Earlier this week, I received a call from our parish priest. Since we had been out of town, he had not had a chance to ask us about our status relative to joining this Pascha. I told him I was pretty close to being ready - I still struggle with some things but am willing to submit and trust that God will work them out for me as things progress - but that the wife was not; her questions and doubts are still just too big. [Which, incidentally is both fine with me and quite frightening; I respect her need to take things slowly and to really mull them over. I don't want to push her or force her into a decision she will later regret. But I'm also worried that she may never "come around" and what that will mean for the rest of my church-going life and the stresses that will introduce in our marriage. But I digress.] Our priest, being the good man and leader that he is, offered to meet with us and did not put any pressure on us to hurry up and decide. We talked for several minutes and he asked about my experience in youth ministry and wanted to know if, when/if we decided to join, I'd be interested in helping out with the kids. I told him I was definitely interested and we talked about that briefly before moving on.
But that got me thinking. I was, first, flattered that our priest wanted to get me involved in that way. Even though I'd be volunteering under someone else's supervision, that is still a leadership position and I'm grateful that he considered me for it. But it also got me thinking about what youth ministry in the Orthodox context might look like and how I would approach teaching the kids and talking to parents. One of my biggest focuses in working with youth is getting them to critically evaluate our culture; what does it contain? how does it affect us? and is that good or bad? Clearly there are good things in our culture, but there are also many corrosive, even satanic, principles that infiltrate us everyday. Particularly kids and most particularly in the media aimed at them. So how would I get kids to think about what they're watching and what it is doing to them? And I immediately thought of icons. Actually, I thought of one icon, that of St John the Forerunner, as it appears on the iconostasis at St. Nick's.
St John is pictured, one hand raised pointing upwards, the other clutching a scroll, dark robe, unkempt hair & beard, exposed legs & sandaled feet, and his severed head situtated in the lower corner. If you take the time to contemplate this image, it is striking how many narrative details spring immediately to mind. His upraised hand is indicative of his role as the herald of Christ, the scroll his prophetic fulfillment. His untidy appearance, coarse robe and exposed legs show his humility and ascetical life in the wilderness; "hair shirt" and "locusts and honey" echo in your mind. And his "extra" head in the lower corner reminds us how he died, like the Christ he was sent to proclaim, at the hands of unjust despot. If we take a moment to really see what is in front of us, the story of St John's life and role in salvation history is unconsciously reinforced. We reflexively tell it to ourselves again every time we see that icon, and in so doing, it takes deeper root in who we are, how we think and what we believe.
In the same way, the media we imbibe, particularly visual media with its rich weaving of both color and sound, unconsciously takes root in us. But what is the story it tells us, or rather, what is the story we tell ourselves when we engage this media? What are we reinforcing in our own minds and spirits when we get hooked into a show or series? Most of the shows aimed at teens focus on relationship drama and the closely related cause & effect of promiscuity, drugs and violence. These tell kids not just that pre-marital sex is perfectly fine, parents are stupid, materialism is the way to go and that drugs & alcohol are required to have fun, but also that relationships are inherently unstable and commitment but a fairytale. To see people constantly break-up, get back together, cheat, lie and hurt each other only reinforces that such is normal, which it most certainly is not. This, I think, is perhaps the greatest danger of these stories; at best they promote serial monogamy, at worst a state of chronic debauchery and pointless self-indulgence. It would take a great deal of study to determine if this mode of living is a result of these kinds of stories or vice-versa. Either way, with the age of first sexual experience seeming to spiral ever lower, I believe it is clear that this generation is going to grow up emotionally scarred from so many lost loves, abuses and betrayals. The potential for negative effects on their children and our society are obvious; a generation that cannot find the discipline and self-denial necessary to maintain relational commitment cannot model that to the next in any context. Not in the home, work, school, to our fellow countrymen and neighbors. Nor, most importantly, to God.