Friday, August 14, 2020

"Those Who Wish To Seem": Performative Piety

I wouldn’t consider myself a particularly devoted fan of Rush. I mean, I can probably name a dozen songs off the top of my head at best, and I can’t quote the complete lyrics to an album like a few people I know. 


But, I discovered their music during a time of spiritual upheaval, and found that several of their songs spoke to me. 


Neil Peart, drummer and lyricist for the band, died recently of brain cancer, causing me to think a bit about some of the songs. I decided I might write a few blog pieces derived from these musings. 


This is the first in the series. 






Living on a lighted stage

Approaches the unreal

For those who think and feel

In touch with some reality

Beyond the gilded cage


Cast in this unlikely role

Well equipped to act

With insufficient tact

One must put up barriers

To keep oneself intact


Living in the limelight

The universal dream

For those who wish to seem

Those who wish to be

Must put aside the alienation

Get on with the fascination

The real relation

The underlying theme


Living in a fisheye lens

Caught in the camera eye

I have no heart to lie

I can't pretend a stranger

Is a long awaited friend


All the world's indeed a stage

And we are merely players

Performers and portrayers

Each another's audience

Outside the gilded cage


Living in the limelight

The universal dream

For those who wish to seem

Those who wish to be

Must put aside the alienation

Get on with the fascination

The real relation

The underlying theme



Limelight remains my favorite Rush song, and with good reason. I am an introvert - I’m a social introvert, but I need my space to recover. This song is, in my opinion, the best description ever written of how it feels to be an introvert in a world which rewards extroversion and punishes introversion. Peart (clearly an introvert) wrote it about his experience with celebrity and the compromises of being a performer. But I think it is more than that. The lyrics resonate with all of us who have felt pressured to perform, to conform, to be someone we are not to make someone else - or some system - happy. 


I have blogged many times about my experiences in Bill Gothard’s cult, and later in an increasingly toxic Evangelical subculture. When I found myself working through the aftermath of my experiences, trying to sort out what I still believed, and why, I kept returning to this song. 


“The universal dream of those who wish to seem…”


There is a universal here. Christ was rather obsessed with it, come to think of it. People who latch on to legalistic religious and cultural practices and use them to both determine their own worth and to look down on others. 


I call this Performative Piety.


Just like acting, it is a performance. It may be “genuine” in some sense, and the person may be perfectly sincere. But it is still a performance for an audience. In the case of many people in my parents’ generation - particularly the women - you see this same pattern: seeking ever more “piety” to earn the love and approval of the Divine. That’s my experience, in any case. Gothardism is full of people like this, to be honest. Some are quite earnest in trying to earn God’s approval, to be fair, even if it is exactly that - trying to earn approval. Most people, however, in my experience, are not nearly as interested in earning God’s approval, as in earning the approval of other people. 


Here is what I believe Performative Piety is:


It is those practices which are done, not to benefit other people, but are used to gain approval for the one doing them. 


There are therefore two prongs: is the practice done with the intent of benefiting others, and is it done to make God or humans think better of you?


Christ describes the Pharisee as standing on the corner and praying loudly. This is Performative Piety in its essence. But note as well what he prays: “I thank God I am not like other men…” This is the key part of the problem. His goal is to draw attention to how good he is, so that God and other people will recognize how good he is. (And, in order to do that, draw attention to how not-good other people are.)


In other passages, Christ talks about piety performed in secret. Fasting that nobody else knows about. Giving and helping in quiet ways, without fanfare. Prayers that are simple and secret. 


This is why legalists - those who value Performance Piety - love to use cultural signifiers which are easily visible. Say, for example, clothing styles. These are perfect for Performance Piety because they have no real spiritual value outside of their visibility. If you are inside your own home, nobody really knows if you are wearing a denim jumper or underwear. But when you wear something in public, others can make an instant judgment as to whether you have performed piety to their preferences. 


There are others, of course. A favorite one in Fundie circles is being a stay at home mom. It is doubly valuable as Performative Piety AND as a way to flaunt one’s economic privilege for all to see. (Which is exactly why it has been used to “demonstrate” why whites are superior to non-whites, dating back before the Civil War.) One thing that should jump out about Performative Piety is that it is often very gendered. Men are expected to perform masculinity differently - and M.O.N.E.Y. is a very important part of their performance. Women, however, have all kinds of performances they are expected to make. Other than having money (being a “good provider”) and “leading,” whatever that means, men only have the Performance Piety requirements common to all humans, like being opposed to certain facets of pop culture (see:Harry Potter) and being loudly right wing in politics. And, rather obviously, these “pieties” make sense only in the culture or subculture in which they exist. 


The reason that Christ inveighed against Performative Piety so much is that it reinforced those hierarchies, and allowed the privileged to dismiss others as less “godly” on the basis of appearance. It also encourages an “us versus them” attitude - one that has come to roost here in the United States the last few years. People who don’t (or can’t) perform piety the same way are the enemy, and can be treated as subhuman. (See, for example, James Dobson and his white nationalist approach to immigrants.)  


In my own journey, it was this need for Performative Piety which led to a significant crisis. For a variety of reasons, neither my wife nor I had any interest in participating in Cultural Fundamentalism. We had an egalitarian marriage. My wife had a career. I work reduced hours to take a more involved role in parenting and educating our children. She wears clothes which are normal for our culture. We let our kids read stuff like Harry Potter, for crying out loud! 


The problem is, when you are the child of someone whose sense of self-worth is tied up with Performance Piety, you become part of that performance. You and your family are expected to act and look a certain way, to prove to God that your parent was a good Christian. We did not perform piety the right way, which then reflected on my parents. Alas, their need for us to conform was so strong that relationships were badly damaged as a result. 


Remember, this is in the case of someone who is at least genuine and sincere in her pursuit. It gets even more difficult when you have someone manipulative who can take advantage of Performative Piety to further their own ends. (And oh yes, have I experienced this.)


The sincere Pietist becomes used to judging people based on how they perform piety, which gives an opportunity to manipulators. Such a person waits until the Pietist becomes unhappy that someone else isn’t performing piety the right way, and then makes sure that he/she does perform that particular piety. And then reminds the Pietist of just how much the non-performer is failing. It’s the old narcissist method of getting ahead by putting others down. The reason Performative Piety is a perfect weapon for manipulators is that it allows them to seem as if they are being good people, without the burden of having to actually be good people. 


...the universal dream of those who wish to seem. Those who wish to be…


And here is the worst part of Performative Piety. We humans have a limited ability to do things. A limited attention span. Limited energy and time. When we focus on Performative Piety, it takes away those valuable resources of time, energy, focus, and ability. We are thus less able to do things that are genuinely good. (For example: caring for the vulnerable, taking in immigrants, spending time with our kids, cultivating relationships, wrestling with ethics.) Instead, we spend our time following pietistic rules and trying to get others to do the same. When your efforts and religion are spent trying to impress God and impress others, you have little if any time and energy left to actually follow Christ. And that, by the way, is the point. 


Religious institutions have a deep need to cultivate Performative Piety.


Why? Well, for one thing, tribalism sells. And a tribe needs to know who is IN and who is OUT. You can take a look at the Pharisees to see this in action. “I thank god I am not like other men.” WE don’t dress like that. WE don’t read those books. WE don’t listen to that kind of music (usually music invented by black people…) WE don’t work outside the home. We vote Republican. WE say the right pious things. WE aren’t like those liberals. (Or black people, LGBTQ people, or those nasty, dirty immigrants. We aren’t like them either…which is why we have to keep them out...) WE obsess about criminalizing abortion as the only political test that matters


So, tribalism requires certain cultural performances to show membership. But also, Performative Piety gives people what they crave. Approval. Group membership. And that wonderful warm self-righteous feeling. It’s addictive. I can attest to that from experience. So of course churches want to sell that. It it is SO much easier to sell a political or cultural cause than to sell genuine piety that nobody sees. And also, you can’t see that kind of piety, by definition, so it doesn’t work as a tribalist marker. That sense of belonging and approval (and self-righteous superiority) is a hell of a drug, and it is hard to give up, even as the rules get more and more restrictive and absurd. 


Performative Piety also gives churches (and subcultures - and cults) a lot of power. Because leadership (or influencers) have the power to determine what “piety” must be performed, they have control. And they can use that power and the power of group disapproval to punish those who fail to measure up. That’s another reason why Performative Piety is so attractive to churches. 


It is beyond the scope of this post to get into how badly this addiction to Performative Piety has harmed the reputation of Christianity in America, or how it led to people to elect a white supremacist to the presidency, but it is all connected. And it is continuing to alienate from the faith anyone who wishes to BE, not SEEM. Those who are in touch with that reality, beyond the gilded cage of self-righteous, and vicious religion. 


Those who wish to be

Must put aside the alienation

Get on with the fascination

The real relation

The underlying theme


Loving your neighbor will never be as cheap a thrill as Performative Piety, particularly if done without blowing the trumpet to announce it. But it is the underlying theme. Working out what it means to love one’s neighbor in the world we live in is no easy task, but it is the core of true Christianity. Those who wish to be must pursue this. 


One final thought:


The way you can tell someone who is addicted to Performative Piety is whether they feel entitled to judge others for failing to perform - that is, to follow their preferred rules.


Hey, that’s something else Christ said! Those who go around telling others to perform piety the “right” way do so because their own sense of self worth is tied up in that quest to impress God and others. Those who are simply following Christ without fanfare don’t really have time to obsess about whether others are following the cultural rules. In fact, if they wish to follow Christ, they would find themselves seeing the “sinners” as the ones who are actually part of the Kingdom, not the religious establishment. Rush describes it as “put[ing] aside the alienation, and that is a good line. Ultimately, Performative Piety is about alienation. It is intended to alienate one from “dirty” other people. And the more rules you make, the more people you exclude. You become part of a smaller group that you can believe is the “elect,” and look down on everyone else. As I said, it’s a hell of a drug. But it is every bit as damaging as crack or meth, and will eventually kill your soul. 

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