Life After God for Gen X in Desert

Gordon Lynch offers a few reflections on Douglas Coupland’s texts as entry points to the search for meaning of Generation X. He sees this chapter as his key contribution to the conversation on ‘Generation X’.

Douglas Coupland Life After God covers

Douglas Coupland’s “Life After God” – 3 versions

Journey/retreat to the desert/wilderness

The struggle to find meaning

Lynch points to the desert as a common thread in Couplands’ novels, symbolising the struggle people face as they search for a sense of meaning in life. One thing is clear in the novels. Insight will not be found by submitting to the demands of a commercially driven world. Withdrawal to the wilderness is the way to go.

Life after God – the narrator travels through the Canadian desert as he tells his stories

Generation X – Andy, Dag and Claire have moved to the edge of the Californian desert to get away from the rat race.

Girlfriend in a coma – Linus spends four years wandering the USA in the hope of finding some meaning to life.

Miss Wyoming – John Johnson gives up career, home and possessions to wander across America.

Lynch points to the parallels with the desert experiences of many religious traditions – Moses in the desert encountering God in the burning bush, Jesus facing temptation in the wilderness. The Christian monastic movement beginning with men and women leaving the cities to enter the wilderness.

Fragmentary Experiences of Meaning

Despite his focus on the struggle to find meaning, Coupland instills his novels with surprising moments of clarity and insight. Lynch describes these as moments of grace in which meaning comes to us in surprising ways, out of the control of the main characters. These epiphanies are not the result of intellectual work. They’re usually borne out of physical experience – touch, sight and sound.

Lynch returns to his theme of personal authenticity in the contemporary search for meaning. Into this highly individualised search Lynch injects the insights of Coupland’s novels. As difficult as life will be, with all its disappointments and suffering, there is a point to continually searching for meaning. In fact that search will have more integrity when it is done in the context of suffering. And in the middle of that search Coupland raises the hope that we will find glimpses of a reality that is beyond our control, a reality that we can neither fabricate nor deny.

Belonging as Citizens with Purpose

You are citizens of God’s very own family, citizens of God’s country, and
you belong in God’s household with every other Christian.
Ephesians 2:19 b (Living Bible)

It’s been a while since I’ve been reading The Purpose Driven Life. I took a 3 month break from reviews while I was superintendent minister at Albert St Uniting in Brisbane. There just wasn’t time for blogging.

But now I’m back.

Driving with Purpose

As a family we’ve been working on the paperwork for citizenship of Australia. We’re permanent residents but have discovered that citizenship makes life a bit easier. We’ll be able to keep our NZ passports alongside the Australian passports. I’m looking forward to being able to vote in the next federal election in 3 years time!

Citizenship is but one of the metaphors used in today’s reading about belonging in the people of God. There’s the usual family membership, and being a part of the body (member or organ as in arm or lung or whatever).

Australian Passport Request

Rick Warren gives us a few reasons why we need to belong to a local church family, each with a verse from the Bible to show its an offering from the Bible:

A church family identifies you as a genuine believer
A church family moves you out of self-centred isolation
A church family helps you develop spiritual muscle
The Body of Christ needs you
You will share in Christ’s mission in the world
A church family will keep you from backsliding

I like the reminder that we’re called to love imperfect sinners, just as God does. We’re called to love real people, not ideal people.

This is all very relevant to us at the moment – we’re in the middle of starting up a Sunday afternoon house church. The people we’re inviting have been or are on the fringes of the church. We’ve got to have some strong motivation beyond obligation and loyalty because clearly those factors have worn out for many of our friends.

Rick Warren’s question to consider:
Does my level of involvement in my local church demonstrate that I love and am committed to God’s family?

Yes. My commitment to God’s family goes way beyond the local church. The bottom line, though, is the local people right here who don’t always match up with the ideals I hold in my head!

Happy Cows in TV Commercials

What could top the “Got Milk?” campaign from the 1990s? The Happy Cows campaign from California! Apparently there’s a bit of competition between USA states for buyers of cheese. Hmmm will I get Vermont cheese or California cheese? To help people decide, the California Milk Advisory Board commissioned Deutsch Los Angeles to make some very expensive but very effective TV ads. The result? A series of vignettes in which we are informed that dairy cows living in California just love it there. So the milk has to be better!

Happy Cows in TV Ad

Continue reading “Happy Cows in TV Commercials”

God As DJ For Clubbing Spirituality

Lynch in “After Religion” asks:

“Is there any substance to the idea that clubs are becoming new churches for people, or that dance music via the DJ is becoming an important new experience of transcendence?”
He of course is referring to the line from Faithless in 1997:

This is my Church
This is where I heal my hurts…
For tonight
God is a DJ

Faithless God is a DJ music video screenshot

Club culture in this sense is more a UK phenomenon that anywhere else. Lynch refers to institutions that have developed there – like Ministry of Sound, Return to the Source, the underground rave scene. It could be described as a global thing as well – with Trance Messiahs Paul van Dyk in Vancouver and Christopher Lawrence in the USA. Hmm… When I say ‘global’ does that include the non-English speaking world as well? Dance/club music is big in continental Europe. And in Japan. Probably other places as well. Globalisation is pulsing in this field.

Here on the Gold Coast of Australia we have a healthy selection of night clubs. But ask the average Joe to point you to the closest club and you might end up in the Surf Lifesavers Club or the Football Club. I’ve been down to Surfers Paradise at 2 am to sample the night life – and there’s lots happening that could relate to the Ministry of Sound scene. But its not big in the minds of the locals.

When I first moved to the Gold Coast I was responsible for developing worship experiences for young adults at a local church. We tried cafe style with ambient music and relaxed atmosphere. And then we had a go at borrowing from the club scene – with techno and trance music. Interesting reaction. There were of course some people totally turned off by the departure from soft rock ballads being sung by everyone. They knew how to stand in rows and sing and clap. But moving to grooving was not part of the God experience in their world.

There was one guy who I knew was into clubbing in a big way. But this introduction of club music into worship was not good news for him. So I asked him to take me out to his favourite night haunts – check out the local clubs. He was keen. And we did dance the night away. But later as we talked about the night he put his finger on how uncomfortable he’d been having his youth worker on the spot. He’d divided his world into two. Clubs were about drinking alcohol, dancing, letting go and looking, and flirting with danger. Church was the alternative to all this.

I was fascinated with Lynch’s conversations with clubbers – putting it to them the possibility that their involvement in clubbing was a transcendent experience. The response generally was – no… we’re just here to have a good time. As simple as that.

It’s a bit like saying that sex is meant to be a spiritual experience of transcendence. Good idea in theory but not usually in the minds of the actual participants.

However Lynch does bring us back to the role that popular culture plays in the lives of many people. Whether that be the provision of an environment in which people can express themselves physically, or the sense of community people find by sharing common tastes. It might be the sense of intimacy and release people experience through mind altering drugs or entrancing music.

Lynch warns that tying these senses of meaning to the word ‘religious’ is not always appreciated by the punters, even though the promoters may borrow language and imagery from the religious sphere. We’re entering a ‘post religious’ world here.

Questions I’m asking here:

  1. Given that club culture is a sub culture, how does the church find ways of translating the gospel in terms and environments that learn from it? For example, a positive part of the club scene is the capacity for people to move together, literally. This is something picked up strongly by many indigenous Christian movements on the African continent. It’s a much needed antidote to the intellectualism and individualism of Western Christianity. I believe that much of what we call worship in mainstream western church, whether that be traditional or praise/worship, is show. Someone plays, sings, speaks, performs. We watch whatever’s up the front. The club atmosphere moves the focus to the middle of the floor, providing visual and audio cues through video and music – from around the sides and from above.
  2. Is there any point in dabbling with club music when most people in the church have no contact with or interest in the dance scene? Maybe its just too hard. Get the clubbers to develop their own ambient experiences. Let the Broadway-fixated people carry on with their up-front presentations. Let the band-focused people get on with band-centred praise and worship. Maybe. In the meantime, I’m keeping my eye on trends, enjoying the music of Moby, FatBoy Slim, Chicane

In the meantime, Pink has picked up the title of Faithless’ track and taken it back to the dance floor:
If God is a DJ
Life is a dance floor
Love is the rhythm
You are the music
If God is a DJ
Life is a dance floor
You get what you’re given
It’s all how you use it.

Tom Beaudoin on Generational Texts

Tom Beaudoin, an American Catholic writer, published “Virtual Faith” in 1998, a book linked with his doctoral work at Boston College. He’s just started as a lecturer in Christian tradition and practical theology at Santa Clara University, California.

Virtual Faith & Gordon Lynch

Gordon Lynch, in his book, “After Religion”, summarises a fair chunk of “Virtual Faith” by writing:

‘Xers’, like all human beings, have a need to search and express fundamental ideas and beliefs about the meaning of life. Popular culture has a special significance in the lives of members of ‘Generation X’. For ‘Xers’, the search for, and expression of, meaning thus primarily takes place through the medium of popular culture.

Beaudoin argues that popular culture is made up of ‘texts’ that express particular views about the meaning of life. These texts could be any popular culture ‘event’. Tom examines three kinds of popular culture as text: music video, cyberspace, and body adornment.

Gordon Lynch has a few problems with the idea that certain shared values are embedded in texts for a whole generation. I share the same concerns. As I read ‘Virtual Faith’ back in 1998 I had to admit I’d never seen half the music videos unpacked by Beaudoin. Since then I’ve made an effort to engage with some of that material. I’ve used R.E.M.’s clips, “Losing My Religion” and “Everybody Hurts” in a few settings.

Gordon explores the limitations of any popular ‘text’ by examining the huge range of interpretations around the movie ‘The Matrix’. Fair point. Lynch is saying therefore that popular culture has not become the scripture for ‘generation x’ – because there is not a definitive interpretation of the medium. Hang on a minute there Gordon… I think you’re talking about ‘scripture’ in a fairly narrow sense, in fact in a fairly conservative evangelical sense. If we look at any part of the Christian scriptures, we can find a huge range of interpretations from literalist through to post-Christian and even at times Satanist viewpoints. That doesn’t take away the fact that the writings of the ‘Old and New Testaments’ are regarded as reference points for people engaging with Christian faith.

In the same way, there is a wide collection of popular cultural texts that gives us clues about a wide range of sub cultures within any generational cohort. To claim that R.E.M. is the anthemic expression of ‘generation x’, as one or two authors have done, is like saying that Douglas Coupland is the spokesman for the same group. Within one city we’ll find a range of musical styles, life style issues, attitudes to modernism and postmodernism, approaches to clothing and use of information technology. At a global level we can watch trends develop – but…

Lynch sums up by saying that popular culture is a source of meaning to individuals because they engage actively with it, interpreting it in conventional or surprising (but always personal) ways, and weaving it into larger patterns of meaning in their lives. Yep. But of course that could apply to Christian scriptures as well.

Lynch goes on to suggest a range of functions that have been identified for popular culture by people writing in this field:

  • A focus for social interaction (as in Star Trek conventions)
  • A means of escapism from ordinary ‘real life’ experiences ( as in romance novels & films)
  • A means by which people communicate about their ‘real world’ experiences (using TV programs as a reference point to talk about their own lives).

Lynch draws on Janice Radway’s approach to women and romance, and John Storey’s approach to cultural consumption and everyday life.

There’s a few things missing in Lynch’s engagement with Beaudoin’s approach to popular culture. I thought that beyond just engaging with the ‘texts’ of popular culture, Tom gave us valuable insights into a generational trend to communicate with irreverence, interpret with humility, and search for meaning in the middle of suffering.

Post Evangelical Flat Pack Alternative Worship

Gordon Lynch’s third chapter of “After Religion” looks at ‘Generation X’ and evangelical Christianity – with particular reference to the British scene. Dave Tomlinson’s book, “The Post-Evangelical” is described as a key text for individuals who are struggling to reconcile their Evangelical background and ‘Generation X’ sympathies.

Post Evangelical US & UK Book Covers

The Post Evangelical

Tomlinson published “The Post Evangelical” in 1995. The book was republished in the USA in 2003 by Zondervan and Youth Specialties as part of the ’emergent series’. He was for many years leader of Holy Joes, a community of Christians who met regularly in a London pub. He’s now an Anglican vicar at St Luke’s Holloway.

I relate well to Dave Tomlinson’s approach. Growing up in Evangelical circles in New Zealand, I and many of my friends were faced with a choice of being a ‘real Christian’ (read conservative Evangelical who believes the right things and lives the correct lifestyle) and a ‘liberal’ or ‘backslider’ or lapsed Christian (read someone who dared to think differently, read or listen to people other than accepted writers and speakers, choose different approaches to alcohol, sexuality and movies).

Tomlinson outlines the call to move beyond flat pack furniture – furniture that can only be assembled in one way. He gives the metaphor of meccano sets – sets that can be assembled in a range of formats. Religious truth for the ‘post evangelical’ emerges out of interaction between the Christian tradition and the personal perceptions, thoughts and values of the individual believer.

I’m not too sure the meccano metaphor works for me. Meccano was always something my older brother worked with. I was brought up on plastic rather than metal.

The Prodigal Project

Prodigal Project Book Cover Gordon Lynch also refers to the Alternative Worship scene that’s grown up in the UK – another expression of ‘generation x’ approaches to faith. Lynch explains that Generation X values are found in the open-ended, creative and personally authentic search for meaning found in alternative worship services. It’s interesting to note that a key text used by Lynch is “The Prodigal Project“, written by Mark Pierson and Mike Riddell of New Zealand, and Kathy Kirkpatrick of Australia.

What I found particularly interesting about this chapter of “After Religion” was Lynch’s observation that while alternative worship and post evangelical approaches to theology may resonate with an emerging ‘generation x’ search for personal meaning, mainstream evangelicalism is growing at a faster rate. In fact, Lynch lists factors that impede the growth of these movements: limited interest in converting others to their point of view, a lack of active ‘mission strategy’ and a rejection of the ‘more traditonal Evangelical preoccupation with numerical church growth’. It appears as though being fringe, on the margins, underground is preferred to being widely accepted. I guess that figures. Otherwise it wouldn’t be ‘alternative’ or ‘post’, would it?

My own reflection on these movements, having identified myself with them here in Australia and New Zealand, is that they are helpful reminders of the need to break out of the box. The phrase “This, and more” summarises for me the sense of being grounded in many of the beliefs and assumptions held by evangelical Christians and traditional worshippers. While being grounded in a common life in Christ, the actual cultural expression of faith may be broader or be formed in ways not expected in traditional circles.

The same goes for postmodernism. Seeking personal meaning does not need to preclude sharing in common beliefs. Paying attention to personal experience and emotion does not need to exclude the valuing of reason and logic. It’s not one or the other. ‘Post’ does not need to mean ‘Ex’. For me it’s like knocking some of the walls out and adding new rooms to make room for a growing family.

Like many Christian movements, these two waves of Christian faith provide a language and network that gives permission to leave the confines of a movement without leaving Christ. And so Lynch’s title, “After Religion”. Lynch goes on to explore this process in his latest book, “Losing My Religion“.