Young people are human. If we understood this reality we wouldn’t have crappy youth ministry programs, worse catechesis, politicians on Twitter, the wild success of Ke$ha, and a bored and banal culture.
But we do suffer these tortures, for we are convinced that being young and able to navigate Facebook transforms the human person into a locus around which the universe turns, the deciding, haloed blueprint for the construction of culture, religion, and politics.
The Youth Vote, the Young Voice, the You-are-the-future speeches, the desperate refashioning of event, creed, and tone for the sake of “reaching teens”, the impulse which screams “if it’s too loud, you’re too old” — This is the Cult of Youth. Its liturgy is weird and its prophets are idiots. Its condescensions demean young people into something subhuman. It deserves every sullen, selfish, apathetic, and uninterested teenager it haphazardly creates in its frenzied effort to be relevant.
We “reach teens” by way of “relevance”. As Annie Selak points out in her wonderful opinion piece, “The church young Catholics want”, young people “want the church to ask the questions we are asking, rather than ones that seem trivial at best and irrelevant at worst. Catholicism can recover from mistakes, but one thing the church cannot recover from is being irrelevant.”
Quite the claim. But what is relevance?
The popular conception of the word springs from a moronic sense of etymology. “Relevant” comes from the present participle of relevāre, which means to raise or lift up. But when we say “relevant” we really mean “relatable”. (So our author frowns at the “new translation of the Roman Missal”, for what relation does that have with the experience of young Catholics? (We don’t even go to Mass.))
Behold the ethos: All things must be relatable to teenagers, because teenagers, man.
Kids like funny things — let’s perform skits at their youth groups, make shirts with Jesus puns, and hire those Catholic speakers that crack everyone up with just how goofy they are! (See? Faith can be fun!)
Teenagers like pop music — why else would it be popular? — so Christian music should sound like pop music! Four chords, four-on-the-floor, uninspiring lyrics, uninspired song! Relate, dammit. “Young people are all on Facebook” — the phrase deserves some sort of award for being the most abused during “reach the teens” meetings of any kind — and thus there is the inevitable and awkward shift of every ministry, event, and slice of human reality to the non-event and non-reality of the Facebook page, the Twitter account and the Tumblr.
I do not believe that the skit or the Facebook page are inherently bad ideas, but I do believe that relevance is the worst factor for determining the goodness of a thing since we dunked witches in the river to see whether they’d float.
If relevance is the true measure of worth, then youth ministry events should feature pixelated porn, an atmosphere of diverted boredom, and a self-imposed speech impediment that negates every fragment of syntax bold enough to make an actual claim with the words “like”, “I feel like”, and that ever-present plea for affirmation, “ya know?” That’s what teenagers relate to, but relevance does not imply value. Relation is not always good relation, and that something is related to teenagers does not mean it ought to be. Which brings me to my point.
Teenagers are humans. As humans, our fundamental desires are for the good, the true, and the beautiful. These three transcendentals are analogues for our Transcendent God, and through them we meet him. The transcendentals are the truly relevant, in the sense that they are raised up before us. They are not valuable as pop music, flash mobs, and t-shirts are valuable — related to us by accident, incident, or the semi-conscious absorption of a bored culture. No, they have value in themselves as the natural ends of everything we do. Truth is that which is sought by our intellect, Goodness by our will, and Beauty by our emotion.
But we are frightened to give teenagers the transcendentals because we are frightened to treat them in any way that might end their fun, and thus have them leave the Church. And let me be absolutely clear: The transcendentals hurt. They call the human person from where he is to where he is supposed to be, and thus amount to a wrenching, a tearing, and a purifying fire.
The truth that I will suffer and die before or after watching my loved ones suffer and die is hardly skit material. The doctrine of Hell is something difficult to convey in a K-Love escapade into the miraculously relevant realms of G, C, Em, D, repeat. I may react against Mozart’s Requiem in favor of dubstep. I may react against the truth that the use of contraception is detrimental to the human person. Goodness, Truth and Beauty are not necessarily relevant, to reuse our modern misuse.
But this is the fault of the teenager.
A rejection of the Transcendentals is not the result of a lack of relevance, it is the result of sin. We deny the Truth, avoid the Good, and reject the Beautiful, because — for various reasons and under the protection of various excuses — we suck. The Good reveals to us our evil. The Truth reveals to us our ignorance. The Beautiful reveals to us our mediocrity. The question of the “church young Catholics want” is utterly meaningless compared to the question of what Church young Catholics need. Relevance is a ridiculous in the face of Transcendentals. It should be killed.
And so I disagree in all fervor with “The church young Catholics want” for it is a work of fear, hiding beneath the banner of relevance. Selak critiques the Church in her claim that the “Vatican has repeatedly shut down any dialogue surrounding the ordination of women and church teaching on homosexuality” and insinuates that the young of the Church are on her side, demanding “dialogue”. I’m calling her bluff.
Not only has the Church had a far more intellectual, consistent and conclusive dialogue on both of these issues, but it has told the truth about these issues. Women will never be priests, homosexual actions will always work against the nature of the human person.
Granted, dialogue is relevant to our dear, beloved youth insofar as we never shut up. We live in the age of the comment box. What isn’t relevant is coming to a conclusion, actually saying something, arriving at the end of discussion with words of authority — awful words that separate Truth from falsehood regardless of popular sentiment. We can’t relate to that. And so the relevant coddles while the transcendental hurts, but the Truth is needed and gasped for. It alone contains within itself the power to fulfill the human person, and it is precisely what the Church offers us. Selak’s discontent is not that the Church hasn’t engaged in dialogue over these issues, it is that the conclusions of the Church are entirely counter-cultural. Continued talk would be far more comfortable, a forever vague and fuzzy dialogue that goes on into Hell itself is sick of it, but we were not made for comfort. We were made for greatness and declarative sentences.
Kill relevance, seek transcendence.