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?”
Indeed is an interesting time… but I have a certain sense of optimism…. maybe we will come through this with a sense that life is certainly fragile (perhaps more so than we thought prior to the pandemic), but also precious… there are reports of clearer skies, and wildlife in places not seen in decades; our environment, if given a chance is very resilient; maybe we can make changes now to have a greener, better world…. maybe we will come through the pandemic realizing that we need less things and that relationships are so much more important than things… I have a dream (okay I stole that…LOL)… and maybe the church can help promote some of these dreams. After all, our first job as humans was stewards of this Earth. Clearly Jesus was more interested in people than things. And we are so precious, that Jesus was willing to did for us. So, maybe this pandemic can be a catalyst for positive change…
I appreciate your optimism, Jimmy. I do indeed hope and pray that this pandemic can be, as you say, “a catalyst for positive change.” Certainly the examples you cite are hopeful and should provide inspiration for us as we continue to make our way through this. Thanks.
“..there are reports of clearer skies, and wildlife in places not seen in decades;”
At the height of the shutdown this spring, I was hearing birds that I’ve never heard before, very unusual sounds, It was really neat, but as traffic slowly began to pick up again those birds disappeared, back into the countryside i suppose.
You sound somewhat defeated…? Be assured Jim and I have watched every service and I have sung along, added my “Amens”, and recorded the prayer requests as always. And during LMC’s Sundays off, we watch another MChurch C service. Maybe some of the people who say they don’t watch LMC’s recordings should come to the recordings and just see the work that goes into providing a service for Sundays.
Perhaps we need more Zoom services as we can then communicate with others but still feel safe at home. Recorded services give us the option to watch at anytime after posting, but Zoom gives the visual and auditory contacts.
It does seem to be a problem for pastors as services are your work as attested also by Craig Neufeld on Sunday.
We continue to pray for you and others in leadership as well as your family.
Take heart and God bless.
Thanks very much, Beth. I appreciate your prayers for me and for all those in leadership during these challenging times.
(I also appreciate those, like you, who remain in the 1/3 described in the Barna study!)
Sara and I look forward to our Sunday morning service each week. We only missed the one on zoom and only because I couldn’t get the sound. We were able to read the sermon on line and thanks to Linda for posting their music on our website we were able to hear the singing as well. I’m sure its difficult to have to do things this way but we just want you and the team to know that it’s much appreciated and we support you all with our prayers.
Thank you so much for this encouraging note, Marge! I really appreciate it and your prayers.
Time interval/covid time: It’s interesting that ,based on what I’ve read, most people right now don’t even know what day it is for sure…I can vouch for that 🙂 ..I know the busier I am during the day the faster time seems to go by and vise-versa. Imagine what living a monks life would do to your sense of time….
Hygiene Theater: This “Theater” is rife with hypocrisy, exemptions and exclusions. I’ve observed that a lot (not all) of this strict mask policing stuff is frequently tied to either Virtue Signaling or a Media induced Hysteria/Neurotic Phobia designed to keep you glued to the TV for the most current “BREAKING NEWS”. I just read a story of a couple out for a walk who were maced by a woman for not wearing their masks.
—(full disclosure: I do wear a mask where mandated)
Doomscrolling: ..I’m in the gray area here, somewhere between doomscrolling and being well informed. I’ve learned not to trust the mainstream media’s narrative concerning the “pandemic theater” but instead go deep diving into various credible online news sources and listening to the viral Experts who happen to have a contrarian view to the media controlled pandemic narrative.
I’m afraid Church analysis isn’t going to make any difference at this stage. The World has entered into a Paradigm Shift now and there is no stopping/slowing or changing it. We are on a collision course with our Destiny. Every child of God should be eagerly anticipating the future as we witness the unfolding of the End of The Age… and the imminent return of Christ our Savior.
(The opinions expressed here are solely mine and not those of the Blog owner)
Thanks, Mike. It certainly does feel we are drowning in analysis these days, much of its value debatable.
Yes. Your essay is a reflection of my own observations. The overuse of hand sanitizer (hasn’t it been proven to be largely ineffective?) and the sanitizing of all hard surfaces points to attempts to “do something” when there’s nothing to be done and control that which cannot be controlled. I put it in the same category as stockpiling TP. Fear is a motivator, for sure, just not a very rational one, nor a long term one.
Having been through all the stages of grief at least twice so far, I’ve come to acceptance for now. I wonder whether this is a transition time. And I, for one, am not concerned about the church. Should I be? My greatest need is not for another Sunday sermon. Oh, I take spiritual formation very seriously and I attend a church where the preacher is very well educated and an excellent speaker. No disrespect to ‘another Sunday sermon’ at all. What I need is the people. I need to hug people, eat with people, encourage, be encouraged, irritate and be irritated. I can play the sermon later, if I get around to it.
As we move forward, church life will look different. Will we sing? Will we shake hands or hug? Will our numbers be smaller? Or just different? All of life will be different. Maybe that’s as it should be.
Thanks, Lori. Your comments resonate with what I am hearing from many people these days with respect both to fear as a motivation and to what they miss about church (not the sermons, the people). I think you’re right, all of life will certainly be different. The question of how we will prioritize our deep need for embodied human connection (in church and beyond) in the context of a pandemic which seems to punish precisely this need is the big one, for me.