A morning tour through the news left a few itches that seemed to need scratching. And it’s been a while since a Miscellany post, so…
Let’s begin in with the latest instalment of the “We’re losing our religion in the west but we still seem to weirdly miss it” category (surely R.E.M. must be getting tired of their song title being used for articles like this?). The image of a Gothic-style Catholic Church being turned into a skate-park pretty much sums it up. Six thousand to ten thousand churches close and/or are repurposed along these lines every year in America (it would likely be similar story in Canada). Church membership and attendance is falling off a cliff. We still like the idea of God or the divine or some kind of cosmic energy or… something. We can’t really tolerate the idea that there’s nothing beyond. We’re spiritual but not religious. So we like to tell ourselves, at any rate.
For the most part, the article was a yawn-inducing tour through a depressingly familiar landscape. The ending caught my attention, though. The author, Jessica Grose, surveyed her own family on their religiosity. The answers ran the gamut, predictably. Her mom said she was culturally Jewish but not religious. Her dad he was nothing and wanted to erect a statue of Athena in his backyard. The author’s husband, raised half-heartedly Episcopalian supposed he’d identify as a “Christian.” Her ten-year-old daughter wasn’t sure. A real shocker, that one.
And then, the author herself:
My own feeling is one of profound ambivalence. I have no interest in going back to temple and little trust or appetite for organized religion. But I feel passionately about being Jewish, and a little heartsick about not knowing quite how to pass along my ritual and history to my children. I do wonder about what may be lost by not having a community connected by belief, but I’m not quite sure what that is, or if replacing it is possible, or even desirable.
This, it seems to me, is where so very many people live in the postmodern West. We long for something in which to anchor our identity. We long for a community with roots and history and stability. But we just can’t quite bring ourselves to believe or to trust in “organized religion.” We’re passionate about our ourselves and our own stories and long for them to animated by meaning and connection. We have a sense that we’re losing something important with the fading away of religion. We just can’t seem to make the connection between the two.
A few years ago, my daughter was in a progressive-ish church-ish space where a group of teenagers and young adults were asked to share their stories around the circle. She said something that I found very odd at the time and which I’ve seen increasing evidence of since. “Dad, it seemed like everyone around the circle had a mental health diagnosis of some kind. And it seemed like a lot of them wanted to have one.”
Fast forward half a decade or so to this piece on “mental health aestheticization” by Emma Camp, who is herself autistic, in today’s New York Times. According to Camp,
In many online circles—particularly those frequented by young, white, middle-class women like me—certain diagnoses are treated like a zodiac sign or Myers-Briggs type. Once they were primarily serious medical conditions, perhaps ones of which to be ashamed. Now, absent social stigma, mental health status functions as yet another category in our ever-expanding identity politics, transforming what it means to have a psychological or neurological disorder for a generation of young people, though not entirely for the better.
This certainly seems to fit what I have heard from my young adult kids over the years. And it fits what I increasingly see myself. “Identity” is becoming an increasingly voracious beast. And, according to Camp, it is leading people to hunt around for meaning and worthiness in strange places:
This brand of identity politics creates a perverse incentive to collect as many “disadvantaged” boxes as possible. For those who might otherwise have little cachet under this politics, an identity-defining mental health label offers a claim to oppression. What was once a dry medical label is now what makes one worthy.
Yes, mental health diagnoses can be profoundly important. Yes, treatment has led to positive results for countless people. Yes, to all the caveats and qualifications.
Still. Something strange is going on.
From the rarefied air of the New York Times to the local paper in my neck of the woods. Evidently, our little southern Alberta city is not in a good place:
Once known as a quiet, family-oriented community, Lethbridge is quickly becoming better known as the drug and crime capital of Canada.
Based on population, we have the highest crime index in the country. Which is sobering, to put it mildly. Unsurprisingly, at the heart of the problem is the drug crisis that is affecting cities across the country. Cocaine has given way to meth and fentanyl with all the fallout of overdoses and deaths and crime of all kinds.
I get a window into this reality every Monday at the jail. I have no hard numbers, but anecdotally I would say that north of 90% of the people I read the bible with every week are in jail, at least on some level, because of addiction. Most of them obviously don’t want to be addicts. Some of them even commit minor crimes because jail is free detox along with a bed and food every day. It’s one of the few places where they are safe from themselves.
A few weeks ago, one of the guys told me, “You know, I don’t want to keep using. But I get out and I have no community, no supports, no purpose or meaning in my life. So, I just go back to doing what I can to escape.” This broke my heart. Yes, we’re all responsible for the choices we make. But some of our choices take place with unimaginable histories and under constraints and pressures that most of us can’t imagine.
Later today, I’m going to pick up a big bag of popcorn and a couple two litres of pop and take them over to the jail. In the bible studies before Easter one of the guys asked me if I had seen The Passion of the Christ. I said that I had not (and that I didn’t really want to, truth be told). But the guys were persistent. You need to see it, man! So, tonight we’re going to sit in the chapel of the jail and watch Jesus get the hell beaten out of him Mel Gibson style. And we’ll ponder, I hope, the mystery of God-in-flesh, suffering for the sake of a world desperate for meaning, for belonging, for an identity beyond what we can cobble together for ourselves. Suffering in place of those who don’t know what they’re doing and for those who want to do better.
Thanks for sharing each week, Ryan!
You’re most welcome, Brenton. Thank you for reading.
What a good post! Your daughter’s observation is bang on, along with, or because of our need for identity. Does social media and hyper world we live in contribute to the feeling we must have an identity … and preferably one where, as she implies, we are a victim? We have a need to be seen. It’s legitimate, but the faster we go, the less likely we see each other.
We progressive Mennonites are not immune to any of this at all, and maybe your next piece in the Cdn Menn needs to be about what your daughter observes.
Thanks, Abe. Yes, I think social media absolutely plays a crucial and corrosive role in all this. And I couldn’t agree more with what you say, both about the need to be seen, and about how the faster we go the less likely we are to actually see each other.
Pride before the fall. We may want historical narratives that connect and unite but only if they describe our stories and values as the source of all unity and connection.
You should ask your daughter to post a thread on identity politics and social contagion. Her instincts seem more accurate than her Father’s. 😀
Don’t approach the, “Passion” with prejudice. Forget Mel Gibson. Give it the benefit of the doubt and watch it as if it might be an accurate accounting.
It seems, “Erahjohn” is acceptable in small doses. I shall approach you then as I would an ex wife. Carry on.