CRIPES, it’s hot up in PeaceBang’s little study on her second floor! But the bedroom a/c is cranking away and I have a few things I’ve been ruminating on for awhile that I’ve got to get out before they get lost in another load of e-mails or administration.
I went to see a professional theatre production with a good friend recently and we spent the intermission and the ride home critiquing it. It needed a lot of critiquing, really, and should have been workshopped a lot more before it debuted. It was a frankly a bad script but the audience loved it. We enjoyed it a lot, too, because it was often entertaining even as it totally failed to develop characters or to make the points that it promised to make. And we loved taking it apart, analyzing scenes where the plot derailed or where characters did things that had no motivation or consistency.
My friend and I critique because we love the theatre and have attended theatre frequently for many decades, because we deeply respect how difficult it is to craft a good work and produce one, and because we have studied and participated in the art form. Therefore, we are not just ripping something apart for the sport of it. We are paying the production the honor of taking it seriously enough to think deeply about it. We criticize because we love!
This is not a bad thing. This is not a negative or destructive thing to do, unless you believe that the any critical reaction to work is mean, as many people believe, and which sentimental and earnest-type clergy will assert.
Often in my life, I have heard people say, “Well, who is THAT person to pick this-and-such apart? They’re so CRITICAL! I’m sure they feel they have to do that because they’re actually really insecure.”
That’s nonsense, actually. It’s time to stop promoting that ridiculous fantasy. It’s not true and it never was.
And clergy especially need to stop cheerleading each other’s mediocrities and mishaps, especially in the area of worship and liturgical art (including composition of liturgical readings and hymns). I have made it my special calling to cast a critical eye on clergy public image and attire. There’s a lot of defensiveness around that, too. But I persist! I pay close attention because I care, and because I know what we look like to the outside, public eye.
I was raised, culturally speaking, by extremely talented, brilliant homosexual male mentors in the theatre and music, and taught by many talented teachers and professors — some world class scholars. My family recognizes the genius of talent and has an eye for it, and we were always taught that some people have true talent and others don’t, and that you can make up a lot for what you don’t have by working really hard.
Sometimes I think the world is comprised of two kinds of people: the ones who think every kid should get a trophy just for participating, and those who think that kids do better when they are given honest, supportive feedback which occasionally includes the words, “As you know, that didn’t go well. Let’s do it again.” I always shudder when I see a mom let loose a huge string of effusive compliments on a kid who simply goes and fetches a jar of peanut butter at the store. What’s she going to do when he accomplishes something that required real effort? “Joshy, that was AMAZING! You are FANTASTIC! You are the BEST!” You can see the kid roll his eyes internally. When he’s a teenager he’s going to be rolling his eyes visibly.
Earlier on in the writing of this blog I got a lot of rolled eye complaints about my critical voice, a lot of “Who are YOU to tell clergy what they should wear?” I would answer that first of all, I’m a clergyperson myself and have thought about issues of clergy attire out of necessity. Secondly, I am an enthusiastic student of costuming and have taught myself a lot about clothing as an art form. I have a pretty good working relationship with how clothes work. Third, I am fascinated with reading public image and the language of style from hats to shoes, so I’m not just pulling opinions out of thin air. Fourth, no one else was discussing this subject in public and I wanted to do it.
It’s never a good idea to claim authority when you don’t have a good grounding in what you’re trying to lead, and in the end, people who hear your ideas will either grant you authority or they will not based on how much your critique rings true to them.
Excellence is a real phenomenon based on real accomplishments, hard work, talent and cultural tradition. It does none of us in the work of religious leadership any good to be surrounded by cheerleaders assuring us that we’re AWESOME when in fact, we could benefit from a critical eye and some honest assessment of effectiveness.
I would like to see less defensiveness and more willingness to see ourselves through the eyes of the unchurched and the uninterested. It doesn’t matter if your best friends think you look AWESOME. If strangers think you look like you’re on your way to Comic Con and they can’t take you seriously, you’re making the wrong statement. Don’t let your friends enable your bad choices. When you bend over, can people see your butt? It’s a bad choice, no matter how much your friends squeal and tell you you look fantastic. Study fashion, tailoring and your own body type and style. You alone are responsible for that, not your friend who missed the fact that the hem of your trousers is pooling around your ankles and who knows you too well to notice that your beard makes you resemble the Unibomber.
Your friends in the church are undoubtedly going to think that your tie-dye clericals are AWESOME! But the people who don’t go to church and have no desire to connect with a priest are likely going to read the image as confusing, freaky and somehow unstable. Like, “What is your deal?” Or very likely, “You’re trying too hard to be cool. No, thanks. Not interested.”
Pro-tip: Tie-dye does not signal “cool” any more. It is dated, it immediately says “I’m in the 1960′s/1970′s” and you may as well wear a nametag that says “hippie.” Are hippies leaders in 2015? Do you take anyone in tie-dye seriously on the national stage? No, of course not. Put it away and wear clericals that don’t immediately identify you as someone who thinks she’s a chaplain at Woodstock.
Does a T-shirt that says, “THIS IS WHAT CLERGY LOOK LIKE” say anything about the calling of ministry? Or is it merely clergy attention-getting to how hip/cool/young those wearing the shirts are? What does that seek to accomplish on behalf of the religious traditons we represent? I think those T-Shirts have a limited use at some denominational gatherings where those wearing them are calling attention to a problem of representation or exclusion. I love those T-shirts at Pride events, worn by young religious leaders who are gently teasing the public about their out-moded clergy archetypes and inviting conversation.
However, it would be more effective for young, hip clergy to simply go about being excellent and get noticed for that, not for a T-shirt declaring that they’re LEGIT.
I would like to see less high-fiving and hollow praise and more honest feedback.
I would like earnest, never-be-anything-but-sweetly nice clergy to recognize that the critical tradition is as old and as venerable as the church itself, and not to succumb to armchair psychoanalysis or passive-aggressive “bless his heart-ing” of those who dare to say, “That sucked. Do better.”
Of course any of us can dismiss criticisms as coming from imperfect and therefore presumably dismissable sources. But it doesn’t do us much good to insulate ourselves in little circles of self-congratulatory defensiveness.
Thus spaketh the ‘Bang.