Hi and welcome back! I saw this post the other day and really liked what it had to say — even as I lamented what its author couldn’t perceive. Today, let me show you why nobody will ever convince evangelicals to be less cruel: they’ve found a performative brand of piety that lets them believe their own marketing about themselves without having to do all that tough work that goes along with real self-improvement.
(I don’t think I came up with the term ‘performative piety.’ Here’s a Christian blog post from August talking about the term. If you like his post, I talked about another of his a while ago. Also, emphases in quoted material always come from originals.)
“Rebuilding in the Ruins of Religion.”
I’ve just about got to admire the sheer optimism of a Christian blogger who writes a post about mean Christians, and then settles that post into a category called “rebuilding in the ruins of religion.” But that’s what Doug Hammack has done with his post “A Mean God. A Mean Religion.”
I mean, I’ve got a major category called “the games we play.” At the time, it sounded better than “hey y’all, check out all the wacky ways that we humans spend our finite lifetimes.” Though I wish I could say that this guy’s category runs along similar lines, it seems much more centered on trying to be a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ despite all the hypocrites around him. He pastors “a non-traditional church” that he says has found “the beauty under the ruins of religion.”
At his church, members try to figure out how to re-enact Original Christianity (as far as any modern Christian can manage that task, anyway, I reckon). They also dabble in the enneagram a little. We’ve talked about the enneagram — it’s just a kind of Christian horoscope-meets-shitty-personality-quiz that went all trendy a few years ago.
So this guy’s definitely an odd duck in terms of Christian leadership. I don’t completely disapprove, don’t get me wrong. Overall, his group sounds a lot nicer than evangelicals tend to be. And I do like how he put the Christian doctrine of original sin on blast.
I just don’t think it’s possible to really reform such a broken system as Christianity. It was designed from the ground up to allow adherents to engage in performative piety.
Performative Piety: Instead of Becoming Better People.
When we talk about performative piety, we mean people who perform religious devotions for audiences — and don’t perform unless there’s an audience. Instead of being transformed by an ideology that Christians all insist is innately transformative, they just act like they’ve been transformed.
But their real selves are still there under that thin veneer. In times of stress, the truth comes out. And at those times, we learn yet again that Christians are not in any way better than anybody else — even though their marketing promises us repeatedly that they should be.
Doug Hammack’s whole post seems to have come from his painful and apparently-late realization that Christianity doesn’t make Christians into better people. As he writes about watching the TV show Survivor with his kids:
But it [the show] also made me keenly aware of how often we Christians behave badly. Players spouting the holiest words were often the worst human beings. At first, I thought it was biased editing. However, as I started reading demographic studies, I began to understand, our religion is not making us better people.
What, it took “reading demographic studies?” According to his biography, he’s been working as a pastor since 1995, and yet he only realized the truth about Christianity and Christians when watching a reality-TV show — after some untold amount of time he spent bristling about “biased editing” from meaniepie Hollywood showrunners?
Why didn’t he just ask his non-Christian neighbors and acquaintances? Or if he has none of either, why not ask people online about it?
We could have told him an earful. We know exactly how far Christian piety goes, and how much of it is an act that dissolves on impact with temptation of any kind.
But okay, fine, Doug Hammack has finally figured out the truth about Christianity: people gravitate to whatever version of it suits them best. They build a version of Jesus they like best, regarding all other versions of Jesus as incorrect.
At least he got there eventually.
Why Evangelicals Like Their Mean God.
Evangelicals would do well to pay attention to Doug Hammack’s perspective.
But they won’t.
They’ve found an ideology that lets them claim easy victory and effortless superiority over others. Sure, it’s a false claim like all the rest they make. But it requires nothing from them beyond joining the evangelical Happy Pretendy Fun Time Game and following the tribe’s major rules — at least in public.
Just imagine! All that power and privilege to lord over others — for absolutely no real effort. What narcissistic, power-hungry jerk wouldn’t like that?
Best of all, the god presiding over this religion is quite dense. He can be fooled easily by performative piety.
A while ago, I lamented that evangelicals had created a whole system of substitute busy-work for the difficult (for them) labor of mending their tattered marriages.
The book I was reading at the time, The Love Dare, advised readers to perform dozens of meaningless busy-work tasks that usually didn’t even involve communicating with their partners. IF any readers’ relationships were improved while they worked their way through these silly tasks, it would not be the tasks themselves — nor Jesus Power, as the book’s shameless authors implied — doing anything to help.
The people performing these tasks suffered from pure magical thinking: they expected their performances to result in happier, stronger relationships.
Unfortunately for them, to achieve that goal people need more than busy-work tasks in a book written by a pair of young movie-makers posing as marriage counselors to grub more money from their terrible movie.
But evangelicals don’t like real work. They didn’t join up to do real work.
And they will not be starting now.
Transactionalism and Performative Piety.
After reading The Love Dare, I began to see similar examples of performative piety everywhere in evangelicalism.
It isn’t just how evangelicals conduct relationships!
It’s how they go through life itself.
Evangelicals create these sort of tokens with their performances. Then, they expect to plug their tokens into metaphorical vending machines. The tokens look like:
- five minutes of Bible reading/prayer a day, so your day runs smoothly
- giving your unapproved emotions to Jesus to handle
- saying a magic spell called ‘The Sinner’s Prayer’ to escape Hell
- tithing (sorta) to feel like you already do more than enough for charity, how dare that gubmint demand more
- public grandstanding with a church group but never performing devotions in private because f’real, if you pray and nobody sees you, did you really even do it?
As one evangelical noted not long ago, it’s completely transactional.
And yes, it is. But it’s way more than that.
These tokens substitute for the difficult work of self-improvement and self-management and real discipline. These substitutes do not, in themselves, create any of these happy states in the people who deal in them.
And then, when evangelicals plug their tokens into the appropriate vending machines, they get furious when the vending machines refuse to dispense health, wealth, emotional serenity, and obedient sexy wives.
But evangelicals have a way to deal with that shortcoming.
They just pretend to have gained those benefits instead.
There’s almost no downside to pretending and performing, except the obvious one of course (which is being locked in an ideology that categorically does not fulfill its own marketing promises).
Their marks aren’t supposed to be able to suspect the truth. Why on earth would anybody lie about being happy or having found a great marriage ruleset that works? Gosh, that’d be purely evil! (But folks seem to be catching on quickly!)
Their tribemates will not suspect. Our performers will feel doubly frustrated that their performances are fake, but will think the other performers are on the level and honest. It won’t occur to them that everyone else is faking — just like they are.
Worst of all, they’ll judge each other’s sincerity based on the skill and extent of these performances.
(That’s why it’s so easy for evildoers to fool them.)
The Audience They Want to Impress.
When people perform, they do so for an audience. It might be a small audience, but still.
Often, Christians perform for others (as in virtue-signaling), sometimes for themselves to feel like they’ve Jesus-ed correctly on this fine day or to demonstrate their superiority over their tribe’s enemies, and at other times still they just want to put tokens into their god’s vending machines to get something more easily than working for it.
Maybe sometimes in their heart of hearts — or in comment boxes on Christian blogs, as I’ve seen more and more lately — they ask themselves why it’s so hard to live the way their Dear Leaders tell them Christians should live. They wonder why it’s so hard to do what they mistakenly imagine Jesus told modern Christians to do.
This is why.
Centuries of Busy-Work and Performative Piety.
Evangelicals have evolved a childish series of inexpensive substitute gestures and transactions to avoid doing the difficult work of denying themselves pleasure, learning to regulate themselves without outside threats and goads, and learning to be kind and compassionate human beings living among oodles of others with their own rights, needs, beliefs, opinions, and desires.
Then, they’ve told themselves that the god of the whole universe completely approves of how they go about spending their finite lifetimes.
Truly, the surest sign I could ever hope to see attesting to the invalidity of Christians’ claims is their own behavior.
As for this Doug Hammack fellow, I’m sure he means well. But I tell you this:
Whatever good he finds in his church, it never comes from his imaginary friend or his professed religious ideology. If he or his followers actually act like decent human beings, it is not their god or their ideology making them do it.
So why bother with any of it?
Be watching for Christian performances. Ask yourself who they’re performing for, and what reward they hope to gain by doing it. And then ask how they could legitimately gain that reward, and why they’re not pursuing their goal that way.
As well, be watching for any similar shortcomings in yourself. Wanting the biggest returns for the least amount of effort isn’t an exclusively evangelical trait.
NEXT UP: Sigh. Another day, another SBC schism. Al Mohler seems to be making his move. See you for the Battle Royale tomorrow!
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