When Faith Becomes Performance

Reflections on performed faith with Kanye, George Orwell, and Cameron Dezen Hammon’s This is my Body.

I’ve been thinking lately about an old joke you sometimes hear tossed around among Evangelical Christians:

How can you tell the difference between a Baptist and a Methodist?

Answer: The Methodist will say hello to you in the liquor store.

It’s an easy jab at old stereotypes about Baptists who preach against drinking, dancing, and gambling all while practicing those vices on the side. It usually gets a chuckle among church folk, who are quick to trot out aphorisms about grace being more important than works and Jesus turning water into wine; few Baptists are teetotalers anymore, and heaven forbid they admit to hypocrisy. Will those laughing Baptists still serve grape juice on Sunday morning, though? Definitely.

I’ve been part of Baptist and other evangelical groups my whole life, and only recently have I become aware of how much of my public-facing faith practice is based around these little performances: Don’t curse; don’t vote for pro-choice candidates; use buzzwords like “Biblical” and “Called to the Ministry” and “God’s Will;” smile and praise in the face of doubt and fear; don’t wear anything too short or too tight or too low cut (ladies); eat Chick-fil-A; consume the right kinds of popular culture — like U2 and Lord of the Rings and now, probably, the new music of Kanye West.

Do these performances make someone a Christian? Of course not, and any pastor would be quick to acknowledge that works do not bring salvation. But as with any culture or organized group, a kind of shorthand develops that makes it easier to tell who’s really in and who’s out.

Just take Kanye’s recent conversion, for example. I’m inclined to believe in the truth of his profession of faith, but the visible signs of his conversion seem to boil down to his declaration that he’ll no longer sing secular music, and that he’s asking his wife and daughter to wear more modest clothing. Oh, and don’t forget that whole Chick-fil-A song. These are the kinds of outer shows that evangelical culture has learned to look to as “fruit” — as signs of a changed life.

These tiny performances of faith remind me of something George Orwell once said regarding the trend in England at the time of uncritically accepting Soviet Russia. He wrote:

At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.

These unspoken rules of evangelicalism seem to me to have the same effect as this so-called “orthodoxy” — not forbidden, but also “not done,” lest the perpetrators risk losing their place in the church.

In Cameron Dezen Hammon’s beautiful new memoir, This is My Body, she grapples with the kinds of performances necessary to maintain her career as a worship leader even as she undergoes a crisis of faith. As a worship leader, she understands that she should “look young, but not too young” and “pretty, but not too pretty.” She knows how to project the appropriate emotions to lead people into a worshipful experience. She writes,

I pull my eyebrows together and close my eyes as I sing, an expression of meaningful reflection, an expression I practice often. I wrap my fingers around the microphone stand. It’s an old trick. If I’m holding on to something, the congregation can’t see me shake.

She learns to “impersonate someone who believes,” and that impersonation comes at a high personal cost. 

Dezen Hammon’s faith journey is a complex one; hers is not a story of the blatant hypocrite purposely profiting off the faithful by playing the game. Instead, her memoir reveals a woman trying desperately to reconcile the nuance of her hidden life with the over-simplified version of Christian living she believed she needed to live up to. You’ll want to read the book yourself to see how the journey ends, but what most resonated with me were the many times she was called upon to say the “right” things, fulfill the “right” roles. As long as she followed those rules, she was accepted into the “club,” so when she felt differently from that party-line, she stayed silent.

I see this disconnect between performed faith and lived faith in my songwriting students at the conservative Christian university where I teach. When my students bring in songs that express anything other than the acceptable sentiments of joy and praise and general optimism, they feel compelled to issue a disclaimer: “Don’t worry; I’m not really depressed,” or “This was about a really dark time, but I know that God can pull me through.” They don’t want their peers or professor to worry that their expressions of sadness are also expressions of doubt. They’ve probably been taught that God loves them and that, in Christian community, they should feel free to express their true selves, but when it comes down to actually — expressing — those selves, they inevitably hem and hedge. They know that some expressions are more acceptable than others. They know that some words and ideas, while not necessarily heretical to Christianity, are heretical to the “orthodoxy” of evangelical culture.

So we avert our eyes in the liquor store; we say “crap” and “frick” and “heck;” we say things like “the Bible clearly states” even when we’re not so sure; we put up masks to cover our doubts and fears. And piece by piece, our faith becomes something we perform, not something we live.