How (Not) To Understand Youth Culture

This week’s Tuesday Longread follows up on Rob’s post from the other day. To recap: Vatican officials have recently admitted that they “do not understand youth culture”. The Pontifical Council for Culture (henceforth referred to as PCC) is holding a conference tomorrow to address this issue. It’s pretty hilarious from a reporting standpoint, but I’d argue that the Vatican’s inability to connect with young people also has some devastating implications.

With that in mind, this week’s Longread is half commentary, half personal essay. My examples are mostly anecdotal, which makes them harder to systematize into a public relations strategy for engaging youth culture. But maybe that’s the entire point.

So, again – according to the Religion News Service:

The Pontifical Council for Culture invited sociologists, web experts and theologians to a three-day, closed-door event on Feb. 6-9 aimed at studying “emerging youth cultures.”

There’s already something wrong with this – namely, that it’s a three-day, closed-door event aimed at studying “emerging youth cultures.” I’d understand if they were trying to study the migration patterns of some rare form of geese, but I’m pretty sure there are young people, like, right outside. I’ve been to Vatican City; it’s not that hard to find young tourists. Or just walk into Rome and talk to someone!

One could say that face-to-face interaction is the work of laypeople and parish priests, but I’d argue that that is precisely the current problem. I’ve met plenty of Catholic priests and parishioners who have no problem connecting with young people. But it is essential for those who hold the levers of power to support – not undercut – the work of leaders in local Catholic communities. The worst thing to happen would be to cultivate an inverse relationship between church rank and exposure to young whippersnappers. Also, if anybody from the Vatican is reading this: don’t ever actually say “whippersnappers”. It’s only funny when I say it.

1. Don’t reproduce the anxieties of youth. Also, actually talk to and care for individual people. Abstracting sensitive matters of faith has hurtful consequences.

Each year, my high school sponsored a Senior Baccalaureate service, which was invariably centered around a particular passage from Scripture. The pastor would then build on said passage to espouse words of wisdom for the graduates. When I visited the service last year, the passage was Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

The pastor opened with a story: His son came home and told him that he had won the “Christian Of The Year” award. He later found out that his son was messing with him. But it’s a shame we don’t have one, he said – because after all, there are a lot of faithful students in this audience who could (and should) win an award like that.

Besides the fact that I found the story itself a little underwhelming, I cannot overemphasize how much that statement bothered me. On a more general note, the premise of handing out awards for “best Christian” suggests that faithfulness to Jesus is primarily a function of deeds. But more importantly, my high school was an extremely competitive place. Even the mere notion of injecting spirituality into a social sphere teeming with competitiveness and anxiety made me cringe.

This is relevant (i.e. not a straw man argument) because in order to connect with young people in a spiritually nourishing way, one needs to be in touch with the social mechanisms that give way to the less savory elements of youth. Irrelevance isn’t ideal, but compliance is more destructive. Worse still would be for the church to act as the primary agent in making life miserable for young people. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that that’s probably happened before.

The problem is that while I just used the phrase “social mechanisms,” approaching an understanding of youth culture in a social scientific way is not the right way to go. The PCC’s current approach would be great if they were holding an academic conference in which their objective was to come up with some great material for future research. But if the PCC wants to understand youth culture because they care about people and want them to feel and know that God loves them (and if they don’t, they all might as well just go home), then a different approach is needed.

Paradoxically, it may be that understanding youth culture requires engaging with it at a lower level of analysis (oh hey there, international relations theory!). In other words, perhaps we’ve reached a point where going outside and talking to  someone would be far more useful than sitting in a room and speculating about what drives youth culture at large.

I don’t think I’m just spitballing here, either. Here’s an example of what I mean by “a lower level of analysis”: I’ve had my share of uncomfortable conversations about homosexuality and the church (I lean on the liberal side). The difference between conservative arguments that I disagree with and conservative arguments that make me want to jump off a cliff is the following: the latter have analyzed the issue in terms of how homosexual marriage is totally the same thing as Communism, or how widespread polygamy will surely follow, and how society in general is going to fall apart.

At that point, a “love the sinner, hate the sin” defense isn’t even worth trying. The aforementioned statements demonstrate a callous disregard for individuals. In this case, abstracting sexuality (which, in the Christian understanding, has so much to do with what goes on in the heart of an individual) into broad, systemic, slippery-slope arguments is incredibly alienating – not just to homosexuals, but to young people who want to see everybody treated in a humane and compassionate way.

By contrast, perhaps the least uncomfortable conversation I’ve had about homosexuality went something like this: A good friend of mine stated – and I’m paraphrasing – that while he struggled with the issue, his understanding of Scripture was such that he could not theologically detach sexuality, pleasure, vulnerability, and procreation. Until he could be convinced otherwise, he remained on the side of Christian history thus far.

I don’t think the difference is merely cosmetic. The difference with my latter example is this: I would never believe for a second that my friend hates gay people.

Again, why did I use that example, and why does it matter? It matters for two reasons: first, because I believe the PCC is using the wrong set of tools. But more importantly, the Vatican must not indulge in the fantasy that this is only a public relations problem. Issues and demographics matter. I’m not going to up and tell everyone to change their mind, but each individual in the church hierarchy needs to be able to discuss difficult issues in a thoughtful and compassionate way. But also, I really hope there are a significant number of women and not-European men at that conference.

2. Welcoming > Hip

Again, from the original article:

In his effort to understand young people’s language and feelings, [Cardinal] Ravasi confessed to listening to a CD by the late British pop singer Amy Winehouse, noting that “a quest for meaning emerges even from her distraught music and lyrics.”

I think Rob’s response to this revelation sums it up pretty well:

People in this town are just now getting into Nirvana Amy Winehouse. I don’t have the heart to tell them what’s going to happen to Kurt Cobain Amy Winehouse in 1994 2011.

If you’re not actually interested in pop culture, keeping up with it in an effort to understand young people is going to get pretty exhausting. Almost everybody from my Confirmation class isn’t a Catholic anymore, and it didn’t have anything to do with our priest’s unfamiliarity with Green day. (What the hell did I listen to in 2004? I think it was Green Day). I suspect it had more to do with the reality that the church did not contribute to individual fulfillment in a positive way. And yes, I tried to make that statement as vague as possible.

I’ve jumped in and out of many different Christian communities. The determining variable was never “coolness” or how well the adult leader understood my cultural preferences. I wanted a place where I was comfortable, where I could be myself, and where I could talk about shit. One of the challenges of the early church incorporating people from different walks of life (i.e. Gentiles). If your church community cannot even meet the basic criterion of making people feel like they can belong, you’ve already lost them.

3. Quality of relationships > Quantity of sheep

One more relevant quote from the original article:

The Rev. Melchor Sanchez de Toca, undersecretary of the Vatican’s culture department, said in an interview that the church’s youth problem is not just “quantitative” — evidenced by a decline in key indicators, such as baptisms and church attendance — but also “qualitative.”

The quantitative statistics shouldn’t be ignored, but I believe targeting plummeting church attendance with some kind of marketing strategy will have disastrous consequences. Instead, church officials must cultivate a greater sense of emotional intelligence.

I shudder to think that I might one day forget the anxieties of adolescence and young adulthood – that one day, I might look at a young person and feel no sympathy – only scorn, confusion, and a general sense of paternalism. Weren’t older people younger at some point? How’s this: Instead of reading about those meddling kids (is that reference out of date already?), have coffee with someone under the age of 30 who isn’t a Catholic. Find someone who grew up Catholic and left the church, and ask them why. Find out where the church has failed them. “Small things with great love,” right? It sure sounds a hell of a lot better than “Broad things with great concern.” Just talk to us. We don’t bite.


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