Virtual Faith: The Gen-X Quest for Meaning We're Not Spiritual Slackers - but Spirituality without Religion Risks Being a Harmful Idolatry of Individualism

By Beaudoin, Tom | The Christian Science Monitor, August 6, 1998 | Go to article overview

Virtual Faith: The Gen-X Quest for Meaning We're Not Spiritual Slackers - but Spirituality without Religion Risks Being a Harmful Idolatry of Individualism


Beaudoin, Tom, The Christian Science Monitor


Perhaps it's not America's third Great Awakening, but something of a spiritual revival is at work in our so-called Generation X. The popular culture of my generation is awash in religious imagery, expressing a widespread spiritual quest on the part of ordinary twenty- and thirtysomethings.

Those "What Would Jesus Do" bracelets you may be seeing, for example, are an expression by some Christians of a much wider spiritual sensibility at work in the culture.

And just listen to recent popular songs.

Jewel asks "Who will save your soul?" U2's Bono croons to Jesus: "Wake up, dead man." Alanis Morrisette, reflecting on her Roman Catholic upbringing, sings "What I learned I rejected but I believe again. I will suffer the consequence of this inquisition. If I jump in this fountain, will I be forgiven?"

Ani DiFranco performed a cover of "Amazing Grace" on a recent album. Joan Osborne asked famously, "What if God was one of us?" A recent Puff Daddy video features an encounter between the artist and a living crucified Jesus. And spiritual search themes suffuse two recent soundtracks for the musical "Rent" and the movie "City of Angels."

These are just a few examples from the new spiritual milieu of pop culture.

What in heaven is going on with our X generation? While spiritual themes often appear in American culture, an important shift is occurring. For a generation widely presumed to be indifferent to religion, religious themes and images are strikingly prevalent. It may be overstating things to declare that God is on everyone's mind, but, God - or at least a quest for meaning beyond the world of banality - is nearly a mainstream topic.

My observations contradict many of the most vociferous cultural commentators who think that Gen-Xers and our pop culture are largely indifferent to issues of faith, if not headed in the fast lane down the highway to hell, the autobahn greased with the slippery sewage of pop culture.

I don't want to simplistically bless my generation or its pop culture, but neither do I think the situation is nearly as irreligious, heretical, or dire as these pundits or preachers would have us believe. True, our generation still is in need of access to life-giving religious communities, rituals, and traditions, but please don't think that we're not already well along the way on our own spiritual journeys.

That our popular culture is laced with an interest in spirituality doesn't mean that a majority of my generation longs for a repeat of past pieties, whether a return to the 1950s (as some conservatives think) or a revival of the 1960s (as many liberals fervently hope). The spiritualities - and they are plural - of our generation are often a mishmash of the traditional and the contemporary.

I'm a regular at church, and yet I find spiritual meaning in U2's "With or Without You," Puff Daddy's "Victory," Sarah McLachlan's "Sweet Surrender," and Ani DiFranco's rendition of "Amazing Grace."

But our spirituality isn't only pop-cultured, it tends toward irreverence. Madonna, an icon of Gen-X pop culture, merges sexuality with Catholic symbols. The popularity of piercing and tattoos suggest, among other things, a quest for an experience of permanence in a culture of flux. And, like many in my generation - and not unlike St. Teresa of Avila who levitated in ecstasy in church - I find that playing bass in a rock band is often as close as I get to God, in an experience that most churches can never match.

My interest in this quiet explosion of spirituality doesn't mean that I'm in favor of simply equating, for example, Joan Osborne with John's Gospel. That would be to turn pop culture into one more idol that distracts us from a spiritual life. Rather, the spiritual quality of much of our pop culture is a recognition that God is not contained by the pronouncements of prelates or within the walls of a religious institution.

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