The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy
The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World
reviewed by Richard J. Mammana, Jr.
It isn’t supposed to be happening. Traditional Catholic piety is finding zealous practitioners at universities across the United States. The children of Planned Parenthood devotees are becoming advocates of Natural Family Planning. Nice suburban girls who ought to know better are making monastic professions in—you guessed it—traditional orders, and there are enrollment spikes on the charts of conservative seminaries across the Christian spectrum.
At the same time, some of today’s Evangelicals are unresponsive to the agendas of their immediate forefathers in worship, theology, and general “church strategy.” They are seeking instead “a biblically rooted, historically informed and culturally aware” evangelization of their hometowns, and the creation of new congregations attuned to the ancient faith. This isn’t quite supposed to be happening either.
None of this is supposed to be happening because it’s not the project for which two generations of Protestant and Catholic clergy have worked. And it’s certainly not what for decades a graying army of secularists has agitated for in American public life. The push for relativist moral teaching, “simplified” worship, interchangeable sex roles, and an utter separation of private belief from political expression has come from the pulpit as readily as it has been demanded by pseudo-intellectual elites. But against all odds, portions of a modern American society, which groans to find itself secularist, is returning in a quiet revolution to the fundamental truths of the Christian religion.
It goes without saying that “the primary cravings of young orthodox Christians in America—for tough time-tested teachings and worship imbued with mystery and a sense of the transcendent—are often the result of deficiencies in their childhood spiritual diet.” The children of liberalism are exchanging the junk food of their youth for him who is the Bread of Life.
Colleen Carroll’s frequently moving account of stages in the ongoing orthodox revival in North American Christianity is the fruit of a one-year grant for travel and research from the Phillips Foundation. She takes readers across college campuses, seminaries, parish communities, and monasteries to find a heartening demographic reality: Where traditional religion is believed and practiced, its adherents aren’t the sour, dour types that popular media would have us think. They’re young, intelligent, articulate, and passionate about converting their peers to their fresh reception of the gospel and its truth. Moreover, where the fire burns most brightly and intensely, young believers tend to be converts from atheism, nihilism, relativism, or plain unexposed-to-religion suburbanism.
Robert E. Webber chronicles a similar phenomenon from a slightly different angle in his The Younger Evangelicals. (His work follows on Richard Quebedeaux’s The Young Evangelicals, published in 1974). According to Webber, the “new kind of Evangelical” who came to prominence in the last decade of the last century shows marked differences from his predecessors in his attitudes toward history, communication, theology, apologetics, and ecclesiology. All of these changes represent a movement from the diffuse teachings and practices of the liberal Protestant denominations toward an apprehension of the Great Tradition of the magisterial Reformation and its antecedents. Webber’s account is fact-driven, while Carroll’s takes the form of personal encounters. The two are complementary, and Webber’s charts and illustrations undergird some of the anecdotal evidence of The New Faithful.
During my senior year at Columbia, I had the privilege to act as baptismal sponsor for a close friend who was then a sophomore. The Anglican service was as traditional as anyone there had ever seen: The catechumen started at the door, processed to the font, renounced Satan, and was baptized into the death and resurrection of her new Lord. It was a joyous occasion for all of us, and one fellow parishioner mentioned that the atmosphere felt something like she imagined it must have been among the earliest Christians, huddled in a small group, lighted only by the single candle held by the newly baptized.
At the gathering held afterward in celebration of this baptism, one of the non-Christian attendees asked the new Christian in all seriousness: “Were you actually making truth claims back there?”
The Christians in attendance clammed up momentarily. What would she say? “Of course I was,” she answered. “Why else would I bother?”
Like Webber’s hypothetical “Younger Evangelical,” she was “attracted to absolutes,” “ready to commit,” “willing to live by the rules,” and was even willing to “demand authenticity” when faith became a reality in her life. Truth, without a hint of water to weaken it or to make it more palatable, has of course always been its own best advocate. That “truth claims” should be a surprising corollary to the celebration of a baptism cuts two ways: It is indicative both of how far removed from any “background Christianity” we have become, and of how unwilling the Church has become in recent decades to espouse dogmatic truth, preferring instead easy recourse to “pluriform” or “nuanced” versions.
Sex & Order
The evidence of public opinion polls shows a trend of twenty-somethings “clamoring for convention,” writes Carroll. The increase in Latin Mass attendance during the 1990s, for example, can be attributed to a “retro-revolt among U.S. Catholics,” rather than a nostalgic return by the elderly to a rite with which they grew up. Marie-Thérèse Scott-Hamblen, the young orthodox wife of a young orthodox Episcopal priest, may not have been the first to use the term “young fogey,” in The Living Church magazine in 2001, but she put her finger on a phenomenon that has reached even the most liberal denominations in the United States. As often as not, those who seek traditional worship in their congregations are young men and women whose only opposition is their parents’ generation of clergy and laymen. The older generation’s response tends to be in the negative; after all, worship has to be modern in language and form to appeal to “the young people,” that strange mass of mainline census data that never actually finds its way into a pew on Sunday morning.
Nor does this urge toward order manifest itself only in a preference for traditional liturgical forms. Christianity has practical, helpful answers when “for many young adults, the apex [or is it nadir?] of unhappiness often follows a series of casual or failed sexual relationships.” The challenges and joys of the traditional Christian moral order are a strong attraction for young people whose own parents have often been their most immediate examples of failed marriages, serial monogamy, and bad dating practices. Carroll finds that many of the young converts in her study were attracted by the standards of modesty, purity, and life-long commitment inherent in Christian teaching. Wendy Shalit’s A Return to Modesty chronicled the same reality in the late 1990s from a religious Jewish perspective, and it comes as no surprise that the benefits for both men and women of this approach are as alluring in their own way to postmodernists-gone-Christian as they are to postmodernists-gone-Jewish. For Christians, however, the possibility of sacramental confession and absolution provides a remedy better than any doctor, therapist, family member, or friend could provide, even with the best of intentions.
Among the Younger Evangelicals, Webber discovers a tendency to celebrate the Eucharist as often as “weekly in many churches” as opposed to the sporadic, quarterly, or monthly frequency he attributes to “traditional” (1960–1975) and “pragmatic” (1975–2000) Evangelicals. Among the young adults in Carroll’s study, a frequent participation in the sacraments—and of extra-liturgical devotions like eucharistic adoration and the rosary—is a distinct marker that they are different from their elders and other peers who attend church.
Webber finds, too, that within the Younger Evangelical recovery of sacramental life, there is greater appreciation of the daily office and lectio divina—both practices generally associated with the standard liturgical churches.
This emphasis on the inherently sacred nature of life in Christ and his Church is for both groups under survey a powerful antidote to contemporary First-World culture. In a world of video games, sexually saturated television, and vacuous news media—which continue to form the marrow of much of Gen X and Y culture well through and past undergraduate life—the sacramental life of the Church provides a grounding, direct means of grace.
A significant number of those attaching themselves actively to the sacramental life of the Church are what Carroll calls “reverts”: lapsed Roman Catholics who have returned to the faith of their childhood or their parents, usually after a foray into Evangelical Protestantism or the Pentecostal movement. “Reverts” are as likely as not to be keen on Latin-language Masses and lay Catholic groups like Opus Dei.
The role of history in the life of the Christian Church is a further aspect of the reawakening taking place. For both Catholics and Protestants this generally means some kind of return ad fontes—to the authoritative sources of the Great Tradition. One prime example of this in the Evangelical sphere is InterVarsity Press’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, which brings together in talmudic format individual pericopes with representative commentaries from the writings of the Fathers.
The ahistoricity of this younger generation, with no strong ethnic roots, no firm religious upbringing, frequent changes of residence for jobs or education, and shoddy historical instruction in public schools should come as no surprise. Yet the Church offers the best lens through which to read the entire history of mankind. Adoption into the life of the Church grounds the men and women in both of these studies in a world more substantial than they have themselves known. It also establishes a direct link with the apostolic life of Christ and his disciples, and their followers in the early Church.
Webber has examined what he calls the “ancient-future” paradigm elsewhere (Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World, Baker Book House), and it appears to be borne out in practice among many of the Younger Evangelicals. There is a built-in nostalgia for the pre-Constantinian Church in this worldview, which assumes the death of traditional Christendom and the birth of a new post-Constantinian model for Christian life—hence “ancient-future.”
Jesus Christ is the bottom line in both books, the real impetus for the growth of faithful witness in modern society. Both authors are themselves committed Christians who have used the tools of journalism and sociology to research a revolution of individuals whose hearts are, like John Wesley’s, “strangely warmed.”
For both Carroll and Webber the questions of demographics and the overwhelming failure of the institutional churches in recent years are ultimately subsidiary to religious reality. “The fresh, countercultural quality” of orthodoxy and orthopraxy lived in light of the Incarnation “is so outrageous that it’s attractive.” Says one young Catholic evangelist, “In many ways, our job is easier now than it was in the past, because people are starving.”
That a new generation is more primed than others have been in recent memory to accept the gifts of the Incarnate Lord is, in the end, something for which to be profoundly thankful.
A Solid Case?
Carroll and Webber both write what are at times quite exciting accounts of parallel movements in Christianity today. But do traditional reactions to the liberal mass of official American religion constitute a movement? And will conversions—many of them centered on college campuses—have staying power when undergraduates become graduates?
Both books do contain tentative answers to these questions. Neither Webber nor Carroll claims that a coherent “party” has emerged fitting their descriptors. The Younger Evangelicals and the New Faithful are intensely local phenomena, popping up where they do, and spreading where they do, much like the Spirit, who “bloweth where he listeth.” Carroll’s travels across the country, though, and Webber’s accuracy as a statistician both point to a real trend.
On the second point—the question of perseverance—believing Christians would probably do well to hold out hope before making pessimistic predictions. The growing importance of e-mail and on-line communities does make post-college communication and accountability more immediate realities than they might have been in the world of the telephone and mailbox. The possibility of free and democratic exchange of information about classical Christianity (to nourish the new faithful after their conversions) is yet one more positive dimension of the impact of the Internet on religion today, and the young are likely to make use of it for research and reading. And a fair number of the communities in Carroll’s study already exhibit a remarkable staying power, with a decade and more of roots on which to grow.
It should be noted that Webber’s Younger Evangelicals don’t show many signs of being on the road to Constantinople, Antioch, Rome, or Canterbury. They are not “born-again Catholics,” “Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail,” or the next wave of the Evangelical Orthodox Church that eventually converted to canonical Orthodoxy. While they are successfully recovering some of the vast riches of the Christian spiritual, liturgical, doctrinal, and theological tradition, this particular movement is perhaps least developed in its ecclesiology. Questions of the Church—what it is and where it is—remain on the horizon as the movement grows, matures, and comes into contact with other Christians. It seems fair to say at present that the Younger Evangelicals will certainly remain Evangelicals for the foreseeable future.
And Carroll herself sounds another cautionary note aimed at what I will call the “Affirming Catholic” temptation:
Here, as elsewhere in The New Faithful, there is a nuanced and cautious reading of the signs of the times. The signs do point to a decline in vitality for “polyester-pantsuit-clad nuns spinning John Lennon records in high school religion classes” and “agnostic confirmation instructors puffing on cigarettes while extolling existentialism to their teenage charges.” The new alternative to this tomfoolery is far more traditional, far more wholesome, and far more lively.
Yet if Carroll and Webber are right in their major theses—and let us hope they are—there will be laborers for the harvest when the “suicide of liberal Christianity,” as historian Thomas Reeves called it, runs the last stages of its course. And when orthodox believers have weathered the current storms of social secularism, governmental restriction, and doctrinal disorder within church bodies, then new faces can begin afresh the work of restoring the unity of Christ’s own Bride.
Richard J. Mammana, Jr., is a member of the Church of the Resurrection, Manhattan, and the Living Church Foundation. He is the founder and coordinator of Project Canterbury, the largest on-line Anglican resource, which provides out-of-print theological texts free of charge. He lives at Resica Falls in Marshalls Creek, Pennsylvania.
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