Formative vs Performative

March 18, 2020

This past weekend we tuned into a streaming broadcast of Mass amidst the outbreak.

I couldn’t stand it. This has been a long running problem that I wrote about almost ten years ago too. I thought then that it was just the dreadful music. Now I’m wondering if that’s just a symptom of how we treat Mass.

Many of our institutions that used to be formative are now performative. They’re not about shaping, they’re about seeing and - even more so - being seen.

Here’s a quote from Russ Roberts from an interview on Yuval Levin’s book A Time To Build:

But I think you’ve really identified something much deeper, which is that the ground has shifted beneath the feet of the people in these institutions. And those of us who are part of them, those of us who consume their output, their work, who contribute to them or enjoy their—what they do—across the board, and this is why it’s such a useful of deep insight—across the board, these institutions as you put it, have become per-formative rather than formative.

And that just—a light bulb came on for me when I read that. I tend to think about the media as the most disturbing thing that’s going on. I follow a lot of journalists on Twitter from the Left and the Right, and they write things that are shocking. And retweet things that are shocking to someone who purports to be objective. I know in the past they weren’t objective. That’s okay.

But they pretended to be and they at least strove to be. They tried to be. And now they seem like they don’t try to be.

There’s always been a bit of performance in Church. It’s a part of the worship and the community building that takes place there. A part of doing it together. Admittedly, this was one of my problems with the streaming Internet version of Mass - it wasn’t my community. Different communities have different capacities for the performative part of worship. I prefer spoken Mass with no music. But in general, it’s also true that there’s a danger in moving the communal nature of worship in the same direction as the rest of our culture, where The Most Important Thing isn’t substance but to see and be seen.

We’re all reeling from the change that’s happened in journalism. Journalists were never objective, as Russ says, but at least they tried to be. In the search for Truth and God that is Mass and worship, we need to keep our focus on the experience being formative.

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