Performance Almighty, by David Zahl
APRIL 18, 2019
Capital-R Religion once provided a space to come clean and maybe even be absolved of shortcoming and guilt. Church wasn’t busy.
A few weeks ago, superstar rapper Killer Mike shared a picture with his 809K followers on Instagram of a store window in which was written the slogan, “Your work ethic will determine your worth.” He captioned the image, “It’s that simple really,” and thousands of fans applauded. Mike may call it something else, but in that moment, he had distilled the gospel of performancism.
Performancism is the assumption, usually unspoken, that there is no distinction between what we do and who we are. Your resumé isn’t part of your identity; it is your identity. What makes you lovable, indeed what makes your life worth living, is your performance at X, Y, or Z. Performancism holds that if you are not doing enough, or doing enough well, you are not enough. At least, you are less than those who are “killing it.”
Performancism turns life into a competition to be won (#winning) or a problem to be solved, as opposed to, say, a series of moments to be experienced or an adventure to relish. Performancism invests daily tasks with existential significance and turns even menial activities into measures of enoughness. The language of performancism is the language of scorekeeping, and just like the weight scale or the calendar, it knows no mercy. When supercharged by technology, the result can even be deadly.
Alas, some of the most toxically performancist environments exist inside the church, where anxious women and men frantically try to outdo one another in the good-works department, whether those be acts of charity or acts of devotion or both—as if our spiritual resumé was the ticket to God’s approval. While few would ever admit to such outright heresy, believers often can’t help measuring themselves against their fellow congregants, dropping hints of how often they read their (heavily underlined) Bible, how much money they give, or how many shifts they pick up at the soup kitchen.
Faith that more often than not begins with an admission of losing and need morphs into a hectic competition for spiritual justification, in which we baptize our busyness with religious language. Before we know it, God has ceased to be a good shepherd and turned into the Taskmaster-in-the-Sky, or worse, another name for the persecutor within. “I just couldn’t keep it up anymore!” is the refrain I’ve heard from many a refugee from performancist churches.
If there’s a difference today, it has to do with the vanishing of outlets where the pressure of perfection might be vented. It’s easier to develop a sense of enoughness, for example, when your pool of peers is in the hundreds rather than the millions, when the primary venues of comparison close shop at 5:00 p.m. Similarly, it’s a lot harder to recover from a youthful indiscretion when the internet has made the record of your adolescence permanent and searchable.
Capital-R Religion once provided a space to come clean and maybe even be absolved of shortcoming and guilt. Church wasn’t busy. If anything, it was boring and full of silence, a respite from the noise of daily demand, a local repository of peace and forgiveness. The good ones at least.
Today we deal more commonly with small-r religion, even those of us who check the “Christian” box on the census sheet. Small-r religion is simply shorthand for whatever we lean on to tell us we’re okay, that our lives matter. It refers to the justifying story of our life. Thus we devote ourselves to ‘secular’ pursuits like parenting and dating and politics with the spiritual intensity of medieval monks—a phenomenon we might call ‘seculosity.’ Alas, these small-r religions function more or less the same, maintaining all the demand (and much of the ritual!) but none of the mercy of the capital-R variety.
The tragic irony of Jesusland—a not-altogether-flattering catchall for the bastardized form of Protestant Christianity that dominates much of the spiritual landscape in the West—is that it often resembles its secular replacements more than the Real Thing.
The seculosity of Jesusland takes root when law supplants grace as Christianity’s final word. Or when we subvert the immortal hymn with our additions: “I once was lost but now am found, so I better stay found!” We start asking ourselves, if Jesus caught and embraced me when I fell off the ladder of life, then why does it feel like I’m on a new ladder now? Why do I get the creeping suspicion that I’m not a good enough Christian? The seculosity of Jesusland seeps in when church turns into yet another performancist venue to establish our enoughness, rather than the only reliable place to receive it.