Wednesday, February 07, 2018

A millennial stare: Zadok column

zadok I have been asked to be a regular columnist for an Australian magazine, Zadok. Having read my film reviews for Touchstone, they requested a 860 word column every 3 months. I see is as an opportunity to write a lay focused piece of theology. They are happy for me to blog the columns I write, which makes them accessible not only on paper in Australia but digitally for everywhere. Here is my second article, for the Summer 2018 edition:

A millennial stare
Steve Taylor

I am a dinosaur. It is a recent realisation. I attend a student church in which my wife provides pastoral leadership. Making a joke about 80s music, the blank stares of the young adults around me revealed the uniqueness that is my species of dinosaur. I am shaped by different music, and thus experiences, than those born around the turn of this millennium.

Generational theory gives voice to my blank stare experiences. Sociologist Karl Mannheim noted that age-related generations share a view of reality shaped by the times in which live. Hence we get Boomers born 1945-1961, Gen Xers born 1961-1980, and Gen Y and Gen Z, the two millennial groups, born 1980-1994 and 1995-2009 respectively. Hence the music woven through my teenage years means little to my student companions.

Douglas Coupland’s 1991 book Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture shifted Mannheim’s academic work into the mainstream of popular culture. Coupland described the accelerated lives of young adults, who share with each other their experiences of popular culture in order to make their own lives worthwhile tales in the process. Generational theory presents challenges for mission and ministry. How do different generations form faith?

Not all are convinced. Some find the boundaries between an X and a Y artificial. Others argue that humans have more in common than in difference. While the sociologists and theorists argue, I remain a dinosaur, faced with blank stares and that nagging sense of cultural disconnect. What to do? How to connect with worldviews and cultures not our own?

The best way is to listen. We have two ears and one mouth for good reason. Jesus encouraged those who called themselves disciples to interpret the signs of the times. Christian faith involves listening to culture and culture change. For Reformed theologian Kevin Vanhoozer, the competent disciple must be able to read culture and doctrine (Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends (Cultural Exegesis), 2007). Theology is for Monday, not just Sunday, and so the church needs to be a community of competent cultural interpreters.

What are we to listen to? Alvin Gouldner (The Dialectic of Ideology and Technology: The Origins, Grammar, and Future of Ideology, 1976) coined the phrase ‘newspaper sociology’ to encourage a listening that includes the reading of popular culture. The signs of the times are found in cultural artifacts like newspapers, film and social media.

The blank stares of my millennial companions pushed me toward some ‘newspaper sociology’ at my local cinema. Recent millennial movie, The Big Sick, provided a way to listen. The movie tells the true-life story of Pakistani migrant Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) and American post-graduate student Emily (Zoe Kazan) as they tumble into love. It is a window into the lives and values of twenty somethings in the United States.

Central to the millennials in this movie is technology. The relationship between Kumail and Emily is sparked by Uber, nurtured by text and matured through following on Facebook. When Emily falls sick, it is technology that enables Kumail to connect with her family. Emily might be speechless, but fingerprint recognition on her iPhone allows Kumail to email her family. Dinosaurs like me might pine for face-to-face, but, for these millennials, technology is an extension of being human.

Participation shifts. Community in Big Sick is built not through the regularity of shared friendships but through events, in this case evenings of entertainment at the local stand-up comedy club. Building community occurs in the moment rather than through planned and systematic relationships.

In the secular West, religion remains. However, it is present, not in the life of American student Emily, but through the Islamic practises of Kumail and his family. Yet even here the practice of faith formation is being challenged by Western individualism. Kumail’s parents think he has retreated to pray in the downstairs basement. In reality, he spends his time practising cricket and watching YouTube videos. The interplay of faith and culture is angrily challenged. ‘Why did you bring me to America, if you wanted me to marry a Muslim?’, Kumail asks his disappointed parents.

So what does this mean for my experiences of being a dinosaur? Seeking clarity, I realised I needed to enrich my ‘newspaper sociology’ with empirical research. Ruth Perrin, in The Bible Reading of Young Evangelicals: An Exploration of the Ordinary Hermeneutics and Faith of Generation Y (2016), wanted to know how ordinary millennials are actually forming faith. She provided groups of millennials with Bible texts and watched how they engaged with the supernatural and with Divinely sanctioned violence.

The results of her research provided me with an observation, an affirmation and a gift. Perrin observed an ever-extending season of faith formation. The twenty somethings are now taking a decade to engage in genuine exploration. As is evident in Kumail’s challenge to his parents, there is intense questioning and an eclectic gathering of ideas from diverse sources. Perrin affirmed the value of consistent Biblical teaching ministry but only in environments that encourage exploration and value authenticity.

It makes those blank stares of the young adults around me an important gift. Different generations offer invitations to enter worlds we do not know. In doing so, we will encounter important questions. Is my faith more than a cultural overhang? How does a God of love square with the violence and patriarchy of the Christian past? Faced with the blanks stares of a millennial generation, I can tiptoe back to the safe ground of easy hallelujahs. Or I can see the millennial stare for what it is: the future of a questioning faith.

Steve Taylor is Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership in Dunedin, New Zealand, and author of Built for Change. He writes widely on theology and popular culture at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

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