Why Religion Should Not Try So Hard to Be Cool

Every September college students confront a myriad of student activity organizations, each competing for student loyalties. While campus religious groups might be considered realms for quiet reflection and prayer, things change amongst a plurality of competing enticements for student membership. Suddenly, the Catholic Center is just one option alongside a cappella choirs, the Beekeeping Club, the Anime Club, the Cigar Aficionados, the Harry Potter Alliance, and the Wine & Cheese Society. What’s a religion got to do to get American undergrads in the door?

The Catholic Center, with its “Keep Calm and Catholic On” meme poster, joins the rush to make religion cool, and offers a palette of activities–the Holy Water Fight, the Monstah BBQ, Ultimate Frisbee, a gathering of Card Sharks–and oh, at the very bottom there, a bit of Mass. The distinctively “religious” activity of the religious organization seems an afterthought–or maybe a chance to atone for the fun to be had making fun of religion all week.

The effects of modern pluralism–not just religious diversity but the existence of all sorts of cultural options for people to spend their time on–impacts not only the self-presentation but also the behaviors of religious institutions. Sociologist Anthony Giddens writes that pluralistic modern conditions change religious institutional self-reflexivity–the ways these organizations think about and present themselves. It makes sense, since much of identity formation is a process of reacting to one’s surroundings and differentiating oneself from them. The competitive student activities marketplace pushes this changing self-conception into an entirely different organization–now the religious group is not just for religion, but also for BBQs and gambling. The Catholic Center, to contend with other student organizations, has to offer a range of activities that in a previous era might have been seen as sacrilegious, self-mocking, or entirely too secular and temptation-laden. This shows how the cultural marketplace affects its constituents. Does it work? When the Catholic Center presents itself as a cool and attractive activity, does it pull in customers who are there for the Catholic–or just there for the Center?

This Center also demonstrates “disenchantment” rooted within the religious institution, an effect described by sociologist Max Weber as characteristic of the modern era. These days, Mass is just one choice of many social choices. It’s not really that special and it might not even be that different from what the Slam Poetry Troupe is doing. Somehow, as the Catholic Mass is rendered an afterthought to all the stimulating activities of the week, it seems less enchanting. It certainly seems equally important–or even not as important–as the other fabulous options.

Weber also wrote that modernity is marked by a differentiation of realms whereby the state “did” politics, and religion “did” religion. But cultural pluralism and competitive marketplaces actually behoove campus religious organizations to offer a full range of diversions for its constituents. The Catholic Center is now a one-stop social shop. We see this happening in Megachurches that build campuses with grocery stores and medical clinics. Why go anywhere else when you can get all your fun and business done here, at God’s Walmart, surrounded by people who share your worldview? The consequence of–or reaction against–cultural pluralism is to build a bulwark against diversity. Alarmed by the temptations of cultural pluralism, religious institutions become more internally diverse and multidimensional than ever.

Social scientists of religion have long known that religion is a multidimensional affair, and that people participate in religion for many reasons–from business networking, to coffee hour socializing, to public image maintenance, to the occasional need for prayer and spiritual succor. Religion has never been corded off to its worship hours on Saturday or Sunday mornings (or whenever); it has always been offered 24/7. The difference with contemporary campus religious groups is that they deliberately disavow their own religious center, drawing in students with outrageous, cool, popular attractions, brazenly sidelining that which distinguishes them from most other student clubs: the sacred, the spiritual, the liturgical. These groups have to dance nervously around the paradox that if they offer too much religion, they lose social cache and kids won’t come–but if they offer too much social cache, what are the kids coming for that they can’t get elsewhere?

What becomes of the spirituality of a place like this? Is it marginalized so successfully that participants do not value it? Are they coming for the prayer or the hot dogs? Perhaps devout Catholic students would attend the Catholic Center no matter what other campus clubs are doing; perhaps the ambivalent Catholics really require a few frisbee and cards games to get them in the door. But when the Catholic Center runs out of hot dogs, will the students run over to the Organic Gardening Club, or to the Polish and Central European Society? These student activity groups attract members out of their particularity, but the Catholic Center is trying to be everything to everybody, apologizing for what little religion they do still happen to offer.

It’s an Afterschool Special: the quirky, artsy kid tries to get cool so she can join the popular group–and the more she resembles the trendsetters, the coolest and most special things about her fade away. If religious community is adjusted too much to fit the comfort level or popularity standards of churchgoers, what happens to the sacred? What will it take for the Catholic Center to have the confidence to be who they are–a religious group–different than the Barbecue Fellowship–and to be proud of it?

I applaud the attempt to build a multidimensional spiritual community, and I respect that a competitive marketplace makes certain demands on organizational self-presentation and branding efforts. There is something to be said for building investment. If a student attends the holy water fight she might make a friend who convinces her to do a community service project and eventually attend Mass. The barbecue, frisbee, gambling, etc. might serve as segues to the religious part of holistic community involvement.

The irony is that, in the effort to make religion seem cool and funny, the Catholic Center is actually suggesting that religion is pretty lame. In order for it to be valuable, they have to dress it up and sell it. They are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy: if they continue to try so hard to make church hip and exciting, they send an implicit message that church, the way it is normally done, is uncool and boring. It perpetuates the shame of the churchgoer who also happens to be an American college student. The churchgoer is prevented from connecting to the tradition in a way that doesn’t involve hotdogs and holy water fights. In presenting themselves this way, church organizations convey a certain embarrassment about housing the sacred.

When competing within the cynical climate of the American secular urban college campus, the campus religious organization won’t get far highlighting liturgical worship, Catholic aesthetics, or spiritual revival. But it is a little disappointing that the Catholic Center should sell themselves by playing Ultimate Frisbee on Monday before praying to ultimate reality on Sunday. What does it say about the ebbing confidence of modern religious communities when the ultimate isn’t enough for people–unless offered alongside a game of Ultimate? Earnest seekers and spiritually curious students will not be able to develop confidence in their curiosity unless such confidence is modeled by the organization that houses their worship. This particular group has surrendered to the contest for student membership by shirking the very thing that made them distinct. How can college students take pride in their spiritual choices and identity if the community they belong to does not?



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9 thoughts on “Why Religion Should Not Try So Hard to Be Cool

  1. To Whom It May Concern:

    Ms. Lindsay seems to draw an awful lot of conclusions from a single poster for a single week’s worth of events. Had Ms. Lindsay extended her research beyond a single poster and perhaps visited the Catholic Center, she would have found that there are three Sunday Masses, a Men’s Group, a Women’s Group, approximately 15 Bible Studies throughout campus, a chapter of the Knights of Columbus, Monday night Holy Hour with Praise and Worship and Eucharist Adoration and Benediction, a Tuesday Night formation night where recent topics included friendship, apologetics, and evangelization, a Wednesday Night Grad Group, daily Mass, daily Confessions, service projects, retreats, mission trips, an RCIA, and numerous other spiritual programs. She would have found a community of disciples who love their Faith, love the Sacraments, and are joyfully witnessing to that Faith throughout the campus.

    It would be difficult to put all of that on a single poster. The poster was for something called “First Week” where many groups on campus host social events in order to welcome new students. The poster did not purport to represent the totality of our programs. Sadly, Ms. Lindsay chose not to include the poster for our retreat that recently happened. That poster listed the Theological Virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love on it with the title, “I Follow.” She chose not to mention the weekly email sent to students, informing them of many spiritual events. Instead, she chose to focus on a single poster designed to announce social events that were part of the first week of school.

    Ms. Lindsay asks, “What will it take for the Catholic Center to have the confidence to be who they are–a religious group–different than the Barbecue Fellowship–and to be proud of it?” She attaches to the Catholic students who designed the poster a motive that is not even close to being true or accurate. Why she would choose to criticize the Catholic Center based on a single poster, I cannot answer. To attempt to answer that question without speaking to her would be to do to her precisely what she unfortunately did to the students here at the Catholic Center.

    The Catholic Center poster may not have been perfect, but it wasn’t smug or offensive. The same cannot be said about Ms. Lindsay’s article.

    Fr. David Barnes

  2. Hello, Father Barnes. I regret that you were frustrated by my musings on the Orientation Week poster. But I am grateful you wrote this post and provided information to balance any skewed impressions of your group. I can imagine it is not fun to have a source outside your group use a publicly-displayed poster as a catalyst for a broader cultural reflection on secular American campus religious organizations. Of course, I (and I don’t think any reader) would ever harbor doubts that there is much more to your community than what was described on the poster. But I think it is natural for an uninvolved passerby, who happens to be trained to reflect on religion in society, to make such musings based on such a thought-provoking sliver of information and all of its pop culture vectors. In any case I congratulate the vitality of your community, and I even appreciate your indignation. I apologize for offenses incurred and wish my tone hadn’t come across as smug–as a grad student I have very little to be smug about–and resolve to work on what might be an all-too strident or flippant tone when reflecting publicly on an obviously well-intended, fun-spirited student creation that reveals some interesting things about our historical, geographic context. Yours gratefully, Jenn Lindsay

  3. I work with several different student religious groups, and I have seen similar methods of non-sacred activities to get people in the door. It’s true that one of the hoped-for benefits of such activities is that students who enjoy these other activities will stick around for prayer or services. However, for many students, these activities are aimed at fostering a community in which students can play games, explore their local surroundings, share meals, and study together with members of their religious community who share not only goals and values but also fears and questions. Their intention is not to be exclusionary, but to create a community in which a student does not need to constantly explain the way he or she dresses, what he or she is eating or not eating, quietly excuse him/herself to go pray, or anything else related to their religious beliefs and practices. It is essentially the campus equivalent of a temple hosting language classes for non-native speakers, parenting workshops, hosting community organizing events or fielding a team for a local kickball league.

    My biggest fear with these campus groups is not that they are dismissing the sacred aspect of their community, but that they are going to be so successful in meeting the social and intellectual needs of students that those individuals who would otherwise be in conversation with others are instead only sharing their dialogue with others in their circle.

  4. Ms. Lindsay and Father Barnes,

    I want to thank you both for your reflections and comments on the Catholic Center and the poster that got Jenn Lindsay’s muse a musing. I do not think that Jenn Lindsay’s expressions were smug or offensive, but reflective and descriptive of her experience of the poster she described–and the “competition.” To this contemplative Gestalt, Father Barnes added texture and dimension. I knew more by reading both than I would have known by reading either.

    Sounds like a dialogue to me. Makes me want to know much more. Does the Catholic Center have debates on whether Pope Francis is right about do-gooder atheists? Does the Catholic Center “competition” include ROTC and/or ACLU–and does such “serious” competition put themselves out in similar fashion. I don’t think grad students, priests, lawyers, presidents or rock stars have anything to be smug about — but all of us humans have a lot to talk about and a lot of stories to exchange. I was told, as were all law students, that we were in law school to learn to “think like a lawyer.” Some of us spend the rest of our lives remembering how to think like human beings. Musing out loud and on paper helps. Witnesses help.

    I personally think the very idea of a holy water fight is hilarious. A recently “born again” Christian friend once asked me (knowing of my K through Law School Catholic Schooling) what my position was on “immersion baptism” and whether anything else was legitimate. I told him that a lot of Protestant groups have no choice but to use immersion baptism but that, rest assured, it is legitimate. The Catholics get by with a few sprinkles of water because we’re the only ones with real “holy water.” I would love to defend that position in a “holy water fight.”

    I’ve got uneasy suspicions from afar that, at most of our university campuses, certain topics of reflection and discussion are often discouraged to the point of cultural censorship–and very rarely encouraged. State of Formation is full of fresh air. A sense of poetry and song is very welcome. Keep on musing. Our lives depend on it.

    My Art Because Thou Art.

    Bill Webber

  5. Great article, and one that I’ve related to and wondered about since college (even, dare I say it? – at seminary this year!). Our religious centers are losing traction the more we trade-off what we stand for. Surveys and statistics consistently prove this, but in an age of chasing the quick fix, we do the very thing we decry from lecterns, podiums and pulpits. We trade off and not up.

    I think we’ve become a generation that laughs at anyone who IS serious about religion, or anything else. If you like videogames, you’re a manchild. If you like shoes, you’re a wannabe Carrie Bradshaw. If you like science or math, you’re a nerd. And if you’re dedicated to your faith, you’re a fanatic. Your article is an indictment of the Religious as much as it is our expanding efforts to reduce our institutions and ourselves to something relatable and likable, akin to the childhood warning “Be a good boy/girl, otherwise people won’t like you.” God forgive us for embodying Isaiah 30 – “These are rebellious people, deceitful children, children unwilling to listen to the Lord’s instruction. They say to the seers, ‘See no more visions!’ and to the prophets, ‘Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions. Leave this way, get off this path, and stop confronting us with the Holy One of Israel!'”

    So very glad for this article, Jenn!
    Keep going with these ideas!

  6. Ms. Jenn Lindsay,
    Thank you for you comments and informed criticism of a certain trend in youth and young adult ministry. I worked in parish youth and young adult ministry, as well as Religious Education for ten years. I agree that the consumer market place has created a rational choice scenario for ministers. The result, as you imply, is often very shallow and suggests religion is actually ‘pretty lame.’ One experience comes to mind: At a recent World Youth Day, one of the high volume diversions included ‘the Rapping Friar.’ Over a poor break-beat this ‘rapper’ yelled ‘ain’t no party like a Catholic party’ over and over again. At the time, I was a Franciscan Friar. There was no getting around the fact that this was very lame. My kids knew it. I knew it. I left parish and campus ministry for this very reason to focus on the academic discipline of religious education. I feel what makes religious traditions unique can be more appropriately delivered in that context. “Learning about religion and learning from religion.” I believe this narrative and intellectual approach provides more opportunity for formation in both youth and young adults within faith communities and without.

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