No Slackers

Grad student Beaudoin sees quest for spirituality in Generation X's popular culture

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Mention "Generation X," and many conjure up an image of legions of 20-somethings with nose rings diving into mosh pits and surfing through cyberspace in a pervasive mood of apathy.

Twenty-nine-year-old Catholic theology student and part-time bass guitarist Thomas Beaudoin is out to shatter that stereotype. A doctoral student in the Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry, Beaudoin argues in a provocative new book that his Generation X cohorts are not spiritual slackers, but rather share a deep spiritual longing that reveals itself in music videos, fashions and cyberspace.

Analyzing the generation's popular culture, Beaudoin says the 45 million to 60 million Americans born between the early 1960s and late 1970s operate according to a theology radically different from that of their parents and grandparents.

"People in their 20s and 30s are thirsting for spiritual answers," said Beaudoin, author of Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X . "It's all over the popular culture. Look at recent popular music: Madonna's recent album mixes aspects of Hinduism and Catholicism; Jewel sings about redemption; Alanis Morissette sings the Ave Maria ."

Thomas Beaudoin. (Photo by Gary Gilbert)
In pop singer Madonna's video mix of crucifixes and sensuality, Beaudoin detects echoes of the ecstatic mysticism of St. Teresa of Avila. He discerns in the devoted audiences of the Broadway hit "Rent" a liturgical sense of shared community, and he even sees a line of descent from the penitent flagellants of old to the tattooed tongue-piercers of today.

Beaudoin said the popularity of tattooing, mosh pit-diving and "extreme games" - such as snowboarding out of airplanes - indicates a widespread desire among the young for a "sense of transcendence" and for "spiritual intensity" - things he said the institutional Church too often fails to provide.

"There is such a huge opportunity for the Church to step in here and, with humility, say how to sort out the sin from the grace," said Beaudoin, who has begun a pastoral ministry for Generation Xers at the Paulist Center in Boston. "The Church has an opportunity to help young people have rightly-formed consciences. Organized religion has to convince people that it has a life-giving word for making sense of their daily lives.

"The Church should offer the experience of the Holy Spirit as the foundation of one's whole religious life," he said. "One of the great teachings of Catholicism is that the human person is fundamentally a religious being. The Church must look for where we are seeking God today and be able to minister in those settings. The 'family' Jesus is talking about - the group of those who do the will of God - is an experience so many are yearning for today."

A generation of latch-key kids who have been raised on television and video games and find in popular culture their primary "meaning-making" system, Generation Xers in their 20s and 30s share a suspicion of all institutions, especially organized religion, Beaudoin declares.

He sees his peers accepting ambiguity as a key element of faith, embracing doubt rather than retreating from it. Personal experience is everything to GenXers, and suffering can be perceived as a spiritual experience, says Beaudoin, a Catholic deacon's son whose own religious searching led him to enlist at the age of 21 in the Israeli Defense Force, where he was the only Christian in his outfit, and to later earn a master's degree from Harvard Divinity School.

To win a Web-surfing generation for whom a world of choice is only a click of the mouse away, organized religion must offer many portals of entry, said Beaudoin, who said Catholicism is particularly well-suited to do so, if it would only showcase all of its riches.

"The ways into the Catholic tradition range from the rosary to liberation theology," he said. "Neither liberals nor conservatives can pretend to have the one way into the tradition. What I want from the Church is not the imposition of one world view, but a recognition of the legitimate diversity of the institution.

"Let the heteroglossa - the many voices of the faithful - speak. That is a much more inviting notion of Church. We've been for too long a 'one-size-fits-all' Church."

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