“Steampunk Ecclesiology”

“Steampunk Ecclesiology”
A Sermon by Revs. John E. Gibbons & Megan Lynes
Delivered March 4, 2012
At The First Parish in Bedford

Rev. John Gibbons:
Last week, when I asked how many of you had any idea what steampunk is, a surprising number of hands were raised and I have since learned that there are some serious steampunkers among us, including Karl Winkler who graciously provided this fine paraphernalia on the chancel.

And I have learned that among us we also have a few steampunk artists and, as well, that the daughter-in-law of one of our members has a YouTube video of her steampunk performance as a belly-dancing steam-powered zombie. I kid you not.

Last week, however, quite a number of you did not raise your hands and I’d best give a description of what is meant by this term. (Ecclesiology, by the way, refers to the study of the church, the ecclesia; and I realize that some of you may be as baffled by ecclesiology as you are by steampunk!)

Nonetheless, the term steampunk was coined as a contrast to the postmodern term “cyperpunk,” which has a dystopian, pessimistic, dark and negative view of the future. Steampunk, by contrast, is an artistic subculture, it is a creative community, it is retrofuturistic. It refers to the old-fashioned world of steam but, simultaneously to the future-oriented youth culture of punk). Steampunk is whimsical, it is hopeful and it is optimistic.

Here are a few descriptions taken off the Internet:
“Steampunk is an emerging art and literary movement…a re-imagining of futuristic technology–usually powered by steam and other key tools of the Industrial Revolution. It is essentially Victorian-style science-fiction.”

“Steampunk is characterized by a pastiche of old-fashioned elements of technology combined in surprising ways with more modern ones, resulting in an imaginary world full of technological anachronisms like computers mounted on brass.” (Megan found a webpage full of steampunked cell phones with brass gears and dials and fancy filigree.)

“In steampunk, we see an odd juxtaposition of elements that challenge our view of the world and the way things should be. Some people will belittle steampunk culture as the domain of mildly autistic nerds who are out of touch with reality, but this is a cop-out. Reality is only what we make it, and nothing changes without planting that initial seed of the imagination….”

One religiously-oriented steampunk blog says, “So it is with re-defining the church and what it means to be a cleric –perhaps it is to be an atheist, a Wiccan priestess, a Buddhist monk, or a minister ordained online. At first such movements seem like the province of the eccentric social outcast, but ultimately we accept them as the steam-powered engine of innovation.”

Any questions? Please bear with me.

A few weeks ago, Megan, Lisa, Joe and I attended a UU workshop called “Fashion Us a Post Modern People: Dreaming Church and Faith Formation for the 21st Century.” One of the presentations had a timeline with “Four Ages of the American Church”: the oldest was “agrarian,” the next was “industrial,” the third was that of “the information age,” and the fourth (that which we just now are coming into) is named “the inventive age.”

We are all trying to imagine what church and religion and preaching and community and activism will look like in this inventive age.

At the workshop, it occurred to me that this “inventive age” is not at all a total break with the past but is rather a new creation that incorporates elements of the past – like steampunk! As we move into an exciting and unsettling future, we want a connection with our past as well.

Here we are, for example, on this Town Common. You remember that when we excavated the cellar beneath your feet we found the bones of horses or cows that once grazed on this Common. Our very foundation is agrarian.

One phenomena of modern Unitarian Universalism is the growth of the partner church movement which has reconnected us with modern-day agrarian Unitarians in Transylvania, the Philippines, Uganda and elsewhere. One of my favorite places in the entire world is the outhouse in the barn outside the parsonage in Abasfalva.

You too can have that experience – today! – if you go to our unisex bathroom, sit on the commode and look at the photograph in front of you. That photo is the view from the plank seat of the outhouse and you can see the ladder to the hayloft and you can smell the sweet hay.

There is something that makes us whole again when we reconnect with our agrarian past.

How else to explain such diverse Transylvanian pleasures as milking the goats or the delight of our teenagers when they get to hold the 400-year old communion chalice once used by martyr Francis David? These experiences make us whole.

At the same time, we’re really not simply nostalgic for the past: Like the hymn says, We revere the past but trust the dawning future more. This is the retrofuturism of steampunk.

Here on this agrarian common we are in this historic federal-style church building. (I always enjoyed politician Billy Bulger’s comment when introduced to a UU legislator: “Ah, Unitarians. You’re the ones who meet in wooden buildings!) Some might call this building an anachronism and, yes, fixed pews and maintenance are big challenges, but truly I believe that many people come to our buildings because these places are wood, not plastic, they give roots to rootless people, they offer a timeless connectivity in a disconnected age, there is a solidity here when it seems that all other data immaterially resides in The Cloud.

I’m told there is a church somewhere that advertises with pride and success, “Come here to worship like it’s 800 years ago!” We don’t say, “Turn now to your Kindle;” we say, “turn to your hymnal!” What a retro steampunk thing to do!

Now that organ, that thing could be powered by steam… and, in fact, it used to be that someone would be on the other side of that wall and would pump the organ’s bellows…just like the minister did this morning in Abasfalva when he climbed down from the pulpit, then up to the balcony so he could both preach and play the organ!

On NPR this week, some of you may have heard church historian Diana Butler Bass who recently wrote, “Something startling is happening in American religion: We are witnessing the end of church or, at the very least, the end of conventional church.” At a workshop some of us attended yesterday it was predicted that of the 350,000 churches in America today, fully half of them – 175,000 churches – are likely to close within 25-40 years.

Butler Bass observes that for many people, the word “religion” carries negative associations (and I don’t need to tell you why).

Oddly, she says that many people have a positive association with the self-description, “spiritual and religious.” She says, “‘Spiritual and religious’ expresses a grassroots desire for new kinds of faith communities, where institutional structures do not inhibit or impede one’s relationship with God or neighbor. Americans are searching for churches – and temples, synagogues, and mosques – that are not caught up in political intrigue, rigid rules and prohibitions, institutional maintenance, unresponsive authorities, and inflexible dogma but instead offer pathways of life-giving spiritual experience, connection, meaning, vocation, and doing justice in the world. Americans are not rejecting faith – they are, however, rejecting self-serving religious institutions.”

Steampunk is described as “an odd juxtaposition of elements that challenge our view of the world and the way things should be.” It’s an apt description, as well, of what this church is and yet can be.

One more note about steampunk: To research this sermon, on Thursday Megan and I took a field trip to the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation, also known as the Steampunk Museum, in the city of Waltham, also known as Steampunk City. (Parishioner Bill Moonan, it turns out, is a museum trustee.)

Though we were the museum’s only visitors last Thursday, the museum – in an old textile mill on the river – has a wonderful collection of steam engines and industrial machines, bicycles, and Waltham clocks and watches, Edwin Land’s lathe, overhead line shafts, Waltham’s 1872 steam-powered fire engine, an entire cabinet full of dials – speedometer dials, a plethora of oven dials (I learned a whole lot about oven dials, more than I can fit into this homily!), and there were working models of engines and pumps and a console with retractable wires and plugs and switches and a headset. “What’s this?” asked Megan. And, of course, it was an old telephone operator’s switchboard (quite like the still-working one I’ve marveled at in rural Transylvania). Megan promptly took a picture of it with her cell phone.

In the horological section, I learned that the Waltham Watch Company was the first company to successfully make a watch with interchangeable machine-made parts. Later on Thursday, my barber, originally from Waltham, told me his parents gave him a Waltham watch for his high school graduation. Watches used to be things of beauty and pride.

But what happened? The Waltham factory closed in 1958. And these days most young people don’t wear watches. Why not? Because a watch has only one function, it tells time. It’s boring.
We live in an era of multi-functionality. A smartphone can, well, it can probably press your pants – and maybe with steam.

I believe that churches, if they are to survive, must also be places of multi-functionality. But, you know, they once were! This was the Bedford meetinghouse; a place of worship and prayer and preaching and devotion; but a place of learning as well; a place where revolutions were plotted and soldiers mustered; a place where children were raised and elders honored; a place of art and music, a place of sociability, creativity, celebration, commiseration, exploration, and entertainment, too (this used to be the only show in town).

In a steampunk ecclesiology, wonders still the world shall witness.

Bring on, I say, the steam-powered belly-dancing zombies! But, first, Megan.


Rev. Megan Lynes:
Why is the genre called Steampunk like our church today? Here are my top five reasons.

1.) Steampunk fashion is reminiscent of simpler times. Men in waistcoats, women in long dresses sipping tea in a pink parlor. Monocles. Steam trains transporting daily newspapers across the state. Yet bring on the robots, the gadgets and the completely bizarre. Steampunk finds a way to combine the past and the future in an aesthetically pleasing, yet still punkish way. It is a way of life that looks old-fashioned, yet speaks to the future. Our church today must be versatile in just this way. Steady but visionary. Trustworthy, but willing to experiment. We should change part of ourselves with the times. And yet the good old days should also be now. Remember the days when Karl Winkler would put enormous homemade steampunk art on the chancel? Ah yes, the good old days.

2.) Steampunk has a way of humanizing technology in an increasingly streamlined, impersonal world. I agree with John. It seems to me that the age of social media has surpassed even the complexity of Star Trek. When I was a kid it was reaching so far into the future to imagine a world like that. Aren’t emails like time travel? Aren’t drones like unmanned flying war ships? And who could have imagined such a “thing” as an icloud? Our ability to be in touch with absolutely everything all the time can pull us off the track of our own agendas before we know it. Everything is a draw.

Steampunk art is precise, down to earth, tangible. That’s how church is at its best. Precise. Down to earth. Tangible. We come here to unplug, turn off the cell phone, take a deep breath – at last, and in a different way… plug in. We need this. Others need this. Let’s invite them here too.

3.) Steampunk makes visible the gears and linch pins of the human mind. We wondered what would come after post modern art? It is this: All our unseen inner-workings, our fears, rage, addictions, loneliness, as well as the thrilling bells and whistles of wild brilliance, exposed like a bright buttoned costume for all to see.

Steampunk makes a whimsical exhibition of the obvious: the internal confusions we carry about about ourselves, our role in society, our fear of impermanence, our longing to find meaning, how much it matters to us that someone see us for who we really are.

It seems to me that ultimate questions are asked through steampunk costumes, music and art. Can you see who I am? I am showing you. Stand here and be amazed. You will no longer be able to leave me alone with how alone I feel. To really know me is to love me. Let me love you back. Church is a place we come to be seen for who we are.

4.) Steampunkers aren’t satisfied by the status quo. Their art articulates a deliberate wrestling with and against social norms. As viewers, we are asked to re-examine what we take for granted as aspects of daily living. The wheelchair in the slide show moved beyond functionality and entered the world of beauty and pride. Steampunk turns everything upside down so that we can’t help but tune in suddenly to how quirky, boring, essential or nonsensical things in life actually are.

A tagline of steampunk is: “back to the future we never had.” Steampunkers are imagineers. They ask “how could something awesome be created here?” They want a playground for the mind.

Our church is just such a playground for the mind. At our finest we are inventive, thought provoking, visionary activists, and we laugh at ourselves. We do our best to examine social norms. We are not always perfect, but as a community we pledge to open our doors, our hearts, our minds. We strive to be imagineers for justice. This is in fact a revolutionary thought – that we are willing to be uncomfortable for a while if it means we are doing the right thing.

Many of us join in with key social action movements outside our walls, but I have witnessed it here at home too. I remember not long ago a young woman came to church for a while before she moved – she had been so badly burned that she really had no face. We moved toward her as we were able, each of us in our own way, so very gentle. A few months ago she told John and me how very much she misses our community. “I found a home,” she said. “People were good to me.” I like to imagine we’d also welcome a new visitor dressed in feathers or brass gear, or other variations of “different.”

At church we practice wrestling against social norms that keep some people as outcasts, strangers, or without a place to call home. Here we try not to create the status quo. Here our uniqueness is cherished. In our openness I believe we create a fertile playground for the mind.

5.) Lastly, steampunk is a movement that embraces change. It is far more than just brass and watchparts, punked up hair, or funky sounding instruments. Steampunk art, like the movie Hugo, takes an old theme and develops a variation of it that excites the viewer, calls us to become more alive, invites us into the action.

As poet Stanley Kunitz puts it: “I have walked through many lives, some of them my own, and I am not who I was, though some principle of being abides…I am not done with my changes.”

Church is a place we come to when we need to change something about who or how we are in the world. We come here to see how others are creating lives of joy and meaning. We come hoping against hope that something will touch us deeply enough that we leave this place as a new person. We squint or chuckle at what other craziness or stark reality people are embracing here. We get to choose how we want to insert ourselves or lead the way.

Church must always be a place where our people and the institution remain constantly in molting season. Like steampunk art, we must not get too pretty. We must remain relevant and essential in our time. We must never be done with our changes.

Steampunk ecclesiology – punk on!