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.

Advertisements

A Pastor appreciates the Hymns: Controversy!

By Joe LaGuardia

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns is a series on hymnody and worship in the church.  By incorporating personal testimony and theological reflection, the series draws meaning and strength from sacred songs past and present.

Hymns and hymnals have not been without controversy.  At times, controversy erupts when publishers change beloved verses in the hymns as a way to update the language.  Other times, the inclusion or exclusion of hymns can become a source of contention.

The most recent controversy involved the publication of the Glory to God Presbyterian hymnal in 2013, which centered on pushing variations (while limiting others) of the theological concept of atonement– one particular doctrine of atonement in which Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross was said to appease God’s wrath.

The exclusion of one such hymn that communicated this model of atonement, In Christ Alone, created strife.  Some thought the exclusion to be intentional, but editors indicated that they were unable to secure copyrights appropriate in changing the verse, “As Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied,” to “on that cross Jesus died/the love of God was magnified.”

The publisher argued that there were some songs included that spoke to this type of atonement, but they emphasized the importance of Jesus’ sacrifice as an atonement for sin rather than an appeasement of God’s wrath.

Controversies in our own Baptist tradition abound as well.  In one controversial publication, the 2008 Baptist hymnal failed to put “Holy, Holy, Holy” as the first hymnal (it was #2 in the 1991 hymnal, right behind a congregational litany).  Another debate ensued as to whether to include “I Come to the Garden Alone,” which some scholars argue is theologically inaccurate.

Other controversies focused on whether to include contemporary songs or choruses.  These are primarily theological: What songs or choruses reflect a biblical message and inspire hearts to soar heavenward while our knees bend towards Christ?  What songs are so individualistic that they do not express any community theology or serve a pedagogic function for the church whatsoever?

In my own ministry, I have not had a particular dog in the hymnal fight.  I have, however, been intrigued to hear how other, more interested parties have weighed in.  I knew one minister of music who thought that excluding “Holy, Holy, Holy” from the #1 spot in the Baptist hymnal was among the greatest sins in human history.  In conversation with another music minister, I learned that there is too much “white space” in the new Celebrating Grace hymnal–and why kill all of those trees when you can use a more effective typeset?

Conflicts surrounding hymns and hymnals will always surface as long as churches insist on having hymnals in the pews and of reading music as a crucial part of congregational worship.  Yet, debates over hymnody communicate an important truth: Hymns mean something to us because they stir emotions, nostalgic or otherwise.

Hymns mean something because they teach us things about who God is and who we are to God.  We link emotional expression and theological depth with the songs we sing–a peculiar hallmark of churches and of sacred music in general–so they become meaningful in more ways than one.  So when a publisher comes out with a hymnal and people begin to notice that The Old, Rugged Cross is nowhere to be found, then you’re certain to find yourself in the middle of a hymnal fight.  Watch out, it could get ugly!

 

 

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns: Friendship with Jesus

By Joe LaGuardia

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns is a series on hymnody and worship in the church.  By incorporating personal testimony and theological reflection, the series draws meaning and strength from sacred songs past and present.

Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote that people who pray to see God and have their prayers answered rarely ask the same thing twice.  Like the Israelites who met God face to face on the mountainside of Mt. Sinai, we cower in fear when God singes us with a presence that is overwhelming and, at times, threatening.

We keep God at arm’s length.  What if God searches us deeply as the scriptures attest (Ps. 139:1)?  What if the unveiling of God unveils all our secrets (Luke 12:2)?  What if God snags us in our selfishness and zaps us dead if we venture too close (2 Samuel 6:7)?

We preachers speak every week on the intimacy of God.  We encourage people to know God as they are fully known, to grow in a personal relationship with God.  Yet, God, ever mysterious, evades us and meets us with silence–God, immortal, invisible, the One only wise.

That is why we need Jesus.  In Jesus we hear a familiar, human voice.  In Jesus, we sense that God chose the best way to come near us so that we might not be singed, but experience a lightness of yoke and the easiness of God’s burden (Matthew 11:30).  We are not off the hook with Jesus; rather, we are hooked by the great Fisherman who calls us to do the same for others.

Thankfully, our liturgical tradition maps out a more personal relationship with God than the fright that God sometimes engenders.  One of my favorite hymns, What a Friend We have in Jesus, teaches us that we should never be discouraged, be open and share our sorrows, and realize that Jesus meets us in the midst of our vulnerability and weakness, not in spite of it.

Jesus is not out to get us, but to bridge the gap between us and God, that we might “carry everything to God in prayer.”

The hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” is “not considered to be an example of great literary writing, its simply stated truths have brought solace and comfort to countless numbers of God’s people since it was first written in 1857” –Kenneth Osbeck.

Other hymns on friendship have comforted the church in ages past.  Jesus is All the World to Me ends every verse with the simple affirmation that Jesus “is my friend.”  I’ve Found a Friend, O Such a Friend speaks of Jesus’ sacrificial act of dying on the cross for us, likening his friendship to that of a tapestry of love: “He drew me with cords of love…And round my heart still closely twine, for I am His.”  No, Not One admits that “there’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus.”

A contemporary song by Casting Crowns, Jesus, Friend of Sinners, is a song of confession.  It acknowledges our failure to befriend others who need Jesus like we:

Always looking around but never looking up, I’m so double minded
A plank-eyed saint with dirty hands and a heart divided

The church’s hymnody provides God’s people not only with an alternative narrative, but also an alternative vision of who God is for us and how God relates to us. (Casting Crowns’ song is appropriate: “Open our eyes to the world at the end of our pointing fingers“).

God is not the seething, besieging white-haired judge who zaps people, but One who faithfully pursues us in a personal relationship through Christ.  It is a model of friendship, not animosity or antagonism.

Of course, this requires work.  We no longer have an excuse to run from God.  We cannot state that God is too powerful or scary for us.  In Jesus, God has removed every hindrance, and we have to take responsibility in cultivating that friendship.  Like friendships in the flesh, our friendship with Jesus requires time, patience, communication, honesty, and trust.  This is a great task, but it is among the greatest blessings we are entrusted.