Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Get off my lawn, and other terribly helpful advice

My mid-morning perusal of clips from last night's NBA finals game was soured by a facebook post from Commonweal magazine. In their latest issue, Commonweal features an article by Rand Richards Cooper about technology. If you don't feel like clicking (or "flicking," as the case may be), allow me to sum it up: people these days (read: people younger than the author) are consumed by their relationships to their smartphones, and all of this flicking of the devices means that we no longer connect to one another. The article is peppered with scenarios--dinners, baseball games, etc.--where people who are together are actually on their phones, and all of this will mean that we won't be capable of reflection. "Occupied nonstop with taking things in," he writes, "we’ll have no time or place to mull things over. Eventually we’ll lose the ability."

I wish that this article was unique in Catholic media, just a little opinion piece on culture that would be read and forgotten. But it will be retweeted and shared hundreds of times, and people who read it in print will send copies of it to their friends and probably their adult children, hoping that it'll make them put their iPhones away at dinner, goshdarnit. People lap this stuff up, and editors know this. Check out this article from about a year and a half ago, this time from America, which warns that "digital isolation will only grow more acute as technology progresses." To be fair, the America article is more measured than Richards Cooper's but their similarities speak to something really irksome if not dangerous in Catholic media and American Catholic culture in general. My qualm with these articles is not each in isolation but the tone and posture towards technology that are cultivated by their publication and dissemination. Moreover, within these critiques of technological culture is a veiled critique of youth culture that is not just annoying but is quite ignorant given the present state of the American church.

Anyone who cares about religion in America knows that millennials are leaving religious communities in droves. For Catholicism, the relatively stable number of church membership overall obscures a seismic demographic shift, as the American Catholic church becomes more and more Latino while young people are opting out. For the first time in American Catholic history, young women are more likely than their male counterparts to say they do not attend Mass. This is a huge deal for Catholicism, which basically relies on women to keep families in the church.

In the midst of these real problems facing the viability of the American Catholic church, we read articles like the one I read this morning. Some might argue that these technologies are precisely the reason why young people are rejecting faith communities, but such a causal relationship is exceedingly hard to prove. What underlies so much of this anxiety about technology, I think, is a fear that if one embraces certain technological realities from a faith perspective, then one is automatically embracing the style of Christianity which has projectors in its worship services and glossy, over-designed pamphlets in its pews. This need not be the case. What is desperately needed at this time is not more talk about how technology "alienates" us but honest and serious conversations about what theological resources can be brought to bear in the historical circumstance in which we find ourselves and from which it is impossible to escape. We need less flat-footed warnings about kids these days and more intellectual rigor toward the things that matter to people now.

If the Body of Christ has nothing to say about the times in which the members of that Body live except "tsk tsk," it's no wonder young people are headed for the doors. Let us not be seduced by the false dichotomies which allow us to rest easy knowing that we're not like all of those kids on their damn devices, especially when those are the very people whose absence could spell disaster for the future church. 

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