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The Gen X theologian.

`I think I was making my personal relationships the bearer of my own spiritual quest.'

Not everyone knows that Harvard's Harvey Cox plays saxophone. Tom Beaudoin knows. But then, Catholic theologian Beaudoin has played bass guitar with rock bands for 15 years. His three patron saints are theologians Karl Rahner and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Geddy Lee, bass player with the Canadian rock band Rush.

Listening to music is fundamentally a religious experience, says Beaudoin, "and doing theology is reflection on religious experience."

What joins the theological quest and the musical quest, he said, "is the pull --like the tractor beam in `Star Wars' -- the pull of religious experience, of the experience of God, which is mediated to me by playing bass guitar in rock bands."

These days Beaudoin doesn't get many gigs, except as a teacher and lecturer from a home base in Decatur, Ga. His wife, Jennifer Watts, a Catholic, is doing her Ph.D. in theology at Emory University in Atlanta.

Beaudoin's reputation is based on his 1998 book, Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X, and other writings. The generation he refers to comprises the 80 million Americans born between 1961 and '81.

Not bad at 31 for a former high school teacher whose Catholicism at one time was always overpowered by the faith of his successive girlfriends. His relationships had him Southern Baptist for five years and a synagogue attendee after that.

"I think I was making my personal relationships the bearer of my own spiritual quest," he said recently.

"Members of our generation," Beaudoin writes in Virtual Faith, "expressed their cynicism about religion by assuming one of two stances: either playfully ironic or completely dismissive. I found these postures appropriate, as churches seemed laughably out of touch. Hopelessly droll music, antediluvian technology, retrograde social teaching, and hostile or indifferent attitudes toward popular culture.

"For my peers, this distancing from religion wasn't new, because their families had treated religion as a disposable accessory. Many boomers had kept institutional religion at arm's length until midlife. For their children, the step from religion-as-an-accessory to religion-as-unnecessary was a slight shuffle, not a long leap."

The students in the white suburban Lee's Summit, Mo., high school where he taught "had experienced a withering dissolution of their well-being: broken families, teen pregnancy, unstable sexual identities, physical and emotional abuse, drag addictions, alienation from family, alcoholism, disrespect for authority, short attention spans and overall bouts of nihilism."

And yet, said Beaudoin, he found himself experiencing "great joy with them and for them. They were generally unafraid of transgressing any boundaries. Irreverence, whether political, religious or sexual, was almost a way of life. My students trusted their friendships over all other relationships, playfully ironized and satirized their culture, were wise about the psychology of `systems' and `institutions' at a young age, and were less mobby about high culture and more open to exploring (and exposing!) artifice than their elders."

In a section of the book that takes up GenX attacks on the Catholic church, Beaudoin works forward from pop artist Madonna through a detailed interpretation of the video for the group Nirvana's song "Heart-Shaped Box." It ridicules Jesus "as a way of taking a lance to the side of the church. Jesus as an octogenarian in a Santa Claus hat and papal miter."

Beaudoin isn't astounded by the blasphemy or the ridicule or, indeed, offended. He looks into it to see what it's saying and finds support from a non-guitar playing 19th-century English cardinal, John Henry Newman.

Newman said that deep blasphemy can be evidence of an encounter with a deep truth, what Newman called the paradox of our "intercommunion with divine faith and human corruption."

Further, "Xer religiosity squarely challenges institutions to come to terms with their own relevance or irrelevance. It may benefit a religious institution to respond to Xer criticisms. They can do this by incorporating their failures and limits into their preaching and practice, which will make them more accessible to Xers."

Beaudoin tells of a powerful sermon to a largely Xer audience in a Baptist church "about the brokenness of the church as a model for the brokenness of our lives."

An Xer who responded to the service's "altar call" later told Beaudoin, "It wasn't Jesus I had a problem with. I've simply never heard a description of the church I could trust until I heard that sermon."

In hoping to reach GenX and the younger generation, Beaudoin contended during an NCR interview, the Catholic church misses out "on some of its own deepest insights about the possibility of any and all music to mediate an experience of God."

High school teaching turned Beaudoin into a theologian. Teaching and Hans Kung's "Does God Exist?" a volume Beaudoin calls "the bomb in my playground."

"It really convinced me that the most important questions in life were theological questions -- one could be a passionate Catholic intellectual.

"In my naivete and ignorance, I hadn't been exposed to this in my Catholic life. I didn't go through Catholic higher ed. My parents could barely afford Catholic grade school. I had to be taken out of it."

Two weeks into high school teaching (with a bachelor's in European history and secondary education), Beaudoin discovered that what the students needed more than the names of kings, queens and political battles was spiritual direction.

Beaudoin threw himself into helping his students, won awards as a teacher, was burned out after one year and left teaching after two. He went to Harvard, where he did his master's in theological studies from 1994 to 1996.

"Harvard is very Protestant -- and it gave me full body immersion in all the theology you could possibly want," he said. "So, this Protestant place converted me much more deeply into my Catholicism because I found a body of young, very bright, searching lay Catholic men and women all struggling around the same issues."

At weekly get-togethers, many brought readings. The talk was often about issues of Catholic identity. "There were a lot of fellow travelers. I also became very close to Harvey Cox, which helped a great deal. I had a mentor. Many of my friends starved for lack of a mentoring relationship. Same again at the Ph.D. level." His, in religion and education, will be from Boston College.

Unfortunately, he said, the American church is no mentor for Xers because of the disconnect, even down to the fact that the liturgies "reflect the musical interests of the planners. And there's a whole lot of liturgical politics around that."

"The Catholic church in the United States has been very hesitant to look seriously at, for instance, rock music, not to mention rap music. That's absurd, I think, given the church's current configuration. I wish it didn't seem so absurd. But it's been very difficult for the church to take the musical forms of the younger generations seriously because they don't want to seem to be acceding too much to the culture -- and they're also worried, rightly, about the stereotyping, the negative images of women, the violence, the general hedonism and greed.

"But there's a difference between concern and obsession," continued Beaudoin. "The church misses out not only on Christ present in contemporary music, but Christ present in a young woman who feels called to ordination. For our generation there's a deeper issue. Not taking popular culture seriously means the church is not taking the experience of our interior lives seriously," he said.

In retrospect, what in his book Virtual Faith did he get right and what did he get wrong?

"The basic thesis is right," he said. "That the popular culture is one of the premier mediators of the spiritual quest among younger generations. Now that's popular culture within world capitalism as well. But I was wrong about the degree to which young people are willing to subject their, popular culture to religious analysis.

"What I've found is that most young people I work with are not interested in doing this. They want their music, their culture, as an escape valve. They may see their music or dancing or sports or cyberspace as spiritual in some diffused sense," he said, "but I was wrong about the extent to which they want to make it a self-conscious conversation."

Two things are happening, he said. One, there's religious illiteracy, "not having a universe of concepts to play against their cultural experiences." Next, among moderate to liberal young adults, "there's a fear that giving a religious reading to their experiences is going to domesticate them -- that the

church is going to try to control it, control them. In other words, that the church will continue to be the controlling, condescending church that many of them grew up with.

"The more conservative young adult Catholics don't even want media culture brought into today's conversation," said Beaudoin, "lest this pure institution, the church, be corrupted by Rush or rap music. To do that leads us down the garden path of Protestantism."

Meanwhile, circuit-riding freelance theologian Beaudoin is willing to slow down and settle down. He has lectureships at seminaries -- often on the topic of consumer capitalism.

Many of his audiences are Protestant, so it's fair to ask him what, today, in a largely Protestant United States, is uniquely Catholic about Catholicism. Fair to ask because in his book he quoted Cardinal John Newman's well-known take on Catholics: "Catholics can Sin with a depth and intensity with which Protestants cannot sin."

Answers Beaudoin, "It's the theology of grace and the theology of culture that undergirds and overgirds and flows through the whole thing. The Catholic church is, to use a priestly metaphor, the concelebrant. The concelebrant acts for the transubstantiation of the world. That is absolutely, uniquely Catholic. It is not Lutheran. It is not Baptist. It is not Presbyterian."

And not easy to set to music.

RELATED ARTICLE: Beaudoin At-a-Glance

It was inevitable. A virtual community of religious scholars.

Within the next year, theologian Tom Beaudoin -- master's degree in theological studies from Harvard, doctoral degree, God willing, from Boston College in May -- plans to found a theological society linked by the Internet.

His goal: a small community of theologians drawn mainly from his own generation. He's 31, and he's aiming his community at others who, like him, understand their vocation as "the transubstantiation of the world."

This virtual community will "pray, play, labor and think together, though we may meet physically only once or twice a year."

Beaudoin, a circuit-riding theologian who's on the road two weeks of every month lecturing and teaching, said, "We will support each other in our respective areas of commitment, sharing our vocational burdens. It will function as a virtual religious order. I have already drafted the constitution for it.

"Of course," he adds, "if it turns out there are no other theologians who have this vision of their vocations, it will be a society of one."

In addition to finishing up his dissertation, Beaudoin has a second book underway, a lectureship at four Lutheran seminaries and at Princeton Theological Seminary, and a summer ahead of teaching at St. John's, Collegeville, Minn.

He likes the freedom of being a freelance theologian, but he's keeping an eye on university job listings.

--Arthur Jones
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Title Annotation:Tom Beaudoin
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 16, 2001
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