Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Quote: Albert Camus

Life's work is nothing but the slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence one's heart first opened.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Emotional consequences

A phenomena termed "waning of affect" or emotional "depthlessness" (notably in the arts) has been described by authors such as the philosopher Frederick Jameson. This is one of those areas of cultural criticism by postmodernists where one can find a combination of intriguing concepts and impenetrable terminology. My interpretation is that this refers to an apparent superficiality of emotional expression or affect, coupled with an attraction to intense experiences of sensation or emotion. The types of deeper emotional expression that a century ago would have been routine in literature, or for that matter religion, are difficult to find today. We have a preference for the cool or ironic in expression, while at the same time, having a taste for forms of entertainment such as increasingly graphic horror movies and intense video games. A wide array of traditional religious literature simply will not communicate adequately in this environment, and attempts to follow current trends will have interesting but unpredictable consequences - consider Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, which had tremendous sales and apparent social impact. As it turns out, that impact was rather limited, based on the research of several different organizations. Consider this report from the Barna group, which was very sympathetic to the religious goals of the movie:

Among the most startling outcomes drawn from the research is the apparent absence of a direct evangelistic impact by the movie. Despite marketing campaigns labeling the movie the “greatest evangelistic tool” of our era, less than one-tenth of one percent of those who saw the film stated that they made a profession of faith or accepted Jesus Christ as their savior in reaction to the film’s content.

Equally surprising was the lack of impact on people’s determination to engage in evangelism. Less than one-half of one percent of the audience said they were motivated to be more active in sharing their faith in Christ with others as a result of having seen the movie.
The anaysis of the shallowness of the consequences of this film refer to the same new world of communications cited before in examining social consequences:
George Barna, the director of the research, commented that many people would probably be surprised that there was not a more lasting and intense impact from the movie. "Immediate reaction to the movie seemed to be quite intense," he noted, "but people’s memories are short and are easily redirected in a media-saturated, fast-paced culture like ours. The typical adult had already watched another six movies at the time of the survey interview, not including dozens of hours of television programs they had also watched."
You can't counteract the emotional consequences of postmodernity simply by being more ironic, or cooler, or more intense. Just going further and faster does not help you when you are having problems with finding directions -- the proper treatment of ADHD may not include a new Gameboy.

These intellectual, social and emotional consequences of postmodernity have spiritual consequences as well.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Social Consequences

As I pointed out earier in this series of posts, telecommunications has been a key part of the modern transformation. Industrial telecommunications complemented the rest of the Industrial Revolution by promoting a kind of mass communication paralleling mass production and consumption. As this network of mass media has grown global, it is often easier to know what is going on thousands of miles away rather than down the block. There is less personal risk in turning on the TV or even signing on to an online conversation than in talking to your next-door neighbor.
Sociologist and political scientist Robert Putnam has written about the seemingly invisible changes to social participation over the past few decades, including religious participation:

In sum, over the last three of four decades, Americans have become almost 10 percent less likely to claim church membership, while our actual attendance and involvement in religious activities has fallen by roughly 25 to 50 percent. Virtually all of the postwar boom in religious participation – and perhaps more – has been erased. This broad historical pattern in religious participation – up from the first third of the century to the 1960’s and down from the 1960’s to the 1990’s – is very much the same pattern we have noted earlier for secular community-based organizations as well as for political organization.

What is more, in all three cases, the more demanding the form of involvement – actual involvement as opposed to formal membership, for example – the greater the decline. In effect the great institutions of American civic life, both religious and secular, have been “hollowed out.” Seen from without, the institutional edifice appears virtually intact – little decline in professions of faith, formal membership down just a bit, and so on. When examined more closely, however, it seems clear that decay has consumed the load bearing structures of our civic infrastructure.

From Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000)
One important point, that Putnam stresses, is that these trends can be seen across almost all religious groups, as well as most voluntary membership organizations in North America and Europe. He found that most groups have tried to understand these trends in terms of the recent history and actions of each specific group. Each group wondered what had caused their drop off in membership, and each group formulated their own individual response (which often could be very different than the response by some other organization). According to Putnam's reseach, it made little difference. Most organizations' pattern of membership and involvment over the past half century look the same. It's not what each organization is doing, it is a change to the society that all these organizations are in.

This particulary applies to the Catholic Church. If we look only at recent Church history, it might make sense to put the blame for this hollowing out of participation on Vatican II in general or a vernacular liturgy or reaction to Humanae Vitae. But how would these events cause nearly identical changes in other religious groups (including non-Christians) and non-religious groups? Many of the explanations as to why the Church "has gone wrong" lately may be largely irrelevant, as would be many of the solutions proposed. Powerful anti-cancer chemotherapy may not be a good idea if the patient does not have cancer -- you get all the side effects of the treatment, but are no closer to a cure. In addtion, you probably will not be any closer to a diagnosis.

The next post in this series will look at the emotional consequences of postmodernity.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Why ministry is more than a job

Over the years I have been involved in youth ministry on and off, in more than one denomination. If you do youth work it's hard to avoid Youth Specialites and one of its founders, the late Mike Yaconelli. As part of an article: What I Wish I Knew When I Started Youth Ministry, Mike made a major distinction between ministry as a job, and ministry as a call:

  • Youth Ministry The Job is about wider. Youth Ministry The Call is about deeper.
  • Youth Ministry The Job is about more. Youth Ministry The Call is about one.
  • Youth Ministry The Job is about program. Youth Ministry The Call is about relationship.
  • Youth Ministry The Job is about being in your office. Youth Ministry The Call is being wherever young people hang out.
  • Youth Ministry The Job is about young peoples' souls. Youth Ministry The Call is about your soul.
I could easily paraphrase that to fit any other sort of ministry that I have been involved with, such as detention ministry.

Treating ministry as a job is a way of getting some distance, of lowering the risk, of trying to fit ministry into the rest of your life. Mike's point is that making ministry a job does just the opposite -- it will deaden your own spiritual life and make you ineffective as a minister. He has a lot of good points to make here, two in particular are: don't impersonate yourself, and the closer you get to Jesus, the less you know. Read the whole thing.