I returned this week from what turned out to be quite an itinerate summer holiday. My only significant accomplishment in pure laziness was managing to watch all of Parks and Recreation in the span of about two weeks (got to take advantage of U.S. Netflix when you can). As much as I would love to dedicate an entire post to the glory of Ron Swanson’s moustache and to Leslie Knope’s solidified place as my new feminist icon, the last couple days of my vacation are what have really gotten me thinking.
We ended our holiday time time at NecronomiCon, in Providence Rhode Island — a horror convention celebrating the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Leeman went to do a live performance of his YouTube series “Ask Lovecraft.” Amanda and I came along for the fun and the tentacles. Although, judging from her reaction to Cthulhu, I am not sure quite how comfortable Amanda was with the proceedings. Good luck, kid, is all I have to say.
There was something fascinating for me in attending a convention like this celebrating a particular genre of literature and media in which I myself do not participate. Anyone who has ever met me is well aware that I have no hesitation in declaring that I am a huge nerd myself. I love board games and science fiction. I am never happier than when I wander into a specialty store stocked with graphic novels and novelty merchandize celebrating various fandoms. I know all the secret handshakes and rituals of my chosen communities. Even now I am enjoying my cup of morning coffee in my “expletives of science fiction” mug (very priestly, I know). Despite my own self-identified geeky status, though, there is still something terribly disorienting about setting foot in a fandom subculture that is not my own. I don’t recognize the references, and I am not familiar with the well-worn debates members of the community are prone to have with one another. As friendly as individual participants at the convention might be (and they certainly were), one cannot deny that there are numerous invisible but profound walls put up that prevented me really being able to participate in what was going on around me.
I mention this because my experience at the convention last weekend was mirrored by my experience trying to visit an unfamiliar church in Providence. As someone who has been in church my entire life–someone who is, lets face it–a professional Christian, it can be easy for me to take for granted all the invisible barriers to entry our communities of faith put up to those who might want to explore what we have to offer. So when I tried to go to church last Sunday morning, pushing along Amanda in her stroller, I encountered stairs leading up to an imposing brick building. After lifting Amanda (stroller and all) up to the entry way, I had to navigate my way through the church not sure where I should sit or what I should do with my child — was she welcome here? –how disruptive could she be without invoking the ire of my fellow worshippers? Much like the participants at NecromimiCon, the individuals I encountered in the church were themselves perfectly friendly. The priest made a point of talking to me after the service. All the same, I was struck by how uncomfortable I was entering into a new worshipping community by myself, especially having a child. I wasn’t sure of the unwritten rules in this particular setting. I can only imagine how much that feeling of social anxiety must be amplified for someone who does not have the same intimate connection with the institutional church.
When I ponder experiences such as the one I had last weekend, there can be a temptation to feel the solution for the church is to set aside all those distinctive markers of our faith and our identity. But I don’t think that can be the solution. I had another fascinating moment over the weekend that got me thinking as well. I found myself on an elevator with a group of very stylish women headed out for a night on the town, along with two men from the convention, decked out in the tell-tale signs of their horror fandom. I was impressed that these women were actually interested in what the convention was all about — they wanted to know about H.P. Lovecraft and why the men found him interesting. There seemed to be a genuine sense of respect–a sense of “oh, this is a thing that has meaning for you. That’s really interesting to me.” It seemed to me those guys would have been more likely to be mocked by the women on the elevator if that had equivocated and not been comfortable with their identification with this particular literary community.
As we ponder our role as the church in the world today, we are called to walk a very careful fine line between limiting the invisible barriers of entry to our communities while also holding on to the beliefs and traditions that give those communities meaning in the first place. We can and we should embrace our spiritual identity with confidence, while also being mindful of of bizarre or even imposing the marks of our sub culture can be to those outside of it. How can we look at our churches and our communities and rituals from the perspective of those to whom it is all utterly unfamiliar? That is a challenging road to walk, but it is a path well worth struggling to figure out.