By Joe LaGuardia
This past week, a Swami, Rabbi, Christian Scientist, and I (the Baptist) went to a local private high school to provide three workshops on our respective faith communities. I know it sounds like the start of a bad joke, but we were there as part of a larger conference on “sharing our stories.” Each of us had about 10 minutes to present who we were and our faith.
As the workshops got underway — with about a dozen or so students in each one — we realized that all our planning for telling our stories, sharing anecdotes, and providing illustrations to express our faith fell short.
The rabbi, for instance, opened by recalling a scene from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. After realizing that no one in the workshops (but one!) had heard of the book, he re-calibrated his lesson. He referred to the hit, prime time show, Big Bang Theory instead, but again fell short. No one (apparently under the age of 30) watches Big Bang Theory. When he made a joke about Sheldon Cooper, no one laughed.
I tried a different tact as I wanted to explain various Baptist visions of how to live out the Gospel. I asked if anyone knew who Billy Graham was. No one. I gave a brief introduction and went on with the story. Then I asked who was assassinated that day 50 years ago–April 4, 1968. No one knew that it was Martin Luther King, Jr. I talked about MLK, by now assuming they never heard of him either.
The swami and the Christian Scientist did no better. We muddled through three sessions of workshops trying our best to connect our lives with theirs. We were miserable failures.
During the third and final session, we changed strategies and wanted to hear more from the students. It was a small group, so we were able to personalize our discussion, so we asked the question: “What do you all do–what do you watch, listen to, talk about?” The rabbi asked, “Is there anything that you share in common, a favorite TV show?”
The students explained that many of their activities revolved around their families–they spent time fishing and going to the beach, etc. But when it came time to connect with peers, there were limited opportunities. There were few common interests they shared, and that meant no common language based on pop culture.
Social media, which I assumed connected young people, only tended to keep them in an algorithmic bubble that showed them what they wanted. Time on the phone, then, meant less time looking outwards–to books (when we gathered in a large group in the auditorium for the keynote speaker, the speaker asked who read Harry Potter–this, in front of over 200 students; only a couple dozen rose their hands, and the keynote speaker had to re-calibrate too), to movies or television shows, or to radio stations (do young people even own radios anymore?).
No shared platform means no shared pop culture allusions, narratives that frame our relationships, or foundations for a common language. That young people don’t write anymore means that their ability to communicate beyond Tweets and posts and Snapchats at 130 characters is breaking down–or has become dysfunctional already.
Consider some of the things I read or heard recently:
- Author Vivek Wadwha of The Driver in the Driverless Car, notes that most young people have never written a full-length letter. To me, that means that people no longer know how to see, describe, and explore how they feel and how to invite others into their thoughts.
- Recent reports show that a higher usage of “screen time” results in a higher rate of depression and feelings of isolation or loneliness.
- The mystery as to why radio stations, television, and even movies are going vintage (how many have been throwing nods to the 1980s and 1970s in look, feel, and music–Thor Ragnorak for instance?) is solved: Corporations know that the over-40 crowd not only consumes that stuff more often than younger generations, we also have more money to spend!
As I spoke with those students in class, I asked them how they even found videos and music on Youtube or Spotify to figure out what to listen to in the first place. One admitted it was all technology–the media platforms automatically feed students what they like, so why do having choices even matter?
I explained that my favorite Friday-night “date” with my wife was going to a Blockbuster video–where all of the choices of movies were set before us and no one and no robot was going to tell me what I liked! I could easily go to the slasher-horror section as easily as the romance section, and no one was going to tell me what I was going to watch (I used this point as to why I am a Baptist, and focused on liberty during my talk in that third session).
When I asked them if they had an issue that corporations were literally running their life preferences, they said, “No, we don’t care. We like what we see, so not really.” I wanted to talk about The Matrix at that point, but I let that one go–for their sake and mine.
Algorithms matter. I had a feeling that this bunch won’t make good Baptists, as we Baptists are known for having issues with authority and tyranny. But then again, maybe that’s why my–and so many other Baptist churches–are struggling to attract young adults in the first place. We walk on the lawn when the sign says, “Keep off Grass,” and we prefer Bibles to programs that give us the “Verse of the Day.” We know our heroes — from Graham to MLK– and there ain’t no brand going to take their place.
I am not sure our brief time in high school provided thorough research to draw broader conclusions. Nor am I apt to make assumptions based on anecdotal evidence. But if my time with these young people mean anything, then all I can say is that I think that I and my ilk are doomed. It means that, decades from now, we will get arrested for walking and dancing on the grass.