There and Back Again: Or, What I Learned About Pop Culture at the 2015 General Conference Session in San Antonio

aq_g9sTVAnd we’re back! After a long and much-needed holiday in the USA, I’m in Cardiff and working on my thesis again.

My post this week is going to be a long one, and it’s going to contain a strange mix of topics (religion, politics, and popular culture), so consider yourself forewarned. Those of you who follow me on Twitter (or know me in real life) may have been wondering what on earth was going on at the beginning of July. You probably saw a lot of posts like this one, relating to points of order:

You may also have seen lots of photos of me either raising a voting card, or standing at microphones holding massive wads of paper, like so:

From 1-12 July I was in San Antonio, at the 2015 General Conference (GC) session of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Over 30,000 people were in attendance, and on days when everyone was in the Alamodome venue, things got pretty impressive:

Every five years members and official delegates from the Adventist church all over the world get together to discuss and vote on necessary, if often very boring, topics. This year, those topics ranged from minor changes to policy documents all the way up to whether divisions (large, and largely administrative leadership bodies within the church) had the right to independently decide whether to recognise its female pastors as being ‘ordained’. This last topic was arguably the most controversial of the entire GC, and the final vote was split almost evenly between Africa and South America (who represented most of the 59% against), and North America, Europe, and Asia (who represented most of the 41% for).

For most of you reading this post, the whole idea of a church policy conference probably sounds crazy, and a million miles distant from your own day-to-day life. I’m with you there. Working in academia — or just in Northern Europe, where we’re all embedded in our own little social bubbles — it’s easy to forget that other people have fundamentally different ways of looking at things. Not just in the realm of structuralism versus post-structuralism, or ‘pro-Marmite’ versus ‘anti-Marmite’, but right down to the way they essentially define things like equal representation, civil rights, and freedom of speech.

Not only is it difficult to make decisions together on an abstract level with so many cultures and ways of reading, but you first have to worry about how you’re going to make those decisions on a practical level. During the GC session, for example, one division fundamentally objected to an anonymous vote, arguing that it leads to manipulation and double-dealing, while another refused to vote unless they could do so anonymously, for the exact same reason. Things got tricky very quickly. How can you begin to work together (or even alongside each other) under such circumstances? When you disagree on such basic things, can you ever hope to agree on civil rights issues? And can you achieve some kind of meaningful dialogue that still remains respectful? I certainly don’t think we were successful at either of those things in San Antonio.

Despite having grown up all over the world, I found it a difficult atmosphere to adjust to. The collision of religion and multicultural politics made my head spin — so what on earth was I doing there? Although for most of my life I’ve happily worked and studied in environments that are decidedly post-Christian, I was raised in the Adventist church. Like many people my age I’m not very active in a specific church any more — primarily for reasons of introversion, but also for its general lack of a focus on civil rights. I still identify with the culture, though, and I feel that church can fulfill an important role in society, and in people’s lives.

There are more than 18 million Adventists worldwide, and while some of them are definitely a little crazier than others, ultimately that craziness is what endears me. I like being around slightly crazy things and people; generally I feel it makes my life more interesting, and more enjoyable. So when the Dutch church asked me (a Dutch/American) to represent them at the GC my interest was piqued, and I eventually accepted. I came prepared, attended every single business session, and did my best to help balance the severe under-representation of women and young people among the delegates.

In the end it was a losing battle, and I came away from the GC feeling exhausted and alienated, with a lot of frustrations. Despite failing to personally identify with a large portion of what went on in San Antonio, however, I did meet many lovely (and keenly intelligent) people from all over the world. Through social media, I was also able to connect with others in a way I had never quite experienced before. As we all tried to cope together, and to reconcile other peoples’ images of Adventism with our own, something happened: where religion couldn’t unite us, popular culture did. We found each other slowly on Twitter, through the official hashtag #GCSA15, the millennial rallying cry #MyChurchToo, and the tongue-in-cheek self identification as a #badventist:

What started as simple conversations about #AdventistGaming and what video games we were playing (or just an excited ‘You like comics too?!’) quickly became something more than that. Popular culture became a way to engage with the dis-empowering and overwhelming metanarrative that dominated the San Antonio GC, underwriting it with reminders that there were other, equally big stories out there that we could relate to, and that we could apply to the situation. At the start of one day we knew was going to be a particularly emotional one, we turned to Star Wars:

 

Commenting on a particular agenda point, point of order, or on the conference in general became an opportunity to redefine the spectacle of it all in more familiar terms:

We even used teen dystopias to show our support for each other against overwhelming odds:

It just goes to show you (or at least, it showed me), that for something like a religion to really work, you need to connect with other people on more than just one level. For us that was popular culture – for others it may be something completely different. I’m still picking through the many things we referenced during those two long weeks, but I’ll always remember how it felt to find meaning and a voice through that common ground. The hashtag #GCSA15 may be retired now, but we won’t forget about the experiences it enabled in a hurry (and neither will our fingers):

For the moment I’m still glad it’s over, but who knows — maybe you’ll see me at #GCINDY20 in Indianapolis. At the very least, you’ll have my support (and my sad pop culture jokes) on Twitter.