“NPR was all about God today,” my wife told me a couple days ago when we both got home from work. “In the morning there was a story about the ‘Nones,’ and then another one on the way home. Your friend Chris Stedman was on.”
“Sounds like it was all about not God,” I quipped.
“Anyway,” she rolled her eyes, “you should listen to it.”
And so I did. This morning, after Steph left for work, during my morning reading time I read and listened to the story she heard on Morning Edition. It’s a two-part story — the second part aired this morning — in which NPR reporter David Greene talks with a group of young people in their 20s and 30s at a synagogue in Washington, D.C. and gets them discussing their faith, or lack thereof.
A part of me celebrates this conversation. As I suggest in my book, a number of factors — some observable and others more subtle — have given rise to a willingness, maybe even an eagerness, among young people to talk openly about issues of spirituality and faith. That NPR dedicated a series to the emergence of the “Nones” is in many ways encouraging.
So too is the other big story I read this morning, Esquire’s (mostly awful) interview with Megan Fox in which she talks about growing up Pentecostal and still attending a church where sometimes, during praise and worship, she says, “I could feel that I was maybe getting ready to speak in tongues.” Sure, she also believes in leprechauns and Big Foot and the article is, in Esquire fashion, highlighted with pictures of her scantily clad in various poses, but still.
But back to the NPR story. On the one hand, I do celebrate this eagerness to discuss faith, even the lack thereof. But, on the other hand, as I sat up in my bed staring at the ceiling and listening to people my age discuss how they stopped believing, how they’re trying to fill their lives with other things to replace religion, and most heartbreakingly, how they still want to believe, I couldn’t help but feel like I failed, like all Christians fail, to provide a space for the these sincere doubters.
It’s more than a little disheartening that many of the interviewees told David Greene that they don’t feel welcome in religious communities because of their doubt, particularly in light of the fact that they have been welcomed to be doubters on public radio. They can air their concerns to a reporter they’ve only just met who will then literally air them to a national audience, but they don’t feel like they can go to the most natural place, a faith community, and share their doubts there. We’ve failed them.
Beyond that though, I almost couldn’t bear to listen as my peers explained the various reasons why they’ve moved away from faith. These include a range of reasons from misunderstandings of the Bible to the problem of tragedy to, for a number of respondents, their perception of Christianity’s universal stance against homosexuality. We’ve failed them.
We failed them in so many ways, but perhaps none more severe than in letting one form of Christianity — and let’s name it: conservative evangelicalism — become the most public face of our faith in the United States. The young people who put it all out there on NPR, my peers, feel estranged from a faith I don’t adhere to. Of course I recognize it, and I remember it, but I don’t claim it. It occurred to me that, without a few crucial influences in my life — from my parents to pop culture — there but for the grace of God go I. I could’ve been a “None” too.
This morning, as I listened to both segments of the NPR story, my first response was to write a solution, to provide an answer, to suggest that we progressive Christians do better PR. But I don’t know. Now, as I sit here actually writing, I feel the old feeling of defeat creeping up again. It seems unavoidable: the most extreme voices are always the loudest.
As a believer, I want to win those “Nones” back. I want to provide a space for them to be able to safely air their doubts and concerns, and I want to show them that Christianity has never been a unified bloc of monolithic belief. I want to invite them to my church, where I can’t be certain that the person sitting next to me believes the same, but I can be sure that she wants to. But this messy kind of Christianity, I fear, can never be mainstream, not when it has to compete with another strain that offers easy answers and something that looks like certainty.
We Christians have something to offer the “Nones,” I really believe that. But how are we going to tell them? We can’t compete with the volume of conservative evangelicals; it may be that Megan Fox’s testimony, packaged with sexy photos, is something like our best shot.
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is editor of Patrol and author of Not Your Mother's Morals: How the New Sincerity is Changing Pop Culture for the Better. Follow Fitz on Twitter.
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