At a certain point in my journey I realized how much my high church upbringing had made me suspicious of clergy in suits. When I was growing up, priests wore robes during the service, and had a collar on afterwards. If they weren’t at church, they were dressed casually, like normal people.
But suits? Suits were what businessmen wore. Suits were for car salesmen and motivational speakers. Suits indicated earthly, financial wealth (odd that I never connected the beautiful robes, alter coverings, and gilded Bible pages with wealth).
I associated clergy in suits with men on television. Men with huge congregations – the kind that could afford theatrical lighting and professional cameras. And they were always men. I knew plenty of female clergy that put on collars and dressed in robes. I’d never seen a single one of them wear a suit – even in their off-hours.
Now I know it’s certainly possible for a person to both wear a suit and be an informed presenter of religious teachings. I’m just not used to seeing it. There is a deep and inherent “otherness” for me when I see a preacher in a suit. I don’t think anyone tried to teach such a prejudice to me, I think it formed organically. This trip has offered me many opportunities to examine that prejudice. I have learned through experience that preachers in suits, though they represent a wide range and people and places, do have one thing in common.
I have no idea what they’re talking about.
Arkansas, South Carolina, Maine, Michigan – it doesn’t matter. They always start out clear. “This is the story for today.” “This is the verse we’re going to unpack.” They start to preach on a subject and I’m following along, but then it happens. It happens every time.
“Let’s go back to scripture.”
Suddenly, we’re no longer at that particular paragraph in Corinthians. We’re no longer in the story of Cain and Able. Suddenly we’re in James, or Psalms, or some godawful place in Deuteronomy. At first it makes sense, we’re connecting what we were just talking about to this new place. I can follow that. But it doesn’t last. Inevitably we have to “go back to scripture” again. We hop from one book to the next, connecting seemingly arbitrary dots in the most commonly reinterpreted book in the world. Nothing is given context, nothing has story. By the end I can’t even tell you how many unrelated passages we’ve talked about. And what’s worse, I have no idea what I was supposed to take from the whole thing.
Compare this to the sermons I was raised on. When I imagine a sermon, I am basically seeing a TED Talk. I see an informed and learned professional who has a clear and single message to relate to his or her audience. The inspiration for the talk is one of the scripture readings, and that reading is the only scriptural evidence used. Historical explanations will be given, alternative translations may be cited, but the speaker will rarely move to a different passage. When they do, it will be by way of paraphrasing only. “This is meant to remind us of the story of Moses’s birth, and how he was saved from certain death.” We wouldn’t turn back to Exodus to read about Moses. That’s a different reading. It’s a different sermon. It’s a different day.
For my non-religious readers this may seem a dreadfully specific point to distinguish. I bring it up because it’s a perfect example of how blind we are to the experiences of others. Those parishioners in Arkansas and Michigan have likely only seen the type of sermon you get from a preacher in a suit. My TED Talk religion might come off as boring. They might accuse me of allowing too much of my faith to come from my priests, and not enough from the Bible itself.
With this in mind, I always have trouble when people argue against “religion.” What religion? Which experience gets to take credit for all people of faith? For all of Christianity? Which format is up for debate? Which group gets to remain uninvolved? We like to talk about religion and politics and race and poverty like they are universal truths. But we come at them with such wildly different experiences, it’s no wonder people are more inclined to fight than discuss. We probably aren’t even talking about the same thing.
I’m reminded of a scene from the Oscar Wilde play “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Two women are sitting together at tea, discussing a man they both know named Earnest. As their opinions of Earnest begin to clash, the politeness in the room starts to drop. By the end the women are fighting to the highest degree that polite British society will allow, and all because they don’t realize they are talking about two completely different men, both named Earnest.
I think some people talk about religion thinking it’s all men in suits. I think others assume it can only be women in robes. Neither is right, neither is wrong, and we are destined to always disagree so long as we keep up our mutual ignorance. There is a special part of my stomach that starts to turn when I realize I have been ignorant about someone else’s experiences. That part got quite a workout on this trip, which was the point.
What I find amusing is that I credit my religion for instilling this knowledge-seeking, ignorance-loathing standard in me. Were someone to ask what I find most beneficial about faith, I would tell them humility. It’s that constant feeling that there is and always will be something that you do not understand. And it is your duty to chase after that mystery with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your soul. Knowing that men in suits preach in a way that I can’t understand makes me want to listen to more men in suits. Traveling around the country once just makes me want to do it again. The more I learn the more I discover all the things I don’t know. And I think it helps me to become a better person. I think we could all stand to have a bit more of our own ignorance thrown into our faces.
So here is my suggestion to you, whether you are the preacher-in-a-suit type, or the woman-in-a-robe type, or the let’s-just-toss-it-all type: seek out your ignorance. It is out there. It always will be. The Well of Personal Ignorance never runs dry.