Laura Merzig Fabrycky
The Young and the Restless
As cultural élites wring their hands and rat-a-tat press releases on the erosion of civil society and the increasing irrelevance of the church, their children are entering adulthood kneeling before altars, reciting recently learned common prayers. Sated with material abundance, the generation society calls "X" is making headlines not for being even more jaded and cynical than their parents but for a surprising turn to orthodoxy, confounding the dire predictions so fashionable just a decade ago.
Sweeping generalizations about the direction of entire generations should always be received with skepticism, whether the would-be prophets are gloomy or cheerful. But something is unquestionably afoot, a convergence of two trends. The first is a widespread disenchantment with the gospel of secularism and its dogmas. The second is a movement specifically within the church, a hunger for tradition—for all that which has been stripped away in modernized worship and teaching. Two recently published books—one by a young Catholic journalist and the other by a senior evangelical Protestant scholar—are valiant first attempts at trying to get a handle on this convergence.
In her first book, The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy, Colleen Carroll draws on interviews of young adults from New York City, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis to flesh out reports we've been hearing for some time now about a religious turn in the up-and-coming generation. Carroll's subjects are attending daily Mass and talking about Jesus in bars. Some have left the high-paying jobs that originally brought them to the city to make religious commitments to celibacy and service. They are deeply committed to living faithful lives, even if that means living by the Benedictine rule instead of by the measuring stick of worldly success.
While she acknowledges the variousness of the young people she studied, Carroll identifies some key features that many of them share. They grew up affluent, lacking nothing materially, and now, at 25, face the world-weariness their parents experienced in their fifties; they are dissatisfied with religion that strives above all to be inoffensive, instead desiring full-blooded truth-claims; and they want to escape the self-conscious, self-centered world of strictly personal devotion and find meaning in a religious community.
Carroll surveys the impact of such commitments in a variety of settings: in worship, in the family, on campus, in politics, and so on. She shows, for example, how the "new faithful" are returning to social mores of an earlier age, rejecting the safe-sex message drilled into them in countless sex-education classes and sorority functions. They've seen the world made by their "liberated" elders, and they don't like it; they prefer Wendy Shalit's Return to Modesty to Erica Jong's Fear of Flying. Indeed, groups like True Love Waits find that students are increasingly attracted to chastity.
Recognizing the erstwhile honored connection between sex and family, commitments to chastity go deeper than waiting for marriage. Newly revived in faith, some young Catholics embrace John Paul II's "theology of the body" not only by not having sex before marriage but also by living married life according to the sacramental design delineated in Humane Vitae, enjoying sexual relations without artificial forms of birth control. Even some young Protestants are finding this understanding of sex in marriage spiritually fulfilling, most notably expressed in Sam and Bethany Torode's Open Embrace (2001).
The New Faithful is certainly encouraging. Its greatest weakness, perhaps, is that one finishes Carroll's book without any clear sense of how representative her subjects are. That's a question raised as well by Robert Webber's valuable book, The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World. Webber is best known for his work on worship, which has had a major influence on evangelical churches seeking to reconnect with the riches of the Christian tradition. His new book is an answer of sorts to Richard Quebedeaux's Young Evangelicals: Revolution in Orthodoxy (1974), which predicted a generational wave of religious liberalization. Webber finds the opposite is true of today's younger evangelicals.
Webber briefly sketches a history of evangelicalism and boils down the essence of each generation's modus operandi. His reading of the current generation is closely akin to Carroll's, and he notes the attraction of Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and higher-church Protestantism for many younger evangelicals. Webber surveys both "younger evangelical thinkers" (where he considers characteristic approaches to apologetics, ecclesiology, and so on) and "younger evangelical practitioners" (youth ministers, worship leaders, and the like). This combination of theological and historical depth with on-the-ground familiarity makes Webber's book as unusual as it is welcome.
Still, "younger evangelicals" is an awfully slippery category. To begin with, many evangelicals in their twenties, say, are drawn to the "pragmatic" evangelicalism represented by Bill Hybels and Willow Creek. At several points Webber seems to suggest that an unstoppable historical momentum will bring the younger evangelicals (who make up "the first cycle of new evangelicals in the twenty-first century") to the fore, as they take over from the pragmatic evangelicals (a "transitional group," Webber says, "shaped by the great disruption of 1960-1990"). But persuasive empirical evidence for such assertions just isn't presented. Nor does it seem likely that the influence of what Webber calls "traditional" evangelicals will wane so quickly; when we look over the intellectual landscape of younger evangelicalism, we are seeing the fruit of Francis Schaeffer and Mark Noll, among others.
Moreover, Webber's account of the distinctive orientation of the younger evangelicals—quintessentially "postmodern," he tells us—calls out for further analysis. It's clear that for many of the younger evangelicals, the path is the ancient road, rediscovered. Here we see the harvest of the work of people like Dallas Willard and Richard Foster, who have sought to reclaim for evangelical Protestants spiritual disciplines that were once considered tainted by association with Rome. But Willard, for example, is hardly a champion of "the postmodern." (The problem is even more acute when Webber tries to reinforce his thesis with reference to 9/11.) A movement influenced variously by Willard and Foster and Schaeffer and Noll, as well as by Stanley Hauerwas, Miroslav Volf, and John Milbank, not to mention the current pope, resists reduction to any one narrative—even the narrative of postmodernism, which supposedly does away with metanarratives.
But something important is happening, it's clear. A new ecumenism with integrity has made younger evangelicals and the new faithful of Catholics and Orthodox cobelligerents in the postmodern world, and each has influenced the others. To Carroll and Webber we owe thanks for these dispatches from the front.
Laura Merzig Fabrycky is a research associate at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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