Monday, March 24, 2008

Performance Artists

Recently, I was listening to a pastor friend give a sermon. A normal Sunday sermon. And with the Internet I can listen to pastors all over the world give their weekly sermons. In fact, what with the Internet and my interest in collecting damning evidence on pastors, I could spend all my waking hours listening to sermons on the Internet and not ever get a bit of work done.

If I liked. A fine entertainment. And still have thousands—no doubt tens of thousands of weekly sermons in English—out there that I hadn’t sampled.

But I was listening to this particular pastor who is. How shall I say this? Who likes to be cute. Who likes the role of the pastor as comedian. As comedic character. Who relishes the contrast of his bumbling, semi-literate presentations with the subject—the grandeur of God.

I figure he doesn’t sense that he is up to the grandeur of God himself. So he plays the opposite end of that continuum of being. He plays the buffoon. The clown. A bit of a Honeymooners sort of a character. An Ed Norton of the sanctuary, if you will.

I don’t know which is worse, though, Ed Norton or Sherlock Holmes. Have you ever had a pastor like Sherlock Holmes? Quite full of himself. Full of his rapier-like mind and encyclopedic knowledge. And all of that on display.

And bored? God, is he bored. Bored with his own brilliance. His own brilliant performances. Profoundly read. Supremely articulate. Austere. Extravagantly well mannered and courteous. Never impolite.

I’ve experienced both sorts of pastors and all kinds in between and on either side. And still I wonder what the problem is.

I wonder what may be going on here. Why these people end up being such. Oh. Targets. Such big bright round red targets for me. Why they seem to beg me to let them have it. Let fly with all I’ve got.

As I’ve hinted before, it certainly has to do with something peculiar in me. No doubt whatsoever about that. Some lack or some defect or some less than honorable motive. But there also seems to be something in them. Something that calls out to the lampooner in me. The general-purpose fault-finder in me.

And I don’t know. I really am unsure of this. But here it is. These people. Most of them. Think what they must do is perform for us. They have got the idea somewhere that what their job is, is to perform. To entertain. To make us laugh, make us cry, make us squirm, make us think, make us admire, make us gasp. Their job is to impress us some way. And their job is to make the performance memorable. Make it compelling.

Their job is to get us to say to our friends, Oh boy, you should have heard my pastor So-And-So the other day! Wow! Was he. Was she. You fill in the blank. Remarkable some way. Extraordinary some way. Brilliant. Funny. Insightful. Amazing. Whatever.

This pressure they feel to perform. I don’t know. It seems off the mark. It seems like God doesn’t really get into this. Isn’t really into performances and performance art and into TV or movies or standup or after-dinner speaking or circus tents or even music videos as the dominant metaphors for how he wants to communicate with us.

And so what I’m thinking is, maybe this is as much about us as it is about them. Maybe their performance neurosis is really the objective correlative of our own performance neurosis. Maybe these guys are just living out our anxiety. Living out our performance anxiety. And therefore doing what we have, through conscious or unconscious hints and suggestions, basically told them to do.

Perform for us, we seem to say. Otherwise, we’ll take a nap. Otherwise we won’t give you our money. Otherwise, we’ll change the channel or the URL and bring up some other pastor somewhere else.

And as I’m thinking about this. As I’m writing about this. I remember a story I read decades ago. A story about a performer who ends up perishing when he takes his performance art all the way home. This is a performer who starves himself for notoriety and fame. Who begins by fasting for forty days and nights.

And who ends by starving himself to death. In a cage in the circus. Finally unnoticed. Unremarked upon in his final performance. And he’s replaced by. I think it was a panther. The name of the story is A Hunger Artist, by Franz Kafka.

And I’m wondering whether there isn’t something fundamental here. I’m wondering whether in a performance oriented culture. A culture in which we measure the value of one another and ourselves by the excellence of our performances. Whether we aren’t actively dismantling.

Every time we enter a church. Every time we ask a pastor to officiate in some fashion. To perform in some fashion. Whether we aren’t diminishing the possibility of the love and the hope and the comfort and the tenderness and the forgiveness and the generosity and the faithfulness that we can only find in God.

I’m wondering whether we aren’t all colluding in distracting ourselves from God. You know? Agreeing to have expectations. Agreeing to play certain roles in certain ways. Agreeing to value certain kinds of things and devalue other kinds of things.

All so that we make it impossible for God to get through. Impossible for God to penetrate all the noise we make. For God to be heard above the circus environment we have constructed around ourselves and within ourselves.

An entertainment sensibility. A performance culture. That demands attention to the performance above all. Above everything. Certainly above the unobvious. Certainly above the subtle. Certainly above God.

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