Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 90 (February1999): 10–11.
We've never been proud to be Americans–our political memory stretches back only as far as Vietnam, Watergate, and Reaganomics. Our parents left religion and, perhaps not coincidentally, each other in unprecedented numbers. Failed ideologies were mother's milk to us: love didn't save the world, the Age of Aquarius brought no peace, sexual liberation brought us AIDS and legions of fatherless children, Marxism collapsed. We can't even imagine a world of cultural or national unity; our world is more like a tattered patchwork quilt. We have every little inconsequential thing, Nintendo 64s and homepages and cell phones, but not one important thing to believe in. We are the much–maligned Generation X: your mission is to get us back to church.
There's a problem in this project. Even though we share the same cultural background, not all members of my generation are alike. After all, it's not so easy to sum up the character of a group whose only certain common feature is age. Yet there's something to be said for such generalizations. So drawing on our commonality (in spite of our diversity) and the extraordinary presumption of youth, I present here a vision of what the Xers might say if they all banded together to tell you what might persuade them to reenter the fold.
My authority on this subject can be challenged because in one critical respect I am not part of the "we" in what follows. I do go to church and am utterly taken with "the Christian thing." But I know a lot of people of my generation who don't and aren't. So while I don't claim to be an expert (and am not sure what it would mean to be an expert on this subject), I'll presume to talk about "we" and "us" and ask the reader to accept it for what it's worth.
We know you've tried to get us to church. That's part of the problem. Many of your appeals have been carefully calculated for success, and that turns our collective stomach. Take worship, for instance. You may think that fashionably cutting–edge liturgies relate to us on our level, but the fact is, we can find better entertainment elsewhere. The same goes for anything else you term "contemporary." We see right through it: it's up–to–date for the sake of being up–to–date, and we're not impressed by the results. In any event, you're not doing us any favors by telling us we're so important that age–old prayers and devotions can be rewritten to suit our personal whims. We know intuitively that, in the cosmic scheme of things, the stakes are too high for that.
On the other hand, you shouldn't be excessively medieval and mysterious, either. Mystery works up to a point, but it's addictive, and once we get hooked on it, the Church won't be able to provide enough to support our habit. We'll turn instead (many of us already have) to Eastern gurus and ancient pagan pantheons to satisfy all the esoteric delights our souls might desire. The human lust for secret knowledge should not be underestimated and certainly not encouraged. The Church has fought against that gnostic impulse from the start: Christianity is explosively non–secretive, God enfleshed for everyone to see, the light shining in the darkness. We're much too comfortable alone in the dark; we need the light to shake us up.
Then, of course, there is the matter of telling us that the Church possesses the Absolute Truth. Gen Xers doubt the very existence of such Truth with a capital T. We're much more comfortable with the idea of a multiplicity of little truths than one single unifying truth. But even if universal truth does exist, we are extremely skeptical that you–or anyone else–can possess it. Admittedly, this skepticism is a bit puerile. All the more reason not to use "the Truth" as the basis for evangelizing us, because it will backfire. And when your evangelizing attempts do fail, don't let the word "Hell" cross your lips. That's another thing we don't believe in.
As you can see, Generation Xers are a strangely complicated and self–contradictory bunch. Torn between rigid scientific doubt on the one hand and irrational credulity toward the supernatural on the other, we tend to have a generalized belief in God but are doubtful of his personal concern for us. It often sounds to us like the Church preaches two Gods, one of law and another of love. The first punishes sins (though we see evildoers get away with murder) while the second babysits his flock (but there's too much suffering for us to buy that, either). We refuse God's judgments, yet judge our parents harshly by canons in which hypocrisy is the only capital crime. And anything that smacks of the Establishment (a hangup inherited from our Boomer parents) elicits nothing but our contempt. The Establishment purports to be for the greater good, but what has the greater good ever done for us? Each of us is the center of his or her own universe, and so we abhor any kind of coercion, no matter how gentle, socially beneficial, or genuinely correct. In our eyes, the Church's standards of orthodoxy and behavior are as coercive as the government's laws. Both seem to be convenient vehicles for affirming preconceived notions, whether the narrow–minded judgments of parochial middle America or the social agendas of trendy leftists. We see complicity in the Church where you want us to see stability, moralism where you want us to see righteousness. The ultimate difference is that where you see the City of God we see only the City of Man.
Our stumbling block is Christianity presented as panacea. You're right that we are looking for healing, and usually in all the wrong places. When we're at our worst, we turn to drugs to numb the pain, cure the boredom, and escape the nothingness that haunts our lives. At our best we try alternative medicine, psychology, meditation, yoga, diets and exercise, successful careers, or falling in love. We invest ourselves in these things, and they inevitably fail. Which is what we expected anyway. We have learned that nothing can be trusted, so we've given up on trust altogether. Don't tell us that the Church can be trusted because, frankly, we doubt it. Don't tell us Christianity is the answer to our problems, because nothing but death will take them away. (Ever wonder why our suicide rate is so high?)
So you're in quite a pickle: you can't tell us that the Church has "the Truth," and we know that the Church won't miraculously cure us of our misery. What do you have left to persuade us? One thing: the story. We are story people. We know narratives, not ideas. Our surrogate parents were the TV and the VCR, and we can spew out entertainment trivia at the drop of a hat. We treat our ennui with stories, more and more stories, because they're the only things that make sense; when the external stories fail, we make a story of our own lives. You wonder why we're so self–destructive, but we're looking for the one story with staying power, the destruction and redemption of our own lives. That's to your advantage: you have the best redemption story on the market.
Perhaps the only thing you can do, then, is to point us towards Golgotha, a story that we can make sense of. Show us the women who wept and loved the Lord but couldn't change his fate. Remind us that Peter, the rock of the Church, denied the Messiah three times. Tell us that Pilate washed his hands of the truth, something we are often tempted to do. Mostly, though, turn us towards God hanging on the cross. That is what the world does to the holy. Where the cities of God and Man intersect, there is a crucifixion. The best–laid plans are swept aside; the blueprints for the perfect society are divided among the spoilers. We recognize this world: ripped from the start by our parents' divorces, spoiled by our own bad choices, threatened by war and poverty, pain and meaninglessness. Ours is a world where inconvenient lives are aborted and inconvenient loves are abandoned. We know all too well that we, too, would betray the only one who could save us.
One more thing. In our world where the stakes are high, remind us that all hope is not lost. As Christians you worship not at the time of the crucifixion, but Sunday morning at the resurrection. Tell us that the lives we lead now are redeemed, and that the Church, for all her flaws, is the bearer of this redemption. A story needs a storyteller, and it is the Church alone that tells the story of salvation. Here in the Church is where the cities of Man and God meet, and that is why all the real spiritual battles, the most exciting adventure stories, begin here. We know that death will continue to break our hearts and our bodies, but it's not the end of the story. Because of all the stories competing for our attention, the story of the City of God is the only one worth living, and dying, for.
Sarah E. Hinlicky is an Editorial Assistant at First Things.