A Different Gospel

Many today criticize this generation. It is a fair pastime inherited through the ages, to be sure, but fairness makes it an altogether easy task as well. Colloquialisms about salmon in hogsheads fleeing shotguns come to mind. It does not aid their case, of course, that this generation makes it too easy to criticize them, as they are often trading in reason for desire, opting for insanity and calling it a virtue, believing they are going to change the world while making it more of a mess.

When viewed as a group, Gen Z has obviously lost its senses. It mindlessly follows in the service of a Gospel without orthodoxy, tradition, or dogma. Its orthodoxy is sexual autonomy, not holiness. Its dogma, which might once have been institutional reform, has become political radicalism. Its tradition is social more than salvific, ostentatious more than transformational, and deadening more than vivifying. While cannibalizing morality, it asserts a false moral superiority over its elders, and like the tribesman, will decay under the weight of its own truth claims. It is truly a different Gospel revised for a different time.

But I am reminded of two things when tempted to cast out this generation into the fires of historical obscurity. The first is that such things have been said about each generation. The Baby Boomers were deemed too innocent to discipline, Gen X too precious to damage their self-esteem, Gen Z too fragile to confront reality. Each generation hoards its own vices—which means they also display their own virtues. The second thing I recall is that the crude behaviors witnessed in media, both mainstream and social, do not speak for the entire generation. What receives the most clickbait is the extreme and obscene, and while, yes, exhibition does produce imitation, there are many—even if only a remnant—who live quiet lives of relative normalcy. When viewed as individuals, Gen Z is as weird and promising as any that have come before.

My own experience with students is not that they are all trying the patience of reality. Some do, but many are trying to do the good—even if they don’t know what the good is. This generation, like their predecessors the Ninevites, in proclaiming autonomy from traditional morality truly don’t know their right from their left (Jonah 4:11). And as for the prophet of old, our motive for them should be compassion rather than scorn—even as we watch them leave a wake of destruction while they upend all social norms and moral stability. This deficit is not entirely their fault, since they have learned from their elders—who also suffer from moral Gerstmann Syndrome. Deep in their soul, they do not merely lack for discipline; they lack for understanding. They are, in the language of C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, Thulcandrans without an Oyarsa (humans without a governing spirit), trying to lift themselves on their feet by pulling up their own hair. Consequently, as they seek to remake culture their arrogance hides a secret shame and self-hatred. A diminished self is at the heart of their complex. For no one can deny the truth of reality without intense suffering. Refusing to acknowledge the oncoming headlights as one strolls in the road will not prevent the truck from crashing. If this is so, we need not to melt the fragile snowflake with our many opportunities for irony but to reassert their value as originally created. In other words, we need to read them the Gospel renewed in our time.

The problem is not that we think too much of ourselves, though the narcissist may alternately display inordinate self-interest and self-abasement—sometimes simultaneously. The problem is that we think too little of ourselves. I take as evidence for my claim the fact that our Lord and his disciples spend so much of their energy emphasizing God’s love. While there are a number of scriptures that point to God’s wrath, the larger metanarrative of scripture is that God’s love is greater than our sin. If sin were the primary problem, then God might have used the Incarnation to point out our frequent failures. But the law had already done that. We know, deep down, we are sinful—so sinful, in fact, that we do not believe God could love us that much. And such is when faith fails: to see ourselves as without worth, refusing to accept the immense, immeasurable, dare I say unbelievable, love of God.

It is only God in the person of Jesus Christ who can take our diminished, inflated egos and restore our true sense of self. In saying this, I do not refer to something as superficial as self-image or as puerile as self-esteem. To restore the self means for God to give back to us that core element we rejected in the Garden. To restore the self means to know reality as it is—both the metaphysical realm of eternity and the physical realm of this fallen cosmos. To restore the self means to take up dominion over creation. To restore the self means to see each other as fellow kings and queens, not as slaves to be exploited. To restore the self means to humbly sacrifice our self to him.

There are many reasons to criticize this generation, and an unhealthy sense of self is certainly one of them. But this has been true since the Fall. The consequences of celebrating transition, ambiguity, and unfettered freedom will be harsh. So, too, in the recent past have been the consequences of celebrating racial segregation, sexual liberation, and religious tyranny. Each generation must come to grips with its own behavior. Yet it is only when we see ourselves as we truly are—worthy in the eyes of the Creator—that we can re-learn our right from left and live as if reality depends on it.

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