Thursday, November 17, 2016

Millennials leaving religion

I was just listening to the "Keep the Church Weird" lecture by Rachel Held Evans and it was like lightening struck.

Rachel Held Evans says what I've been saying for years: evangelizing to millennials does not work because we have learned to avoid anything that seems to be an advertisement. Advertising is cheap and shallow, the exact opposite of what spirituality and religion should be. And I've not been the only person who's been saying this, Kaya Oakes made similar points in her book "The Nones Are Alright." Those who say they are "spiritual but not religious" leave many parts of mainstream religion behind including the contemporary commercialism, and this departure is largest among millennials.

Think of how mainstream American culture treated millennials in the late 90's, when we were in middle school. The Spice Girls, N SYNC, the Backstreet Boys, Tiger Beat magazine, claire's, etc. Because the young adults at that time had both expendable income and a modicum of autonomy unseen in previous generations, we were targeted in advertising unlike ever before. This was also when "NeoWicca" became popular among young adults, and became increasingly commercial. Perhaps the Spice Girls are the best example of how extremely millennials were marketed to; the idea of a commercial girl group was formed in order to compete in pop music, and then women auditioned to fill those roles (source). Advertising became more obvious as well, with the celebrities most popular among young millennials blatantly flaunting their sponsors' logos. The film Josie & the Pussycats highlighted this in a tongue-in-cheek manner. All of this advertising worked well when we were 10-15. I argue that the trend of wearing things "ironically" in the late 00's was a way of maturing out of that. "I got this Tommy Hilfiger sweatshirt out of a dumpster, I'm wearing it ironically." The idea of actually supporting popular brands was so odious that millennial hipsters made it blatantly obvious that wearing those brands was a joke. And if you were not in on the joke, that meant you were a sell-out.
So what does this mean for the religious bodies so desperate to bring the millennials back to their churches? The techniques that worked so well for big name brands in the late 90's worked then, but not now. The techniques that existed ("worked" is an inappropriate term for a social trend that denied efficiency) ten years ago won't work now. Frankly I don't know what will bring millennials back to the churches. But working harder at enticing us back than at sincere service to the poor is certainly not the way to do it.

Sunday, October 16, 2016


A good friend is trying to expand her journaling but doesn’t know where to start.  People keep telling her “do whatever you want” but that isn’t concrete enough.  I’ve been journaling since ‘99 so I put together a little presentation of all the stuff I’ve done.  To begin with, when I say “journal” as a noun what I mean is a blank book that a person fills over time with personal information.  A diary is a journal that’s either mostly or all words, a verbal personal narrative.  A sketchbook is a journal that’s either mostly or all art, a nonverbal personal narrative.  A journal is a blend of these.


My first journal was purely diary.  Lined paper with words written in either pen or pencil.  This was the book that lasted me the longest, 4 years while the rest last 3-9 months.  I was a very angry teenager and while most of the entries are about mundane events, like visiting my dad or something my school bullies said, it’s almost all just emotional ranting.  Intentionally bad spelling, swearing as I was oh-so-rebellious in these pages, violent ideation.

If there was a fire or something and I could save only one journal, it would probably be this one - the one when I started polyamory is a close second though since I so obviously began opening up and being honest with myself.  But when I think about being the adult that Child Me needed, Child Me lives in this diary.


The first few years of journaling, I tried to have several different journals for different purposes.  Part 1 of this series was my diary for writing events and feelings.  There were also a dream diary, a Book of Shadows, and a poetry book - none of which i still have, sadly.  The barely-used dream diary and Book of Shadows became regular journals, I just never got into the habit of writing in those for their original purposes.  In high school I had a sketchbook:

I had this idea that my drawings would someday be framed into gallery-quality art, so I was very stingy with the paper.  This is by far the biggest book out of all my journals, and yet it has the most empty space.  Out of my 35(!!!) completed journals, I have very few regrets and not filling pages is probably my #1.  


 Throughout late high school and college I gradually combined diary + sketchbook + dream diary + Book of Shadows into just one book at a time.  Having several different kinds of journals going concurrently just doesn’t work for me.  

I was still using small novelty notebooks, some lined some not, and they’re very word-centric - my art usually ended up being used for classwork, and I wasn’t about to hand in my personal writing.  Most of what I wrote about was relationships, my poopy high school boyfriend and then my girlfriends.  Part of me wishes that I had written more about other things, but these are evidence of how brainwashed I’d been that longterm monogamous relationships = success.


Finally I got into my journaling stride.  Unlined art notebooks, words mixed with art mixed with collage.  Lots of STUFF and every page is full.  When I think of “journal” this is what comes to mind.

I finally began writing about a great variety of things: relationships, travel, nostalgia, emotions, shadow work, goals, spirituality, books, dreams, frustrations, museums, etc.  These journals are much more whole and they reveal ongoing patterns to do with as I wish.


 Despite finding my journaling comfort zone, right now I’m going off in a different direction.  I’ve had this hardcover book since college and I fucking hate it, it was part of a Sociology project about same-sex marriage and it’s such a horrible homophobic book of bad analysis.  I didn’t want the book anymore and I didn’t want it in the world for other people to read, so I gesso-ed (thick white acrylic paint) the pages and began using it as a journal.

Forgive the syrupy metaphor, but I think it’s a good representation of my journaling experience.  The base is crummy, but I’m using it to grow and heal.  And the fact that I’m starting this unusual journal while looking over my past ones makes me more self-aware as I write/paint/collage.  The entries that stand out most in my memory, without even needing to go back over them, are the ones written with the awareness that Future Me will look back on them.I’ve never had much interest in writing prompts as I was already so comfortable with my journaling habits.  But since this book already has me outside of my comfort zone, I might start doing some?  Whoa I’m kinda blowing my own mind right now

Honorary Mentions:

 Starting last summer, I got into a different kind of book art.  While my journals/diaries/sketchbooks feel like an ongoing process over time, these feel like book books.  They sit on shelves with other books (though my journals might soon move onto shelves just because cardboard boxes aren’t working anymore) and I want other people to look at them.  
First is Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, which I painted and collaged last summer.  This is one of my favorite books and having it on plain paper just didn’t seem right.

And starting this summer has been my prayer/meditation book.  This was another crummy book that I didn’t want but also didn’t want in the world, so I’ve been covering the pages with acrylic paint and collage.  The artwork and quotes are for quiet meditation and there are still about 100 blank pages to fill

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Gendered Marketing in Religion

The rise in both gendered marketing and the outcry against it has largely been secular.  Soap, deodorant, shampoo, yogurt, shaving razors, pens, earplugs - these are just a handful of items that have been needlessly gendered solely to bump up sales.  Men's products are in dark packaging with hard lines and a sense of adventure, whether through sports or references to battle or problem-solving.  Women's products, which tend to be more expensive, are in pink or purple packaging with soft lines and a sense of delicacy.  While women have been purchasing more of the men's products largely because they are cheaper, men very rarely purchase the women's products partly because they're more expensive and partly because they're emasculating.

     Gendered marketing has spilled over into religious products, namely teen Bibles and rosaries.  Faith & Family Reviews posted a brief review of the "faiTHGirLz! Bible" and the "NIV Boys Bible" commending the gendered marketing.  The "faiTHGirLz!" Bible has a "dream girl" section.  Faith & Family Reviews compliments the boy's Bible's "manly" appeal to boys by having a cover resembling metal.  The girl's Bible has sections focusing on difficult emotions, the boy's Bible has sections focusing on strength.
     Other Bibles marketed to teen girls are also pink with flowers, birds, and repeatedly the phrase "faith, hope, and love" (1, 2, 3, 4).  These four, as well as the one reviewed by Faith & Family Reviews, all have profiles of women in the Bible - a topic that usually goes unnoticed outside of Eve and the Virgin Mary. also offers dozens of similar Bibles for teen girls.
     The same Bibles marketed to teen boys bear darker covers and bold but simple graphics.  Their descriptions are more focused on action in "the real world" rather than on personal development (1, 2, 3, 4).  None of them mention women of the Bible - perhaps the creators of these gendered Bibles assume boys don't need to know about them?'s Bibles for teen boys resemble footballs and soccer balls, bear army camouflage, and repeatedly declare "man up."
     These Bibles prioritize very differently for boys and girls.  Where's the adventure for girls?  Where's the emotional depth for boys?  Why apply such commercialism to Bibles, especially the sports references?  And how could anyone stand to read Galatians 3:28 in a gendered Bible?

And this gendered marketing in religion extends to Catholic rosaries as well.  Men's rosaries almost always have larger, matte beads - black, blue, brown, dark red - with thick dark wire.  Descriptors often include "strength," "durability," "heroic," and "powerful" (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).  Catholic online shops offer dozens of men's rosaries that all look remarkably the same (1, 2, 3).
     Women's rosaries, on the other hand, come in a wide variety of colors and flourishes (1, 2).  Pearls and svaroski crystals are very common.  Men's single-decade rosary bracelets are shown on the wrists of models with no other part of the body visible (1), while women's rosaries are often pictured with cleavage, shoulders, necks, hair, and lips (1).  Descriptors are almost exclusively focused on the beauty of women's rosaries (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).
    While there is certainly nothing wrong with having personalized rosaries, the gendered division goes against the very universality of both the rosary itself and of Catholicism.  Do men and women really pray the rosary so differently that they require such different styles with explicitly different priorities?

Gendered marketing extends beyond Christianity.  Jewelry and apparel for Pagan men and women is similarly divided.  Pagan women's jewelry tends to be smaller, more delicate, more graceful, and more colorful (1, 2) black velvet chokers are very common.  Pagan men's jewelry is thicker, darker, bolder (1, 2).  Additionally, Pagan apparel is very distinctively gendered.  Men's clothing tends to be baggier, covers more, and has large bold designs (1, 2) most of these are black, grey, or white t-shirts.  Pagan women's clothing has a much wider variety that involves more colors, shows more skin, and bears more delicate or "cute" designs (1, 2).  While all of these statements could be made about men and women's apparel/jewelry in general, gendered marketing seems contradictory and perhaps even hypocritical in a community that so often complains of "patriarchy" in Christian practices.

What does gendered marketing say about contemporary religion?  In terms of Matthew 22:21, is the commercialism of these gendered Bibles and rosaries Caesar's or God's?  What does it mean when Pagans critique the complementarianism of Christianity but then duplicate the same themselves?

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Catholic community: sexuality vs wealth

Over the past 10 weeks I have been involved in a Catholic parish through attending Mass, talking with parishioners after service, participating in a Pastoral Plan Listening Session, meeting with two spiritual directors, and joining a theology discussion group.  Finding a Catholic community that values hospitality was a long and difficult struggle.  My enjoyment of this one is mingled with hesitation that it may all crumble into more of the same shame-focused elitism I'd found at other parishes over the past 3 years.

A significant portion of this hesitation roots in my sexual activity.  The vast majority of parishioners are married parents, and the few single members I've met seek to join them.  I've been open about my intention to continue "single" and childfree to no response, I think they either don't know how to react to that or just see it as none of their business (hopefully the latter).  What I haven't revealed, though, is that I'm polyamorous.  It hasn't come up in context.  Sex & sexuality, in fact, haven't come up at all.  Which is both a relief and frustrating - I prefer being casually open altogether.  Neither my sexuality, nor my focus on sex ed, nor my polyamory play a large role in my spirituality; which only baffles me further when religious communities use those standards for judgement.

Contingent with my hesitation to be open about my polyamory is the wealth of the parishioners.  Every Sunday the church's parking lot fills with BMW, Lexus, Mercedes, Audi, all new.  I've been to two parishioners' houses and was stunned at the luxury.  Infinity pools!  4 car garages!  Stunning views of suburban Texas hillcountry!  Marble countertops, multiple fireplaces, second story balconies, full wine racks, cathedral windows, oriental rugs.  It's made me reconsider my material wealth.  Although I'm not in a place to give financially, I've begun seeking out ways to give my time.

Sidenote: growing up Catholic in the MidWest, I saw dirt poor parishes and incredibly wealthy parishes and everything in between.  Both blue collar and immigrant parishes were commonplace.  Here in Austin, all Anglo parishes I've found have been white collar upper class - the only others are Latino, and I admit fault for knowing very little about them as I know almost no Spanish.  Anyway, maybe the parishioners' wealth here is so obvious to me because it's so uniform.

The idea that I would be shamed for my sexual activity when I share the pew with those who live with such incredible material wealth is chafing.  I haven't been to Confession in 16 years and this disparity is a new reason to avoid it further.  I'm honest, open, and safe with my lovers: nobody is hurt (and there's nothing anyone can say to convince me that we're "hurting our souls").  But when I see that wealth, I see food withheld from the hungry, shelter withheld from the homeless, medicine withheld from the sick, and justice withheld from the imprisoned.  And yet big names in the Church condemn my actions first.  It remains to be seen whether or not this parish with join them, or if they'll continue to try to meet me where I am.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

God vs. Humankind

I've written before about the abusive parish in which I was raised.  In the years after I left that parish, I was very angry at God.  How could God allow such horrible cruelties, especially upon children?  How could these Christians preach about compassion and divine love out in public, but in private lock children in their basements without food or make children kneel on broken glass?  In my mind, largely because these abusers had told me so for so long and so violently, there was no distinction between God and them.

Although my relationship with the Divine continued, it was very narrowly compartmentalized.  MY God was loving and giving and powerful, THEIR God was malicious and preyed upon the weak.  Great pains were taken to differentiate myself from organized religion altogether.  Anger, obsessive defensiveness, and passive aggressive vengeance dominated this time.

After college, I mended my relationship with a whole God by separating God from humankind altogether.  This was when the healing process went from painful to soothing.  All the boundaries began to fall between God and I.  Could this have been done if I hadn't put up such a large wall between other people and us?  Probably not, as at that time the only people I knew who were interested in spirituality at all were very aggressive anti-theists.  Ultimately, I wasn't going to allow anyone to damage the new, awe-inspiring relationship I had with God.  And the most direct and effective way to do that was to separate God from humankind altogether.

That doesn't seem to be working as well anymore.  The need for spiritual community has arisen regularly for the past few years, only to fade away as I refused to make myself that vulnerable again.  Now that I'm seeking and finding community, though, I'm questioning if that boundary should still remain up.  The last thing I want to do is to let down my barriers only to have someone or a group of someones give me good reason to put them back up again.  As to seeing God present in any human being, that is a long way off yet.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Pastoral Plan Listening Session

The parish I've been visiting the past four weeks had a Pastoral Plan Listening Session a few days ago.  This was a meeting in which lay parishioners could give their feedback to a pastoral council about things they like about the parish and things they want changed.  I haven't been there long enough to contribute in great detail, but since I have the freshest impression they wanted me to communicate it with them.  They requested an email, as long as I wanted, and I thought I would share it here (edited to leave out personal details):


I attended the Pastoral Plan Listening Session at St. ... the evening of Tuesday, May 31st.  I had to leave early, but the facilitator at my small group table encouraged me to email my feedback.  

Firstly, I'll introduce myself and give you some idea of my background.  My name is K, I am 30 years old, I am both single and childfree and have no intentions of changing that.  I earned my bachelor's degree at an all-women's Franciscan college in Milwaukee, I graduated from a Jesuit high school in a Chicago suburb, and I attended a so-called Catholic K-8 school in Chicago.  It was only when I graduated from this K-8 school, when the Church sex abuse scandal was beginning to hit the mainstream news, that I discovered that this school was not alone in its abuses and that it wasn't part of the Chicago Archdiocese.  Because the school was so cruel and extreme in both doctrine and practice, the Chicago Archdiocese refused to include it among its parishes.  Although I left the Church personally when I left that school, the Jesuits and Franciscan nuns worked very hard to help me heal and to understand that the cruelties of the abusers were not the acts of God.
Roughly four years ago I began returning to the Church very gradually.  Initially, my reasoning was that if there is going to be a certain amount of my life spent in Mass, I don't want the majority of that time to have been spent under the control of those abusers.  I began returning to Mass in order to tip the scales, and through that healing process the priority became ... finding a community that is spiritually connected.  This has proven to be very difficult.

At the Pastoral Plan Listening Session, I both explained to the facilitator and wrote on my worksheet that what has stood out most to me at St. ... is the hospitality.  Although I have lived in Austin for a little over a year, ... I attended Mass at five or six churches in the Austin Diocese before going to St. ....  At those other churches, either nobody spoke to me or I was given a book/pamphlet and told "this will tell you everything you need to know about X parish" and that was it.  My first time at St. ... was morning Mass 5/2/16 and as soon as the service ended and I walked through the narthex, a parishioner introduced herself and shook my hand.  Before moving to Austin, I explored parishes in Nashville and Milwaukee as well as Quaker meetings and American Catholic churches - St. ... was only the third place in which anyone extended this hospitality, and the first Roman Catholic parish.  
After this parishioner introduced herself and asked me a few polite questions, she invited me to Connections and emailed, from her own personal email, me information about the group.  I came the the next night and about half of the participants welcomed me in a similar manner.  I've attended every Connections meeting I could as well as Sunday Mass.  Intellectual discussions pertaining to theology and service are very appealing to me, and I enjoy the exchange of ideas at Connections.  

Hospitality has been a remarkable strength of St. ..., as well as its diversity of ministries and the comprehensive information about them provided both on the parish website and at the parish itself.  Church life is evident there every day of the week rather than just on Sundays, and that is very refreshing.  The one specific thing that comes to mind that St. ... could work on immediately is the website's page about Spiritual Direction & Mentorship.  Who are these three directors/mentors?  What's their availability?  What are their foci?  How much do they charge?  The webpage says they are trained, but where and through what programs?

A less easily-defined area for growth that I see is St. ... is a very common issue in the Catholic community as a whole in America.  Although both the parishioners at Mass and the group at Connections have been very welcoming and friendly and nonjudgemental (save for one lady's claim that the devil uses disloyal Catholics to tear down decent Catholic communities, but there's one sourpuss in every crowd), I am among the youngest participants and I think the only unmarried and childfree women.  I am a "Millennial," alone as far as I know in the community I've found at St. ....  Forbes, the NY Times, Psychology Today, The Atlantic, and dozens of other distinguished publications have all connected several trends among my generation.  We postpone marriage and parenthood, many rejecting both altogether, and view chastisement for these decisions as disingenuous, unsolicited judgements.  We also participate the least in religious communities, by the widest margin yet recorded.  Most of these listed publications have noted connections between these trends.  The overall pattern thusfar is that we reject the idea of following tradition for tradition's sake - this is evident in home life, business, economics, and religion.  The phrase "spiritual but not religious" is a concise summarization of "I want a connection with God but don't want to blindly follow arbitrary rules set by authorities who don't listen to their flocks."  While some of the biggest reasons my peers have given for leaving the Church are political, I will not get into that.  The political disagreement, anyway, is part of a bigger issue.  The average middle-class Millennial who got good grades, participated in extracurriculars, had a good GPA at a good college or university, and followed the prearranged track to marriage + mortgage + children, ultimately graduated during the Recession.  Following prearranged rules "for your own good" ended up in debt and worthless degrees.  And on top of that, the average middle-class Millennial raised Catholic was Confirmed right around the time of the mishandling of the Church sex abuse scandal.  The 2000's were a terrible time to come to adulthood, and most of those who had that misfortune have now come to reject what they see as unfounded authority altogether - the Church being at the top of that list.  
Religious communities, especially Catholic and Mainline Protestant as they have lost the most followers among Millennials, have been trying to figure out why so many 25-35 year olds have been leaving and how to get them back again.  Those who do stay tend to be very passionate and active, the Easter/Christmas church-goer may well be on the way out with older generations.  Although my K-8 experience was a very extreme example, most of my peers have experienced similar painful disillusionment with their childhood parishes.  They also haven't had my Jesuits and Franciscan nuns to show them that both compassion and sincerity are still present in the Church.  Were it not for those two groups in my life, seeking out a parish community and discovering St. ... never would have happened.  
The author Kaya Oakes has perhaps done the most comprehensive journalism regarding the Millennials' split with the Church.  I highly recommend reading both her books Radical Reinvention( and The Nones Are Alright( with an open mind.  Very many churches, particularly Evangelical Protestants, have attempted commercial advertising in order to bring in the missing generation - this has backfired, as advertisements are typically viewed as insincere.  Do not assume that poor hospitality is a deterrent, as most Millennials don't even make it to the step of parish shopping.  Because most "recovering Catholics" my age see the Church as a cold, monolithic authority that gives its services only unreasonably conditionally, more subversive tactics may be needed.  Be active in needy communities, listen nonjudgementally, and display compassion modestly.  Matthew 6:1-8 and the Beatitudes in action would make a greater impression that could open an intergenerational dialogue.  Most of my friends think I'm nuts for having any interest in the Church, especially considering my childhood parish, because they haven't experienced the compassion and listening that I have.  I've already seen the potential for this at St. ... and while it's maybe a little unreasonable (maybe not, God works in mysterious ways!) to expect this parish to overcome the generational trend of the western world, helping even a few individuals heal the right could mean the world to them.

Something else that I would like to see both at St. ... and in the Austin Diocese as a whole is more interfaith networking.  Whether this takes form in discussion forums, visits from neighboring pastors/priests/monks/rabbis/imams/etc, joint community service events, etc.  I'm acquainted with the Society of Friends Meeting of Austin and while Quaker and Roman Catholic doctrine could not be more different, both communities seek to spread Christ through service to the needy.  Not to mention that connecting members of different faith traditions decreases the frequency of hate crimes, which have been on the rise in the past few years nationally.  I see interfaith networking as a wonderful bridge to a larger, closer, more compassionate community.

I realize that my background is very unique to St. ..., my parish ideals are individualistic, and that I am in many ways unlike the St. ... community.  It would be unreasonable to expect any parish to change to fit the needs of one person, especially one without children and who doesn't plan to stay in the area for more than a couple years.  But what both welcomes and keeps quality parishioners above all else is sincerity.  Thusfar St. ... seems sincere in its efforts and values, as highlighted by holding the open Pastoral Plan Listening Sessions and asking for this kind of feedback.

Thank you very much, and I hope to hear back from you,