Friday, July 24, 2009

The Youngest Evangelicals: The Rise of Post-Slacker Christianity

Having spent too much of my time enthralled with a certain Douglas Coupland novel, I am duly aware that generational theorizing can resemble astrology; still, one can't help identify some patterns. I am a Gen X evangelical, and at my recent ten-year reunion at the evangelical Eden, I picked up something I hoped would help me understand what my generation has made of evangelicalism, a discount audio version of the New York Times bestselling Blue Like Jazz: Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, read in a don't-try-too-hard "authentic" fashion by the author himself, Donald Miller. I had heard much about the book, and listening to it on the way from Illinois back to fair Jersey, I attained my goal: Blue Like Jazz is a near perfect evangelical refraction of my Generation X (comprising those born from 1961 -1981).

Donald Miller (b. 1971) has been called an "Anne Lamott with testosterone," and the comparison is a good one. Both writers articulate, in periodically moving prose, the moments of their life when God's grace has been palpable; and both authors use the recognition gained from their writing to, in turn, campaign for causes in accord with the literary class to which they have gained back door access - whether it be Anne Lamott's very public defense of euthanasia, or Donald Miller's campaigning for Obama, and offering the closing prayer at the most recent Democratic National Convention. In Blue Like Jazz, Miller casually describes a subtle leftward drift that marks many Gen X evangelicals today. In Miller's case, this involved a foray with a fundamentalism that dissatisfied, leading to subsequent sojourns with wood-dwelling hippies and forbidden "liberals," whom he was surprised to discover he actually liked. After an extended indulgence in a commitment-free adultolescence, Miller recounts his slow return to faith, this time to a God who, "like jazz," doesn't resolve into tidy answers, but does offer emotional appeal.

Incidentally, having spent a good bit of time in college with street-dwelling Chicago hippies, it seemed to me that Miller's counterculture engagement was less than thorough. All details will be revealed in my forthcoming rival autobiography, Blue Like the Blues, but back to Miller.

The defining moment of Blue Like Jazz, the one that supposedly inspired the upcoming movie, comes when Miller and his friends set up a reverse-confessional booth at Portland's Reed College where, in his thirties, Miller was auditing classes. In this booth, Christians planned to confess to non-Christians the sins of Christianity:
We will apologize for the Crusades... for Columbus and the genocide he committed in the Bahamas... for the missionaries who landed in Mexico... we will apologize for televangelists, we will apologize for neglecting the poor and lonely, we will ask them to forgive us...
Miller claims this sort of guerilla evangelism has been effective at Reed, where he has experienced open hostility to his Christian faith. However, I wonder if the reaction of Portland's post-Christians to such a stunt is less, "Gee, Christians can admit their faults, maybe I'll become one," and more, "Thanks for confirming everything told to me about Christianity by my professors at Reed." Another method of evangelism might be to question the assumptions of those professors, and provoke Reed students to do so as well. This would not involve defending the sins of Christendom as much as it would require getting historically serious about the Crusades (try Madden and Riley-Smith ), or by articulating the taken-for-granted distinction of western society's Judeo-Christian DNA, as expressed, for example, by David B. Hart, Edward Grant, or Rodney Stark.

Blue Like Jazz left me both cheered that Miller was able to reconcile himself to some form of Christianity, and baffled at how the prodigal excursions that myself and many of my Wheaton peers had experienced sometime between our sophomore and senior years had become a semi-permanent condition, one that defines a significant swath of Gen X evangelicalism today. In his perspicacious recent assessment of evangelical culture, Matthew Lee Anderson suggests that it is difficult to see how the "rambling and disjointed narrative" of Blue Like Jazz is "not simply Fifties beatnik ideology baptized." Perhaps, however, a more apt comparison is that it's baptized grunge.

Consequently, Miller seems to have struck a chord with Gen X hipsters; but there is reason to think his confessional approach won't work as well for the rising Generation Y, otherwise knows as Millennials (comprising those born from 1981 to 2001). Strauss and Howe, the same sociologists who documented Gen X, have suggested that Gen Y is in full scale rebellion against the anti-standards of my generation. All the things myself and my peers rejected - school spirit, dry-cleaning, glee clubs, fluorescent colors and popped collars - seem to have come around again. More substantively, a "can-do" spirit seems to pervade the rising generation, in contrast to the hand-me-down version of Timothy Leary's "turn on, tune in, drop out" with which my generation, generally speaking, seemed satisfied.

Such positive Gen Y trends also have their evangelical refractions, which leads to Do Hard Things, a potential Millennial counterpart to Gen X's Blue Like Jazz. Do Hard Things was written by Alex and Brett Harris (younger brothers of the evangelical author Joshua Harris) when they were both 18 years old; and, thanks to clever marketing, the book at one point reached number five on Amazon not only in the Christian subgenre, but overall. A sense of the book is given by this introductory video, which is kryptonite to the disgruntled spirit of Generation X. "What would our lives look like," ask the Harris brothers, "if we set out on a different path entirely - a path that required more effort but promised a lot more reward?" These self-described "rebelutionaries" are serious about doctrine and don't seem interested in taking a couple of years off to discover themselves. Much of what the Harris brothers discuss (excel beyond expectations, work within the system) is just common sense, but it is a common sense absent from Gen X defining films like Slacker and Reality Bites. Perhaps the greatest illustration of this generation gap can be described as follows: The foreword to Do Hard Things is by Chuck Norris; but it is not ironic.

Whereas my generation extended adolescence by a decade or more, Alex and Brett Harris hope to eliminate it altogether. They aim to transform the teenage years from a languishing waiting room to the launching pad of life - and they practice what they preach. Both brothers landed internships at the Alabama Supreme Court before their seventeenth birthday, and then coordinated other teenagers to take on similar challenges as well. The authors explain that whereas youth movements in the past "revolted against God-established authority (like parents, church, or government)," this one is different. "We're not rebelling against institutions or even against people. Our uprising is against a cultural mind-set that twists the purpose and potential of the [heavily marketed] teen years..." This is a long way from Kurt Cobain's intoxicating Gen X mantra, "Here we are now, entertain us."

For my generation of evangelicals, Christian "maturity" often meant displaying a new kind of "sophistication" on issues such as abortion or sexuality. The Harris brothers, however, encourage teenagers to adopt the traditional Christian position on these issues. For good measure, they throw in saying no to R-rated movies, dressing modestly, abstinence, and a mandate to share the gospel with their friends. Collective experience with the consequences of moral laxity has, it seems, prompted a renewed desire for boundaries. Perhaps because life provides more than enough unsolicited complexities, the authors of Do Hard Things seek clarity in Christian doctrine; and as such clarity (properly understood) contains within itself infinite mystery, the Millennial preference for precision turns out to include the apophatic "like jazz" dimensions so eagerly sought by Donald Miller as well.

Back in the seventies, Richard Quebedeux attempted to identify a shift in evangelicalism by writing The Young Evangelicals. Twenty some years later Robert Webber attempted the same for my generation by penning The Younger Evangelicals. It is tempting to call this new generation of doctrinally serious go-getters The Youngest Evangelicals. As Colleen Carroll has argued in her book The New Faithful, the youngest evangelicals are joined by a more conservative generation of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox youth as well. It may be that the best religious recruitment strategy for the clean-cut, go-getting Millennial generation would be to set up a variation on Miller's reverse confessional booth. Therein, Christians could apologize not for the Crusades or Christopher Columbus, but for the deracinated, doctrine-lite Christianity of my Generation X.

Still, the Gen Y "rebelution" is not without problems of its own. As Jody Bottum has noted, "a rebellion against rebellion doesn't escape the problems of rebellion." The fact that Do Hard Things begins by lampooning monkish austerity (we would never expect that!) shows the extent to which Gen Y evangelicals are removed from the bedrock of Christian tradition that lies beneath the variegations of American generational dynamics. While few evangelical Millennials will, I expect, don the monastic habit, a measure of contemplative detachment may ultimately be something they find they very much require. Doing hard things is indeed worthwhile, but "Mary [not Martha] has chosen what is best" (Luke 10:42). Undergraduates today seem to lack what my generation specialized in - existential angst - erring as Gen Y seems to err on the side of careerism. As someone once put it, there is only one college major in the modern University: upward mobility. But times have changed. To justify their positive take on the Millennials, Strauss and Howe wrote "they have grown up in a multicultural country and have never known a recession." Well Millennials: Reality bites.