Always, always be wary of solutions that don’t change anything.
Elizabeth Keaton’s blog post last week is one in a series that addresses the growing concern, nay, obsession, with finding the reason why young people are not coming to Church. Not specifically the Episcopal Church, but with any church at all, identifying, with her usual clarity, the decline in all Christian churches.
She ambles through the usual methods and problems of seeing church growth primarily through the “economic lens.” That is, primarily as giving units to support the infrastructure of a building, pray for a full time priest, etc. Rev. Keaton is absolutely right that “window dressing” of newer, hipper services, etc. aren’t doing it either.
From there, though, things go off the rails.
The solution, Keaton argues, is to focus on the “truth-seekers” of the world, which, in context, means those on the backside of life, those who, with the financial independence to do so, are now searching for meaning and “truth seeking.”
It’s a narcissistic solution to a narcissistic problem. The ego loves homeostasis; that’s it’s job, to mediate between the rule and perfection seeking super-ego and the animalistic Id. If everything is balanced and maintained, there is no need for fundamental change. So the ego fights against change, even if that change means things are going to be much better in the long run.
Narcissism is the failure of established identity, and the erection of a fundamentally false identity in it’s place. The ego goes into full-gear, setting out specific and unalterable rules to protect that false identity. In other words, it isn’t a case of being a guy who (fill in the blank), but being the type of guy who (fill in the blank). I’m the type of guy who has these kind of friends for friends. I’m the type of guy who has a girlfriend who wears this kind of shirt. I’m the type of guy who is a “truth seeker.” What’s the common factor? The narcissist uses people and things as props to support their own false identity. The ego must protect itself from any challenge, big or small, to the perceived identity.
The result is that the challenging of those rules and self-perceptions becomes violent; either a stronger assertion of the identity, or the elimination of the threat. IE, lots and lots of responses to silly articles in the Wall Street Journal.
Who runs around labeling themselves as “truth-seekers?” The only people I know of who call themselves that are second-year community college philosophy majors and female near-retirement age NPR listeners; in other words, precisely the sort of people we already have in TEC. What “truth” they seek is irrelevant; so long as they are seeking in a way we can approve of, we’re game. So the call to wait on “truth seekers” is really just a call for us to stay exactly the course we’re on.
The fundamental problem is that all signs point to a generation (Gen Y and younger) who simply aren’ interested in truth at all, or are suspicious of truth claims. She posts a picture of “Postmoderns” (without the irony of that picture coming from a hyper-fundamentalist website who once referred to Edward Pusey as “effeminate”), then misses what they’re saying. Assuming a meta-narrative of “truth” to be found fails; there’s no reason to assume they’re going to be looking for truth in the first place.
It’s narcissistic because it’s simply channeling (read: projecting) what most of us within the Church already think about ourselves. We in TEC view ourselves as truth-seekers; it only follows that we would only be truly interested and invested in people who affirm that view of ourselves since we, in turn, affirm individual members’ identities. All groups work like this; not every group makes it a part of their recipe for growth.
Most of this is harmless; it ceases to be harmless when engaging tin the narcississm hurts others or contributes to a “failure to thrive.”
We like to think of recent changes in the Church as breaking down barriers, and to some extent, that’s true; but even those changes are defenses. Passing A049 was the right thing to do for a whole raft of reasons… But we’d be foolish to think anyone outside of our mid-upper to upper class folks (gay/str8 being irrelevant) are going to be interested; no one under 50 has the time or finances to enable a “truth seeking” quest. It’s a subtle class distinction that protects ourselves from any actual real change. Power simply shifts from one group of people the “in crowd” is comfortable with to another crowd that just happens to be exactly the kind of people we are like.
I’m not in a position to offer specific alternatives to Keaton’s vision, other than to say very clearly that she’s not the problem. The problem he way that those in power in our Church conceive of the world around them and have shaped TEC’s view of itself. Until that changes, there’s no reason to assume anyone’s going to come in the doors, because there’s nothing compelling about the vision being cast.
What’s interesting is that a month ago today, The Episcopal Cafe published an article spelling out precisely the sort of thing young people are looking for and why they attend the Episcopal Church. Entirely missing was any sort of “truth seeking” or Montessori-like self-focus on whatever spirituality strikes our fancy this week.
Instead, this is what they said:
“Let me tell you why we go to Church:
It’s not the sermon. Sermons are usually not about anything we can relate to.
It’s not the music. The music is horrible.
It is the sacrament of Baptism and the Eucharist.
It is very important to us that we are in a ceremony that connects us to the Holy. It is important that we see the Christ in each other and that we work against injustices. It is important that people in a Church are serious about the ceremony and treat it with respect. Almost all of us have been baptized and have taken our first communion as the highlight of our spiritual life.
The way we know that it is a good Church to visit is when we pass the peace. If a congregation really treats us as one of them when they pass the peace, then we know we are in a holy place.”
Sacraments. Connection to the Holy. Clear catechesis from and for the Prayerbook.
It really is that simple, so long as we allow it to be that simple.
For Christianity, the ultimate way in which God has revealed Himself to the world is in the life, death, and especially the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. If it is true that Jesus died on the cross and then rose from the grave, than it is at least plausible that He is who He claimed to be, God Himself come in the flesh. And if that is the case, then the Bible becomes a secondary trusted source of revelation, based not just on its own rather significant historical merit but also on the fact that Jesus treated it as the Word of God.
All of this is based upon an historical event that can be proved or disproved using the measures of the study of history. Produce the body of Jesus of Nazareth and Christianity falls like a house of cards. I do not have the space here to lay out all of the arguments for the historicity of the Resurrection, but they are not hard to find. NT Wright wrote a huge book on the subject a couple of years ago that is very helpful. But the point is that, from where I stand as a Christian, my religion is true in the same way that gravity is true. It is a reality that affects every aspect of my life, not just because of personal preference, but because it points me to a picture of the world that is much clearer and much fuller than what I expected or experienced before. Asking me to put that picture aside when I interact with other people or when I come into the public square is a bit like asking me to pretend that gravity has no effect for the sake of those who might wish to walk off of cliffs and keep right on going. It is not simply offensive, it is non-sensical.
Dear Penn State Community,
The easiest thing for the NCAA to do today would have been to suspend the program, or in lieu of the media-created “death penalty,” offer a fine, vacation of wins, and suspension of bowl games and scholarships, effectively crippling the Penn State footballprogram for almost a decade.
We have chosen not to do that.
As the guilty verdicts against Jerry Sandusky, together with the Freeh Report, provide overwhelming evidence that Mr. Sandusky used the football culture of PSU to move freely from victim to victim. Additionally, the reports indicate a structural and leadership failure on the part of the coaches and administration, Board of Trustees, and President. Indeed, having failed to alert the proper authorities of the allegations, they allowed Sandusky to continue to have access to the very “currency” Sandusky used to manipulate children and abuse them. The evidence from the Freeh Report indicates these actions were under the guise of protecting the university from public approbation.
This is, indeed, a football scandal.
Over the past 50 years, the NCAA, the Universities, the media and the fans have allowed football to eclipse the intended role of colleges and universities as academic institutions of higher learning. Coaches and players take on mythical status in their communities. Athletic programs progressively take in more and more money from lucrative television contracts. Money pours in from alumi and fans a like.
The reality is that until the cult-like atmosphere surrounding college athletics is changed, this football scandal will simply be another on the timeline of other football scandals that have and will continue to occur.
The NCAA is partly responsible for the way in which we have allowed this culture to continue and thrive on the campuses we claim to oversee. We’ve allowed the multi-milliondollar, multi-year television contracts for mid-week games to continue. We’ve allowed coaches to make millions while academics are forced into temporary or hourly teaching scales. We’ve allowed athletics programs to envelope and take over learning and the growth of students.
And so didfans. Every ticket bought, every hat worn and pom-pom shaken has supported this rotten system that enabled Jerry Sandusky. We’re all complicit in this together.
We – the NCAA, the Universities, the coaches and players, students and the fans – the must fix it. The celebrity worship that enveloped the Penn State program cannot be allowed to happen again.
We call on our Division I programs to do the following to help break down the culture:
All coaches should teach as well as coach.
No coach should make more than the highest-paid active full tenured professor.
Proceeds from television contracts should go towards the betterment of the Academic side of the house.
No mid-week games.
Team paraphrenalia should only be available on-campus and licensing of university athletic trademarks should cease.
Players must be held to the same admissions and disciplinary standards as all other students.
This is not all that the NCAA and Universities can do, but it would begin the process of rationalizing the role of collegiate athletics. Fans and students, too, have their part to play. Take a critical eye towards the media-centered nature of collegiate sports. Extol the virtues of a school’s academics. Take a step back and critically view your participation in the current system.
We believe, in light of all that we have thus said, that taking punitive action against Penn State without acknowledging our own role creating an environment where the cultural corruption across our athletics programs would only serve to shift the conversation away from the very real issue of cultural reform. In this light, we must ask: what do we do with the Penn State football program?
Simply put, we ask PSU to do one thing only: return the statute of Joe Paterno to it’s place outside Beaver Creek Stadium. The image of throwing a blanket over a painful symbol, then carting it away to a closet, never to be seen again, is an apt metaphor for the way Penn State has handled the accusations and its failure to protect children. A reminder both of a great coach’s successes, and of the failure of an entire community to hold it’s heroes accountable for their actions. It also serves as a reminder to those of us who have responsibility for the culture of college athletics to seek the best for the sports and universities we’ve chosen to support.
In that way, the path PSU can now take is one of hope and healing, not just for Penn State, but a way forward for all of us.
This blog, its ‘persona,’ it’s outlook, is roughly hewn around Chapter 7 and 8 of Ray Bradbury’s magnum opus The Martian Chronicles. Together, those chapters form the story of Capt. Wilder and the Fourth Expedition to Mars, in the summer of 2001 (if your edition is before 1997, 2031 if after). A group of astronauts land on the surface of Mars and discover that chicken pox, brought to the planet from the previous three failed expeditions, has exterminated the native Martian presence. The empty homes, towers, canals all exist as if they were simply vacated by their owners.
Lt. Spender is the team’s archaeologist and is immediately taken with beauty, the spirit of the Martian civilization, and reacts violently to the other team members’ profane and vulgar celebration of the success of their mission. Capt. Wilder, the group’s leader tries to talk him down, but it fails; after declaring himself “The Last Martian,” Spender murders several members of the mission, and after another spoken confrontation, Capt. Wilder shoots Spender.
I’m not going to shoot anyone.
Spender’s argument, which you can read in the post below, is that humans in the West have an ongoing fascination with remaking the world around us in our image, destroying that which has gone before and losing touch with the pieces of our own souls that are touched by The Old Things that come before us. Bradbury’s argument, made by Capt. Wilder, is that with some discipline, we can move into the ruins of The Old Things and still keep our souls, still touch and learn from from The Old things. Spender wasn’t convinced. At the end of the chapter, Capt Wilder tells the remaining crew members, “Spare a thought for Spender.”
Thea analogy isn’t perfect, but both our Church and our world are rapidly leaving behind the failed paradigms and stale forms and functions of our previous place for the adventure of a new destination; from Earth to Mars. Culturally, we’re discovering the new Old Things… Community, making Eucharist, Daily Office, the value of integration and connection, and service to others above self. These are the ruins of the old Martian civilization, the canals the towers the homes in which we can build a new life on a new planet.
The new life is threatened by the old mistakes: a social narcissism and a form of Matrix that keeps focus totally on our own projection of identity for fun and profit. Partying at the tomb of a fallen civilization.
So when I say “The Last Martian,” what I’m wanting to communicate is a gentle warning… Reflect on the threats that sent us to Mars; how are we repeating them? Or are we coming up with new ways of making old mistakes? Are we simply forming our new place into our own image, or are we taking time to learn from the past and understand our future.
Spare a thought for Spender.