Saturday, March 20, 2010

Empowerment of Youth...a Dangerous Cocktail

I just finished reading "Flickering Pixels" by Shane Hipps.  What a compelling exhortation for people of faith to take a sober account of how "technology shapes your faith." I definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in the confluence of technology and faith, especially folks in the Theology After Google conversation.

Hipps' peace-making Mennonite Christian faith overlaps with his background in marketing/advertising/media.  He has a profound respect for community: face to face interactions, and makes their primacy clear for Christian faith.  Yet, he engages media and technology head on, with plenty of cautionary tales, but also a realistic conceit as to how they affect theology!

Hipps argues that the advent of the printing press and the proliferation of printed media were as influential to the Reformation as the content of theologians like Luther and Calvin.  He also argues that the ubiquity of images today with TV/internet changes the way persons think and theology too.  Here is a priceless quote: "The Internet makes a flat stone of the mind and skips it across the surface of the world's information ocean.  A book, by contrast, is a sturdy submarine, diving the mind deep into the sea" (pg 146).

Most fascinating of all was Hipps' insight into the “empowerment of youth.”  Because they learn and adapt to technology faster, argues Hipps, they become the ones in control--the adults, and adults become the marginalized—the young; thus a reversal of power.  He then goes on to highlight some forms of encrypted language people use for drug use and other illicit behavior. Another quote: “This unprecedented empowerment of youth, along with our image-fueled obsession with beauty, is a dangerous cocktail.  In a culture that worships youth, what incentive do our kids have to ever grow up?” (139)

What’s wrong with empowering youth?  I would argue that the problem exposed is not empowerment of youth; the problem/danger is the exploitation of youth. If young people are given the chance to be full participants in the body of Christ, they will. Youth are human beings. They are not deranged beings with insatiable appetites for drugs, sex, and rock and roll (ok maybe rock and roll). They have insatiable appetites for community! If kids invent language for drug use, this is in large part because they are being exploited by a network of drug dealers (probably with influential adults at the top), and not given proper oversight and boundaries. I agree with Hipps whole-heartedly that boundaries are essential for youth, just as they are essential for adults. I think that an emerging theology of the 21st century that openly recognizes the influence of media is one where young people are empowered to be full members of the body of Christ. The gospel for youth is that Jesus at 12 years old was in the temple teaching the adults.* Youth, who are empowered by technology have an opportunity to teach adults something about God, just as Jesus did, and Mary, David, Samuel, Ruth, Abel, Hagar, Ishmael…

Hipps’ cautionary notes are still perfectly valid. Technology can liberate, but can also be used to enslave. The task of the church is to take the advice of McLuhan seriously, “There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening” (182).

*Thank you Angelina, for reminding me of the story of 12-year-old Jesus.


Angelina Duell said...

Hey Wes,
Cool post. I also think that teens create new languages in an effort to build new communities. I remember learning to read/speak L337 when I was in high school and it wasn't for shady reasons but simply because it was how others in the community in which I learned it spoke.
(I'm reminded of the scene in Airplane where the old woman offers to translate "jive")
I agree that empowering the youth is crucial to the church. How would the message change if/when youth were/are the medium?

Wesley Menke said...

Thanks for your thoughts Angelina. I think that a youth centered theology, i.e., one in which young people embody the message and are the medium, is one that recognizes the fullness of humanity in persons of any age. I feel like the world in which I live is always suggesting that self actualization is always just over the next horizon. There are plenty of reasons to mature, but at the same time I wonder if a subtle form of violence is put on young people. They are told in various ways that they are not quite human until...

To put it another way, a youth-theology is one where leaders are not compelled to change young people, but to accept them for who they are, and that the new languages they create might demand those that are older to change too.