Youth Culture 101

2012CultureCloudI’m off to Yakima, Washington today for the Northwest Ministry Network’s annual Youth Summit.  Youth ministers and leaders from around Washington and Northern Idaho are gathering for fellowship and enrichment as they continue to the important work of ministry with adolescents.

I’ll be leading a small “break-out” session during the meetings.  My topic: youth culture.

Much of what I’ll be saying derives from a new class I’m working through this semester entitled “Studies in Youth Culture.”  You’ll likely be hearing more about it in coming weeks.  For now, though, just a brief list of some of the principles for studying youth culture that I’ll recommend:

I.          Observe carefully.

II.        Be humble and realistic.

III.       Withhold judgment.

IV.       Beware of the “tyranny of the visible.”

V.        Consider all factors, ecologies, and vantage points.

VI.       Beware the “back in my day” approach.

VII.     Ask: What does this tell you about the student(s) and their context?

VIII.    Ask: What does this tell you about humanity?

IX.       Ask: How does God/Scripture see this?

X.        Reflect on how culture(s) affect those involved.

XI.       Think/pray/meditate/consider first, act later.

fig,eggplant,womens,ffffffThat’s all for today, and for this week.  Let me know what you think.  Spring Break begins this weekend, so I’ll be taking a hiatus until Monday 18 March.

I Plead the Fifth

AP_Constitution_5Amendment_Self-IncriminationFor today’s installment of my occasional series on the amendments to the United States Constitution I’ll be looking at number 5:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

As opposed to the ones we have looked at so far, there seems to be a lot more going on here.  This said, the main focus on the Fifth Amendment seems to be on the rights and privileges of the criminally accused within the American legal system.

The amendment limits the role of the government in running roughshod over those charged with crimes, and in so doing echoes the restraints (explicit or implicit) placed upon organized national power by the previous four.  For me, this is the interesting thing about looking at these basic freedoms.  All of my life I’ve neverttt-81093246230 really thought of “the government” as the enemy, or something from which I need to be protected.  I grew up simply assuming that the government’s job was to protect me.  I still think that’s partly true, but perhaps only because the government (in the form of the Bill of Rights) took steps to protect its  citizens against the possible excesses of its own being.

Early citizens of the United States knew the grievances they had against the British authority.  While they wanted a government of their own, they were afraid of national power that went too far.  Hence these amendments.

When we today hear people tell us that “the government is the enemy” or “the less government the better,” we sometimes think they might be a little overdramatic.  Perhaps they are…but when looking at the first five amendments to the Constitution, it appears they are in good company.  Interesting, that.

Churchless Church

tumblr_lu1w4jKqxj1r07zq0A few weeks ago I was in Southern California for a “church tour.”  Together with a few professors and about 20 ministry students, I visited nine church services in a weekend.  It was a bit of a marathon, but I survived.

The goal for the students was to gain an appreciation for the way “church” was done in a few different contexts, make observations that might serve to benefit their future ministries, and analyze a variety of sermons.

My experience of the weekend was similarly organized, but at some point it also turned a bit pessimistic.  Observing so many church services in one weekend, while supposedly meant to be an “uplifting” experience, actually caused me to wonder why in the world we do all of the things in we feel that we have to do.  If Christianity is a matter of the spirit, both individually and as gathered with others in communion with Christ, then why does so much of “church” feel so…artificial?  Strange songs, standing and sitting, listening to someone talk for an hour, varying dress codes, Christian clichés.  Even that portion where we’re all forced to shake each others’ hands.  Really?  What is it all theholydepotabout?  It is an interesting question.

Some of our discomfort with the “strangeness” with church life might simply have to do with the “strangeness” or other-ness of God.  This I accept wholeheartedly.  God’s ways are not our ways, and as a good Pentecostal I recognize that the presence of the Almighty can manifest itself in diverse and unexpected ways.

Some of the reason that church services seem artificial might simply be because our world can tend to be rather secularized, or antagonistic to such organized religious faith.  Because we live in a world that doesn’t like to talk about or reflect upon religious faith, places where we do so naturally feel weird.

All the same, neither of these two things really get at some of the ways in which church as “church” can become rather a thing unto itself.  An institution not serving the world or its Lord, but rather itself.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not one of these “Jesus hates the Church/religion” people.  I think that’s a little overblown.  As it is the Body of Christ, I love and cherish the Church Universal throughout all space and time.  Yes, Christianity is about relationship, but as relationship is organized it naturally takes form and structure.  When it comes to human relations with God, that structure is called religion.  That’s simply the way it is.  But I’ll tell you what…I do think that some of the ways we act and organize ourselves when we as the gathered community join together for church services can be strange (at best).

Ultimately, I believe we keep doing things in certain ways because a) we think we have to by the bonds of tradition or sometimes misunderstood Scripture, b) we’re not creative enough to think of any other way, and c) we are more comfortable with it than we are changing.  I’m not sure that any of these is sufficient reason to keep doing what we’re doing.  If the goal in all of this is a matter of the Spirit, in our predictable churchy ways I’m not sure we’re following where the Spirit’s blowing.

hs_bonhoeffer_dietrich_-copy1I’ve been vague about which practices, habits, and forms I’m critiquing here.  Perhaps intentionally so.  I think that all of us, if we think about it, could come up with ways in which our churches and local congregations are focused so much on peculiar side-quests and the maintenance of non-essential and (from an outside point of view) bizarre practices we don’t even realize that we’re propping up what amounts to nothing but our own preferences or lethargic momentum writ large.

It is times like this that I think about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his thoughts about “religionless Christianity.”  His use of the term is debated, so I’ll just quote him:

Our whole nineteen-hundred-year-old Christian preaching and theology rest on the “religious a priori” of mankind. “Christianity” has always been a form–perhaps the true form–of “religion.” But if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all, but was a historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression, and if therefore man becomes radically religionless–and I think that that is already more or less the case…what does that mean for “Christianity”? It means that the foundation is taken away from the whole of what has up to now been our “Christianity,” and that there remain only a few “last survivors of the age of chivalry,” or a few intellectually dishonest people that we are to pounce in fervor, pique, or indignation, in order to sell them goods? Are we to fall upon a few unfortunate people in their hour of need and exercise a sort of religious compulsion on them?

If we don’t want to do all that, if our final judgment must be that the Western form of Christianity, too, was only a preliminary stage to a complete absence of religion, what kind of situation emerges for us, for the church? How can Christ become the Lord of the religionless as well? Are there religionless Christians? If religion is only a garment of Christianity–and even this garment has looked very different at different times–then what is a religionless Christianity?

Review: “Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture” (Part III)

9780802867520In the final segment of my three-part review of James Moorhead’s Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture, I would like to once again commend my former professor for a job well-done.  Much of my praise is detailed in other posts.  Today, a few small critiques of the book and a closing though or two.

I’ll name only a few real issues here, yet even they need to be understood in the light of Moorhead’s proviso early in the book:

…other important matters receive relatively light treatment: for example, student life at Princeton, the seminary’s contributions to the church and world through its alumni, the growth of the school’s physical plant, the development of its music program, and the process by which the endowment of the seminary was raised….this book makes no claim to offer a complete or definitive history of Princeton Seminary.  It is, to reiterate the point already made, a narrative tracing the school’s sense of mission, its basic values, and the way these interact with–and sometimes against–the religion and culture of the time.

Though being forthright about what he chooses to pass over, I still wonder if by omitting these and other elements Moorhead is leaving his story a little less rich.  Student issues, for instance, are discussed a little early on and with regard to the slavery debate  as well as concerning the Student Volunteer Movement (i.e. missions) in the later 1800s.  These issues and episodes both provide additional insight intoKenda-Creasy-Dean the seminary and its place in American religion.  It is unfortunate, however, that even more attention is not paid to the role the seminary’s student population played throughout the  seminary’s existence, especially in the twentieth century.  When compared to the rest of the text, discussions of student’s thought and experiences play a very small role.  More of their perspectives would serve to offer an alternate or complementary narrative to a history often dominated by the ideas and actions of professors and other leaders.

A second concern is about something else Moorhead leaves out:  youth ministry.  Though appearing in the caption of one tangentially related photo, he takes no real time to discuss the Institute for Youth Ministry.  The work of the Institute and Professor Kenda Dean is, I think, one of the more important developments in the seminary during the past two decades.  Dean’s work and influence at both a scholarly level and with a rising field of practical theologians is indicative of a larger shift in the Church and has the potential to be transformative for years to come.  I’m a little disappointed that these efforts were overlooked.

Princeton_Theological_SeminaryLastly–and I find this true in most similar histories–as we get closer to the present Moorhead’s analysis become a little  more disjointed in theme and can take the form of a list of developments and people rather than broad ideas.  Even though he comes to a helpful conclusion, the narrative breaks down a little in the post-Mackay era.

These questions about Moorhead’s text are, however, small in comparison to its achievement.  I personally look forward to pairing it or selections from it with a survey text of American religious history for use in the classroom.  Focused yet broad in scope, Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture is in itself an argument for the place of the historian as society’s scholar, sage, storyteller, and explanatory guide.  I highly commend it to any who wish to know more about American religion and that way it has changed and grown over time.