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A couple of months ago, I got chance to talk to some newly minted college grads looking for teaching jobs. They were all polite, well-rounded twenty-something kids that were professional in appearance and demeanor. I’m in Kentucky, so nearly all of them were some flavor of Christian — Methodists, Baptists, Catholics, the whole gamut. Two of them in particular stuck out as avatars of trend I had been noticing for a few years.
The first one, we’ll call him “Kurt,” was a young man that worked his way through college by running a small, labor-intensive business. He spent most of his time working while listening to books on his phone. He was a serious fellow, sharp and analytical. Over burgers, he talked about his childhood, balancing a belief in science with the belief in Christ, and how C.S. Lewis had shaped his opinion on human suffering. I imagine that he could be hard to get along with; his line of speech was direct and sometimes brusque. Still, I liked him. He spoke his mind and showed evidence that he had seriously considered all points of view before coming to a decision. He was excited about being a teacher because it gave him the opportunity to help young people work through these problems themselves. For a 24-year-old kid, he was quite impressive, the product of serious thought about the relationship between humanity and divinity.
The other kid, we’ll call her “Sally,” was an effervescent, bubbly young lady, a bright and engaging personality with a beaming smile to match. She was polite and well-mannered, seemingly the kind of kid we all want our kids to be. Under the well-polished veneer, though, I found something quite different. The more I talked to her, the more aware I became of just how superficial and even vain she was. She was selfie-obsessed, social-media obsessed, and only thought about ideas in the sense of how they affected her directly. When she spoke about teaching, it seemed that her primary interest was decorating her room with posters and writing good lesson plans. She seemed particularly interested in the virtue-signaling aspect of teaching, as if her choice to be a teacher was a long-term act of martyrdom that only the most pure and noble could undertake. Her limited understanding of the Christian faith revolved around platitudes and kitschy praise music. She talked a lot about what organizations she was a part of (teaching and Christian) but never about what she believed, how she arrived at those beliefs, or the greater implications of those beliefs.
In short, Kurt is a Christian. Sally, however, is merely playing at Christianity.
The Sallies of the world are far too common and they’re not exactly a new phenomenon. Kierkegaard noted the evolution of “comfortable Christianity” in the 19th century. To Kierkegaard, a great many — perhaps most — Christians were simply using the church as a social mechanism, aping meaningless rituals out of the need to belong to something. These comfortable Christians were fine with universal salvation of Christianity but not so keen on the whole “broken vessel / personal sacrifice / serious prayer” scene. Today, the much-bemoaned “prosperity gospel” of Joel Osteen and his ilk is the most notable example of our modern comfortable Christians, but the basic premise of “you be you” is more prevalent in local country churches than you might think.
In some ways, this shift to soft Christianity in mainstream America was predictable. I imagine it’s difficult to get anyone to sit through Jonathan Edwards Lite for an hour, much less a generation that complains when the avocado on their toast is non-organic. So, they get butts in the pews any way they know how, and “any way” always seems to involve telling 16-year-old kids how flippin’ awesome they are. Hollowing out the church in an attempt to pander to a fickle youth is dangerous in a myriad of ways. Such churches are creating a generation of pseudo-Christians, young people entering the adult world with an incomplete theology consisting of palatable Christian beliefs that are unmoored from their healthy counterbalances. They embrace pity without justice and easy grace without hard sacrifice. (It is worth noting that outside her of adorable fashion-necklace crucifix, Sally’s social views were virtually indistinguishable from a garden-variety social justice warrior). Take all that hard stuff out of Christianity and it’s not farfetched for one to imagine a quasi-hippie Jesus frolicking through the slums of Buenos Aries arm-in-arm with the Sanctified Che on a “freedom” march.
That is not to say that the hard lessons of Christianity aren’t being taught. There will always be a desire for the real deal, and those searching for an all-encompassing meaning to their lives will go and seek it, even if they must find it in unlikely places. Many lost young men — the people who need these tough lessons the most — find a similar code of self-sacrifice and personal responsibility in the military.
You could make an argument that the meteoric rise of Jordan Peterson has been predicated on his willingness to tell young people to embrace the idea that life is suffering and we must build ourselves into the kind of person that deserves God’s grace. (Somehow it makes sense in our age that the most profound Christian speaker of our generation is a Canadian kinda-sorta agnostic).
So there is hope for a type of young person that takes life and its responsibilities seriously. The church, though, stands at a perilous crossroads. Can the modern church reform itself from within? Can it stop its gradual slide from bulwark of western civilization to rudderless social club? Or will it be content to fade into the abyss, playing pretend with the greatest legacy the world has ever known?
“There is something frightful in the fact that the most dangerous thing of all, playing at Christianity, is never ever included in the list of heresies and schisms.” — Søren Kierkegaard