"Trying to keep up with you"
When you think about it, and despite the boom in spiritual websites and mailing lists, the Net is organized religion's worst nightmare, a true dogma-killer and heresy-spreader. Before new technologies like the Net, John and Jane's view of the world was pretty much limited to what their parents told them, and what they picked up in the school yard. Religious instruction was rarely voluntary for most kids, and religious institutions usually went to great pains to make sure that dogma and faith was deeply embedded before kids grew up and got out into the world, where they might encounter all alien faiths and points-of-view and make up their own minds.
The Net makes that a lot tougher, one of the reasons blocking software sells so well, and why so much of it is programmed to block out religious discussion.
Still, some people have always seen a strong connection between the Net and spirituality.
Are notoriously irrevent, skeptical and prickly young nerds and geeks pulled towards higher powers? Is their new and raucous liturgy the sometimes vulgar and provocative language, symbolism, imagery of computer language, programming and popular culture? Can institutionalized religion get off its high and preachy horses, embrace interactivity and minister to the cyber-young on completely different, new terms?
In "Virtual Faith", Tom Beaudoin makes a thoughtful case that Americans, especially those younger ones online -- unfortunately, he calls them Generation X, but he was a divinity student -- are up to their servers, TV shows, movies, keyboards, and Mp3's in spiritual quests. And that stuffy, top-down Churches will have to change radically to reach them. Beaudoin is a former altar boy, raised on television and video games, who graduated from Harvard Divinity School two years ago, is a bass player in a Boston area rock band, and survived Woodstock '94. His book "Virtual Faith" (Jossey-Bass Publishers, $US 22) is just the sort of book about religion we never get to see in the age of the sound-bite spouting, scolding and pious Moral Guardian, a time when people like William Bennett, ex-Education and Drug Czar, are labeled "Morals Czars" by the media and get to go on CNN twice a week to tell us how vulgar and faithless we all are.
"Virtual Faith" argues that the popular culture so celebrated by the young -- from movies and music to TV shows and the Net -- is actually suffused with spirituality and religious iconography.
Writing about REM's "Losing My Religion," for example, a hit song and video from the group's blockbuster l991 album, Beaudoin sees clear intimations of Jesus in the old man resting against an angel, both of them seated on a tree limb. Grey-haired and bearded, the old man is fitted with a pair of angelic wings and clothed in orange robes; then he is stoned to death.
"The ambiguity of the final Jesus scene is disturbing," writes Beaudoin, "in a brief shot, his associates work with rope that is wrapped around Jesus' body. Are they releasing him, or are they binding him to the beam, hoping to get him up on the cross so that he might really be the messiah they are hoping for in the end?"
Beaudoin further cites Madonna, Soundgarden, various TV shows and movies as pop culture sources brimming with spirituality, even as the citizens of cyberspace are participants in a subtle attack on rigid institutions.
"The environment of cyberspace provides resources that are ripe for upsetting hierarchies," he says. The Net and the Web is a natural leveler of powerful institutions as so many individuals get their hands on the machinery of communications, and get to make and disseminate their own personal theologies.
In the digital world, individuals don't have to accept official dogma, but are free to seek and find their own, to join virtual communities with fresh ideas about spirituality.
Cyberspace and institutional churches thus exist in constant conflict, Beaudoin writes.
This is a pretty sharp observation, obvious but rarely spoken, especially from religious quarters. Organized religions resent popular culture in general and the Net in particular, sounding alarms about addiction, the exposure of the young to so much unfiltered, uncensored information, and to pornography and violence, while the ascending geek culture is viscerally hostile to powerful institutions that tell its members what to believe.
In the same way many journalists have been almost bitterly reluctant to relinquish any part of their role as the sole purveyor of news and opinion to the raucous and individualistic voices on the Net, it's difficult to imagine religious organizations like Judaism, Islam, Christianity becoming more interactivity when their mission is to spread the word of God as revealed in sacred text.
But this doesn't mean netizens aren't spiritual, Beaudoin claims.
This isn't all that surprising an argument to anybody who's been on the Net and the Web: religion and so-called spirituality thrive here. There are tens of thousands of mailing lists, websites and newsgroups devoted to religious expression.
Moreover, Beaudoin argues in "Virtual Faith"that the provocative, irrevent, even heretical images of the age group he calls Generation X -- tattoos, body piercing, grunge, crucifixes as fashion accessories, music lyrics and videos with religious and sexual imagery -- are not rejections of religion but serious expressions of a new generation's need for a faith they can believe in, rather than one thrust upon them. He might also have included various computer language and Web imagery, from terms like Daemon to the whole idea of messaging across space and time.
Beaudoin argues that four themes underlie the new theology of his young digital contemporaries: * All institutions -- religious, political, media -- are suspect. * Personal experience is critical. Religious belief must thus also be experienced, not taught or mandated. *Suffering is spiritual. * Ambiguity and doubt aren't retreats from faith, but a new kind of faith.
In the l980's, writes Beaudoin, he began to notice the way popular culture was filled with religious references. In popular songs, music videos and movies, references to sin, salvation and redemption abounded.
"I started to suspect that popular culture increasingly trumped institutional religion in attracting Xers; we dedicated much more time to pop culture, and it had vastly more religious content that was relevant to our generation. Could it be that popular culture was our religious arena?"
Beaudoin is onto something important. Popular culture is the faith and ideology of the young (that popular culture's embrace and experience of pop culture borders on the spiritual and comprises a common language and a faith.) The failure of journalism and politics to grasp this central tenet of the young has marginalized both institutions for people under 50, along with organized religion.
Religious leaders have for years joined with newspaper editorial writers and block-headed politicians to portray the young as dumb and de-sensitized by pop culture, too wanton and weak-minded to resist its sometimes vulgar and violent imagery. Technologies like the Net are seen as gateways to Hell, doorways through which all sorts of vile and vulgar, even heretic imagery can flow.
That there is virtually no evidence to support this pervasive and oft-repeated belief suggests that these continuing alarms have much more to do with preserving the power of the institutions spreading them than they do with any heartfelt concern for the young.
Since so many younger people watch TV, go to the movies and surf the Web without becoming stupid or murdering their neighbors, many have come to view these institutions appeared dishonest as well as clueless.
"During our lifetimes, especially during the critical period of the l980's, pop culture was the amniotic fluid that sustained us," Beaudoin says. "For a generation of kids who had a fragmented or completely broken relationship to 'formal' or 'institutional' religion, pop culture filled the spiritual gaps." It was the young's surrogate clergy, usurping the role institutional clergy played for previous generations.
In fact, this embrace has gone even farther than Beaudoin suggests. Popular culture is the universal reference point of the young, a new measure of community. People understand one another by the music they like or loathe, by the movies they embrace and the TV shows that mirror or reflect their lives. "X-Files" fans share one set of values, while "Allie McBeal" lovers treasure another. "Dawson's Creek," "Felicity," "South Park," "The Simpsons" all take themes, values and attitudes of kids and mirror, re-cycle and re-work them.
It's dangerous to generalize about TV shows or their viewers, but anyone who works around younger people understands that on Monday mornings, what nearly everyone is talking about the second he or she gets to work isn't the latest news from Washington or a sermon they heard at Church but the weirdest indie film of the weekend or the gruesome battle scenes in "Private Ryan," or, in a couple of months, "Star Wars." Younger Americans might not really care to watch the impeachment proceedings, but almost all of them will know who won the Oscar for Best Picture the day after its awarded.
This passion is often cited as a prime example of how apathetic and de-civilized the young are. Look how much they care about stupid music, TV movies when there are so many serious issues, books and other things to consider?
Mostly, what's clear is that the young are creating a different kind of culture. Narrative and creativity thrive in programming, Web design and develop, online gaming, and the language and stories in chat rooms. Whether it's better or worse is for historians to sort out. Beaudoin seems to understand that institutions like journalism and religion have a fairly narrow range of choices. They can change or they can die.
"Far from residing in a cultural wasteland devoid of spiritual symbols, Generation X matured in a culture of complex and contradictory signs, some of them religious," Beaudoin claims. "Some currents within that GenX pop cultural stream carry more than mere microboes of an inchaote GenX spirituality. They are sufficient to begin funding a new theology by, for, and about a generation."
But the ferociously independent culture of the geeks challenges churches to preach and practice not from a position of power and righteousness, but from a sense of humility and weakness in the world -- a radical departure from the pious and hectoring stance taken by most religious leaders. When religious or political elders reach out to "young people," it is often in the most unbearably patronizing and ineffective of ways. Beaudoin is suggesting something much more radical and difficult.
"By shunning the trappings or privileged social status and seeking to serve, not be served, churches will respond faithfully not only to the prophetic change brought by GenX but,more important, to the example of Jesus."
Although Beaudoin rarely uses the term, he seems in "Virtual Faith" to be advancing a new kind of spiritual interactivity.
Interactivity is very spiritual, and it's both leveling and humbling, for the columnist, the politician, the pundit or the priest. It alters the relationship between dispensers and receivers of information. It does, as Beaudoin suggests, demand a different way of thinking, a rejection of the unbalanced power relationships between so many institutions and individual human beings. If journalism considers interactivity a bitter pill, and resists it nearly to its own extinction, imagine how churches will respond.
"Being willing to sacrifice power and status for the sake of service to the gospel will do more for the Church's message about Jesus than any amount of rhetoric from pulpits," Beaudoin says. "It will also go far in addresing Xers' suspicion of religious institutions."
He's right. He understands the culture he grew up in, and its many problems with dogma and elitist institutions. It will take a lot more than humility to spread the Word in cyberspace. Even younger netizens have experienced unprecedented freedom of expression and access to diverse points of view. Why should they give that up to embrace dogma and somebody else's revealed words?
Still, real interactivity -- a realignment of the relationship between the dispensers and receivers of dogma -- would offer Christian churches (and other faiths) a radical opportunity to re-invigorate themselves and minister to netizens rather than simply wag their fingers at their naughty and irreverent ways.
The Web is, at its heart, a rationalist culture. The people in it reject fixed dogmas like conservatism or liberalism, and labels like Republican or Democrat. They have access to too much of the information in the world to take religious or political faith at its word, without question or discussiion. It's hard to imagine how fixed theologies like those of most organized religions could survive intact the online scrutiny given to ideas, opinions and proclamations online.
Religious interactivity would alter the Church, just as it would probably alter the attitudes of many netizens. And Beaudoin seems to grasp that while the young resist the proclamations, they do instinctively embrace spiritual imagery all the time, from the "the X-Files" to the poverty invoked by grunge. Spirituality seems to thrive and grow even when dogma fades. E-mail, the idea of human beings connecting powerfully to one another out in the ether, is inherently spiritual.
Beaudoin's issuing a challenge to ecclesiastical authority by asking religious institutions, moral guardians and political elders to stop fearing the irreverence of pop culture. And to listen, rather than lecture.
"The more popular culture is explored," he writes, "and the more irreverence is viewed as a legitimate mode of religiousity (in all its illegitimacy), the more Generation X will be shown as having a real religious contribution to make. GenX can also make great strides not only toward fostering its own spirituality but also toward reinvigorating religious institutions and challenging the faith of older generations."
If there is a weakness in many of Beaudoin's arguments, it is the presumption that, approached in a different, humbler and more modern way, the younger builders of the Internet will choose to make a conventional religious contribution at all. This is far from clear. If anything, this is a generation that makes up its own mind on its own terms at its own pace. Armed with new information, with the new power to communicate with one another at will all over the world, and to see and hear every imaginable point of view, Beaudoin may not grasp just how independent and different the group of people he calls Generation X really is.
But then, as a graduate of the Harvard University School of Divinity, he's supposed to have faith.
Still, he sounds like a natural heretic to me, a geek waiting to be sucked in by the lures of Half Life or Lego's Mindstsorm. If he isn't already, he'll soon be sniffing around Linux. The history of religious leaders is grim, openness wise. It's hard to imagine too many religious figures getting off their duffs and coming online to minister to the digital young. Still, Beaudoin has written a smart, provocative and compelling book. He makes much sense, and writes about his generation's culture knowingly.
At the same time, it's hard to read his very rational views and feel too optimistic about any urgent convergence of religion and the people patching together the Net and the Web. It's almost inconceivable that religion will respond to this vibrant new culture any more thoughtfully than politics or media have.
The Digital Age suggests powerful institutions would rather die than change, or voluntarily loosen their iron grip on ideas and influence. And that the young people Beaudoin is so eager for religion to reach will end up shaping new kinds of institutions rather than accepting or embracing the ones we already have, most of which have served them so poorly.
You can buy ths book here.