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The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X

Tom Beaudoin
ISBN 9780787955274 (0787955272)
Jossey-Bass, 2000 (paperback)

Category: Emerging Church & Postmodern Faith

Review based on the 1998 hardback edition

Are Generation X essentially a bunch of godless, hedonistic consumers? Beaudoin argues not so much that there are exceptions to this generalisation, but that the generalisation itself is only a superficial one: that the pop culture which GenX creates and laps up is riddled with religious imagery. His book is an exploration of the spirituality of Generation X, its sources, its expression and its interface with institutional churches and personal experience.

This is not the final word on the subject, of course. Not only are some of Beaudoin's conclusions suspect, but also some of what he uses as evidence. But it's clear, at least in the preface and appendix, that he doesn't expect his work to be definitive. We're not at that stage of the discussion. This is more of an opening salvo.

Many non-Generation X members will find the frequent assertions of 'we are unique because of x, y or z' tiresome in their arrogance and apparent ignorance. Not only does every generation think their folks are square (in the words of Lovin' Spoonfull 60s pop icon John B. Sebastian), but they also apparently cannot help thinking that they are the first generation to think so. Thus on page 166, he describes the daring experiment of the radical GenX Methodist minister who found success at "turning his church into a coffehouse on the weekends, replete with music, 'bohemian' decor and jugs of java." Just add love beads, herbal tea and black light posters for an authentic boomer experience.

From the theologians cited with approval, you might think it would be clear to Beaudoin that his generation is not quite so unique. But he uses a system of citation that emphasises the date of publication, and regularly cites recent editions. Thus for example, there are quotations from Kierkegaard cited as (Kierkegaard, 1989) or others from (Bonhoffer, 1995). Surely Beaudoin, a Harvard Divinity School grad, knows that these texts are much older, but will his non-theologian GenX readers? I think my favourite quotation to take out of context is on page 99: "With Xer-like wisdom, Marcel Proust wrote..." It's perhaps not quite as arrogant as it sounds, he may mean that Proust's wisdom reminds him of Xer-like concerns rather than expressing surprise that the old timer nearly obtained the wisdom of the GenX age.

More troubling, though is the way that most readers will feel that rather than reading his culture, Beaudoin is reading INTO his culture. Again, in the preface and appendix he goes out of his way to say that he doesn't mean to attribute overtly religious statements to the originators of the videos or adverts or whatever he's talking about, but in the main part of the book, that's really the only way of interpreting the language that he uses. His detailed de-coding of videos by Madonna and REM don't leave any room for 'this is only my interpretation of course' sort of sentiments. He usually seems to think that this is THE way to interpret these phenemenon in a very pre-post-modern way. So for example, on page 132, talking about Xer fashions he says that 'Because blue jeans are associated with Westerns, they also symbolize for Xers a frontier mentality.' Later on the same page, discussing grunge: 'Torn up about identity, we ripped our clothes.'

Despite these problems with detail, however, Beaudoin is certainly right in his major points and provocative ones they are. To Xers he offers a very persuasive demonstration that the very foundation icons of post-modern existence have pointers to religious and theological ideas. This relentless demonstration, despite its excesses, makes the book a valuable addition to the bookshelf.

But there is more that lifts it even higher. Beaudoin does not only describe, often with some insight, as when he opines that GenX membership is probably not on the basis of year of birth, but acceptance of a culture. Beyond, description, he begins the job of prescribing, which I find extremely brave of him. He's very sensitive without pulling punches and therefore successful at it. For all his apparent naive pride in being an Xer, he correctly, in my view, uncovers weaknesses and inconsistencies and exhorts himself and his peers (and us boomers sometimes) to face these challenges. A quotation will show some of what I mean:

Virtual religiousity... is not enough. If the virtual is to have significant value, it must lead somewhere, it must help clarify the real.... As much as I revere the emerging religiousity of Xers found in the popular culture, for all its richness and irreverence, this GenX pop culture religiousity must be brought into conversation.... I suggest that Xers make a wholesale reconsideration of religious tradition.

I don't expect anyone, of any culture, will find this an easy book to get all the way through. Probably the book suffers from trying to say things to both Xers and non-Xers. Nevertheless this is a crucial book which will hopefully open a continuing dialogue of exploration.

Conrad Gempf, December 1998

Dr Conrad Gempf teaches New Testament at London School of Theology. He is the author of Jesus Asked (Zondervan, 2003), Mealtime Habits of the Messiah (Zondervan, 2005) and Christian Life & The Bible (LST, 2006). He writes extensively for various books, journals, magazines and websites; here's his blog: Not Quite Art; Not Quite Living.

Previously published by London School of Theology. Reused here by kind permission.


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