I delivered this sermon today at All Saints Amsterdam.
A few months ago, along with much of humanity, it seemed, I went to see Barbie. Walking out of the theatre and forming an opinion on this intro to feminism, I renamed the film to a title which I will use again today: “Blueprints: a pamphlet against simplicity”.
It’s nice to see all of your faces here today. I’ve met most of you before, but let me make an official introduction. My name is Zinzy, I’m 35 years old, I live in Amsterdam, and I work in the tech industry. I’m an interaction designer at a medical technology company, which is to say that I design the ways in which doctors and nurses interact with my company’s software. My job is to find out how we can improve the lives of essential workers. It involves a lot of research, empathizing, and imagining. The phrase I repeat over and over again is: “How might we…?”
When people ask me how I came to have such a cool job, I always tell them about my degree in Comparative Literature, and the time I spent studying Theology. It never fails to throw them off. After all, what could be further apart than the literary canon and the abracadabra I do at work all day?
When it comes down to it, really, I just love a good story. I love looking at the ways in which we attempt to make sense of the world around us as well as the world within us. I like stories because of what they say about us. I like stories because we use them in our attempts to humanize others. The truest and sweetest opinion I have on humans is that we are storytelling animals.
When we tell a story, we take a reality (fictional or non-fictional), weave together its most important events and actors, and have our audience look at them through the eyes of one or more entities. To tell a story is an act of selection, of extraction from the truth what we deem important. To tell a story is to curate reality. To tell a story is to shape the world. We turn something complex into vehicles for education, entertainment, action. We abstract from what is, so our shared language is easy to comprehend.
Let me give you an example. Here are two stories about Jesus. One. God has a Son who is also God, he is perfect, and we will never be as good as him, but let’s try. Two. There was a baby born in humility, who grew up to be an inspiration to billions. He was murdered because people thought he was evil, but we never forgot his name. Two stories that invoke entirely different responses. Two stories that remind us that the storyteller is the one who holds the power.
Today, the story we’re telling each other is that of Christian saints. When Mpho suggested I preach about this, my thought process brought me from Mother Teresa via “oh-oh, I am certainly going to screw this up” to the most important commandment in the tech industry: ask why before you ask how.
Before we dive in, let me tell you what I can’t do today. I can’t do is tell you how I think reliving the stories of saints will get us into the Kingdom of Heaven. I can’t even tell you about my favorite saint, because I don’t have one. What I can do is share with you what I have: questions. Questions about questions. Questions about stories. Lots and lots of questions. Today, I hold onto what I know, how to build successful technology, to wade into what I don’t.
Saints. “These are the ones coming out of great tribulation” the lessons tell us. Throughout the centuries, first informally and locally, and then because Popes began restricting to themselves the right to canonize, we’ve collected hundreds upon hundreds of saints. Apostles, martyrs, confessors. Human beings who were perceived to have an exceptional degree of holiness, likeness, or closeness to God.
And today, still, many of us find inspiration in the stories about these people. They’re exemplary models, extraordinary teachers, wonder workers. They’re intercessors through whom we pray. Their stories are designed to inspire us into devotion, into serving God day and night in God’s temple, which is the world. When I think of it, saints are stories. After all, we never get the full picture, just what we’ve chosen is relevant enough to repeat.
These stories fall perfectly in step with the rhythm of Christianity, the rhythm of the Western world. The rhythm of looking for what we could have and could be. What we don’t have, and what we are not. Yet. We live in a culture of becoming. A culture, and a religion, of harder, better, faster, stronger. A culture of progression. Saints were designed to propel us towards the next best thing.
I’m no different from the culture in which I grew up: I love progress. I love growth, I love my learner’s mentality. I love that we use the saintly canon, a set of stories we’ve chosen to prioritize, to be better tomorrow than we are today. But there’s a flip side.
I struggle with saints, with how our tradition has curated, abstracted their human realities. I struggle with the fact that this is an effect of storytelling at all. I struggle with what happens when details go missing, when nuance is lost. I struggle with how, without details and nuance, we idealize as quickly as we devalue. The absence of details turn excellent Harry Potter books into pretty ok Harry Potter movies. It turns Mary Teresa, a sweet, charitable nun with questionable opinions on the realities of sexual violence in the Catholic church, into the pinnacle of female selflessness. It turns inhabitants of Gaza into terrorists. It turns Judaism into the root of all evil.
The art of storytelling is a sharp, double-edged sword. And I want to learn how to handle it more carefully, both as a speaker and as a listener.
I struggle with how stories about saints make us compare our insides to other people’s outsides. Even the word “saint” itself doesn’t necessarily invoke an atmosphere of reaching for the attainable. I struggle with this the same way I struggle with Beyoncé, who, at 23, won her first Grammy, an age at which I took five weeks to find the best typeface for my bachelor thesis.
I struggle with how I can’t see myself in the saints. And I need to see myself in someone to learn from them. As a queer person of color, I am intimately familiar with what it means when I can’t see myself in people. It invokes a sense of otherness, not a sense of community and hope. Color me a Christian millennial, but I learn from mistakes, not from other people’s highlight reels.
I know that, when it comes to the differences between veneration, adoration, admiration, idolatry, and worship, the Catechism of the Catholic Church will tell you I’m doing it wrong. I think that’s just her modus operandi. I don’t think I’m doing it wrong. I think there’s a flaw in the interaction design of how we’ve been taught to grow.
The lesson is this: you are not enough, other people are, and you should feel inspired to be more like them. Inspired by Jesus, Mother Teresa, St. Augustine, Beyonce, Stephen Hawking, Barbie, the Barbie, the resistance fighters. I don’t need a superhuman who can show me how to become more like them. I need a lifetime of flaws to remind me how to be a better me because someone else became a better them.
As a designer, I will forever defend the right of a design flaw to exist. In fact, if we ignore the design flaw, we’ll never be able to make things better. We must look at the problem before we come up with a solution. We must ask why before we ask how.
Why might we become better? And then:
How might we use stories in a way that retains our individuality, our dignity, and leaves a margin for error, and room for doubt? How might we let the saints, all the names in the Bible, the very humans they were, inspire us to see ourselves in each other without concluding that we fail to imitate the blueprint?
How might we become better co-humans so that the Kingdom of Heaven is what we refer to when we say “wow, that was a really happy moment for me”? How might we do unto others as we would have them do unto us? How might we remember that that is the entire law, and the rest is just commentary?