Best Friend Gets Hitched

I got back from New Jersey yesterday. I spent Wednesday night with my grandfather, and then on Thursday traveled to the town of Randolph for the wedding of my best friend from high school. It was a fun wedding, and I was a groomsman for the first time. The people were fun, and it was an enjoyable atmosphere. I forgot my camera at the wedding itself, but hopefully I can repost wedding photos when they come out. At the beginning of these photos is my grandfather’s house in New Jersey, which was built in the 1750s.

Bartender, I’d like a Pentecostalism Lite-How Evangelicalism Embraces Half-Hearted Charismatic Theology

Wikipedia defines Pentecostalism as “a renewal movement within Christianity that places special emphasis on a direct personal experience of God through the baptism in the Holy Spirit.” This is most notably manifested in speaking in tongues, prophesying, and in some cases, the seeing of visions. It is generally associated with lively and upbeat worship services, where hands are lifted up, and dancing often occurs, and emotions are expressed without reservations.

I cannot simply discount the ways in which this movement has impacted the Church for the better. It has brought new life to many churches, particularly in Latin America, in which the only viable alternative is oft-violent liberation theology branch of Roman Catholicism. It has similarly brought life to the Church in Africa.  And in my experience, its adherents have a zeal for advancing the Gospel that I find hard to rival. 

Unfortunately, it seems that the movement has also had a bit of a negative trickle-down effect. Walk into your average nondenominational church (with the exception of the fundamentalist-leaning ones) and you will see what I call Pentecostalism Lite. Hands are lifted up, emotions run wild, instruments are unabated, it’s like a Pentecostal service…..except there are no tongues, prophecies, etc. 

This is something I find all too common, particularly in the oft-shallow “megachurches” where personal experience reigns supreme, but there is still skepticism towards those who take the mentality to its logical conclusion. Those who claim to have had a vision from God are viewed skeptically, whilst those whom God “laid it on their heart” are thought of as spiritual giants. Yet the former actually occurs in the Bible, the latter does not. Even in churches in which solid biblical teaching prevails, I have often experienced what I see as a bias towards those best able to vividly describe their personal experiences in their spiritual lives. I constantly felt (implicitly) looked down upon because I rarely produced experiences from my devotional life. Every small group, when it was customary to go around the room and discuss our spiritual lives, I invariably stumbled over what to say, and felt humiliated by it each time. Those who prayed the best prayers were usually, I felt those who were looked to as the “really good Christians”, in however subtle a manner.

The problem with this “Pentecostalism Lite” is that it draws from Pentecostalism’s emphasis on personal experience, while failing to recognize the intent of this theology. The purpose of the gifts of Pentecost in Acts was to serve as a miraculous sign to those around them, and while I tend towards the belief that this was largely meant for the early Church, I do see where they are coming from. They want to serve as an example to the ungodly world around us, but have added a mystical element to it, and it appears that the mystical element has trickled into evangelicalism at large, while the historical reason has not. Conversely, mainstream evangelicals, to me, come across as wanting the validation of their faith through personal experience, but rejecting the main points of Pentecostalism so as not to appear as supernaturalist kooks to the world around them. That is, have their cake and eat it too.

But in the Bible I read, I do not see a God who constantly “lays it on the heart” of someone to do something. He tells them directly, or else remains silent. My father once said, “90% of Abraham’s life simply consisted of cleaning up camel droppings, believing in what God had promised him.” The problem of depending on experience is that one consistently requires a new “high.” People forget that highs do not last. Elijah had the highest of spiritual experiences seeing God do his work on Mt. Carmel. However, that was followed by a low point of being on Jezebel’s blacklist. While experience can have its place, we as Christians need to remember that God gave us His Word, and that is how He speaks to us. The Bible tells us that “Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” It is comforting to know that I can be assured that I am saved by the atonement on the Cross whether I “feel” it or not. The tomb is empty. Praise God. 

Strauss and Howe’s “Generations”: My Review

Last night I finished reading the book Generations by historians William Strass and Neil Howe. This book posits that every 80-100 years, four types of generations move through a cycle through four types of “societal moods” and this cycle continues to repeat itself. Each generation spends a different portion of its life in a different mood, the four phases of life being childhood, young adulthood, midlife, and old age, though they acknowledge that increasingly, as life expectancy grows, there is also a post-elder phase.

The premise of the book is that there are four distinct periods in a cycle: a crisis, in which society and its institutions as it knows them are under threat of destruction from either an internal or external force and institutions and society must make sacrifices and band together (the last crisis was the Depression/World War II); a high, a post-crisis era in which the new institutions are strong and trusted and society is moving forward with economic and scientific progress (the last high was from the end of World War II until around the JFK assassination); an awakening, in which society’s institutions come under attack as cold and heartless by a moralistic and spiritually-minded young cohort (the last awakening was from about the arrival in America of the Beatles to around the election of Reagan as president); and an unraveling, a post-crisis society in which institutions are a very distrusted entity and people are very self-focused, and problems are allowed to accumulate (the last unraveling was throughout the 80s and 90s, perhaps ending with 9/11).

This was one area where I had a slight problem with the book. I felt that it constantly picked different times from completely different points in history, and illustrated them as examples of how that point in history was one of the aforementioned moods. However, this problem is more early in the book; they do generally provide larger frameworks in later chapters.

With these period of history established, they outline four types of generations: Civic, Adaptive, Idealist, and Reactive.

A Civic generation is one which is born during an unraveling, with weak institutions but strong spirituality, with problems slowly accumulating. During their coming of age, however, a crisis unfolds, and their young adulthood is spent providing the muscle to fight that crisis and brainstorm new institutions. They take that civic-minded confidence with them into their midlife during the high, as they become optimistic leaders. During their elderhood, they are attacked by an awakening, in which their institutions begin to be seen as heartless, and they clash with the young.

An Adaptive generation spends their childhood during a crisis, and are overprotected while the adults are busy with said crisis. They come of age around the end of the crisis, and are conformist young adults during the high. They become midlifers during the awakening, and often serve as mediators between Civic elders and Idealist young adults. They become indecisive elders during the unraveling, which often results in the accumulation of problems.

An Idealist generation is born during a high, and are overindulged, coddled children. They come of age and spend their young adulthood fighting secular social institution, trying to bring about a spiritual refreshing to society. As they move into midlife during an unraveling, they become values oriented decisionmakers and family leaders, often seeing things in black and white. This increases as they reach elderhood during a new crisis; they are uncompromising, often enlisting the young Millenials into their causes.

A Reactive generation is born during the awakening and are underprotected in the midst of the chaotic world. Their young adulthood is spent in the unraveling, in which the worst side effects of the awakening are felt. They are cunning realists, the ultimate rogues, and do not have any sense of idealism. They are often decried by midlife Idealists as amoral. They move into midlife during the crisis as newly responsible, trying to implement realistic manifestations of the Idealists’ lofty goals. They become reclusive elders during a high.

Where their theory becomes much more convincing is there systematic outline of American history, starting with the young Puritan arrival. The Puritans grew up in the height of Elizabethan England, in the aftermath of the crisis with the Spanish Armada, setting them up to be ripe for a spiritual awakening. Hence the rhetoric of their leaders like John Winthrop is filled with lofty visions for the “City on a Hill”. According to Strauss and Howe, they brought these visions into midlife, hence the Salem witch trials and an era of religious intolerance. They additionally illustrate a recurring trend during that period: the clash between spiritual midlife Idealists and hedonistic young adult Reactives, in this case between the Puritans and Cavaliers. The Puritans set moral vision as elders during the Crisis of the Glorious Revolution, while the civic-minded young adult Glorious Generation fought the revolution and then emerged as the midlife leaders during the height of the Enlightenment. Interest increases, at least for me, when it gets closer to the American Revolution. The children of the Enlightenment were the young adults of the Great Awakening, looking to leaders such as Jonathan Edwards for guidance in an advanced but spiritually dead world. That era is known for wild church behavior, and out-of-control existential experiences. The children of the Great Awakening are referred to as the Liberty Generation, and include Washington and Adams. They spent their young adulthood fighting the French and Indian War, and being called immoral by midlife Awakeners. They brought Reactive individualism to the table, such that in their midlife, they were able to apply this realism to management decisions during the American Revolution, and implement the ideas of Awakener elders, while the young adult Republican Generation provided the muscle to build new American institutions and included Jefferson and Madison. This portion of the book provides great insight regarding the debate about America’s Christian heritage. If this generational outlook is correct, then during the American Revolution, while the Awakener elders provided a lofty Christian vision for the new country, the midlife Liberty provided a more realistic method of decision-making to bring about a new system, and the young civic-minded Republicans, thoroughly scientific and rationalistic, did not. Reportedly Madison was asked why he did not mention God in the Constitution, he replied, “We didn’t think to.” They were a secular-minded generation who did not share the moralistic vision of their Awakener parents. The end of the Revolution ushered in a new high that we know as the Era of Good Feeling.

The authors make their argument more convincing by willingly acknowledging a time period, the Civil War cycle, in which no young adult Civic generation appeared to arise. In it, they contend a combination of elderly Transcendentals, with young Reactives, allowed the uncompromising nature of the Transcendentals had no community-oriented, civic-minded young adults to counter-balance this, hence the Civil War was particularly ugly.

For lack of space, I will briefly touch on the last cycle. About twenty years after the Civil War began what historians call the Missionary Awakening, with another Idealist generation as the young adults. They spent their midlife in the World War I/Prohibition/Roarding Twenties era clashing with the reactive Lost Generation young adults. In the Depression/World War II era, the Missionaries became the idealistic elders, with the now-midlife Lost making the more realist-minded management decisions, and the young adult GI Generation (Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation”) providing the muscle, while the overprotected Silent Generation children looked on helplessly.

This brings us to the final cycle. Following World War II, we moved into the high of “Superpower America.” The heroic GI’s were now the confident, optimistic midlife leaders, exemplified by JFK. The young adult Silents lived in a fairly conformist fashion. However, the Baby Boomers were the new generation of children, indulged in a scientific, efficient, and commercial world. However, as the Awakening arrived (the Consciousness revolution, hippies, etc.), they began clashing with the GI elders, while the midlife Silents tried to mediate between their scientific elders and spiritual “youngers.” The children of this era, Thirteeners (Generation X) were very underprotected during this time, and largely, they contend, viewed as nuisance, as children commonly are during Awakening eras. They note the prevalence at the time of the “evil child” genre of movies, such as Rosemary’s Baby. It then becomes more relevant to me, as we arrive at the next unraveling, the individualistic 1980s and 1990s, which was my childhood.  During that time, their assessment is that elder Silents, with their compromising, consensus-building leadership, allowed society’s problems to accumulate without confrontation, while the mid-life Boomers formed the Religious Right, or left-winged environmental activist groups, with an uncompromising spirit, particularly clashing with the young adult Generation Xers, who had record levels of drug use, STD’s, teen pregnancy, violence, etc. This was motivated largely, they contend, through protecting their Millenial children, of which I am one, determined they would not grow up as wild as they did.

The authors’ predictions of eventual trends are in many ways disturbingly accurate. The book was published in 1991, and it predicts that in the 1990s, Boomers would reclaim political office, become controlling on institutions, and become increasingly attacking on topics previously thought untouchable. They will become increasingly focused on moral values, they contend, implementing their morality through politics, criminal justice, etc. They even predict a possible moral clash of Boomers, with “bicoastal New Agers squaring off against heartland evangelicals.” Sound familiar? It gets freakier. “One rather safe prediction experts make about elderly Boomers is that they will collide with underfunded federal pension and healthcare systems, starting in the mid 2010s.” The book was written in 1991!  They outline this as the leadup to the “Crisis of 2020” which will likely include economic elements, perhaps also climate change, terrorism, war, etc. The authors predict them to be “policy perfectionists, inclined to enforce principle even at the risk of toppling the existing order.” Sounds a lot like the polarized political system today.

They additionally predict that while Generation X spent their young adulthood in a self-centered era, they will enter midlife during a crisis era, which we are arguably in right now. They contend that they will hit a “hangover mood” around the year 2010. It is interesting that more and more parents with little kids can now be considered part of Generation X. The authors predict that they will bring a realism from the “school of hard knocks” as midlife realist leaders, and hopefully to restrain the zeal of the Boomer elders.

Finally, they predict that Millenials (my generation) will enter young adulthood during the crisis era (which, again, I would say we are in at this point), will be the product of  more protective child-rearing era. I find this sensible, since, as I understand, numerous vices, such as drug addiction, teen pregnancy, STDs have actually decreased. They correctly predict economic hardship for young adult Millennials. They then leave it ambiguous as to whether the Millennials will end up, depending on the timing of the crisis, like the GIs and Republicans, who saw through World War II and the American Revolution, respectively, or if they will poorly handle the crisis, as in the Civil War, and never truly become a Civic generation.

I enjoyed this book immensely. Their outline of history very much makes sense to support their notions of cycles. The main problems are that the ideas are largely unfalsifiable, and it does not account for individual personality, or age characteristics as a commonality throughout history. However, it is difficult to argue with the evidence they present, frequently citing concrete examples of each generation displaying certain characteristics.

Regarding the notion of the Millennials becoming a Civic generation, there is much unanswered at this point. I think they go into further detail in the book The Fourth Turning, which I intend to read soon. However, in my personal life, I do see some of the desire to work together to build institutions to build a better world, as a Civic is supposed to. Yet I also see clashing Reactive cynicism and Idealist, well, idealism. I see a bit of each generation in me. The same goes for many of my friends my age. And in many ways, hanging out with them suggests to me that my generation retains much of the same crass outlook and distrust of institutions that are supposed to be a Generation X thing. I sense a degree of hopelessness in contrast to the optimist that this generational archetype is supposed to demonstrate. Maybe I am looking in the wrong places. I hope the crisis may eventually cause us to unify in the way the GI’s did in 1941 (simultaneous war/economic turmoil), under the Boomers’ moral direction and Xers’ practicality, such that we usher in a new social order that makes our world a better place.  I have hope. Such a scenario is completely feasible. But I also have to remain healthily skeptical.

For heaven’s sake, read the book! It’s brilliant and insightful, whether completely accurate or not.

4th of July-My Thoughts

Today America celebrated the 236th anniversary of the final ratification of the Declaration of Independence, which accelerated a war with the British crown and led to the independence of the United States. I personally met up at a restaurant with two friends I went to college with, then went to the Marine Corps Memorial at night to see the fireworks. While it was fun, I must be brutally honest and say that I view this holiday with mixed emotions.

On the surface, how can you criticize such a fun holiday? During my growing up years in Harmony, PA, we did the same fun thing every year: we would get up, go and watch the parade in neighboring Zelienople, complete with fire trucks, police cars, decked out cement mixers, veterans marches, enthusiastic children on their bikes, patriotic equestrians, and a 70 year-old doing splits (a high school classmate of my grandfather, apparently). We would then proceed to a nearby park for games, hanging out, and upbeat patriotic music. Dinner would then be at my grandparents’ house, with an assortment of hot dogs, burgers, macaroni salad, and my mother’s famous rainbow jello. Then we’d sleep off the food at home, and complete the day around 10 PM with the fireworks. No place does the 4th of July like my hometown.

And since the holiday in its current form is designed to commemorate ideas that “make this country great”, many of them indeed are great, such as free speech, free press, free religion, free assembly, and private property (I know the last one is hotly debated by some). We live in a country where we can criticize our national leadership and not get arrested for it. Journalists generally do not fear crackdown. From what I can see, religions are treated more equally than in most countries in the world, including Western Europe, often hailed as the epitome of progress. The apparent surveillance of Muslims is an ugly issue, and yet in my estimation, American nonetheless treats Muslims better than Christians, Jews, and atheists are treated in most of their countries. And the economic opportunities, while arguably waning, have made us perhaps the closest thing to a classless society, as even leftist historian Noam Chomsky has noted.

However, two primary things about the American exceptionalism that is explicitly and implicitly preached on this holiday cause me to wince and think. The first is that many of my fellow evangelical Christians use this holiday to advance an agenda that demands Americans return to Christian principles this nation was supposedly founded on. I tend to dislike this because it causes Christians to focus outwardly on advancing our beliefs through worldly means, and because it is not very historically accurate. While the young adults from the Great Awakening, who were elderly by the time of the Revolution, were very religious and had a grand moralistic vision, the midlifers and young adults who carried out the Revolution were not so much. George Washington was not a particularly faithful church attender, and John Adams made several statements very much in contradiction to Christian orthodoxy. They wrote a letter to Libyan leaders explicitly expressing the United States was no a Christian nation. Madison, who drafted the Constitution, although his views were more orthodoxically Christian, was asked why he did not include God in the document, simply replied, “We didn’t think to.” Patrick Henry was also a devout Christian, but his side of the debate did not fare well against the federalists. Benjamin Franklin was not a card-carrying deist, but he was not a traditional Christian and was very irreverent towards it. Two other thinkers who shaped American thought, Jefferson and Paine, were both strongly opposed to organized biblical Christianity, the latter even rewriting the Bible and removing all supernatural events from it. These men, while brilliant, were from a very rationalistic generation, who largely viewed God as one who set the universe in motion, giving humans the power to reason and the scientific method, but was not actively concerned with human activity, taking a more spectatorial role. It has been said to me, which made sense, that these men framed the system under the presumption of Christian outlook among the population, which is proving a major variable, and not a given.

The second thing about American exceptionalism I dislike is its presumption of the United States and its people as the most just, righteous, and generous entities in the world. Let’s take a look at our history. The doctrine of manifest destiny, much the basis of American growth, contributed to the displacement of the Native American population, who were treated in ways such that it would not stand the test of modern human rights agendas. The treatment of the Natives became so egregious that many of them allied with the British invaders during the War of 1812, an unpopular war that had the New England region threatening to secede. Hardly the romantic heroism pictured in the Star-Spangled Banner. This displacement continued throughout the 1800s, and in the 1830s, the Mexicans were added to the unfortunate recipients of manifest destiny, culminating in a war that Lincoln actually condemned at one point. Following that war, we were the last country to abolish slavery, one of history’s great evils that only ended with an internal American war that killed 600,000 soldiers combined, and hundreds of thousands more civilians, often very brutally. Then at the end of that century, to acquire even more territory, we engaged in a war with Spain that later became assumed to have started under false pretenses (we likely blew up the USS Maine ourselves). In our new territories, while not as nasty as many European powers, we were nonetheless often brutal. We fought in World War I, for reasons still not clear. In World War II, while the threat to our well-being was clearer, we still segregated blacks from military units, put Japanese-Americans in internment camps, and indiscriminately bombed numerous German cities, particularly Dresden, and ended the war by using an unspeakably powerful weapon in Japan, with monstrous consequences. The 1960s and 70s were filled with the brutality of napalm in the Vietnam War, and the grim reminder that our supposedly just system had allowed blacks to live as second-class citizens, which even the Soviet Union often criticized us for. Since 1991, we have fought two wars in Iraq, killing hundreds of thousands of their civilians, as well as thousands of our own soldiers, neither of which likely would have been fought without oil in the mix. And look at the present. We have two wars going on, where people continue to do. We perform millions of abortions, have millions of citizens living in poverty, healthcare and education systems in complete disarray, inner-city violence, a well-run sex trafficking industry that oppresses women, children, and even some men, and horrible self-centered habits of many people. Racism remains an ugly reality. And what makes us the greatest country in the world? Not our literacy ranking, life expectancy, or infant mortality, which, once the envy of the world, have fallen in rank significantly.  We continue to desecrate our natural resources and environment, which climate change may be beginning to demonstrate.

All this said, the past is the past, and we cannot change that. We have to accept this country’s history has provided us with a lot of good, but also a lot of bad. I also have to accept that I am, to put it crudely, one lucky son of a b**** to live in this country, with the freedoms and economic wealth that you will find here. Yet, as Jesus said, to whom much is given, much is expected. As Christians, we must face the reality that the world, including the United States, is not as God intended, and our faith must be the basis of righting that wrong, through both social action and our personal witness, and hopefully the moral example of the collective church. We should try to see to it that the rights guaranteed in the constitution are truly extended to all people, with our legacy of racism. We must also avoid nationalistic idolatry that is a cancer in the church, as was evident upon the conversion of Constantine. We must extend hospitality to all humans. Thus, while we should feel free to enjoy ourselves on this holiday, it must also be viewed with a degree of sobriety.