Generation X and the Turn to Christian Orthodoxy

Journalist Colleen Carroll on a Surprising Trend

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WASHINGTON, D.C., APRIL 29, 2003 ( The growth of evangelical «mega-churches» has long been a focus of media attention.

Much less noted has been the embrace of traditional Christianity by Generation X and the rejection of the religious and cultural values of that generation’s parents, the baby boomers.

A Gen-X journalist, Colleen Carroll, set about to document this trend. The result was a highly acclaimed book, «The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy» (Loyola Press).

Carroll described the phenomenon of «the new faithful» in an interview with ZENIT.

Q: How did you ever launch upon this project of finding out about «the new faithful»?

Carroll: I first saw signs of the trend toward orthodoxy in the mid-1990s, when I was a student at Marquette University. The students there were not necessarily of the «new faithful» mold, but they also defied the «cynical slacker» stereotype of Generation X. Many had an almost visceral attraction to God, the Church, and self-sacrifice.

Later, as a young newspaper journalist, I continued to see a disparity between media portrayals of my generation and the young adults that I saw all around me. Not all young adults are attracted to orthodoxy, but a growing number are seeking truth and embracing a demanding practice of their faith.

Their stories were not being told in the mainstream media, and many religion experts seemed to be tone deaf to their voices. So, with the help of a grant from the Phillips Foundation and a book contract from Loyola Press, I set out to explore this trend and tell their stories.

Q: Is this «new faithful» phenomenon a part of the new springtime in the Church?

Carroll: Yes, I believe the new faithful are at the heart of the Church’s new springtime and are a driving force behind the new evangelization. I interviewed a mix of young Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox Christians for «The New Faithful.»

The Catholics I interviewed certainly stand at the forefront of renewal in the Catholic Church. They are committed to spreading the Gospel — a commitment instilled in many of them by their hero, Pope John Paul II.

Q: Who are the new faithful? Did they have any previous religious background?

Carroll: As I mentioned earlier, the New faithful come from denominations across the Christian spectrum, though most are Catholics or evangelicals. They range in age from about 18 to 35. They are united by firm, personal, life-changing commitments to Jesus Christ.

Their religious backgrounds vary. Many grew up in secular homes or fallen-away Catholic homes. Many others were raised in evangelical or mainline Protestant churches or Catholic parishes. Nearly all of them faced a reckoning in young adulthood that forced them to decide if they would make following Christ the central concern of their lives or not.

These young adults have chosen to take Christianity seriously, and have decided that embracing Christian orthodoxy is the way to do that. Their faith commitments have led them to make countercultural decisions about everything from who and how they date to which careers they pursue and which political causes they embrace.

Q: Your title suggests that the new faithful are embracing Christian orthodoxy. Does that mean Catholicism?

Carroll: The orthodoxy embraced by «The New Faithful» is a small «o» orthodoxy that encompasses more than one denomination. Many, many Catholics have embraced an orthodox practice of their faith, and my book focuses a great deal of attention on them. But this trend crosses denominational borders.

To draw boundaries for this book, I borrowed a definition from G.K. Chesterton, who said orthodoxy means «the Apostles’ Creed, as understood by everybody calling himself Christian until a very short time ago and the general historic conduct of those who held such a creed.» Or, as one young man told me, «orthodoxy means you can say the Apostles’ Creed without crossing your fingers behind your back.»

Q: Are the new faithful receiving good catechesis? From where are they receiving such teaching?

Carroll: Yes and no. Most of the New faithful, particularly the Catholics in this group, did not receive good catechesis as children. Many were raised by parents who did not know or teach the faith. Many others attended Catholic schools and parishes where they learned «God is love» — and little else.

These twenty- and thirty-something Catholics grew up in the years after Vatican II, when the American Church was still struggling to make sense of the changes. They suffered the effects of a religious education crisis, and many never learned even the most elementary Christian teachings.

The good news: Many young adults have taken it upon themselves to learn the faith and study Church teaching, by forming parish groups to study Scripture, the Catechism, or the teachings of the Holy Father. And many have benefited from the new boom in Catholic apologetics materials and the rise of such popular apologists as Scott Hahn.

The Catholic apologetics craze — driven in large part by the catechetical demands of this generation — reflects the deep and widespread hunger for truth among today’s young Catholics.

Q: What aspects of Catholicism did the new faithful feel drawn to? Why have they chosen the Church or Christian orthodoxy rather than the New Age spiritualities the Church recently addressed?

Carroll: The New faithful Catholics are drawn to precisely those aspects of Catholicism that repelled many of their baby boomer elders. They love Church tradition and history. They relish devotions like the rosary, and they line up for confession in droves. They are committed to eucharistic adoration and evangelization. And they love the Pope — not simply because they admire his personality, but because they admire his commitment to defending the truth in season and out of season.

These young Catholics grew up in a society saturated with moral relativism and dominated by the idea that they should «do whatever feels good.» They see orthodoxy as a fresh alternative to those values, an oasis of truth and stability in a world gone mad.

While many of their elders criticize Church teaching as rigid or retrograde, these young adults love the Church’s time-honored teachings and countercultural stands. To them, it is New Age spirituality — not orthodox Catholicism — that’s empty, boring, and yesterday’s news.

Q: What factors within the culture and the larger society do you think gave rise to the new faithful?

Carroll: The rise of the new faithful is partly the result of a pendulum swing. Many of these young adults are the sons and daughters of the hippies, children of the flower children. These young adults think that authority and tradition make more sense than free love and no-fault divorce.

Many suffered ill consequences from baby boomer experimentation in morality and religion, and they want their own children to experience a more stable life. They crave stability for themselves, as well. But sociology only gets us so far in this analysis. In the end, each of these young adults tells a story far richer, and far more complex, than the story of the pendulum swing.

I met doctors, lawyers, Hollywood writers, and cloistered nuns who told me amazing conversion stories, stories of faith and hope and a love that reached out and grabbed them when they least expected to find God.

For a Christian, the only way to understand those stories is to take these young adults at their word, and judge God by his works, and see this as the amazing grace of the Holy Spirit being poured out on a generation once considered lost.

Q: Do you have any sociological data to back up your findings? How widespread is this phenomenon of t
he new faithful and why is it largely found among young, educated, professional people?

Carroll: The book overflows with statistics — from the Gallup poll that shows a growing number of teen-agers identifying themselves as «religious» instead of «spiritual but not religious,» to the UCLA freshmen poll that shows approval for abortion and casual sex dropping year after year. This trend has not swept over the entire generation, of course.

The new faithful still constitute a fairly modest segment of the population. But their influence extends well beyond their numbers because so many of these new faithful are educated professionals with a disproportionate amount of cultural influence.

They are rising stars in politics, the arts, the entertainment industry, in medicine and law and journalism. They are the sort of bright, culturally engaged young adults that their peers tend to follow. And they are uniting — across denominational lines, in many cases — to bring the Gospel to every realm of American life that they touch.

Q: Do you see this phenomenon continuing for the foreseeable future?

Carroll: This phenomenon is on the rise, and for the reasons mentioned above, it has considerable room to grow and serious staying power.

As this movement grows, the new faithful will be tempted to fall into extremes of either isolation from the culture or capitulation to it. Both extremes could undermine this movement and hamper the spread of the Gospel by these believers. Those who want to be «salt and light» in the world will have to keep those dangers in mind, and strive to be «in the world, but not of the world.»

Q: How has the secular media responded to your findings? Has your book received much attention outside of Christian media?

Carroll: The secular media has given this book a good deal of attention, which has been gratifying. «The New Faithful» has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Publishers Weekly, Washington Post, National Review, PBS, Canada’s National Post, and dozens of other regional newspapers and secular radio outlets.

Many secular journalists still struggle to understand this trend: It’s counterintuitive for those who assume religion is on the wane and orthodoxy is on life support.

But to their credit, a fair number of baby boomer journalists in the secular media have been willing to consider that the excesses of their generation may have made today’s young adults reluctant to follow in their footsteps, and attracted those young adults to orthodoxy.

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