Reductio Absurdum . . . Or, The Ex-Reverend Parses Martin Marty

I recently returned to Ethics As Grammar. David Fitch recommended I read Kallenberg to access Wittgenstein via Hauerwas. How is that for a project?

My interest derives from my friendship with The Ex-Reverend. Language, vocabulary in particular, forms much of the critical evaluation offered by The Ex-Reverend. Kallenberg gives a progression for what is meant by understanding W, no not Geroge W., in Philosophical Grammar.

Essentially, as I see it, the move is to evaluate how language is actually applied. Or, in something of an admittedly overly simplistic default, “words mean something.” And, when they enter a given context we learn that words do not always have a global, or universal, sense. The result is an attempt to parse.

My personal intrigue is not just on the level of finding the best means of communicating faith when often the standard words are so variously applied – see the recent trend from missional to gospel-centered. Mix in a little Fitch and it is not hard to see W at work in Fitch as he parses Zizek for the rest of us.

Casual conversations with youth and 20-somethings, even early 30-somethings, prompts some of us to realize the vocabulary most often used in our churches has been an arrogant oversimplification fearing if we talked faithfully about life and faith it would be just too hard to understand and “scare our young people off.” Or, at least intimidate them. As if they are not intimidated by our publicly unwavering stridency.

Recently a young early 30-something remarked had doubt been handled differently in my youth I, like many, would not have been baptized 15 times. A good dose of humility may be more endearing as we talk about our convictions. For instance, last week’s Lectionary Texts require some work as we have Jacob claiming to have seen the face of God but God having already distinctly told Moses he could not see his face and John telling us that “no man” has seen God. Is this not enough reason to spend some time working through how language is applied?

In this week’s Guest Post, The Ex-Reverend parses Martin Marty’s response to a recent survey suggesting young people are actually more curious about religion than previously believed. Be challenged.

Kids Love Jesus, or Youthful Discretions

“Get into PC North and save a cheerleader or a linebacker.” That was the sage advice offered me when I embarked on my journey into youth ministry. According to my pastor/boss at the time, this would be the tipping point of my ministry, a point at which a landslide of cool/hip kids started coming to our youth group, a mere six blocks from one of Oklahoma City’s largest high schools. The advice seems horrifying now, a calculus based on douchebaggery that reflected the pastor’s joyous years as one of the “in” kids at his 5A high school where he excelled in three sports and received a scholarship to play one. He seemed oblivious to the lives of “out” (not gay, obviously) kids, and to the fact that they loathed the “in” kids with an admirable intensity.

Since that time, I’ve taught junior high, high school, and college, the first two at a private Christian school, the latter at a Christian university and now public community colleges. At this point, roughly 16 years experience working with people under 21. I’ve found that no survey, no assessment, no questionnaire, and no assumptions work when dealing with young adults and teens. They are as diverse, complex, and unique as any group can be. They are the recipents of the ethos of hyper-individualism, and they’ve used their inheritance to craft multiple personae, always able to shift values and assumptions depending upon their context. While they hold to a few core principles, those too are often poorly reasoned (if at all) and seldom scrutinized. Part of what I do is try to drill down enough to find out what those principles are and see if we can build some consistency in terms of socialization, ethics, honesty, and critical thinking.

For that reason, I spend a great deal of time reading about the state of the American young person. As such, I’ve been reading through a slurry of reports about the state of belief in America’s youth recently. Some of the names are familiar: Christian Smith, Pew Foundation, Notre Dame, Broadman & Holman, etc. This one was new to me, but the findings weren’t. Here’s Martin Marty’s pull quote from a Lilly Endowment (another familiar name) study, and it does as good a job as any summarizing these studies:

American teenagers generally do not have negative views of religion; in fact, they have an openness and curiosity about religion,” and they “tend to reflect the religious beliefs and traditions of their parents and are not particularly interested in rebelling or seeking alternative religious paths.

There’s a ghost in there, though. Before we get to the ghost, let’s try to define “generally.” Based on my experience and on what I’ve read, the overwhelming majority of American youth have no negative feelings about religion unless they’ve suffered at the hands of a particular faith community, minister, or evil douchewad religious peers. Nor do they have negative feelings about baseball, video games, state fairs, knitting clubs, or any of a million social activities that don’t impact their lives negatively. Can we just call this assessment a tautology and move on?

The “openness and curiosity” is interesting. I’ve found it to be largely true in one sense, and completely false in a very important sense. I teach religion classes, and young people are rabidly curious about their own experiences, as they typically want them validated or debunked, and sometimes they just want to process what has happened. They are also curious about the generalities or eccentricities of other faiths: Jews and yarmulkes, Catholics and eating Jesus, Muslims and violence, witches and magic. What they typically don’t care about are the doctrinal nuances or historicity of these other faiths. This should not be surprising. We live in the midst of a generation that cares little about history.

Opponents of No Child Left Behind chalk this up to federally mandated emphases on math and science. I’m going to call bull[…} on that. It’s partly due to shoddy teaching, but it’s mainly due to an emphasis on the present, youth, and novelty. Federal mandates couldn’t have changed the passions of my 8th and 10th grade history teachers, men who taught me history and then taught me why it mattered today. They were storytellers, and they understood that our own stories are the greatest stories, so they created interest by bringing history into our lives, into our realms of importance, into the things that impacted my life.

Church history, if it is taught at all, is an apolgetics exercise for youth. Why you ought to believe what you believe, but what they believe about faith is not a corporate reality for youth; it’s relentlessly individualistic. Christian Smith called it therapeutic, moralistic deism. No sociologist ever got something more right, except that Christian kids believe it was theistic long enough for Jesus to die for them (they have no idea what the words mean, of course). In one sense, this has been the salvation of our youth; they’ve been free to choose, to exercise their own discretion about the particulars of their faith, and they feel free (in large part) to reject things that are either nonfunctional or nonsensical. There is always the occasional committed kid who will fight for points of doctrine or for the singularity of the Christ event, but most don’t parse their faith beyond its immediate usefulness in their lives, which often means asking forgiveness for their daily indulgences or believing that God has something awesome waiting for them after graduation.

Do they reflect the religious beliefs of their parents? In the most generic sense, yes. Ask them a series of questions about their particular faith, and even the best students in class will seldom have any idea what being a Christian means other than “Jesus saved me from my sins and I’m going to heaven.” Again, there are the kids who defy this trend, but the numbers indicating the sickening downward spiral of youth church attendance are not simply fabricated. The Church is hemorraghing young people. Megachurches draw them in for a time, but they lack the framework to make them “fully devoted followers of Jesus,” and they can delude themselves by [self-stimulating] to their numbers all they want, but I get to teach the kids who go to those temples of self-indulgence and self-aggrandizement, and I assure you, they are fully devoted followers of what they perceive to be in their best interest.

As for rebelling (here’s where the ghost lurks), what the h[…] would they rebel against? Their parents’ religion that essentially says, “do what you want and then ask forgiveness?” Yeah, there’s a difficult standard. I just can’t understand why they’re not rebelling en masse. Are they supposed to rebel because it’s impossible to sit through a 17 minute sermon about how to find Jesus in the latest movie? Or do they hate that series on how counter-cultural is kind of cool? Marty observed of youth leaders: “They have to be counter-cultural, but not cultishly so, as once they tried to be.” Um, again, here’s a word begging for a definition. Counter-cultural these days seems to mean “no sex before marriage” and “don’t be actively gay.” The average Christian teen can spend their entire life at a public high school and never really be called upon to be truly counter-cultural: to reject consumerism, to reject individualism, to reject commodification, to love the enemy. The word has been reduced to one easy to follow definition so long as one isn’t gay, and one other definition that simply requires a prayer of forgiveness or a parsing of the definition of “sex.” Again, what the h[…] would they rebel against?

That they are not in church does not mean they do not consider themselves Christian, though. I’ve conceded that point many times, but what meaning is there in a faith, loosely defined, that can be practiced outside community and according to rules known only to the sole practitioner? Why not just be Wiccan? There are many sole practitioners in that faith. It takes a powerful dose of individualism to believe that Jesus died for my sins so that I can be my own person to the exclusion of all responsibilities outside the ones I prefer, even to the eschewing of communities of reference for the simple reason that I don’t agree with them. What does Christian even mean at that point? What does faith mean? Why even bother? Oh, yeah, the therapeutic part: it makes me feel better.

About the Author
Husband to Patty. Daddy to Kimberly and Tommie. Grandpa Doc to Cohen, Max, Fox, and Marlee. Pastor to Snow Hill Baptist Church. Graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Reading. Photography. Golf. Colorado. Jeeping. Friend. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and should not be construed as representing the corporate views of the church I pastor.