Saturday, July 21, 2012

Fifty Shades of Literacy

Like lots of people lately, I've been thinking about the Fifty Shades series. The globally bestselling series that is notable for its erotic content, including BDSM practices. I've not taken to buying and reading them, though I did read the first page of the first book. The style and prose are not my cuppa tea--the content's not exactly what I care for either, but I'm not passing judgement on that.

Now, I'm not one who typically bemoans the reading practices of the general public. I'm not someone who espouses devotion to some supposed canon of great literature. Usually, I'm just happy when folks are reading--which Americans do so much of! Bestsellers fly off the stands, people look at Facebook, employees have to comprehend documents at work--we're reading all the time.

I'm also suspicious when folks criticize popular reading because it often functions as a conservative and anti-feminist political argument. In the 1850s, Nathaniel Hawthorne lamented angrily so-called "sentimentalist" and other fiction by women authors, the "damned mob of scribbling women" he called them, whose books sold infinitely more than his. Likewise, in 1977, important author Ishmael Reed wondered if he might sell more books "if [he] was one of those young female Afro-American writers that are so hot now." Lambasting popular reading habits has often served to belittle and demean the literacy practices, both reading and writing, of women. And not just their literacy practices, but the very details of women's lives and experiences.

With all that said, I had a thought the other day while reading Ryan Skinnell's Facebook page. He expressed frustration with those individuals who simultaneously complain about how "people just don't read" and about how "people shouldn't be reading the 50 Shades book!"  He noted the disingenuousness of making both arguments: you ought not criticize people for not reading and then criticize with equal fervor what they do decide to read. As I've already said, I'm not thrilled by the Fifty Shades prose, but I acknowledge that it's reading. It absolutely is.

People are reading all the time--all kinds of stuff. And writing, too. Folks today, read and write so much. And, as literacy expert Deborah Brandt suggests in Literacy and Learning: Reflections on Writing, Reading, and Society, "Increasingly we will read in order to write" (174).

In light of that, I just hope someone reading the Fifty Shades books will think, "I could write something way better than this," and then does so.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Thoughts on Campus and Emerging Adult Ministry

Following some of the conversations I had at the Episcopal Church's General Convention, I thought I'd share this letter I wrote about the importance of young adult and/or campus ministry. I composed it about 8 months ago with a specific audience in mind, but perhaps some of the info might be of use to others in various contexts:

To any and all readers, I greet you with grace and peace. I’m thinking a lot recently about the work of mainline Christian (especially Episcopal) college and emerging adult ministry. Bookstores today practically burst with research about teen culture, emerging adult culture, and their related-but-different relationships to religion and spirituality. An overview of some trends and findings from this research may be quite useful as we consider issues of college ministry and how best to support that work. The news from these projects isn’t great, but accurate data and good analysis also presents us with lots of potential pathways forward.

How might we think about the challenges of college and young adult ministry? In You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…And Rethinking Faith, David Kinnaman articulates some broad typologies that characterize emerging adult Christians who leave, or who feel not quite at home in, the church. He and his colleagues at the Barna Group hope to illuminate why people ages 18-29 (the scholarship calls this group “emerging adults”) tend to be absent from church life at much higher rates than any other age group. Based on extensive research, including 5,000 interviews, Kinnaman names these three general categories: Nomads—those who still claim a Christian identity even though its importance to them may have decreased from their teen years and who view church involvement as optional. Prodigals—those who disavow, with varying degrees of resentment, both the Christian faith and the church. By getting “over” Christianity they experience liberation from felt constraints. Exiles—those who remain in the church even as they feel caught in a tension between their love of the church and their commitment to deep engagement with the culture. They want to be actively involved in the world, don’t fully trust or reject established institutions, care about tradition, don’t like shallow expressions of faith, see their generation as self-centered while they also care deeply about their peers, and (most important for us) find little productive guidance from the church about how their faith might connect with their gifts and vocations. I find myself agreeing with Kinnaman’s optimistic assessment when he suggests that the young adult Christian exiles of today—and the nomads, too—are, in fact, trying to find “new ways to be genuinely faithful” (87). How might all of us support these young people in their development of a life that is grounded in tradition, Scripture, and the Incarnation?

Over the last decade, the National Study of Youth and Religion, the largest nationally representative study of youth and religion, has helped us understand the broad contours of teen and emerging adult religion. In Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual lives of American Teenagers, Christian Smith and Melinda Denton reveal and discuss data from the first wave of research about teens ages 13-17. While they report that religion is a significant presence in the lives of two-thirds of U.S. teens, one of their biggest discoveries is that regardless of any religious affiliation, the de facto, operational, lived religion of most teens is what they term “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” Essentially, teens believe that God isn't very involved in the world except for when (mostly personal) problems arise and need to be fixed, that right and wrong exist, and that the purpose of life is to feel good, to feel happy, and to not hurt others. According to Smith and Denton, this population is also not especially articulate in conventional terms about what they believe and why they believe it. Mainline Protestant youth are apparently among the least articulate about their faith. Interestingly, for many participants, this research seems to have been the first time an adult had seriously asked them about what they believed and valued. Kinnaman’s work also indicates it’s easy to miss the stories of young people if we don’t intentionally seek them out. That raises this question for me: How will the Church be a loving, Christ-centered, continuous presence throughout people’s lives, including the teenage and emerging adult years?

In follow-up NSYR research with the same participants at ages 18-23, Christian Smith and Patricia Snell find similar and yet different patterns from these young people as emerging adults (in this case, traditional age college students). In Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, they show that, in addition to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism being alive and well, emerging adults (among other findings) don’t really talk much about religion but can if it comes up, they generally feel indifferent to religion, see religions as providing a basic message about being a good person, view religion as an intellectual statement of belief more than a central life commitment, and they classify religion as personal and private more than institutional and social (143-165). Perhaps troubling, perhaps exciting, but definitely a challenge for those of us committed to specific forms of church and denominational life, emerging adults for the most part don't understand religious particularities as very important. In other words, it’s not clear why being a Methodist vs. being an Episcopalian matters all that much. How we will help emerging adults maintain or discover an appreciation for the treasures and transforming power of the Christian tradition even as denominational attachments potentially lessen in importance?

Other researchers have critiqued aspects of the portrait offered by Smith, Denton, and Snell. In Donna Freitas’s Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses, she explores if, how, and under what circumstances students’ religious and romantic lives have anything to do with each other. I agree with Freitas when she criticizes as unfairly harsh the other researchers’ tone with regard to their treatment of teens’ and emerging adults’ moral and religious lives. I also agree with her point that inviting young people to use writing might do much to increase the complexity and nuance with which they convey their religious and spiritual lives. Frietas suggests (and Smith’s research confirms) that it’s not a typical, everyday occurrence to talk about religion. However, as she says, “this is a generation accustomed to pouring out its most intimate thoughts and experiences online on MySpace and Facebook and in blogs” (54). Space and time for writing and reflection may indeed yield more nuanced expressions from young adults. In my own life, Facebook has functioned as an important source of—and space for—relationship and mission. In light of the possibility of writing and digital community as important resources for the Christian formation of emerging adults, insights from Elizabeth Drescher’s Tweet If You Heart Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation take on some urgency and point to the strengths of mainline Protestantism in this historical moment. Since the rise of megachurches, multi-thousand member congregations, near the end of the last century, the mantra has been “bigger is better” and the question has been “How can we do what they’ve done?” Drescher points out that our evangelical brothers and sisters managed to harness the power of broadcast technology to spread their message: a one-to-many arrangement. The second half of the twentieth-century was primetime for them. Yet, the still-developing digital revolution (which facilities what Drescher calls the Digital Reformation) and the scene of digital social media presents mainline denominations, including the Episcopal Church (a body that figures prominently in her account), with opportunities well-suited to what we do so well: maintaining intimate communities of care, witness, and presence.

And it is on this point about presence that turn to my own experience as a relatively new Christian and Anglican. I will say, as one who labors and studies on the Syracuse University campus—both as a graduate student and a teacher—it has been affirming to know that the Episcopal Chaplain was regularly present on campus, that I could walk by the Chaplains’ Suite and be able to talk with her. I've taken advantage of her office hours over the almost two years I've been connected with the Episcopal Church.  These visits were a mix of attending to my own spiritual needs (preparations for my baptism and later confirmation), discussions about university events, and issues related to my leadership role in my church. What was it that brought me—the child of spiritual-but-not-religious parents, a New Age teen, a college convert to Unitarian Universalism, a graduate student considering Christianity—into this Anglican faith that so enthralls and sustains me? It began for me when I just happened to read Diana Butler Bass’s Christianity for the Rest of Us, Marcus Borg’s novel Putting Away Childish Things, and Sara Miles’ Jesus Freak in rapid succession. I hadn’t exactly realized I’d be getting a heavy dose of, and varied perspectives on, the Episcopal Church. Captivated by the notion of encountering Christ in the Eucharist, in shared prayer, in the rhythms of liturgical time, and in a church that has moved in the direction of justice on human sexuality issues, I decided to embark on an adventure that led, half a year later, to Mother Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows baptizing me, marking me with oil, and speaking to me these words, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” I remind myself of those words daily.

My journey fits within a larger trend. Phyllis Tickle has written extensively about what she calls the Great Emergence, a tremendous shift that is taking place in Christianity today. A part of that shift is a return to—or a (re)discovery of—ancient practices in our tradition. In her contribution to Ancient Faith, Future Mission, Tickle argues that, due to its accessibility and cultural closeness, Anglicanism is the stream of Christian tradition with vital connections to ancient practice that will provide seekers with ancient/new-to-them ways to live into God’s story, to allow the story of God and the story of God’s people to inhabit their very bodies.

The Church of England’s Mission and Public Affairs Council report from 2004, The Mission-Shaped Church, contemplates the future of the Church, a body that must “aim to follow the pattern of the incarnation—to be with people where they are, how they are.” And, as the report goes on, a “geographical approach alone is not sufficient” (41). Indeed. Geography certainly is not a sufficient condition for an enlivened mainline and Episcopalian/Anglican community and influence among college students. However, I’d suggest it is a necessary condition. The Church must have a presence on college campuses. Campus ministry needs resources and people.

By way of closing, I want to note that my own life matches a 2000 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey finding that if an American changes his or her religion, that person is most likely to do so by the age of 24 (I was 24 when I started attending services at Grace Church—Syracuse in April 2010). By citing this fact, I want to stress how important the emerging adult years are for faith formation. We may still, in Kinnaman’s terms, “lose” young people, but let’s not allow it to be from lack of effort. We may not see college-age newcomers join fully in Anglican life, but let’s be sure we give them the chance to know the delights of our tradition. Perhaps the mainline is in decline, but we are certainly no practitioners of a dead denominationalism. Rather, we speak in a vocabulary—and move in a dance—of ritual and liturgy, saints and sacraments, feast days and sacred meals. Let’s invite as many people as possible into the dance.