Due to my mad schedule of late with too many meetings, writing deadlines and seemingly endless crises to deal with, I haven’t been able to sleep well and finding myself needing to get up and work.  As such, I am reliving the days of having an infant in the house where waking up every hour leaves you in a state where lack of sleep renders the line between dream, nightmare and waking pretty dang blurry.  This is the space of liminality – a place between places as the conscious and unconscious crash together like waves in a storm without a shoreline to settle the feud. One of the great thinkers – if not THE greatest thinker – on the topic of this liminality of conscious and unconscious is Sigmund Freud.

In a letter dated September 21, 1897, we have one of the most famous letters of Sigmund Freud written to his friend Fliess.  Here we read an example of Freud’s notion of a dreamscape in this account:

I received a communication from the town council of my birthplace concerning the fees due for someone’s maintenance in the hospital in the year 1851, which had been necessitated by an attack he had had in my house. I was amused by this since, in the first place, I was not yet alive in 1851 and, in the second place, my father, to whom it might have related, was already dead. I went to him in the next room, where he was lying in his bed, and told him about it. To my surprise, he recollected that in 1851 he had once got drunk and had had to be locked up or detained. It was at a time at which he had been working for the firm of T____.’ So you used to drink as well?’ I asked; ‘did you get married soon after that?’ I calculated that, of course, I was born in1856, which seemed to be the year which immediately followed the year in question. (Freud, Interpretation of Dreams, 1900: 436).

Now this dream appears in chapter 5 of The Interpretation of Dreams; where it is a part of a collection of dreams that Freud labels “absurd” dreams – dreams that negate fact – in this case the possibility of carrying on a conversation with one’s deceased male parent. A set of dreams that, as are often true of the sets of dreams that Freud presents in The Interpretation of Dreams, need to be read as a whole. They all concern fathers and the issue of a father’s death, and there’s at least a strong possibility that one of the other dreams which is not presented as a dream Freud’s own, may in fact be so.

Freud offers here a dream in which a ghost speaks, a type of dream he cites repeatedly. These dreams – all concerned with murderous sibling rivalry and/or the father’s downfall – share unconscious contents making their interpretations mutually relevant. Curiously enough, given this rich body of content and its reference to fathers and so on, the place at which Freud decides to take up the meaning of this dream is the number “five.” The exciting cause of the dream, Freud said – the “day-residue,” in his jargon – was his reaction to having heard the night before he had the dream that “a senior colleague of mine whose judgment was regarded as beyond criticism had given voice to disapproval and surprise that the fact that the psychoanalytic treatment of one of my patients had already entered its fifth year.”

At this point Freud begins to welcome the seemingly random and often bizarre as building blocks of our conscious life – fiction and imagination are welcomed players as much (at times even more so) than systematic facts. In short, Freud is welcoming the consult of Oedipus and Hamlet and the interpretation of art and literature into the supposed pure scientific realm. He is now less caught up in narrow, crass desires like solving the patient’s problems in a systematic manner, and instead he opens up the exploration of a new kind of relationship.

Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams could be argued, as some have done, as being the first modern autobiography.  But an autobiography that is willing to blur the lines of fact and fiction – for maybe we need *both* in order to make any sense of life in the end.

When you read through The Interpretation of Dreams, you do not encounter a systematic and orthodox psychoanalytic text nor can you argue that the work represents a scientific document. The title itself is misleading in that throughout the entire work there is not a single fully interpreted dream. In a similar fashion to watching television where people surf in and out of programming when the action just gets going, all the interesting interpretations break off when they’re starting to get good, only to emerge a hundred pages later to be cross-referenced with another dream. This is certainly not a systematic treatise in any way.   Rather The Interpretation of Dreams is the recounting of the process by which Freud achieves his uniqueness as Freud, the creation of a persona and the creation of a process of writing life at its unconscious and conscious levels at once.  This process is ultimately a process that has something to do with Freud’s own neurosis after the death of his father. Furthermore, the dream work allows him to recapture powerful memories of his own past and to do something with them that, aside from rendering them less troubling, makes literature of them, allows him to speak in a powerful way of the things that really concern him: family romance, mythic history, fantasy.

There is always the question even after a century of reading and re-reading The Interpretation of Dreams whether the products of Freud’s mature genius belong with Science or with Art, with fact or with fiction but the subtle reading of psychodynamics which begins with The Interpretation of Dreams continues to provide the hermeneutic or interpretive ground for much of modern thought. The implications of his changed thinking about traumatic etiology point toward a recurrent issue in the dream book – personality structure is not so much discovered as created by analysis and the prototypical analysis is of the self as something known as much by construction as deconstruction. Looking back at his own history, while Freud had several models to display his views on the true nature of the human subject, it is in the form of the dream that Freud finds the paradigmatic vehicle for interpretation, as each image leads to others, stratified by epochal moments of emotional growth.

Is this not something to take on board as we consider how theology is construed in relation to how people live their fractured and seemingly disconnected lives?  When a life is put under systematic rigidity and asked to conform, we rarely (if ever) can succeed with any integrity.  However, the mash-up of selfhood that Freud offers: life as the stuff dreams are made of, blending and swirling in and out of consciousness and build upon fantasy, fiction, imagination and wonder as much as certainty, linear progression and will power.  Perhaps it is no accident that the Bible calls us back to dream time and time again – whether Joesph is interpreting dreams for the salvation of his people or whether the mark of the Church in Acts 2 is a place where, akin to the prophet Joel, dreams will be in tandem with visions for a new life and people.  Perhaps we are in an age seeking a ‘dream theology’ after all… a rendering of God and the implications of the Divine framed not by conscious reason but by the not-quite-waking wonder of dreams within dreams that grow and deepen beyond the limits of our wakeful reason.  To dream anew, to bear dreams of the future and live them into today… this is the task at hand.

Perhaps we do need to read Freud with our Barth… and our Margaret Wise Brown…

Goodnight nobody… goodnight mush… goodnight to the old lady whispering “hush”…

Numerous scholars of the Abrahamic religions have called Christianity, Judaism and Islam “religions of the book” in reference to the central role that the sacred text plays in each tradition and all three sharing similar narratives albeit interpreted theologically in differing ways.  As someone who studies and inhabits the Christian tradition, I would be a called a ‘person of the book’ as well.  The collected 66 books that constitute the Christian scriptures – representative texts that inhabit the Hebrew scriptures coupled with the New Testament corpus – are the ‘norming norm’ of the Christian faith and while there is a quite a large span within the big tent of Christianity reaching from those who hold the texts to be inerrant (wholly and complete as holy inspired and therefore without error) to those who espouse the texts as authoritative as inspired texts yet still formed with human agency to those who see them along other ‘weltliteratur‘: a text among others containing moral values and historical heft yet ultimately a product from within human cultural history.  Therefore ranging from fundamentalist frenzy to merely supplemental reading in a Great Books curriculum, the Bible continues to be one of the most influential (if not THE most influential) book in human history.   The role that the Bible plays in the forward movement and sustaining center point of human history have been discussed as the main concern in two recent films – The Book of Eli and The Secret of Kells.  While there a number of stark differences between these films (one is a fairly standard post- apocalyptic action film made for the multiplex while the other is an indie Oscar nominated animated short film looking back to the age of the illuminated manuscript that had limited release in art houses), what unites these films though is a deep sense that without ‘the Book’ – this text that is somehow imbued with Divine initiative and unique in all the world – civilization as we know it will fall into darkness and akin to WB Yeats’ The Second Coming we will fall into a spinning apocalypse beyond human control:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

In The Secret of Kells, the tale is woven around the monastic community of Kells in Ireland and the production in the 9th century of an illuminated manuscript of the synoptic Gospels.  The story is told through the eyes of young Brendan, an orphan living within this monastic community who is introduced to Aidan of Iona, an elderly monk who is said to be the greatest illuminator of texts in all of Christendom.  Brendan’s uncle is the abbot of this monastic order and fears that their community will be overtaken by ‘Northmen’ – Viking invaders that have been savaging the lands throughout Scotland and Ireland and thrusting the world into anti-intellectualism and darkness – as well as pagans who continue to hold to folk religion.   In order to protect the monastic community, the Abbot erects large walls to cloister the community and seal it off from both Northmen invaders and the pagan outsiders.  Ultimately, the tale shows the tension between which future will be best – choosing to build bigger and better walls to protect a way of life from everything that is different or to journey into the pagan lands, to listen and experience what the world has to say in all its hopes, its loves, its dangers and its fears and allow art to speak into all these places as a dialog of hope and grace.  It becomes clear that the illuminated Gospels will never be completed unless it is taken outside the walls that cloister and ‘protect’ it for only in the pagan realm are there the materials and inspiration to truly make the text a thing of light or a deeply ‘illuminated’ work.  It is this journey of choice between creating stronger walls or finding the light of the world that already dwells ‘in’ the world with which the sacred text can be read by that the movie moves the viewer to choose for themselves.

The Book of Eli is in many ways a much simpler film – a ham-handed morality tale told through video game violence in order to keep a violence-saturated multi-plex audience attentive for the full two hours.

Yet that would be too harsh a judgement as the film is actually better and asking bigger questions than it perhaps even realizes.  Akin to The Secret of Kells, The Book of Eli has as its central concern the fate of civilization that while not the dark ages (saeculum obscurum) arising after the fall of the Roman empire but post-apocalyptic dark age that has haunted the imaginations of Western culture from filmic visions such as Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner and George Miller’s The Road Warrior to the contemporary literary visions cast by Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  As with the exhaustion of virtues and morality that cast the world into darkness in The Secret of Kells, the ravages of the nuclear option burn through the aesthetics of The Hughes Brothers film with Denzel Washington fending off simple-minded madmen with a machete, amazing martial arts skills for a guy walking for 30 years and sweet Oakley sunglasses to boot.   Behind the goofiness though is the haunting question of what will bring civilization back from oblivion and offer a center point around which human flourishing can prosper.  The answer seems to rely upon the same book albeit in a decidedly different form than the illuminated Gospels of Kells (you will have to see The Book of Eli to find out just how different… I won’t spoil it for you).  As the sinister character Carnegie (played to maximum scene-chewing pitch by Gary Oldman) makes clear when trying to get the Book from Denzel Washington’s Eli, what is seen as salvation to some is also power and domination to others:

[it is] a weapon aimed right at the hearts and minds of the weak and the desperate. It will give us control of them. If we want to rule more than one small, f$%^&’ town, we have to have it. People will come from all over, they’ll do exactly what I tell ’em if the words are from the book. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again. All we need is that book

After watching both films, I was taken that in both cases there is still this haunting sense that this book as ‘the Book’ is still thought of as having such power and the ability to making society or destroy it.  Is this really the case in an age when every motel has a Gideon bible that is as ubiquitous as the free shampoos and conditioners?  Many people speak of the post-Christian age – a time that has long since seen this book as ‘the Book’ lose its luster and hold on the hearts and minds of thoughtful people.  Is this truly something that people, if they would but read it, find the center and still point in this ever twisting chaotic world or is it merely the stuff of film?

What do you think?  Are St. Augustine’s words ‘take up and read’ enough?

For those of us in traditions with a reformed accent/hue, this past Sunday was more than a time for trick or treating, but a time to remember what is termed Reformation Sunday. The Seattle Presbytery posted on their website a short reflection on Martin Luther and the questions raised for us in reflecting – here is part of it:

Many of us were reminded this past Sunday (Reformation Day) of a not so little tidbit of church history. If you missed it, here it is in a nutshell: On October 31, 1517 (the day before All Saints Day), Brother Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and lecturer in theology at the University of Wittenberg, posted Disputation of the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences (known thereafter as the Ninety-Five Theses) on the Castle Church door of Wittenberg. Written in Latin, Luther’s 95 theses were meant to invite debate between his brothers and colleagues in the Catholic Church on the meaning of true repentance and forgiveness. Instead, what Luther received was the attention not just of his theological colleagues, but of the entire Catholic Church as what Luther was really questioning was the foundation and legitimacy of the whole of Catholic dogma. One needs only to read a sampling to see the clarity of Luther’s argument and the power it would have on the direction the whole church:

1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

2. This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.

27. They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.

28. It is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone.

36. Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.

37. Any true Christian, whether living or dead, participates in all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted him by God, even without indulgence letters.

and ending with this call to discipleship…

94. Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their head, through penalties, death, and hell;

95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace [Acts 14:22].

As these theses exhort the Church to remember, what it means to believe and live out in the world is always something to be challenged, revisioned, renewed and (yes) reformed.  To cease to ask questions and look toward new horizons is to cease being the people of God.

Certainly something to remember and reflect on…

 

One of the challenges I face as a theologian working with educators in the public school system is helping teachers discover courage and hopefully a passion for engaging students in a life of the spirit as much as a life of the mind.  This is no easy task.  Teachers in elementary and secondary schools are under huge pressure to ‘teach for the test’ and constantly assessing students in ways that focus attention on skill acquisition without the time nor resources to adequately engender a reason and purpose for the life they are living.

One of my conversation partners is Parker Palmer who for years has sought to bridge the gap in educational theory with a deep concern for the spiritual in student’s development.  Palmer’s background is notable: he has a PhD in Sociology from UC Berkeley, has taught in both public schools and higher education, and is a Quaker which speaks to his framing his thoughts in a contemplative (‘consider the space of teaching’) rather than declaratory (‘here are five things to do in your classroom to make sure student succeed’) mode.  He is currently heading up the Center for Courage & Renewal which works with organizations to align “our lives and our work with renewed passion, commitment, and integrity.” Because Palmer approaches these questions as a contemplative himself,  this can be confounding to be sure and many of my students in the School of Education struggle with him – “does Palmer expect us to enact something here in the classroom? Where is the concrete amidst the abstract?”     Much of this is based on his premise that we live in a tension between the contemplative life vs. an active life – two primary modes of living that are in tension in modern culture and not merely the classroom. As he explores in his book “To Know as We Are Known” and some other books such as “The Courage to Teach”, he holds that in earlier centuries contemplation was the preferred life, one followed by academic or religious scholars through the medieval period until the rise of the scholastic period.  As Palmer would state, an “active life” was one of tedious toil where one did not have the time to reflect on a higher plane of existence. Over time that changed. An “active life” (he wrote a book entitled “The Active Life” which gets at this thesis) became more prominent as technology progressed and the power associated with it.  A pendulum effect between the two – active vs. contemplative – has swung back again as limits to technology have not provided a solution and the lure of a contemplative life and its seclusion has taken hold.  In short, this has resulted in the “why” questions have been replaced with the “how” questions especially in our classrooms.  The demands of ‘teaching for the test’  have created a culture of busyness and frantic skills assessment with little to no time given to what these ‘skills’ are for in our society and how they fund what it means to be a human being.   For some of my students, they are frustrated because Palmer is not forwarding his point based on the strict adherence to social scientific method which holds that which is to be considered ‘true’ as correlating with quantitative methods that can be measured via statistical analysis. No, Palmer is speaking from a more qualitative stream of reflection which does go back to Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and continues on through humanities and the arts: a more existential reflection on the human condition and (for the sake of his books) and exploration of the spiritual as a vital part to deep education.  He is inviting us to essentially go inward – the contemplative life – and sit in the space of quiet with our students and creates spaces for contemplation on the reasons to life in addition to the skills and tasks of living.  As those sitting in his books and lectures, the dominant challenge for what is means to be human in our 21st century age is take seriously our vocation – our calling – and live the life we were always meant to live and to live this full life in front of our students in a holistic manner.  Teachers have been forced into becoming information Pez dispensers – spitting out facts and figures and methods without context nor purpose to test and therefore ‘assess’ with reliability that students are learning.

Do you think that he has a point?

Have we lost something in the education of our children in the elevation of the ‘active’ life over the ‘contemplative’ life?

This summer I give a lecture for the Kindlings Fest 2010 Arts and Faith conference on Orcas Island.  For those who follow the Kindlings Muse podcasts on iTunes, you will know something of the focus – an opportunity to talk about cultural questions of meaning with folks in a relaxed setting.  The monthly Kindlings Muse program is hosted at Hales Brewery and Pub in the Fremont neighborhood in Seattle on the second Monday of each month.  If you are in the area, be sure to come down and join us!

Here is a link to the lecture I gave on Emerging Adults and how technology is shaping young people into what MIT scholar Sherry Turkle terms “the tethered self” – the lecture reflects on JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye as a lens for how teens read the Gospels to some of Jeffrey Arnett’s work on Emerging Adulthood to the ways “electronic co-presence” through technology is re-framing identity formation:

[click here to connect to the Kindlings Muse website and stream or download the lecture]

Ever have that experience when you are listening to the radio or watching a television show and you know you are in the midst of a serious ‘water cooler’ moment?  Back in the 90’s, episodes of “ER” and “Friends” evoked such ‘water cooler’ moments: entertainment that was sold as pop entertainment yet hit some nerve in the collective zeitgeist that once you got to work the next day everyone was buzzing about it at the proverbial water cooler (or coffee pot, copy machine, to whatever collective gathering place you have in your cube farm).  For those of us working with teens and looking at the question of how teenagers are making meaning , this week’s episode of Glee entitled “Grilled Cheesus” was a water cooler moment .

[If you haven’t seen the episode – click here to watch it on Hulu.com ]

I have blogged about Glee here in the past to the way the show is lifting up the importance of anthems and ballads as theological forms for a new generation.  Already the blogosphere is a-buzz about this episode and some great discussions are occurring as to how the various teens discuss what faith is for them and showing that teens represent a large spectrum – from Christian fundamentalism to cultist wish-fulfillment  vis-a-vis a grilled cheese sandwich as an iconic cipher for the Divine to reformed and orthodox Judaism (who would have thought that Chaim Potok’s The Chosen would find a 21st century revival in the Glee characters of Rachel and Puck?) to atheism and all points in-between.   Dr. Kenda Dean at Princeton Theological Seminary and author of the great new book Almost Christian has posted a wonderful reflection on the “Grilled Cheesus” episode with some useful questions to reflect on with teens and parents – click through here for her reflections and helpful points of dialog with the show.

One of the points in the show that I found a bit disconcerting was the perpetuation of a view that public schools have somehow banned discussion of religion of any type and that teachers are being told to (in the words of Glee’s cheerio coach Sue Sylvester) “keep the separation of church and state sacred.”  This is a view that is continuing to threaten how public schools are viewed by people from religious communities and a point that needs to be challenged.

For starters, there is a sharp distinction to be drawn between (unconstitutional) indoctrination, proselytizing, and the practice of religion on the one hand and, on the other, (constitutional) teaching about religion, which is objective, non-sectarian, neutral, balanced and fair.  In the episode, the New Directions glee club is told by the Principal that they cannot sing anything that is religious and to do so will be in violation of the law separating church and state.

Unfortunately, the writers for Glee didn’t look at the law at all…

For example, looking at the Supreme Court’s 1963 Abington Township v. Schempp decision which continues to be upheld  in which the Court affirms the constitutionality of teaching about religion in public schools when done “objectively as part of a secular program of education” means that Sue Sylvester doesn’t have a legal leg to stand on – whether in a track suit or not – if teens are singing songs found on the radio and part of our culture whether in the Gospel tradition or CCM.  True, what it means to be “objective” is not uncontroversial as many would argue that there is no such thing as true objectivity and every curricular item has some bias to it.  Fair enough.  That said, what *is* clear from Schempp is that the Court’s places a high value on neutrality…. not silence. Teachers and texts in our schools must be neutral in dealing with religion which is to say that they must be neutral among religions, and they must be neutral between religion and nonreligion.

So yes, Mr. Schuester, you can have the kids sing Joan Osborne’s “(What if God were) One of Us” if they want to and the Supreme Court is there in the audience swaying along.  (By the way – I will admit an emotional tie to that song in that Joan Osbourne’s “One of Us” was sung in my ordination service along with U2’s “40” and “Pride (In the Name of Love)” so there *is* bias on my part as well 🙂 )

On the other hand, one of the things the “Grilled Cheesus” episode did that was spot on is showing that in order for this neutrality to occur, we must cultivate a spirit of diversity and hospitality for all voices to be heard.   To be educated about religion and morality is to understand something of religions in its diversity. It is not open to public school educators  to include only one religious tradition in the discussion to silence the reality of others and this is something that the Glee writers could have teased out a bit more but was thankful for what they did. One of my grand laments in youth ministry education is that most programs – both undergraduate and graduate programs – offer no room for students to take course in World Religions nor alternate worldview courses unless these course are with a missionary bent.   If there is to be an honest assessment of faith, then all faiths must be discussed on their own terms and not as a strawman argument filled with stereotypes and ill-informed bias to be shot down without honest, deep assessment.  One of the points the teens in Glee make over and over is that part of what helps them understand their own identity is taking seriously the identity of others.  In one of the most poignant scenes in the episode, Mercedes confronts Kurt about his ‘arrogance’ at refusing to discuss faith with her given that she is his best friend at school.  She accepts that he is choosing to be an atheist and has listened to his reasons for not believing in a God, but as she confronts him and challenges him to at least come to a worship service at her church, she reminds him that to really be friends, they have to honor each other and not merely dismiss each other.  Great reminder to us all…

Time to make a grilled cheese sandwich and see what comes of it…

Faith communities love acronyms. There are landfills full of WWJD? bracelets to prove that acronyms distill complex ideas down beyond a catch phrase to a few letters and allow a certain hyperlinkedness to vast amounts of data.  In many ways, acronyms are a gift but they can also be a distraction by offering a seemingly summative and all-encompassing certainty.  The latest acronym to take youth workers and many church leaders by storm is MTD which is short-hand for Moral Therapeutic Deism.  Launched into the world via their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Teenagers (Oxford, 2005) which resulted from an in-depth study of American teenagers self-reporting about what makes up and sustains belief through the National Study of Youth and Religion.  The findings of the study distilled in Soul Searching hold that what is religious belief for teenagers in America across ethic and religious backgrounds is what Smith and Denton term MTD or Moral Therapeutic Deism which sees belief as a code of right and wrong behaviors (moral) that is centered on the question of what the person needs to feel better about themselves (therapeutic) and organized by a view of the Divine as completely separated from the realm of lived experience, completely at a distance, and only there to consult and affirm (deism).  After the study was released and the book published five years ago, a flood of reactions and later sub-industry has arisen around this model of MTD.  Churches are worried, parents are feeling guilty, and youth workers are frantically seeking new models to change this trend.  To be sure, Smith and Denton have some great data and the ‘wake up call’ to get serious about working with youth toward a deep and abiding sense of what makes up belief should be addressed.  That said, I do worry that many are adopting this MTD mantra without a critical examination of what is at stake and is the course correction proposed in Soul Searching and the MTD concern truly what we need.

In short:  is the supposed cure potentially worse than the disease?

Critiques of Christian Smith’s Soul Searching:

1. There is a danger of a “one size – fits all” view to what is considered biblical literacy and deep faith that plots toward rationalism over and against embodiment and practice :

Smith and Denton argue that “all religious groups seem at risk of losing teens to nonreligious identities[1] which assumes that there is an easily quantifiable religious identity is out there that we can appeal to that is somehow counterpoised to so-called ‘secular’ identities.  I have to admit being puzzled by this notion of ‘nonreligious’ identities and deeply suspicious of what the ‘religious’ persona that is backgrounding this assessment would look and feel like.  As someone watches a generation of young people grab a hold of all the consumerism that Evangelicalism had to offer to ‘mark’ their faith as real – shirts, hats, CDs, messenger bags, etc – as well as use catch phrases and social behaviors valued in certain circles but foreign to others, I am not sure I am buying what Smith and Denton are putting on the table.  They go on to state that “a number of religious teenagers propounded theological views that are, according to the standards of their own religious traditions, simply not orthodox.”[2] To that I would say… come to a Youth Specialties conference and see if you can find the orthodoxy that is being romantically idealized.  Here are people who work with teens and draw from the breadth and height of the Christian tradition – contemplative Celtic prayers mixed with various social networking platforms and funded by sociological and theological reflection.  One of the MTD critics who is voicing a similar concern to what I am reflecting on is Theologian Tom Beaudoin at Fordham University.  In the chapter “The Ethics of Characterizing Popular Faith” from his great book Witness to Dispossession, he underscores the fact that faith is complex and not an easily reducible thing:

[T]heology itself is discovering with ever greater complexity, the particular beliefs that are “sanctioned” by religious leadership, at any particular time and place, are deeply implicated in “nontheological” or “nonreligious” political, social, cultural, and economic factors.  The very opposition between “picking and choosing” and “accepting the whole” is itself a recent way of imaging, often for the sake of an intended control, what the options for belief are today – much like the opposition between fundamentalism and enlightenment, or relativism and moral fundamentalism.[3]

2. The study that Smith and Denton offer in Soul Searching doesn’t sufficiently allow for the inherently inarticulate nature of real faith.

Last time I checked, ‘faith’ was not ‘certainty’.  Following on from the fact that religious vs. irreligious identities are difficult and possibly problematic to view as a goal of our work with young people, the core of Smith and Denton’s work is a concern that youth cannot articulate what they believe with clarity and certainty. As they say:  “The bottom line is, when it comes to their religious belief about God, U.S. teens reflect a great deal of variance on the matter, and perhaps in some cases more than a little conceptual confusion.”[4]

Again, I would ask *who* actually has a LACK of variance in regard to their faith story and can offer a clear picture of belief

As noted by Nancy Ammerman in Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives, faith is known through and practiced as “fragments”, “side plots” and “tangents”[5] more than systematically theorized and rendered.  Ammerman puts it this way: “A person may recognize moral imperatives that have a transcendent grounding without ever having a ‘religious experience’ or being able to articulate a set of doctrines about God.”[6] Think for example about the man born blind in John 9.  In this narrative, the man is questioned by many religious leaders (read: data collecting researchers) about what ‘happened’ to him.  Continually he can’t articulate a response that is enough for the religious professionals.  He ultimately states that in reference to who Jesus is that “whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know,’ the man replied. ‘All I know is this: I was blind and now I see.’” (9:25)  And here is a man who Jesus celebrates and embraces for a faith that while can’t be articulated is a faith worthy of emulating as testified to its inclusion in our canon of Scripture.

3. The problem and later solution seems to revolve all-too-conveniently around institutional religion and doesn’t take into account the ‘Pandora Effect’ of social media, internet, web, globalization as a good thing

According to Smith, institutional representatives are the “agents of religious socialization”[7] and as such should bear the burden of righting the wrongs of MTD to a large degree.  That is fine on one level – churches, synagogues, mosques, and other institutional locations should continue to seek new ways of spurring on conversations for and about faith.  Yet what Smith and Denton don’t take into account is the role that other networks play is framing faith and that, in many ways, these serve to remind us that God does indeed move in mysterious ways.  Tom Beaudoin makes the following comment in regard to this aspect of Soul Searching: “The authors imagine religious beliefs as starting from pure official teaching, stewarded by contemporary religious leaders, well or poorly, through official channels, such as programs of religious education.”[8]

Now… I don’t know about you, but faith is a messy thing and how ANYONE comes to some understanding of God and what resources that belief is anything but clean.  When I was in high school, I had a lot of questions about what belief was supposed to be and thought that most things about Christianity was more in line with the Marxist critique: simply a ‘opiate for the masses’, a balm for those unwilling to embrace the horrors of a life without God with courage and choose a fairy tale instead.  So I read everything I could get my hands  – from Carl Sagan’s Broca’s Brain to The Tao Te Ching – in trying to make sense of what meaning actually was.  Yes, I count myself as a Christian and yes, I situate myself within the orthodox understanding of the faith as framed in the ecumenical creeds and Scriptures canonized by the apostolic faith.  But did my starting point begin with the Church?  Not really.  Is what resources and sustains my question for a deeper and more abiding faith generated solely by the church within which I find myself?  Somewhat.  Am I clear and articulate about what faith is for me?  I suppose better than some.  Does this cause me anxiety?  Not at all.   This leads to my last comment…

4. Eclecticism is not necessarily a bad thing…

Piggybacking on the last concern, there is the assertion in the MTD industry that eclectic approaches to faith development is something of an aberration and that authentic faith is to be found in categorical resolute allegiance to a particular faith tradition.  When Smith makes the statement that  “U.S. teens as a whole are thus not religiously promiscuous faith mixers”[9] he is seeing this as a good thing.

Is this a good thing?

Smith and Denton go on to state that “based on our experience talking through these issues face-to-face with teens around the country, we estimate that no more than 2 to 3 percent of American teens are serious spiritual seekers of the kind described above: self-directing and self-authenticating people pursuing an experimental and eclectic quest for personal spiritual meaning outside of historical religious traditions.”[10]

In many ways I don’t find comfort in this at all.  When did seeking manifold resources by which to ground and still release a faith in being that is larger than institutions, larger than reason, more compelling than route recitation of dogma and more enlivened than an appeal to a dead past?  Students I know find ‘common grace’ flooding through the music they listen to, the books they read in comparative lit courses, in the art they study from the 16th century, and even in the characters they follow on TV shows as ephemeral as Glee, as gritty as The Wire, as bizarre as Lost, and as ridiculous and ironic as Monty Python.  This is in keeping with St. Paul’s repose to the world as he spoke to the Athenians in Acts 17 – seeking not merely the so-called orthodox rendering of what constitutes the faith tradition, but beginning with a tour of their museums and finding whatever cultural artifact seemed to shimmer and resonate with that which connected with their searching for meaning.

So… what do you think?  As you listen to the cry of concern voiced by the MTD industry calling us to a deep state of alarm and fear for the sake of our teens, can we temper that fear and concern with knowledge that faith has always been a messy thing that is difficult to articulate, and often drawn from a crazy and seemingly random set of sources?


[1] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, p. 88

[2] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, p. 136.

[3] Beaudoin, Tom. Witness to Dispossession (New York: Orbis, 2008), p. 81

[4] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, p. 42.

[5] Ammerman, Nancy (ed.) Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives (New York: Oxford UP, 2007) p. 226.

[6] Ammerman, Nancy (ed.) Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives, p. 226.

[7] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, p. 27

[8] Beaudoin, Tom Witness to Dispossession (New York: Orbis, 2008), p. 81

[9] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, p. 32.

[10] 78

“Any of you in high school during the 1980’s?”

This was a lead question by Tim Neufeld, lead singer of the band Starfield, during the opening Big Room session of the NYWC in San Diego (National Youth Workers Conference) this afternoon.  The question was met with a roar of affirmation and in many ways was the right question to ask.  Youth Ministry in America is a field that has a number of outliers – contemplative, ecumenical, urban, globally minded – but still struggles under the legacy of the explosive growth in the field during the Reagan era of the 80’s that framed youth ministry as event-driven and programmatically framed where numerical growth in a youth ministry is a mark of success or failure.

*BAM!* (I was just hit in the head by a Frisbee… nothing major…I am fine… )

The exhibit hall here at the NYWC is filled with pounding music, vendors selling witness-wear T-Shirts with various morphing of pop culture semiotics and references to bible verses, bigger and more effective video projection units, Christian video games, flashy camp experiences and tons of books promising the latest method for helping youth find their way in the Christian faith. This is pretty much the same as past NYWC I have been to and blogged about.   Amidst all the glimmer and glitter of this festival celebrating a vocation deeply concerned with the state of teenagers in our culture, there is also a tiredness and almost last-ditch “Hail Mary” attempt to recover the glory days of the 1980s when youth ministry in America was reaching out to the suburbs, Contemporary Christian Music was gaining a large audience, and Zondervan, Youth Specialties and Word took youth ministry publishing to a new level.

Kids who were in youth groups during those glory days are now the youth workers wandering the exhibit halls.  These are the ones who responded to Tim Neufeld of Starfield when asked if they were in high school in the 1980’s and when they stop by to talk to me about graduate education there is often a notable pause in the midst of the noise surrounding them as if they are really unsure about what they actually need to meet the challenges they face.  When I ask them what youth ministry for the 21st century should look and feel like… to a person they don’t mention anything around this convention center.  Or at least not that which meets the ear and blinds the eye.  It keeps coming back to a simple thing:  being in relationship with kids and modelling a life that is worth living amidst the madness of the consumer driven age.

In many respects youth ministry leading into the 21st century has been an exercise of confidence in an unchanging message coupled with an ever-increasing attempt to turn up the volume to be ‘heard’ above the crowds.  But that era is fading and the writing, as they say, is not in the book stalls but on the proverbial wall.   A change is happening and the method of turning up the volume just isn’t working like it used to.  These tired and burned out people who spend a lot of time on iPhones following the FB status updates and texting with the young people they are committed to yet in a way that isn’t seeming to change anything.  These folks, like my friend and soul brother Lars Rood who is a Youth Pastor in Dallas recently blogged about being here at NYWC, are part of a tribe I celebrate.  These are people who think and feel with a depth that folks in the academy often don’t take seriously – which is a crime.  Youth workers are some of the most ingenious, entrepreneurial, energetic people you will meet. As Lars puts so well, this is a group that have hearts committed to being with teenagers and that is something to be celebrated:

Being around other youth workers who love all parts of youth ministry is an amazing thing.   I don’t feel like I have to try to “explain” what it is I do with my life. I don’t have to justify my role or why I hang with students all the time.  I don’t have to be the “slightly older guy” who is still hanging around and I don’t feel guilty for wearing shorts and a v-neck.  I love knowing that we all “get” each other and value the gifts, skills and sacrifices we make to do what we do.

Part of what it means to be in a “tribe” is also to realize that the larder for the winter is low on food, that the hunting may mean taking us to new lands, and that banging rocks to keep the demons at bay can only work for some long before we either give up in exhaustion or find a new vision and purpose.

So I sit here with the folks in my tribe and ask whether it is truly time for a revolution.

Moving from ‘weak ties’ to ‘strong ties’

In the recent New Yorker Magazine, Malcolm Gladwell published a provocative article entitled “Small Change: Why the Revolution will not be Tweeted.”  In it he recalls the way the Civil Rights movement took shape and caused a massive shift in our country in a time without Facebook, Twitter, or cell phones.  When he reflects on this point, he notes that many of the Civil Rights activists had personal relationships at the core of their work and passion which is what he calls a ‘strong tie’ form of activism.  By contrast Gladwell notes that the use of social media platforms to galvanizing change is hampered by ‘weak ties’.  As he puts it in the article:

The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this [the forms and effectiveness seen in the Civil Rights movement] at all. The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.

Gladwell goes on to note that ‘weak tie’ networks can foster a high level of participation as long as it doesn’t cost too much and doesn’t demand change of how I live my life.  He cites examples where FB campaigns have raised millions yet at 9 to 10 cents per person.  There is certainly volume to be found, but social change only occurs at a robust and lasting level when someone gives more than 9 to 10 cents of themselves.  ‘Strong tie’ relationships are those that are led by a selfless commitment at all levels and a personal invitation mirrored with incredible commitment to change that will risk everything. Another part of this is that a vision for change must be made and led in a directive fashion and cannot be left to the masses to figure out on their own.

Car companies sensibly use a network to organize their hundreds of suppliers, but not to design their cars. No one believes that the articulation of a coherent design philosophy is best handled by a sprawling, leaderless organizational system. Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?

Back to the NYWC in San Diego and the tired youth workers that are walking by the book stalls and T-Shirt sellers.  Many of them have over a thousand FB friends, have churches that both trouble and support them and a burning desire to serve in ways that the US Congress could learn something from.

But that isn’t enough for the revolution.

But perhaps this weekend it is time to start forging some ‘strong ties’ beyond the ‘weak ties’ and asking each other the hard and difficult questions as we listen to the booming voices, see the endless books, T-shirts, and stickers promising a new day that requires little of us beyond putting the merchandise into a bag and keep walking.

The revolution in youth ministry will not be loud because embracing someone, sitting with them face-to-face, committing to a new way of doing things that defies consumerism and the cult of immediacy, and turning to a different road less travelled by is a solemn thing.

No, the revolution will be quiet people.  So we need to turn things down a notch so we don’t miss it.

Thoughts?