Leadership Scholars

It’s All In The Eyes: Rethinking our Affect in our Churches

By Chris West

Recently, the world’s most popular therapist, Brené Brown, interviewed Sarah Niles, who plays the sports therapist in the popular Apple TV show Ted Lasso.

On her podcast, in true Brené Brown fashion, helped listeners better understand their own vulnerability and the connection they have to actors, especially those with talent. In discussing the role of emotion and authenticity in acting, Niles shares a fascinating insight from her initial interaction with Jason Sudeikis, Ted Lasso himself, and no it wasn’t just “believe.”

Jason Sudeikis and Sarah Niles in Ted Lasso

Good acting, Sudeikis reminds Niles, “is all in the eyes”. 

Acting is not just about memorizing lines but about believing and stepping into a role and making other people believe. This revelation about the acting profession stuck with me because just that morning, I was reading a Duke Press blog post by the notable Oxford scholar of science and religion, Dr. Donovan O. Schaefer.

In this blog post, Schaefer beautifully wrote,

“An actor’s instrument is not a script, but a body. Effective actors will meticulously use every aspect of their bodies—their voice, hands, face, posture, stride, gaze, gait, and muscles—to build an affective symphony. Directors, too, use a nonverbal repertoire—including timing, staging, and perspective—to weave a thick knot of affects through their script. The most expertly scripted play can be ruined by underwhelming acting, clumsy direction, or confusing staging. This is because the work of making bodies move is not done by words alone, or even by words primarily. Drama kids think not only about script, but about expression, oration, gesticulation, blocking, staging, sound, atmosphere, and a whole embodied toolkit of movements and gestures. These elements are assembled into finely-tuned affect-distribution machines. A play’s success is measured by its ability to deliver a feast of affects.”

Recently, the American public has become fascinated by new education and pedagogical approaches to dealing with social issues, especially in regards to race. This conversation on the critical race theory approach has come up more than once recently not just in classes or with friends but among the members of my church. It seems that nearly everyone has a strong opinion about racial education.

My goal here is not to get into the benefits or risks of CRT, instead, let us consider what is being discussed and debated. It would be a bit silly to think this is just a discussion about pedagogy. Rather, from conversations I have been a part of and from what research I have done, it seems that many in this public discourse are concerned about how we, as a society, discuss difficult topics that affect not just how we think rationally but how we feel. This is a discussion about emotion and belief.

This should come as no surprise. At least, not if you have read Marc Brackett’s book, Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive. As the founding director of Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence, Marc studies the development of emotional intelligence and how education shapes our ability to relate emotionally. The sad fact is, the average American just does not possess the level of emotional language that makes them capable of adequately expressing complex feelings or the ability to express multiple feelings at once. We have all felt the cognitive dissonance of being deeply melancholy about something but encountering a moment of appreciation or even joy.

However, many in our congregations and the world around us might argue that we ought to use rationality. In fact, this is a position I myself am quite sympathetic to. There must certainly be room for rational discussion, debate, and deliberation. Living in a post-enlightenment society, rationality certainly has a high place in our world. This is not the whole story though.

Much of what inspires or forms us, from education to acting, is not as rational as previously assumed but emotional. Perhaps, like acting, it really is “all (or mostly) in the eyes”.

In his blog post, cited above, Schaefer is doing more than describing the roles and talents of actors. He is urging us to consider philosophies not just on their merit of rationality but considering the emotional affect they have upon the learner, as well as the teacher. Affect theory, which is being described, also called critical theory, encompasses critical race theory.

Again, to quote Schaefer, “The currency that connects our bodies and fuses us into communities is not a rationally elected choice, but a felt compulsion. This is the insight of affect theory: sovereign consciousness—including reason—is an effect of a matrix of moving lines of force, traveling through us and leaving power in their wake.” 

The call to take CRT into account is one to be thoughtful about our emotions and how we affect others, our empathy. There is certainly room to disagree about outcomes and conclusions, of course, but as I stated above, my goal is not to get you all to rethink CRT.

The church needs to consider affect theory.

In a world that is becoming ever more complex, in which churches are expanding their digital presence, we must consider the role of performance in our religious services. We must consider affect theory and the place of collective effervescence, ie communal emotion, in public worship. If collective emotion in worship is a primary reason people attend church services regularly and a source of personal transformation, how might changing to host an online service affect that? If a church wants to engage in racial reconciliation work by hosting a new program, how might particular language or actions in this process affect or shape the feelings of participants?

In working to become a bigger tent or build a larger table, churches would do well not to lose what makes them unique. Likewise, it would be a drastic organizational failure to expand their current programs without taking time and space to intentionally consider what place these spaces have on collective emotion, emotional learning, and the language around feelings. Are they succeeding in making more kind, generous, inclusive people who take their call to love God and neighbor seriously, or are our actions inhibiting emotional growth and prohibiting being a good neighbor?

The new fascination with Ted Lasso might just be a desire to see the scrappy and, quite literally, out-of-his-league American football coach win a championship. Alternatively, there might be a desire to “believe” and a deeply emotional connection to this fictional team whose story has captured the eyes of the American public. Perhaps leaders in our congregations are like great actors, breaking down walls between our rationality and emotions. Belief is more than rationality.

To quote a therapist I saw once, “The goal of therapy, as I see it, is not to get people to understand things, though that is certainly a great first step. No, rather, my aim is, like a great actor or actress, to make you feel that you can change your behavior, outlook, mindset… to inspire belief. Belief, as I define it, is when your thoughts, intellect, are in alignment with your emotions, your body. When you believe something, it is real for you.”

Chris is a first-year M.Div. student at Duke Divinity where he is a CBF Leadership Scholar and part of the Baptist House of Studies. Chris is currently serving as an Offering for Global Missions advocate through Student.Go. Additionally, Chris works as an archival assistant for the Black Pastoral Leadership Collaboration at Duke Divinity and is pursuing certificates through the Theology, Medicine, and Culture (TMC) program and Office of Black Churches Studies.

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