Hey Guys, I’m a Young Person and I Have Opinions (Rachel Held Evans, Millennials, Etc.)

→ Why are Millennials leaving the Evangelical Church?

Most bloggers can only wish they were this photogenic.

Most bloggers can only wish they were this photogenic.

It’s a question the mainstream press can’t resist because it’s (a) immediate, (b) controversial, and (c) really dumbed-down. In any case, Rachel Held Evans — the de facto voice of post-Evangelicals — has a piece up on CNN about the question as we speak (you’ve probably seen it; at this point every single Facebook friend you have has probably shared it). The basic premise? They’re leaving because Jesus isn’t there.

You can read it if you want; it’s worth the time. Then if you feel like it, you can read this really, really thorough takedown by Alastair Roberts; and I also highly recommend this criticism of its tone from my close, personal friend Jake Meador over at Mere Orthodoxy.

But for me? I just can’t get over the question, let alone the answer.

→ “We don’t find Jesus there”?

Technically, my cat found him, but whatever.

Technically, my cat found him, but whatever.

Evans’ hook and thesis in the article is “we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.”

It sounds simple, doesn’t it? Except, who is Jesus? And how will you know when you’ve found him?

Those aren’t rhetorical questions; if you’re really leaving the church because of a lack of Jesus, presumably you’re looking to find Jesus. And if you’re looking for Jesus, wouldn’t it be valuable to have objective criteria for deciding when you’ve actually “found” Jesus?

The cynic in me can’t help but think that most of us tend to reshape Jesus in our own image; that is, we tend to assume Jesus would reflect whatever values we happen to already hold. If we like Republicans, we imagine Jesus as a Republican. If we like the GLBTQ movement, we assume Jesus would be a gay rights sort of guy.

He's also a job creator. Show some respect.

He’s also a job creator. Show some respect.

I’m not (necessarily) saying that Evans is doing that, but the fact that we all tend to think that way demonstrates my point that “looking for Jesus” is a little bit aimless without objective criteria for where, or who, Jesus is. “We don’t find Jesus there” is a catchy little one-liner, but it doesn’t really mean much in an objective sense.

It seems to me — and I’m just spitballing here — that if we’re genuinely trying to find Jesus, the best place to start is where Jesus himself promised to be — that is, in the bread and the wine of the eucharist. After all, if we can’t even trust the guy on where he’s going to be, is he even worth tracking down?

Maybe the Evangelical movement really is to blame for this one; after all, it’s a tradition that minimizes the importance of the sacraments and theology, instead favoring personal emotional experience. With that in mind, I guess it’s no wonder that people are leaving the Church just because they don’t feel like he’s there.

→ Yeah, young people are leaving the Church. Also, the Pope is Catholic, the sky is blue, etc.

This is what you get when you Google Image Search "Esther." We're such a biblically literate culture.

This is what you get when you Google Image Search “Esther.” We’re such a biblically literate culture.

Evans’ main mistake, here and elsewhere, is in imagining that her generation is somehow special, unique or different. A glaring example of this is in this blog post on Esther. I can respect the central feminist message of the piece, but Evans comes off as embarrassingly naïve when she writes,

Whether we like to admit it or not, the Bible was written at a time in history when most women were owned by their husbands.

The problem with sentiments like this is that, obviously, the Bible was not written at a single time in history. The composition of the Bible encompasses something in the neighborhood 3,000 years, during which there was an enormous amount of cultural turmoil and upheaval. The book of Esther in particular bears witness to a chaotic collision of half a dozen different cultures and religions, all with their own values and customs. To talk about the “time in history” when the Bible was composed makes about as much sense as talking about the “time in history” when Queen Victoria was on the throne and the women’s rights movement took place.

A rare photograph of Betty Friedan [citation needed].

A rare photograph of Betty Friedan [citation needed].

All that is a really roundabout way of saying, there’s nothing new under the sun, regardless of what Evans thinks and what ideas generate hits on the Internet. The Church has stood for 2,000 years, and to treat this like the first time people have left it in droves would be stupid. Heck, people started leaving Jesus’ church before the guy even had a chance to get crucified — right around the time he started telling them to eat his flesh and blood.

The Millennial Generation are currently (mostly) in their 20s. Twentysomethings tend to be an unfortunate mix of narcissism and naïveté. (I happen to be a twentysomething myself, which makes me an expert on this and LITERALLY EVERYTHING ELSE.) For most of us, our 20s are when we first realize that Hey, there are real, actual problems in the world. Then we think up some naïve, uninformed solutions to them; then, when everyone over 30 tells us how stupid we are, we assume they’re the problem and we give up on every aspect of the establishment.

If the young outnumber the old, this “giving up” looks like a revolution (as it did with the Baby Boomers); if they don’t, it takes on the tone of a more subtle defection (as with the “Millennials Leaving the Church!” narrative that’s so popular in the mainstream media right now). But regardless of what it looks like, it’s just part of growing up, and it happens to every generation.

The typical Millennial.

The typical Millennial.

And we all grow out of it. Eventually, we all learn to see the world with more nuance. We realize we still have a lot to learn, particularly from the generations that came before us. We learn that submission to authority is worthwhile if the authority is legitimate. We rebel, we learn from the experience, we come back.

Remember when the Baby Boomers decided they were all Hare Krishnas? Now they pretty much are the Evangelical Church that my generation is supposedly leaving. I mean, just sayin’. The Church has stood for a thousand generations, and by the grace of God it will stand for a thousand more — regardless of what my generation, or any generation, does.


If ya got yerself a hankerin’ fer somethin’ else I done writ, try these:

I’m orthodox, not conservative.

Yet Another Rant From Yet Another Protestant.

Office Space in Universe 25

10 thoughts on “Hey Guys, I’m a Young Person and I Have Opinions (Rachel Held Evans, Millennials, Etc.)

  1. You’re right, Luke, in hinting that Rachel Held Evans says nothing new. I stopped reading her awhile ago, when I realized she just goes over the same old ground of the liberal Bible critics (“modernists”) of the early 20th century. It’s the stuff I was taught 40 years ago in college, which has pretty much been debunked by good scholarship and archeology.

    • Well…I’m not trying to undermine Evans entirely. I read her stuff because I find her writing compelling, and I do find it valuable, in a limited sense. She’s very, very good at what she does, which is giving a voice to those who are frustrated with the shortcomings of Evangelicalism. That’s not an entirely useless endeavor; however, it is limited, and I genuinely wonder how much longer she’ll be able to milk it for book deals.

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