Now America is suffused with generational consciousness, even though “generation” as usually defined is a hopelessly blunt instrument. Whole generations (defined as people sharing a common range of birthdates) have very little in common in a country as diverse as the U.S., even in the age of pop culture. If you doubt this, put a ten-year-old from Palo Alto in the same room with the daughter of a migrant farmworker from the Central Valley, and see what they have to say to one another. There ought to be a warning label on most every work of generational analysis published for popular consumption (as opposed to professional marketers and sociologists, who know better): “Applies to Affluent Suburbanites Only.” Massive fissures in American culture are obscured by generationalism’s relentlessly broad brush.
True, the eagerness of the Baby Boomers to tap into, and if necessary create, powerful “generational” identities in order to market more effectively has something of the effect of a self-fulfilling prophecy. But it’s remarkable how inaccurate many predictions about generations have been, beginning with the Baby Boomers, who were going to be anti-authoritarian and pro-environment, until they read the latest research on smoking’s links with cancer and got behind the wheel of a Ford Expedition, respectively. Gen Xers were doomed to a life of slackerdom, until nine-figure IPOs and Palm Vs were dangled in front of them. Today the Millennials are civic-minded, teamwork-oriented, industrious do-gooders (when they’re not pale-skinned Quake addicts shooting up their high school); tomorrow, who knows?
The piece is over a decade old now, but couldn’t be more timely. The generational analysis game has been played in recent years largely to sell books and host conferences, as people’s anxieties have grown about all the young folks who are leaving behind the church.
I have participated in it plenty around Mere-O, though my only tepid defense would be that I’ve done so self-consciously and somewhat subversively: my point here, after all, is that the “new evangelical scandal” ain’t so different from the old. (And in the introduction to my book, I actually published that precise warning.)
At the same time, “generational analysis” doesn’t quite capture what’s driving the conversation about young evangelicals. As folks are fond of pointing out, Joel Hunter fits the bill for what marks many (so called) young evangelicals and he’s a, um, wiser fellow. The real question of whether there are shifts in evangelicalism has never been so easily solved by the sociologists, at least not those who are primarily empirically driven. The move is an attempt to change tones, a tinkering with the ethos of evangelicalism.
But still, Andy’s essay is a wise and important caution for all of the armchair observers and interpreters of the evangelical world. The question we must face is whether our constant prattling about “young evangelicals” and the like (which, thankfully, has gone down with less frequency over the past twelve months) is actually contributing to the cultural captivity of evangelicalism even as we seek to overcome it, by reinforcing a problematic way of segmenting ourselves even while we seek to understand ourselves.