Monday, January 16, 2012

A Baby Boomer's Apology

It perhaps goes without saying that the Baby Boomers are not the most popular generation around.  No one will call us “The Greatest Generation”, at least without a well-developed sense of irony.  We have an unenviable record of self-indulgence, self-aggrandizement, and over the top narcissism that is obvious to all but ourselves.  In spite of our counter-cultural pieties we have sustained nearly unabated war, tolerated unprecedented destruction of our natural resources, and divorced our spouses and neglected our children at unforgivable rates.  We have, of course, wept crocodile tears over all this, but have not demonstrated the moral courage to face our unraveling the fabric of life’s very sustainability.  Many of us seem to face with indifference the very real possibility that our grandchildren will suffer the collapse of our consumerist economy, the exhaustion of our oil, the ruination of our agriculture, and the rise of demagogic politicians that will take advantage of their fears.  Whether we are liberal or conservative we seem to favor politicians who let us keep doing exactly what we want to do with varying levels of government support.  We want to live as we always have and leave the difficult challenge of cleaning up the mess we made to our heirs.

 All of this is bad enough and worthy of an abject apology.  But I want to apologize for something else entirely: what we have done to the church of Jesus Christ.  We have been every bit as narcissistic and self-aggrandizing in the ecclesiastical world as in the economic, political, and familial worlds.  The American church is a mess.  Whether you look at Mainline, Roman Catholic, or Evangelical churches, it would be hard to argue that any are characterized by Spiritual strength, moral integrity, and missional courage.  There are, of course, many notable exceptions and I am thankful for them.  But for the most part the culture looks upon the American church, justifiably I might add, with at best bemusement and at worst contempt.  When they think of the church they do not think of love, hope, and compassion but small-mindedness, arrogance, gnat straining and camel swallowing.  Sure the media looks for the worst, but it has little trouble finding it.  Having said this there are some specific things I want to apologize for:

1. The Mega-Church:  I am really sorry about this.  It is, of course, not surprising the Mega-Church rose among boomers.  We love the big deal and great entertainment.  We are the Woodstock generation and mega-churches are like Woodstock without the nudity and drug use.  We are the generation that believed if big is good massive is even better.  But the mega-church appealed to us for other reasons.  We liked the idea of its inhuman perfection.  We wanted every note perfect, every bathroom sparkling clean, every speech equally inspiring.  We liked the illusion that all was right with the world.  We were embarrassed by our parents’ churches.  We were doctors, lawyers, educators, CEOs and CFOs.  We didn’t want to listen to marginally competent choirs and shaky musicians.  We insisted that everything had to be perfect or we wanted nothing to do with it.  We also loved the anonymity.  The mega-church didn’t require much of us.  We could show up, enjoy the show, make a generous donation and go home to watch football.  We could pay someone else to take care of the kids and care for the hungry and hurting.  With Darwinian smugness we countenanced the destruction of many small neighborhood churches sneeringly insisting they obviously didn’t have what it took to keep up.  We insulted the competent pastors of such churches, humiliating those who evidently lacked the “leadership ability” to make it to a membership of 15,000.  Our best mega-church pastors have already figured out that things are off the rails, but the train will not soon be put back on the tracks.

2.     I am really sorry about the music.  My generation evidently believes that no decent music was written before about 1964 and after about 1975.  We are convinced that everything should sound like it was composed in ‘68 by the Rolling Stones even if it was written in 2012.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the Beatles and the Beach Boys.  I even love a good deal of what is called “contemporary” music (although some of it is about as contemporary as the television show Dragnet).  What I am distressed about is that we convinced ourselves and many others that what was sung and prayed by our parents and grandparents is only worthy of scorn.  We tossed out hundreds of years of Christian music, liturgy, and practice without noticing the baby flailing its chubby arms.  Some of the best of our younger generation of singers, liturgists, and pastors are discovering anew the riches of our Christian heritage, no thanks to us.  But many of us continue to cling to “praise choruses” composed in the 80s as if they were equivalent to Bach cantatas.  Others complain that the use of a prayer polished by generations of use is “too liturgical”, ignoring the blandness of our worship language and the poverty of our imaginations.

3. The boomers owe a big apology about what has happened with theology.  There is too much to say here so I will try to be succinct.  There seem to be two trends: one is a form of individualistic pietism that imagines I can choose my god or my theology like I choose pie over ice cream or the Packers over the Bears.  pietists select only the cream-filled and disdain the coconut-filled.  Not wanting to work all that hard, they select what appeals to them and ignore what is difficult or unpleasant to contemplate.  These people are found in every part of the Christian world.  They are our most ardent religious consumers, but they will only “buy” what they like.  They have trivialized the heritage of Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth by seeking the lowest common denominator.  The second trend is the theologically rigorous.  They are the virulently traditional Roman Catholics, the snarky neo-Reformed Evangelicals, and the frantically hyper-conservative traditional Protestants.  They despise the idea of the religious cafeteria.  For them theology is a matter of eating your spinach whether you like it or not.  In their world all the questions worth answering were settled by Trent, or Calvin, or some synod or the other in the distant past.  They hurl anathemas with glee, sneer at anyone with the slightest disagreement or smallest question, and are, by my observation, generally unpleasant.  While they are an understandable reaction to the religious and moral indifference of their contemporaries, that doesn’t make them any more attractive.  I would argue that both forms of theologizing are the result of laziness.  Both refuse the challenge of rethinking and re-engaging the ancient faith in the modern world.  The first group imagines all the answers are the result of a merely personal decision.  The second imagines that all the answers were settled in the fourth or sixteenth or nineteenth century.  Both lack the humility, compassion, and hope to do the hard work of engaging the faith in this world.

4.  Perhaps the most inexcusable failure of the Baby Boomers and the church is our failure to promote justice for the oppressed and provide food for the hungry.  There are, thank God, many notable exceptions to this.  But for the most part it has been the generation that followed us that has raised this question most sharply.  We have no excuse for this since we grew up in the 60s with the Civil Rights movement.  Many of us marched for Voting Rights or protested the War in Vietnam.  But on the Mainline side we somehow imagined that electing Democrats was enough to promote justice and on the Evangelical side we agonized over whether evangelism and social justice belonged together.  We thought social justice was a “black issue” or a “liberal issue” or a “political issue” and so we left it to a handful of activists and politicians and made little effort to integrate such questions and concerns into the life of the church.  Even if we did it was an issue “out there”, not “in here.”  It was left to our kids to challenge us on this.  And so we salved our consciences by sending them on mission trips.

I could go on, but I am feeling bad enough already.  I know that many of my contemporaries will not agree with my list. Other readers will perhaps consider this column just one more example of Boomer arrogance.  If we can’t be the best, perhaps we can be the best at being the worst.  So be it.  But friends, we are leaving our children and grandchildren a huge mess to clean up.  Our self-indulgence will cost them dearly.  It seems the least we can do is say sorry.  But perhaps there is still time for us to begin helping them to clean it up.

John E. (Jay) Phelan

North Park Theological Seminary

Chicago, IL.