I’m a bit late on this because I decided to let it sit for a while before I let myself respond. The trouble is, Brett McCracken is once again suggesting that “searching” young Christians love to hear their own questions bounce off the walls:

“The Search” is the name of my blog, but it’s hardly meant to be a celebration of the act of searching in itself. I’m always searching, not aimlessly or without purpose, but to find answers. To find truth. To see how it all connects and to progress in life.

More and more these days, however, I see “searching” held up as a value unto itself. I see “discussion” and “dialogue” becoming fetishized as the most valuable end, as if the suggestion that they were merely a means to an end was somehow naïve or demeaning.  I see my elders patting my cynical, intellectually fragmented peers on the back saying, “great questions,” but not offering wisdom or guidance in the direction of answers or truth. It’s sad, really. …

We are a generation of navel-gazing, pseudo-intellectual youths who enjoy hearing ourselves speak and love sounding intellectual and playing at discourse. We are born searchers, but we don’t know what we are searching for. We like the idea of intellectual discussion. But we don’t trust truth, facts, and answers, and thus prefer to dwell in the land of questions. Furthermore, we don’t have the proper boundaries, foundation, or directional motivation to make any sense out of anything anyway.

That’s why we need guidelines, structure, purpose, a raison d’etre. To set off on a journey without a destination in mind is not to journey; it’s to wander. And in this world—with its collapsing empires, volatile markets, surging unemployment and widespread suffering—we don’t have the luxury of just wandering.

We’ve been over this a few times before, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that I find this line of argument not just tiresome in its dogged persistence and demonstrable wrongness, but also in its cynicism. I used to think that writers of my generation who said this kind of thing were trying to ingratiate themselves with “elder” editorial gatekeepers, to gain entry to Big League Christian publications. That was just a guess, and probably an unfair one, because it seems like at least some of them are attacking their own generation in complete sincerity. I don’t understand the motives, and neither do I understand how it can all be viewed so cynically.

The first reason is because it’s factually untrue. I’ll take Brett’s word for it that he probably knows some young Christians who hold up searching “as a value unto itself,” and who are “navel-gazing, pseudo-intellectual youths who enjoy hearing [them]selves speak and love sounding intellectual and playing at discourse.” I probably know some, too. But on the whole, this is not what is coming from the evangelical and post-evangelical generation that has recently become adults. There’s bitterness, disenchantment, uncertainty, sure, and many of them probably go through periods where they are very “into” the idea of being intellectual in an immature way. But give them a break. This is not where they are staying. They are actively, aggressively seeking answers to their questions, not just “wandering.” They are finding new church traditions, finding principled reasons to leave the church altogether, reading difficult books, writing books, doing crucial and fascinating scholarship, making art, and learning new ways that justice and love can be a part of their lives even when church fails to make sense.

The idea that this generation is on the whole “psuedo-intellectual” floors me. I know groups of young evangelicals and ex-evangelicals all across the country, and I wouldn’t describe a single one of them that way. They are vastly more intellectual than the preceding generation, in part because they’ve had no choice. Whether they are working on new theology to defend Christian orthodoxy or to challenge it, there’s nothing psuedo about it. One could say they’re “navel-gazing” if by that you mean having a passion or feeling compelled to apply their lives to studying the tradition that shaped them. Or figuring out how to pick up the pieces of shattered worlds and move forward. But just like always, I’m baffled when Christians who are no stranger to what growing up evangelical can do to a person write this sort of complaint about how annoying the self-absorbed, navel-gazing youths are. Seriously? Maybe they have a lot to think about, a lot of searching to do. Maybe they haven’t been given many acceptable answers. Maybe it takes quite some time to go find those answers for yourself, like so many of have had to do. But just like in his book, Brett sees all of this as a pose—a faddish way of being, a deliberate holding out on just getting down to living like we’ve been told.

Part of Brett’s annoyance with his generation comes from the facts that he seems to be essentially a Biblical literalist, and doesn’t understand why that’s not enough for everyone else. This is what he seems to mean by young Christians lacking “proper boundaries, foundation, or directional motivation” and needing “guidelines, structure, purpose, a raison d’etre.” Very well, but whose? It’s fine with me if he’s hammered out his own, or embraced the ones that were handed down. But the truth is, a lot of people just aren’t there anymore, or maybe they aren’t there yet. Brett says he isn’t looking for “dogmatic assertions of certainty,” but he’s arguing that certainty is required if the search is to lead anywhere. Remember, the certainty has to come from somewhere. If the foundations of certainty are shaken, and many of McCracken’s “youths” believe they have been, they have to be rebuilt, or it has to be decided if they should be rebuilt. And that takes time, work and searching.

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About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

0 Responses to In Defense of the Search

  1. Nelson Chavez says:

    “They are finding new church traditions…”

    There’s no such thing. If it’s new, it isn’t a tradition.

    “…and learning new ways that justice and love can be a part of their lives even when church fails to make sense.”

    In other words, they are becoming liberals. How’s that working out for the churches that did that 100 years ago?

    “Part of Brett’s annoyance with his generation comes from the facts that he seems to be essentially a Biblical literalist…”

    I don’t know what a “Biblical literalist” is and neither do you. It is an meaningless ad hominem that you chose as a substitute for “hillbilly fundamentalist and possible racist, sexist homphobe.”

  2. Maybe I’m missing some intra-evangelical coded language, but I don’t really see the argument here. I don’t know who Brett’s talking about, I don’t know who you’re talking about, and I certainly don’t see the use in these sorts of generalizations about “our generation,” absent references to particular movements, books, preachers, etc. (Does he have some of your friends in mind? I don’t even know.)

    Yes, Brett thinks that a (vague) older generation of Evangelicals has something valuable to teach, and you don’t. As you indicate in the last paragraph, there’s a disagreement on substance; that’s where the argument is. Not in this stuff about process. Actually, maybe that’s what really counts as navel-gazing on both sides: casting a disagreement over theology and ecclesiology as an argument about “searching.”

    And you’ve really never met a pseudo-intellectual young evangelical?

  3. Gary Horsman says:

    I don’t think either of you is that far off from each other. Maybe it’s a question of semantics? Neither denies the need for people for search for answers and neither denies that some answers are out there for the finding. Perhaps there’s a generation gap in terms of characterizing just what proportion of young people go beyond the search phase. Sometimes there’s overlap between finding answers and searching at the same time. The real tragedy would be those who think they already know anything and don’t believe they need to learn or grow. And I’ll bet you both would be in agreement on that.

  4. Gary Horsman says:

    My apologies. I meant to say ‘everything’ instead of ‘anything’.

  5. Timothy says:

    McCracken’s comments remind me of things Rob Bell has said (and continues to say) about the need to ‘search’, discuss, re-think, and re-apply Scripture (see the first few chapters of Velvet Elvis if you don’t know what I’m talking about).

    Perhaps McCracken is just unhappy that those who are searching may very well be moving away from his tradition.

    At any rate, on a psychological level, the idea that our generation is going to continue to search without ever defining their values seems unlikely. How long can someone search for something before they settle down somewhere?

  6. dustin says:

    Well put David. For the skeptics/contemplators like myself who sincerely love the Gospel, follow Jesus, trust scripture, etc. it feels like comments a la McCracken don’t offend so much as don’t grasp what contemplation amongst the youngsters is really about, how it’s not a blithe rejection of all traditions or received convictions; just an honest-to-goodness asking. Don’t know how asking questions got so sinister between when Jesus did it in the Gospels and now…

  7. Heatherly says:

    Seems we are missing forests and trees. This isn’t a young generation vs the old generation issue. This is an archetype vs archetype argument, and as such both archetypes are such over drawn stereotypes, that they can only partially reflect any one person’s feelings or stance. That said, let’s go with it.

    So, one group believes that there are functional parameters (guidelines, structure, purpose, a raison d’etre) for legitimately exploring a theological issue. Okay, this seems reasonable when you consider other disciplines. (warning argument by metaphor) For example: The only people who can credibly question gravity are physicists. The only people who can justifiably investigate human variation are population geneticist. These professionals share a common base of knowledge and ethics that allow a depth and direction to their inquiries which legitimates their conclusions. Where as a person lacking in these basic foundations could come to conclusions that are foolish or dangerous. (Not-quite-physicists: “I can fly!” Not-quiet-geneticists: “Eugenics, what a great idea!”) Why should theology be any different? Without a firm shared set of beliefs and a common recognition of what is True, theological inquiry can give rise to everything from cults to dreaded liberal theology, but with it, we can achieve a deeper understanding of our God or as McCracken put it “find answers… find truth… see how it all connects and to progress in life.”

    But then there is another group which says, “Of Course Theology is different!” First, because the question of belief itself has to be sorted out by every person, either individually or corporately, regardless of their background in the discipline of theology or even their knowledge of God. Secondly because the history of Theology itself can be interpreted as a constant setting up and tearing down of shared beliefs and common Truth. With all the centuries of Theological inquiry do we really believe that we have found better answers, truth and understanding “of how it all connects?” Do we understand God better now, than the early Christians did? When we are honest with ourselves, we find that all this history of theological inquiry has allowed us to understand God differently, but not better than those who came before. Now we have to reconcile those different understandings. Will we call some understandings wrong and some understandings right? And if we do, what will we base it on? There might not every be answers to these questions in this world, but the asking is still important.

    I see the first archetypes point about the dangers of divergent theology. It really can lead to terrible things. I also see the second archetypes point about the problems of believing that we know God best when history only proves that we know God differently.

  8. Jim says:

    I cannot help but think that the quote from McCracken was written by a young urbanite hipster. It smacks of feminism and lacks the virtuous characteristics of a man of faith. More Oprah than David. It is a sad commentary. It’s the “life is a journey” BS. For men who truly believe in God, and trust His word, life is an adventure, and a life-and-death battle… quit whining like a little girl and get after it!

  9. Les says:

    When I first read “Hipster Christianity,” my initial reaction was that while the book seemed to criticize young adults for being ONLY concerned with image, the author himself never seemed comfortable exploring anything BUT image. It seemed to me that there were serious questions about why this generation is struggling with their faith that could have been asked, but weren’t.

    I’m sure McCracken honestly sees his generation this way, but it seems that as long as he thinks that these people aren’t looking for real answers, the people reading his books don’t have to deal with the real questions. And by “the people reading his books” I don’t mean other young adults, I mean the middle-aged people who run the church and want to find a way to “connect” with young adults. It’s much easier to change the style and outward appearance of the church or Christianity in general than to have to dig deep and address theological issues that might be driving thinking young people away.

    Anyway, great article…

  10. Joe S says:

    “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

    – Gilbert Keith Chesterton, noted Christian writer (and Catholic convert)

  11. Tim says:

    I actually do think McCracken’s criticism often rings true of religious young people — but probably for reasons other than what he supposes.

    Simply put: religion and objective truth are becoming increasingly uncomfortable bedfellows. For most semi-intelligent and educated Christians, I would predict one of the following:

    1. Deconversion
    2. Increased specialization with a focus on intellectual tradition, especially philosophy (mostly pre-Darwin, and thus safe)
    3. Increased emphasis on subjective experience and private interpretation of the world.

    For everyone else, there’s always belligerence, a favorite tactic of crumbling authorities world-wide. Also to be expected, in increasing volume and frequency before the power structure fails.

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