If there is one thing religion has historically been good at, and its clergy and institutions used for it, is death management. Well, these days with “None” the fastest growing religious identification – more than 20% of all Americans and more than 30% of those under 32 years of age so identified – it shouldn’t be surprising that close to 30% of all funerals in America happen without any clergy.
Obviously, people are having funerals and mourning for loved ones so what are they doing? Rather than engage religious authorities and institutions – the “cathedrals” – people are getting the resources they need to bury, mourn, grieve, and find meaning and comfort – from the “bazaar”.
Recently, the New York Times (see below) highlighted products and services arising in this bazaar: new social media spaces like modernloss.com and whatsyourgrief.com where people share stories, insights and advice from their own experience with death (“witnessing” in classic religious language), get resources (wisdom and practices) to help navigate this life passage and develop webs of relationships of support, comfort, and care (the classic definition of “community”). These platforms are attracting thousands of people who, in religious language, are a blessing for those who wonder if they’re alone in their emotions or the challenges they face after a loss. The sites give witness not only to the enduring love people have for those they’ve lost but for people’s capacity to help each other affirm life despite loss. They do the jobs we need done when someone we love dies. (An Online Generation Redefines Mourning, NYT 3/21/14)
Just as technological innovation is disrupting every business model – retail stores, publishing, music, health care, universities, political revolutions, etc. – technology is now disrupting the business model of institutional religion. In classic disruptive innovation theory a disruptive product or service addresses a market that isn’t being served and offers a simpler, cheaper, and more convenient alternative to the existing product. The usual critique by the incumbent business is that the new product is not as good, as powerful, or as authentic as the existing product (think iTunes vs. a record album or Wikipedia vs. Encyclopedia Britannica) but all it needs to be is good enough to get the job done.
What do these new products and services that help people deal with death have in common? Why are they working for people for whom the incumbent religious institutions and authorities aren’t?
These platforms along with search engines, blogs, YouTube series, Facebook memorials, Instagram feeds about grief and loss all respond to the needs and sensibilities of the increasing number of Americans mixing, blending, bending, and switching identities. All these “spiritual” innovations transcend particular creeds and dogma and like cable companies, unbundle religious practices and rituals from their metaphysical and group contexts. These platforms embrace the fact that there are as many ways to experience and express grief as there are people. They encourage new norms and invite people to customize their religious and spiritual choices (have it your way as the jingle goes). People do not depend on experts but on peers who know the world has changed and that there’s no roadmap for handling grief and who want to connect to other people equally confused on their journey.
What does this mean for the cathedrals of organized religion? We are entering a brave new world for Americans increasingly disconnecting from traditional authorities and institutions. Forces that predominate in our culture, such as new media, entertainment, and information technologies will inevitably shape our spiritual sensibilities, values, and behaviors. Will the cathedrals embrace the bazaar? Will the imagination and ingenuity of the bazaar influence the cathedrals? What spiritual entrepreneurs and innovators have you met? What new spiritual innovations are you using?
image credit: flickr.com/photos/AlyssaLMiller/3622827250/
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Irwin Kula is a provocative religious leader and a respected spiritual iconoclast. A cutting-edge scholar, teacher, and rabbi, he brings the insights of an ancient tradition to the challenges of the present to help people live more fully. Named by Fast Company magazine and PBS Religion and Ethics Newsweekly as one of the new leaders shaping the American spiritual landscape, Kula offers a broad vision of religious pluralism. His blog The Wisdom Daily, is a new site for political, cultural and spiritual commentary and analysis.