There are plenty of criticisms offered against today's American youth and young adults. And despite the fact that I turn 40 in a few weeks, I still consider myself among them: a kindred spirit of cultural orphans, still sifting through the detritus of an evaporating American Dream to figure out who we might be without it.
Alisa Harris' memoir, "Raised Right: How I Untangled My Faith from Politics," reflects on the apparent cultural, spiritual and economic desert time in which we find ourselves. We have witnessed the carnage of a financial system that was intended to perpetually buoy a nation, but whose "invisible hand" has instead crushed the dreams of millions. We've watched as the two-headed political serpent attacks itself until it is impotent. We've seen religious figures scandalize their institutions empty, as a generation walks away in search of something more relevant to their daily struggle.
One of the few common threads among us is our shared embrace of iconoclasm. While labeled as rebelliousness for the sake of itself by some, it's more a symptom of a culture whose intense self-awareness has yielded either jingoistic narcissism or resigned nihilism. And both sides are convinced the other is both void of heart and intent on their destruction.
Why do we shrug off labels? Each seems weighed down by its own repugnant sense of self-righteousness. Why do we step away from our parents' religious and political convictions? Because both have failed us, intent on self-sustenance before serving any greater purpose to better the human condition. Instead, we pick and choose from our daily experience as we find identities and causes that fit, not satisfied to permanently ally ourselves with any particular group, lest we get fooled once again into placing our trust in something that doesn't merit it.
Two quotes from Harris' book stood out to me as definitive of the postmodern Christian American. Both suggest a custom-tailored identity that older generations label as opportunistic, but which younger ones understand as our only option for survival. She describes her college friend as "cool in the 'Evangelical ex-homeschooler who quotes the Aneid in Latin while drinking whiskey and smoking a pipe' type of way." Such a combination of attributes betrays both a longing for grounding, while also seeking liberation from old expectations.
A second description of a friend from New York City points at why so many today struggle to find any group or label they consider palatable. Harris calls her friend "a fiscal Republican, a social Democrat, a pro-lifer who didn't believe in banning abortion, and a Christian who didn't think Jesus cared so much whether people were gay."
It's reasonable to see why those within the established systems claim we stand for nothing. On the contrary, the friction lies in the disconnect between what we do stand for and what the systems that have so long taken power for granted say we should believe.
It's no surprise we've walked away from traditional institutions in droves; we feel we owe them precisely what they've given us.
The redemption of such cultural ambiguity is that assumptions and stereotypes fall short more often than they apply, causing us to have to take people more at face value, discerning what they believe through face-to-face discourse. We crave more intimate, direct connection with one another because, in doing so, we hope to find out more about who we are as well.
It is here, as Harris points out, that real change takes place: where two or more are gathered. The talking points and ready-made labels fall short, giving way to a deeper concern for the humanity at the center of each life. The effect on her was that she "determined not to let dogma swallow up my personality and poison my sense of charity. I promised myself that I would remember that people are more important than clinging to beliefs."
Call it cynical, iconoclastic or even destructive to the fabric of society, but placing humanity above ideals seems the only hope we have for living out Christ's call to love one another as ourselves. In so much as politics and religion both have failed to yield the result they had promised, it's now up to us to plant new seeds, together, one at a time.