Book Review: Googling God by Mike Hayes

I like the multi-faceted nature of my vocation.  I like knowing that I can be studying a specific Biblical text during one point of the day, visiting someone who has been hospitalized the next, sitting and daydreaming planning about future ministry possibilities the next, meeting a colleague for lunch, teaching, prepping to teach, and any number of other activities.  It suits my multi-tasking nature very well, and is much cheaper than lifelong medication for ADHD or whatever is being prescribed these days.

Part of my work involves writing book reviews for the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s Young Adult Ministry web site.  I like to read, I like to write, and maybe those gifts can help someone else.  Maybe not.  But I like thinking there are three or four people out there reading the reviews and maybe determining what they’re going to read next.  And what they read next may shape and form them in profound ways for the rest of their life.  It’s kinda scary when I think about it that way, so I’m going to stop thinking about it that way and just review the stupid book.
Googling God: The Religious Landscape of People in Their 20’s and 30’s is not a book that I selected, but one that was sent to me by the LCMS-YAM for me to review.  It’s the first of probably many books that I’ll be reading in this capacity that I don’t care for.  But it’s important to read books you don’t like and think about them critically, beyond the emotional level of I don’t like this.  Failure to engage in this sort of effort limits our perspective, limits our willingness to spend the time to hear (or read) someone that we don’t agree with, and shrinks the boundaries of our engagement with the world around us.  None of this is good.  Neither is the book, but it’s the lesser of the two evils in this situation.
First off, this is a Roman Catholic book.  That’s all well and good but the book is not marketed as a specifically Roman Catholic book.  It deals far and away with mostly Roman Catholic young adults, Roman Catholic institutions and traditions, and Roman Catholic options for reaching out to young adults.  If you’re not Roman Catholic this book is going to be of much reduced value to you because beyond the Roman Catholic-specific stuff, there isn’t much practical usefulness to the book.
The title is also misleading, in that the Google analogy and technology in general is a very, very non-existent part of the book.  Aside from one chapter on how to create a digital presence that might reach young adults technology is only a passing consideration.  The Google analogy itself is barely used and never in an integrated or thought-provoking way.  It’s convenient shorthand for the rather lazy habits that instant access to almost any information tends to foster, but that’s about it.
The book is designed for those who aren’t young adults.  As such, it talks primarily about who young adults are and what they’re like these days.  This is somewhat helpful, but not overly.  This book basically highlights that young adults are all over the map in terms of what they like or want or expect in a congregation.  Which makes the task of the pastor or congregation attempting to reach out to them rather amorphous since anything you do is going to exclude more people than it attracts.  As an educator as well as a pastor, much of this information was not new to me, but it may be new to some.  In which case, read the first couple of chapters of the book.
Finally, the book simply accepts the way young adults are (I want what I want, when I want it, how I want it and I’m not willing to deal with much of anything else) as an unchangeable and even reasonable trait.  There’s no discussion of the dangers of this sort of mindset – whether it’s a product of laziness or immaturity (whether in the faith or in terms of a person’s age).  Be the perfect parish and maybe some young adults might deign to join you.  For a while.  You’ll want to be sure to invite them into deeper participation, but you shouldn’t pressure them.  You ought to cater to their particular interests (social justice, spiritual mysticism, liturgical awareness, emotive prayer, or whatever else), but there’s no need or point in trying to encourage a faith experience that moves beyond if I don’t like it I’m not going to do it.  
Hayes appears to tout the broad spectrum of beliefs in terms of Roman Catholic beliefs & doctrines, showcasing young adults who predictably pick and choose what they want from Catholicism while rejecting the rest.  There doesn’t seem to be an awareness of the dangers this can lead to – dangers that Catholicism (as well as most every other Christian group) is struggling with.  There is no apparent awareness that theology is an integrated effort, and you can’t just pick and choose willy-nilly what you like and ignore the rest.  You’re likely to find that in selecting just this brick or that brick to define your faith, you end up putting together a very weak and inconsistent theology and also assist in the deconstruction of the faith you claim to be a part of .  
Perhaps this is why the early church seems to focus mostly on the basics.  Christ crucified and resurrected, as St. Paul sometimes shorthands it.  If faith is to be normative – if the Bible is what is to shape our lives, rather than the other way around – we have to be careful about what we claim is indispensable to the faith.  I like young adults, want to reach out to them, want to help them develop into the leaders of the future church – but that requires more than simply affirming whatever it is they’ve decided they’re going to believe.  We all do this at one level or another, but the Christian faith is constantly calling us out of our own comforts and preferences to deal with the hard reality of the world around and within ourselves.  That hard world requires a strong faith and sense of identity, and this is engendered by more than personal preference or natural inclination.  It’s a discipline that we engage in every single day of our lives until we die.  Some of the time that discipline feels good and we enjoy the process of maturation.  Other times it’s something we have to grit our teeth to get through.  It doesn’t mean that the end is changed by whether we enjoy the means or not on any given day – it’s all part of the discipline.
Sort of like reading.  

2 Responses to “Book Review: Googling God by Mike Hayes”

  1. Mike Hayes Says:

    Paul:

    First off, thanks for reviewing my book–which in fairness is three years old. Even though you didn’t love it, I’m honored that you took the time to read it and review it.

    I would say a few things. Paulist is a Catholic publisher and the main marketing group was to Roman Catholic Ministers to young adults–so I think that the marketing comment is unfair. But I can see why one might think that. I also can see what you mean about the Google title. The title came from the experience that I had with a young person in spiritual direction who literally used technology language to describe spiritual experience.

    My next book may indeed focus more on the how-to aspects–but it’s hard to write a “tech book” because it’s outdated by the time you produce it, as you point out with the myspace/facebook analogy (which Fr Cusick wrote and not me BTW).

    Lastly, your comment:

    “There doesn’t seem to be an awareness of the dangers this can lead to – dangers that Catholicism (as well as most every other Christian group) is struggling with. There is no apparent awareness that theology is an integrated effort, and you can’t just pick and choose willy-nilly what you like and ignore the rest. You’re likely to find that in selecting just this brick or that brick to define your faith, you end up putting together a very weak and inconsistent theology and also assist in the deconstruction of the faith you claim to be a part of .”

    Agreed! =) I’m not sure that your characterization of my book is accurate but I agree with the sentiment here. I often will point this out to young people as well. However, this doesn’t give parishes and churches the right to be lazy either. Liturgy is just that–the work of the people–emphasis on WORK. We have a limited opportunity to get the attention of people, much less, younger people and so we have to keep the end game in mind.

    Regardless, thanks for being part of the conversation. Hope you like the next one–I’ll send you a copy when it’s out.

  2. Paul Nelson Says:

    Mike –

    Thanks for stopping by and responding.  My goal is always dialog, and the horse’s mouth is definitely the best place for that!

    I definitely didn’t note the publisher of the book, nor am I aware of what marketing was done with the book.  But if it was more of a niche target within the Roman Catholic arena, that makes perfect sense.  I wonder how book publishers for specific markets handle the fact that now books show up in a broad cross-spectrum of locations beyond the intended original audience?  I think if that target market had been more obvious, I wouldn’t have been asked to review it (it was someone within my denominational polity that asked me to review it).  

    I’m actually in the process of reading another book at the moment that I was approached to review by the author, and his sources for theological and psychological data appear to be exclusively online – so the motif and title that you selected are spot on.  If we go to Google for everything else, why not God?  I would have loved to see this integrated in a more fundamental way – but perhaps that will come with your next book.  And agreed, anytime you say anything about current technology, you’re instantly dating yourself.  As an educator and author in the technical arena, I’m only too painfully aware of that!  

    As for dealing with the consumer mentality of the boomer generation and younger, I’m assuming that wasn’t the intent of your book.  You did a good job of letting your profiles paint themselves for who they are.   However, figuring out how to work with consumer Christians is the issue that keeps me up at night, as opposed to just describing them.  Hence my disappointment/frustration.   As a pastor, I’m pulling my hair out trying to help my parishioners see that the Christian faith isn’t a buffet bar.  Perhaps it’s more family style dining.  You have a limited number of options, and you gravitate towards the ones that you prefer.  But all the courses remain on the table and you don’t tell mom/dad to dump it down the sink.  Nor do you slip your portion of that dish to the dog/cat/python.  At least in my family, you learned that you need to sample from all of them because they are there for a reason.

    That’s undoubtedly a weak analogy

    I still need to check out your website (http://bustedhalo.com).  I’ll look forward to your next book when it’s released, and I pray that the Holy Spirit continues to use us both.  Feel free to stop by any time!

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