‘I’m 67 years old and have lived alone since the death last year of both my parents. I never married because for years I belonged to a small home church and so never met a Christian woman of my own age. I hear my neighbours saying mean things about me and in the street children shout at me. I suffer a lot from anxiety so I mostly stay at home watching TV but I end up watching horrible stuff.’
Recently I organised and took part in an experiment in performance autoethnography. The objective was to investigate performance autoethnography’s potential to increase a sense of belonging, facilitate mutual support, and reinforce Christian identities among the participants. This blog explores the value of this approach, in the context of a men’s ministry serving a working-class congregation. The experiment occurred in late October, in the guise of a men’s Christian storytelling evening. Several men who attended were like Peter and felt marginalised by Church and wider society. Also present were men in positions of leadership in the Church.
Autoethnography involves the analysis of personal experience to better understand cultural experiences. Performance autoethnography has additional therapeutic and political objectives. Discussing these, Heather Walton says ‘within the performance of personal lives there is always the chance to improve, invent and change’2. Walton references Norman Denzin as one of the most influential advocates of performance autoethnography and as someone who holds that ‘narrative is a political act’3. The methodology of the evening was based on the performance autoethnographic approaches of Norman Denzin and Dwight Conquergood.
Conquergood writes of the need to belong to a community which supplies mutual support and well-being through creative communication practices. Conquergood’s groups are social formations constituted and sustained by appeals to their own values which then serve as a bulwark against dominant spaces and structures of exclusion and oppression4.
Stuart Hall argues that because the old social identities are declining the postmodern subject has no fixed, essential or permanent identity social or conscious. He asserts that when something considered fixed and coherent is displaced it can result in the experience of doubt and uncertainty5.
Some people are untroubled with less certain identities. However, others like Peter suffer with feelings of doubt and uncertainty. Hall writes that ‘if we do have a unified identity it is because we construct a comforting story or narrative about ourselves’6. Our meeting was intended to allow the participants to construct such a narrative from Christian values and stories. The aims were to counter feelings of doubt and uncertainty and provide a bulwark against structures of exclusion and oppression.
We sat watching the flames under the stars and reflected on Abraham and Moses. The men told their own stories, listened to each other and theorized on their lives. Peter’s story was typical in that it was filled with multiple stories: His grieving for his parents; his regrets for not marrying; his disappointment with his church; the perceived hostility of, and his isolation from his neighbours; and his dependence on television. He told his stories before the group of listeners and in doing so looked back on his life to make sense of it. As each man present told their stories a collective Christian story ‘of our fallen human condition, held in God’s love’ emerged. In this way, the event was therapeutic as it allowed us to speak greater Christian meaning into our lives and helped make sense of the world around us.
The group included men who did not fully identify as Christians, including some, like Peter, who felt they had been wounded by Church. Those with authority in the Church listened to the testimony of these men and were prompted to consider what could be done to address the feelings of hurt, doubt and uncertainty. This made the evening political (in that it had the potential to create transformation within the Church as well as within the individuals present).
- This is not Peter’s real name.
- Heather Walton, Writing Methods in Theological Reflections, Sage, London, 2014, p7
- Walton, p8
- Dwight Conquergood, Cultural Struggles Performance, Ethnography, Praxis, University of Michigan Press, USA, 2013, p254
- Stuart Hall, Modernity: An introduction to modern societies, Blackwall, Oxford, 1996, p59
- Hall, 598
About the Author
Mike Bryon was a participant in our April 2017 workshop “Sharing our stories: How can storytelling build peace?” and is studying for an MA in Christian Ministry at Chichester University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.