042 Generation X?


A recent article by Andres Tapia in Christianity Today (September 12, 1994), “Reaching the First Post-Christian Generation,” notes that the 38 million young people born between 1963 and 1977 have grown up in “a world of MTV, AIDS, and a trillion-dollar debt.” They are, some writers contend, radically different from their parents, whose values and aspirations they largely reject.

To gain insight into this generation, I highly recommend A Generation Alone: Xers Making a Place in the World by William Mahedy and Janet Bernardi (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, c. 1994). Mahedy has taught, served as a missionary and army chaplain. (Today’s youths have many traumatized traits in common with the war veterans he earlier worked with!). He’s been college chaplain for the Episcopal Church in San Diego for 12 years. Bernardi is engaged in medical research at the University of California, San Diego, Medical Center, and coordinates campus ministries for the Episcopal Church. Mahedy represents the “silent generation” and Bernardi speaks for the “Xers.” Both cast critical eyes on the “boomers” in between!

Their study, Bernardi confesses, reveals “some startling, disturbing facts. We have discovered the impact of anomie–the lack of moral standards in society–on my generation” (p. 11). In Mahedy’s judgment, “the spiritual and psychological problems of young adults and teenagers were far worse than” those faced by earlier generations (p. 13).

There’ve been warnings in the past, issued by researchers such as Richard Chessick who, in 1977, predicted that we were creating a culture which incubates emotional and personal disorders. As he said, “‘Today’s children are caught up in the current whirlwind of barbarism. This provides a counterforce from which only the very strongest adolescents can emerge unscathed'” (p. 29).

This “barbarism,” Mahedy thinks, “is at root unbridled selfishness–the worst kind of immorality. It takes many forms, but most disastrous is family breakup” (p. 46). The lack of character which underlies broken commitments, the brutalization of youngsters’ psyches when those they most naturally trust betray them, has begun to stamp our culture with its normlessness–a lack of moral principle which underlies much of the violence in the streets our politicians love to lament.

Some commonalities unite the Xers. Most have seen their parents divorce and had working mothers. They’re the “first generation of ‘latchkey’ kids” (p. 17). Many have been abused, often by a stepparent, or neglected. Parents have abandoned our their offspring, letting them to chart their own moral and spiritual pathways, leaving them bruised and cynical about a society which declares (by its actions) them liabilities, hindrances to adult pleasures, as disposable as unwanted embryos.

While well-educated, Xers find employment problematic as sophisticated technologies eliminate the need for human workers. They know their elders have placed them in hock, drawing borrowed money to subsidize a multitude of entitlements, willing to leave their kids and grandkids awash in astronomical debt. In a passing note, Mahedy refers to a statement he heard years ago while in Japan as a missionary, when an old German missionary asserted that the great challenge was not Japanese culture. “‘The real question is, How do you preach the gospel to a technological civilization?'” (p. 146).

Consequently, Bernardi says, “We Xers have paid the emotional price for the consumer society in which our elders have participated so fervently” (p. 18). What defines them, she thinks, is “aloneness” (p. 19), an aloneness which leaves them longing for the family they never had. Often “successful” in careers, living with roommates or lovers, Xers are much “like random molecules bumping into other molecules” (p. 21). They distrust people and fear to make commitments lest they be hurt.

They distrust institutions as much as persons. Xers have little interest in traditional politics or traditional religion in their institutional forms. But they are deeply aware of a “space” reserved for God in their heart of hearts. They long for an authentic “community” which will provide them the family they never knew. Indeed, “Restoration of community is the primary need for Generation X” (p. 82). A Gospel which restores relationships, a Gospel which brings persons into harmony, will find a hearing among this generation.

Having themselves walked the via dolorossa, having felt the agony of their own calvaries, Xers easily identify with the crucified Christ and are drawn to His saving Grace. The very thing which haunts them–aloneness–may be transformed, for as Mahedy says, “Aloneness is empowerment and grace when it cries out to God to fill the empty spaces in the soul. Aloneness is a strength because it can become a place of real solitude wherein one can hear the subtle whisperings of God” (p. 177).

Longing for something–or Someone–to give life meaning, they’re open to the Word which brings Light. There is, in fact, great opportunity for the Christian Church if it wants to reach the “twenty-somethings.” As Bernardi testifies: “Many of us walk through the valley of death by walking to our cars, going to the cash machine or standing in a post office. We fear evil, and there is little comfort, because we feel alone.

“But some of us,” she continues, “have found a place where there is solace and comfort, and goodness and love. we were invited into the house of the Lord, and a table was set for us. God was waiting for us. He anointed our heads with oil, and we found that our cups were never empty” (p. 136). For the Xers, Mahedy adds, the best “paradigm” for the church is an oasis (p. 143).

We who work with the Xers need to be especially concerned with the integrity of our lives. They frequently lack self-discipline but want it; they need that we “pay more attention to the formation of good habits through the practice of self-discipline” (p. 109). They long for strong families, and they need to find in the Church some lasting illustrations of vows kept sacred. They’ve lived out the sexual ethos of their elders, proved its failure, and wonder if in fact something sacred really attends the marriage bond.

“Boomers in their youth,” writes Mahedy in an insightful passage, “confused the statement of an ideal with its attainment. They still do. ‘Make love, not war’ was and still is a nice sound bite, but it has little meaning as a statement of complex reality. It has no reference to the way the world works” (p. 126). To the Boomers, saying things makes them so, singing songs makes things change, imagining peace makes the world safe! Since the ’60’s we’ve been afflicted with elders who “talk the talk” but don’t “walk the walk.”

Xers want to walk the walk, Mahedy and Bernardi insist. If some of us who are their elders, will lend a hand, there’s opportunity for us to join them in that enterprise. From such may come the re-making of our world!

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I recently spoke at SNU and picked up a book recommended by Don Dunnington, A Heart for Truth: Taking Your Faith to College (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, c. 1992), by Greg Spencer. SNU uses the book for its freshman experience, and I share Don’s enthusiasm for it. Spencer chairs the de-partment of communication studies at Westmont College in Santa Barbara. He has worked with InterVarsity and Young Life, so he brings to his writing a nice balance of academic and practical preparation, knowing how to talk to collegians.

First Spencer urges young people to examine their motives for attending college. Those who see a college degree as a “ticket to a job,” thinking education is merely a means to an end, find general education courses a waste of time and devise ingenious ways to slide through college as painlessly as possible. Rightly pursued, however, a college education is its own end! Learning is intrinsically worthwhile, and studying is a way of loving God with our minds. So Spencer challenges his readers to cultivate, as the book’s title suggests, “a heart for truth.”

One of the truths to be discovered is truth concerning one’s self. Sadly enough, one UCLA researcher says: “‘The saddest thing of all is that they don’t have the quest to understand things, especially to understand themselves'” (p. 68). A Christian with a heart for truth, however, has the marvelous opportunity to discover his divine design, to glimpse in her image something of the Creator’s likeness.

Given the fact that we’re flawed by sin, we naturally find it difficult to love ourselves once we discover (and admit) who we are! Rather than trot in the humanistic gospel of self-esteem, however, Spencer urges readers to humbly confess their sins and discover thereby the Grace of God which enables us to love Him and others as He intends. Love, for collegians, leads to involvement with the opposite sex. Since a sociological study reveals that collegians list “a poor decision about sex” at the top of their regrets (p. 126), Spencer devotes several helpful chapters to this subject, detailing the perennial truthfulness of the Christian call to chastity and marital fidelity.

After exposing the shallowness of many secular prescriptions, which glibly celebrate the pleasures of fornication, the author quotes a passage from Mike Mason’s The Mystery of Marriage to justify his judgment that sex is something sacred: “‘Exposure of the body in a personal encounter is like the telling of one’s deepest secret: afterwards there is no going back, no pretending that the secret is still one’s own or that the other does not know. It is, in effect, the very last step in human relations, and therefore never one to be taken lightly. . . . . As a gesture symbolic of perfect trust and surrender, it requires the security of the most perfect of reassurances and commitments into which two people can enter, which is no other than the loving contract of marriage'” (p. 126).

To avoid some of the temptations leading to pre-marital intercourse, Spencer urges us to replace “dating” with “courting,” refusing to pair off and get physical until some very serious, marriage-oriented, verbal commitments have been made. (I’m not sure this argument can be won, but it’s an intriguing proposition!)

Finally, Spencer turns his attention to the intellectual challenges of college. Thinking is difficult, and we tend to avoid difficult tasks. Thinking christianly is even more difficult, in some ways, because we must exercise both faith and reason. Here he cites a statement by Charles Malik, a philosopher and former ambassador to the United Nations from Lebanon, who declared that “‘the greatest danger confronting American evangelical Christianity is the danger of anti-intellectualism. The mind in its greatest and deepest reaches is not cared for enough. People who are in a hurry to get out of the university and start earning money or serving the church or preaching the gospel have no idea of the infinite value of spending years of leisure conversing with the greatest minds and souls of the past, ripening and sharpening and enlarging their powers of thinking'” (p. 160).

Our college years should be devoted to sharpening and enlarging our mental powers. Such is our calling! Focused on college freshmen, this book is well-written and would help for young people in the transition from home to college.

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The process of maturation which takes place in college is part of the broader life-experience discussed in Maturity Is a Choice: Not Everyone Who Grows Old Chooses to Grow Up by Karol Hess and Doug McCulley (Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company, c. 1994). The authors begin their treatise with a statement by Warren Wiersbe which gives the book its title: “‘Not everyone who grows old, grows up. There is a vast difference between age and maturity'” (p. 15). Consequently, Wiersbe continues, there are “problems–problems in personal lives, in homes, and in churches.”

Though we may need it, the authors lament, “Mature character is becoming an antiquated notion. Today’s instant generation has little respect for diligence or tolerance for patience. Instant gratification is preferable to diligence. Cleverness has replaced character and integrity” (p. 16). To counteract this the authors have written this book! To discuss any subject, it’s always wise to carefully define it. In brief: “Maturity is tested strength” (p. 178). Hess and McCulley insist maturity is something attained while walking the right road, whose end is ultimate maturity or perfection. In a very real sense, a 15 year-old can be “mature” for his age, though lacking some of the skills of an “immature” 35 year-old. Primarily, maturity is a goal to be pursued, so it’s always an elusive mirage which allures us. But it is, in fact, composed of qualities which we can, furthermore, acquire as we seek to attain it.

Mature people are “dependable, responsible, and consistent” (p. 20). They’ve learned from the ups and downs of life. They live proactively rather than reactively. They learn to look at their world as objectively as possible, learning to discern right from wrong, accurately reading reality, dealing with the truth about their own potential as well as the world’s conditions.

Doing so frees them from the dysfunctional behaviors so prevalent in our world. “One of the common indicators of dysfunction is being Over- or under-responsible,” say the authors. “One of the earmarks of maturity is being able to discriminate between those things for which we are and are not responsible. Many of us continue to do for others what they should be doing for themselves” (p. 226).

One way to stay on the right road, the route called maturity, is to straighten our “crooked thinking.” Healthy thinking keeps one sane as well as helps one mature! Such thinking keeps us in touch with reality, keeps us from living in imaginary worlds. We need to see people as they really not as we wish they were. All too often, in our hunger approval, we blind ourselves to their real character. “We yearn for acceptance from others,” say the authors, “and may even allow this craving to override what we know to be right and true. This is the essence of codependency. To live for approval is to be at the mercy of everyone from whom we want that approval” (p. 59).

To keep us from being sucked into such emotional swamps, Hess and McCulley urge us to follow the insights of Albert Ellis and the views he set forth in Rational Emotive Theory. If we learn to respond to events by thinking about them, insisting our emotions follow our thoughts, then the behavior which follows will be healthy and contribute to the maturing process. Christians, especially, can rely upon the truth of Scripture and the enlightening power of the Holy Spirit in this process.

Building upon this foundation, the authors discuss how to build strong persons, strong families, strong relational bonds, strong inner lineaments which sustain us in turbulent times. They include lots of case studies, charts and quotations. They conclude the book with a distinctly Christian 12-Step process which leads us to step out on the maturity route.

In Jay Kessler’s judgment, “We have become all too much a ‘nation of victims’ largely because we refuse to accept the principles in this book and act upon them. . . . A must in a whining, flailing world!” Lewis Smedes declares this book “will do every reader of world of good.” To such plaudits, from men I respect, I append my amen!

* * * *

While serving as Secretary of Education, William Bennett delivered a variety of speeches, 24 of which were edited to constitute a volume entitled Our Children and Our Country: Improving America’s Schools and Affirming the Common Culture (New York: Simon and Schuster, c. 1988). Given the enormous success of the anthology Bennett recently published, A Book of Virtues, it’s helpful to ponder his own views as espoused in these talks.

In a sense, Bennett’s underlying theme is summed up in a profound statement by William James who, speaking of Harvard a century ago, declared: “‘The only rational ground for pre-eminent admiration of any single college would be its preeminent spiritual tone'” (p. 139).

Bennett’s first chapter proposes that we add to the traditional Three R’s an equally important Three C’s: “content, character, and choice” (p. 15). Character especially needs attention. Long ago, Frederick Douglass declared: “‘What we want . . . is character. . . . It is a thing we must get for ourselves. We must labor for it. It is gained by toil–hard toil. . . . It is attainable; but we must attain it, and attain it each for himself. I cannot for you, and you cannot for me'” (p. 56).

Schools, as well as individuals, may or not have character. “Orderliness,” Bennett insists, “must prevail in a school aspiring to transmit good character. Only a school run in a disciplined manner can teach self-discipline to students” (p. 19). Such discipline, he stresses in other speeches, includes simple strategies such as the orderly arrangement of chairs in classrooms and dress codes for students. The “good” schools he visited, many of which lacked lauded funds and facilities, were mainly distinguished by discipline. Kids actually want it, learn better with it, and lose their best opportunity to succeed in life when deprived of it.

What they don’t need, and what demonstrably fails to help them, are such courses as “drug education” and “sex education.” About all such courses do is encourage more experimentation in the areas “studied.” Here he cites Larry Cuban, a Stanford University professor, whose study of sex education documents the fact that “Decade after decade . . . statistics have demonstrated the ineffectiveness of such courses in reducing sexual activity, unwanted pregnancies, and venereal disease among teenagers. . . . In the arsenal of weapons to combat teenage pregnancy, school-based programs are but a bent arrow. However, bent arrows do offer the illusion of action'” (p. 93).

Schools, Bennett always insists, must tend to their knitting. Teachers have a job to do. As Plato long ago insisted, the most important task anyone assumes is that of “educating” the younger generation. Our country, as well as the students, needs the very best education we can deliver, something too few of them now receive.

Every generation must rise to the challenge of its day, which requires, Goethe said, that “‘You must labor to possess what you have inherited'” (p. 214). Still more, says the Czech novelist Milan Kundera, in a sobering statement, “‘the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting'” (p. 216). There’s much at stake when we teach . . . or fail to teach . . . our children!