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Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Religious Codes of Tectonic Theater: Using Your "Inside" Voice

When people speak about certain issues, they always do it from within a limited point of view: are they looking from without or within?  Each perspective is useful in its own way, but they're not the same thing.  Whether or not you consider yourself (or your conversation partner) inside or outside of your community can really affect the way you explain your view of things. 

Religious dialogue, for instance, is one of the places where the play has the hardest time breaking into, so to speak.  This is something observed by a "bench coach" for the original TLP, Stephen Wangh.  As I pointed out in a previous post, Wangh wonders a little bit whether or not Tectonic Theater found themselves unable or unwilling to address that society's "holy protagonists," and more often than not I find that I agree with him. 

But that's not entirely up to Tectonic Theater to decide; after all, those "holy protagonists" have a say in the matter, too.  For a variety of reasons, from doctrinal to social to political, each of these people can make a choice about where to align themselves in regard to Tectonic Theater.  If we look at how different people speak about the religious community-- Unitarians, Mormons, Baptists, and Catholics-- can we see where they see themselves fitting in?  

As for me?  At one time, I was an insider in The Baptist Church.  And now, where am I?  Do I speak now as an insider or an outsider of that community?  Well, just look above for your answer...

Okay, to start, let's look at how Stephen Mead Johnson addresses the issue of religion:
Ah, the sociology of religion of the West... Dominant religious traditions in this town: Baptist, Mormon-- they're everywhere, it's not just Salt Lake, you know, they're all over-- they're like jam on toast down here.  (24)
Johnson is pulling out so many codes here that it's actually a little amusing.  When asked to expound on western religion, look at the frame he's putting it in: the "sociology of religion."  He is viewing it at a distance, kind of like watching a biology dissection.  He's not putting himself in the same bag as those other religions.  After all, in his words, he's "so far left that I am probably sitting by myself."  So he's not used to seeing himself as a part of the same religious community as a lot of the more conservative denominations anyhow.

That doesn't mean he isn't trying to fit in somewhere.  What he is doing is making a comfortable space for himself and Tectonic to be on the same level.  They're sharing the same amused, forensic interest in Laramie's religious life.  And part of this might still be loneliness; after all, Johnson tells his interviewer that he'd been in town less than a month when Shepard was murdered.  It's not a culture he feels comfortable with at this point, and I can't answer how much at home he eventually felt, either.

Laramie By Faith
Now, switching to the LDS church, let's look at Doug Laws' explanation:
The Mormon Church has a little different thing going that irritates some folks... and that is that we absolutely believe that God still speaks to man.  We don't think it happened and some folks wrote it in the Bible.  God speaks to us today, and we believe that.  (24)
The contrast between Johnson and Laws couldn't be calculated any better than with this passage.  Laws' language uses some inside, intimate language to describe his society-- they're "folks."  This is pretty casual, and it's more of a local flavor (not to mention that litotes about what "irritates" them).  Laws is trying to set his denomination apart from others, too, but that hardly means they're not mainstram; LDS is big in Wyoming.  It's just that the LDS society sees themselves as a people set apart.  Moreover, there's no sense of "insideness" with the interviewers that you feel with Johnson when he talks to Tectonic.  I'm sure that has to do at least a little with the end of Laws' explanation:  "There's no sexual deviation in the Mormon Church.  No-- no leniency.  We just think it's out-of-bounds"  (25).  For Tectonic, Johnson is an insider to their circle.  Laws, however, is the outsider to Tectonic, and Laws makes no accommodation in his language to include them into his society.  He's just fine with leaving them on the outside.

The most clear example of this, of course, is The Baptist Minister.   I have to qualify what I say on this one: we don't know for sure that this is his word-for-word response because it's a phone conversation, and I don't know if it was taped; that gets into some weird ethical issues for Tectonic, so they might have chosen not to tape it.  I don't really know.  But, for the sake of the argument here, let's treat this section for a moment as if they are his actually words to see what might come of it:
Now, those two people, the accused, have forfeited their lives.  We've been after the two I mentioned for ages, trying to get them to live right, do right.  Now, one boy is on suicide watch and I am working with him-- until they put him in the chair and turn on the juice I will work for his salvation.  Now I think they deserve the death penalty-- I will try to deal with them spiritually...

Now as for the victim, I know that that lifestyle is legal, but I will tell you one thing: I hope that Matthew Shepard as he was tied to that fence, that he had time to reflect on a moment when someone had spoken the word of the Lord to him-- and that before he slipped into a coma he had a chance to reflect on his lifestyle.  (68-9)
Let me just bite my lip and put the flame-thrower content of his comment aside for a little bit, so we can just focus on the relationship he's building between himself and those involved: "those boys" don't get named, but Shepard does.  All three of them, whether familiar or no, are placed in the same space, as guilty of something.  McKinney and Henderson are guilty of "forfeiting their lives."  And Shepard?  He's equally guilty-- of "lifestyle."  These words create a specific environment where they are all on the outside looking in.

Now, let's not try to be too harsh with TBM-- I asked my husband, who had attended this church for several years, what he thought of this speech a while back.  He suggested that Pastor __________ was often so focused on a person's spiritual state that it tended to push all other considerations out of his mind.  (I guess that includes considerations of tact.)  So, it might not be so much that he's totally condemning Shepard as he knows that there's nothing more he can do for him spiritually at this point.  But there's still the language of judgment and of "lifestyle" that puts everyone else on the outside, including the very person he's talking to, Amanda Gronich.  There's still that easy equation between Shepard's need for the Lord and his "lifestyle," as if the existence of the one necessitates the other.  And, strangely enough, there's no sense of community with any of them.  McKinney's family had ties to this church.  To TBM, they're all outsiders that need brought into the fold; but to Doug Laws, the LDS church and the Mormon home teacher, Henderson was an insider that was thrust out.

And yet, for many people who ascribe to the SBC worldview, that's just how the world works.  It can be a highly individualistic faith, which may explain why it took off so quickly as a denomination since the 1950's (there weren't any SBC churches in Wyoming before then).  If you're a sinner untouched by God's grace, then you're on the outside; the sense of a "body of Christ" in that church is very different than, say, the LDS or Catholic denominations have.  And the way you preach the Gospel is to make people realize they're outsiders in need of grace, which is basically what TBM is doing to Gronich:  Pastor ________ is saying, don't you realize you're on the outside?  Come in, come in.  That may be why he doesn't have an "inside" voice to share.

So that's the way a lot of the Laramie religious community shapes up in terms of their "inside" and "outside" languages.  Let's take one final look in another post at the community as a whole, just to see what we can find...

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