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How an Episcopal Priest Is Using Stories and Humor to Teach Others About Christianity

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Episcopal priest Kathryn Banakis wants us to discover that Christianity wouldn't be what it is without stories, and not just the Bible's stories either. Our stories matter too. Banakis is particularly interested in showing how God didn't stop revealing important lessons to us humans with the last page of the biblical text. God continues to speak through our lives today, and sometimes, what's said is quite funny.

To show how stories can impart important lessons about faith, Banakis's first book, Bubble Girl, is a blend of memoir and theology, teaching readers in a lighthearted way while making them laugh as she candidly discusses her own journey. Her book becomes an intriguing hybrid of genres, and I wanted to ask her more about it.

I had the pleasure to sit down with Reverend Banakis and to hear her infectious laugh as I talked with her about her book. The transcript of that interview follows. (In addition to Bubble Girl, Reverend Banakis also has a spiritual story included in a recently published anthology of spiritual stories that I edited with The Reverend Kate Malin.)

Your book is a really intriguing mix of both memoir and intro to theology, and it's clear that stories are very important to you. Why did you choose to use memoir as a tool to teach theology, and how do you see personal stories as important theological tools?

I have never arrived for a dinner party and said, "Have I got a doctrine for you. Wait until you hear this proof." We live and communicate in stories, and we assign meaning to our lives based on how we interpret those stories. Theology -- what we try to extrapolate about the nature of God -- comes alive and matters to the extent that it engages our lives and stories.

And theology is far too much fun to leave to church leaders or the tomes of history. Encountering the Christian tradition of fierce debate around what we can extrapolate about the nature of God was like finding something I didn't know I was thirsty for. The range of theology and belief and engaging those arguments of heart and mind allowed me to remain Christian as an adult, and I wanted in the book to democratize that experience to allow more people to be part of the tussle.

Christians are especially prone to storytelling. The Bible is a mix of tales and poems and legislation from a range of authors that Christians have passed down from one generation to another believing that there is truth in them. So working with the biblical text is always interpreting stories in light of our lives.

I wanted to explore how to do theological reflection on real life stories, having a story and then saying, ok, how might we think about this story alongside some aspect of church teaching? How does that change how we understand our own story? How is my story wrapped up in God's story? (Hear more here in one of Kat's sermon's on why do memoir)

There's a lot of humor in your writing, and that's something we don't see very often in religion books. It actually made me wonder if people are afraid to use humor in theology because the discipline is supposed to be so serious, so intense and important. How come you decided to incorporate humor into your work? Do you think it's possible that theologians might be afraid of humor?

You are correct. Jon Acuff just pointed that out too.

The Bible is funny -- the stories of Sarah and Jonah and Zaccheus and Zachariah crack me up every time I read them; so do some of the conversations between Moses and the Israelites: "We would go back and mix manure bricks with our bare hands for a couple cloves of garlic to put on the manna." We miss some of the wit and rhyme in translations, but much is still there in English.

Christian intellectual history is dripping with sarcasm at different points. Ambrosiaster wrote biblical commentary in the fourth century and ends one of his interpretations with, "Those who interpret this differently do not understand the force of the argument," which means, of course, that others disagreed with him, and he's calling them do-do brains. Luther and Barth skewer their opponents with fantastic one-liners.

And while religion is serious stuff, it's also a little silly in that we are arguing about things for which we don't get final arbitration in this life, so we have to take it with a grain of humility.

Why iron out the humor? I would rather laugh. It's the most enjoyable way to build abdominal strength.

Who do you see as the intended audience for your book? What do you hope the reader will learn from it?

I had thought when I was writing that I would mostly connect to other young women. I was wrong. My widest reader group is people over sixty who are using the stories and discussion questions to reflect on their own stories of leaving home, seeing a loved one changed by illness, having the country at war, finding and losing jobs and loves. I read a review years ago of My Big Fat Greek Wedding in which the reviewer said that the movie became a universal by being specific in its details of feta and lamb and diners. People from different ethnicities were able to map onto the story, and it became universal. I wonder if that's a bit of what's happening with Bubble Girl in that the details allow people to project their own detailed experiences. I hope so. I certainly never envisioned it being a tool in retirement communities either, but I'll take it. In addition to the discussion questions for book groups already at the end of each chapters, I'm in the midst of putting together a retreat guide right now for doing intergenerational story-telling and reflection for congregations and families.

The other enthusiastic group that has really surprised me is non-religious adults in their twenties and thirties who haven't before encountered much progressive Christian thought on universal salvation or reconciling the biblical text in a thoughtful way with contemporary social issues. I'd be only too happy to be an ambassador in that arena.

You don't hide from discussing how the Church has been changing over the past few decades, and you note that one of the effects of declining membership is that there are fewer opportunities for full-time clergy. In fact, you yourself do not work in a church full-time. Why do you think it's possible for a person to be a full-time priest even if they don't work in a church full-time?

I work full-time in data analytics for a fundraising consulting firm where we try to help clients figure out who to ask for how much money when. I'm also an associate priest at a congregation. I do my best to be Christ hands and heart both places, just like all Christians do.

Doug Pagitt has done some interesting work around how American Christianity has gone through four distinct phases since the eighteenth century -- Agrarian (1700's - 1920's), Industrial (1920's-1940's), Information (1950's - 1980's) and now Inventive. In each phase, the role of the church leader has followed some aspects of community leadership around them with the shepherd, the preacher, the teacher, and now the facilitator. I think that there's wisdom in that and also in recognizing that the church is not immune from the job insecurity facing so many other fields like law, medicine, and teaching. We're in a shift. No academic degree is sure to lead to an automatic full-time job with benefits. At least not mine.

I'm also a priest with a day job because it's a blast. I like the collaborative aspect that when we're launching a new project at church, everyone involved has about the same amount of time to dedicate. If it doesn't get done in two hours on a Tuesday night, then we have to come up with something else. Church becomes something of a co-op. I also like being part of a team of clergy, and my congregation can afford the full-time head pastor plus me at ten hours a week, which in itself is more than many congregations can afford. I can bring up challenges with clients and colleagues without it being the people I'm preaching to, which would be awkward, even if I changed their names to "Bob" and "Susan."

On page 118, you write that, "I clung to my faith when the world as I knew it was falling apart. I do that all the time. When things are going poorly, I wrap myself in my faith tradition--its patterns of worship and scripture and prayers and truths I can't empirically prove. When life is going well...I explore. I set out. Then life falls apart, and I crawl through the side door to find the Christian faith still there, welcoming me back with a prayer and maybe a cup of tea." This seems to be a common experience, that when people suffer, they turn to faith, but when things are going well, they don't focus on faith as much. Why do you think this is?

Some theologians would describe this as the sin of pride, that humans always think at some point that they can get along without God only to realize that their very lives are dependent upon God. Rahner would say that God is always present in the backdrop of our lives, a sort of green screen against which our lives play out, but we only acknowledge that it's God now and then. It's probably a bit both pride and Rahner. I also think there's also a really good and healthy dynamic at play of being a young adult carving out her own sense of faith separate and apart from that of her parents and community that I couldn't have done without a bit of exploration. I jump up and down a bit any time a teenager declares herself an atheist because generally that means she's thinking really hard about things and defining them for herself. And the church rites of confirmation or recommitment or giving oneself over to Christ account for this natural ebb and flow of religious engagement.

You're very honest with your own struggles in this book. What has the feedback been from members of your congregation? Have they appreciated your transparency or has it been difficult to see the more, shall we say, human side of their priest? Do you think the Church would be healthier if more priests followed your footsteps in this regard?

Right after I was ordained one of my congregants came up to me and said, "Just so you know, we expect you to mess up when you do the Eucharist." God bless her. It was such a gift to know that perfection wasn't expected and that permission has continued to play out in my many goofs as a priest and a person. The Episcopal Church has a heavy emphasis on the doctrine of incarnation -- that is how God became human and lived among us and experienced human struggles. And I think that knowing that I live with depression and anxiety and doubt makes me human-er, but I know that other congregations have super-human expectations of their clergy or may just not want to know that much about them. I was sleepless nervous to have the book come out and to have people know me so much more intimately. The result overall thought, has been a really fascinating exchange of stories back.

I never want to substitute the pulpit for a therapist's couch and subject my congregation to minutiae of mental and emotional anguish (downer of a Sunday morning), but some amount of openness and imperfection allows for connection and other people sharing their stories and for ye old transparency in leadership.

As a young leader, what are your thoughts on the Church's future?

I'm just really excited.

Phyllis Tickle has some great analysis of how every five hundred years or so the church cleans out its closet and structurally changes. She argues that right now we're in the midst of just such a change that began bubbling up in the Enlightenment. One no longer needs to be a "good churchman" to get ahead professionally or politically, which makes it a fascinating time to be the church. We're figuring out how to be an extremely voluntary organization, which has huge financial and institutional implications. (Hear more in one of Kat's sermons here)

At some moments I have a bit of false nostalgia. I was moaning with a pastor friend, who happens to have really awful asthma, about trying to launch some church program, and we were running into calendar problems, and I said, "Do you ever wish we lived in colonial times when church was the thing for social life, and we didn't have to compete?" She was quiet for a moment and then answered, "Yes, except I'd be dead from asthma, and you'd have been burned as a witch." There's that. Good point, huh?