Yesterday I got a letter from a university professor in Uganda, wondering whether I thought students today were different than those of a generation ago—in particular, whether the cynicism of Beavis and Butthead had been replaced with the hope of Obama.
It is a very good question. As I responded, I thought of the strangeness of the question being asked by someone teaching in Africa, realizing one more time that the pop and political icons of America are the air we all breathe in the “hot, flat and crowded” globalizing world of the twenty-first century.
While the particulars are different in this question, for years now the same question has been asked of me. Sometimes it is in a letter, sometimes a conversation, sometimes an academic panel, sometimes a lecture, sometimes an interview—but each time the question is basically the same: what do you think is different about young people today?
My answer has two sides: yes, the world is very different, and the cultural context of young adulthood this year and this moment makes their challenges completely different than what others have ever experienced; and no, the deepest truth about all of us—little people, older people, and not quite little but not quite older people—is that we are perennial people. We do not change much at all, generation by generation, century after century, culture by culture.
Yes, Everything is Different
If I were to choose windows through which to understand twenty-somethings in these first years of the twenty-first century, two would stand out: technology and sexuality. And of course, sometimes they are intimately related.
Whether it is due to the info-glut character of modern life or the phenomena of globalization, we live in the technological society that Jacques Ellul wrote about so perceptively and prophetically in the mid-twentieth century. I have often wondered how he could have seen so clearly. While there are now libraries of books that show and tell of the nature of technology and its meaning for us—and important insights are offered in many, with Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (Penguin, 1986) and Thomas de Zengotita’s Mediated (Bloomsbury, 2005) being among the best—I believe Ellul’s work is still definitive. He knew that the advent of technÃ« would change life for human beings. Everything would seem different for everyone.
Some of us have traveled to the most rural places in the world—the Navajo universe of America’s Southwest or the far-away villages of Africa and India—and we are amazed at the interaction with and dependence upon technologies of all sorts and sizes. If cell phones seem surprisingly common among North American adolescents, they seem more than common in the streets of Kenya. If flat-screen TVs abound in the advertisements and lifestyles of the West, have you wondered why and how a mostly impoverished Indian family, drinking water from the same source as its cows, pours every energy into acquiring its own cable dish and flat screen?
In ways unimaginable to any previous generation, we are connected to each other—by and through our technology. Fundamentally, that is the insight and argument of Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), which is an important statement about the way that technologies are changing the way that we live and move and have our being. As well as anyone, Friedman sees the complex interface of globalization with technology, and in subsequent books continues to argue that we are entering into a world of connectivity that generations before us could not have imagined. I think he is right.
But if Ellul’s technological society is ever and increasingly ours—and changing by the day—then the other critical window on this present moment is that of sexuality. While its hopes and fears are as deep-seated as any for all of us, this generation’s being alive and adolescent now brings with it complicated challenges recent generations have not known. (For more on this, see my article in the September 2008 issue of Comment, “Sex is Easier Than Love.”)
Whatever we make of the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s, there has been an undeniable overturning of social norms about relationships, about marriage, about sexuality, that make finding one’s way into sexual flourishing very difficult, if not near impossible. For example, the twenty-somethings (and younger) that I know see nakedness and sexual intimacy through access to technologies like film and the Internet in ways that would have both perplexed and shocked previous generations. “What’s the big deal?!” and a shrug of the generational shoulders. Having seen people “doing it” scores of times before they themselves enter into their own sexual hopes and dreams makes the honest glory of real human “and-the-two-become-one-flesh” seem both less-than and more-than what true lovers of God and each other ought to find in a marriage bed. I don’t think this generation has any idea what the consequence of this casual voyeurism will mean for them over time, and I grieve over that. We all will.
You can draw on your own figures and statistics about the meaning of relationships—the ratio of kids born into single-family homes, the social implications of no-fault and fault divorces of all kinds, the billions of dollars being made through online pornography—but anyone with a finger to the wind knows that prophetic cultural observers like Tom Wolfe are getting it right in essays like “Hooking Up” and novels such as I Am Charlotte Simmons (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), which are both in their own ways examinations of early twenty-first century life for those moving from adolescence to adulthood. Whether Wolfe is a great novelist, I don’t know; he is a remarkably gifted reporter, and so his attention to the sexualization of life for young adults is an important finger on the societal pulse. We are stumbling over the meaning of sexuality, and it has consequences for everyone.
No, the Questions Are the Same—They Cannot Not Be
As true as all of the above is, at the end of the day, we really don’t change all that much. How could we? Every one of us, whether or not we want it to be true, is still made in the image of God and still lives in the world made by God. There are no other possibilities.
One of the reasons I am so deeply drawn into the literary universe of Wendell Berry is that he understands this truth, and in his essays, poems and stories, he invites us in to explore what it means and why it matters. For example, I cannot count the times I have offered someone his essay, “Two Economies,” a persuasive argument for the reality of Reality. There are always “two economies,” he says: there are lesser economies, like that of Washington, D.C., or Virginia, or the Chesapeake Bay, or the United States; but there is always a greater economy—whether we want there to be or not, whether we like there to be or not. It is the world that is really there. As he puts it, “In my terms it is the kingdom of God, but you can call it what you want.” But whatever we call it, Berry’s thesis is that at some point the lesser economies of our own best imaginations and metrics have to make sense or give account in light of the reality of the greater economy. A true truth, if ever there was one.
If that is an essay form of Berry’s vision, then his poetry and novels are their own gift, exploring the reality of human existence in the groundedness that comes in relationships and responsibilities. In the hundreds and hundreds of pages that he has written about the meaning of people and place, his central argument is that we lose something crucial to our humanity when we walk away from them. We become less than human when we forget to remember that it is in responsible relationships that we are fully human. His insight is not so far from Vaclav Havel’s: “The secret of man is the secret of his responsibility.” That they both see that reality so plainly has made me a grateful student.
We cannot be “up in the air” very long without having to face the reality of the world that is really there. So George Clooney’s character in the recent film by that name finds himself living a lie. To glory in rootlessness—”Moving is living!”—as if there is some other universe to live in than the covenantal cosmos in which we live and move and have our being, is a fiction. And some day, the chickens will come home to roost in the greater economy of God’s world. At some point we feel the strain between our ideas about life and life itself, between our worldviews and our ways of life.
But it is always a pretended autonomy, isn’t it? For us to flourish as human beings requires that we live as if there is a God and he has spoken. From the most personal of relationships to the most public of responsibilities, we are perennial people—and so our questions are the same as every other son of Adam and daughter of Eve in human history.
What else explains why the prophets of the Old Testament and the apostles of the New Testament, in listening to their own generations even as they listened to God, reported the poets of their time as saying, “Why not then eat, drink, and be merry—for tomorrow we die?” And millennia later, one of our best-known contemporary poets, Dave Matthews, asks the same question in a very different place among a very different people. In my own musing, I think theirs is a pretty good response to the world—if there is no God, we are honestly Lost (one of the most-watched TV shows in the last few years), or Lost in the Cosmos, as Walker Percy tellingly described our place in the modern world several decades ago. Brutally honest folk have always understood the alternative.
A year ago I was part of the planning of a retreat focused on this very question. Twenty-five of us gathered on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound to wonder together about the meaning of adolescence, especially “the cultural narrative of young adulthood” as we know it in contemporary culture.
The genesis of this was the Lilly Endowment’s grant for Programs in the Theological Exploration of Vocation, and we tried very hard to have a representative group there to think aloud and together. Mostly Christians (of every possible sort), but also Jews and Muslims, we focused on what has happened in the hundred years since the word “adolescence” was invented, trying to describe the phenomena of post-agricultural America in the rapidly industrializing world of the early twentieth century. We hoped that we might find our way forward into deepening insight about the meaning of young adulthood as it stretches now across the decade of life that we call “the twenties.”
It was very hard work. Listening carefully, yearning for consensus, struggling with difference—yes, very hard work. There were people from some of our best-known universities, but also others from corporations and cities, from think tanks and foundations; each one brought some expertise to the table. No papers have been written that definitively tell the story of our days, and no book has yet been written. If there was an important truth to be told, it was this: the early twenty-first century is changing the experience of twenty-somethings in ways about which we are having a hard time making sense— and yet, at the same time, young adulthood continues to be the time when men and women ask the same questions in the same ways about the same things, as every other generation has done.
That there are two truths there is worth remembering. The cultural air we breathe seems remarkably different, and it is—and yet it is much the same air that our grandfathers and grandmothers breathed.
One of the best stories that tells this tale is Chaim Potok’s The Chosen (Simon & Schuster, 1967). Do you know it? Set in the 1940s among the Jewish communities in Brooklyn, the story invites us into the dilemma facing every young person in every generation: what will you do with what you know? Or in other words, how you will steer clear of the deepest of all temptations, to give in to either cynicism or stoicism—two ways that human beings have always responded to the challenge of the responsibility of knowledge. What will you do with what you know?
The particulars here involve two families, two sons, the Holocaust, Palestine and two different visions of what it means to be Jewish. But the deeper story is familiar to all—that is, can I learn about the world and learn to love the world too? Because our world is always a fallen world, always a broken world, always a wounded world, there is no more perennial question, no more perennial challenge. And Potok’s response to this dilemma is to offer a pedagogy formed by centuries of Hasidic practice: what might be called “a pedagogy of silence” intended to develop the eyes of the heart, so that the one who needs to learn to hear the pain of the world will do so from understanding his own pain. It is as beautiful and rich a story as we have, in large measure because it is so very truthful—if we have ears to hear, we can “hear” ourselves in it.
From the very beginning, when the temptations for Father Adam and other Eve were focused on knowing and knowledge—and what they would do with what they knew—we have stumbled. And the temptations and the stumbling continue, for everyone, everywhere. But perhaps that challenge is especially so when we are making our way from being kids to being grown-ups, from being adolescents to being adults, with yearning and aching trying to understand the world and to find our place in it, whether that was centuries ago, or in our own century, where everything is, of course, completely new and different.