The Following is the text of a talk I gave at Goshen College.
The Execution of All Things: Generation X and Vocation.
trevor george hunsberger bechtel
Assistant Professor of Religion
Friday, October 21, 2005
Soldiers come quickly, I feel the earth beneath my feet.
I’m feeling badly, it’s not an attempt at decency.
And if you’re well off, well then I’m happy some for you.
But I’d rather not celebrate my defeat and humiliation here with you.
Someone come quickly, this place was built for moving out.
Leave behind buildings, the city planners got mapped out.
Bring with you history, and make your hard earned feast.
Then we’ll go to Omaha to work and exploit the booming music scene and humility.
And we’ve been talking all night.
Oh god come quickly, the execution of all things.
Let’s start with the bears and the air and mountains, rivers, and streams.
Then we’ll murder what matters to you and move on to your neighbors and kids.
Crush all hopes of happiness with disease because of what you did.
And lastly, you’re all alone with nothing left but sleep.
But sleep never comes to you, it’s just the guilt and forever wakefulness of
It’s just you and me.
The execution of all things.
The execution of all things.
The execution of all things.
Rilo Kiley, “The Execution of All Things” from the Audio CD The Execution of All Things, Saddle Creek Records, 2002.
Generation X can be defined as the generation which has been caught between the analogous consumption of the baby boomers and the baby boomers offspring (called the gadget generation, the millenials or the net.generation depending on your sociologist of choice). Generation X includes, according to Douglas Coupland (whose novel Generation X named this group), those born between 1955 and 1969. It is the most startlingly fractured generation to date. Therefore any comment I make can only expose at most a few of these fractures. Some fractures imitate or anticipate the values of other generations, often doing so more successfully than the original.
Generation X, fractured as it is and caught between large attention getting, resource consuming generations has a strong sense of itself not being the target of anyone’s attention. In one the most consumptive eras our world has ever known, my generation is not the target market. And when X’ers music is used to target consumers, it targets the millenials who imitate Xer style. You could see this turn on a dime with the release of Kurt Cobain’s band Nirvana’s ablum Nevermind. Suddenly, the grunge music that Mudhoney and others had been making without attention for years was made palatable.
“Smells like teen spirit”, but at that point, the youngest Xer’s were already 23.
The world for Xers is apocalyptic. Apocalyptic literature whether found in the bible or in pop culture paints a realistic picture of a world without, or at least almost without, hope. Everything gets executed in this world. Others may be well off, they may be in Omaha, but we’re here. There are no bears, no air, no mountains, rivers, or streams. The institutions that matter to you, the proud society brought into existence before our time is all going away. One book states that the boomers rebeled against the system, generation X has done without the system and that the millenials will build a new system.
That new system might be coming but not in the apocalyptic worldview of Generation X. Lastly, Xer’s are all alone with nothing left but sleep. But sleep never comes to them, it’s just the guilt and forever wakefulness of the weak. For Xer’s It’s just you and me.
Unfortunately, the church has often been at the centre of this disenfranchisment. The church is at the hearts of X’ers, especially those who have grown up inside it. When the same inattention that X’ers have received in the world at large becomes a part of their experiences at church that heart is ripped out. This is again a part of the Execution of All Things. Sure, the church at its best pays attention to single people, to people who feel like they’re at the fringes of the world, to people who aren’t fitting in. But the church isn’t always at it’s best. The church makes families with children the ideal church members. It idolizes a certain type of leader, fellowship, a certain way of talking, a certain way of being, a certain way of believing.
But it’s easy for me to engage in this kind of rant. I believe it and I think churches need to be more deliberate at addressing the ways they exclude but this conference isn’t about the church it’s about vocation.
How does vocation work its way into this part of the picture? Vocation isn’t about teleology; a a fancy word we use in Christian Ethics to talk about pursuing a goal. We aren’t called to a goal are we? We pursue it. Goals are outside of us. Vocation also isn’t about narrative or virture; the emphasis on stories and the characters inside stories which form another popular way of talking about Christian Ethics. We are invited to participate in a story. We develop character. No, traditional ideas about Leadership and Vocation lean towards deontology; which basically translates to duty.
Call, and response to the call of the leader, can both be thought of in terms of our duty to others, institutions, community, nation or God. The betrayal of ideals which gave rise to and was the result of 60’s radicalism moved vocation and leadership away from deontology towards self-fulfillment. The individual in service of the institution became simply, the individual. Institutions and leaders who betrayed trust were no longer worthy of devotion. Vocation simultaneously turned towards consumption and has lead to great excesses since the generation who were involved in this shift – the baby boomers – was the biggest generation on record.
Several options are closed to Generation X as they lead, follow, call, are called and discern calls. This generation feels little sense of duty, little desire for self-fulfillment (especially, but not only in a consumptive sense), and still distrusts institutions and authority. This has lead to apathy and anarchy on one hand, and hyper-conservativism on the other. Significant disenfranchisement as a general phenomenon and not from any particular institution or ideology has occurred. This has happened in spiritual, social and political realms. Apocalyptically, Xer’s simply aren’t interested.
What then is open to this generation? How does vocation and leadership function in a disenfranchised world? I would suggest that the value which shapes the Generation X’ers’ negotiation of their world is relationship. X’ers feel called to create strong relationships and feel fed by these relationships. Letting relationships form the entire core of one’s existence requires a remarkable amount of integrity. Although it is made obvious by any standard metric, many Xer’s have a huge amount of integrity. More important than policy or ideology alone, and apart from charisma in any standard sense, X’ers’, and perhaps especially Christian X’ers, let relationships shape their choices, their commitments and their entire way of being in the world.
Some examples of this: diminished church involvement but an enhanced sense of spirituality, diminished political involvement (participation in standard political parties) but enhanced group advocacy on issues of importance to the group. An enhanced trust of process in institutional decision-making but only if the process is transparent and has the participation of all involved.
X’ers will give their allegiance to people who succeed in fostering relationships with them. The character and integrity of the leader may be more important than the leader’s methods or ideals. At the same time X’ers will lead by creating relationships. Community becomes a more and more important model, but this need not be a geographical community. It is the community that is bound together by relationships before particular issues, ideologies, or institutions, and this includes the church. This is a vision of vocation that looks to Ruth, rather than to Samuel, David, Ezekiel, Mary or Paul. Listen to how the commitment to God seems secondary in this biblical text.
“Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
17 Where you die, I will die-
there will I be buried.
May the LORD do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!” (Ruth 1.16-17)
I loved Keith Graber Miller’s talk last night. Wasn’t it good? I love hearing the story of a vision that is so pure, so commited, so careful, so rooted and which has such possibilites for real engagement in both the church and the world. But I need to acknowledge that the vision I’m putting forth here, caught in the right light, casts a contrary shadow. Graber Miller locates the nexus of Christian discipleship which forms the root of all authentic vocation in the church. This is surely good theology. But if relationships mediate all of reality, if they are the only thing left after the execution of all things, if it’s really just you and me, then the church only becomes a home for the vocation of X’ers when it truly respects, welcomes and celebrates their relationship in all of their diaphonus glory. So the church that makes it’s witness stand prior to the witness of the web of relationship that X’ers have already formed closes itself to the many gifts X’ers offer.
This happens all the time.
Let me put this point as clearly as I can. When churches invite their best and brightest to serve in leadership positions churches reify a particular vision of what counts as the brightest and the best; the brightest at what? the best at what? When church arbitrate the kinds of calls that are seen as churchly; when worship, ministry, caring look the same across the church; when other gifts are not celebrated, or even recognized as gifts, churches reify a particular vision of what counts as vocation or leadership. When leadership happens among Xer’s it happens organically rising out of the web of relationships strengthing certain cords and then fading into the background.
My argument here broadens significantly. This isn’t just about Xer’s it’s about everyone who has been kicked out of the system, who the system doesn’t acknowledge, whose gifts aren’t convenient.
I don’t expect that many churches will work to change their patterns of relationship so that the Sunday afternooon frisbee football game garners enough attention to avoid the annual church meeting being planned over it. I don’t expect that many couples, faced with childlessness, will be given showers celebrating the new knowledge about the shape of their family. I don’t expect that many single people will be celebrated for who they are, given pride of place in Sunday morning worship in some carefully chosen moment of the liturgical year. I don’t expect that many churches will gear up for the long haul of respecting someone’s depression providing support for as long as it takes. I don’t expect that the strength of surprising relationships will be celebrated for what they are rather than looked on with suspicion and distrust. I don’t expect that churches will celebrate a lifestyle that works as seldomly as possible, traveling the country on a shoestring budget, as a responsible discipleship of acedia, or moral laziness.
But until churches learn to do these things and more they won’t be able to welcome the vocation of many Generation Xers. Xer’s have learned to live without institutions. I expect that they’ll continue to do this.
But I hope personally, socially, ethically and theologically otherwise.
I’m hoping against hope that Ezekiel words will soon ring true.
The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. 5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD.”
7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
11 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act, says the LORD.”