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Student Life In Digital Babylon

Gang, posting will be light this week because I’ll be in Italy, but when I do post, it’ll be fun. I’ll be hanging with the Tipi Loschi, and then off to the Palio di Siena. Before I go, I want to let you know something I heard at the Society for Classical Learning conference last weekend in Dallas. David Kinnaman of Barna Research gave a talk called “Discipline in Digital Babylon,” about how Christian parents and schools need to step up their game to keep the faith (indeed, to preserve moral sanity) in this new world. It was inadvertently a powerful statement of support for the Benedict Option, because Kinnaman is a man who spends his life studying cultural trends and Christianity. What he sees is a severe trial upon Christians right here, right now.

Here’s an excerpt from a piece in Relevant magazine about the topic. These words are David Kinnaman’s:

The way I would say it right now is that particularly younger Christians are living in what I describe as Digital Babylon. It’s very similar in some ways to the kind of head-snapping change that Daniel and his peers would have experienced in Babylon—exposure to a broader world, immersion in a whole set of worldviews and beliefs and ideas about spirituality, interacting regularly with people with very different points of view, very different perspectives about God, very different perspectives about human meaning and flourishing.

For a lot of millennials, the question of how to live faithfully, how to have a life of conviction in a world that overwhelms and steamrolls conviction and belief is a really pressing question. Good research can point to what’s really happening in our culture—and then with good solid analysis and interpretation of biblical perspective, we can sort of articulate how it is Christians, and particularly younger Christians, can make sense of and lead effectively in that changing world.

There’s nothing new in human nature, there’s nothing new in human identity and the need for a Savior. But what is different is the incredible amount of access that human beings, and particularly millennials, now have. It’s more accelerated, it’s more immersive, it creates a whole reality.

My notes are sketchy, but here’s what I picked up from David at the SCL event.

  • We have to teach our kids “cultural discernment”. That means we have to build up an inner sense of judgment within them, not simply shield them from everything bad or problematic in the world.
  • This means not just teaching our kids how to handle the content that comes to them through ubiquitous screens, but how to deal with all the screens, period
  • We have to understand that today, faithful Christians are in exile here in America. Don’t lose hope: the Bible shows us that God can work His purposes through exiles. But we cannot deny this stark reality. (This, by the way, is one of the bases for The Benedict Optionthe point of which is to start hard conversations about how to be resiliently faithful in our exile.)
  • The faith of Millennials and post-Millennials teaches them that the best way to find themselves is to look inside themselves. There has been a radical shifting of sources of authority, to the sovereign individual. There has been a “disintermediation of institutions,” which is a fancy way of saying that there is little to no institutional authority left. This is the stone-cold reality the church has to deal with.

“People sometimes say to us that we at Barna must have the spiritual gift of discouragement,” Kinnaman joked. To the contrary, he said, there are “tremendous opportunities” now. Among them:

  • Young people today are media-addicted, but crave meaning. They have made pop culture into their religion. They are more connected than ever, but are very, very lonely. Churches and Christian individuals who can make a real connection with young people, and offer them meaning and community, can succeed.
  • “How is it that your school is helping to produce faithful digital citizens in the world. … Are we preparing students for the fact that they are very likely to have many careers in their lives?” This is the reality of the career instability young people today will be living with because of the disrupting effects of technology. The church of the present and the future has to become an island of stability for them — and that means not only offering them solid ground on which to stand, but forming their hearts and minds to anticipate these challenges.
  • “We live in a context in which people in churches are just as likely to be influenced by the conservative news media than they are by Scripture.” This is not a good thing. We need to realize that, and rise to meet the challenge.
  • We don’t necessarily want  to get rid of our devices, but we need to find the proper place for them in our lives. Kinnaman recommended Andy Crouch’s great new book The Tech-Wise Family.  A tech-wise family, he said, is not obsessed by the rules governing technology use but with building character. If you get that right, technology is much more likely to fall into its proper place.
  • Christians have to wake up to the changing ways that people relate to each other. For example, he said that Barna’s research has found that Evangelicals have the highest barriers to having normal conversations with others. Schools should be preparing students to talk to those who are not like them. If they don’t, they’re not preparing them for the real world. “Friends,” Kinnaman said, “that’s a fragile faith, and it’s bound to break.”
  • “People who are complaining about this generation are the ones who handed out the participation trophies,” he said. Kinnaman’s point is that we older Christians shouldn’t be too hard on Millennials and post-Millennials, because we’re the ones who created them. We should have compassion on them for all the anxiety they’re having to deal with. How are we doing this in schools?
  • Here’s a great one that wouldn’t have otherwise occurred to me: schools should be bringing in happily married people to talk to kids about marriage, why it’s worth it, how to do it, etc. “We don’t have a theology of marriage, or a theology of singleness,” he said. “I’m asking you to think about new ways in your schools to help people think about this.” Kinnaman added that Christian schools absolutely must address the full range of human sexuality, including homosexuality, and do so in non-preachy way. Said Kinnaman, “We need hours and hours of reading and thinking, at age-appropriate levels,” regarding human sexuality. He believes that orthodox Christian teaching on sexuality is true, but that the church and Christian schools (as well as Christian parents) are failing massively to meet the challenge posed on sexuality by this post-Christian world.David said that he wants to scream at adults who say about faith and morals, “Yeah, yeah, kids will figure it all out when they’re older and have kids of their own.””No, they won’t!” he said, emphatically. Research shows “incontrovertible proof” that young people are growing up in a more skeptical environment.

    “We’ve got to prepare people for life in exile,” he said. “We live in a world where Bible is not considered a rock.

    “Are you preparing students for the brutal realities they are going to face in the world?” he continued. “I believe that local churches don’t have the tool set to disciple in Digital Babylon. It’s almost like they’re ministering with dial-up speed in an environment of high definition television.”
    Here’s a link to David Kinnaman’s books about Christian discipleship in the modern world.
    I want to point out another link to you: to PrayForJill.com. Jill is David’s wife, who was diagnosed with brain cancer only three weeks ago. She and the Kinnaman family are facing a tremendous trial. David gave me permission to post that link on this blog, because they covet your prayers.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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