Just a few months after graduating from a Christian college, I found an article that encapsulated the curiousness of the community I was leaving. Called “One Island Under God,” it was based on a Facebook conversation by authors Anna Scott and Brian Buell that listed a very specific category: stuff Christian college graduates like. The inventory of interests unearthed by Buell and Scott is jarringly familiar—and perplexing. It includes The Princess Bride, Sufjan Stevens, Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger, “Social and/or sophisticated or exotic forms of smoking” (pipes, hookah, cloves, cigars), certain fantasy series (Harry Potter, Narnia, Lord of the Rings), and Settlers of Catan. Does anyone else feel like a pinned butterfly?
The authors didn’t seem able to explain exactly what held together this heterogeneous group, but Anna described its effects well:
The great success, the genius of the “Stuff White People Like” website was due to the fact that it struck a resonant chord: we all thought we were the only ones who liked Mos Def, watched Arrested Development or read the The New Yorker. The analogous list for Christians is one that, likewise, calls us out on the things in non-Christian or “secular” culture that we think are above stereotyping or pigeon-holing, because they are not overtly Christian, but, it turns out, are beloved by thousands of other young Christians.
I’m sure many readers could amend and update this list. I’d add Wendell Berry, Mumford and Sons, taking some sort of “stand” against technology (typewriters, Instagram filters or actual Polaroids, venerating people who don’t have Facebook), Wes Anderson, Iron & Wine, 19th century non-British “classics” (by Dostoevsky, Hugo, Tolstoy, Dumas), T.S. Eliot, the BBC, Abstract Expressionism, Frisbee golf, and the following words: “community,” “generative,” and “vocation.”
Granted, this is a pretty specific demographic, but it’s sizable: 20-something Protestant Christians, overwhelmingly from white and middle-class backgrounds. Why are so many of us drawn to this “stuff”? What are we looking for, and are we finding it?
Anna hints at one possibility with her placement of quotation marks around the word “secular,” and her hedging use of “overtly” before “Christian.” While many of the listed interests couldn’t be found in a Christian bookstore, they are “covertly” Christian: respectable yet not evangelical. Christians take pride in Sufjan Stevens’s faith, in the reputation of T.S. Eliot and J.R.R. Tolkien (“Did you know he was Christian?”), in the vaguely Biblical language of Iron & Wine and Mumford and Sons. While the trend Anna identifies is certainly true, I don’t think it entirely explains the appeal. There are other unifying characteristics of many, if not all, of these tastes we seem to independently develop: they are innocuous and nostalgic.
Why does this demographic tend to like Franny and Zooey more than Catcher in the Rye, or prefer 19th-century novels to 20th-century ones? Catcher in the Rye is more discomforting than Franny and Zooey: more specific, more despairing, more enraged. Similarly, 19th-century novels of the ilk mentioned before are grand, epic, and all-encompassing. Besides their treatment of faith, Hugo and Tolstoy condemn what is from our vantage point easily condemnable: serfdom, abuse of clerical power, lack of opportunities for women. In a sense, the outrages are on a level extreme enough to be generally agreed upon. While I’d argue that there is radicalism present in these works, they can also be appreciated at a safe level, with the particularities of their contexts detached enough from our own that any risk is neutralized.
Similarly with nonrepresentational art: although many of the Abstract Expressionists had all sorts of positions and intentions that young post-Christian-college adults would squirm at, the art itself asks nothing but aesthetic appreciation (in fact, the vacuum of defined referents is one of its greatest failings). It is not to everyone’s taste, yet very few people are actively offended by it. So, young Christians can justify their up-to-dateness, their participation in the “secular” world without danger: “I like modern art—I like Abstract Expressionism!”
What happens, as Anna identified, is that we construct a parallel pantheon to the “secular” one: young Christians find suitable alternatives to Precious Moments and the Left Behind books, but unwittingly stereotype themselves by the very act of their idiosyncratic congregation. By reading Tolstoy and listening to Iron & Wine we think we are somehow above the stereotypical Christian world. We choose things that neither side of the “Christian / secular” dichotomy can disagree with: we find our space in the middle of the Venn Diagram.
The possibility of “nostalgia” is a related desire, and a widespread one. Hence the pipe-smoking, Eliot-quoting, herb-growing, internet-disparaging 20-somethings that you and I both know. But I have to keep this nostalgia in quotation marks because it is false; it is longing for the idea of worlds that few of us have experienced: the fantastical realms, the sepia-tones of the Inklings’ England, the agrarian life.
It would be tempting to say that the referent is Edenic or Elysian, but that would be too easy, and not quite true. Besides the tautological argument that we can’t miss something none of us has actually experienced, it’s hard to imagine that these selections bear anything more than a glimmering resemblance to paradise. The particular realities of the world of the Inklings—of sexism and elitism and class privilege—or of agrarian existence—of hardship and insecurity and powerlessness—are not what we long for. But the distance imposed by time, and lack of firsthand experience, adds an attractive patina to complicated reality.
Thus, for this group of young, Christian-college twenty-somethings, charity work is good, but political work is iffy. Protesting against contemporary slavery is honorable, but protesting against discriminatory hiring prejudices might take things too far. Non-objective art is beautiful; feminist art is discomforting. Talking about community is commendable; talking about alternative economic systems is extreme. We, like Goldilocks, are uncomfortable with the “too hot” (The Guardian) or “too cold” (Focus on the Family)—we like our porridge “just right” (the BBC).
When Jesus called Christians to be “set apart,” this list of tastes is probably not what he had in mind. He was a blazing flame of extremity: having prostitutes over for dinner, calling his followers to be homeless, subverting social hierarchies. When he wasn’t lecturing about human universals, Jesus mucked around in the particulars of his context, modeling specific political and cultural revolutions at radical risk. I have a sneaking suspicion that to his fellow citizens, Jesus looked more like the Occupy movement than World Vision.
I am not trying to claim that we don’t need World Vision, but we do need something more. Young Christians should be the most radical of us, attracted not to the inoffensive but to the sharp and controversial. Too often we abstract the particular just to a level of palatability, through ideological detachment or historical displacement. We take a cotton ball, and then pull at it until all that is left is a soft mass of cotton. The abstracted form is beautiful, but the cotton ball was useful.
- “False nostalgia” among Catholics: “Morbid Symptoms”
- Evangelical cultural seclusion: “The Evangelical Hamster Ball”
- Irony, sincerity, and detachment: “How to Live without Irony”