System Failure

There are plenty of criticisms offered against today’s American youth and young adults.

And despite the fact that I turn forty in a few weeks, I still consider myself among them: a kindred spirit of cultural orphans, still sifting through the detritus of an evaporating American Dream to figure out who we might be without it.

Alisa Harris’ memoir, Raised Right: How I Untangled My Faith from Politics,
reflects on the apparent cultural, spiritual and economic desert time in which younger Americans find themselves.

They have witnessed the carnage of a financial system that was intended to perpetually buoy a nation, but whose “invisible hand” has instead crushed the dreams of millions. They’ve watched as the two-headed political serpent attacks itself until it is impotent. They’ve seen religious figures scandalized and religious institutions emptied as a generation walks away in search of something more relevant to their daily struggle.

One of the few common threads among young adults is a shared embrace of iconoclasm. While labeled as rebelliousness for the sake of itself by some, it’s more a symptom of a culture whose intense self-awareness has yielded either jingoistic narcissism or resigned nihilism. And both sides are convinced the other is both void of heart and intent on their destruction.

Why do younger people shrug off labels? Each seems weighed down by its own repugnant sense of self-righteousness. Why step away from their parents’ religious and political convictions? Because both have failed them. As such, they have become intent on self-sustenance before serving any greater purpose to better the human condition.

Instead young adults pick and choose from daily experience as they find identities and causes that fit, not satisfied to permanently ally ourselves with any particular group, lest they get fooled once again into placing their trust in something that doesn’t merit it.

Two quotes from Harris’ book stood out to me as definitive of the postmodern Christian American. Both suggest a custom-tailored identity that older generations label as opportunistic, but which younger ones understand as their only option for survival. She describes her college friend as “…cool in the ‘Evangelical ex-homeschooler who quotes the Aeneid in Latin while drinking whiskey and smoking a pipe’ type of way.” Such a combination of attributes betrays both a longing for grounding, while also seeking liberation from old expectations.

A second description of a friend from New York City points at why so many today struggle to find any group or label they consider palatable. Harris calls her friend, “a fiscal Republican, a social Democrat, a pro-lifer who didn’t believe in banning abortion, and a Christian who didn’t think Jesus cared so much whether people were gay.”

I can see why individuals located within the established systems may claim that young adults stand for nothing. However, the friction lies in the disconnect between what young adults actually stand for and what those in charge of the systems say we should believe.

It’s no surprise they’ve walked away from traditional institutions in droves; they feel they owe the institutions precisely what they’ve been given.

The redemption of such cultural ambiguity is that assumptions and stereotypes fall short more often than they apply, causing young adults to have to take people more at face value, discerning what they believe through face-to-face discourse. They crave more intimate, direct connection with one another because, in doing so, they hope to find out more about who we are as well.

It is here, as Harris points out, that real change takes place: where two or more are gathered. The talking points and ready-made labels fall short, giving way to a deeper concern for the humanity at the center of each life. The effect on her was that she “determined not to let dogma swallow up my personality and poison my sense of charity. I promised myself that I would remember that people are more important than clinging to beliefs.”

We have a retired Methodist minister in our congregation who spoke openly one Sunday morning about how he had used the pulpit to hide behind the office of ministry for more than three decades. Though there is a necessity and a value in preaching from a position of authority, it’s not enough for today’s young faithful. They don’t just want your words, your ideas or your creeds.

They want you. All of you.

Call it cynical, iconoclastic or even destructive to the fabric of society, but placing humanity above ideals seems the only hope we have for living out Christ’s call to love one another as ourselves. In so much as politics and religion both have failed to yield the result they had promised, it’s now up to us to plant new seeds, together, one at a time.

It’s labor-intensive, risky, often terrifying work, but if we’re to engage in the kind of disciple-making ministry Jesus lived out, going “old school” may be our best — if not only — hope.