Virtual Faith: the Gen-X Quest for Meaning

We're not spiritual slackers - but spirituality without religion risks being a harmful idolatry of individualism.

Perhaps it's not America's third Great Awakening, but something of a spiritual revival is at work in our so-called Generation X. The popular culture of my generation is awash in religious imagery, expressing a widespread spiritual quest on the part of ordinary twenty- and thirtysomethings.

Those "What Would Jesus Do" bracelets you may be seeing, for example, are an expression by some Christians of a much wider spiritual sensibility at work in the culture.

And just listen to recent popular songs.

Jewel asks "Who will save your soul?" U2's Bono croons to Jesus: "Wake up, dead man." Alanis Morrisette, reflecting on her Roman Catholic upbringing, sings "What I learned I rejected but I believe again. I will suffer the consequence of this inquisition. If I jump in this fountain, will I be forgiven?"

Ani DiFranco performed a cover of "Amazing Grace" on a recent album. Joan Osborne asked famously, "What if God was one of us?" A recent Puff Daddy video features an encounter between the artist and a living crucified Jesus. And spiritual search themes suffuse two recent soundtracks for the musical "Rent" and the movie "City of Angels."

These are just a few examples from the new spiritual milieu of pop culture.

What in heaven is going on with our X generation? While spiritual themes often appear in American culture, an important shift is occurring. For a generation widely presumed to be indifferent to religion, religious themes and images are strikingly prevalent. It may be overstating things to declare that God is on everyone's mind, but, God - or at least a quest for meaning beyond the world of banality - is nearly a mainstream topic.

My observations contradict many of the most vociferous cultural commentators who think that Gen-Xers and our pop culture are largely indifferent to issues of faith, if not headed in the fast lane down the highway to hell, the autobahn greased with the slippery sewage of pop culture.

I don't want to simplistically bless my generation or its pop culture, but neither do I think the situation is nearly as irreligious, heretical, or dire as these pundits or preachers would have us believe. True, our generation still is in need of access to life-giving religious communities, rituals, and traditions, but please don't think that we're not already well along the way on our own spiritual journeys.

That our popular culture is laced with an interest in spirituality doesn't mean that a majority of my generation longs for a repeat of past pieties, whether a return to the 1950s (as some conservatives think) or a revival of the 1960s (as many liberals fervently hope). The spiritualities - and they are plural - of our generation are often a mishmash of the traditional and the contemporary.

I'm a regular at church, and yet I find spiritual meaning in U2's "With or Without You," Puff Daddy's "Victory," Sarah McLachlan's "Sweet Surrender," and Ani DiFranco's rendition of "Amazing Grace."

But our spirituality isn't only pop-cultured, it tends toward irreverence. Madonna, an icon of Gen-X pop culture, merges sexuality with Catholic symbols. The popularity of piercing and tattoos suggest, among other things, a quest for an experience of permanence in a culture of flux. And, like many in my generation - and not unlike St. Teresa of Avila who levitated in ecstasy in church - I find that playing bass in a rock band is often as close as I get to God, in an experience that most churches can never match.

My interest in this quiet explosion of spirituality doesn't mean that I'm in favor of simply equating, for example, Joan Osborne with John's Gospel. That would be to turn pop culture into one more idol that distracts us from a spiritual life. Rather, the spiritual quality of much of our pop culture is a recognition that God is not contained by the pronouncements of prelates or within the walls of a religious institution. The presence of God in our friends, lovers, communities, and even cultural expressions is an experience many in our generation have already had. This is a contemporary expression of St. Ignatius's challenge to Christians to "find God in all things." Though our ways of seeking and finding may sometimes bear as much sin as grace, my generation is trying nevertheless.

We're not spiritual slackers. While many in my generation are more open to finding God outside of institutions, this doesn't mean we have overcome all spiritual struggles. Many of us fight to avoid giving over our identities to the market culture - a market culture that not only can express the spiritualities of a generation but also distorts and manipulates that spirituality, whittling it down to a "retro" product to be bought and sold, whether for some women Birkenstocked, beaded, and braless, or for some men goateed, grungy, and gangsta-ed.

Unlike many of my peers, I'm not quite ready to throw out religious institutions, because they may be the last line of defense to help my generation avoid being overtaken by market culture. I hope that's the case, despite many institutions' inabilities to creatively engage pop culture.

But that doesn't mean our suspicion of, or indifference to, religious institutions is unwarranted. There is often a prophetic quality in a person who walks away from institutions that are paternalistic, irrelevant, or even abusive. I know many twenty- or thirty-somethings who have given up on religious institutions, and yet are living more authentically religious lives than those who keep a personal scorecard of their attendance at worship services - and think that God does the same. Yes, volunteerism is in. Hypocrisy is out. Tolerance is our fundamental commitment - except when it comes to smug and exclusivist religious institutions.

As the rock band King's X sings, in a line many of Generation X understand: "I had to run, I had to hide in the world outside. A better chance out there, if God is everywhere."

It takes courage to challenge, like the great Danish theologian Sren Kierkegaard, the triumphalistic attitudes of many church leaders. But I not only want to challenge religious leaders to take our pop culture seriously as a generational spiritual expression, I want to challenge my peers: Where do you go when you've left institutional religion?

"Spirituality" without "religion" runs the risk of becoming another version of American civil religion, an idolatry of individualism that can be as harmful to one's soul as the most restrictive religious institution.

This is another place where institutions still have a role to play, and can teach Generation X. Religious institutions can point out the limits of tolerance (What behaviors do we not tolerate, and why?). They offer the spiritual value of volunteerism (loving God by loving neighbor). And they give the tools for people to interpret their lives and their culture lovingly, critically, and with an orientation toward what theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "the beyond in the midst of our lives."

Will religious institutions be able to accommodate the segment of the twenty- to thirty-something generation that I'm describing?

Much hinges on what kinds of teachers institutions will become. For the mainline religions, for example, their theologians and ministers must reconsider either their uncritical acceptance of or simplistic hostility toward popular culture.

They must rediscover an attitude of humility and realize that real "authority" will only be had through the power not of badgering, but of serving. And they must offer something that my generation won't find on the self-help shelves of the local bookstore.

If my generation is willing to think critically about our lives in culture, and if religious institutions are willing to take our pop culture and our own spiritual experiences seriously, then perhaps institutions and Generation X can really teach and learn from each other. Both would be much better off, and both could make the most of that generation's spiritual awakening expressed in our popular culture.

* Tom Beaudoin is the author of 'Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X' (Jossey-Bass/Simon and Schuster, 1998). He is studying for a PhD in religion and education at Boston College.

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