The Young and the Angstless

Smells Like Christian Spirit

Smells Like Christian Spirit

The word “orthodox” is sometimes used as shorthand for a collection of attributes every believer tends to associate with his or her own faith. Authority, tradition, theological correctness: these are the characteristics that determine the purity of belief “orthodox” suggests, and it is hard to imagine a Christian who would admit to lacking them. In that sense, it is almost always a word with a self-serving agenda. Claiming orthodoxy is a way of asserting, “My beliefs are correct” — which in turn is often another way of saying, “Yours aren’t.”

For though generally all varieties of Christians believe there is one true Way, there are any number of interpretations as to which particular way that is. That’s the trouble with orthodoxy these days: Now that there are many different notions of what it means, can it still be said to exist at all?

In The New Faithful, Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy (Loyola Press), Colleen Carroll proceeds from the assumption that such a singular orthodoxy does exist. She finds it in the religious practices of those Americans born between 1965 and 1983 who have discovered or returned to “time-tested approaches to metaphysical questions.”

“Amid the swirl of spiritual, religious, and moral choices that exist in American culture today,” Carroll writes, “many young adults are opting for the tried-and-true worldview of Christian orthodoxy.”

What they are opting against, Carroll contends, is an unholy trinity of -isms that plagues the youth of today: relativism, pluralism, and postmodernism. According to Carroll, these forces combine to form a reigning ideology that amounts to a sense that “all values and judgments are equal.” Yet young Christians refuse to accept this. They are dissatisfied with the religious inheritance they have received from their baby boom parents, whose laissez faire approach to faith they see as largely responsible for the slack morality and spiritual hunger of Generation X.

Carroll, a 28-year-old journalist from St Louis, spent a year traveling among twenty- and thirtysomething believers with the goal of “scrutiniz[ing] seemingly disparate trends in the Christian tradition to unearth their unifying themes.”

“Across the nation,” she found, “from the runways of beauty pageants to the halls of Ivy League universities, a small but committed core of young Christians is intentionally embracing organized religion and traditional morality.”

Who are these orthodox Ivy Leaguers and beauty queens? Carroll provides scores of thumbnail sketches of lawyer-evangelists, chemists-turned-seminarians, virginal Miss Americas, and Capitol Hill up-and-comers with a passion for Jesus.

“They tend to be cultural leaders,” Carroll writes, “young adults blessed with talent, intelligence, good looks, wealth, successful careers, impressive educational pedigrees, or charisma — or some dynamic combination thereof.”

The tenor of this assessment dominates the book. In Carroll’s telling, young Christians have it all. The adulating tone remains consistent as well. Throughout The New Faithful Carroll makes no effort to conceal her admiration for her subjects. In fact, at times it seems she is writing a recruitment pamphlet:

“For the generation weaned on Watergate and no-fault divorce, broken promises are a fact of life…. But the concrete example of Christians who are happy, genuine and radically committed to living — not just preaching — gospel ideals can cut through suspicion and lead to conversion.”

All of which might be more convincing if Carroll did not have so much in common with the particular sort of Christians she most often writes about. A conservative Catholic, early on she admits she “strongly identifies” with these young orthodox believers. This would not present a problem for a journalist who made an effort to venture outside the comfort zone of her own religious experiences. Yet, though she may have set out to “scrutinize seemingly disparate trends in the Christian tradition,” she has written a book overwhelming concerned with conservative Catholics like herself.

Introducing each chapter, Carroll presents a scene intended to show young adults “in the act” of orthodoxy. We see a mob of young Christians queuing up for confession. We meet others in the dormitory of a New York Franciscan friary. A Catholic beauty queen proclaims her chastity in the ballroom of a Chicago Marriott. Seven chapters out of nine begin with examples of specifically Catholic models of orthodoxy. Again and again, Carroll presents as examples of Christian orthodoxy practices and doctrines that many believers would find not only unorthodox, but only questionably Christian. Her occasional nods to various other stripes of Christian only serve to remind us of the deep-rooted differences she chooses for the most part to ignore.

Of course, none of this is meant as an attack on Carroll’s intentions or her faith. The point is not that she is attempting to foist Catholic orthodoxy on the other young Christians about whom she writes. Rather, it seems that the flaws of the book are precisely the flaws of orthodoxy’s subjective nature. Making light of differences for the appearance of cheerful cohesion, The New Faithful misses the great diversity — political, cultural, ideological, theological — of a rising generation. Doing so, it also misses a more interesting story.

Peter Manseau is the author of Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son and, most recently, Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead. He founded Killing the Buddha with Jeff Sharlet, and the two wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible. Follow him on Twitter @petermanseau.