I was talking to someone I hadn’t touched base with in a while. They said something like, “It looks like you’re doing great,” based on what they saw on Facebook.
I smiled and didn’t have the heart to tell them I was on the struggle bus. I worried about my students and families whom I hadn’t connected with in a while or had trouble maintaining contact. Were they OK? What did they need? I was trying to keep abreast of the various ways people were doing ministry, asking questions, adopting things, then modifying and making changes based on feedback. And I felt exhausted from talking to the blue dot on my laptop camera, attempting to communicate a sense of non-anxious presence and peace to the church I love and who needed a good word.
I know I’m not the only person to experience this. Our society collectively feels the weight of rapid adjustment of life in a pandemic, with little relief in sight. We all are on the struggle bus.
With COVID, online life becomes more important
In this season, our online lives are the primary ways people know us. I went from using Facebook passively, wishing people happy birthday; to using it almost every day, as a means of connection with others and communicating church events. I have used Facebook more in the past seven months than the past 10 years. It sometimes is the only tool, or maybe easiest tool, to connect with people from different aspects of my life or to share about ministry.
I have mixed feelings about how I use social media: Am I self-promoting, and what is the line where it becomes narcissistic? How do we create community online, devoid of facial expressions and responses, where words can so often be misinterpreted? How much of myself do I, and should I, reveal online?
In this new season, I’ve reexamined notions of performativity and authenticity as I reflect on the ways in which I have “performed” on social media. Are we performing on social media, or do we express our authentic selves?
Maybe I’m asking the wrong question. I’m wondering if we unnecessarily demonize/criticize concepts of “performativity” and perhaps don’t offer a critical lens to how we view authenticity. Is authenticity an illusion, and can it be curated? It made me wonder: what do authenticity and performance mean in a digital world?
How am I performing to create an identity?
In her book Gender Trouble, Judith Butler, a feminist and queer theorist, explains performativity as a way to fashion or create identity. Sometimes, we perform intentionally, and other times, social rules and the culture around us compel us to act in certain ways. Our identity is a result of the social cues around us, but we can subvert social cues in different ways as we act out our identities. For instance, I may wear men’s shorts and a T-shirt when I work out because I feel comfortable, only to wear a floral dress the next day at church to preach. One day I transgress what society considers feminine, the next day I embrace it in my style.
“The online world allows us more opportunities to become aware of our performance. Are we faking what we say?”
All preachers, to a degree, perform. The spoken sermon feels like a performance. Many of us preacher-types have a different preaching voice than a conversational voice — not unlike many politicians. Or actors. The online world allows us more opportunities to become aware of our performance. Are we faking what we say? Does this mean we are not authentic? How do we define authenticity anyway?
As someone who finds herself as an Enneagram 3 (the achiever or performer), authenticity serves as a healthy attribute; when I live at my best, I present as authentic. Brené Brown, a sociologist, defines authenticity as “a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”
While this statement can prove useful, I choose not to translate it wholly to my online life. The beauty and limitation of social media is that we get to choose how others see us. For people with marginalized identities — like LGBTQ people who are still closeted or people who have been bullied — social media serves as a lifeline of connection.
And authenticity, at least how our society depicts it more broadly, is a fluid concept as well. Some people describe how Instagram influencers “curate” authenticity. That critique centers around shared vulnerability without self-reflection.
Other times, “authenticity” serves as a marketing tool. In perceiving advertising for the “authentic taco,” Jason Ellsworth, a Ph.D. candidate in social anthropology, suggests rhetoric of “authenticity” is more about who makes a claim, rather than the thing itself. He suggests: “Rather than being descriptive, authenticity is often contestable and hard to pin down. It is frequently a mechanism for marketing, used to separate one thing from another — the real from the unreal or the us from them.”
How do we think about our faith as it relates to authenticity and performance in pandemic life? Here are my three provisional thoughts:
“Performance does not mean my digital connections are fake.”
First, realize everyone performs and curates, and that is OK. Almost everybody intentionally chooses what they share, how they share, and what they conceal. We practice this with in-person interactions, and we can — and perhaps should — practice this online. Performance does not mean my digital connections are fake, thank goodness! We still make meaningful connections. We do not know the whole story, nor do we need to.
Second, rather than seeking authenticity, seek truth. The search for authenticity is like the judicial standard of originalism. Both limit consideration of contextual realities and the openness to change. Rather, what truths do we see in our digital lives, and the digital lives of others? How do these truths lead to freedom in Christ (John 8:28)? How does the truth enable us to live justly (Isaiah 59)? If what we believe or how we behave does not lead to a more just society, we can uncover the lies within that belief or behavior system.
Third, love my neighbor as myself on social media. Loving God and loving neighbor sum up the law, as Jesus reminds us in Mark 13. Loving our neighbor looks like seeking the truth and telling the truth. Loving ourselves may look like stepping away from social media. And loving God looks like treating every person as if they are the imago dei.
Ultimately, we all ride the struggle bus, as we seek to live faithfully and safely while maintaining meaningful connection. Knowing this, we can offer grace to others around us, while we give grace to ourselves.
Kate Hanch serves as associate pastor for youth and families at First St. Charles United Methodist Church in Missouri. She earned a master of divinity degree from Central Baptist Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in theology and ethics from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. She is ordained in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and lives in O’Fallon, Mo., with her husband, Steve.