No, I’m not talking about Millennials or Baby Boomers, though if I were it would certainly increase the number of hits on this post. I’m a member of that rather ill-defined group that we call Generation X. I recently read a post by a good friend of mine on a site called Waltbox. It wasn’t a post about religion or faith or anything of the sort. It was a post about music in the early 90’s, but it made me think about where we were then, where we are now, and how that journey has shaped us.
We were people born into the wake of the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, and Watergate. We remember the energy crisis of the Carter Administration, the hostage crisis in Iran, and of course, the Cold War. Much of the popular and underground music of that period reflects a kind of fatalism of people caught in political and economic machinery over which we had no control. Many of us came of age during the Reagan Administration, which emphasized peace through military strength, personal responsibility, and fiscal conservatism. For me, these values seemed very appealing. Now the Cold War fatalism seemed not so inevitable. Maybe things could be better….
During college, I felt a call to ministry. This surprised me because, of the many vocational paths I had explored, this was not one of them. Most of my friends were not religious. If pressed on the matter, they would have self-identified with some denomination, but life in the institutional church held no real significance for them. Their churches of origin, moreover, were not exactly beating down the doors to get them back.
There was never a real push to get Gen-Xers into church. A few books were written on this, and I will credit the Reporter for the column on Generation X and faith written so ably by Andrew Thompson. On the whole, however, the arrival of Generation X into adulthood was greeted with a great yawn by mainline Protestant churches. It was certainly nothing like the flurry of interest over Millennials today. Many of us have either left the church altogether or affiliated with evangelical churches that never lost their evangelistic zeal.
Speaking personally, when I got to seminary in the early 90’s, there was, as they say, no “there” there. I don’t mean that I had bad teachers. Many of them were great. But mainline Christian theology seemed to have no specifically identifiable content. It was just at the time when process theology was fading and the heirs of Bultmann were beginning to retire, and a new kind of theology that we would call “liberation” and later “postmodern” was taking center stage. The idea was that social location gives you a specific kind of epistemological privilege, so we no longer talk about “truth,” but competing “truths” that are defined by particular identity markers. If this was the case, however, why was I considering dedicating myself in service to the church? As a minister of the Gospel, what did I have to offer people? When we talked about salvation, what are we saved from, and by whom, and how did we know?
For some of us, encountering thinkers like Thomas Oden, Stanley Hauerwas, Ellen Charry, and Billy Abraham was like finding an oasis in the desert. Here were people who cared about the theological convictions of the creeds we said and the hymns we sang growing up. Didn’t these still mean something? Didn’t our confession of the identity and nature God and the economy of salvation that involved really matter? Finally, there was some sense that our historic claims about God really made a difference. Process theology had given us an alternative view of God, complete with a revised metaphysics. The heirs of Bultmann told us that much of what passed for religious truth was actually myth, which must be deconstructed before we could really understand what faith in Jesus meant. Now the emerging postmodern theology was telling us that truth claims about God were not life-giving, but oppressive (as if that is not a truth claim). With what Oden called the “rebirth of orthodoxy,” though, finally there was some “there” there. We could finally see how concepts like the Trinity, the Incarnation, bodily resurrection, divine revelation, sanctification, the forgiveness of sins—the faith we had confessed from childhood—really mattered. They mattered so much, in fact, that the neglect of these basic Christian truth claims appeared as a crisis. We had crossed into a way of thinking that many of older generations would consider anathema, but we were not going back—not ever.
We have never known mainline denominations that were not declining. The churches we knew were most often guided by the liberal ethos embraced by many Baby Boomers and the so-called Silent Generation, the generation of John Shelby Spong, Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, Sally McFague, and Joseph Sprague. That is why so many of us are a bit taken aback when we are told that the churches must liberalize all the more to attract Millennials. Didn’t we try this already?
Now as the UMC stands on the brink of division, many of the most vociferous proponents of unity have been—guess who?—Gen-Xers. Unlike so many Baby Boomers who are deeply anti-institutional, these proponents of unity see great value in institutions. Yes, we are mindful of their imperfections, but we realize there is strength not simply in numbers, but in organization. The generations before us lived through a cultural revolution and a counter-revolution led by groups such as the Moral Majority. When that is your frame of reference, it is easy to divide the room up into those who are for us and those who are against us. And that is why so many of the more radicalized leaders on the left and the right are all of the same era.
I don’t speak for a generation. I’m simply reflecting on my forty-three years on this earth as a member of a mainline Protestant denomination. Some people of my generation would tell you I’m entirely wrong, and I have no problem with that. Generation X was never a movement, and we didn’t fly under any particular banner. We were branded as slackers in the early 90’s, but then had no choice but to try to hold together institutions that were coming apart at the seams. Have we done this? Time will tell.