catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 12 :: 2003.06.06 — 2003.06.19


Sin, suffering and Generation X

The Biblical witness has always sought to understand the nature of sin and evil. This facet of our existence is also of concern for people born in the 1960s and 1970s, a group often referred to as Generation X. In reaching this new generation living in what by modern standards is an increasingly hostile and violent world, a relevant message will speak to the reality of sin and suffering, while accepting and even celebrating the ambiguity inherent in worshiping a loving God that nonetheless permits sin and suffering to exist.
Young people today live, as all humanity has since the Fall, in the midst of evil. In this generation, evil has taken on a variety of forms, each of which arouse anxiety and fear. Generation X, as the group has been labeled even in their insistence on not being labeled, has grown up experiencing the reality and the fear of drive-by shootings, classroom killings, nuclear and chemical warfare, and a worldwide AIDS epidemic. Within this context, they are aware, often despite affluent upbringings, of their own sense of suffering. There is sadness and anger in their suffering that often expresses itself in psychological or spiritual crises of meaning. Such anger is often apparent in clothing, hairstyles, body piercings, and tattoos. Their art forms take on similar expression with music videos suggesting feelings of rage and apocalyptic sentiments. Despair and nihilism reign.

This sense of suffering is the very receptacle into which a framework of religiousness can be set. Whenever humankind suffers, it wants to know why. We have an innate longing to try to make sense out of our experience. We want to know who is responsible and how long our suffering will last. In our pain, we may even dare to wonder about God in ways that are emotional, resentful, dismissive, ironic, debased, or intellectual. For this generation, such wonder is no longer automatically hidden in the secret recesses of their being, but uttered out loud. Such honesty can be seen as threatening to the institution and to the status quo in which it exists. I would argue, however, that this very sense of suffering can by God's grace become "a catalyst for GenX religiosity."

A Theology of Sin and Suffering

We begin, then, by exploring traditional Christian interpretation of suffering and the origin of sin, knowing that as Christians we have something important to share. For we know the realities of human sin and suffering; but we also know the reality of the grace of God, and the promise of transformation for our lives and for our world. The questions being raised today by young people are not new. Some 1500 years ago, Augustine was wrestling with the very same topic framed as a question: How is it that we can defend our belief in an omnipotent and perfectly good Creator God when sin and evil are obviously so deeply woven into the very beings God created?

Luther attacked this reasoning in 1517, arguing that such a scheme promoted the deification of man rather than the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. In contrast to this idea of earned salvation, the Augsburg Confession states: "Consequent to Adam's fall, all humans, in that they are born according to nature, are conceived and born in sin. That is, from their mother's womb on they are filled with lust and by their natural power can have no true fear of God or faith in him; moreover, his infection or inherited sin is truly sin." Struggling with profound guilt in his own sinfulness, Luther at last came to conclude that he could never merit his own salvation but could only be saved by the grace of God. Lutheranism exists in this one article of faith: justification by grace through faith.

Original sin, Luther contended was inescapable and all encompassing; an abominable and dreadful inherited disease. Furthermore, this disease has corrupted our entire nature. Calvin would also use this metaphor, describing sin as a disease that produces an overall distortion of our character. Echoing Augustine, Calvin went on to describe the resultant depravity of man as evident in the loss of supernatural graces and the corruption of natural ones.

Recent scholarship builds on these beliefs. Some theologians, such as Daniel Migliore, look to the biblical stories of the Garden of Eden not for a historical account of the origin of sin, but as "imaginative portrayals of the goodness of creation and the universality of sin." Others, such as Robert Jenson, believe that Eden was a literal place in which the fall of humanity took place. Despite these differences, both Migliore and Jenson come to agreement on a definition of sin. Put simply, sin is that which God does not want done. Sin is going against the will of God.

This conclusion, nevertheless, does not offer a fully satisfying explanation to the question. Why is there suffering in a world created by a merciful and loving God? If sin is what God does not want and God is omnipotent, then we are left with a conundrum with which we find no rational conclusion. We ask, "Why does God permit suffering and sin?" and find no logical answer. So in the end it is a mystery, incomprehensible to us. It is precisely that mystery, the un-answerability of the question, that this generation already perceives and needs to hear the church articulating.

Suffering as Christians

Suffering, in and of itself, makes this generation at least pseudo-religious. They have, as Tom Beaudoin names it, "a virtual religiosity." Young adults of today are often willing to persevere in the midst of suffering and to meditate deeply on the reasons for their unhappiness. As if priming the proverbial pump, this understanding of suffering also becomes "real?" religiousness when these same people come to understand pain from a theological perspective. For Christianity offers to its believers the unique witness of God's love in the very form of a suffering servant.

As Christ bore the burdens of the world, so we are called to bear the burdens of our fellow human beings. Luther counted suffering among the marks of the true church. In more recent times, Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer held up suffering as the badge of true discipleship. According to Bonhoeffer cheap grace costs nothing, while costly grace consists of making a sacrifice for faith. It is with costly grace that today's young adults can resonate. Indeed, according to Beaudoin, Generation X pop culture "challenges faith that is reduced to a logical assertion that can be bought and sold, diminished to a pin on a jacket or a clever T-shirt slogan."

At the same time, members of Generation X are often confused by the Christian rhetoric they sometimes hear. For this is a generation doubly burdened by a quest for spirituality and a lack of religious literacy. Many young adults today have never been in a church and are without the most basic information on Christianity. They are skeptical about "organized religion" and institutions in general. It is our responsibility as believers to bring them the Gospel witness—amazing news to those who have not heard. We cannot expect the unchurched to seek us out for that news and they will not listen if we cannot make it relevant to their lives. Sharing our Christianity has to come through our own personal experience and our willingness to enter into genuine relationships with each other.

The community of saints is not an ideal community consisting of perfect and sinless men and women, where there is no need of further repentance. Rather, it is a community which proves that it is worthy of the gospel of forgiveness by constantly and sincerely proclaiming God's forgiveness. It is a community of men and women who have genuinely encountered the precious grace of God, and who walk worthily of the gospel by not casting that grace recklessly away. We are a sinful people. If we understand the image of God in terms of the pattern of our relationships with one another, then we must understand sin as the disruption of those relationships.

Suffering as the Church

What does this mean to young adults? And what does it mean to a church body who, from an outsider?s viewpoint, judges and condemns those who do not fit the pattern or lifestyle they assert? Jesus calls us to be holy ones who, as God?s children, are separate and different from the world. We are called to live a life faithful to the values of the kingdom, values that are to set the faithful apart because they turn the world's values completely upside down. They are values that comfort and confront us and that call us into suffering. "Blessed are you," Jesus said, "when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven."

It should go without saying, but I am afraid it often does not, that to be a witnessing church, we have to be willing to testify to our faith while engaging in relationships that are based on mutual respect and acceptance, even in the absence of understanding. Unfortunately, even youth being raised in the church are beginning to speak to their own growing sense of alienation from the church body. David Scherer, who goes by the stage name Agape when he performs as a Christian hip-hop artist, finds that when he talks to youth, they tell him they are afraid to ask questions in church. Their questions, they believe, are not welcome. Subsequently, neither do they feel welcome. Quietly, youth are sharing with a few people that they trust that the church is the only place in their lives where they feel like they cannot be themselves.

If we are to take seriously the call of Jesus Christ, we must recognize that entrenched attitudes, as "traditionally held" as they may be, that cut us off from each other and that effectively cut God off from his children are an evil force and the very presence of sin. We must repent of the worst form of idolatry: that we would presume to take the place of God in determining who is and who is not among the saved. We must identify and name our own sin as the reason that our churches are more and more failing to reach people born since the mid 1960s and that they are driving away individuals seeking to rethink their faith.

Then we can begin to address young adults through ministry that is both Christ-centered and justice-oriented. We can create spaces where ambiguity is accepted and the mystery of God is embraced and celebrated. We can build safe communities of moral deliberation and thoughtful action, unafraid of dealing with complex social issues. Finally, we can acknowledge without fear or hesitancy what we have known on some level all along: that both faith and doubt are part of our spiritual journey, our lifelong walk with Jesus Christ.

Suffering as a Response to Criticism

Here in West Michigan, I seek to build a faith community known as Extended Grace. Extended Grace presents an opportunity to be engaged in a great missionary work—reaching the spiritually homeless with the free grace of God's abundant love and the example of Christ's faultless life. Yet, the values that are at the very core of this mission have been criticized by some religious voices in the community. We seek to be an open, affirming and inclusive faith community, but are confronted with the stand that while all should be welcome, only those who live by the law (as they interpret it) should be allowed to stay. We seek to be Christ?s hands and feet in this world through service projects and advocacy work; but we are criticized by those who believe the church has no place in pursuing a just society, let alone determining what might constitute justice. We seek to make disciples and not to recruit members; but we are met by bewilderment as this approach makes a tally of membership (the one seemingly universal measurement of church success) inapplicable and irrelevant.

Each week beginning in mid-January there has been a dialogue where participants find a safe place in which to share their own experiences, questions, doubts and fears while exploring spirituality and other topics that can be complicated and uncomfortable. Worship reflects Ancient Faith—Future Church, combining ancient tradition like gathering around a meal, chanting and incense with the culture of the generation including the use of secular music and movie clips. Yet, the inclusion of dialogue without its own agenda and that has no predetermined outcome and the notion of introducing secular and non-Christian culture into our discussions and worship space are viewed by some with fear and suspicion.

Such criticism can be disheartening. It holds no sway, however, because the vision of Extended Grace is one not of compliance with the status quo, but of mission to the unchurched and de-churched. It is an opportunity to reclaim the great commission in what has been referred to as a postmodern age, a pre-Christian age, and a new apostolic age. It is a mission taking advantage of the opportunity to recapture the transformational power of first-century Christianity. Such a commitment is fraught with risk of persecution and, that time-honored staple, suffering. After all, that is the call of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, that risk seems minimal in comparison to the risk of mainstream denominations heading for extinction if they continue to function only within a model of maintenance. In its willingness to suffer for the Gospel, Extended Grace is profoundly Christocentric and missional in its ministry.

The call to follow Christ Jesus has always been a radical call into a place of mystery. As much as we want to pin God down to our own imaginations, he continues to elude our human capacity to comprehend. Just as we cannot by our own reason find any explanation for sin, so we cannot understand Christ's work in our salvation. As creatures, we are unable to comprehend the Creator who exists beyond all of our definitions. Faith can be discovered and practiced in ambiguity without simply surrendering faith to culture. Where there are relative certainties, these are also celebrated. Nonetheless, if we are to reach young adults in this time and place, according to Beaudoin, we must "seriously attend to the revelatory significance of hesitation, ambiguity, ambivalence and instability in the lives and faith experiences of many Xers [for] Xers claim a wider space for indecision in faith, opening it widely enough that it becomes a revelatory moment."

The values demonstrated by Christ Jesus are not ideals that only elite saints can ever hope to achieve. They are directed to all of us. They urge us to be saints, holy and separate, by being part of God's reversal of social injustices in our world today. We know that to do so is to risk persecution and insult, even as the martyrs before us risked death for their faith. But we, the children of God, know that even death is not the end. We know that there is a future for all God's people because God is more powerful than any of the forces that would weaken us. And in that assurance we celebrate, going forth as Jesus instructed us, "This is my command: Love one another."

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