Millennials and their stories

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.

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Image Credit: “Teens sharing a song” by SCA Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons

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What an Army general can teach Millennials about happiness


My latest column at Patheos is entitled “How Millennials Can Be Happy Again.” In it I discuss a recent interview with New York Times columnist David Brooks in which Brooks draws lessons from the life of former Army Chief of Staff George Marshall.

Excerpt:

Brooks made a point of emphasizing that Marshall was willing and eager to make serving the Army his life’s commitment. He gave himself to the cause of the institution, Brooks said, in a way that allowed the Army to shape his identity. He “emptied himself” in order to become a servant of the institution. Thus, Marshall’s legacy became one of historic self-control and indefatigable service to those around him.

Brooks uses Marshall and other examples to argue that one of the signs of a person who has character is a willingness to make “amazing commitments” (Brooks’s words) to meaningful causes. Whether to another person, an institution, a cause, a church, etc., the emotional centering that defines people with consistent character comes from making self-emptying commitments to something(s) that exists outside of the self…

The kind of self-emptying that Brooks described in the life of George Marshall is loathsome to many postmoderns. They think of such a life as unthinking obeisance and passivity. To use one’s life to make commitments to others rather than to “discover” and actualize our own existences runs the risk, many suppose, of becoming what Ayn Rand called “second-handers,” those who only live through the lives of others. But let us ask carefully which is the truly second-hand life: The life of commitment and service and identity in something that lives and lasts beyond us, or the life of the “selfie,” the constant rebranding and submission of our identities into the marketplace of our peers to eagerly await the next “Like” or “Favorite”?

You can read the entire piece here. Have a blessed weekend!

How a Christian college unravels

Photo: Richard Arthur Norton, CC License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/deed.en
Photo: Richard Arthur Norton, CC License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/deed.en

I want to double back to the comments from the US Solicitor General that I highlighted a couple days ago. I think it was a rare but not shocking moment of clarity from the legal forces behind same-sex marriage legalization about what the endgames of a Court ruling in their favor would really be.  Continue reading “How a Christian college unravels”

“It’s going to be an issue.”

A straightforward admission by the Obama administration that life will get complicated quickly for any school that doesn’t immediately amend its charter to reflect a pro-gay policy.

From The Washington Post:

 During oral arguments, Justice Samuel Alito compared the case to that of Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Christian university in South Carolina. The Supreme Court ruled in 1983 the school was not entitled to a tax-exempt status if it barred interracial marriage.

Here is an exchange between Alito and Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., arguing for the same-sex couples on behalf of the Obama administration.

Justice Alito: Well, in the Bob Jones case, the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax­exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating.  So would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same­-sex marriage?

General Verrilli:  You know, ­­I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue. I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito.  It is­­ it is going to be an issue.

It’s important to note here that for the purposes of Justice Alito’s line of questioning, the Solicitor General’s answer amounts to a “Yes.”

So there is more than fair reason to believe that, if same-sex marriage laws are struck down by this Court, the federal government will pursue revocation of tax-exempt status for any school that 1) prohibits homosexual activity in its student code and/or 2) did not extend to married homosexual couples the same residential and housing benefits that it extended to heterosexual couples.

This isn’t fearmongering. It’s a straightforward admission by the Obama administration that life will get complicated quickly for any school that doesn’t immediately amend its charter to reflect a pro-gay policy.

This further justifies the concerns of many religious conservatives about incongruity between same-sex marriage and religious liberty. Of course, it’s not theoretically impossible that future administrations would take a different approach than this one would. In my mind, though, such hope is a pipe dream. The line of logical progression couldn’t be clearer. It’s a game of, “If you can’t stand the worldview, get out of the public square.”

Why seminary needs fiction

812tYQPrHnLI enthusiastically commend to you Rod Dreher’s new book How Dante Can Save Your Life. It’s a fascinating, joyful, sobering and at times deeply moving testimony of power, not only to the The Divine Comedy in particular but to literature in general. Rod calls himself a “witness” and not a scholar. That’s the idea, but I would nonetheless urge literary scholars to read his book and savor the way a medieval text can speak so pertinently into a 21st century soul.  Continue reading “Why seminary needs fiction”

Essay: The New Puritan Shame Culture

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In the April 1886 issue of The Atlantic Monthly Julian Hawthorne, son of Nathaniel, reviewed his father’s The Scarlett Letter. Towards the conclusion of his stunning, 9,000+ word essay, the younger Hawthorne reflected on the moral irony of  Hester Prynne’s world:

 This [the scarlet A] is her punishment, the heaviest that man can afflict upon her. But, like all legal punishment, it aims much more at the protection of society than at the reformation of the culprit. Hester is to stand as a warning to others tempted as she was: if she recovers her own salvation in the process, so much the better for her; but, for better or worse, society has ceased to have any concern with her.

“We trample you down,” society says in effect to those who break its laws, “not by any means in order to save your soul,—for the welfare of that problematical adjunct to your civic personality is a matter of complete indifference to us,—but because, by some act, you have forfeited your claim to our protection, because you are a clog to our prosperity, and because the spectacle of your agony may discourage others of similar unlawful inclinations.”

But it is obvious, all the while, that the only crime which society recognizes is the crime of being found out, since a society composed of successful hypocrites would much more smoothly fulfill all social requirements than a society of such heterogeneous constituents as (human nature being what it is) necessarily enter into it now.

Continue reading “Essay: The New Puritan Shame Culture”

How “Red Letter Christianity” misunderstands the Trinity

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Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor from Liberty University and a research colleague of mine via the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has written a helpful perspective on the popular “red letter” interpretation of Scripture. Christians who identify themselves as “Red letter Christians” argue that the recorded words of Jesus deserve special attention and/or status of interpretative control in reading the Bible. Unlike a more traditional evangelical hermeneutic, red letter interpretation does not begin with the assumption that all of biblical canon is authoritative, but imparts authority to non-Jesus texts to the degree that they appear consonant with the “message” of Jesus.

Dr. Prior’s piece lays out a few of the problems with this interpretative approach. Excerpt:

Furthermore, isolating the red letters apart from their narrative context breeds contempt for that context, particularly the hard parts of Scripture. This leaves believers with no adequate answer to the kinds of charges made increasingly by anti-theists. Thus when Richard Dawkins asserts in The God Delusion that the “God of the Old Testament” is “jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully,” too many Christians are ill-equipped to respond.

Yet, Dawkins’ hermeneutic—which consists of interpreting passages completely severed from the interpretative framework of the text as a whole—is not all that different from the hermeneutics wrought by the “Jesus-first/Bible-first” dichotomy. Under this spell, Christians are left much like the Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century who are said to have drawn the carriage curtains closed when rolling past the mountains because they could not reconcile such wild irregularity with a worldview based on order and symmetry.

“Contempt for context” is well-said. The “red-letter” hermeneutic unwittingly creates an internal dissonance within the biblical narrative. One cannot logically receive the claims of Jesus’ divinity without also receiving His claim that He fulfills the Old Testament Scriptures, a claim that is incoherent unless one believes that the entire biblical canon is already authoritative and divine by the time Jesus comes to fulfill them.

Yet this isn’t the only problem with the red-letter approach. In fact, I would argue that the disregard for context, while a serious problem, is tertiary compared to the difficulties it creates in Trinitarian theology.

The doctrine of the Trinity teaches not only that God exists as One in three distinct Persons, but that those distinct Persons relate to one another in God’s redemptive work. Thus, the Father sends the Son to redeem humans by paying the penalty for sins back to the Father (Romans 3:25). Even more, the Father raises the Son from the dead to in order to vindicate the Son’s claim to be one with His Father. He raises the Son BY the power of the Holy Spirit, which the Son gives to those adopted into Him by the Father (Romans 1:4, 8:11). So each Person of the Trinity serves the Others in an eternal, God-glorifying mutuality of redemption.

Now red-letter Christians would agree that the Holy Spirit inspires the words of the Bible. But by privileging the words of Jesus as some sort of hermeneutic control over the rest of the canon, they obscure the relationship between the Spirit and the Son. The Holy Spirit is the spirit of the Son. The Spirit that inspires the writing of Scripture does so in service of the Son. That’s why Jesus tells the disciples that the Spirit would bring to their remembrance all Jesus had told them and would guide them into all truth (John 16:13).

This means that when Jesus speaks, He speaks by the Spirit, and likewise the Spirit speaks the words of the Father and the Son. So what Jesus says is true and trustworthy and eternal not primarily because He is a distinct Person of the Trinity, the Son, but because He speaks by the Spirit the words of the Father.

So that leaves with us an interpretive choice to make. Either the Spirit has spoken by the Old Testament prophets and by Paul, James, Peter, etc, or He hasn’t. Either the Holy Spirit has inspired the whole Bible, or it hasn’t. We may choose to believe either way, but we cannot believe in some Holy Spirit inspiration for certain Scriptures and less of it for others. Being genuinely Trinitarian in our theology and our worship requires humbly acknowledging the incredible way the Persons of the Trinity speak and act in harmony and accordance with one another. When Jesus speaks by the Spirit, He speaks the words of God. When Moses and David speak by the Spirit, they speak the words of God. The only way to get around this is to say the Spirit did not inspire these other writers, which of course leads to a total collapse in any rational confidence in the Bible.

A much better course is to affirm that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit from the Father and of the Son, spoke through the authors of Scripture in an authoritative way for every context. The fulfillment of all inspired Scripture happens in the person and work of Christ. So all of the Bible points to Jesus, not because His spirit is distinctly true apart from the other Persons of the Trinity, but because the Triune God uniformly speaks the truth about Himself. Rejecting “red letter Christianity” is necessary if we are to properly understand the nature of our Triune God, and worship and trust Him as He desires.

How “God’s Not Dead” fails Christian students

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I took the plunge that I had been studiously avoiding and turned on God’s Not Dead, the evangelical blockbuster movie from last year that has thus far raked in cash, awards, and even designation as the “best Christian movie of the year.” I had seen beforehand its 17% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and read thoughtfully critical takes on the movie. I was more or less prepared to watch a bad film, and indeed that’s what I got.

The failures of “God’s Not Dead” are particularly frustrating when you consider how easily they could have been avoided. There’s nothing wrong with God’s Not Dead that couldn’t be fixed by handing the script to a writer who isn’t eager to portray non-Christians in the worst light possible. The film feels less like a dramatic narrative and more like a propaganda reel, highlighting The Enemy in all their inglorious abominations.

It would be one thing for the movie to caricature non-evangelicals if it had no aspirations to realism in the beginning. I actually would be curious to watch a well-done diatribe against the secularist monopoly on higher education; the potential to learn something in that context seems high. But the medium of dramatic narrative is a higher medium than a lecture. It engages the imagination and moves the spirit in a more significant way. That’s why God’s Not Dead’s animosity towards its non-Christian characters is dangerous; if Christians come away thinking unbelievers in real life are like the unbelievers of God’s Not Dead (and that is clearly the message of the script), they will be carrying a spiteful fantasy into their relationships and evangelism that will be fatal to Gospel conversations.

Fairly representing those who disagree is not something that Christians should be bad at doing. Telling the truth about what people believe and engaging them like honest people isn’t a spiritual gift or an acquired skill. It’s basic honesty. How can I criticize the anathematizing of people like Brendan Eich and Ryan Anderson if after hours I myself enjoy caricatures of those who disagree with me?

I understand why people enjoy “God’s Not Dead.” It’s a brief moment of cinematic glory for Christians who, for good reason, often feel lampooned and marginalized in pop culture. But it’s a moment that comes at the expense of a helpful or even realistic perspective on the dialogues between faith and unbelief. The vast majority of atheists that Christian students will meet in college are nothing like the professor from God’s Not Dead. If these students go into school expecting the contrary, the cognitive dissonance that will result from seeing a reality that contradicts their assumptions will have a worse effect on their faith than a few hours of talking with a unbeliever could ever have.

We are Ryan Anderson

RTAndersonEvery person in America needs to know about what has been going on with Ryan T. Anderson and his grade-school alma mater, The Friends School. Put simply, the ironically named institution has declared it wants nothing to do with Anderson, his degree from Princeton, his Ph.D from Notre Dame, or his numerous fellowships and Ivy League speeches.

Why? Because Anderson is opposed to same-sex marriage.  Continue reading “We are Ryan Anderson”

Star Wars 7 and Hollywood’s Great Stagnation

Still from "The Force Awakens" trailer.
Still from “The Force Awakens” trailer.

In my February defense of the Oscars’ culture of “elitism,” I argued that, if nothing else, the Academy’s film snobbery was a break from the nauseating domination of sequels, comic book films, and franchises in mainstream Hollywood. “A healthy dose of film snobbery is welcome,” I wrote,  “if it even slightly punctures the asphyxiating creative stagnation that characterizes Hollywood right now.”

Hollywood’s creative stagnation is undeniable. As I pointed out in February, an incredible percentage of the decade’s biggest films were franchises and sequels. Look at this list from Box Office Mojo of the top films from 2013. Only “Frozen” and “Gravity” were neither sequels nor reboots. Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 12.24.27 PM

Of course, like many of you, I stopped to have a minor freak out over the new trailer for J.J. Abrams’s Star Wars: Episode VII. What can I say? I’ve watched Star Wars since before I knew what exactly a movie was. I have countless items of memorabilia, extant and otherwise. Star Wars was every bit as much part of my childhood as my own back yard. I’d have to be droid to not be excited about the new film.

And yet, I do wonder: Is the fact that American culture still stops its work week over a Star Wars movie really good news? Should we be proud that the seventh installment in a 40 year movie franchise is virtually guaranteed record breaking profits and fandom? Don’t misunderstand. The problem isn’t Star Wars. There’s nothing wrong with loving a well-told story that delights the imagination. The problem, at least where I see it, is that for a generation that is supposedly as innovative and dynamic as ours, we can’t do anything better than the same characters and worlds that we’ve been watching for an entire generation.

Rather than a sense that we have genuinely creative storytellers in today’s cinema, we seem to be surrounded (and content with) by technological wizards who can make the stories of yesterday come to life in bigger and more expensive ways. The franchise, the umpteenth sequel, the reboot–these are the relics of a culture that is better at Photoshop than photography.

Where are the Spielbergs and Lucases of our time? Are they languishing in obscurity because no Hollywood studio will green-light their risky and un-market researched project? Imagine if the Hollywood that Steven Spielberg tried to break into in the 1970s told him to go home and focus on making a sequel to “2001” or “Planet of the Apes,” something that would be a sure opening weekend moneymaker.

I’m excited about The Force Awakens. I’ll see it as quickly as adulthood will allow. But I do yearn for a fresher vision, another narrative that takes me beyond the galaxies I traveled so well as a child. I hope I get to experience that again.