Even in normal times, late July tends to be a time when things slow down. Church programs have mostly paused for the summer. Services are sparsely attended as many people flock to the cabin or the mountains or wherever else. For those stuck at work, it can be a hot, sluggish stretch of time where inspiration and motivation are in short supply. And this is, again, in normal times. During COVID time? Well, everything feels somehow worse. Words, and the motivation to produce them, seem to have abandoned me. That’s how it’s felt over the last few weeks at any rate. But a few things have been rattling around my head over the last little while. A quiet Monday morning seems as good a time as any to dislodge them.
Over the last week or so, I’ve been reading John Steinbeck’s classic East of Eden. It had been a long-time resident in my “books you really should have read by this stage of your life” file and then, well, COVID happened, furnishing me with a great deal more unstructured time in my life. No more excuses, I suppose. Yesterday morning, I happened across this passage on the nature of time:
Time interval is a strange and contradictory matter in the mind. It would be reasonable to suppose that a routine or an eventless time would seem interminable. It should be so, but it is not. It is the dull eventless times that have no duration whatever. A time splashed with interest, wounded with tragedy, crevassed with joy—that’s the time that seems long in the memory. And this is right when you think about it. Eventlessness has no posts to drape duration on. From nothing to nothing is no time at all.
This seemed to me about as accurate a description of COVID time as you could hope to find. An “eventless” time that seems to have nothing to it. I love how Steinbeck describes more normal times as “splashed with interest, wounded with tragedy, crevassed with joy.” This is what many of us are missing most, I think. This is what is so sadly lacking when our lives are primarily mediated through screens, where our hours are chewed up by listless doomscrolling.
Over the last few months, my daughter will periodically just hop in her car and go off somewhere with her dog. “Where are you going?” I will sometimes ask. “Oh, I don’t know, on an adventure,” she usually replies. The “adventure” could be a trip to Starbucks to get a free “puppicino” (a cup full of whipped cream for the dog to plunge its face into). Or it could be down to the river bottom to walk around. Or a trip to the off-leash dog park. Sometimes you come across other people. Sometimes the dog brings a smile to people’s faces. Sometimes you hear an interesting story or see an unusual thing.
Pretty meager fare, as far as adventures go. But anything’s better than eventlessness. Nothing to nothing is indeed no time at all.
In addition to “doom scrolling,” I added another term to my COVID vocabulary this week: “Hygiene theater.” This one came courtesy of a piece by Derek Thompson in the Atlantic called “Hygiene Theater Is a Huge Waste of Time:”
As a COVID-19 summer surge sweeps the country, deep cleans are all the rage.
National restaurants such as Applebee’s are deputizing sanitation czars to oversee the constant scrubbing of window ledges, menus, and high chairs. The gym chain Planet Fitness is boasting in ads that “there’s no surface we won’t sanitize, no machine we won’t scrub.” New York City is shutting down its subway system every night, for the first time in its 116-year history, to blast the seats, walls, and poles with a variety of antiseptic weaponry, including electrostatic disinfectant sprays…
COVID-19 is apparently a war that will be won through antimicrobial blasting, to ensure that pathogens are banished from every square inch of America’s surface area.
The article focuses mainly on how hygiene theater is a waste of time because scientists now say that the primary way this virus spreads is not on surfaces but through droplets in the air. So, zealously cleansing every surface is a misguided approach and a poor use of resources. It conveys a false sense of security and may even distract people from paying attention to the ways the virus actually does spread most easily.
I zeroed in more on the “theater” part of the equation. I don’t doubt that there are genuine concerns for safety in the midst of it all, but I think hygiene theater has a much to do with marketing as anything else. We want to give the impression that we are virtuous pandemic citizens. Public life quickly becomes a hygiene arms race with everyone scrambling to show how they are taking your health and safety more seriously than anyone else. This is the currency of the pandemic age. Customers aren’t going to open their wallets in some pathetic store with barely even a tattered “keep your distance sign” when the store across the street promises that an employee in a hazmat suit will run around behind you sanitizing everything you glanced in the general direction of, right?
The performative aspect of life during this pandemic is endlessly fascinating to me. I wear a mask when out in public. For the most part. Kind of. Sometimes I forget. Sometimes it slips down below my nose. Sometimes it’s just hot and irritating and I let it hang uselessly below my chin. But I try if for no other reason than to avoid being looked down on by others. Masks are, after all, at least in some limited sense an advertisement of our virtue. Those who wear them care about protecting others. They are good citizens. Those who don’t? Well, they are objects of suspicion and derision. They don’t care about others. They’re probably Trump supporters. Or worse.
Again, I’m on board with masks. But the endless moralizing and shaming and hysteria online gets to be a bit much. Although, I guess given the eventlessness of COVID time, a bit of theatre offers… something.
Earlier in July, a Barna report came out that analyzed online church participation during the pandemic. To the surprise of precisely no one, it doesn’t paint a particularly rosy picture. Only a third of church attending Christians have stayed regularly engaged with the online options of their worshipping communities. The rest have either taken the opportunity to sample the wares of other churches (what better time than when everything’s online?), moved to another church, or stopped attending altogether. My hunch is that this last one is the most common.
Our own little church has been providing regular online worship options for our people since late March. In April and May, engagement was relatively high. In June it started to dwindle. In July it has plummeted. It could be simply because it’s summer (attendance always plummets in summer). Or it could be a general online fatigue. As this pandemic wears on, I think people are just sick of sitting in front of their computers. Most likely, it’s a combination of both.
I wonder, though, what church life will look like whenever we come out the other side of this pandemic. Some people likely won’t be back. I’ve heard too many comments from people who simply don’t miss church, or who dip into online options here and there, but mostly just to connect with people or to hear a bit of music. A number of people have told me, somewhat sheepishly, “I don’t really watch the sermons.” It’s hard to blame them, I suppose. When you’re already online, you can quite easily find more polished products than small churches are able to put together.
Online worship during a pandemic has largely confirmed what many pastors probably already suspected. For many (most?) people, church is more about community than content. It’s an opportunity see their friends, to get a hug, to share a meal together occasionally, to sing some songs that they like. Sermons, however important those who deliver them might think they are, are mostly part of the furniture.
This pandemic has taken away the very things that most people most love about church. Without these, it seems many people are saying, “Why bother?”