Not all generational critiques are made equal. To say that baby boomers were like this or that Generation Y’ers acted like that carries with it inherent risks of overgeneralization, ad hominem, and just pure nonsense. And of course, all observation is done by an observer, and observers need to be observed too. When it comes to commenting on generational characteristics/flaws, one can never be too mindful of the proverbial plank and the proverbial speck.
But let’s put that aside for a moment and consider millennials. I am a millennial. My wife is a millennial. My closest friends are millennials, and a fair amount of my reading and personal formation has come via millennials. Millennials are many good things. They tend to be energetic, generally polite, and creative in ways that make them stand out from the averages of their parents and grandparents. But I’m afraid that one characteristic that is defining many millennials is one with very serious and troubling implications: Millennials are all about “my story.”
Millennials tend to think of the world as a movie in which they are the star. That’s not just a verbose way of saying that millennials are vain; rather, that’s how millennials relate to their world. They tend to understand the facts, events, and realities around them either in relationally immediate or relationally nonexistent categories. Either something is crucial to their well being and their life, or it’s totally irrelevant. Thus, many younger millennials are totally apathetic about politics, but the ones who care often care in a possessive, personal way. A millennial who doesn’t feel that politics is part of their “movie” often comes across as lazy and uncaring about the world, when in reality they just can’t comprehend why emotional capital should be spent on something that doesn’t involve them.
On the other hand, a millennial who cares about politics will often display an inordinate amount of passion and sensitivity about politics; to cross their views is to cross them personally. And here is where this characteristic of millennials becomes most troublesome. Because millennials view their lives as individual narratives in which the rest of the world plays a supporting role, they tend to be fiercely protective of their identities. The key part of a millennial’s identity is not (often unlike their parents) their religion, their ethnicity, or their family name. Rather, a millennial’s identity rests chiefly in their story. A millennial’s story is the fundamental part of who they are, the most important thing about the most important part of their “movie.” And it’s often the one thing that must never be challenged or questioned.
For a millennial, a story isn’t just a mark of identification, it’s a holy source of authority. I say holy with all seriousness. Even millennials with deeply held religious beliefs often talk about those beliefs not as universal realities that concern billions of people and with trans-historic importance, but as a part of their individual story. To disagree with someone’s religion is, for a millennial, not so much a challenge to an objective set of truth claims as it is a personal challenge to someone’s identity, worth, and value. To question my religion is to question me, and to question me is to try to invade my “movie” to create your own.
Now, when it comes to religion, that characteristic has been true of many people, not just millennials. But in millennials, we often see this tendency exhibited in most subjects, not just religion. This is precisely why The Atlantic ran a recent cover story on the “coddling of the American mind,” a movement within American higher education that seeks to cater to millennials’ emotional mores through academic suppression. It’s important to remember that the young adults who are asking for administrative (and sometimes legal) intervention to prevent being confronted with offensive content are not faking it. They are not putting on airs. They are genuinely unable to process the stress and the epistemological labor of learning and being in a context that is not immediately friendly to their stories. They can’t go forward until they are reassured that who they are is who they are supposed to be, and that nothing and no one can ever legitimately challenge that.
What’s fascinating is that while the stories of millennials are often invulnerable to critique (because they are not an arguable set of facts but an extension of personal identity and experience), they are, ironically, often applied in an authoritative way towards others. For a millennial, an anecdote isn’t just an argument, it’s the best argument. A personal story in which someone is wounded or hurt by a particular law or politician is in fact far more effective and persuasive to a millennial than a complex series of logical arguments. This effect is compounded greatly by the fact that, in the age of the internet, information and knowledge are accessible to the same millions of people within seconds. Everyone is now an expert, and the best experts are not the ones who can string together the best facts and the best logic but the people who can tell the best story. That’s why anti-vaccine blogs flourish despite sharing the very medium that offers anyone without a medical degree some level of knowledge about inoculation. The anti-vaccination movement thrives not on strong logic but on strong stories (some of which are undoubtedly true).
Because millennials see their stories as authoritative, they are often as surprised to hear their narratives challenged or questioned as would be a 14 year old fundamentalist hearing the Bible questioned his first day of public high school. To say that a young twentysomething’s testimony of self-empowerment from the porn industry is incorrect and foolish is the height of arrogance to a millennial. To insist that abortion be illegal in the face of a personal story about a life seemingly saved from poverty by the termination of a pregnancy sounds not just callous and cold but breathtakingly ignorant to a millennial. That’s because what is being challenged is not merely philosophy or ideology but–in a very real sense–a sense of self.
What’s needed from the church in ministry to millennials is a presentation of Christian truth that is invasive. The gospel invades not only our intellectual presuppositions but also our baseline sense of identity and autonomy. The movie of our life in which we are stars is not, in fact, our movie, but the creative work of a Writer and Director whose authoritative control is both good and good for us. If we try as Christians to reach unbelieving millennials by appealing to their felt needs (“You should really feel the peace that Jesus gives,” “I’m so happy because of Christ”), we may unwittingly affirm their most un-Christian convictions.
There’s nothing but freedom in realizing that not even my story is ultimately about me. There’s nothing but peace and real lasting joy in losing ourselves for the sake of another, and for the sake of each other. To be invaded is a wonderful thing. There is a story better than my story, and it goes on and on, forever.
Image Credit: “Teens sharing a song” by SCA Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons