Just when the advocates of “contemporary worship” and “user-friendly” churches have succeeded in revamping large sectors of the Christian world, young people seem to be rejecting it. There’s a growing hunger, it seems, for a more traditional, more ancient, more orthodox version of the Faith–a hunger for the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible study, and the sacraments–rather than self-esteem psychobabble and entertainment. Such is evident in The New Faithful: Why Young Adults are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy (Chicago: LoyolaPress, c. 2002), by Colleen Carroll. An award-winning and widely-published journalist, Carroll (a Roman Catholic) became fascinated with this phenomenon and took a year to research and write her account, traveling extensively and interviewing some 500 appropriate spokesmen. “If you are making plans for your church in the next decade, you can’t afford to leave this book unread,” says Benedict Groeshchel (book cover), and I suspect he’s right. The “contemporary” worship and “relevant” preaching that has frequently alienated “senior citizens” now seems spurious to the coming generation as well. Marrying the spirit of the age, it’s often said, leaves one a widow in the next!
As a journalist, Carroll provides illustrations to document her thesis, summed up by BostonCollege philosopher Peter Kreeft: “It’s a massive turning of the tide” a fundamental rejection of “the old tired, liberal, modern” version of Christianity (p. 3). Young folks aren’t drawn to the watered-down Catholicism set forth by the ’60s generation. A convention of liberal Catholics in 2000 featured “gray-haired radicals, priests wielding canes, and nuns dressed as defiantly as septuagenarians can. But young adults were scarce” (p. 281). Liberalism, in both its theological and political forms, has lost its luster. Younger priests are more conservative than their baby-boomer elders, supporting priestly celibacy and opposing women’s ordination. Traditional seminaries bulge with candidates, while their liberal counterparts lament empty corridors. There is a resurgence of interest in Thomas Aquinas, who “argued that laws are just when they are based on the way God designed the universe. So certain moral actions are right or wrong in their very nature, depending on their conformity to God’s law. And human beings instinctively know it” (p. 171).
The relativism that shaped their parents’ culture seems less alluring to younger folks hungry for some sound moral standards. “A former Wall Street Financier,” John McCloskey, became an Opus Dei priest and now works with Ivy League students. He says “that when students are presented with ideas and teachings that sharply contrast with campus culture–church teachings against abortion and contraception, for instance, and orthodoxy’s insistence on absolute standards of right and wrong–they often respond with surprise and interest” (p. 21). McCloskey notes that “College campuses are the refuge of the sixties liberals,” who now discover that “they are the old fogies”(p. 182) upholding increasingly antiquated ideologies. “‘People are getting sick of trite little phrases. “God is love” and “God loves you”–what does that mean?'” asks a young Notre Dame student, planning to enter the priesthood. Demanding, ascetic orders, such as Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, the Friars of the Renewal, and the Legionaries of Christ, are far more appealing to younger Catholics than temporizing organizations like the Jesuits. “Today, it is increasingly those hard-core, demanding religious orders and seminaries that are experiencing a surge in religious vocations” (p. 98).
In Evangelical circles the same trend appears in the growth of “Campus Crusade for Christ, a conservative evangelical group that stresses strict moral standards and salvation by Jesus Christ” which grew, in five years, from 21,000 to 40,000 members (p. 8). “About a thousand graduate students belonged to the e-mail list of Harvard’s InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in 2000–twice the number that were signed
up four years earlier” (p. 161). Evangelical colleges are booming and attract some of the nation’s finest young thinkers. Churches upholding the inerrancy of Scripture, traditional devotions, and rigorous morality enroll the children of liberal Protestants. Such young people often lament the fact that they heard little about sin and salvation (the “hard gospel”) in their childhood, while platitudes espousing tolerance, social reform and leftist politics abounded. Consequently, as a 2001 Hartford Institute for Religion Research study demonstrates, there is “a strong correlation between the vitality of a congregation and its commitment to high moral standards. According to the survey, “Two out of three congregations that emphasize personal and public morality also report healthy finances and membership growth” (p. 69).
Part of the “hard gospel,” of course is sexual chastity. Remarkably, growing numbers of the “young faithful” favor high sexual standards, and there is a significant surge of support for sexual abstinence before marriage. “‘The new sexual revolution is not being led by adults, but by young people,’ roared Mary-Louise Kurey, Miss Wisconsin 1999, top-ten finalist for Miss America, and author of a book about abstinence. ‘We are seeing a complete turnaround in young attitudes toward sex and relationships'” (p. 121). (Interestingly enough, the reigning Miss America also emphasizes chastity and had to do battle with the pageant’s hierarchy to make it the standard theme of her public addresses!) This is truly significant, for, as Conner makes clear, “The connection between faith and sex is a powerful one. Pastors often say that transgressions of Christian sexual morality lead young believers away from the faith faster than any other moral lapses. Their explanation: sexual intercourse is an intimate, potent experience, and the desire for sexual activity often clouds moral judgment” (p. 140).
This is a readable, well-organized book, meriting study by anyone concerned about the future of the Church. Chuck Colson’s endorsement is telling: “Colleen Carroll does more than simply chronicle the embrace of Christianity by young adults, as important as that is. Her interviews and meetings with young American adults serve as documentation of the spiritual and intellectual bankruptcy of postmodernism. The New Faithful is a reminder that when the idols of our age crumble, it is the truth of Christianity that remains standing” (book jacket).
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Carroll’s findings in The New Faithful have been anticipated for decades by Thomas C. Oden. His Agenda for Theology (1979), After Modernity . . . What? (1990), three volume Systematic Theology, and editorial supervision of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture all indicate the depth of his commitment to rediscovering orthodoxy. What he’s called for seems to be happening, and he describes it in The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, c. 2003). “Turning from the illusions of modern life, the faithful are now quietly returning to the spiritual disciplines that have profoundly shaped their history, and in fact have enabled their survival. This is the rebirth of orthodoxy” (p. ix). Orthodoxy, as he defines it, is the “integrated biblical teaching as interpreted in its most consensual classic period” (p. 29). The spiritual disciplines sustaining it, consequently, include: “close study of scripture, daily prayer, regular observance in a worshiping community, doctrinal integrity, and moral accountability” (p. ix)
Orthodoxy is a very personal issue for Oden, and some of the most interesting sections of this book are autobiographical. Reared in Oklahoma, he was baptized in his parents’ (fashionably liberal, social-gospel) Methodist church and nominally embraced the Christian faith. Off to college, he was prepped to acquire “my agnosticism from Nietzsche, my social views from radical Methodists and existentialists, and my theology (God help me, I confess) from Alan Watts” (p. 84). He then acquired a Ph.D. at Yale and began his teaching career. “Although it was assumed that I was teaching theology, my heart was focused on radical visions of social change and on the blatant politicizing of the mission of the church” (p. 84). He now confesses that he entered the “ministry” as a political strategy, looking for a lever of power with which to foment revolutionary social change. In a revealing footnote he confesses that “For me Marxism became radicalized early in the 1950s, and personalized in the figure of Ho Chi Minh, whom I unreservedly idolized as an agrarian Communist patriot ten years before America’s entry into the Vietnam war. My major mentors were almost all socialist or quasi-Marxist. Long before Vietnam I was a pacifist. Before Vietnam my ideology was formed around the group they wrote the Port Huron Statement; that same group later shaped the founding of the Students for Democratic Actoin” (p. 197).
His early years very much resembled Hillary Clinton’s! Both were reared Methodists, attended YaleUniversity for graduate work, avidly embraced the radical rhetoric of Saul Alinsky (an “unprincipled amoralist” who was the subject of Hillary’s senior thesis in college), espoused situation ethics, and avidly read motive, a radical religious journal for college-age Methodists. “That magazine fueled me intellectually during my heady years as a pacifist, existentialist, Tillichian, and aspiring Marxist” (p. 84-85). Hillary has kept all the issues she received, notes Barbara Olsen in Hell to Pay: The Unfolding Story of Hillary Clinton. Consequently, Oden says, “When I look now at Hillary’s persistent situational ethics, political messianism, statist social idealism, and pragmatic toughness, I see mirrored the self I was a few decades ago. Methodist social liberalism taught me how to advocate liberalized abortion and early feminism almost a decade before the works of Germaine Greer and Rosemary Radford Reuther further raised my consciousness” (p. 85). He was a prototypically “modern” religious studies professor, “only pretending to be a theologian” (p. 84).
The devastation wrought by thinkers such as himself cannot be ignored. Liberal churches have been imploding 40 years. Liberal leaders, controlling mainline seminaries and denominations, refuse to accept responsibility for the massive loss of members, still caressing “the fantasy that they have the high moral ground on sexuality issues, politically correct policing, and standard theological issues such as universal salvation” (p. 149). Conversely, conservative Evangelical churches have prospered, proving the thesis of Dean Kelly’s Why Conservative Churches are Growing. They uphold “scripture as the norm of faith and life, with a stress upon the believer’s experience of a personal relationship with Jesus as Lord and Savior, the only Son of God, and the Holy Spirit as enabler of a world-wide mission of proclamation. They maintain a biblical doctrine of the incarnation, atonement, and the Lord’s return.” They believe the Bible is God’s Word and that they are “saved through faith active in love”(p. 149).
Providentially, Oden (though remaining within his denomination) shifted from a Liberal to an Evangelical position as a result of his reading of Scripture and the Church Fathers. He discovered what he’d not found in his formal education: life-changing Truth, a Truth preserved, for 20 centuries, by “consensual” teaching, clearly evident in Church tradition. Eminent Fathers (especially Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, Gregory I, Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom) and Church councils (especially the first Seven Ecumenical Councils) laid a sound foundation for biblical interpretation and theological assertions. As a Methodist, Oden reveres John Wesley, and he cites, with approval, Wesley’s reliance upon “‘the most authentic commentators on Scripture, as being both nearest the fountain, and eminently endued with the Spirit by whom all Scripture was given. . . . I speak chiefly of those who wrote before the Council of Nice. But who would not likewise desire to have some acquaintance with those that followed them? With St. Chrysostom, Basil, Jerome, Austin [Augustine]; and above all, the man with a broken heart, Ephraim Syrus?'” (p. 99).
There is, thus, today a significant theological return to the sources of Christian dogma. If nothing else postmodernism has freed folks from the shackles of modernity. One can even espouse the allegedly antiquated positions of premodernism! To take the Bible as God’s Word, to uphold the facticity of the Resurrection, to take seriously the positions of Augustine and Aquinas and Wesley, are now permitted. And Oden shows how numbers of unusually talented young theologians are doing precisely that.
In that consensual tradition one also finds a basis for ecumenical harmony. What modern churches have failed to find through bureaucratic maneuvers is remarkably evident in a “new ecumenicism” drawing together devout Evangelicals, Catholics, and Orthodox. This makes sense since from the beginning Christianity has been gloriously multicultural! All around the globe believers respond to the Gospel, embrace Christ, and are brought into the fellowship of the redeemed. And they increasingly find themselves bound together by shared commitments to the same Lord. “The decisive classic text for orthodox ancient ecumenical method,” Oden says, is Vincent of Lerins’s Commonitory, a fourth century synthesis of those positions widely espoused by the Church. Vincent explained that when believers differed in their interpretation of Scripture they heeded traditional judgments. Vincent recognized man’s “‘insatiable lust for error,'” graphically evident in “‘a permanent desire to change religion, to add something and to take something away'” (p. 175). Thus, though they all embraced the Bible as their ultimate authority they recognized that not everyone had the right to interpret it on his own. To resolve differences he proposed what we know “as the Vincentian rule: In the worldwide community of believers every care should be taken to hold fast to what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all. Its Latin form reads: Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est” (p. 162).
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Somewhat similar views are set forth by Robert E. Webber, a distinguished Evangelical professor (long at Wheaton, now at North Park Seminary), in The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, c. 2002). Endorsing the words of one of his sources, Steve Gerali, Webber asserts: “‘the ContemporaryChurch, having been built and enmeshed in the generational values of the baby boomer, is alienating a generation of adolescents'” (p. 156). Younger Evangelicals are divorcing themselves from their “boomer” parents–much as their parents too frequently divorced each other! In a series of chapters–essentially repeating the same story, and generally citing the same sources and informants–Webber explains the positions and portrays the pastors, youth ministers, educators, and worship leaders who personify them.
Webber believes that Evangelicals have passed through three distinct stages since WWII. First, folks like myself (now “senior citizens”) identify with “traditionalists” like Billy Graham. Second, baby-boomers, born in the post-war era, developed the “pragmatic” approach best evident in mega-churches such as Willow Creek and Saddleback. Third, the coming generation–the “younger” evangelicals–seems increasingly distinguished (especially following 9/11/01) by its interaction with “a new form of American patriotism, a wave of conservative political philosophy, a new form of civil religion, an new economic tightening of resources, and a more disciplined life” (p. 47). Importantly, this new “world has led to the recovery of the biblical understanding of human nature. The language of sin, evil, evildoers, and a reaffirmation of the deceit and wickedness of the human heart has once again emerged in our common vocabulary” (p. 48). Accordingly, though reared in a relativistic culture, they hunger for absolute truths sufficient for guidance in life.
These younger evangelicals, in brief, reject modernity and look for guidance in the pre-modern world of orthodox theology and traditional morality. They’re interested in history, especially the story of the AncientChurch. They’re open to theological dogmas, particularly as defined by the Nicene Creed–sensing, as Flannery O’Connor said, that “‘dogma is an instrument for penetrating reality'” (p. 74). Preaching the Cross, calling for self-denying commitment, upholding high moral standards, they envision and hope to establish a different form of “church,” one more akin to that primitive believers. Exposed int public schools to classes in “values clarification” that prescribe purely subjective standards for morality, they understand the need for objective ethics. Though they seem anxious to find some absolutes, however, Webber’s younger evangelicals (paling themselves on the horns of an overt contradiction) also embrace some of postmodernism’s relativism. Taking an “anti-foundationalist” stance, they insist that Christianity is a story to be pondered, not a proposition to be understood.
As a seasoned professor, Webber richly documents his presentation. Anyone interested in the subject will find, in his notes and bibliography, ample books and web sites to pursue. He has contact with a large number of the younger evangelicals and obviously endorses their endeavors. (In part, one suspects, this is because they endorse positions he has advocated for some time!) Unfortunately, there are some distracting glitches and disquieting generalizations that detract from the book. Webber refers to “Armenians” when he means “Arminians.” He routinely refers to the “EarlyChurch” as a pattern for both himself and today’s younger evangelicals, but too often his assertions lack solid basis in the sources of that era. His notion, for example, that early Christians were disinterested in intellectual apologetics, preferring to illustrate their convictions through their lives, cannot square with the actual writings of Justin Martyr and Tertullian, two of the earliest apologists.
Finally, though there is a refreshing desire to escape “modernity” and be fully counter-cultural, these “younger evangelicals,” I suspect, are as enmeshed in their secular culture as were their predecessors in theirs. If one compares some of the tenets of Postmodernism with the views of Webber and his protagonists, one wonders if they have merely replaced the cultural compromises of modernism with similar compromises with postmodernism!
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