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The shape of a full-throated laugh

A couple weeks ago, Dan Darling posted an interview with Matthew Lee Anderson. (You should read the whole thing; it’s worth your time.) One of his points particularly caught my attention:

I think when the default mode of cultural engagement is that our parents were wrong and we’re out to fix it, we risk inoculating ourselves against any form of self-criticism. Myopia breeds only more myopia: if we don’t have the vision to see both the good and the bad of what we’ve inherited, we’ll never learn to truly see both the good and the bad of what we’re contributing. Chesterton once wrote something to the effect that love is blind–it’s bound, and because it’s bound, it sees more clearly than anything else. I think the same sort of thing is true of our cultural engagement: if we recognize the ways in which our lives our bound up in our parents, for both good and ill, we’ll see ourselves and the world more clearly and act more effectively in it.

Matt’s comment here is on point for at least three reasons, each of which bears elaboration.

First is that setting one generation in opposition to another is simply, factually wrong. While it is possible to recognize patterns and broad strokes, we do not live in broad strokes. Rather, we each live in our own particularities. The unique failures of your parents are not the unique failures of my parents, just as my unique failures are not yours. The failures of my church are not the failures of yours, and vice versa. Nor are there hard lines between one generation and the next. Boomers overlap with Gen X-ers overlap with Millennials overlap with whatever they’re calling the generation after mine. The tendencies of each blur into the next, and young people plainly shape older generations, too – especially in our youth-focused culture.

As Matt pointed out near the end of that quote, it’s also simply ignorant. We are much much like our parents, in ways that many of us often don’t realize until we are much older. From the tiniest details such as handwriting or the shape of a full-throated laugh, to the big picture items of how we understand the world, we cannot escape our parents’ influence. It is folly, sheer and brazen, to think that our reactions against their failures are somehow free and clear of the shape our parents gave to us.

Note, too, the historical ignorance and hubris here. Because we can see the consequences of our parents’ choices for the church, we think we see more clearly than them. But hindsight is always 20/20, and our examination of their decisions can be nothing but hindsight. They, too, were seeking God as best they knew how. As we look at our own situation, it is far easier to critique our parents’ failings than it is to see clearly the consequences of our own choices twenty years hence. More, many of us are the believers we are today because of our parents; we could use to remember that if we think we see more clearly than them – that even if we do see more clearly than them, and I find that doubtful on the whole – it is only because we are standing on their shoulders.

Second is that reactionary movements tend in the end toward the catastrophic. A movement with positive goals can sustain itself it the long run. A movement grounded in disagreement, however, will tear itself apart when it runs out of other targets. If the Millennials (people of my generation) want to leave a lasting legacy of good for the church, we need to simply pursue the good as defined by Scripture, not fixate on our parents’ failures. To the extent that we are committed to the pursuit of faithfulness, rather than vindicating ourselves and trumping previous generations, we will make progress in righting wrongs. To the extent that we are fixated on demonstrating our own superiority – whether we put it in those terms or not – we will fail, and fail badly.

Third, and most importantly, characterizing one generation’s relationship to those that preceded it in these terms of righting wrongs is unbiblical. The attitude reflects the view – broadly accepted by American culture – that wisdom is found in the young, and that the old are but hindrances to progress. What nonsense! While there are cultures in the world that run the danger of overemphasizing the wisdom of age, ours is not one of them. Scripture teaches us to listen to those who have gone before us, to value their wisdom, and to honor them. Especially our parents, whom we are told to honor without condition.

Midway through college, a friend commented that constantly seeing our parents as the problem that we’re going to fix is distinctly unhelpful, and nowhere more so than in the church. God has given us all to each other for mutual benefit and edification. She was right, and her gentle criticism stuck. We have gone off the rails if we see the problems of the church primarily in terms of other generations’ failings. Perhaps we can see our parents’ failings more clearly than they can. However, it is likely we can also see their faults better than our own – and likely, too, that they can see our faults better than we can.

Perhaps we ought to consider that our parents are well aware of many of the ways their choices have played out. In the areas that we do see more clearly, it is nonetheless possible they are better equipped to make wise decision about how to correct course than we are. The way forward for the church is not in younger generation rising up to fix the failures of those who have gone before them, nor in older people dismissing the critiques that younger men and women might offer. Nor is it in the younger generations ignoring the cautions offered by older, or older generations too swiftly adopting every whim of the young. Rather, we must all of us seek to submit ourselves to Scripture, and learn from each other. The way forward is in mutual encouragement and love.


  • Eric Dorbin thought to say:

    Yes, I’ve often found our culture’s fixation on young to be odd, it’s like people think experience = bad sometimes, though I can see where it comes from since everyone in our culture wants to be younger, spryer, and sexier. That mentality just somehow transferred to ideas instead of just physicality. Something I heard a speaker say in a sermon-ish message recently that stood out to me was that “just because something is NEW does not necessarily mean it is RIGHT.” It sounds almost silly in it’s obviousness when you think about it, but the new = good/right mentality has somehow been ingrained into our culture’s thinking.

    Offer a rejoinder↓
  • Eric Dorbin thought to say:

    Also, this brought to mind the analogy that because older generations have more experiences and have simply tried more things (both successes and failures) ignoring and denouncing them is would be like after Edison made the first lightbulb, the next scientist/inventor came along and threw it all out and started all the trial and error over. Obviously the better course is to throw out the things that have already failed and try to improve on what we know works.

    Offer a rejoinder↓
    • Both of your comments are very much on point, I think, and that’s an excellent analogy. There’s a tension here, considering this all more broadly, because wisdom is more than mere experience, and age can bring other kinds of folly. But as you say, ignoring experiential knowledge is just silly, even as we all want to be going deeper and seeking true, godly wisdom rooted in Scripture. As I noted in the post, however, that’s not the direction our culture is running. Quite the contrary.

      An interesting corollary to your first point on new versus right – part of the challenge is the technologism we have embraced. What I mean by that is: we have essentially assumed for the last few centuries that whatever our problems, they can be solved by applying more technology. However, each technology we introduce brings its own shaping forces with it, and the result is not always a net gain, or even necessarily a net positive. However, you combine that sort of technologism with the sort of general optimism that has characterized American thinking on the whole, and you’re left with a recipe for reckless and thoughtless embrace of every new idea or technology to appear on the scene.

      The idolatry of youth… I suspect I’ll be writing more on this particular topic. Thanks for your thoughts and comments, as always.

      Offer a rejoinder↓

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