I have a favorite word from high school English class. It’s one of those words that represents a concept so difficult to fully encapsulate in English that we had to borrow a term from another language and then try to understand what it means.
the spirit of the time; general trend of thought or feeling characteristic of a particular period of time.
One can speak of the zeitgeist of a decade, or of a century, of a year, or of a more arbitrary time frame, such as the time period during which a particular war or other historical event was taking place.
The Catholic Church has been a part of the zeitgeist over many different periods of time. And, in many ways, it has remained the same through all of the many changing atmospheres in which it has existed. However, in small ways, it is continually changing. Each generation of Catholics approaches Catholicism, the same religion following the same Catechism, from the perspective of their unique zeitgeist. Because of this, each generation connects with different parts of Catholic tradition, different music, different scripture, and connects with each of these things differently. Each generation has a different kind of connection to God.
In the early 1970s, Tim Rice came out with a new musical called Jesus Christ Superstar. This show radically reinterpreted scripture and the relationship between Jesus and his followers, from the disciples down. It portrayed Jesus in the light of his fame, the regard the people had for him as a public figure, and the effect this may have had on some of his decisions. Among other things, the show utilized different terms of address. In one song, as Jesus moves through the crowds of believers, they sing to Him:
Hey Sanna Sanna Sanna Hosanna
Hey Sanna Hosanna
Hey JC, JC won’t you die for me?
Sanna Hosanna Hey Superstar
The 70s, as a decade, had a very interesting zeitgeist. It included the questioning of authority, the looming war, and a continuation of the 1960s’ general departure from the structure of the 1950s. Rice strove to portray Jesus not as an authority figure, sent to deliver commands and rules, but as an example, a leader, and a guide. One way he achieved this was to remove the formality of address. Rice considered that if Jesus was around in the 1970s, as popular as He was, He wouldn’t be called by his full name all the time, the people would shorten it in an attempt to generate familiarity. Therefore, Rice’s crowd calls out to Him as “JC”.
Well, it’s been 40 years since Jesus Christ Superstar established the Christian zeitgeist of the 70s. By most estimations, that’s two generations. Which means Rice’s angsty Judas, confused Mary Magdalene, and “Superstar” Jesus were a fixture in the zeitgeist of the current generation. When I say “current generation”, I mean those currently in the positions of power. Those who, at this time, are age 35-55. Their zeitgeist was influenced, but not defined, by Rice’s sensationalized “JC”. The concept introduced by “JC”, that of a very human savior concerned with how His actions will be interpreted, worried about imparting important knowledge before He leaves, and afraid that His legacy will be non-existent, that His followers will be lost once He is gone and His efforts will have been for naught. This general concept of Jesus as a “real person” affected the way the current generation interacts with their faith, the way they experience the tradition, and the way they relate with God.
As always, there is a new generation currently in the wings, learning and growing and preparing to become the “current generation”. For our purposes, we’re going to call them the “next generation”. Their zeitgeist is affected by those that come before them and is additionally shaped by their current situation. What does this mean? It means some major differences.
The current generation pioneered the “personal” relationship with God, but the next generation is poised to experience their faith in an even more intimate fashion, ingrained in their lives even without the outward or even intentional experience of piousness. The zeitgeist of the next generation is strongly influenced by technology, especially social networking and other communcation technology (such as instant messaging and texting). For a generation in constant contact with their friends, culture, heros, icons, and anything else you can make a Facebook page for, anything that requires their attention has to either already be at the forefront of their mind, or request their attention all the louder.
The picture I attached to this post is actually taken from the film Dogma, which is a parody of Catholic tradition. The figure is referred to as the “Buddy Christ” and is being created by the Catholic Church to retain the next generation. As is usually true in good parody, this isn’t far from the mark. For the next generation, Jesus is closer than an authority figure or even a “superstar”. He is a friend, a “buddy”, with whom all can be shared. A relationship with Him can be cultivated like a friendship, involving a commitment of time and effort to share your life with Him. Prayer is his instant message, and, correspondingly, the next generation is less given to extended prayer and regular devotion, preferring to speak with Him at will, as though in a constant conversation, as they are with all of their closest friends.
He’s not the only one. You may have been wondering through this post what “BVM” is. BVM is not a what, but a she…and she stands atop the Golden Dome. BVM is the ND community’s affectionate nickname for the Blessed Virgin Mary. She, too, is a close personal friend for the religious of the next generation. Students on campus don’t look up at her on her shining perch and see the untouchable, the unreachable. They see a friend, and exalted one, whose example should be followed, and who should be continually held close as a very dear companion. They see her and, like a status on their newsfeed from a friend they keep meaning to call, are reminded to spend a moment with her as they walk through God Quad.
Now, I don’t venture to say whether the new generation is being irreverent or achieving a higher level of connection with the divine. First, I’d be a little biased (as a member of the generation in question), and second, I don’t think it’s for me to say. I think God has His hand in the zeitgeist, and, at the same time, I think the zeitgeist flavors the interactions we have with Him, but doesn’t in any way dictate their essence.
Feel free to share your opinions. Are the BVM and Buddy Christ a move toward closer, more personal relationships with Mary and Jesus, or a disregard for the respect Our Lady and our Savior deserve?