Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Turn-Off of Christianity: A contextual look at the spirituality of Generation “Why”

Wil Darcangelo                                                                                                                             Monday, October 7, 2013
Dr. Robert Pazmino
Educational Ministry Across the Life Span

The Turn-Off of Christianity:
Mapping New Territory for the Exploration of Faith in Our Time
A contextual look at the spirituality of Generation “Why”

In our contemporary society filled with an increasing abundance of technology and all of its inherent shifts in our methods of communication, we are often left to wander and wonder how we may use the lessons of the past to find relevance in today’s world.  In this paper, I attempt to make an argument on behalf of our contemporary culture’s advancing technology and its many opportunities to bring us closer to one another, and thereby, bring us closer to God.  

“The Context of Teaching IS the Content of Religious Education”
As the director of an after school music empowerment program intended primarily for public high school students called the “Tribe Music Mentorship Project,” I am often in the position of defining for my Generation Y students ways in which to govern themselves, their thoughts, and their actions.  The students know me to be a highly spiritualized person, but I almost always avoid using scripture directly when advising them.  This is due to the fact that nearly all of them, to a person, avoids encounters with scripture in their lives as though it were a disease, an anathema to the “coolness” and popularity they value in their social lives.  They see all too clearly the spouting fundamentalism of “extreme Christianity” and leave virtual skid marks in getting away from the social stigma of it.  They balk at the notion that the question Why? should not be asked and counter with even greater scriptural bullheadedness. I am left to find ways of teaching them the practice of living a forgiving, compassionate life while only internally referencing scripture for my own guidance.

The Tribe arrive each day into my little classroom (Book Storage Room 241 at Fitchburg High School) carrying emotional baggage loaded with drama and subterfuge; who has said what about whom, who disrespected this one or that one, who has just started dating, who has just broken up.  Sex, drugs, and rock and roll are both the context and the textbook through which I am required to mentor my students.  It is the framework of how they experience their lives.  Yes, they have elements of their lives which do not fit into these three oft-quoted categories, but as teenagers, these elements hold the most sway over the decisions one must make in navigating the life of an average high school student.  I can either fight this reality or join it. I can either make their lives superfluous to the lesson or make their own lives the self-identifying content of what I consider to be their spiritual education.  It requires a subtle use of scripture that, over-time, breaks down the barriers of their pre-conceived ideas about what it means to be a Christian in today’s world of constant and instant communication.

Ostensibly, they participate in the Tribe to learn and record music, but in actuality, they are drawn to my program because they feel marginalized, bullied, inadequate, and uncomfortable with their lives.  Tribe is a real-life Island of Misfit Toys.  They are in many ways, simply normal teenagers attempting to grow up in a world that did not exist during their parents’ years in high school and as a result, their parents are often (as mine were) ill-equipped to provide the guidance needed to make tough decisions in a world that has changed dramatically from their own, now comparatively obsolete generation.  We all experienced these years and though we may try to forget them, their effects are with us always.  

The context of their lives must inform the content of my lessons for them or else I would have no students and no program.  It is important to me to educate them in the ways of Christ, primarily to “make an earthquake of one’s presence,” and to actively practice Forgiveness as a pathway to Compassion (we even have t-shirts that say “Practice Forgiveness” and “Make an Earthquake of Your Presence”).  I teach them ways to love one another, by systematically removing obstacles to that goal by using their own lives as the examples through which to do it.

The Contemporary Search For Spirituality and Its Influences on Teaching Practices
In his book Spiritual Life, The Foundation for Preaching and Teaching, John Westerhoff tells us that we live in a time of transition, the era of Enlightenment is drawing to a close (Westerhoff referencing Buttrick, 16).  To prove his point, he makes reference to another point made in David Buttrick’s 1993 lecture to the College of Preachers in Washington, DC that language has been going through rapid changes similar to the end of the Greco-Roman period (Westerhoff referencing Buttrick, 16).  Now that we have entered a new age, the rules of all systems must change.  It is impossible to ignore the onslaught of technology and if we are “to consider the role culture plays in our lives and the lives of those we teach” (Yust/Anderson, 44), we cannot avoid technology, we must embrace it or be left in the dust of our own adherence to tradition.  “What you resist persists,” Carl Jung once famously posited, and I personally believe that to be true.  It is when we successfully embrace the aspects of our age that, I believe, Christianity proves itself to be as relevant as ever.  It continues to prove its universal relevance when viewed through the lens of advancing technology.  In my own anecdotal observations, it was once viewed by governments that the printing press was subversive because criticism of government could now be printed and distributed freely.  And yet, if viewed in faith, they might have come to realize that the mass-printed word could more effectively spread Christian teaching as well as disseminate political dissent.  Bad news, perhaps, for the politician, but good news for the soul.

True, the rapid-fire communication technologies of today create both societal discomforts about the perceived decline in areas such as social skills and spelling, but they also provide obvious benefits to global awareness of injustices like suffering and tyranny.  In the end, embracing new technologies, like accepting the context of today’s youth in Christian teaching, is not only forward-thinking, but essential.  Yust and Anderson claim that “too often North American culture has misshapen us spiritually, creating a need for us to teach and be taught alternative possibilities for living faithfully as God’s people” (Yust/Anderson, 55).  I agree with the latter, but find the notion that our culture has “misshapen us spiritually” to be derivative of outmoded thinking.  Harvard professor Steven Pinker, in his 2011 New York Times article “Violence Vanquished,” suggests that we are living in the most peaceful time in our planet’s history.  This view, statistically proven by Pinker, lends credence to the notion that perhaps, despite our concerns to the contrary, technology may very well be, since the invention of the printing press, incrementally delivering us from evil.  By comparison, Westerhoff believes this era to be the bankruptcy of our spiritual lives (Westerhoff, 20), but I see it as a necessary transition and recalibration toward the assimilation of Science and God in our contemporary society.

Three Modes of Spiritual Teaching
In the Yust/Anderson text, three modes of Christian teaching are explained.  Spiritual Conference, Spiritual Correspondence, and Spiritual Biography (or Hagiography).  The term “Spiritual Conference” references spiritually educational works written for the general populace with “specific pedagogical purposes” (Yust/Anderson, 58). “Correspondence” are works written to specific individuals through which we are able to glimpse into the spiritual growth that occurs over time, through series of letters, between apprentice and teacher (Yust/Anderson, 67).  Finally, “Spiritual Biographies” or Hagiographies are works through which we might learn about how to lead a Christian life through the lens of individual experience. “People’s lives are significant means whereby people glimpse examples of how we ought to live.  The growing importance of mentors and the work of mentoring… are evidence of this” (Yust/Anderson referencing L. Gregory Jones, 68).  “It’s about who we are and what we do” (Yust/Anderson, 68).

While in my opinion there is no one preferred method, and in fact, all could be useful both in combination as well as individually, for my purposes the Spiritual Conference method can easily be a dry and tedious variation.  Rather than creating a dynamic dialogue that captures the listener’s imagination, it relies more on proselytizing rhetoric which often uses outmoded language; not the way to engage a teenager.  Likewise, Spiritual Correspondence is fascinating from an historical perspective and can do much to bring to light a literary conversation and witness to growth, but can leave the reader wanting for contemporary personal perspective.  Biographies and hagiographies are perhaps the least intimidating texts in that they give us the opportunity to witness and emulate the life of a genuine human being who has found a level of spiritual perfection that, unlike the accomplishments of Christ, the everyday person can strive to achieve without feeling that he or she is too inadequately divine to experience God in their lives.  

In my own teaching, using biographical references of real people achieving real comfort in times of contemporary strife is the most affirmative method for putting the teachings of Christ into a contemporary context, and hopefully, usefulness.

Conclusion - Don’t Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth
We are so quick to look at the changes we experience around us and conclude that they are evidence of declining moral fiber and the destruction of the Church.  But I contend, and have hopefully made a good argument in favor of, the notion that we must embrace our burgeoning technology, we should use as our guide the elements of our life today as inhabitants of the 21st Century, and transform the ideologies of our forebears into fresh, new understandings of what Christ’s lesson plan for mankind should bring to our lives.  We must accept that Christianity is changed - the old versions of it do not appear to be relevant to the common young person, born after the advent of mass communication.  But if the lessons of Christ are truly valuable in the long-term as I believe them to be, we must have faith that nothing, not war, not advancing schools of thought, nor technology itself, can dislodge their usefulness.

Bibliography: “The Turn-Off of Christianity”

Westerhoff, John   Spiritual Life, The Foundation for Preaching and Teaching
    Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994

Yust, Karen Marie and E. Byron Anderson   Taught by God
        St Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2006

Pinker, Steven   “Violence Vanquished”  New York Times, 2011

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