POST-TRUTH CONFERENCE READING

'Bodily foundations: Enmeshments in the American Megachurch' essay presented at We Hold These Truths to be Self-Evident: Post-Truth and American Myths

CHASE Conference organised by the British Association for American Studies, University of Essex

25th November 2017


President Donald Trump meets with faith leaders inside the Oval Office on May 3, 2017.

President Donald Trump meets with faith leaders inside the Oval Office on May 3, 2017.

Bodily foundations: Enmeshments in the American Megachurch

I’m going to begin with a visualization, in which we will orient ourselves in the space of this seminar room, and in relation to the other bodies here. You may want to close your eyes. Imagine that you are looking down on yourself, as you are seated, right now, from above. Picture yourself arranged in the rows amongst the other bodies, who are also sitting, waiting, expectant. You can see the top of your head, how you have positioned yourself in the chair, the fold of your legs and the placement of your feet as your weight connects with the seat and the ground. As you are looking down, your vision is slowly pulled back, like a camera panning out. Instead of this small number, gathered together in this room, the bodies are multiplying. Imagine the tables and the walls receeding. There aren’t just tens of bodies, but hundreds, packed in rows and rows of seating. You continue to pan out, the bodies continue to proliferate, dots of heads becoming specks, an accumulation of dark spots, a flecked pattern resembling a spreading mould. Now the crowd is in its thousands, now tens of thousands. Individual differences have disappeared into a great mass, all gathered together in a vast spectacle of one-ness.

Now you return to yourself, your body held in place amongst this great crowd. You feel your feet on the floor. Feel your weight pressing down heavily in through the chair and the soles of your feet through into the ground. Now you are pulled downwards through the floor, down past the weak topsoil, the strong subsoil and rock fragments and into the foundation which supports this crowd. Hidden in the darkness of the deep foundation piles, the structural slabs, reinforced with steel, are watertight and enduring. This foundation underpins a vast building of 606,000 square feet. The structure encircles and contains a fearless community, 17,000 bodies waiting expectantly in the megachurch auditorium.

You can open your eyes!

___

In August of this year, President Donald Trump’s response to a violent clash between white nationalists and counter protestors at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia intensified the controversy surrounding his conduct. A protest over the removal of a statue of general Robert E Lee in a response to Lee’s support for slavery, organised by white nationalist Jason Kessler, led to the death of campaigner Heather Heyer. Trump stated that there was ‘violence on many sides’ and drew equivalence between far right and counter demonstrators by describing an ‘alt-left’ that was ‘very, very violent’. [1]

In the aftermath, prominent business leaders distanced themselves from the Trump administration by resigning from their posts on business advisory panels, leading to the collapse of two panels and a council on infrastructure. Yet the president’s Evangelical Executive Advisory Board, which includes 25 megachurch leaders, prosperity gospel televangelists and conservative political influencers and campaigners, stood almost intact, with just one resignation.

This seeming intractability might be illuminated by considering both the culture and worldview of Evangelicalism, and the entanglement between Evangelicalism and Republicanism. Frances FitzGerald writes: ‘Evangelicals compose nearly a quarter of the population. They are also the most American of religious groups, and during the nineteenth century they exerted a dominant influence on American culture, morals, and politics.’ [2] As a significant voting bloc, the 81% of white Evangelicals who voted for Trump proved decisive in his victory.

Evangelicalism, a trans-denominational movement within Protestantism, is characterized by four aspects: salvation through faith, a literal interpretation of the Bible, the experience of being born again and the necessity of spreading the gospel message through evangelism. Megachurches, typically housed in giant auditoriums and amassing tens of thousands of worshippers, are the exemplary form of American Evangelicalism. Worship services are visually spectacular, theatrical lighting and vast projection screens multiply the presence and forcefulness of charismatic preachers, digital and media technologies are deployed to cultivate faith by intensifying the experience of a narrative of certainty.

Evangelicalism’s appeal can be located within its’ ability to produce an embodied sense of orientation. In creating a strong sense of belonging through its culture, it engenders an experience  of being held in a structure, being oriented in a disorienting world. It offers coherence, stability and  social order through the telling and re-telling of a story of stories. In this anxiety-soothing worldview,  the story is understood literally. Evangelicalism, in its fundamentalist forms, and as distinct from  other forms of Protestantism, views the Bible as divinely authored and therefore authorised, as  unquestionable and inerrant. Within Evangelicalism the truth of the story is considered paramount,  the ‘gap’ between the telling and the world is absolutely disavowed, word and world are one. The  telling is merely a necessity for allowing the world to speak itself as it truly is. To consign the  Evangelical narrative to the level of a ‘story’ (one story among others) is an anathema, it is to deny its’ deepest foundations. This narrative forms a myth that, in its repetition and reinforcement, orients a community, providing a foundation on which a community is built. Here the story is sacralised and concretised, no longer organic and mutable in the contingent world of matter, it becomes ossified into an immovable, indestructible foundation stone, producing a deeply embodied  effect of being grounded.

When the word myth is used, it is often mistakenly understood as a fiction, as a widespread, popular belief that is false. Yet, for Jean-Luc Nancy, myth has a foundational and operative power that materializes in the real, and it is a mistake to dismiss myth (or fiction) as immaterial. Nancy writes:  ‘The phrase ‘myth is a myth’ harbors simultaneously and in the same thought a disabused irony (“foundation is a fiction”) and an onto-poetico-logical formation (“fiction is a foundation”)’ [3]. Concerning the ‘myth is the myth’ Nancy writes: ‘it is not by chance that its modern usage in this  phrase that underlies our knowledge of myth – that myth is a myth – produces in a play on words, the structure of the abyss.’ [4] The repetition of the mise en abyme: a myth is a myth is a myth is a... ad infinitum, figures the dizzying fall which comes as a result of the collapse of founding structures. What the ancient Greeks originally called muthos was a true story, a story that unveiled the true origin of the world and humankind, for Evangelicals, the biblical narrative of creation, fall and redemption is the muthos that configures their worldview.

Nancy writes that mythic speech is: ‘a way of binding the world and attaching oneself to it.’ [5] Within the megachurch, the foundation story tells the story of how the community came to be. It produces  and underpins the community in which individuals understand their place. Life stories become  framed within and reinforced by the Biblical narrative. The preacher, the authorizing voice, leads the  chorus, (en)chanting this story, repeating and repeating in every sermon, bible study group, testimony, Christian rock song, until it becomes materialized into a stabilizing ground. The muthos authors and authorizes, holding communities within the totality of a moralizing and authoritative  framework, binding the world and attaching the community to it. Bodies speak this narrative of narratives into being, bodies that ingest and seep and pulse and in speaking find their footing. This is a deeply embodied experience.

The Evangelical preachers voice, signaling a pure authenticity, combining with the re-iteration of the mythic story, produces an impelling affect in the body of the believer, birthing an absolute community, which Nancy describes as the ‘remainderless totality’. In Evangelicalism a bodily entanglement with language, where narrative is expressed in the materiality of the voice and returns to the body through it’s telling and ordering of social and material reality, founds the myth.

William Connolly, writing from a new materialist perspective on the intersensory nature of perception, states that ‘language and sense experience are neither entirely separate nor reducible to one another.’ [6] Connolly considers that: ‘imbrications between embodiment, language, disposition, perception, and mood are always in operation.’ [7] In the body, the orienting narrative of Evangelicalism, reinforced and intensified in the spectacle of the crowd, emotive music, compelling preaching, bodily (bottom up) and thinking (top down) processes comingle to create a certainty of belief, a sense of validation. Connolly, in discussing the link between perception and belief, writes of the belief ‘in which creed and affect mix together below the ready reach of change by reflective considerations alone’. [8] He writes:

Belief at this level touches, for instance, the tightening of the gut, coldness of the  skin, contraction of the pupils, and hunching of the back that occur when a  judgement or faith in which you are deeply invested is contested, ridiculed, ruled  illegal or punished more severely yet. It also touches those feelings of abundance  and joy that emerge whenever we sense the surplus of life over the structure of our identities. [9]

The combination of the foundation story, a narrative which creates a stabilizing ground, with the embodied experience of the spectacular megachurch, the experience of being filled with the spirit and born again, a fabulation that can have ecstatic affects, creates an enchantment for the believer which folds into their being. Truth, for Evangelicals, is validated and located in the body, in the intersensory affects experienced within the narrative orientations of myth, and architectural and spatial orientations of the megachurch. This is a paradox in which the body is central in the birthing and sustaining of faith, and yet is policed in a socially conservative culture that exerts a strong influence over sexual morality. The efficacy of the megachurch muthos is contingent on its ability to adapt, whilst retaining and repeating the core story of salvation, to different contexts. American identity and Evangelicalism have become entangled: the confluence of Evangelical culture and conservatism has contributed to a partial dissolution in the traditional separation of church and state.

The Evangelical belief that everyone must be born again into a new and righteous life, combines with American exceptionalism or uniqueness: the idea of America as a model nation. Megachurches in particular represent a conflation of American traditional family values and a protestant work ethic with an ethos of unlimited growth and expansion, in terms of membership, influence and often wealth, whilst maintaining a hierarchical and sometimes controlling organizational structure and a culture with a strong adherence to moral boundaries and expectations. It is important to state that Evangelicalism is not always synonymous with conservativism. The Christian right (formed of the once opposed Christian communities of Catholicism and Evangelicalism, coalesced politically into a unified conservative group) are in contradistinction to the abolitionist, civil rights, and feminist traditions of mainline Protestantism, and there are a small proportion of Evangelicals who are liberal, progressive and gravitate towards the Christian left. Yet, from the 1970s onwards, the Evangelical right wing exerted an increasing political influence through campaign groups such as the Family Research Council and the Moral Majority in response to what was viewed as a declining morality. From the 1980s, politicians, most notably Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, actively sought out the Christian Right, running for their presidencies on platforms of social conservatism, gaining 78% and 79% of the Evangelical vote respectively. A split in American culture and politics has been highlighted by James Davison Hunter as a polarization between ideological worldviews - secular progressivism and religious conservatism – and played out in a series of ‘culture wars’ over contentious social and political issues such as abortion, sexuality and education. Pat Buchanan, in seeking the Republican nomination for President, received a prime-time speech-slot at the 1992 Republican National Convention. He stated:

There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself....The agenda [Bill] Clinton and [Hillary] Clinton would impose on America— abortion on demand... homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat units—that's change, all right. But it is not the kind of change America wants. It is not the kind of change America needs. And it is not the kind of change we can tolerate in a nation that we still call God's country. [10]

Trump’s running partner, the Evangelical anti-abortionist Mike Pence, along with the appointment of  the Evangelical Executive Advisory Board, garnered the support of Evangelical voters, aiding Trump’s  presidential victory.

The seeming paradox of the Evangelical advisory boards’ continued support of Trump might be found in an approach that views how he leads as of less importance than his ability to usher a more ‘Godly’ culture into society. Trump is considered a conduit through which Evangelicalism might  influence the political agenda. Frances FitzGerald writes: ‘..character and religious character...has not been as important as the kind of stances that Republican candidates have taken on issues important to the Christian right, if not all Evangelicals.’ [11] Trump’s actions in attacking what is viewed as an ungodly liberalism at large has a stronger imperative than whether he is covertly racist, sexist, fraudulent and dishonest. Josiah Hesse writes: ‘Trump has had no problem arousing hatred from... “worldly people”, creating what appears to some like an imploding presidency, while others see a heroic martyr against liberalism.’ [12]

An increasing entrenchment of polarised opinion has been expressed in recent events. A resurgence of right wing nationalism has resulted in the rejection of climate change, castigation of refugees, Brexit in the UK and the election of Trump. Zigmunt Bauman writes of ‘conditions of endemic uncertainty’ [13], whilst Franco Berardi contends that we live with ‘the painful sentiment that things are flying away, the feeling of being overwhelmed by speed and noise and violence, of anxiety, panic, mental chaos’ [14]. Socio-political events arise from embodied impulse on a spectrum between the needs for stability and change. In extremity, these become an unwavering rigidity, whilst at the other end of the spectrum is a dizzying lack of structure, a disorienting openness.

For Nancy, a possible answer to the totalizing community is the singularity and difference of literary fiction. The singular voice of the writer interrupts myth. This interruption is an:

'indefinitely multiple explosion’ at the geographical locus of the centre of  community, at which singular beings appear in common, communicating from one  singular place to another, yielding a passion rather than a will to power. The passion for dissolution, the passion to be exposed. [15]

This rupture, for Nancy, creates a new kind of myth that engenders community, not a totality, one in which belonging is contingent on domination and sameness, but one that produces a collective individual- the subject who is both different and open. The writer is the singular voice in common. Literature aids the formation of heterogeneous communities, communities where difference communicates from a place of desire, a radical openness and recognition of otherness rather than the domination of hierarchical power structures.

In writing and staging my own fictions, I attempt to both materialize the structures that orient, that offer a sense of belonging within Evangelicalism, and to complexify the aporia of embodiment within that culture. Drawing on my research into the materiality of Evangelical megachurches, I write and stage fiction in particular sites for the reception of contemporary art. I will finish with an excerpt from Empathy Structure, a fiction set in the main auditorium space, known as ‘The Sanctuary’, of a Texan megachurch and performed within the structure of an open stairwell at Goldsmiths:

The damp seemed entirely localized around and inside of the Sanctuary. It was mentioned in the church newsletter and on the website with apologies, and dehumidifiers placed around the stadium to reduce the excess moisture. The hum of the extractors initially halted the dampening atmosphere, the water levels inside them slowly creeping up until they had to be unplugged and emptied. Yet they continued to fill, and at a steadily increasing rate, until tubes leading directly from  them were placed into the drains, and the hum of the dehumidifiers was drowned out by the sound  of water gushing and spurting continually as though the building had entrapped an overfull but unseen cloud. Mould started to grow and continued to spread within the Sanctuary, the carpet squelched near the pinking walls, and the wooden lectern and balustrades warped and swelled. Hair  line cracks fingered their way along the interior plaster work, and out towards the polished floor of the reception area. On closer inspection, these turned out not to be cracks at all, but a network of filigree thin branches. They were a deep red in hue and seemed to be spreading, disrupting the flooring, which began to crack and bump up, as though a tree’s roots were sprouting. Along with the increase in humidity the temperature had also steadily risen until it settled on an uncomfortable 98 degrees Fahrenheit... making working in the building increasingly insufferable...The thickening mist began to give rise to unwarranted visual effects: the many rows of seating seemed more dense, as though they were both shrinking and multiplying into an infinite number. They also appeared to be vibrating at times, other times shifting in a wave like motion....The Sanctuary had been almost clinical in its polish and order, but now it had become fuzzed at the edges, like a biological organism might be infecting it, spreading out and feeding off its skin.

Endnotes:

[1] Quoted in Jacobs, B & Laughland, O (2017) ‘Charlottesville: Trump reverts to blaming both sides including 'violent alt-left'’ [Online] The Guardian Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/us- news/2017/aug/15/donald-trump-press-conference-far-right-defends-charlottesville [Accessed 24.11.17]

[2] FitzGerald, F. (2017) The Evangelicals Simon & Schuster p.2

[3] Nancy, J.L. (1991) The Inoperative Community University of Minnesota Press p. 55

[4] Nancy, J.L. (1991) ibid p. 52

[5] Nancy, J.L. (1991) ibid p. 49

[6] Connolly, W.E. (2010) ‘Materialities of Experience’ in Coole, D & Frost, S (eds) New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency and Politics Duke University Press p.182

[7] Connolly, W.E. (2010) ibid p.183

[8] Connolly, W.E. (2010) ibid p. 196

[9] Connolly, W.E. (2010) ibid p. 196

[10] Buchanan, P (1992) ‘1992 Republican National Convention Speech’ [Online] Patrick J. Buchanan Official Website Available at: http://buchanan.org/blog/1992-republican-national-convention-speech-148 [Accessed 24.11.17]

[11] Frances FitzGerald interviewed in Kurtzleben, D (2017) ‘Why White Evangelicals Are 'Splintering' Politically’ [Online] National Public Radio Website Available at: https://www.npr.org/2017/05/02/525452958/why-white- evangelicals-are-splintering-politically [Accessed 23.11.17] 12 Mark 16: 15 The Bible New International Version

[12] Hesse, J (2017) ‘Donald Trump is no saint, but I know why evangelicals love him’ [Online] The Guardian Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/05/donald-trump-why-do-evangelicals-support- him [Accessed 23.11.17]

[13] Bauman, Z (2007) Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty Polity Press p.4

[14] Berardi, F. (2017) Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility Verso: London p.24

[15] Nancy, J ibid p. 61