Tuesday, May 4, 2010

What my Buffy the Vampire Slayer T-Shirt Tells me about Jesus.

Tribes, are our visible narratives of self-identity by association with a group. It’s who we want the world to see who we are. According Seth Godin a Tribe is an organic event. Not just something being in community is something that we as humans are evolutionarily geared to be, but that a gathering of has an individual choose to associate with and through that association they give me identity.

As I was reading through Tribes: We Need You To Lead Us, I couldn’t help but think about my own examples of tribe membership. I often describe myself as a nerd, which other nerds get and causes non-nerds to worry for my self-esteem.
Nerd-dom has long been an important subculture, which yes is highly influenced by science fiction and comic books, but really is about:
· imagination,
· utopian community, and a
· hopeful future.

Although the stereotype of the nerd may be the person who hides behind her computer nerds have long been about forming community IRL. While there is no secret handshake, there are certainly ways to measure “nerd cred.” For example, when meeting a new nerd, I might mention that I follow Neil Gaiman on twitter, I can tell you the name of the commanding officers for each Star Trek series, and have been reading megatokyo since comic 83. Yet nothing, absolutely nothing, can beat the establishment of nerd cred through the almighty t-shirt.

T-shirts are a visible way to align myself with a particular tribe. In the nerd world it’s not so much a Sharks vs. Jets situation, a person in a Superman t-shirt would not automatically hate a person wearing a Spider-Man shirt, as much as it is a method of sorting. For example, when I wear my Buffy the Vampire Slayer T-shirt, I expect to get into conversations about why Fox has no understanding of tribe loyalty and why producing video content for the internet is the way of entertainment’s future; I would not expect to have conversations about why Asimov is better than Heinlein or Girls in Refrigerators. In the age of the internet, a t-shirt has also become a way of supporting an artist whose work you particularly enjoy. There are webcomic artists who are able to completely support themselves and their family on t-shirt sales alone. T-Shirts are about preference, declaring knowledge, and ultimately about willingness to support creative thinkers, the glue to our community.

The Lessons from the Obama Tribe

T-shirt declarations are not just from one branch of nerdyness. One of my friends bought a great deal of “Obama chic” during the 2008 campaign and he was even more thrilled when his conservative step-mother bought him an Obama shirt with the declaration “Hope” across it for his birthday. For him, wearing the t-shirt, putting the campaign card in his window, and playing Obama’s key campaign speeches for any roommate walking down the hall. Obama was the leader of a tribe of people, because he was able to inspire people into thinking about how they related to a politician and politics differently.

Godin understands leaders in a different light than how we usually understand leaders to work. First of all Godin understands WORK differently. The Tribe understanding of occupation is the simple idea that if you love what you do for a living, you’ll be a much more interesting individual. Oh sure you’ll be happier doing work that you love, but you’ll also be a credit to your society because your energy and creativity will be more productive and world-changing. Leaders are people who are able to nurture curiosity in a way that it becomes productive to society. They are able to inspire people to take a leap from doing work to ensure a paycheck and risking to fall in love with work that might not pay as much, but is ultimately more rewarding for everyone around them. Most importantly leaders are able to guide individual creativity and channel it into fulfilling a need or goal for the whole tribe or the rest of society.

Obama was this type of leader for my friend. He took off a semester from school to do what I teasingly called “Work for Obama.” Even though he was set by the Obama administration to God-knows-where, and worked more than 100 hours a week, and even though he had to sacrifice what was familiar and time with those he loved, he was happy. He leads campaigns now. He has been inspired, by one leader to become a leader.

Buffy T-Shirt + Jesus = Rebranding Christianity

The third key component to being a tribe is marketing. Now being my generally anti-consumerist self, I have to admit that this was the idea that was the hardest for me to swallow. Godin declares:
Marketing changed the idea of stability. It’s human nature – we still assume the world is stable… and we’re wrong. We’re wrong because the dynamics of marketing and storytelling and the incessant drumbeat of advertising have taught us to be restless in the face of stability. And the Internet just amplifies this lesson.
I worry about this part of our culture. If it’s not new, it’s disposable. And if it’s disposable, we’ll throw it out. Forever 21 is a perfect example of this – in as little as six weeks runway fashion can now be worn by everyone with a spare twenty dollars. And in about three months, it can be thrown away. I fret about my car’s gasoline that seems to disappear, but really creates trash (carbon dioxide, smog) that we don’t or won’t see. Our desire for the new, the pleasure that derives from these goods, doesn’t entirely give us a chance to fully come to terms with how to deconstruct or recycle the old.

Then I began to think, what is marketing of the new is just another way to explain openness to creativity? What if being in a tribe not just about association with like-minded people, but an excitement about what these people will bring to the table next?

To go back to my Buffy t-shirt, I wear that with pride, because I like to be a part of a group that is familiar with Joss Whedon’s work. Eventually, I will watch whatever Joss Whedon writes. Yes, even the really gross, scary horror stuff (and not just because @gravelittleloli will make me), but because I’m always interested in the stories that Joss tells. There is something about his archetypes of strong, yet vulnerable, yet loving women intrigue me and his witty dialogue always makes me laugh. Even though I get annoyed at the fact that he enjoys creating romantic tension just for the sheer joy of murdering them, I still get pulled in each time. I’m curious about what Joss has to say next, and so I keep coming back. I belong to this tribe, I advertise that I belong to this tribe, because I am curious about what will come next and I want to be a part of that discussion.

Which brings me of all places to Christianity. You see, I think Jesus was a Leader in a tribal sense. There seemed to be a level of inspiration and guidance of creativity that was embodied in Jesus that is astonishing. There is also a level of inspiration and hope that drew people in. I bet that people following Jesus were a hundred thousand times more eager to hear his next sermon than I am to see a sequel to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-long Blog.

Today though, I’m not sure that the church has that ability to be encapsulated by a t-shirt. I don’t think I could wear a Methodist T-shirt that declares “I write John Wesley Fanfiction” and expect to have random conversations about grace and social justice at a Christian convention. My Christianity has lost its ability to be conveyed in t-shirt form. We’ve lost our ability to market – to be able to be creative and exciting in a publically expressible form of loyalty. Yet what I find significant in nerdyness, is in fact, what I also find available in Christianity. Imagination, Utopian community, and creativity are all there in Christianity, why can't I express that easily?

I think for Methodists, mainline protestants, or progressive Christians, our significant landfill has finally caught up to us. We can’t just dispose of our old ideas, because our old ideas are so prominent in everyone else’s minds, that they stuck when we try to explain the new. We need to be able to explain our tribe better, we need to make it

So, Godin’s challenge is not just to identify tribes or to understand how they work, but is a call to action about the ways in which we can lead them. He thinks that each and every single one of us has the potential to be a leader. I think my call as a future Christian leader of a progressive, mainline church is not to be to see new tribes and create them, but instead to understand what makes Christianity as awesome as being a nerd, and go from there.

[Grammar edit and sentence tightening occurred. And I added tags. RM]

4 comments:

Erica said...

I really liked this post.

I do agree that progressive Christians need to market better. If nothing to say, 'hey , I follow hippie, Utopian Jesus.'

And on the subject of marketing, I see a lot of potential for link-baiting this post.

Margaret said...

Heck yes I would buy a "John Wesley Fanfiction" t-shirt. I would also break my anti-fanfic rule to read some JW fanfiction. Next blog post, you should give us some... ;)

Seriously, great post. :)

Ruth said...

Erica,

What is link baiting? Oh wise marketing guru, please lend me your wisdom.

Also, I kinda love the summation of "I follow a hippie, Utopian Jesus." I think I have a new thesis statement for my theology.

Ruth said...

Margaret,

Thanks!

Post-finals, I will get to J.Wes fanfic written, just because there is so much potential. So. Much. (Like that time that John Wesley had to stowaway on a boat to escape the heathen lands of Georgia.) I think it will be my Annual Conference project, because that would just make my Methodist geekiness that much more fun.