In the classic World War I novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Remarque described the effect of the Great War on the men who fought it: “It is the common fate of our generation…We’ve been cut off from real action, from getting on, from progress. We don’t believe in those things any more; we believe in the war.”
We need to talk about a lost generation, again.
The First Lost Generation
In the 1920’s Gertrude Stein used the phrase “lost generation” to describe those like Remarque and also like Ernest Hemingway. These men and women alike struggled to come back from the war to a world which, in their minds and bodies, was no more than illusion—it no longer existed. Hemingway used this epithet for his classic novel which wrestled with this sense of lostness, The Sun Also Rises. His was a generation for whom the old world’s values and vision had died.
The Great War changed the world. And the world is changing again. Our world faces not just a single crisis, but a general crisis. We face a simultaneous, multi-faceted crisis of democracy, of faith, of ecology, of science, of our humanity. We live in an age of liminality, of in-betweenness. In this liminality, there’s a new “lost generation”. This isn’t a lost generation returning from the trenches of France. It is a lost generation living in the ruins of American Christendom.
Today’s Lost Generation
There’s a new lost generation today. In this generation is also a generation of Christians. You can see this easily. Check the decline of Christian demographics, or the collapse of Christian denominations and leaders to scandal, or you can look at the more immediate trend of deconstruction.
Either way, it’s easy to see things aren’t what the once were. Russell Moore described it this way: “young people are leaving the church not because they no longer believe what the church teaches, but because they believe the church itself does not believe it.” Choosing to see this generation (my generation) as “lost” is more about understanding the possibility and potential of its experience, not just resigning ourselves to dismissive hopelessness.
This generation is lost because something else is new.
The old categories, concepts, constructions, and configurations don’t have the descriptive power to define our moment and its crises. Nor preventative power to address it. We need fresh theology, fresh conceptions of the Church, fresh categories. We need to consider theology as “making” something new, not “fixing” something old. This is what Makoto Fujimura argues in Art+Faith.
Instead we’re settling for “fixes” fueled by Christian paranoia and nostalgia. We have this general fear over the cultural collapse of these categories. And this fear is tied to a pervasive nostalgia for the time past when these old categories and configurations did their job.
The apologetic industry of evangelicalism looks at this new lost generation, and explains it the only way it knows how, by these old concepts. It might use the basic frame of Augustine’s conversion. His stakes were either Christ or concubines. Applying this frame to a lost generation, churches might quickly and easily conclude, “well, they must want to sin.” But what if that’s not it? What if the lost generation is more content to seek Jesus in the ruins of a world which no longer exists, than they are to join in a rebuilding project which takes his name in vain?
There’s a lost generation alive in this time of liminality. You can’t understand this new lost generation by old forms, old wineskins for new wine. But we try. We try because it’s easy, and more importantly it’s fast. We’ve made the Scripture fit our need for speed, too. The Bible in the hands of the nostalgic and paranoid is little more than an index of information about God. Listen to our politicians. To culture warring pulpits that use “biblical” as little more than a marketing term, a shibboleth. When theology and the Bible are no more than an index for information about God, you don’t have to deal with the incarnate God.
It is this living God I believe the lost generation of evangelicals is seeking. One who sees the world and loves it because he’s already entered it. This is not the god some seek to defend by railing against a straw man, waging a culture war.
The Hope of the Lost Generation
The anxiety of this lost generation is matched by its immediate awareness that things must change. And things are. This whole narrative of Christian collapse actually only makes sense in the West. Not so in the Global South.
There is no rebuilding what for so long we were paranoid to lose; there’s no returning to a time that only exists in our nostalgia. There is only the expectation for something new, while we wrestle with our own sense of lostness from a world that was. This is because God is alive. So this isn’t progressivism, it’s eschatological.
It’s not that this lost generation is the answer. It’s that the sense of homelessness we feel and which characterizes our faith puts us in a better position to offer fresh answers from the one who has them. It was Jesus who blessed the posture of lostness, of poverty, and who recognized it as the posture of someone for whom the Kingdom had come.
The lost generation doesn’t exist as those whose case is hopeless. But as “border stalkers”, what Fujimura calls them. Those who stalk the old boundaries, the margins of what was and the horizons of what might be. It’s right there in lostness, in liminality, where the dawn comes quickest. Margins are closer to horizons. So don’t dismiss the lost generation. Theirs, too, is the Kingdom of Heaven.