The Failure of the Christian Narrative?

It is no news that fewer and fewer Americans, especially young Americans, have no religious affiliation. ( And if Charles Taylor is right (A Secular Age) a much greater number can at least imagine having no religion.

This news comes at a time when Christian churches have never been more active in providing personal and social services, as well as using the latest tools in pedagogy, entertainment, and marketing to make their churches attractive.

Does this mean that young people in the West have simply quit wanting what religion, or Christianity, offers as a gift to humans? Have we simply sunk into materialistic animality and the pursuit of hedonistic pleasure so far from the higher aspirations of a religious life that we can’t even see its worth?

I don’t think so. The impulse at the heart of religion hasn’t gone away, nor is God dead. But both humans and God’s Spirit may have moved into places beyond the walls of our churches.

These reasons for this movement are complex, but I want to suggest two that are critical. First the great cultural shift toward narrative rather than static concepts has left a lot of our religious language sounding irrelevant to the ways people construct their self-understanding. Many, too many, Christian churches don’t have a story to tell. They are communities of doctrines, ideologies, or even relationships whose origins are obscure and that are going nowhere.

The second critical problem is that in an age of narrative identities even those churches with a story offer one that is simply too narrow, to exclusive, to provide a realm in which a modern young person can locate his or her own complex experience.

The fundamental narrative framework of much mainline Christianity is that of conversion: from false religion to true Christianity, from personal sinfulness to redeemed holiness, from callous indifference to real commitment, from irrelevant old ways of thinking to contemporary relevance. When one joins a church one is joining a a community of the converted, and joining in the story of converting the rest of the world.

But do these narratives of conversion provide a narrative framework within which younger Americans can find their own story? Generations that are comfortable drawing on many religious traditions to formulate a spiritual path can scarcely identify with the false religion/true Christianity narrative that has been central to Protestantism for 4 centuries. And at least conventional ideas of sinfulness and holiness related to culture-bound standards of moral purity seem passé. Albert Outler pointed out decades ago that the line in a 1970’s pop song characterized our age: “I don’t care what’s wrong or right, help me make it through the night.”

The narrative of conversion from indifference to commitment seems a good deal more compelling, but the Pew survey above tells us that contemporary churches don’t connect with younger people in terms of the content of that narrative. Across the ecclesial spectrum churches have been engaged in brutal internal and external struggles over issues that repel, or at least fail to animate younger Americans. Commitment is important to young Americans, but not a narrative that centers around sexual behavior and its consequences, or the struggle for “values” that look more like maintaining the social status quo, or even a narrative of struggle for justice located in partisan politics. Across the political spectrum a narrative that pits victimizer against victim, in which the indifferent spectator becomes a partisan for the victim, has become too simple for people who think not of black and white, but fifty shades of gray.

The failure of this narrative doesn’t mean that people, and young people in particular, don’t care about justice. Just that the mainline Christian story of establishing social justice doesn’t appear to be a comprehensive enough story to account for the complexity of their life experience.

And the struggle for relevance in a changing world? Its very insistence on placing the aging narratives mentioned above at the center of its life have insured that Christian churches have lost any legitimate claim to relevance.

For what drives the human narrative is the quest to find a larger story, a story big enough to account for not only every human experience, but every human aspiration. Much of American Christianity isn’t working in this regard. Christians, if they are to offer a compelling story, need to reconsider the gospel narrative, asking whether perhaps their telling of the “old old story” has become to small to adequately represent the possibilities of contemporary life. In the next blog I’ll suggest a place to start.

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