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Providence and Youth

Fr. Jonathan Tobias

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We have been way too nice.

Without sounding fundamentalistic and pharisaical, we really ought -- as catechists in the church (a better sounding term than "youth ministers") -- to be critical in our attitude toward contemporary society, which is nothing but youth culture.

Youth culture, because it is nothing more than pop culture, cannot provide the traditions of forefathers and a transition into adulthood. A cursory reading of pop lyrics quickly show that there is mostly a vacillation between the ecstasy of new found love (or raging lust), and the despair of love disappointed (or lust evaporated). There is no vision of a love that extends beyond the rush into the quotidian, but co-inherent, self-immolation required by marriage and family.

As a result, adolescence is extended further in both directions. Children are losing their innocence at an earlier age. Young adults -- and perhaps even middle-aged adults -- are thinking and feeling more within the psychological patterns of adolescence. Thus, it is entirely possible that adolescence now covers the chronological years from 10 (if not earlier) to 30 (if not later).

Adulthood requires an exchange of ecstasy for wisdom, of romance for metaphysics.

Youth culture cannot, by definition, ever know this. They may hear the words. They may even witness the saints doing this very thing. But, as Eliot once said of us all, "We had the experience, but missed the meaning." Youth and pop culture is all about "missing the meaning."

In the most important ways, the Christian ethos typified by the Beatitudes is the adult culture into which our youth must be assimilated. That maturational process of spiritual assimilation is precisely the catechetical work of what is known as "youth ministry." At least, it should be.

But there are other concerns and "folk-ways" that are not addressed explicitly by the Beatitudes, the Apostolic Witness, or the corpus of Holy Tradition. I am thinking here, in particular, of what a common culture really ought to offer -- concerns that are as basic as what to wear and what (and how) to eat ... how to celebrate feasts and how to observe the fasts ... how to celebrate truly happy events and how to mourn at tragedies ... how to become an adult, and make the transition from passionate teenage to wise adult. Moreover, a common "adult" culture ought to identify who should lead, and how they ought to be followed.

With heartfelt apologies to my traditionalist brethren, the Rudder does not contain a constitution for such a culture. Our memories (whether accurate or not) of the Byzantine Empire or Tsarist Russia do not contain the DNA by which we can clone an alternative to pop culture. Neither can the monastery be used as a model for such an alternative culture: many well-meaning Christians attempt this, but it is not right. Monastic spirituality is for all of us, but not its typicon. I hate to bring up this disappointing news, and I'm sure there will be some who will take umbrage, if not offense. But the fact remains that these ideas are not "real cultures" -- they are romantic ideals, but they do not provide what a culture needs to provide.

And yet, at the very moment I dismiss the ghosts of Great Empire and contravene the appeal of the skete, I immediately hasten to suggest that there is a providential reason why God brought to America the great mass of Orthodox people when He did.

One can argue that after a thousand years of uninterrupted progress, the advance of Western Civilization lurched to a grinding halt in 1914, right before the Great War. At least Arthur Balfour thought so. This was the year when theism, despite his efforts, was overthrown. It was the year when the traditional aristocracy in England disappeared, and the leadership of society was taken over by commerce and the masters of opinion. It was about the time of la belle epoch, and when cubism reared its head. It was also the season when funny things were going on in Western financial centers, especially in New York. It was the time when Eliot called us in the West the "Hollow Men."

It was the time when the adult culture of the West all but disappeared, and wisdom fled into ivory towers, old wives' tales, and little houses.

It was in this season, in these decades, that God brought to America the Orthodox people who were not only Orthodox, but were people from intact adult cultures -- cultures that still knew how to fast and feast, how to mourn together and dance in groups, how to marry and embrace adulthood and old age as a good and not regrettable thing.

I suggest here, in not so many words, that God brought these same people not only to bring Orthodoxy to America, but also to bring their culture.

So for us "youth ministers," I suggest these things, in summary of these last 3 longish insufferable posts:

We must catechize simply and clearly from doctrine. We must criticize culture sharply, while encouraging youth to enter adulthood. We must utilize our own ethnic culture as a Divine gift -- even for those of us transplants who are "grafted in" to these ethnicities -- which can replace and complete that which is lacking in today's pop culture. It will have to be an ethnic culture as transmitted primarily in English, for that is the only way in America that an ethnic culture should survive. For myself, this means that I look to the Carpatho-Rusin culture as a providential storehouse of wisdom and folkways for my parochial young. For others, that would mean the use of Greek culture, or Russian, or Serbian, or Syrian, or Ukrainian.

There are many second or third generation immigrants who bristle at such a suggestion. I was surprised to hear one young man utter, "I'm tired of having that old ethnic stuff shoved down my throat. I'm in America now."

Yes, he is, and by all means he should be an Orthodox Christian in America, and there are certainly many blessings for the Orthodox Church now that it is stateside (the absence of tsars and boyars being chief among these blessings). But real American culture is an even more ephemeral and fragile thing than is our Eastern European culture. The latter is robust. The former is almost at dead language status. The culture that is rampant on the streets and airwaves and in the malls has nothing to do with America. It has everything to do with the world of the two 1984's (Orwell's, and Chesterton's).

That old ethnic stuff is a lot stronger, and more helpful, than what for now at least are the dim memories enshrined in images of Washington and Lincoln, and in the pages of Hawthorne and the Agrarians. That work of Orthodox understanding America remains to be done, for it has not even started. For now, youth ministry requires a stronger thing.

Youth ministry requires an Orthodoxy unashamed, and an embrace of the ways of naši ludi.

Fr. Jonathan Tobias is an Orthodox priest and edits the Second Terrace blog.

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Posted: 14-Jun-06

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