The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxyby Colleen Carroll
Saving sex for marriage. Attending the Latin Mass. Witnessing to others about Christ. Baby boomers largely rejected these trappings of traditional Christianity -- so why are their children embracing them with such fervor? Author Colleen Carroll taps into the restless hearts of America's Gen-X believers, revealing their deep attraction to tradition, longing for truth, and determination to change the world. As Carroll writes, "The grassroots movement they have started bears watching because it has thrived in the most unlikely places, captured the hearts of the most unlikely people, and aims to effect the most unlikely of outcomes: a revitalization of American Christianity and culture."
There was only one problem. He wasn't happy.
"I had a good time, I guess," Mr. Legge recalls, "but I didn't have that many real friends in New York. And I realized that it was just kind of an empty life."
Like many Gen X (and Y) Catholics raised in the wake of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, Mr. Legge's childhood religious formation had been spotty at best. He was raised in a Catholic family, but he found that his religious courses in school consisted mostly of "psychobabble." The spiritual emptiness he was feeling that summer in New York led him to apply to his own faith the kind of intensity he had previously reserved for his legal studies. The result was a revelation.
"It was like God hit me over the head with a bottle," he said. It took a few years, but eventually Mr. Legge found the courage to walk away from his job and the girlfriend who did not share his deepening Catholic faith and enter a Dominican seminary to become a priest.
David Legge's conversion (or re-conversion) story is one of many that animate the pages of Colleen Carroll's "The New Faithful" (Loyola, 320 pages). A reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Ms. Carroll combines first-hand reporting with social-science metrics to examine a remarkable trend toward religious orthodoxy among Americans born roughly between 1960and 1983. These were the children exposed full-force to the consumerism, secularism and "me-first" ideology that seized the helm of American society in that periodvery much including most mainstream religious denominations.
Among young adults, a turn (or return) to prayer, worship and orthodoxy.
Concentrating her reporting on Catholics and evangelical Protestants, Ms. Carroll borrows G.K. Chesterton's definition of "orthodoxy" as the Apostles' Creed. ("I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth . . . "). For the young adults profiled in her book, that means the acceptance of a transcendent moral authority, a commitment to regular prayer and worship, a belief in absolute truth and an allegiance to objective standards of conduct.
What drives these young people in such a, well, un-orthodox direction? The high rate of divorce among baby-boomer parents certainly played its role. And anyone with the least experience of young people knows that a high percentage of them, almost by reflex, are skeptical of the dogmas laid down by their elders. That seems just as true when the dogmas are relativism, permissiveness and militant secularism as when they are their opposites. The appeal of Pope John Paul II to young people, evident from the first days of his pontificate, is mentioned frequently by Catholics and Protestants alike.
"They want to get off the merry-go-round," says the Rev. David Burrell, a Catholic priest. "They really want something that can touch their souls. And a faith culture is the only thing that can respond to that."
One of the most refreshing aspects of Ms. Carroll's book is the near absence of I-found-God-when-I-hit-rock-bottom stories. Most of the newly faithful are successful in their worldly endeavors, a fact that conventional wisdom would say works against fervent religious belief.
But as Ms. Carroll notes, affluence may now be one of the engines driving religious revival. One result of the good (secular) life, apparently, is the kind of "premature mid-life crisis" that David Legge experienced. And while most who confront such a crisis do not end up at a seminary, many do find that their turn to religious seriousness requires new friends and a new career.
The orthodoxy vogue, if it may be called that, does not please everyone. Some baby-boomer priests actually seem bitter abo itor envious. After all, new and orthodox religious orders like the New York-based Sisters of Life and the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal are turning away candidates while liberal orders wither on the vine. Potential seminarians, approaching a particular order, warily demand to know whether the priests wear their clerical collars and whether they accept the teaching authority of the Church on abortion and extramarital sex. "There's a kind of nostalgia for a church they've never experiencedand I have," one priest grouses. "I don't want to go back there."
But the young orthodox faithful are not looking back. They are looking forward, striving to make something "countercultural" in the non-1960s sense of the word. Thus they are eager to evangelize their peers. That their peers often remain unaffected doesn't discourage them, either. You don't need to convert a whole generation, one of Ms. Carroll's subjects points out. Jesus, after all, started with just 12.
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THE NEW FAITHFUL
Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity. I TIMOTHY 4:12
Thirty minutes after students had belted out the last hymn at the praise-and-worship service in Catholic Univeristy of America's Caldwell Chapel, more than half of them--about five dozen college students--had not yet left. They lingered under the chapel's softly lit arches on this unseasonable warm October night, kneeling in silent prayer before the tabernacle set on an altar now crowded with makeshift confessionals. So many students had been clamoring for the chance to confess thier sins to a priest that the college chaplain had to double the ranks of his confessors to accommodate them. But half a dozen priests still could not handle the demand generated after an evening of prayer, song, and eucharistic adoration. The students seeking reconciliation kept coming, and the priests--seated on chairs at the edges of the altar, at the sides of the church, anywhere they could find a semiprivate spot--planned to stay unti midnight hearing confessions.
Sitting on the right side of the altar, not far from the piano where a student sang a muted version of the evangelical Protestant favorite "Lord, I Lift Your Name on High," was a young blond-haired woman wearing a faded T-shirt. She huddled with a priest in a black collar who looked only a few years older than she was. Their chairs faced each other and their bent bodies formed a human arch that mirrored the concrete one above them. With eyes closed and forehead nearly touching, they sat in silence. She had already confessed her sins to him. He had already extended his hand over her, resting it on her shoulder in the formal act of absolution that usually takes only an instant.
But she did not leave. Crumpled under the weight of that hand of forgiveness, she seemed unable--or perhaps unwilling--to go. Instead, she simply wept. Her entire body shook with the force of her silent sobs in the safe darkness of the chapel. The priest, looking soemwhat unsure of what to do in the face of such raw emotions, kept his hand on her shoulder as she absorbed the meaning of his gesture.
Finally, she stood. She hugged the priest, hanging on for several minutes. When she let go and wiped away her tears, a radiant smile washed across her face. As she headed toward a nearby pew to pray, she passe danother student who was eagerly ascending the altar steps to take her place.
An Irresistible Attraction
Many Americans—and many American Catholics of the generation that reared these students—regard the confession of sins to a priest as superfluous, the neurotic act of guilt-ridden traditionalists. The necessity of regular confession is laughable, and the notion of college students packing a chapel to pray on their knees before a consecrated communion host is absurd.
But not here. Here, in a chapel littered with backpacks, past a staircase where dozens kneel or stand because they cannot fit inside the chapel itself, students do not ridicule eucharistic adoration or the rite of reconciliation. They gush about it. The peace, the freedom, the supernatural sense of forgiveness—this, they say, is almost inexplicable. The benefits far surpass those of psychotherapy, chats with friends, even private prayer. For them, the sacraments and devotions of the institutional church allow them to be cleansed, healed, and strengthened. For young adults like the one who kept clinging to that promise of pardon, these rites offer something so powerful that they weep in the face of it, so irresistible that they cannot walk away from it.
“It’s kind of hard to describe,” said Lori Agnew, a tall, attractive Catholic University junior who stood in flip-flops outside the chapel while the confessions were taking place.
Agnew turned twenty-one years old that night—a prime time for a pub crawl—but she spent the first few hours of her landmark birthday in church instead.
“There’s something there,” she said. “In our hearts, we know the truth. And this holds the truth. It’s not fluff. It’s real.”
Why are young adults who have grown up in a society saturated with relativism—which declares that ethical and religious truths vary according to the people who hold them—touting the truth claims of Christianity with such confidence? Why, in a society brimming with competing belief systems and novel spiritual trends, are young adults attracted to the trappings of tradition that so many of their parents and professors have rejected? Is this simply the reaction of a few throwbacks to a bygone era, a few scattered inheritors of a faith they never critically examined? Is it the erratic behavior of young idealists moving through an inevitably finite religious phase? Or are they the heralds of something new? Could these young adults be proof that the demise of America’s Judeo-Christian tradition has been greatly exaggerated?
“It’s a massive turning of the tide,” said Boston College philosopher Peter Kreeft after addressing an auditorium full of students during Jesus Week at Harvard University in April 2001.
Citing enrollment spikes at orthodox Catholic seminaries and the general demeanor of the students he has met in the last decade, Kreeft said today’s young adults are rejecting “the old, tired, liberal, modern” mind-set in favor of a more orthodox one.
“Even though they know less history or literature or logic” than students ten or twenty years ago, Kreeft said, “they’re more aware that they’ve been cheated and they need more. They don’t know that what they’re craving is the Holy Spirit.”
Across the nation, from the runways of beauty pageants to the halls of Ivy League universities, a small but committed core of young Christians is intentionally embracing organized religion and traditional morality. Their numbers—and their disproportionately powerful influence on their peers, parents, and popular culture—are growing. The grassroots movement they have started bears watching because it has thrived in the most unlikely places, captured the hearts of the most unlikely people, and aims to effect the most unlikely of outcomes—a revitalization of American Christianity and culture.
In Search of Structure
Recent media reports and statistical surveys—though hardly consistent or conclusive—suggest the stirrings of renewed interest in organized religion and conventional morality among young adults. According to a 1997 Gallup poll, nearly 80 percent of teens thirteen to seventeen considered religion a significant influence in their lives.1 A 1999 study by George Barna found that 42 percent of “baby busters”—those born between 1965 and 1983—were likely to attend church weekly, as compared to 34 percent of their baby boomer parents. The busters also were more likely to read the Bible (36 percent to 30 percent) and to pray (80 percent to 70 percent) 2
Gallup polls of teenagers in the 1990s found that 70 percent rejected the notion that religion is “not an important part of the modern world,” and they identified as “religious” by an almost identical margin. Nearly nine in ten polled by Gallup said they believed in the divinity of Jesus.3 And the federally financed National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health has recently found that two-thirds of teenagers describe themselves as “religious” or “very religious.”4
Much of the renewed vigor of organized religion is concentrated in its most traditional forms, and young adults often are the ones clamoring for convention. Time magazine reported in 1999 that the number of U.S. Catholic dioceses hosting the traditional Latin Mass had risen from 6 in 1990 to 131 in 1999, and more than 150,000 people attended them weekly. The article attributed the increase largely to “Gen-X interest” and quoted several young Latin Mass–goers who were “part of a retro-revolt among U.S. Catholics 5. A survey of young Catholics, conducted by sociologists Dean R. Hoge, Mary Johnson, and Juan L. Gonzales, Jr., and William Dinges, a professor of religious studies, suggested that the three core elements of the faith of today’s young Catholics are belief in God’s presence in the sacraments (including the presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist), concern for helping the poor, and devotion to Mary as the mother of God—all key tenets of an orthodox Catholic faith.6 And another Hoge survey found that the priesthood has grown “increasingly conservative on theological questions” since the 1980s. Young priests, it seems, have more in common with conservative elderly priests than with the more liberal middle-aged baby boomers who directly preceded them. 7
The popularity of traditional services in mainline Protestant churches—like the Sunday night compline service at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle that has drawn crowds of more than six hundred, most of whom are young adults—has garnered attention in secular publications, including the New York Times. 8 Old-time Protestant theology and morality, even when not delivered in a High-Church setting, is also booming among young adults. Evangelical Christian groups are particularly popular on college campuses and in the Ivy League, as noted by such publications as Fifteen Minutes, the weekend magazine of the Harvard Crimson, which published a cover story in 2000 about the rise of evangelicalism among Harvard students. 9 Promise Keepers, a grassroots evangelical-style movement for Christian men that emphasizes conventional morality, has reached more than 3.5 million men through ninety-eight stadium and arena conferences since 1991 10 and has sparked an equally vast amount of media scrutiny. And evangelical megachurches—where Christian rock bands and video shows are mixed with morally conservative sermons—attract hearty crowds of young Christians who want a conventional message delivered in an unconventional style.
A parallel movement is seen in the attraction of young secular Jews to orthodoxy, a shift that has generated substantial media attention in recent years. In a Boston Globe article that profiled some of the young adults known as ba’alai tshuvah, or “returning,” in 2000, Sylvia Barack Fishman, a professor of contemporary Jewish life at Brandeis University, estimated that a “core group” of 25 to 30 percent of young Jews “is actively seeking to connect with their heritage.”11 An Atlantic Monthly piece in 1999 noted rising enrollments at Jewish schools—the sort of schools that observant young Jewish parents choose and the sort that tend to breed observant young Jews. According to the article, the number attending such schools has more than tripled since the early 1960s, to about two hundred thousand, out of about a million Jewish school-age children. 12
Signs of more conventional sexual behavior and morality among young adults also have surfaced sporadically in secular media reports and surveys. Talk of a sexual “counterrevolution” was spurred in the late 1990s by the popularity of such books as The Rules: Time-tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider and A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue by Wendy Shalit. The True Love Waits campaign has made headlines for persuading more than half a million young adults to pledge sexual abstinence until marriage.13 In 1997, the government’s National Survey of Family Growth announced that between 1990 and 1995, the percentage of sexually active teenagers had declined for the first time since 1970.14 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that teen pregnancy rates had dropped 20 percent from 1991 to 1999.15 Recent studies from the University of Chicago, the University of California at Los Angeles, and the Urban Institute have documented less approval of casual sex and legalized abortion among young adults.16
The latest surveys and media reports also show parallel trends toward other manifestations of conventional morality and altruism among young adults, including an inclination toward community service. A 1999 Gallup survey estimated that 109 million Americans volunteered in some form in 1998, a 36 percent increase from the estimate of 80 million volunteers in 1987. 17 If a 1998 study by the American Youth Policy Forum is any indication, that trend can be explained at least partly by a rising tide of youth voluntarism. The study found that more than 15 million young people volunteered through groups like Habitat for Humanity. 18 The 1999 American Freshman survey from UCLA found that a record percentage of incoming college students—nearly three-fourths—said they had volunteered during their senior year of high school, while only about one-fifth of them said they were required to do so for graduation. More than 80 percent of the freshmen queried listed attending a religious service as one of their activities during their senior year of high school. 19
An embrace of traditional religion and morality often begins with a rejection of relativism. In a culture where young adults are frequently told that no universal moral standards or religious truths exist, many have begun to question that dictum and search for the truth that they believe is knowable.
Jean Bethke Elshtain, an ethics professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, said the rebellion against relativism among her students is “quite noticeable.”
“I certainly have detected among my students a sort of quest for some kind of purpose or meaning,” said Elshtain, who sees that quest among “my students who are the most thoughtful and the most demanding. Some have been out in the world and they could not take the way it was being presented to them.”
Even more surprising, she said, is how many students arrive at her secular university with a religious faith and experience a deepening of that faith during their years on campus. The students often surprise professors by starting Bible studies and prayer groups on their own, then asking faculty to lead them.
Elshtain said she believes the trend has staying power: “I think something is really afoot.”
Andy Crouch, editor in chief of re:generation quarterly, a magazine for young Christians, first saw the stirrings of this interest in traditional religion at Harvard, where he worked with the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship for nine years, beginning in 1991.
In the last fifteen years, participation in campus religious groups has been rising “across the board,” Crouch said. “Everybody is talking about it.”
He noted that the rise has most benefited conservative campus groups, explaining, “orthodoxy thrives in pluralism.”
Campus Crusade for Christ, a conservative evangelical group that stresses strict moral standards and salvation by Jesus Christ, has seen its ranks swell in recent years. Mike Tilley, who oversees campus expansion in America, said participation in the group nearly doubled between 1995 and 2000, rising from twenty-one thousand to forty thousand students. Some chapters have several hundred active students, and a few have nearly a thousand. At seven hundred of the campuses where the group operates, the chapters are organized by students, not Campus Crusade staffers.
Countertrends clearly exist, especially in the realm of sexual behavior and morality. Divorce is rampant among evangelicals. Many Catholics disregard Vatican bans on contraception, premarital sex and remarriage without annulment. And New Age spirituality—which often accompanies a movement away from moral absolutes—is gaining steam in many circles of American culture. Many polls of young adults reveal a high tide of moral relativism among the next generation and a deep suspicion of objective standards of truth and beauty. Indicators such as these do not portend a universal embrace of Christian orthodoxy and conventional morality.
But those countertrends may ultimately strengthen the appeal of orthodoxy to young adults who want an alternative to the secular status quo.
“[They] have witnessed the breakup of their own families or friends’ families,” said Brad Wilcox, a postdoctoral fellow in sociology at the Center for Research on Child Wellbeing at Princeton who has authored studies on Christian marriage and family issues. “They have experienced the dark side of the sexual revolution and are seeking some kind of meaning and structure.”
Purpose and Methodology
Clearly, something new is happening. These snapshot surveys and reports hint at an emergent interest in religious tradition and the conventional morality that often accompanies it. But they tell only half the story—and sometimes less—of the romance of Christian orthodoxy and young adults.
The full story of this budding bond is both less and more complex than it appears in most statistical analyses and secular media reports, which necessarily focus on only specific slices of this trend and often do so through a purely sociological lens. It is less complex in that the various images of young adults embracing tradition—in religion, morality, even clothing and pop culture fads—are diverse yet interrelated expressions of the same trend. It is more complex in that the reasons why young adults are attracted to tradition—and the ways in which they express and act on that attraction—are copious and sometimes conflicting. And when it comes to deeply held religious and moral convictions, this trend stems from something more than a pendulum swing, though a reaction against today’s moral relativism and religious pluralism surely accounts for much of the inverse appeal of orthodoxy. Many young adults who count themselves among the renewed devotees of orthodoxy in America recognize the cultural influences that have swayed them. But they also speak eloquently about a desire too deep to be explained by sociology, too timeless to be peculiar to Generation X and its famous “spiritual hunger.”
This book is an attempt to explore and explain that desire, using not only statistics and expert analyses but also the stories of the young adults who have experienced it most intensely and acted on it most boldly. As a twenty-seven-year-old Catholic and a journalist in the secular media, I have spent years listening to my twenty- and thirtysomething peers and to young orthodox believers with whom I strongly identify. I have heard them speak of their weariness with secularism, their thirst for meaning, and their conviction that they will not repeat the mistakes of the generation that preceded them. I have seen flashes of insight in the mainstream media about my generation’s “spiritual emptiness.” I have witnessed the well-intentioned attempts of religious leaders to assuage that emptiness. And I have heard snippets of young believers’ voices in the public square, describing their beliefs and commitments with honesty and passion.
What I have not heard is the story of these young orthodox believers, presented in a way that scrutinizes seemingly disparate trends in the Christian tradition to unearth their unifying themes. What I have not seen is a coherent explanation of this draw toward organized religion and traditional morality that gives credence to sociological explanations but refuses to stop there. What I have not read is an extensive account of this phenomenon that allows young adults themselves to explain what experiences led them to a place many never intended to go and to envision where they want to go from here.
So I decided to write it myself. Thanks to a generous journalism fellowship from the nonprofit Phillips Foundation of Potomac, Maryland, I had the opportunity to spend a year researching, reporting, and writing on this trend. In that year, I interviewed dozens of sociologists, religious leaders, college professors, theologians, and youth ministers for their insights on this trend. I sorted through statistics to quantify, where possible, its scope. Most important, I visited cities across the nation and talked with hundreds of young believers who fit the profile of a young orthodox Christian. I heard—in their own words, through their own stories—how and why they have chosen this life. And I witnessed how their daily lives have been shaped, and shaken up, by their countercultural choice to embrace moral and religious absolutes in a postmodern age.
Defining the Faithful
Though I intend to examine the trends and countertrends related to this attraction to Christian orthodoxy among young adults, my subjects are not the ones so often celebrated by a culture that revels in the “spiritual search.” These young adults have had many yearnings and formative experiences that are common to all spiritually inclined Americans. Yet they are qualitatively different from many of their peers and parents who seek spiritual growth while rejecting either organized religion or its more conventional, demanding, or morally strict manifestations.
These young adults are not perpetual seekers. They are committed to a religious worldview that grounds their lives and shapes their morality. They are not lukewarm believers or passionate dissenters. When they are embracing a faith tradition or deepening their commitment to it, they want to do so wholeheartedly or not at all. When they are attracted to tradition in worship or in spirituality, they want to understand the underlying reality of that tradition and use it to transform their lives. That sense of commitment and total acceptance of orthodoxy sets them apart from many of their peers and fellow believers who share their infatuation with the trappings of religious tradition but reject its theological and moral roots.
The young adults profiled in this book also differ substantially from their grandparents, though their moral attitudes and devotional practices often look surprisingly similar. Most of their grandparents inherited a religious tradition that either insulated them from a culture hostile to their beliefs or ushered them into a society that endorsed their Christian worldview. Today’s young Americans, regardless of their religious formation, have never had the luxury of accepting orthodoxy without critical reflection. The pluralistic culture they live in will not permit it. Nor do most of them want to be religious isolationists confined to spiritual, religious, and cultural ghettos of their own construction. They intuitively accept the religious tolerance that marks a postmodern culture, yet they refuse to compartmentalize their faith or keep their views to themselves. Though they express their values in different ways, most of these young adults are intent on bringing them to bear on the culture they live in and on using their talents and considerable influence to transform that culture.
These are not your father’s believers—or your grandfather’s. So who are these young adults? What drives them? How do their beliefs shape their own lives and the lives of those around them?
The young adults profiled in this book constitute, in many ways, an eclectic mix. They are college students, monks, beauty queens, rocket scientists, and landscape architects. They come from fallen-away and devout Catholic families; fundamentalist, evangelical, and mainline Protestant families; and families with no religious affiliation at all. They tend to be cultural leaders, young adults blessed with talent, intelligence, good looks, wealth, successful careers, impressive educational pedigrees, or charisma—or some dynamic combination thereof. They are the sort of people who, according to conventional wisdom, do not need religion; though they have had their share of rough times, most did not arrive at their convictions out of utter desperation or a lack of alternatives. Rather, they made conscious commitments that are having an impact far greater than their numbers would warrant. The believers who form this small but growing core are the sort of people who religious leaders say they want in their congregations—dedicated, committed, capable of leadership—though their presence sometimes seems to alarm as many fellow believers as it inspires. They are the sort of people other young adults look to when considering what to do, how to live, and what to believe. So what they do, how they live, and what they believe matters to America—a lot.
“When they speak, even the skeptics are listening,” said Leon Kass, a bioethicist and humanities professor at the University of Chicago who sees signs of increased interest in traditional religion among today’s students. Whether attending now-packed High Holy Day services with other Jews at the campus Hillel or discussing the biblical creation story with students in his class on the philosophical theory of Genesis, Kass has found that the students who defend organized religion are some of his best and brightest.
“The kids that I see are more intellectually serious,” Kass said. “That generally means they’re more attracted by the weighty religious traditions. And there’s a new recognition that religion is not just superstition or the refuge of the ignorant.”
The young adults profiled in this book were born between the years of 1965 and 1983, with a few exceptions on either end of the age spectrum. Most belong to the cohort known as Generation X, though the younger ones fall into Generation Y. Their religious affiliations span the Christian spectrum, but my focus—on orthodox young adults who are in positions of cultural influence and on churches where this trend is most vibrant—tended to lead me to Roman Catholics and evangelicals, as well as some mainline Protestants and Orthodox Christians.
This movement is broader than the boundaries carved by the time and space restraints of this book project. Its ripple effects reach across the church and culture, and its adherents are represented across the spectrums of race, class and denomination. But in this book, I chose to focus on those young believers whose faith commitments will most directly and disproportionately impact American culture writ large. There are many other stories to tell, but the stories in this book paint the broad strokes of a phenomenon that has gone largely unnoticed in the secular media and even within the church.
A note about orthodoxy: The dictionary often equates orthodoxy with conventionality or traditional values. G. K. Chesterton aptly summarized the meaning of orthodoxy in a Christian context in his 1908 religious autobiography, Orthodoxy. He wrote: “When the word ‘orthodoxy’ is used here it means the Apostles’ Creed, as understood by everybody calling himself Christian until a very short time ago and the general historic conduct of those who heed such a creed.”–20 The Apostles’ Creed confesses belief in a triune God who created heaven and earth; in the full divinity and humanity of his son, Jesus Christ; and in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. The creed also affirms the existence of a universal church, one baptism, the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life, among other doctrines. Its embrace over the centuries has generally implied adherence to the Ten Commandments—which forbid such things as murder, theft, and adultery—as well as the embrace of faith, hope, and love, and acceptance of the beatitudes delivered by Jesus at the Sermon on the Mount. For the Christians introduced in this book, the acceptance of a transcendent moral authority as revealed in the Scriptures translates into a commitment to regular worship and prayer, a belief in absolute truth, and a recognition of objective standards of personal and public morality.
On the subject of orthodox values, a few definitions of their secular counterparts may be helpful. Relativism, as noted above, is the theory that all values or judgments are equal and none are absolute or universal, since they all vary according to circumstances and to the people or cultures that hold them. In the moral and religious realm—the context for my use of the term—relativists argue that no belief system or ethical code is superior to another, because there is no objective standard of truth or morality against which they can be measured.
Pluralism has several meanings, including its definition as a theory that two or more kinds of ultimate reality exist—so contradictory religious truth claims are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In this context, pluralism most often refers to the cultural condition of having manifold religions, cultures, and belief systems represented in one society. America has a pluralistic culture, and that condition allows today’s spiritual seekers to sort through an overwhelming array of options.
Postmodern, in this context, describes today’s epoch in American culture, which is characterized by a rejection of the Enlightenment-era emphasis on reason, science, and progress and by a new blending of old patterns, beliefs, and styles. Postmodernism, the reigning ideology in today’s culture, is closely linked in this book to the theories of relativism and pluralism. All reject or undermine universal standards and absolute truth claims, and all celebrate the leveling of hierarchies and the equalizing or blending of diverse ideologies.
Amid the swirl of spiritual, religious and moral choices that exist in American culture today, many young adults are opting for the tried-and-true worldview of Christian orthodoxy. They are not a uniform group, but most of these young believers share key characteristics that often make them more similar to one another than to the less orthodox members of their own religious traditions. A few examples:
- Their identity is centered on their religious beliefs, and their morality derives from those beliefs.
- They are attracted to a worldview that challenges many core values of the dominant secular culture while addressing their deepest questions and concerns. Time-tested teachings and meaningful traditions appeal to them.
- They embrace challenging faith commitments that offer them firm guidelines on how to live their lives.
- Their adherence to traditional morality and religious devotion often comes at considerable personal cost, and the sacrificial nature of these commitments is often precisely what makes them attractive.
- They yearn for mystery and tend to trust their intuitive sense that what they have found is true, real, and worth living to the extreme.
- They seek guidance and formation from legitimate sources of authority and trust these authorities to help them find lasting happiness and avoid repeating their own painful mistakes or those of their parents and peers.
- They strive for personal holiness, authenticity, and integration in their spiritual lives and are attracted to people and congregations that do the same. Conversely, they are repelled by complacency, hypocrisy, and pandering.
- Their beliefs and practices—though usually completely compatible with the core tenets of their faith traditions—often defy conventional wisdom about their generation, the expectations of religious leaders, and existing classifications of believers within individual denominations (for example, charismatic or conventional, liberal or conservative).
- They are, for the most part, concerned with impacting and engaging the larger culture. Yet they are equally committed to living out their beliefs in the context of authentic communities that support them and hold them accountable.
That, in a nutshell, is what sets these young Christians apart from the many seekers, dissenters, and tepid believers in their midst. It even sets them apart from the passionate believers in their own faith traditions who embrace parts of the tradition but want to reshape doctrine or moral teachings to fit the circumstances of a modern—and now postmodern—world.
These young adults understand the challenges that traditional morality and orthodoxy pose. They sometimes empathize with members of their religious traditions who want to “update” teachings to make them more relevant, and many of these young believers happily embrace worship styles that make Christianity more accessible to seekers. But they resist any compromise of the essential tenets of orthodoxy as capitulation to secular culture. These young orthodox believers defend Christianity’s timeless moral teachings and its scriptural and ecclesiastical authority with vigor because they believe that any other approach would endanger the integrity of the faith they hold so dear.
How did today’s young Christians come to be defenders of orthodoxy in an age that denigrates dogma? How did they come to embrace views that so many in their schools, congregations, culture—even, in some cases, their own families—consider reactionary, intolerant, or dangerous?
Each story, like each person who tells it, is unique. But just as they share key characteristics, the young adults profiled in this book also have shared some variation of two key experiences that led them to a fuller embrace of orthodoxy and the morality it demands. Those experiences—a spiritual search and the resulting commitment to organized religion and traditional morality—are explored in more depth in chapter 2.
First, a brief sketch of the path to orthodoxy taken by today’s young Christians. The search begins with the realization of spiritual hunger or of the desire for a deeper, more authentic expression of spirituality. Sometimes subtle, sometimes acute, this crisis of meaning often arrives on the heels of significant success in the secular world at an early age, which leaves these young adults feeling surprisingly unsatisfied. For a stockbroker in San Francisco, the crisis came when he had more money than he could spend, a beautiful girlfriend, and a life that felt utterly empty. For a NASA engineer in Houston, the call to orthodoxy came when she decided that service to the cause of Christ should supersede her passion to put more men on the moon.
The young faithful who trek toward orthodoxy then begin an intentional spiritual search or make a critical reflection on their current beliefs and practices. Like many seekers, they may question childhood beliefs—or the lack thereof—or they may ask themselves if they are truly living up to the demands of the faith they already profess.
“People have a deepened sense of the need for meaning and belonging,” said Os Guinness, a Christian author and founder of the Trinity Forum, a faith-based leadership academy in McLean, Virginia. “The reigning philosophy—postmodernism—has no powerful answers at all. And this has created a powerful search for meaning.”
It is at this point that the young adults profiled in this book part company with many of their peers, parents, and pop culture personalities who conduct endless, and sometimes aimless, spiritual quests. These young adults are not content to search forever. They want answers. For them, the search is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end. From the outset, many of them crave tradition, historical continuity, and time-tested approaches to metaphysical questions they know they did not invent, so their spiritual journeys head in the direction of organized religion. Others may not seek answers in organized religion until they encounter a person or a community living orthodoxy in an authentic, compelling way—a way that makes them want to join or at least give it a chance.
There are almost as many twists, turns, and false starts in these journeys as there are people who take them. None of the young adults in this book have wholeheartedly embraced orthodoxy without reflection, without challenge, without confronting a larger, secular culture that questions and even mocks their choice daily. And few who count themselves among these young orthodox believers would pronounce their conversions complete, the integration of their faith and daily lives accomplished, or God’s will for their lives fully revealed. They see themselves as always either moving ahead or falling behind, always striving for holiness and never arriving at a place where they can rest on their spiritual laurels.
These believers have had powerful spiritual experiences that have engendered their faith in a transcendent God who knows them personally, has a plan for their lives, and wills their cooperation. At crucial times in their lives—often in crucial moments—each of these young believers has made a conscious, intentional decision to embrace this way of life despite external obstacles or internal doubts. That commitment sets them apart from other spiritual seekers.
Once committed to orthodoxy, these young adults do not quarantine their faith. It infuses every aspect of their lives, guides every major decision they make, and affects nearly every interaction they have at home, work, school, church, and in the culture at large. They frequently make their private faith known publicly, and its impact touches every aspect of American religion and culture that they do. Chapters 3 through 9 examine the ways that their religious worldview has been shaped by and has shaped their worship styles, faith communities, romantic relationships, voting patterns, campus environments, and career decisions.
Meet the Author
Colleen Carroll Campbell is an award-winning journalist who has worked as a speechwriter to President George W. Bush. She has also contributed to a wide variety of pulications including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Memphis Commercial Appeal, and Washingtonian magazine.
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