Generational Disorientation and Grieving Blockbuster

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.

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Standing in God’s Greatest Commandment

By Joe LaGuardia

This was presented at a Stand on the Side of Love gathering at the Vero Beach Courthouse on 16 August 2017 with neighbors, friends, and concerned citizens.

Here I stand.  I am the third-generation son of Italian refugees who escaped poverty, injustice, and fascism in Europe in order to seek a better life for themselves and their family.  They did not speak any English and their customs differed from many Americans at the time, yet Lady Liberty greeted them all as equals and with dignity as she had in years past and for a people vast.

When my family arrived in America, things were not perfect.  They ventured into ghettoized neighborhoods with other Italians, relegated to deplorable, cloistered tenement houses in New York.  And yet, in that place, they made it.  The American dream had become reality.

It is this type of liberty that defines who we are as American citizens and it is this type of hospitality and love that defined my family and shaped who I am as a minister of the Gospel.

But not all of our citizens had been afforded this kind of liberty.  Though foreign and different, my family had champions and advocates who fought for our rights as Italians—like Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia who represented ethnic communities in Manhattan and shamed a nation bent on spending more money on the military than on feeding poor children in one of the largest urban centers in the US.

And we also had the color of our skin going for us too.  Though I was raised in a family in which everyone, friend and stranger alike, had a place at the table, the stain of racism had reached into my neighborhood.  I grew up in a neighborhood segregated by streets and blocks, and the truth that liberty had not reached into communities of color was something I realized as I matured.  Who advocated for the “other” who were ghettoized and held captive by the projects and a crumbling education system?

For all the talk of statues and history in the news, of “us vs. them” and “who’s right and who’s wrong,” our public discourse largely misses the point: Much of our nation—the very one that welcomed my family with open arms while oppressing large populations of others—was founded not on a faulty democracy, but on a defunct medieval theology that pitted some people against others, declaring that some are superior humans deserving of all the rights afforded by our Constitution while others are only worthy for subjugation, a theology that insisted on a divine mandate that “This is God’s will for us.”

This theology continues to dominate and rear its evil head in the fabric of our communities even today, and it continues to justify inequality in our relationships just as it had for over four centuries by way of imperial-inspired sermons, seminaries, and church cultures that perpetuated colonialism, Manifest Destiny, slavery and Jim Crow, a biased criminal justice system and systemic discrimination in housing, public education, and fair-wage opportunities.

Standing on the side of love means first standing in a position of repentance, for we cannot be united by love—God’s love—without first recognizing our own lack of love, our own depravity as flawed creatures, our silence to push against this defunct theology and its ingrained toxins.  So I am a proud Italian-American, and I am a proud Baptist, and I am proud to serve Christ my Savior—but not so proud that I do not ask forgiveness for the racism and oppression and injustice that reside in my own heart.  I repent of the many ways my mind makes thousands of subconscious judgments against those who are different than I, or who speak differently or think differently or vote differently than I.

When I say “Here we stand,” I do so in humble submission to our Creator and in service to our community.  And I promise to love and respect you more today than I might have yesterday, and hope to love and respect you more tomorrow than I do today.

We are called to be witnesses. Period.

Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash

By Joe LaGuardia

In Acts 1:8, Jesus unequivocally identified the role his disciples play in the world: “You will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth.”  But ask any Christian to bear witness (first-hand!) of an experience of God, and you will likely get a blank stare.  Some will recall a conversion experience. Others may solicit a generic answer.  Many have experiences, profound experiences, but do not know how to explain it.

There seems to be a scarcity of witnessing going on these days.  I’m not talking about street-corner evangelism, but of giving testimonies that attract people to Christ.

I’m not sure what the problem is: Do we not experience God anymore, or is it that we do not know how to put our experiences into words in a way that captivates the mind, touches the heart, inspires a sense of purpose, and communicates God’s power in our life (see Acts 1:8 again)?

Pastors decry a lack of biblical literacy in our churches.  What about spiritual literacy?   Spiritual literacy that can define–specifically–the movement of the Holy Spirit on and in our lives.

Historically, people learned how to witness by hearing personal testimonies of others, by exchanging lengthy letters that communicated the spiritual ebb and flow of life, by reading literature that excited the senses and provided new ways of speaking about–and seeing–God.

In a world of Tweets and Facebook posts, we no longer know how to wield the English language for this purpose.  Our faith has become quite rote and boring, really–and who wants to follow a boring faith?  Instead of witnessing in ever creative ways, we complain, bicker, and bemoan.

Last month, I watched two interviews of sorts that inspired my thinking on this:  The first was with the late Mr. Rogers.  In a video that went viral, Fred Rogers argued for the need for public broadcasting funding before a Senate committee hearing.  In his testimony, he discussed the importance of early childhood education.

Mr. Rogers’ words were not explicitly Christian, but they were powerful and bore witness to his amazing ability to wield the language he certainly gained from his training as a Presbyterian minister.  He spoke simply, but movingly.

The second interview was between the Reverend William Barber II and Trevor Noah on The Daily Show.  Barber argued that Christian ethics is not only needed in pushing back against secular politics, but necessary in being a foundation for the type of moral fortitude that combats exploitation and bigotry in all its guises.  “The language we use,” he said of our contemporary religious and political conversations, “is too puny.”

Mr. Noah asked why Barber’s participation in politics was appropriate, and the pastor gave a remarkable testimony of how the church shaped community through the ages.  You may disagree with Barber’s theology, but you would be hard-pressed to argue against the force of his prophetic delivery.  (Notice, by the way, that Barber states, “Remember when I shared with you about the Bible when we were backstage..?”  He testifies on camera and off.)

Watching these two interviews reveal what is needed to revive the art of bearing witness, witnessing that taps into the power and authority of the Jesus about whom we speak.

For one, we need to speak well.  Our testimonies of Christ– our experience of the Risen Savior and the values for which he stood (and stands)– must break through the shallow platitudes of Tweets, posts, and social media banter.

We need to learn how to speak well by wielding and fashioning adequate narratives, by arguing persuasively and speaking substantively about the Gospel.  This cannot be done from our tribes, from the right or the left–it must be done as wisdom couched in the person and character and intentions of Jesus Christ who stands above our political and ideological labels.

A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.
Like cold water to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country (Prov. 25:11-12, 25).

Speaking well ought to bewilder, captivate, compel, and convict.  After all, we follow a Lord who mustered language in the form of parables to show people what God’s Kingdom looked like.  Jesus never lectured or taught dusty doctrines of yesteryear.  He never offered trite opinions.  Rather, he restored and reconciled and rebuked with compassion, peace, and unyielding intimacy that stemmed from unity with God (“I and my father are one…”).

Second, we must speak accurately.  In a society that fails to agree on facts, Christ’s Church must value accuracy in our presentation of the Gospel, of the justice tied up in God’s reign, and in our understanding of salvation history.

An example might suffice:  Some like to argue that our nation is founded on a Christian heritage, and that is true.  Yet, how people talk about that history–as if our nation is but a large church–is often inaccurate.  Yes, our nation’s founding documents are imbued with certain Christian principles, but we must be accurate when we also bear witness that God detests travesties of our past, such as slavery, racism or genocide of indigenous and minority populations.

Our ideological and tribal rhetoric suffers from inaccurate portrayals of God’s work in the world, bad theology, and partisan positions that have become the very fake news we loathe.

Last, we must speak what is true.  This is different than accuracy.  You cannot begin to speak with truth if you are not accurate with the facts.  If you play loose with the details, then your entire testimony will fail you–you will be a false witness, and your testimony will likely be bad news instead of the Good News Jesus intended the Gospel to be.

There are many people–Christians, pastors, church leaders–who are not bearing witness to a true vision of who God is, what the church is about, and how the Kingdom of God erupts, disrupts, and usurps in our midst.  This has taken a toll on the church.  If you don’t believe me, just look at all the empty pews across America on any given Sunday morning.

Speaking what is true about God means testifying about Jesus’ vision for justice, restoration and reconciliation in the world, most poignantly outlined in Jesus’s explicit mission in Luke 4:18-19, a vision that promises liberation to those who are oppressed and exploited.

This reminds me of Mr. Rogers’ insistence, for example, that children need communities that provide hope and trust, or Rev. Barber’s citation of Luke 4 in his protest against voter suppression laws and political malpractice.

Jesus told us to be Great Commission people, people who attract (not repel or appall) others to Christ by bearing witness to our first-hand relationship and restoration in Christ.  His call in the earliest chapters of Acts still applies today; but it will require some prayer and work to reclaim our long history of being the kind of wordsmiths worthy of the Gospel we are to promote.

We must speak well.  We must speak accurately.  And we must speak what is true.