Are Youth Losing Faith?

Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center reported that nearly a third of Americans under the age of 30 have admitted that they\’ve doubted the existence of God. That\’s more than twice the number who admitted to such doubts in 2007.

Some news outlets have interpreted those stats as a sign that huge numbers of millennials–generally described as those born after 1980–are turning away from God and toward atheism. \”God is Dead–For Millennials, Anyway,\” read a headline from Mother Jones. And there\’s probably some truth to that. We know that rates of self-described atheists are growing, and CNN reports that anti-religious organizations like the Secular Student Alliance are expanding rapidly on college campuses.

\”For a lot of millennial atheists, they are expecting to find a group, they are coming to campus, and if they don\’t find one, they are starting one,\” Jesse Galef, communications director for the Secular Student Alliance. \”This is completely different than what other generations grew up with.\”

But faith is a tricky thing to quantify. And I believe that the question that grabbed most of the headlines–the \”doubt\” question\”–was ever-so-slightly misinterpreted by some news organizations.

Some journalists reported that 31 percent of millennials now doubt the existence of God. But Pew was asking something quite different–whether they had ever doubted the existence of God. The answers received were startling, yes, and marked a significant upturn from just a few years ago. But the question doesn\’t address so much a person\’s present religious outlook as much as it does that person\’s past religious experience. Some respondents, if given a chance, might\’ve said, \”Sure, I doubted that God was out there … but I don\’t anymore.\”

I wonder if Pew\’s question wasn\’t just tracking a rise in unbelief in American youth, but a greater willingness to ask tough questions and grapple what it really means to have faith. And if so, I don\’t think that\’s necessarily an awful thing.

Frankly, I think Christians should ask tough questions … because I\’m confident that Christianity has the answers. They\’re not always easy answers. But for those who truly seek the truth–those who really want to know Who or What is out there, and whether that Who or What cares for them–the answer would be a game-changer.

I\’m less concerned about Millennials honestly grappling with questions of faith than about how we, as Christians, respond to those questions. I think it\’s easy for us sometimes to get a little defensive or serve up a paint-by-number answer that doesn\’t completely satisfy. Really engaging with the honest doubts and uncertainties of another person can be difficult, even scary. Our own faith can be challenged.

But challenge is part of what Christianity is all about. Christianity is supposed to challenge us–challenge us to be better reflections of Christ every day. And sometimes I wonder if that\’s really the issue: Whether we Christians–and I know I\’m as guilty of this as anyone–don\’t reflect Jesus as much as we just talk about the guy while looking an awful lot like the world around us.

When non-believers look at Christians and don\’t see the love and beauty of God somewhere inside us, maybe it\’s not so surprising that they might have their doubts. When we claim that Christianity can change lives, but our own lives aren\’t changed at all, what does that say?

Singing Stones

I saw in this morning’s Colorado Springs Gazette, my old place of work, that Grace and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church—one of the city’s prettiest—has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. I can’t think of a church that deserves it more.
When I was The Gazette’s religion reporter, one of my first—and most enjoyable—assignments was diving into the bowels of Grace and St. Stephen’s to get to know the church’s sprawling, 4,000-pipe organ.
When you go into a church with an impressive organ, you may or may not see a bristling array of pipes. Often, these pipes are actually a façade—just a showy bit of metal for the folks in the pews. The actual working pipes are often hidden out of site, in crevaces and alcoves and whole rooms. In Grace, the pipes filled four or five rooms, splayed and stretched across floor and wall and ceiling, requiring the church organist Frank Shelton and me to contort like cave spelunkers to get to them all. “Some pipes are thinner than straws and shorter than index fingers,” I wrote, “others tower like telephone poles.” The pipes make use of the church’s own walls—pushing and prodding the stone with its sound. In a sense, the church itself becomes the instrument—as critical to the organ’s sound as the pipes themselves.
I covered a lot of stories at Grace, some of them not so fun. It was the site of a major brouhaha when the rector was accused of embezzling funds. The rector alleged that he was being framed by the diocese for his outspoken views on homosexuality (the Episcopal Church, U.S.A., had recently voted to allow openly gay clergy to serve in its churches, and the pastor was a national leader opposing the move), and the congregation split over the fracas, fighting over the church like it was a kid in a difficult divorce. It was a complicated, messy story to cover—one that didn’t do the Church, as in the Christian Church, much good. And there was some doubt whether the physical sanctuary would survive the fight.
So for me, the fact Grace and St. Stephen’s stands in the center of town, still beautiful as ever (and now a recognized landmark), is a bit of a metaphor for the broader Church itself. Sometimes Christians don’t give Christianity our best. Sometimes we fail the Church, sometimes we betray her. We’re human, after all.
But despite our flaws and failings, the Church remains, strong and beautiful. And even the stones inside may sometimes sing.

Superhero Teams, Assemble!

While my own little world has been pretty heavily invested in Batman as of late, I was still interested–and frankly, a little excited–to see how well a rival batch of superheroes has fared at the box office. Marvel\’s The Avengers has been the year\’s biggest movie, earning nearly $600 million domestically and about $1.4 billion worldwide since its May release. It\’s the third biggest-grossing movie in history.

Let\’s face it: Marvel knows how to make a great superhero movie. Sure, none of them have the grit or depth of Christopher Nolan\’s Batman sagas, but they are competent and fun–a perfect fit, really, for the summertime moviegoing audience. I\’ve seen and reviewed The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America and both Iron Man flicks, and all of \’em were an absolute hoot: fun, exciting pictures that had (if you were interested in searching for them) some good messages in play.

And, of course, they were extraordinarily effective two-hour advertisements for The Avengers. Not bad strategy, that.

\’Course, it might\’ve all come to naught had The Avengers been terrible. But it wasn\’t. In my opinion, it was the best of the bunch. Maybe that\’s my inner geek speaking: There\’s something about bringing together a bevy of superheroes that brings out my inner 12-year-old. It\’s a little like watching an All-Star baseball game that actually means something.

No surprise, then, that DC and Warner Brothers are now planning a supersize superhero movie of their own: A movie involving the Justice League–a partnership made up of DC\’s biggest costumed crime fighters–is in development now. Word is they\’ve already hired Will Beall (who wrote Gangster Squad) to write the script.

It\’ll be a tougher sell, of course: Green Lantern didn\’t exactly wow at the box office last year, Superman Returns (despite its resonant spiritual messages) didn\’t fare that much better in 2006, and of course The Dark Knight Rises marks the end of the road for Christian Bale and Christopher Nolan in the Batman franchise. And I wonder whether Warner Brothers might actually push Justice League to theaters without all the cinematic lead-ins that Marvel and Universal Pictures so painstakingly pieced together.

I hope not: Personally, I wouldn\’t be nearly as interested in seeing a fresh-out-of-the-box Justice League without getting some motion-picture backstory in play. DC\’s superheroes have the character oomph to make for some fine movies … if they can get the right folks behind it. If they\’re able to flesh out all the characters on the big screen, I\’d be waiting for a Justice League movie like a 7-year-old on Christmas Eve.

But going straight into a Justice League feature, cold? Hmmm. I know there\’s probably a strong drive to get a Justice League movie done as soon as possible–while superheroes are still big and the market\’s still primed. But if they don\’t take their time with this and do it right, I think the Justice League will feel less like a super powered all-star team-up and more a rather cynical grab for money. But I guess we\’ll see.

Wild Things

As you likely know, children\’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendak died May 8 at the age of 83. He was  best known, of course, for his book Where the Wild Things Are, but he wrote and illustrated dozens of others.

When I was a kid–and even as an adult, frankly–Sendak\’s \”wild things\” mesmerized me. They\’re absolutely freaky, what with their teeth and beaks and feathers and hair. According to Mental Floss, the creatures were inspired by the way he saw his relatives as a child. \”They were unkempt,\” he said; \”their teeth were horrifying. Hair unraveling out of their noses.\” But the things weren\’t bad, when you read the story: Just wild.

And that fits to a tee, I think, how kids often see the world around them.

I don\’t think most children imagine that the world as a \”safe\” place, really. Even children raised with loving parents and a cadre of well-meaning adults looking out for them might imagine wonders and dangers behind every closet door. I was raised in an incredibly loving family, and yet I still imagined the world was full of magical, mysterious unknowns: A garden full of weeping willows straight from the jungle, a bedroom loaded with mysterious shadows, a statue I was sure came alive at night. As parents, we try to shield our kids from danger as much as we can, but we sometimes forget that kids are very good at creating their own.

And even when they don\’t, kids are more perceptive than we sometimes give them credit for. Despite our best efforts, they often know when things aren\’t going well. They know when Mom and Dad or fighting or someone\’s sick. They might not know the specifics. But they sense the tension, I think. Kids are more tuned to trouble than we give them credit for.

\”I think it\’s unnatural to think that there is such a thing as a blue-sky, happy-clouded childhood for anybody,\” Sendak once said, and his books reflected that. Sure, they were cool and magical … but they expressed a certain wild, not altogether safe charm–as the best kids\’ books do, I think. When I think about the books both me and my kids loved, from The Carrot Seed by Crockett Johnson to The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein to anything by Dr. Seuss, there was a weirdness or even sadness–a wildness in it–that children instinctively recognize and appreciate. They weren\’t altogether safe, if you get my drift.

It\’s interesting, when you think about it: We like to protect our kids, and with good reason. We want to shield them from the harsh realities of life until they\’re better able to deal with it. But when it comes to what we read, I wonder whether we\’ve got it backward. I mean, when you look at the best-selling books for adults, chances are we\’ll see tomes on how to lose weight or how to get money or how to be better leaders or how to, finally, find inner peace–stuff that suggests almost a childlike need to master the world around us. But kids\’ books–these fairy tales and fables, these imaginative fictions–they speak to our souls, sometimes in uncomfortable ways. From Roald Dahl to J.K. Rowling, from Tom Sawyer to The Phantom Tollbooth, books written for kids deal with some pretty intense topics: good and evil, struggle and conflict, disappointment and disaster. As adults, we sometimes imagine that we control our lives–or at least control more than we actually do. Kids are under no such illusion. And as such, I wonder sometimes whether they understand both the nature of danger and grace a bit better than we do.

\”You have to write the book that wants to be written,\” A Wrinkle in Time author Madeline L\’Engle once said. \”And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.\” I think Maurice Sendak may have believed that on some level. I think he knew what kids know. The Wild Things, for both good and ill, are with us always.

Richer Than Smaug

Forbes, a literary magazine about and for people far richer and smarter than I am, just released its list of Top 15 richest fictional characters. Topping the list is Smaug, the dragon from The Hobbit. Forbes estimates his net worth is around $62 billion—not counting, of course, whatever deal he managed to snag from MGM.
Flintheart Glomgold, Scrooge McDuck’s mortal nemesis according to Disney, ducked into second place with approximately 51.9 billion dollar (ahem) bills. Carlisle Cullen, vampire patriarch from Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, has banked around $36.3 billion for third. Naturally, a couple of superheroes made the list: Marvel’s Tony “Iron Man” Stark weighed in at No. 5 with $9.3 billion, while Batman’s alter-ego Bruce Wayne settled for eighth with a relatively paltry $6.9 billion.
When I was little and imagined myself very wealthy, I envisioned I’d spend it like Richie Rich (No. 6, according to Forbes)–on zoos and gold-plated helicopters and pearls so big you could bowl with ‘em. But now that I’m an adult, I wonder … are there more responsible ways to spend ludicrous amounts of money? Once the house is paid off and the GT-40’s in the garage, what’s next? What, we might ask, would Jesus buy?
It’s sobering that some of these fictional characters never really even enjoyed their wealth. I get the feeling that Flintheart only wanted to be rich to make ol’ Scrooge jealous. Smaug just slept on his nest egg.
In my better moments, I’d like to think I’d go the Tony Stark/Bruce Wayne route: I’d not, perhaps, construct a flying suit or buy a Batmobile. But I’d like to think that I’d use a good chunk of that cash helping others. I hope that I’d be mature enough to understand that money is better spent doing good than doing nothing.
The so-called 1-percenters have a bad rep these days, and perhaps rightly so in some ways. But there are real inspirations to be found among the rich. Rick Warren, pastor at Saddleback Church and author of The Purpose Driven Life, reportedly flips the concept of tithing on its head—giving 90 percent of his income to charity. Last year, Microsoft founder Bill Gates lost the title of the world’s richest man because he donated $28 billion to his own charitable foundation. Eventually, Gates and wife Melinda hope to give away 95 percent of their fortune.
In 2007, USA Todayreported that American give $295 billion to charity every year—twice as much per capita as folks from the next most generous country. Some studies show that Christians give twice as much as non-Christians, though exact figures are hard to come by.
It makes sense, given how blessed most of us have been. And yet, Scot McKnight in a 2010 blog for Beliefnet suggests that it’s the poor, not the rich, who are the most generous. Households that take in $10,000 or less give away 11.2 percent of their income. Those that make $150,000 or more? Just 2.7 percent.
It makes you wonder how much more good we could do in the world, doesn’t it? What would happen if we all became, at least fiscally speaking, a little more heroic?  

Batman in 140 Characters or Less?

So I signed up for Twitter today and, as a consequence, am now following a motley assortment of Tweeters: Friends, celebrities, friends of celebrities, and … Batman.
It was a natural choice, really. Since I’ve written a book on the guy, I thought it’d make sense to follow him—see what he’s thinking as he careens through the Gotham City night, chasing all manner of bad guys. His latest tweet: “Who harm yet claim virtue, oppress yet claim to be oppressed, decry defenders as aggressors yet claim your aggression as defense: I see you.”
Brooding, honorable, very Batman-esque. Made me feel rather shallow in comparison. My first tweet was about the dandelions in my back yard. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered, is Batman really the sort of guy to be on Twitter?
Oh, I’m sure he’d have a smartphone stashed in his utility belt. And perhaps if he followed Joker or Riddler, he might have the opportunity to get some insight into Gotham’s next big crime spree. (“Van Gogh exhibit @GothamArt. Anyone up for a visit?”) You know they’d have Twitter accounts. Joker’s the type of (ahem) clown who’d hold a packed subway train for ransom just to get a few more followers.
But Batman? I kinda doubt it. For better or worse, it seems as though he’d keep his thoughts to himself, not telegraph them across the world in 140-character blasts. That’s part of his mystique, is it not? That his actions speak louder than tweets?

Courage Under Duress, Superhero Style

Many children long to be superheroes when they grow up. I spent almost a full three years of my childhood in a cape, battling all manner of imaginary evildoers. But few of us superhero wannabes ever have the chance. And that makes 7-year-old Kye of Arlington, Texas, a very lucky lad.
Kye has leukemia, and a while back he expressed a desire to star in a Batman movie. Alas, Christian Bale seems to have the role sewn up—at least through this summer. But an organization called A Wish With Wings gave him, I think, an even better opportunity: To be the caped crimefighter for a day and haul in some vindictive villains.
According to the Arlington Star-Telegram, Kye began his reign as north Texas’ surrogate batman by foiling the Joker’s designs on a bank. Next he quashed the Riddler’s attempt to set off a car bomb. And then he had an opportunity that the real Batman never, ever gets: To hold his own press conference.
“I just want to say, that was fun,” he told the media, adding that his skills as a martial artist make him quite suited to superhero duties.
Of course, we all know that the most indispensable quality of a superhero is courage under duress. Kye, I think, has that covered.