(this should be a brief one, for once)

I was subbing a class on Thursday–eighth grade American history–when, for whatever reason, a student needed to know the definition of the word “lurid.”  They were doing a project on George Washington, arguably the least lurid man ever to be called president, so I don’t know how it came up, but it did.  I fumble-tongued my way around the subject for a moment, dropping words like “grotesque,” “vulgar,” “sensationalistic,” and so on, getting blank stares.  At length I remembered that they had laptops with internet access, and told them to just Google it.  Which they did, but they didn’t quite understand it.

So I tried to explain in more detail, only to run into a different, and unexpected, obstacle.  These children grew up with the internet; they’re quite accustomed to “click-bait” articles getting their attention by whatever means necessary.  The idea that some subjects are beneath polite discussion, or that there exists such a thing as “prurient interest,” is totally alien to them.  At length I referred to the supermarket tabloids: “you know how they run articles every other week: ‘Obama caught in gay love scandal,’ or some trash like that?”

The girl I was talking to just about exploded.  “Hey, what’s wrong with gay people?  There’s nothing wrong with gay people, they’re just expressing themselves.  Do you have a problem with gay people?  Do you think it’s okay to be gay?”

“What?  Huh!  No, I–”

“NO?!?!  It’s not?  Why not?”

“No, I don’t care, I mean, that doesn’t matter, whether you or I think it’s okay to be gay or not.  The point is, some older people are offended by the idea of gayness, and the magazines include that detail to get them fired up, along with the adultery.  That’s what ‘lurid’ means.”

She nodded, somewhat but not entirely mollified.  I’m not sure if she understood or not.  It certainly opened my eyes a bit, to just how far we’ve moved in a few decades.  I think these children are typical of their generation; they have adopted a purely utilitarian, libertarian (or perhaps libertine), external conception of ethics, far beyond even the previous American norm.  They do not believe in “good” or “bad” as modes of being, only “good” or “bad” actions as defined by effect on others (including, say, offending a currently fashionable demographic group).  They’ve internalized “don’t judge” to the point that any attempt to criticize anyone’s preferred way of living is offensive.  The word “lurid” is quite simply meaningless.

In, not Of

I read somewhere–I can’t recall where exactly, to my regret–that there are two opposed forces within Christianity, constantly tugging it in two different directions.  They might go by many names: conventional and unconventional, worldly and unworldly, fleshly and ascetic, or what-have-you.  In Orthodoxy, they are roughly represented by the hierarchy and the monastics, respectively, though neither has a strict monopoly; there are “unworldly” elements within the first, and sedate, passive, and conventional elements in the second.  And this duality, this push-and-pull division, is not unique to Christianity.  There are austere Hindu ascetics and serene village Brahmins, Buddhist Lamas and Buddhist family altars.

Only one of the two forces can be dominant in a given area, in a given faith, at one time.  A balance between the two is possible–and desirable–but not likely to occur, or to be stable when and if it does.  We’re always drifting in one direction or the other, and back again, overreacting to an excess before we overreact to our overreaction. Continue reading

God and Mammon

Before I start this post, a quick apology or proviso of sorts: in my last post, I held up typical Christian children’s books as an example of flawed “Christian” culture.  I do believe it is true that presenting the world as divided between “Christian” and “Secular” cultural spheres, with the “Christian” as ostensibly superior (but really just a whitewashed imitation of the secular), is a losing bet.  However, the problem confronting Christian children’s books is much the same as that confronting children’s books, and especially very young children’s books, in general: people tend to believe that, because small children are not mentally and emotionally sophisticated, you can foist off whatever doggerel you like on them, and they’ll love it.  On the contrary, small children are as challenging an audience as any–perhaps more than others, even, because of their limitations–and people like Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein are their Shakespeares and Mark Twains.  Little children only continue to have crummy fiction dumped on them because they are a largely captive audience, with little input into which books are purchased for them.  But this is not an exclusively Christian, or “Christian” problem.  See also Sturgeon’s Law.

With that said: there is a second major reason, in my opinion, why religiosity is fading in America today.  Like the first, I think it grew out of the Sexual Revolution.  Specifically, it developed in reaction to the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.  As I understand it, what we now call “socially conservative” religious leaders, fired up by a seven-judge majority essentially steamrolling over conventional morality, offered a pledge of mutual support to Reagan and other GOP leaders.  The result was the prolonged disaster we know as the Religious Right. Continue reading

The Jesus Ghetto

Religion in the United States isn’t doing so hot; study after study finds “unaffiliated” to be the fastest-growing religious belief here, especially among young people like (technically, sorta) myself.  And there’s been plenty of hand-wringing about it too, on site after site.  But I’ve never seen an honest attempt to understand just why this happened, from a religious or specifically Christian point of view: what went wrong?  This is puzzling to me, because in retrospect, it seems rather obvious.  We asked for this.

Continue reading