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Hipper, Younger, Newer, Smarter

July 27, 2013

Today I was reading a book–Facebook to be exact. While browsing through Facebook I came upon an article linked by a friend and fellow blogger. The article in question was “Why Millenials Are Leaving The Church” by Rachel Held Evans, who I am vaguely familiar with. Being a millenial who has not yet left the church, I decided to read it.

Many of the points Evans made were quite good. She expertly points out that the “consumer” model of churches is not attracting the young people it panders to. The churches may try to include “edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web site that includes online giving,” but it’s no substitute for the Gospel. Whenever the Church tries to become the Mall, it invariably becomes a second-rate Mall, minus the place that sells the big pretzels.

Yet after Evans made her spot-on analysis of the Church’s aping of consumerism, she said something that made me uneasy. Specifically, she said, “But here’s the thing: Having been advertised to our whole lives, we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re not easily impressed with consumerism or performances.” And as I thought about this, I found that this perhaps wasn’t as true as Evans wants it to be. Certainly the glut of material excess that people in my generation are faced with has made some of us more jaded about the idea that mere stuff can make our lives better. But one would think that a person who was advertised to all her life would actually be more susceptible to advertising.

Millennials, in my experience, are not less impressed with consumerism or performances. They are impressed with different kinds of consumerism and performances. The current “hipster” or bohemian ethos that pervades today’s advertisements is a good example of this. The bohemian ideal of the “good life” is different than one’s advertised in the past. Certainly there are some good ideas promoted by the hipster ethos–a love of nature, a respect for old things, a desire for authenticity. But many of these underlying ideas simply become grist for the advertising mill. The rockstar’s unkempt hair, the slam poet’s thrift-store jacket, the independently-owned coffeeshop’s collection of Communist kitsch, are all carefully and artificially arranged to signify a certain message. We used to judge a man by whether he wore new clothes; now, we judge a man by whether he wears old clothes.

Evans goes on from this declaration of how savvy and keen we millennials are to a Christian millennial manifesto, detailing point by point the things that millennial Christians want from the Church. When I read it, I can’t help but think that she’s putting on a kind of performance here, as well. Her demands are of the sort that have rhetorical force, but upon closer examination, prove to be so vague that they could mean almost anything.

“We want a truce between science and faith,” she says, but whether she thinks science and “faith” are “non-overlapping magisteria” (Stephen Jay Gould), or whether faith has more of a guiding role to science is unclear. “We want an end to the culture wars,” she says, but doesn’t say whether the end in question is a surrender, truce, or victory. “We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities,” she says, but leaves us in the dark as to her position on Christian sexual ethics.  “We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against,” she says, but this is mere semantic wrangling. There is nothing wrong with being against things depending on what those things are. William Wilberforce was perfectly justified to be against slavery.

“We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers,” she says, but doesn’t give us any idea of what sort of questions we should be asking. The idea that “asking questions” is better than “seeking answers” is one that has been irking me for a while. Free inquiry is good, but the goal of free inquiry is to freely come to an answer. And, for better or worse, Christianity does provide answers to some questions. If it didn’t, why should we believe it?

Evan’s manifesto is a reaction against many bad things the Church has done in the past. Yes, many Christians have been bitter and legalistic, put God and Country side by side, said silly things about science, insulted those who disagreed with them, stifled free inquiry, and treated gays and lesbians like crud. All this should be cause for repentance. Yet, we millennials need to be sure that we aren’t simply making a knee-jerk response to the mistakes made by our forbears. Our parents said and did many things that were wrong. But if we conclude from this that we should do everything different from our parents, then we are letting them control us just as much as if we had become carbon copies of them. We should be wary of materialism, bigotry, and empty spectacle, whether they are naked or wearing a fashionable postmodern disguise. Perhaps we do have highly sensitive BS meters, but we should use them to make sure we aren’t believing our own BS.

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