Wednesday, October 14, 2009

nuChristian - a quick, friendly intro to that scary postmodern theology

I have the privilege of being among a few folks who are blogging on Russell Rathbun's new book nuChristian: Finding Faith in a New Generation. I intentionally haven't read the other reviews (yet), but I should start by saying a) I've never read unChristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, to which nuChristian is something of a response and b) I'd never even heard of Russell Rathbun before I read this book. So take my perspective FWIW.

Pastor Rathbun's book is an addition to an ongoing conversation about how to engage the "new" generation of Christians/churchgoers/people of faith. Literature on the topic generally refers to two generations after the baby boomers: Generation X or the Busters (those born between 1961 and 1981, of which I am a part) and Generation Y or the Mosaics (those born after 1981). Rathbun refers to both of these groups broadly as "the postmoderns", and directs his attention towards both groups. He states up front that this book is written from his own, highly subjective experiences as a pastor to folks from these generations at House of Mercy in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and that his is only one voice in the larger conversation. I consider this declaration of subjectivity and uniqueness to be a fairly post-modern way to kick the book off :^), and it lends an air of authenticity right up front.

I read books with some vigor, and in the first two chapters, the margins of my copy of the book are filled with scribbles: "No!! Too simple!", "OVERSIMPLIFIED", and "What about the Catholics??" are some examples. I also found myself chafing against the broad brush definition of "postmoderns." WHO is he TALKING about?, I thought to myself. Is he REALLY trying to sum up TWO ENTIRE GENERATIONS in one big lump and talk about them as though they share the same characteristics?? Where are the Asians?? The African-Americans?? My mind went through all sorts of folks I know who don't fit the profile of the postmodern that he describes in the book, and I clicked my tongue inwardly at the overall lack of mention of Catholic and Orthodox churches.

And then I decided to stop being a jerk.

Truth be told, this is a neat little book that does exactly what it sets out to do: offers observations from one life as a way of stimulating conversation. If anyone misses the point that this book is meant to stimulate discussion, Rathbun sprinkles questions in a non-intrusively plain font at the tops and bottoms of a few select pages, but he definitely doesn't overdo it. Once I (mostly) stopped being a jerk, I found myself marking quite a few sections where I really resonated with statements he was making, and felt that he was doing a very accurate, thoughtful job of representing a certain section of folks born in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. He isn't claiming that this is a thorough sociological or socio-theological study, and the book shouldn't be read that way.

I really warmed up to him at the beginning of Chapter 3 when I recognized a reframing of one of my favorite rants on how the consumer culture has embittered me towards any church that appears to be attempting to package and sell the Gospel:

"New generations are actually very concerned with authenticity. They take for granted the omnipresence of marketing... In a culture where everything, even every individual [referencing social networking sites where people market themselves], is a product to be positioned or marketed, authenticity is rare and sought after." (p.25)

ABSOLUTELY. Think you have a new and innovative idea, Pastors? Spare us the innovation and just be yourself, whatever that is.

He goes on to talk at length about hypocrisy, using the example of the life of Peter and discussing at length what hypocrisy really is and isn't. He uses the specific example of how to ask a congregation to give money to the church, and how his own church struggled with whether, and how, to present this idea to "postmoderns," with their cynicism towards marketing. He resolves it this way:

"The truth is that a lot of what we do as a church and as individuals is motivated by an unresolved mixture of both self-interest and the desire to live out our faith. Does this make us hypocrites? The hypocrisy comes when we do not tell the truth about the tensions, to ourselves first and to others." (p. 35)

and again on page 36:

"Can we avoid being hypocrites?... If we preach the Good News of Jesus Christ-- the unconditional love and sacrifice of a Creator for his creation that leads to reconciliation for the world, and that God calls us to live out that unconditional love-- then it is impossible to practice what we preach. By no means should we preach something different; instead, we should understand perfection to be beyond us. Any success at loving God and neighbor only occurs when Christ is acting in us. Postmodern generations understand the inability to completely become the person one desires to be."

After that, he had me. These are things I've thought and talked about... things that made me feel I was at odds with how I'd been raised to look at my faith, and here they are on the page. Russell may not really be describing an entire generation, but he is describing me.

He goes on to chapters addressing attitudes towards evangelism, judgement of the sin of others, involvement with the larger American culture, and attitudes towards politics. In every one of those chapters, I have large sections of text underlined and starred, places where he absolutely nails my own attitudes towards these topics, attitudes that I have felt put something of a wall between myself and my parents, but also between myself and my younger, more conservative brother, not to mention many young, conservative evangelical or Roman Catholic friends ( fact, there is more of a wall between myself and younger evangelicals and Catholics on these topics than between myself and my parents. At least they were part of the hippie generation and understand, even respect, a certain amount of rebellion.).

Rathbun's concluding chapter gives a transcript of a telephone conversation between himself and his Dad discussing the book. This is what really brought home to me the purpose and value of the book in its simple, anecdotal style. I easily read the book in under 3 hours, and it had the effect of getting my mind turning on the topics without getting bogged down into too much detail... in other words, it got me in the perfect place to start a conversation, and it appears to have done the same for his Dad, as well. In fact, the transcript reminds me quite a bit of conversations that I've had with my own Dad on the same topic, often after my Dad read a blog post that I'd written. Despite my general strong desire to be considered unique, it was really rather nice to think that I had this in common with the author... that this really was a generational dynamic, at least among middle-class white Protestants. :^)

I think the true value of this book is that it provides a quick and easy introduction to some basic theological differences between more "orthodox" theology and that held by many of my generation. It does so without criticizing any particular theological stance or breaking things down too greatly, but it does provide sufficient substance to provide a good foundation for further thought and conversation. I would enthusiastically recommend this to any pastor that is seeking to understand the "innovative" theology of younger folks that she/he ministers (or wishes to minister) to, and who doesn't already have a strong background in the topic.


ltronic2006 said...

well this certainly sparked some interest in this book.

Tripp Hudgins said...

Thanks for the review. Now I need to go out and read this thing. I am reading Harvey Cox's book with Tripp Fuller...and you...and have been having some of the same troubles that you articulate. "I know, Harvey! But what about..." I'll try to stop being a jerk, too.

Thank you.