Some thirty years ago, evangelical Christianity threw itself heavily into the business of marketing itself with a series of hip slogans such as “I Found It” (a stranger is supposed to ask what this means, thereby opening an opportunity to share the Gospel). Along the same lines, there was the Good News Bible with a newspaper-theme cover. More recently there has been the WWJD campaign. Dozens of other kitschy campaigns have come and gone.
Part of this new sensibility, even a core part, was the cultivation of a specific youth sector within the church. The idea is born of the baby boom: there is some kind of generation gap that makes it difficult for young people to comprehend things in the same way that older people do. Thus must we concoct special sales pitches to show the youth that Christianity is for them. Of course we need youth ministers too (an aging guy who wears jeans) and a host of programs to show off that Christianity is not just for stodgy fuddy-duddies.
This effort almost always means adapting the shape and form of existing secular youth culture — which itself is a modern invention — and baptizing it with Christian themes and messages. The rationale is that if we do not create a Christianized copy of the prevailing youth culture, we risk losing the youth entirely.
If the kids are going to attend rock concerts, better that they be Christian rock concerts. If they are going to go to rallies and parties and scream their heads off about crazy stuff, better that they be Christian rallies, parties, and scream fests. Better to get high on Jesus than methamphetamines. That’s the rationale.
The “youth retreat” was born at some point in this process, and by “retreat,” I don’t mean a time of quiet contemplation, spiritual reflection, and careful discernment. The retreat almost always involves the display of a series of would-be teen idols who sing and speak and tell jokes, and eventually get around to presenting an emotional story of their own conversion. These eventually morphed into huge national conventions with massive commercial sectors within them, with teens encouraged by parents to travel hundreds of miles to experience the spiritual high that comes with huge religious gatherings.
The heady mixture of presence of Christian rock-stars, encountered in the context of a thorough mixing of boys and girls on out-of-town trips, can lead to strikingly emotional experiences. Kids return telling of their new-found commitment to religion and also of the intense new friendships they have developed with others on the trip. Parents feel a sense of relief that at least these kids are hanging around with other Christian kids and not fraternizing with the seedy sectors of life.
Catholics were late to this approach to “selling” their faith to the youth but with Mass attendance dramatically down from decades ago, more and more people are getting in on the act. In the digital age, this involves heavy use of film and video shorts that promote bacchanalian scenes of fun, laughter, loud music, and inspiration of some sort or another.
And it does all make difference. The kids return home with a new countenance, and a new love of God and a new love of their neighbor, though the young can be rather confused about how to sort it all out.
They report on their changed lives. And this effect lasts for about six months on average, at least that’s my strong impression. In its wake follows some degree of disillusionment, failed romances, and the status quo ante.
In the worst case, the effects of an event like this can actually backfire. By comparison to the massive youth rallies, the home parish seems rather staid and dull. Where are the rock bands, the great speakers, the beautiful boys and girls aching for new relationships, the inspiration that the rally dump on us by the buckets? Clearly there is nothing in my hometown parish that can compare to that.
The eye begins to wander to other sects that can provide or at least attempt to provide that unrelenting stimulation that comes with youth rallies. They do a much better job of it than Catholics. It may not last there either and it might be just as superficial but at least they make a go of it. On this front, the Catholics can’t compete. And if the basis of your spirituality is the longing for media stimulation and artificially inflated spiritual highs, Catholicism is going to be marginalized at some point in their quest.
For Catholics, this is a very serious matter. To be Catholic in today’s world requires a great deal of social sacrifice. It nearly always has in the modern age. We don’t have the right friends in the right circles. Our parishes don’t have commercial venders selling lattes and we don’t have health clubs. What’s more, the Roman Rite doesn’t lend itself to the unleashing of loud guitars and would-be rock star improvisations. There are no personality cults in the Roman Rite. The entire structure actually does the opposite. It buries the personality and directs attention toward eternity.
From a marketing angle, I wouldn’t think that Catholics are going to fare very well in the long run with these attempts to forge a media-pumped youth culture. It might lead to instant profits for a handful of organizations, but I doubt that it will do much in the long run, simply because the form emphasizes experience over substance. The kids attending them do not return with a serious sense of liturgical decorum, for example. They have no chants they can hum. They aren’t be given the truth about the glorious truth of what we Catholicism has to offer.
And what is that which we have to offer? The Catholic Church offers a sanctuary of beauty in world that can be very ugly. It offers a chance for quiet, for prayer, for intense seriousness, for reflection on topics that the world doesn’t want us to think about, topics like death and salvation and sacrifice and spiritual discipline. It offers immense joy but a joy disciplined by rationality and truth. Rather than severe links with the past, Catholicism draws attention to them through the lives of the saints, the music of the first millennium, and an organized and orderly sense of prayer that strives to be a representation of the orderliness of creation.
The contrast is striking. As Benedict XVI puts it, at the culture of the youth rally in which rock music is central, people are “released from themselves by the experience of being part of a crowd and by the emotional shock of rhythm, noise, and special lighting effects. However, in the ecstasy of having all their defenses torn down, the participants sink, as it were, beneath the elemental force of the universe. The music of the Holy Spirit’s sober ine¬briation seems to have little chance when self has become a prison, the mind is a shackle, and breaking out from both appears as a true promise of redemption that can be tasted at least for a few moments.” In contrast, “the encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes, so that later, from this experience, we take the criteria for judgment and can correctly evaluate….”
Benedict further contrasts the spirit of Apollo vs. Dionysis.
“The Church’s Tradition has this in mind when it talks about the sober inebriation caused in us by the Holy Spirit. There is always an ultimate sobriety, a deeper rationality, resisting any decline into irrationality and immoderation. We can see what this means in prac¬tice if we look at the history of music. The writings of Plato and Aristotle on music show that the Greek world in their time was faced with a choice between two kinds of worship, two different images of God and man. Now what this choice came down to concretely was a choice between two fundamental types of music. On the one hand, there is the music that Plato ascribes, in line with mythology, to Apollo, the god of light and reason. This is the music that draws senses into spirit and so brings man to wholeness. It does not abolish the senses, but inserts them into the unity of this creature that is man. It elevates the spirit precisely by wedding it to the senses, and it el¬evates the senses by uniting them with the spirit. Thus this kind of music is an expression of man’s special place in the general structure of being. But then there is the music that Plato ascribes to Marsyas, which we might describe, in terms of cultic history, as “Dionysian”. It drags man into the intoxication of the senses, crushes ra¬tionality, and subjects the spirit to the senses. The way Plato (and more moderately, Aristotle) allots instruments and keys to one or other of these two kinds of music is now obsolete and may in many respects surprise us. But the Apollonian/Dionysian alternative runs through the whole history of religion and confronts us again today.”
Thus does it pain me to see Catholic youth conferences promote themselves in the Dionysian spirit. It does damage, I believe, to the true spirit of Catholicism. Nor is it really telling the truth about the faith. This is why I don’t believe it amounts to much, whether these youth conferences are attended by 500 or 20,000 people. The question is whether these people are going to leave with a temporary high or a new appreciation of the profound mysteries of the faith that they can understand with their minds.
Finally, we might ask what it is that leads the organizers of these huge events to believe that they are doing the right thing, and I have no doubt that they are sincere. Fundamentally, the motivation is fear: fear that they will otherwise lose the youth, fear that the doctrinal and aesthetic truths of Catholicism are not sufficiently compelling, fear that the world will beat the faith unless we adopt the worlds’ forms, methods, and approaches and adapt the faith to fit them. In other words, for all the hopped-up propaganda, what’s really behind this is a lack of faith. And this is a disservice to the youth and to the future of Catholicism.
The true “youth culture” of the Catholic Church is a culture that aspires to the same thing that the “adult culture” and the “children’s culture” aspires to: to know the truth and to live it. That requires no marketing gimmickry and mass organizing. It requires a confident presentation of the doctrine, music, prayer, and art that is native to the Catholic faith. This is the best path to inspiring people of any age to live in truth.