Who can blame young people for learning a perverted version of their faith online, when our communities do not serve them at all? It has become a common refrain to lament the rising tide of unverified Internet guidance, but the wailing and gnashing of teeth is but hypocrisy. If we truly cared, we would do something about it. But we don’t.
In truth, I too turn to the Internet for inspiration. I will mine YouTube for sermons to nourish my soul. If I need a Fix, I’ll turn to a pixelated scholar or mp3 teacher instead of the local community-appointed sage, who speaks with beautiful lyricism, but in a language I do not understand.
My standards are exacting, for I was raised in a family of sermon writers. Both of my parents used to spend their Saturdays carefully crafting intelligent, considered, inspiring homilies, which they would then humbly deliver the following day to their congregations. It was a noble art form which served me well, animating my own writing. A good sermon is like medicine for the soul, but alas good sermons are few and far between.
Most sermons I listen to in real life today are delivered in a foreign tongue. For me it has become blind ritualism, devoid of spiritual uplift; I liken it to sung Matins, beloved of a dying breed of diehard traditionalists in the Church of England. I am present, but not present; in the moment, but elsewhere.
But oddly I prefer the incomprehensible sermon in a language I do not understand to the other type: the lazy sermon, cobbled together on the hoof, or blurted out on the spot, or composed hastily on the back of an envelope, jotted down with no real thought. These are the sermons of the celebrated English-speaking imam, brought in to assuage the complaints of the unsettled masses, whose Urdu or Punjabi has foundered. His ability to speak English is enough, the management committee seems to believe. But it is not enough, and so we go elsewhere in search of answers.
My heart inclines to the gentle and merciful manifestations of our faith. To the old traditions of Europe, Africa and Medina. To expressions of good manners, noble speech, perceptive learning, respect. And so my playlist populates in kind.
But others are inclined to bitterness and hatred and rancour, to argumentation, self-righteousness and arrogance, and so their playlists will gather all of those characters I will spurn; those straight talking acolytes with smug faces and piercing cynicism, ready to dissolve whatever goodness remains in the young man’s soul.
So of course we condemn the students of Sheikh Google and Imam YouTube, deriding the shallowness of faith in the twenty-first century. Isn’t it easy to condemn, but so difficult to provide alternatives? Young people will continue to self-radicalise as long as our communities ignore the needs of their members.
If our communities will not nourish us, we will turn elsewhere for nourishment. If disaster lays ahead, we only have ourselves to blame.