Going out of the way to be uncomfortable

Going out of the way to be uncomfortable (Smells Like Spirit column)
(Originally published in PULP)

I’m a sucker for nearly any reality show in which participants undergo a radical transformation. I love the big payoff at the end of the Biggest Loser season; I watch American Idol like a tweenie fan; and I’m man enough to admit I’m a total sucker for a makeover.

That’s why, when Morgan Spurlock, creator and star of the documentary film Super Size Me, started a new TV series called 30 Days, I was hooked before I even saw the pilot.

The show follows the same sort of immersive, autobiographical documentary style as his film, placing people in situations unlike their typical environment for a month and watching how they respond, generally with some thread of social commentary at the core. In the first show, he and his girlfriend got minimum wage jobs and tried to live below the poverty line, with very sobering results.

But we pulled up on Netflix two more recent shows from the first season, both of which I think should be required viewing in all Christian churches. The first placed a traditional evangelical in Dearborn, Mich., to live with a Muslim family in a heavily Muslim neighborhood for 30 days. The second sent a good ol’ boy from the Nebraska farmland to live in the Castro district in San Francisco, commonly known as “the gayest place on the planet.”

In both cases, the men came in with strong preconceptions about — or against — the groups with which they were to cohabitate, judgments generally originating from the media, popular stereotypes in culture and of course, their churches. By the end, both men, though not divested of their original faith, were radically reoriented in the way they thought about people they thought they understood.

No, the farm boy didn’t come home in leather chaps or with a suitcase full of sex toys, and the evangelical didn’t toss out his Bible to make room for his Quran (but he did put them on the shelf next to each other). Both seemed to fear as much would happen, simply by opening themselves up to a different experience.

What the show demonstrates most importantly is twofold: Most of the most painful divisions between us as individuals and groups originate in fear, and direct personal relationship is bigger than that same fear in most cases.

So how do we go about allowing for such important transformation to take place out front in front of a camera? It seems that we have to go out of our way to put ourselves in uncomfortable situations. Not a natural inclination, and certainly not a popular angle for churches desperate to fill their pews and coffers with happy congregants, but if we’re seriously about the business of social healing and reconciliation, what other choice do we have?

Sure, lots of churches offer mission trips to help out in places unlike our home towns, but, often, those sorts of service projects – where we feel we have something of value to bring to those we’re helping, and not the other way around – are an inherent setup for an imbalance of power.

Also, the sort of change we’re talking about doesn’t seem to take place in a weekend, or even in a weeklong trip. It’s been said that it takes doing something 21 times in a new way before old habits are broken. So maybe a minimum of three weeks is required.

Of course few, if any, of us has three weeks to give up in order to travel somewhere with the explicit goal of being changed. It’s against our nature to seek unfamiliarity and to consciously look for things to challenge our worldview, let alone using every bit of vacation we have to do it. So yeah, I’m a bit of an idealist, and there’s potential in the idea.

Every community has its share of diversity, be it economic, cultural, sexual or otherwise. Part of the whole intent is not just to be more willing to seek out direct engagement with different types of people, but to do so in the spirit of openness, acknowledging that perhaps our views could actually benefit from being stretched a little.

Consider yourself a little homophobic? Sit in on a few Equality Alliance or PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) meetings, or grab a cold one at the Pirate’s Cove, Pueblo’s only openly gay bar (that I know of, anyway).

Consider yourself to be agnostic or atheist? Go to church for a few months, not to become un-atheist, but to learn more about the thing you supposedly don’t believe in. Love your evangelical church? Check out a pagan festival or a Wiccan gathering, if there’s one open to the public.

The key question is: What can it hurt? Worst case, your preconceptions and objections are confirmed. Best case, you learn something, and maybe so do the folks with whom you engage. And if you’re really so worried about the potential change that may take place in yourself, maybe it’s worth wondering what the basis of your beliefs is in the first place.

After all, if a few encounters with the unfamiliar can bring your house of cards crashing down, it sounds like the raw material may not have had the soundest integrity to begin with.

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.