So, the other day, I posted here about this “fire challenge”, wherein teenagers set themselves on fire for fun and Facebook Fame.
And then I learned that the page I’d linked to calls itself a satire site, and did the full “mea culpa” for being taken in about it.
Then someone on Facebook sent me a YouTube video of someone aflame and I threw up my hands to heaven, wondering what was true or not; when Glenn Reynolds linked from Instapundit, I welcomed his readers and asked them to help me figure out what was true.
In the meantime, I called WKYT in Lexington, KY and confirmed that yes, they did profile a local teen who had set himself aflame — and who admitted to the press that he “did not know what to expect”, when he did it — and broadcasted the report on July 25th, updating the story on August 1. “Yes,” confirmed the station, “this is a real thing.”
“I just poured alcohol on it, and lit it, and it just automatically went and burst,” the teenager says in the updated report.
The other day, I was content to simply sputter about this, but now I can’t help thinking about how once upon a time a “crazy teenage stunt” might be seeing how many people could fit into a phone booth, or swallowing goldfish live. Or using orange juice cans as hair rollers. Now, in our much less innocent, much more enlightened era, we have advanced all the way to self-immolation, in our quest to be amused and get noticed.
We should, perhaps, be concerned, and asking ourselves what is driving this complete upending of simple reasoning? A friend of mine, reading my first post to her teenagers, wrote that her kids had identified a lack of critical thinking skills as the culprit: “if they don’t see the end, and what happens, they don’t know what to expect.”
Well, neither does a baby, when someone covers their face and then takes down the hands and says “peek-a-boo!”. Are we raising a nation of toddlers in adult bodies, utterly unable to use elementary reasoning skills?
A writer at Huffpo, stunned by the idiocy of the fire challenge writes, “Time to start thinking, guys. Time to start thinking really, really hard.”
Indeed, but about what? Shall I start?
Should we blame video games, where a player can slaughter or be killed and the world is aright with the touch of a button? Should we blame CGI special effects, where fire on a body does not necessary translate into burning and death? How about absent parents, dwindling notions of responsibility and accountability, and the public-school-encouraged mind-hive that puts group dynamics ahead of individual thought?
Maybe all of those things have contributed to getting us here. I think there is another component to it all, and it’s something I wrote about in my book, Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life:
Do you remember the story I related earlier about the family member who had chosen coolness over getting an education? She eventually grew up and realized that there were better, more important things than being cool. Many never do. They become perpetual adolescents who still think they would rather die than be thought out of touch with the zeitgeist. They worship at what comedian Flip Wilson used to call “The Church of What’s Happening Now,” where cynicism replaces an actual creed, the homilies never end, and the sacraments take a serious toll. If Christ and his Church are to be a “sign that will be contradicted” (Lk 2:34), the Church of What’s Happening Now is the vehicle of worldly affirmation; its only membership requirement is that one be immediately and unquestioningly in tune with the conventional wisdom of the day (or the week), and against the establishment, as it is continually redefined.
When people ask me what I think is “the biggest idol we face”, meaning what is the most challenging Strange God that needs to be swept away from us, I tell them “the zeitgeist; the need to be part of every trend. It is a most insidious idol, because it seems so innocuous; we’re just doing what everyone is doing, wearing what everyone is wearing, driving what everyone is driving, right?”
In truth the idol of the zeitgeist, of being hip, is one we bow down to daily and we train our children to prostrate themselves to it, from a very early age, when we communicate to them that yes, they need the lastest game; they must wear the latest styles; they should certainly have the trendy gear. And this is an idol that blocks us from faith-practices, from reality and eventually from ourselves:
The Study Guide for the book notes that being thought of as “out of touch” and not on the cutting edge of things is almost unbearable for too many of us, but that the energy needed to stay up-to-date with every fad costs us something, and there are questions to ponder:
- What expectations do I place on the things and people in my life being hip? Am I embarrassed when I see a parent – or for that matter a school or church try too hard to be cool?
- How much of being cool involves harboring contempt for others?
- If this is so, how can Jesus be cool?
The fire challenge may be an instance of “trying too hard” to be cool, so hard that things get way too hot. Bowing down to fads can cost us a lot. One of the things I always loved about Jesus is the resolute sign of contradiction he was and is, to every passing trend, in every passing age.
Here is a young girl, 12 years old, who has severe burns. Her whole life will be changed, now, because of a stupid fad.
We must find new ways to demonstrate to our children that to contradict the allures of the age is an act of reason and autonomy; that a failure to bow down to the zeitgeist is not a negative, but a vast positive — a means of discovering and then growing in appreciation of their human dignity, which fads and trends seldom honor.
Not to be pushy about it, but Strange Gods is actually pretty good reading for young people; I’ve been told some Catholic High Schools are recommending it in their theology and ethics classes. If you have a teenager heading into high school or college, perhaps slip it into their bag, and encourage them to ponder how to hold on to themselves, while ensconced in the hivemind.