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Many Christians believe we’re at a crossroads.
The older generation approaches the problems in our culture by lamenting the “tyranny of relativity” that seems to reign among the young. They’re tempted to believe that there is nothing left to do but pray — retreating into a kind of restless quietism. The younger generation hardly approaches any problems at all, but rather rolls its eyes and upgrades to a newer, lighter Christianity, without the baggage of the embattled moral culture of its parents.
This sexy, casual Christianity will no doubt be assimilated by the secular left, while the older, thicker Christianity seems bound to be annihilated by both. Both approaches have their share of pitfalls and temptations, and if we forget our duty to “persevere to the end,” our differences may boil down to nothing more than “Curse God and die” vs. “Curse God and live it up.”
The older generation remembers a time when custom largely coincided with right morality. Most of us are not inclined to differ very much from each other. By nature, we’re a herd species, a political animal, or, as our Lord disparagingly yet affectionately put it, we’re “sheep and goats.” But in today’s climate, there’s no mistaking the fact that Christianity is no longer a quiet affair. Doing right no longer has much to do with obeying the prevailing customs of your culture, since those customs are no longer much to do with doing right.
In Scripture, the Good News is always accompanied by a stern warning not to act like the people around us. When St. Peter tells us of the coming of the Lord, he doesn’t conclude that our cares are over, but rather that, “knowing these things before, take heed, lest being led aside by the error of the unwise, you fall from your own steadfastness.” The older generation may benefit from an encouraging reminder that their indignant anger isn’t all that bad an instinct. When they were young, most of their neighbors were relatively good people, if only by custom. But fewer and fewer people today are pleased by goodness and truth, and so members of the older generation are more and more likely to be called to be more outspoken, more rebellious, and perhaps less “pleasant” to their neighbors than their world-weary bones and gentle habits would prefer.
As I’ve written elsewhere:
In a competition of niceness, Christians lose hands down. After all, we’re kind of famous for believing in Heaven and Hell, e.i. the place where good people go and the other place, where, I don’t know, maybe evil dictators go. Hey, we didn’t write the rules. Christianity doesn’t believe in itself, but in God, and prays to be with Him in Heaven after death. Hollywood, on the other hand, does believe in itself. And Hollywood is so nice that it wants us all to believe in ourselves and to feel like stars in this life (the afterlife be damned). Wouldn’t that be nice?
The young are in need of the same reminder, but put less gently. I recently read a comment from a young man who, in response to a good “rebellious” and “unpleasant” Christian rant from an older man, retorted that the old man’s unpleasantness was the reason why young people want nothing to do with their elders. “And I don’t blame them.” I would only respond to the young man by saying that his arrogance and lack of respect for the morality of his elders was the reason why old men are so deliciously mean, and that I don’t blame them.
Many of the young are very concerned with pleasing their neighbors, but only the neighbors who happen to be pleased by the vices that come most naturally to youth. If you know anything about adolescence, then, you won’t be surprised if young Christians and conservatives want above all else to be “attractive,” as it were, to the most popular kids in school.
Christians young and old alike will object: “But Stephen, for all your complaining, what is your positive plan to repopulate our Church? How are we going to build the Kingdom and renew the face of the earth if no one likes us? The Church is shrinking and our pews are nearly empty! What to do, what to do?” Well, as the saintly if relatively unpopular Pope Benedict XVI once said to a group of secular reporters, who would probably have rather heard a different message:
One might say that a church which seeks above all to be attractive would already be on the wrong path, because the Church does not work for itself, does not work to increase its numbers so as to have more power. The Church is at the service of Another; it does not serve itself, seeking to be a strong body, but it strives to make the Gospel of Jesus Christ accessible, the great truths, the great powers of love and of reconciliation that appeared in this figure and that come always from the presence of Jesus Christ.
As Christians at a crossroads, we must remember that our mission isn’t one of strategy so much as truth. For all our efforts to justify God to the world, we ought to spend more effort doing just the opposite.
Stephen Herreid is a Fellow at the John Jay Institute and the arts editor for Humane Pursuits.