Merton and Mickey in Young Catholic Lives

A common trope of professorial reportage is the moment of illumination about the shape of undergraduate life today, the classroom surprise that, at best, can become a theophany for future teaching. I had such an experience last week in my introductory course on Christianity. While reaching for examples to explain 20th century interpretations of salvation as the movement from inauthentic to authentic existence, I confidently asked how many in the room had read Thomas Merton, thinking I could invite a student to share what they’d learned from Merton that could illustrate the point at hand. Out of 33 students, zero hands went up. Then I asked, okay, how many had ever *heard* of Merton. Again, out of 33 students, with probably half (at least) coming from more or less Catholic backgrounds, *zero* hands went up. Earlier in the class, when I mentioned a theological question my 2-year old daughter had asked, a young woman in the class asked if I had taken my daughter to Disney. (The answer is no.) In response, I asked the class how many of *them* had gone to Disney. A full 32 of 33 students raised animated hands. (Vincent Miller, in reflections occasioned by his own young daughter, well characterizes the transition to Disney language in his excellent book _Consuming Religion_, where on page 6 he memorably (and critically) writes: "Gloria in Excelsis Deo! Hakuna Matata!") I left the lesson that day with a keen awareness for how much work must be done in entering the world of thought, emotion, and intuition of this post-post-Vatican II generation. And in bringing the worlds of thought, emotion, and intuition from other theological times and places into my students’ sensibilities. It seems to me a task both daunting and absolutely essential. Tom Beaudoin Santa Clara, California
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10 years 10 months ago
My brother and I recently attended the 2008 L.A. Religious Ed Congress. On thursday we went to Disneyland, a place we had not seen in 16 years. As we heard numerous people talk of fond memories and as we saw numerous families flock to the various imaginative worlds of Disney, my brother raised the argument that Disneyland is the central pilgrimage site for the consumer family of the 21st century. I found this to be quite thought provoking and was wondering what people think about this claim.
10 years 10 months ago
Tom, What your students are showing you is that there is a great divide between Catholic parents and the church. Everyone is ok with sending children to Catholic schools as a cultural choice rather than a relgious one. This should make us challenge the choice of Catholic schools to build the faith as contrasted with the parishes doing that. Christianly thrives when the parishes are alive in the faith. The schools create involuntary rather than committed Catholics. At one time committed Catholics sent their children to Catholic schools. That is no longer the case, as a general rule.
10 years 10 months ago
I agree with your brother's characterization, Chris, but in fairness to modern day Christians, we should recall that there was an element of "spiritual consumerism," along with genuine piety and religious devotion, when pilgrims flocked to religious sites to venerate relics and accumulate indulgences, which diminished after the Reformation, and as church leaders distinguished mystical from magical. (Note the Disney mantra: "Have a magical day!") The Enlightenment further eroded our belief in and appreciation for the invisible and spiritual world our ancestors embraced. The book "Amusing Ourselves to Death" by Neil Postman (1985) discusses our transition to an entertainment-driven society. Wikipedia says, "Postman posits that television is the primary means of communication for our culture and it has the property of converting conversations into entertainment so much so that public discourse on important issues has disappeared." I was one of those who grew up with the Mickey Mouse Club on TV. One might extrapolate that modern pilgrimages must be packaged as entertainment. I would like to see a recovery of authentic (non-consumer driven) pilgrimages, but will relics and legendary stories draw modern Americans? On the other hand, to visit the place where Oscar Romero was martyred, or where Dorothy Day is buried, to recover some sense of their significance to modern Christians, would be a powerful shift.

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