Here is an excerpt from one of the papers in my Masters Portfolio which I think has some interesting things to say about what might be emerging in this movement of God (very much from my personal perspective). I apologize for the length of some of the paragraphs.
The Prick of Doubt
Something strange happened to me in 2005. I woke up. I realized I had changed, that my heart and life were different, that my spirit was awake to the world. It started with a trip to the mountains, and ended with a piercing. And in-between, I found a new identity in doubt where I had once found my identity in faith.
I drove up I-25 past Santa Fe, NM, deep in conversation with my friend Jennifer, wondering aloud about my doubts for the first time in many years. We were attending a Gathering of like-minded believers who broached many topics which were not being explored consistently through the mainstream church. Being at the Gathering felt like sitting next to a well, drinking deeply of the doubts and uncertainties that troubled and defined my own faith, and finding a wild collection of other believers (and many non-believers) who were as interested in the questions as they were in the answers. This open expression of doubt turned me on. A crisis of faith I had been submerging suddenly burst to the surface and was welcomed into the light. I was given an opportunity to express my uncertainties and the strange ideas I had harbored about faith. And I was surrounded by fellow seekers: evangelicals, published authors, atheists, and theologians who were all embarked on their own spiritual journeys through doubt. As the week progressed, I felt a growing and desperate need for some physical manifestation of my internal change. I wanted to pierce something.
An acquaintance recently told me that this preoccupation with body art as spiritual expression is very postmodern. I can’t back that up with scholarship, but I can tell you that I became obsessed with finding a symbolic representation of the changes in my spiritual processes. In many ways, I’ve embraced a postmodern view of belief: I’m more interested in the stories of faith experiences, I’m willing to deconstruct how we come to our beliefs, and I’m more vocal about the need for the church to truly help people and involve itself in social justice issues. So I wanted something that could be seen as both a postmodern expression and a spiritual one, something that would allow me to explain myself to both the secular and spiritual worlds I inhabit.
Identity and Belief
Can a believer’s identity be separated from her faith? I recently asked a version of this question in an online discussion forum peopled by doubters, believers, seekers, agnostics, and others interested in the conversation happening within a movement of Christianity called the “emerging church.” As the rhetoric of faith evolves through post-modern, post-colonial deconstruction, the conversation must include the way in which believers identify themselves and the labels that will be given to the new belief structures.
Many modern evangelical Christians follow the traditional belief that an unbroken lineage of faith began with Abraham, continued through Jesus and culminates in today’s believer. Individually, evangelicals tend to imagine that their identity of faith corresponds to a moment in time, the moment they were “born again.” The emerging church offers a different perspective: that faith is not a static thing, but flexible and changing, an opportunity to explore all that being a believer might mean to an individual, and should include the evolution of beliefs over time as more questions are asked in the search for God.
Personal identity is tied to the public/political groups of which an individual is a member, according to Renato Rosaldo, and as such the development of identity is more likely to be a process of evolution than the product of a single crisis event (118-119). Rosaldo writes that the process of identity can include a person’s “entry into already established social processes” (119), which, in the case of the believer, might include either the established church, or a movement such as the emerging church. The movement provides a “consciousness-raising” aspect as it allows its members to discover “that their individual issues were in fact collective” (119). Newcomers to the emergent conversation often express surprise that they are not alone when they encounter a member blog or discussion forum. The move from difference to acceptance opens a channel for communication that in many cases has never existed before.
Among the tenets of this new form of faith, an important theme is replacing dogmatic language with more accessible, plain spoken words. I can remember riding in the truck with my father, taking his version of The Good News Bible from the dashboard. As we drove to horse shows, we read. I learned to read aloud from that simple rewriting of scripture. A more recent version, The Message, has taken the idea of simple language and incorporated slang and cultural re-interpretation of certain passages to make them more understandable in a post-modern context. The Message has been heavily criticized by the evangelical church, critiqued as using “terms…analogous to those used in New Age and Occult literature (MacDonald, 1).”
Conversely, the exclusionary language of the conservative church has been dubbed “hate speech.” Many of us have come to agree–not that the intent behind the words is hate, but that the exclusionary nature of the words makes them analogous with hate speech. The Jesus that I follow doesn’t exclude people, but instead is known for his tolerance and welcome. The way I express what I believe (or doubt) should be as easy for my best friend, who is Hindu, to understand as it is for someone raised in the same religious tradition as myself. But my friends who remain in the evangelical church worry that I have opened the door to heresy, that I may be swayed from what they sincerely believe is the only way to experience God.
The ad begins with images of Central Avenue in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Most of the businesses that are shown are tattoo parlors or piercing salons. Other images show people with obvious piercings, close-ups on a piercing or tattoo taking place, or clear tattoos. Some of the people in the images speak, as if answering a question: “Because I like them,” “It’s a way that I can express myself,” “Because it hurts.” The question has obviously been “Why?”–why inflict this pain, why undergo the needle? As the image of the man giving the final answer (“Because it hurts”) fades, the word “pierced” emerges on the screen followed by a crucifix.
Piercing is a spiritual concept, whether within the context of my Christian tradition or in any of numerous other religions. The book of Isaiah, taken by literalists as being predictive of Jesus’ crucifixion, says “he was pierced for our transgressions” (NIV Isaiah 53:5). And Jesus was indeed pierced in many ways–by the nails that were placed in his wrists and feet, by a centurion’s blade when he was discovered to be dead. The ad implies that Jesus’ experience creates an affinity with someone seeking self-expression through piercing or tattooing. Long before I saw the ad, I had determined that I would express that prick of doubt, that gorgeous, excruciating passion, with a piercing. So I began looking for a scriptural reference that would let me base my decision in both sides of the world I inhabit.
In the Hebrew scripture, ear piercing represented lifelong servitude (NIV Exodus 21:6). In modern Christian parlance, the phrase “my ear has been pierced” is often symbolic of a way in which God might communicate with the believer. Unfortunately, pierced ears are purely ornamental in our American culture, so getting my ears pierced seemed meaningless. Then I rediscovered the story of Isaac and Rebekah. Isaac, Abraham’s son, sent a gift of jewelry to his future wife, which consisted of a nose ring and two bracelets (Genesis 24:22). The nose ring seemed symbolic of a promise, a relationship, perhaps even the potential of love. I made the decision to pierce my nose as a symbolic love offering to God.
Piercing my nose was looked on as a triviality by some and a sinful mutilation of my body by others. One commenter on my blog called it a “new circumcision” (Whitewave, October 20, 2005). The little old ladies at church looked askance, questioned me and, in some cases, lectured me. To this day, my mother will not take a picture of or with me. And yet for me it is nothing more than a physical manifestation of this feeling that I am changed, that I am more myself. It ties me to my faith. It ties me to my life outside of church.
Coming out of an evangelical Christian tradition, my evolving sympathy with postmodernism has made me suspect in the churches where I used to worship and work. When I decided to pierce my nose, I also decided to stop self-identifying as a Christian. I still have a desire to follow the teachings of Jesus, I still believe in “God-capital-G,” but I no longer feel the need to view God through an evangelical lens, or to believe in a divine Christ. Changing the vocabulary for myself has been confusing.
You see, who I am–how I explain myself to the world, what I see when I look in the mirror, what my friends reflect back–is all tied up in what I believe. Am I really any different? I have a nose-piercing which represents something that I felt change in my spirit five years ago. And yet I have described that moment as a re-awakening, which seems to imply a return to something already known. Am I discovering/rediscovering the self I have always been? I seem different to myself. I seem more myself than ever.
As of today: the distance I’ve come in five years can’t be marked by a pierced nose or a change of heart but by something I see in many churches that are embracing the change from within–a safe place to ask questions and express the doubts. We’ve had that safety in this group. Now, perhaps, we are girded ourselves to go back into the church at large and provide a safety net for others.