Moriah Felder, known as Rev. Riah (@revriah) from TikTok, is a minister of the Vineyard Church movement. (NCR screenshot)
Move over fun dances and milk carton challenges. College lectures are perhaps the hottest new TikTok trend.
After less than six months of planning, four TikTok creators hosted an online conference in December. Decon 2021 brought together some of TikTok’s brightest stars from the “deconstruction” TikTok community for pastoral and scholarly speaking sessions on race, gender, and liberating faith from abusive theology.
TikTok, which quickly gained popularity after it became available in the United States in 2018, is a video-based social media site where creators make 15-second to three-minute videos dancing, challenging or talking.
“I make these videos to practice communicating something important in a short period of time,” said Matthew Benfield (@theologiaviatorum), a former member of the Church of Christ and now a Catholic who uses the platform. to connect with others on the Catholic Church. theology and deconstruction.
‘Deconstruction’ is a general term for spiritual seekers, often raised Christians, who sort through the various ‘isms’ they absorbed with their childhood faith – fundamentalism, sexism, homophobia and racism, among others – and try to find a new, free-belief version of these ideologies.
Many TikTok creators learned about deconstruction through the app itself, watching other people’s videos, hearing an unfamiliar term, and realizing it applied to them.
Catholic “creators” aren’t as common in the deconstruction movement, but a handful of content creators exist in both the deconstruction and Catholicism communities. Benfield is one of them.
In his TikTok videos, Benfield offers a short exegesis on CS Lewis or an analysis of religion through the lens of philosopher Jacques Derrida, often sporting a headscarf and flanked by several crucifixes.
Benfield served as a preacher in Church of Christ parishes in Mississippi and Texas for 10 years. Benfield said reading Lewis was starting to shake his certainties. After visiting a Catholic church while on a service trip to Mexico, he was shaken. “I felt like I had entered a holy place,” he told NCR. “And I was just kind of electrified.”
Benfield was fired from his job as a preacher at a Church of Christ parish in Lubbock, Texas, a year ago. Although he was not given a clear reason, he believes it was in response to his pastoral style. And he knows that his more “Catholic” practices — like the prayer of the Our Father and Apostles Creed — have caused some discontent.
ikTok creator, John Doe Nobody (@johndoenobody), former pastor of Baptist and Evangelical churches, at the platform’s “deconstruction” community conference. (NCR screenshot)
Benfield walked the block to the local Catholic parish and told the pastor he wanted to convert. Benfield is now part of the church’s Adult Christian Initiation Rite. He bought a ticket to Decon 2021 at the invitation of organizer ToryBae (@torybae) and others. On the day of the conference, he was unable to attend due to his job as a FedEx driver.
Benfield believes that a certain Catholic tradition can provide a sense of continuity for an often disjointed community of deconstruction, “Because you can’t decide which direction you all want to go, you can’t help each other go in that particular direction. .” he said. “In the midst of the great support you get, there’s kind of a lack of support.”
“The community is – and I’m not saying this in a negative way at all – it’s messy,” said Moriah Felder (@revriah), describing the deconstruction in a Zoom interview. But there is camaraderie in sorting through the messy entanglements of faith and systems of oppression. “It’s really productive – we’re all doing the same messy work together,” said Reverend Riah, a Vineyard Movement minister.
TikTok creator John Doe Nobody (@johndoenobody), a former Baptist and Evangelical minister, had been actively participating in the deconstruction conversation on TikTok for about a year. Then, in June, he decided to do something more. “I felt like, are we talking in circles on the internet or are we really doing something with this?” John said in a Zoom interview. He began to reach out to other creators and found enthusiastic co-conspirators.
“I expected to be told ‘no,’ only to find that people were more excited than me,” said John, who like a number of TikTok creators prefers not to use his real name to be able to express his point of view in public. without fear of professional repercussions.
About 480 people from Canada to Sweden filled the virtual seats for Decon 2021: a conferencing app, Hubilo. It had many of the amenities of a true academic conference: exhibit booths, a lounge, and several concurrent breakout sessions.
TikTok creator ToryBae (@torybae) helped organize the conference for the platform’s “deconstruction” community. (NCR screenshot)
But the day was far more effusive than an ordinary university lecture. The speakers exuded love, affirmation and inclusion. Andrew (@Red_sage1), an ordained Christian minister now community organizer who helped organize the conference and also doesn’t use his real name on TikTok, said conference attendees told them, “What shut out in other communities made me feel like I was part of that one.”
Andrew felt that this lecture demonstrated the organizing muscle of the deconstruction movement. “People are tired of waiting for structures that have their own power to decide that they are worth enough to be invited to the table,” he said.
Heidi Campbell, a communications professor at Texas A&M University, said young people like those participating in the TikTok deconstruction community are showing how the internet is transforming the experience of religion for digital natives.
The internet, she said, is an environment where authority often attaches to the attention an author can garner rather than the education they possess.
“For the past five years we’ve been talking about ‘nones’, but now we’re seeing the rise of ‘facts’,” Campbell said. “They say, ‘I’m still Evangelical or Baptist or Catholic, but I’m so sick of the church, the way the structures work. “
“TikTok allows spiritual ‘fact’ to flourish – you don’t have to go through a seminar or have someone recognize your spiritual gifts – you can just go there and do it.”
Young people can now preach and lead prayer outside of the physical or institutional structures of the church.
“TikTok allows spiritual ‘facts’ to flourish — you don’t have to go through a seminar or have someone recognize your spiritual gifts — you can just go there and do it,” Campbell said. .
Conference speakers shared their own spiritual journeys, described their experiences of racism or homophobia in the institutional church, and grounded their queer or black liberation in biblical texts. In a session titled “Black Guy, White Jesus,” session hosts and rap artists J.Crum (@jcrummusic) and K!D Casper (@mr.leadwithlove) discussed their experiences as black Christians.
“We live in an anti-black society,” said K!D Casper, “And one of the first lies we get about this Christianity is a white man’s religion.”
A gift of deconstruction that Benfield thinks Catholics can learn from is the ability to listen to the marginalized. “The deconstruction community is full of people whose voices have been silenced and that emboldens them: there’s a place here where they don’t have to get along with other members of the community.”
Reverend Riah, who gave the final talk on women’s theology, said the main thing she hoped audience members would take away from her talk was community. “We’re not the only ones asking questions,” she said. “We all want to be loved even in our interrogations and without knowing exactly where we stand. And sometimes this community is foreign on social networks.”
Although there is often no single answer to anything in the deconstruction community, Reverend Riah summarized her own deconstruction goal, with which many Catholics and deconstruction subscribers could be concerned. agreement: “to transmit a faith which does not have to be deconstructed”.
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