Something in America’s Puritan beginnings commended itself to the challenge of the frontier. The uncharted New World held within it the promise of a manifest destiny for both the country’s untested character and its spiritual state—its election. Carving our way across the continent we affirmed our place in the world and found solace. Later generations would find their identity in different pursuits: war, peace, science, and industry. Leaving the past behind, Americans found it necessary to stake their claim and restake it, to repeatedly define themselves anew. We have watched each new frontier recede until the only uncharted territory was ourselves. This is Generation X.
The term “Gen X” is the culture’s fumbling attempt to name an age demographic that knew no world wars, no Depression, and no Woodstock/Vietnam. For the culture, this generation is an X factor, an unknown. But “Gen X” also characterizes a new group of Americans uncertain about their identity and place in history. For Gen X, my own generation, the last frontier lies unmapped inside.
Generation X suffers from a supreme case of disorientation. We have failed to establish our purpose within the scheme of history, if only because history has afforded us no great task to take on as our own. Our ancestors, exulting in their American identity, took less stock in their cultural roots in Western civilization. Only now, with this generation, does our culture sense its loss.
Certainly the Puritans’ yearning to know their spiritual fate was born of their understanding of the West’s religious tradition. But the absorption of this desire into the American character had an unanticipated effect. The ability to establish one’s own spiritual state left little need for religious tradition.
It is Catholic belief that faith is receptivity to God’s word, a response, like Mary’s, to His fiat. Catholicism relies on tradition as a primary medium of the question, “Do you believe?” In answering “Yes,” we open ourselves to God’s plan for us in the world. Contrary to this openness to being defined, an inclination toward self-definition entered America’s bloodstream. And though this inclination was initially religious, it in no way depended on religious tradition. As we slowly severed ourselves from tradition, this tendency toward self-definition lost its religious connotations. It became not a way of proving ourselves a part of God’s world but a part of a world completely mysterious to us. What once imparted a sense of spiritual security came to give only a sense of purpose.
Having lost even this sense of purpose, Generation X is more receptive to various cultural traditions, the Western tradition, and ultimately religious tradition. America is a culture of increasing options, but we have little foundation on which to base our choices. In our disorientation, we are looking for something to cling to. This may explain why there is a great movement among young people to reestablish their roots. Though we have become increasingly distant from the grounds for belief—as mediated by our tradition—we are closer to reclaiming it overall.
Catholics should take note of this phenomenon. Pope John Paul II has asked for renewed evangelizing among the laity as the third millennium approaches. Since the Roman Catholic Church has been the bearer of the Western tradition for so long, do we not stand to benefit from a restoration of the tradition? How to go about this, or, perhaps more importantly, how not to go about this, is a different question entirely.
In his book, Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Journey of Generation X, Tom Beaudoin makes one of the few existing attempts to address the religious state of Gen X and its evangelical possibilities. He proposes that Gen X practices its own brand of religiosity through popular culture. Beaudoin’s mission is to recover a discarded generation as a theological resource and a challenge to Church evangelization:
[I]f [religious institutions] take Gen X pop culture seriously, they can discover resources for refreshing their own ministries. By attending to the rich theological imagination of Gen X pop culture, institutions have a ready-made spring from which to draw new ministerial ideas. In this way, they can make their institutions more accessible to Xers. Thus the teaching and learning dynamic between Generation X and religious institutions may prove spiritually enriching for both Xers and institutions.
Anyone who has experienced Catholic education in the last 20 years has probably suffered this methodology (Beaudoin is a renewed Catholic, and though he claims an ecumenical approach in the book, the Church is obviously the foremost “institution” in his thoughts.) But Beaudoin announces such tired proposals in prophetic tones, proving himself just as a historical as his Gen X peers. It is not that the Church, in her antiquity, is oblivious to the modern vernacular. Rather, the Church has always utilized the language of the people. But this is hardly a cavalier process, a rhetorical whitewash to prettify the Church.
Rejuvenation need not entail “juvenilization.” Guided by the Holy Spirit, the Church digs deeper to understand the philosophic and symbolic roots of our culture. She can then use this language to unlock new insights into eternal truth. Through this process, the Church has undergone radical changes in her self-understanding without losing her spiritual center. This is why, in distinction from the modern doctrine of progress, Catholicism has been called ever ancient, yet ever new.
Beaudoin’s plea to use popular culture is the most obvious approach to evangelization in our day. It seems simple: If pop culture is our vernacular, shouldn’t it become the language of the Church? In truth, this would not spiritually enrich the faith, as Beaudoin suggests, but cheapen it.
Beaudoin laments that institutions often reject pop culture for its prurient moments instead of recognizing its inherent religiosity. But rather than demonstrate any real depth to this religiosity, Beaudoin merely outs himself as little more than a pop-culture afficionado.
He begins his preface with an example of this “religiosity”: a description of the “intimate relationship” between cast and audience during the performance of the musical Rent. To Beaudoin it is a tearful, “sacred ritual.” He later supports the use of such user-friendly religion in church liturgy, invoking St. Paul’s ministerial advice to “be all things to all people” and citing specifically his use of culture-specific sports metaphors.
In many baby boomer churches, he says,
pop culture events . . . become the content of sermons, influence the style of music, and serve as the subject matter of Sunday school classes. Several boomer friends of mine report that in the 1970s, they watched scenes from the popular movies Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar in church or sang the movie sound tracks as worship hymns.
I distinctly remember similar “grooves” in my Catholic grade school church, perhaps dismayed that no Mass offered the slightly hipper “new wave” sounds I listened to at home. Duly, I must note that, for many like myself, Rent‘s liberal social agenda did little to justify its relentless schmaltziness.
It does not take a census to conclude that taste in pop culture is arbitrary. Greasers versus preppies or mods versus rockers, our culture is rife with proof that what is hip today is distressingly outré tomorrow. The scandal of the label “Generation X” is that so many diverse tastes are encompassed by it. Unlike the world of St. Paul, these tastes abide by no unified delineations of geography. By the very nature of modern pop culture, to employ one style in ministry will inevitably alienate those of a different predilection.
Beaudoin refers to pop culture as being “image rich,” spending half his book mining rock music videos, navel piercing, and Internet chat sites for religious significance. What he finds is perhaps more a testament to his education than the resonance of pop-culture symbols. Fresh from Harvard divinity grad school, Beaudoin interprets with a true academic zeal. Of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” video, he comments:
By showcasing many crosses on fire with Madonna dancing in front of them, the video paradoxically and ironically reduces to absurdity these infamous symbols of racial hatred. Not only can the flaming crosses be seen as emblems of Madonna’s spiritual-sensual passion, but they are also transformed into symbols of Christian passion (a fire of love for God?) as they are drained of their racist referent.
Christ’s image can also be seen on the moon, if one looks hard enough.
Pop culture is certainly “image rich” if we take that to mean abundant with images. But the depth of these images is dubious. The way in which they are commodified and fetishized betrays their lack of resonance. Pop culture is usually more industry than artistry, calibrated for easy consumption. There is no unified taste for empty spectacle because it lacks that which unifies: meaning.
Contrary to Beaudoin’s inferences, the Church has no doubt gleaned an understanding of our age from popular culture. The Holy Father exhibits a keen awareness of it in his encyclicals. Not long ago, the Vatican publicly critiqued the theological soundness of the rock ballad, “What If God Were One of Us?” But the Church realizes that pop culture has too weak a frequency to transmit her message.
A Failure to Communicate?
The Church also recognizes that she does not hold the political and cultural stature that she once did. Today, public perception is governed by our news and entertainment industry. An “image change” is not practical because the Church does not control her own image. Beaudoin assumes that those who create our pop culture have the goodwill of the Irish Benedictines. Propaganda or simple slack artistry is not a part of his aesthetic cosmology. Neither is our modern social structure. Media nepotism has largely shaped the public view of the Church. It has even, apparently, shaped Tom Beaudoin’s view of the Church.
Pop culture’s revolutionary challenge of religious authority, Beaudoin marvels, must be acknowledged by religious institutions. The Catholic Church in particular, he notes, is the subject of such criticism. Beaudoin then paints the familiar image of a domesticated, doctrine-obsessed institution, a hierarchy of hypocrites who have lost the true message of Jesus. This, of course, is Martin Luther’s portrait of the Church, an image that has been absorbed and disseminated by our popular media. There is a 500-year-old tradition of dialogue on this matter, making it slightly less novel than Beaudoin imagines.
He is himself a fine example of how Gen X reacts not against a true understanding of the Church, but one mediated by popular culture. In many ways, Gen X has misconstrued the Church because popular culture is consumed with image, not substance. The Church’s lack of influence over the media presents a great evangelical challenge to Catholic laity. Many Catholics shun pop culture, isolating themselves from it completely. This is neither healthy nor charitable. We have been asked to live in the world without being a part of it. We must live in our culture, and our pop culture, without letting its shallow imagination become ours. Simply interacting in this arena with a Catholic understanding will help transform the lives of others.
Bringing a sense of our cultural tradition to the popular culture, we start to restore the shattered images of the modern wasteland. Generation X, I have noted, is more receptive to cultural tradition than previous generations. Evangelizing Gen X means achieving an historical sense in our culture that lays the ground for belief. When tradition is readmitted to our popular culture, so is religious tradition, the “Do you believe?” that allows one to reciprocate.
The challenge of the Catholic laity is to recontextualize our popular culture within our larger cultural tradition. We achieve this through a tradition-informed discourse with pop culture. The media megalith awaits the arrival of cultured Catholic journalists, advertisers, and screenwriters.
The clerical Church must prepare the Catholic laity for this challenge. Churches must try to impart a deep understanding of Catholic religious tradition and the Western tradition of which it is part. Catholic schools and universities have an obligation to shape minds that will bring a Catholic perspective to the world.
Most of all, the Church must ensure that it remains true. Using cheap symbols in Church ritual mocks both the ritual and the institution. Feeling malnourished, “Xers” sense the cheapness of much of pop culture. Even Beaudoin implicitly recognizes this:
I have been quite surprised by the number of evangelical and mainline Protestant Xers . . . who wanted to know what they might read for instruction in Catholic spirituality. . . . A Methodist colleague who took his young adult group to a monastery and read mystical works with them told me that he has been hounded ever since with requests to return; he dryly compared this with the lack of requests to repeat a recent young adult worship service his church had sponsored.
Beaudoin explains this as a need to remove oneself occasionally from popular culture to experience monastic silence. I believe it is something more, a recognition of authenticity. With the help of the Holy Spirit, the clergy will keep the Church faithful to Christ’s founding and the pope’s wisdom. If they do, the Church will be there with the fullness of the truth when nonbelievers are faced with the question of belief.
The Church must not adopt the limited imagination of popular culture, as Beaudoin recommends. The evangelization of Generation X depends on lay Catholics bringing the imagination of the Church and her cultural tradition to popular culture. Only then can Generation X begin to make peace with its inner frontier.