insecurities happens only insofar as the superhero becomes what Bukatman calls an “armored body,” a body that creates a boundary that protects the hero from outside imposition.[1] Like a military soldier in war, the superhero must armor himself from destructive forces, both mentally and physically. The superhero’s body is militarized, disciplined and formed to work as a part of the larger political machine, to accomplish its purposes and resist any other order(s).[2] The armored superbody, therefore, becomes hyper-masculine: it grows huge muscles, dominating stature, and/or supreme brilliance. The superhero’s body becomes rigid and impenetrable, protecting itself from the danger of being killed by outside destructive forces and bodily emotions.

Take Henry Cavill’s Superman in last year’s “Man of Steel.” As the picture below shows, a super human looks undeniably like a very muscular, hairy man. So the question becomes, does Superman have big muscles and demonstrate powerful maleness because that is simply how his creators envisioned him, or is there a need for our imagining of a super being to look like a Greek God. What I want to argue is that we humans, especially of the American flavor, cannot envision a super being that isn’t ripped with a six-pack and hyper-masculine.

Superman-The-Man-of-Steel-Movie-bearded-Clark-Kent-by-actor-Henry-Cavill

Superhero fiction shapes the armored body as the masculine, impenetrable body, and, therefore, shapes the feminine as the evil, destructive force that threatens the armored body. Spider-Man and other heroes are constantly afraid to love because it will cloud their judgment or put others in danger, a temptation always enacted by the woman. If the superheroes’ armored bodies marks masculinity, then the woman embodies the fear of being penetrated, and thus destroyed. Even female superheroes are no exception in that they most often end up looking and acting like their male counterparts while they undoubtedly indulge male fantasies.[3] The female superhero becomes more like a cosmetic reconstruction of the male.[4] Bukatman’s notices that superhero fiction confronts the consumer “with an aggressive hyper masculinity that depends upon a ruthless suppression or an obliteration of the feminine” and attempts to ground one’s subjectivity in and around the masculine armored body.[5] In this, notions of femininity become tied to that which threatens the superbody. The armored body constitutes itself over and against flowing bodies – the masculine against the feminine.

A wonderful, yet horrifying example of this evil, feminine body in opposition to the armored body comes in the form of Batman’s arch-nemesis, The Joker. The guy wears makeup, is oddly in love with Batman, and has a keen eye for bright and flashy colors. He is the opposite of a hardened, serious fighter with muscles like Batman and Superman; instead, he laughs and tricks and dances around. He is the flowing body set against Batman’s armored shell. Wearing makeup, laughing, and dancing are not bad things, but they become associated with evil and weakness after constantly being attached to insane character like The Joker. (Greg Hunter wrote a great piece on The Joker’s sexuality over at The Comics Journal. You should check it out.

isjokergay2

Consequent to the masculine, armored body, the woman lies outside of the social norm, only making her way back in through, like the female superhero, embodying or completing masculine fantasy. Wonder Woman, for example, looks more like a teenage male sexual fantasy, with more muscles than the average body builder.

Like the woman, Bukatman’s primary focus is on the bodies that threaten and lay outside the social norm of the armored masculine. He calls these bodies “X-bodies”: “Marginal beings” who “pose a question and a threat to the social body” who either must be reincorporated or marked with an “X’ to brand their difference.[6] Superhero fiction most often represents these x-bodies as mutants – freaks of nature whose bodies, while possibly armored, are uncontrollable and risk erupting (a mark of the feminine) the stable body politic.[7] Cyclops, for example, has a flowing body that is tormented by the risk of his power erupting from his eyes uncontrollably. These bodies are constantly undergoing modes of assimilation, but where inclusion fails, they must be eradicated because of their threat to social norms.[8]

Bukatman is right to connect mutant bodies to real, marginalized bodies in modernity, where the feminine is only a subcategory of the greater community of intolerable bodies: “Mutant bodies are explicitly analogized to Jewish bodies, gay bodies, adolescent bodies, Japanese or Native or African American Bodies – they are, first and foremost, subjected and subjugated and colonized figures.”[9] All of these enslaved identities, whether inhabited by a man or not, undergo a kind of feminization that sets them apart from what it means to be a masculine male. Therefore, these marginal identities become a threat to the normalized body and call for exclusion or eradication.

This affects those of us who watch superhero movies and read comics, however subtlety, teaching us what looks acceptable and rejectable. If Superman is how we envision perfection, then what about those of us who are not muscular . . . or white? If strength and, most often, wealth are monikers of power and respect, what about those who are poor and weak? If being strong, dominant, and impenetrable is salvific, what about those of us who have been wounded or view the world from a wheelchair? If a super man is a white, straight, chiseled, male, then what does that make me?

These are but a few questions we should be asking about current superhero films and narrative. Still, it is helpful to talk a bit more about how this works psychologically, that is, what is the actual effect of watching these things having on our political views, desires, and ideas. My next post will deal with this important question. I will argue specifically how superheroes and their literary mediums work to form who we are in the same way that our worship, prayers, and liturgies at Church seeks influence the way we think and live.

[1] Bukatman borrows this term from the work of Klaus Theweleit; Bukatman, 55.

[2] Bukatman, 55.

[3] Bukatman, 66.

[4] Bukatman, 66.

[5] Bukatman, 61.

[6] Bukatman, 69.

[7] Bukatman, 68-9.

[8] This is the overarching theme in Brian Singer’s “X-Men” movies.

[9] Bukatman, 73.