Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Bon Jovi, Rob Bell and Generational Myopia

Living on a prayer.  And apparently Botox.
As Jon Bon Jovi stumbles into his 50's he is beginning to sound like someone, well, stumbling into his 50's. In a recent interview with the Sunday Times Magazine he waxed nostalgic about his teenage experience with the vinyl album era and, incredibly, began with "Kids today".
"Kids today have missed the whole experience of putting the headphones on, turning it up to 10, holding the jacket, closing their eyes and getting lost in an album; and the beauty of taking your allowance money and making a decision based on the jacket, not knowing what the record sounded like, and looking at a couple of still pictures and imagining it. God, it was a magical, magical time."
University of California professor and memory expert Elizabeth Loftus notes that, "Our memories have a superiority complex" and to that Mr. Bongiovi's comments are transparently guilty. "Kids today" don't experience music the same way I did in the heyday of the vinyl album. But I have seen my own kid's passionate experience with music and know none of the magic is lost. I'm pretty sure they even play it loud and use headphones. And I'm just wondering if the magical part for Mr. B was the fortune he made having hit the Pick 6 in the pre-digital, major-label-death-grip music lottery. On balance, the accessibility that digital brings to recording and listening is well worth the slow death of the album and cool jacket art.

To be sure, generational myopia is inclusive. If those near the end of this mortal coil use their memories to project a superior experience, the young have their own perceptional indulgences. Armed with the leverage of inexperience, the tabula rasa of their future and the real and imagined iniquities of those who have gone before them they are quick to see things with a clarity that managed to elude all previous generations.

This was on full display recently when Rob Bell went on a media tour to promote his latest book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Bell is the pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan and a maven in the "emerging church movement". The book takes, to put it delicately, a very non-traditional view of the after-life. 

I have no interest in adding to the scorched-earth blog coverage of the book. Rather I'm thinking of his interview with Martin Bashir on MSNBC. Expecting a softball approach usually given authors plugging their books, what Bell got was a full-court press reminiscent of Bashir's takedown of Michael Jackson on the BBC in 2003. He challenged Bell relentlessly on recasting the gospel to make it more palatable and his misuse of history. A few days later Bashir was interviewed on a Detroit radio station and was even more scathing in assessing Bell's disingenuous approach to history and scholarship. What stood out to me was how Bashir summed up Bell, "As far as he [Bell] is concerned only this generation gets it."

As a long-time campus minister and current pastor of a demographically young parish I have sensed the same "only this generation gets it" on a few other fronts. These things don't strictly define everyone I've worked with. But their influence is pretty stout.


I have a friend and colleague who was recently told by a young pastor, "Your generation just doesn't understand community." At our annual denominational gathering we have been subjected to the same yearly rant from a church bureaucrat who has taken to reading every book he can find on "reaching" Gen X, Y, Millennials, Postmoderns, the de-churched and whatever category George Barna can come up with. What is a missing link in reaching all of them? They long for "real community". Like most shibboleths the meaning of this phrase is slippery but the pivot seems to be that a major inhibitor to reaching these groups is the church does not provide a place of genuine care for and connection with one another.

That the gospel calls us to reconciliation and community is beyond dispute. Likewise it's not a reach to say the visible church has not always done this very well. But that somehow a certain generation sees this more clearly and desires it more deeply is codswallop.  For 29 years I have worked close at hand with successive generations of college students and twenty-somethings in a number of cultural contexts. And every single one of them has had exactly the same proclivity toward retreat, self-protection, and narcissism. And I mean exactly the same. No difference. And it mirrors the same declension every generation has had since Adam and Eve hid from God and Adam said, "Hey, it was this woman you gave me!"

The cultural differences between a 1982 South Carolina fraternity boy, a 1998 NYU drama student and the young urban/suburban families I serve now were/are real and indeed significant. To ignore those differences when talking about the things of God would be idiotic. Church of Scotland missionary Lesslie Newbigin is right - there can never be a culture-free gospel in that the message has to be communicated in way that is comprehensible to each culture. But he goes on to remind the would-be Christian culture vulture of another truth. The gospel must be communicated in culturally understandable ways but it also "calls into question all cultures, including the one in which it was originally embodied." 

The "we/they are just looking for community" mantra is flattery of the first order. For what it's worth my experience is that those who drone on most about "community" either live it out as if the concept flows heavily in one direction (toward them) or it's used as a pretext to see their own subgroup (who - now here's a shock - share the same life stage and preferences) as being the only ones who are worth having community with. The boring, the prosaic, the unlovely and the uncool (read that: most of the church) are to be endured and not taken seriously. This culture is to be ruthlessly challenged, not pandered to.


This is a near relative to "community" but has its own peculiar indications. To be completely fair the "quest for authenticity" did not spring up recently. Its roots go back hundreds of years as the rise of secularism and the market economy gave birth to the comforts of modernity and a creeping spiritual malaise. When people began to enjoy freedom from want and almost certain early death from disease, that freedom produced a sense of disconnect and alienation. As Geoff Pevere writes, "Since existential crises are the domain of full bellies, the quest for authenticity is actually a luxury specifically afforded by modern life." These days this quest is commonly seen in, among many other things, the dismissal of the suburbs as a vacuous wasteland, spending more than you have to for groceries at Whole Foods Market, and moving to Portland. I'm kidding about Portland.

One of the best observers of this is Canadian academic and columnist Andrew Potter. In his book The Authenticity Hoax, he observes, “The quest for authenticity has, at best, amounted to a centuries-old exercise in rainbow chasing.” And as he convincingly argues, this pursuit is patently self-indulgent and, ironically, a clear mark of pretension,
"It is a profoundly individualistic ideal, understood as involving a personal quest or project that pushes self-fulfillment and self-discovery to the forefront of your concerns...In the end, authenticity is a positional good, which is valuable precisely because not everyone can have it. The upshot is that, like the earlier privilege given to the upper classes, or the later distinction gained from being cool, the search for the authentic is a form of status competition."
When "authenticity" becomes a commodity it is immediately exclusionary and completely full of crap. This idea of authenticity takes an especially disingenuous (and largely unchallenged) form among the "only we get it" generation of Christians. And bizarre as it may seem they have their exemplar in Tammy Faye Bakker, the late wife of disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker. As their personal kingdom was unraveling in 1987, Tammy Faye went on network television to defend her lavish lifestyle built on donations to their "ministry". She sealed her defense by quoting the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:10, "By the grace of God I am what I am." 

Now when you read those words in context it is obvious that St. Paul is saying that as a former persecutor of the church his status as an apostle is only by the unmerited favor of God through the risen Christ. What Tammy Faye meant is: "You can't challenge anything about me because God is behind it all." And that would have included illegal use of donated money, an air-conditioned dog house, gold plated bathroom fixtures and a tragic use of cosmetics.

The current form this takes is functionally identical. Living in and with our brokenness is seen not simply as a necessary part of the Christian life (which it is) but elevated as the sum total of the Christian life. Tammy Faye was lampooned for her gauche attempt at authenticity. Now it is seen by some as a hedge against any kind of change. When I am authentically dishonest, manipulative or self-centered I am called to repent. When I don't see it I depend on those around me to call me out, point me to Christ and to repent. Change can be brutal and a lot more complicated than our too often slogan-driven approaches suggest, but to see it as unnecessary and call what is left "authentic" and anything resembling the gospel is deeply disturbing and a denial of God's grace.

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  1. Best blog post of 2011. On any blog. This was excellent, thoughtful, and clear.

    I'll forgive you for the shot on Portland. But only because its true.:-)

  2. A thoroughly enjoyable read, Tom. I always appreciate your perspective.

  3. Excellent post. I had almost thought you'd given up on the blog.

  4. I'm reminded of the compliment given to you at the village regarding one of your semons, something to the effect of one of the best @@#$% sermons I've ever heard. Good on ya

  5. I Love you Tom Cannon ... Keep fighting the good fight..

  6. I could kiss you for this post.

  7. Thanks for this post. I stumbled on it and it really struck home. I've been having discussions with folks about "authenticity" as of late...this gives me much to ponder. Looking forward to reading more from you.

  8. Stumbled upon this via a friend on Facebook. Your post has me repenting from the attitude of "we're the only ones who get it". I'm a 25-year-old Christ Follower and I'm passionate about Community and Authenticity. I hope to utilize the guard rails you've put up as I continue on the road of my Christian life.

  9. Excellent post, Tom. I've frequently been rendered speechless by the attitude from the younger crowd that I have no idea what they're really saying - and that what they're saying is something only they understand as if straight from Jesus' mouth to their ear.

    What you brought up that I hadn't thought of, though, was the fact that they're pushing for community and authenticity when they're a generation that clearly doesn't really get those terms themselves. The New York Times had an interesting article in the science section yesterday on the self-centeredness of the younger generation as seen through the lyrics of popular songs today compared to the 80s and 90s. As someone pointed out in my blog post about it, now-a-days the world is our "community" thanks to the internet. We feel connected to everything, and yet we're probably not even on chatting terms with our next door neighbors. We join "communities" based on affinity, so we never have to learn that community means getting along with people you don't agree with or that you dislike.

    And "authenticity" has nothing to do with being real or even realistic. (Several churches I know that flaunt how "authentic" they are on their websites pay professional (sometimes non-christian) musicians to come in and play their worship music). Authenticity is a brand rather than a reality. It's akin to an overweight man wearing Nike shoes and thinking that that makes him look athletic. ... uh, no.

  10. Great post. I'm sure every generation goes through the "we're the only ones who get it" stage, when we are, as you put it, "quick to see things with a clarity that managed to elude all previous generations" - sad but very true.

  11. Time for a new post, brother!

  12. New post very soon. This is harder than it looks!