Seeking The Living Among The Dead
If you read nothing else this weekend, make it this comment from a previous thread, by Edward Hamilton, who teaches at a small conservative Christian college in Texas:
“Technology has consequences for epistemology.”
As a “Ben-Oppish” commitment, my wife and I usually open up our house to anyone who needs a place to stay, for free. We’ve used the guest room for a professor who lived there for a couple years, and for a friend of my wife’s who had some serious family issues, but usually it’s my own students who have the greatest need. In the last month we’ve had two students staying with us for various amounts of time (and one of them brought his brother). The experience of being in close contact with a semi-random cross-section of millennials is really eye-opening.
Let’s talk about young men, since I know more of them. Young white male millennials (the demographic group I have most contact with, due to teaching science/engineering) pretty much live online around the clock during their leisure time. Faithful to the cliche, they enjoy playing computer games and watching streaming media content — but more to the point, they tend to organize their extended social networks around those leisure activities, and those networks exist largely in a virtual world. That world is universally scrubbed free of any trace of religious content, aside from a few vestigial holiday greetings. It’s a world in which the church has no presence and might as well not exist, the spiritual equivalent of tribes in a deep jungle in 19th century Africa before the arrival of European missionaries.
To provide some sense of its scale: The most subscribed YouTube channel, Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg, has 44 million subscribers. He can routinely generate five million views in a day. Have you ever watched one of his vlogs or LetsPlays? (Have you ever even heard of him, until now?) Odds are good that the answer is ‘no’ if you’re above a certain age, so I’ll save you the trouble by informing you that it’s the crude stuff you would probably expect, oversexualized slacker bro culture of a minimally articular sort with lots of energy and very little substance. If you believe traditional aspects of shared Christian life are nutritious meat and bread for spiritual health, and something like Game of Thrones is a bag of greasy hamburgers and fries, this is the equivalent of a shopping cart full of pork rinds.
But this online universe of vloggers and gamers is, in some weird sense, functioning as a replacement “church” in a way that traditional media hasn’t been. It’s shaping the values of a community of people who are in relationship and conversation with one another, in a very different way from a series of self-contained TV episodes like Game of Thrones. People are using this new media — centered around games and leisure — to form relationships which are satisfying the same emotional needs that previously were met by traditional religious institutions. They’re making church obsolete. The students who stay in my home? They live in PewDiePie’s world, usually for six to eight hours a day, playing video games and chatting on headsets. On Sunday, they sleep several hours past noon. These are students from an evangelical Christian college that most people would describe as hopelessly sheltered and conservative. And yet the amount of socialization they are receiving from social media and online gaming is dwarfing any contact they have with a church, by a time ratio of something like 100 to 1 in any given year (unless my sample set is totally unrepresentative). You can laugh all you want at the clumsy attempts of evangelicals to re-colonize TV and movies with spiritual ideas, but those projects are stunning successes compared to the void of spirituality in the top 100 most-subscribed channels on YouTube.
Let’s compare that subscriber base to religious denominations. Southern Baptists, the largest Protestant denomination, have about 15 million members. The Mormons are about the same size, if you want to count them as Protestant. United Methodists, 8 million. Evangelical Lutherans, 4 million. Episcopalians? 2 million. All of them put together wouldn’t add up to the “Bro Army church” that tunes in for weekly sermons from PewDiePie. And most of those denominations are aging and in decline (except the Mormons, who are probably the best model we currently have for how a “Benedict Option” ought to push back against culture without hiding in bunkers). Go back to the PewDiePie channel on YouTube, gaze upon it in all its terrible grandeur — Hah, he’s stuffing a VR controller up his butt! — and think to yourself “This is the next empire, the barbarians scheduled to depose the Roman Senate.” And unlike Cavafy’s, you can easily confirm their existence by striking up a conversation with them in the comment boxes under any YouTube clip. (Well, “conversation” is perhaps too charitable a description for what will more likely be just stochastic concatenations of the word ‘f*cktard’, but the point is, they’re out there.) This is the stylistic template for what’s winning the culture, as the church loses it.
Then recognize that YouTube channel subscriptions are concentrated in that under-30 millennial demographic, the same people who are increasingly abandoning church.
And that’s our current sociological default for educated middle-class young adult males — the smart ones getting those STEM degrees that will keep them from becoming impoverished and allow them to support families. Oh, and I don’t mean to pick on bro culture, as though it’s distinctly worse. I could just as easily written here about girls posting semi-sexualized selfies on Instagram.
Sure, you say, your kids are different because they volunteer at the local charity and lead a Bible study, and whatever else, in addition to the responsibly small amount of online media they consume. That’s excellent. But they’re outliers. We have church membership figures to prove it. And when they head off to college and they don’t need to prove their worth to admissions committees, the default pattern for their collegiate and post-collegiate life is going to be dominated by the values and priorities and semiotics of internet culture. Donald Trump’s language sounds crazy to us, but he’s a model of high-class verbal sophistication by the standards of kids raised on this thin gruel for two dozen hours a week.
This isn’t just pearl-clutching about new technology. There’s a zero-sum competition for the time in everyone’s day, and media content has become incredibly adept at soaking up all the time that once allowed for traditional socialization. At the coffee hour in our church, many of the kids are just sitting around using portable electronic devices. Some of the adults, too.
I had to look it up, but apparently William Gibson (the author who coined the word “cyberspace”) is the originator of the familiar quote about how “The future is already here, it just isn’t widely distributed”. That seems appropriate. There’s your future, right there, if you just want to poke online for a bit.
That’s … stunning.
If the Benedict Option is going to be effective, it has to find a way to reach young men like this, and bring them back.
UPDATE: Some great comments in this thread. Here’s one by “John Carter”:
Well I wouldn’t consider it a total wasteland , I can’t remember how many times a YouTube has been pressurized by his audience or chosen to avoid swearing (Brutalmoose, Peanut Butter Gamer, Space Hamster). There are also some great Christian content providers like Blimey Cow (when they launched their podcast on I-tunes it beat out ‘This American Life’ on the charts) or Say Goodnight Kevin!
Honestly, the writer has a point to a degree. It’s hard to be a guy my age (I’m 22). I lived in a small town in the south. My interests were religion, reading, film, and history. If I did find some guys my age, it seems my activities would be limited to hunting, drugs, and drinking myself into a stupor.
My family was a conservative Christian family, and while we had a computer and a GameCube (later a wii) I never considered myself a gamer. The thing is though, today I crave having a circle of guys who really stick together. Unfortunately that means either abandoning my morals and interests and becoming a redneck to appease, or looking for community elsewhere. I’d absolutely love to have a few people my age at church who I could chew meaty deep topics with, but mostly I’m the only one between the ages of 10 and 30.
I find online gives me a sort of outlet to connect with people. I found a distant cousin my age I never knew about through Facebook and we often game with each other. He’s actually willing to debate religion, while we game. Often we play historical war games, and I have to admit there’s something secretly comforting and exciting joining a band of other people to defeat the Gauls or bring the House of York to it’s knees. For a moment you kinda get to forget your play a game, and get a band of brothers who all are for a goal. Unfortunately the illusion is often broken by my cousin’s dour nihilism, spending his free time smoking pot, playing games online and spending God-knows how many hours watching documentaries on Ancient Greece and Rome often as late as 4am.
On the flip side, I met my best friend online as well, and I actually have saved up twice to visit him half way across the country.
YouTube itself is a constant with me, but I think it’s just to hear people my age say things that make sense (‘Goodnight Kevin’ who reviews christian films reaffirms all those years of arguing with older adults that they were crap made more to preach to the choir than any sort of evangelic mission they were pretending). It’s nice being able to hear young Catholics debate current events, or just plan gamers explaining how IBM did business in the 80s.
The idea of older adults wanting to invest in our lives is appealing, but I’m wary of it. Too often it’s less about connecting and making a meaningful relationship as it is trying to influence us or pander. I’ve noticed a lot of the guys I meet online (myself included) have a thing for historical male societies that are extinct. The Vikings, the Romans, the Greeks, the Spartans, and medieval Knights. Then roll in the anti-heroes —James Dean, ‘Fight Club’, etc. or the military. Of course , the people I bother with are probably an exception to the rule, but I can’t help wondering if in someways we are unconsciously trying to make a deeply flawed substitute for what are culture no longer has. I can’t think of anything in our society that offers male companionship besides the military and sports. And I doubt the Knights of Columbus (I think that’s the name) are as much a robust group of Christian men, as a social club for retired elders.
Perhaps your Ben-op. Idea Not only will revive the community, but give us young men something to put our energies into besides energy drink fueled bread and circuses online.
And here’s one by commenter Relstprof:
“If the Benedict Option is going to be effective, it has to find a way to reach young men like this, and bring them back.”
First, maybe the question is why they’re disinterested. This past semester I tried out some new material dealing with cultural “God-representations” and how they work socially and psychologically. In both classes, the conversation turned to the church experiences of the students. I didn’t prompt this, but I went with it since the students were opening up. (Jesuit mid-sized university in the Midwest; both Catholics and Protestants shared. About 20 voices in all.) It was overwhelmingly negative, but not in the way I expected — church is boring, stuffy etc. Here’s some verbatim quotes:
“They never teach anything about the history of Christianity.”
“Any tough questions and they shut you down.”
“Infantilizing.” (A lot of Catholics agreed with this.)
“What intellectual conversation?” (A lot of Protestants agreed with this.)
“Too political! Pressure to agree to politics.” When I asked what kind of politics — “too conservative.” A lot of nods at this.
“What Bible? I went to [Christian Academy] or [St So-and-So] and learned more about the Bible in one semester here.”
“When you ask about another religion, you get shut down.”
Second, every time I talk about the intentional Christian community I support, and invite students to the weekly communal meal, the students are incredibly receptive. I’m always surprised how hungry college students are for this type of community. They show up, and some have continued to show up. Guess what? Here you get good meals. Age diversity, color diversity, type of Christian diversity. Good conversation. There are no “rules” about cell phones or TV, but people aren’t on their phones. (There is no TV, so that’s not an option anyway.) Occasionally someone will show a youtube clip, but laptops are mostly away. My God! What happens?
Conversation. Some theology, some philosophy. How do you manage the chickens? How did you get such a great communal garden? What great beer/cheese/wine. What’s happening at local university, sports teams.
No fear! No “let’s escape the sh!t culture” (and it is sh!tty). Civic engagement. The community members attend community meetings. They take it as part and parcel of their Christianity to be civic-minded. (And this is racially diverse, poor neighborhood.) It’s not perfect, but it’s lived.
TBH, if a student asked me where to attend church, I’d tell her to show up at this community. Get to know them and the specific church will sort itself out.
But it takes work to create communities based on care, conversation, enjoyment, civic engagement, and racial reconciliation. Don’t underestimate the 20-things, though.
And this, from Merovich:
The thing described here is eerily familiar. A brother of mine, only two years my junior, has been stuck in this world for years now. We though it might blow over when he got a job, but no luck.
Someone above mentioned the Amish-option. I think he might just have the right of it. RD posted a few musings on smartphones and it’s ill effects on young people before, now this. What if it isn’t (just) culture, but in fact technology; what if the kind of virtuous life (or really any kind of authenticity) you seek cannot be lived by anyone but the most disciplined and ascetic in a world where smartphones and various other increasingly effective Skinner-boxes are around, and quite affordable?