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The Voice for a Generation Defined by Their Longing: The 1975

The Voice for a Generation Defined by Their Longing: The 1975

The 1975 is an indie pop band from Manchester, England. It’s possible that you’ve never heard of them before and you might have zero interest in their music, but what if I told you the person Taylor Swift dated before Travis Kelce is the frontman for and lyrical genius of the band, Matty Healy? If Taylor Swift was that interested in him, are you maybe a little more interested now?

 

Generational Voices: Taylor Swift and…The 1975?

The 1975 have released five albums, each to critical acclaim over the past ten years or so. Their most recent album was released in 2022, entitled Being Funny in Foreign Language. Matty Healy is a controversial and complex figure, but in the midst of his reputation for being rockstar in every sense of the word, if you listen to him speak it’s clear that under the surface is an artist dutifully keeping himself in tune with both his own proclivities, musical notes, and our time.

Let me tell you why I’m writing about them. As a person trying to orient myself as a Christian in the zeitgeist of our postmodern culture and society, I am constantly looking for resources in the humanities (visual or musical art, literature and poetry, philosophy and religion) that help me name my own complex desires, my own experiences in modern life, and offer a commentary on our postmodern world. The more I listen to The 1975, the more I’m convinced that they are the undersold voice of my generation (the “sold” voice being the new queen of Kansas City herself, Taylor Swift). The 1975 aren’t a Christian band at all but Christian aesthetics and symbols saturate their songs. Even more, their songs, not only in their lyrical play but in their musical play, offer a depth of human emotion and experience that create space for us to be concerned about what ultimately concerns us: God.

I’m convinced that The 1975 is one of many cultural markers that demonstrate that my generation is growing in articulating the spiritual need they know they have. Even more, they are at the forefront of a movement making room for the growing awareness that the postmodern and digitally modern society does not meet the depth needed to answer the desires of their soul. This is explicitly called out in the cry for help in the song “Love It If We Made It,” with the lyrics: “Jesus save us, modernity has failed us. I’d love it if we made it” (note that if you listen to this song, there is explicit language). The longing for something more, even if it is ironic, is directed where? To Jesus.

 

Faith and the Chaos of our Age

We are bombarded with a hairball of complex realities from secularism, political agendas and war, to relational hardships, new Netflix shows that are therapy, and children encountering new realities. Every day our age of anxiety gnaws at us: it might be our own anxiety and it might be the anxiety of our world. From staring at a screen for eight hours plus, news programs firing off information that might be misinformation, the steadiness of information overload, dating apps, social media trends, and mind-numbing scrolling to get some peace. Digitally we find no relief, only more concerns to compound our own, and just a facade of connection to match our loneliness. In all of this, we feel something tugging at us. Longing. A longing for more.

The 1975 gets at this complexity in their album A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships. In their song “I Like America & America Likes Me” they capture the nature of the generation left longing for more in the midst of their digital isolation, their wrestling with the nature of life, and their apathy as a way to cope with their lack of answers. All of this is grasped by sporadic and punchy lyrics: “Is that designer? / Is that on fire? / Am I a liar? / Oh, will this help me lay down? / I’m scared of dying / It’s fine / Being young in the city / Belief and saying something.”

Did you notice how the lyrics jump from one thing to another, almost like scrolling through your TikTok feed? One question rings out through the song, and it’s existentially louder than the loudness of the beat of the bass. “Oh, will this help me lay down.” What kind of laying down is Matty Healy after? A good night’s sleep? A way to numb when the apathy doesn’t work any longer? Or maybe something deeper? Perhaps what Matty dares to mention is that he needs some real rest from the anxiety of being tangled in the complex hairball of a world.

He decides to venture into the explicitly faith-based conversation in the song, “If I Believe You.” The song, with noticeably gospel undertones demonstrating that Matty Healy is a student of music itself, wrestles with not just existential realities of modern existence but with the epistemological reality of Jesus being actually real: “And if I believe you / will you make it stop? / If I told you I need you / is that what you want? / And I’m broken and bleeding / And I’m begging for help / And I’m asking you, Jesus, show yourself / If I’m lost then how can I find myself?”

 

Relationships in a Lonely World

The 1975 songs run the topical gamut, but like any good band, there’s no shortage of relational heartbreak in their songs, which is in and of itself a direct parallel to our world. “Somebody Else” is their most famous hit, and the song captures the rawness of heartbreak at the end of a relationship. Matty cries: “I’m looking through you, while you’re looking through your phone, and then leaving with somebody else.” He continues, “Our love has grown cold / You’re intertwining your soul with somebody else.”

Notice that the language here is not only about bodies…it’s about souls. There’s a veiled recognition, if only metaphorically, that there’s something more at play than just bodies intertwining in relational intimacy. Instead, it’s the heartbreak of a relationship not only ending with only a separation of bodies but with pain that can only be explained by the ripping apart of souls. And the torture when that body moves onto someone else’s body is that their soul is now intertwined with someone else. One only writes and sings these lyrics out of a profound sense of loneliness.

To a thoughtful listener, these lyrics suggest there is perhaps a better strategy for relational intimacy other than using our bodies as an immediate answer to our felt loneliness and our beautiful need for intimacy. In my mind, this lyric suggests that our other needs for security, safety, acceptance, and commitment, must also be cared for. Our souls need to be cared for beyond our need for intimacy. The Christian faith has something to say about this. Intimacy is designed to be experienced only after entering into a covenant relationship of safety, acceptance, commitment, and security.

 

Longing in a Postmodern Age

The 1975 puts language to a generation that if they know anything, they know great longing. Longing for more than mind-numbing screen scrolling. Longing for more than lackluster online relationships. Longing for more purpose than collecting material items. Longing for more than a warm body to lie next to at night. Longing for more than political agendas and political theater. Longing for systems that care and value instead of control and oppress.

Secularism and postmodernism leaves us with a longing. Some have said that in the loss of faith in this age, all we have to long for is longing itself. Is longing all we have? Well, the 1975 gives me a different perspective. Matty Healy, the rebellious figure he is, sees the Christian faith and Jesus as a concrete reality that could potentially offer a healing balm to the open wound of longing. And this means that with this type of longing, the longing can lead to real hope.

 

A Real Hope for Real Longing

As Christians, we need to continue to demonstrate, in our lives and with our words, how Jesus is the hope that meets a generation defined by their longing. This is nothing new…it has been done throughout the history of the church. Augustine once talked about his longings and how Jesus meets them:

“What do I love when I love my God?…
It’s not physical beauty or temporal glory or the brightness of light dear to earthly eyes, or the sweet melodies of all kinds of songs, or the gentle odor of flowers and ointments and perfumes, or manna or honey, or limbs welcoming the embraces of the flesh; it is not these I love when I love my God.
Yet there is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God – a light, voice, odor, food, embrace of my innerness, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part. That is what I love when I love my God.”

Augustine says our longings reveal that we are concerned by (and longing for) that which concerns us (and we long for) most: God. And he also says more directly: Jesus is the one answer to all our longings. Indeed, may our longings lead us to him, and may a generation defined by their longing become a generation defined by their longings met in Jesus Christ.

Searching for Words to Pray

Searching for Words to Pray

I’ll be honest with you: there are times I have found it hard to be honest with God. The strange thing is, it’s not because I want to be dishonest with God. Sometimes it’s because I am stressed and anxious, and my prayers are fast-paced and emotionally disengaged. Sometimes it’s just because I am angry, and due to my personality and whatever else is going on inside me, I struggle to address my anger and I avoid it. Sometimes I feel like I don’t have the energy or the focus to center myself on him for a long time. 

 

Searching in the past

Here’s another reality: sometimes, when I am praying I am unable to conjure up the words to say what I really want, or what I really need to, in order to be honest with God. Even when I have a strong desire to be with God in prayer,  I can struggle with words. For someone who loves poetry and all forms of literature, that’s hard to even admit. 

Over the years I have taken great comfort in the fact that God can use my silence; my silent mouth and body that is just sitting and seeking to be close to him. Conversely, I take great comfort in the fact that I can trust God listens when I just ramble on and purge out all my random cares. But even more satisfying and expressive of my own feelings are prayers of the saints of old. These are prayers that seem holier than me, prayers that when I pray them, I feel like I’m standing on the shoulders of Christians who lived faithfully. 

When people ask me what my prayer life is like, I often respond with a simple truth. I typically have a mantra going on in the back of my head throughout the day. It’s the Jesus prayer; it is my quickest access point, my default, the groove I often fall back into when I pray. It goes like this:

“Jesus Christ, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner. Amen.” 

This prayer, over and over, is a place of honesty for me. It’s raw. I find great comfort in it. 

 

Finding in the present

And yet, recently I really felt a desire bubble up in me for more words. And not just the easiest, accessible ones, and not ones from the ancients. I want words that correspond to my modern life, but still have real depth. That get at the heart of my distractions, my anxieties, my fears, my thoughts about God, and my thoughts about myself. 

In my searching I’ve stumbled into some modern prayer books that have given me fresh language—new words to pray. As someone who often celebrates the ancients and their faithfulness to God in prayer, I have been surprised at how, through these fresh prayers, I can enter into real, honest moments with God. In fact, these prayers have given me the words that I desire but don’t have, that my heart feels and needs. 

In Living Like Monks, Praying Like Fools by Tyler Stanton I found a prayer by Ted Loder. He passed away recently, but he was a longtime pastor in Philadelphia, and spent much of his life writing prayers. I don’t agree with him on all things, but there are a few of his prayers that have connected with me in the past months. If you are anything like me, the prayer printed below offers words that correspond to my world, my lived reality, and offer it up to God in a comprehensive way. 

 

“There is Something I Wanted to Tell You” 

Holy One, there is something I wanted to tell you, but there have been errands to run, bills to pay, arrangements to make, meetings to attend, friends to entertain, washing to do… and I forget what it is I wanted to say to you, and mostly I forget what I’m about or why. O God, don’t forget me, please, for the sake of Jesus Christ…. 

Eternal one, there is something I wanted to tell you, but my mind races with worrying and watching, with weighing and planning, with rutted slights and pothole grievances, with leaky dreams and leaky plumbing and leaky relationships that I keep trying to plug up and my attention is preoccupied with loneliness, with doubt, and with things I covet and I forget what it is I want to say to you and how to say it honestly or how to do much of anything. O God, don’t forget me, please, for the sake of Jesus Christ…. 

Almighty one there is something I wanted to ask you but I stumble along the edge of a nameless rage, haunted by a hundred floating fears, of war, of losing my job, of failing, of getting sick and old and having loved ones die, of dying, and I forget what it is the real question is I wanted to ask and I forget to listen anyway because you seem unreal and far away and I forget what it is I have forgotten. O God, don’t forget me, please, for the sake of Jesus Christ…. 

O Father in Heaven, perhaps you’ve already heard what I wanted to tell you, What I wanted to ask is, forgive me, heal me, increase my courage, please. Renew in me a little of love and faith, and a sense of confidence, and a vision of what it might mean to live as though you were real, and I mattered, and everyone was sister and brother.

What I wanted to ask in my blundering way is don’t give up on me, don’t become too sad about me, but laugh with me, and try again with me, and I will with you, too. What I wanted to ask is for peace enough, to want and work for more, for joy enough to share, and for awareness that is keen enough to sense your presence here, now, there, then, always. Amen.

Hitting the Refresh Button on Grace

Hitting the Refresh Button on Grace

Many of us have heard of one famous German theologian who stood up to the Nazi party. But did you know there was another famous theologian beside Deitrich Bonhoeffer who did the same thing? Yes it’s true, and his name was Paul Tillich.

Paul Tillich

The Nazi party wanted Tillich to renounce his published political views in order to keep teaching in Germany, and the legend is that Tillich laughed at the SS guards, and was of course, swiftly banned from teaching in any school in Germany. Hearing of his situation, and with admiration for his work, Tillich was invited to teach in the United States by two famous public theologians, the Neibhur brothers. He lived the rest of his life teaching in the United States at various famous universities. Martin Luther King did his doctoral dissertation on Tillich, and in fact, his fearless intellectual inquiry and diagnosis of culture took the United States by storm, causing him to grace the cover of Time magazine in 1959.

Hitting the Refresh Button

Tillich is undoubtedly a controversial figure in theology, and he and I disagree on a number of key realities, but one of things I can appreciate about Paul Tillich was his effort to take Christian concepts and symbols that felt stale to cultural and societal conversation (a conversation that was increasingly growing more secular), and hit the refresh button on these concepts so that they could make a renewed impact. He didn’t want society, the world, or the church for that matter, to leave behind Christian concepts or symbols simply because they were thought to be outdated. In the midst of secularization, Tillich was certain that the Christian faith was valuable to modern people and society. For example, he hit the refresh button on faith by calling it “the state of being ultimately concerned: the dynamics of faith are the dynamics of man’s ultimate concern.” Even more, he hit the refresh button on God by calling God the “ground of being.” And though this appears to be an impersonal term, for Tillich, it avoids the idea of God being a “being,” which would mean God is subject to finitude and bound to some form like all other ‘beings,’ or unable to transcend even the infinite.

In a famous op-ed column in The Saturday Evening Post he wrote this: “If we define religion as the state of being grasped by an infinite concern we must say: Man in our time has lost such infinite concern.” The Christian faith is relevant for every generation, but Tillich wanted to figure out how to reach a new generation.

Sin

Another one of the simple ways Tillich hits the refresh button on Christian concepts is how he talked about sin. Tillich would say that we don’t understand the word sin anymore. The power of sin has largely been lost to us, and by that he means we don’t understand the depth and breadth that term embodies.

Whenever he spoke of sin, he would only use that word briefly. Instead, he would speak of separation. He would say that we should understand sin is really separation or even estrangement. Because of sin we are estranged from one another; we are separated from how relationships really should be and work. Because of sin we are estranged from ourselves; and we are separated from who we really should be. And because of sin we are estranged from God; we are separated from whom we actually belong.

Grace

The Christian concept that answers the malady and tragedy of sin is grace. Grace, like sin, is difficult to describe, and Tillich again would say we don’t really understand the word grace anymore either. Is grace just forgiveness? Is grace some kind of ethereal force, or magical power of God?

For Tillich, grace was neither of those things. Instead, grace is how God overcomes the separation and estrangement of sin. In other words, it is through grace separation from God is overcome. The grace of God through Jesus breaks into our lives in spite of separation. Essentially, grace is the acceptance from God of that which is formerly rejected by God. Grace is the reunion of God’s life to our life.

Here is what Paul Tillich says about grace in one of his sermons titled You Are Accepted:

“Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you…Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace.”

The Courage to Accept Grace

As Christians, we should be confident that we are rooted in God’s grace. We have a complete, immediate, and total reality of acceptance from God through his Son. In his book, The Courage to Be, Tillich says that it takes courage to accept that you are accepted by God. He has a different Christology than I am inclined to adopt, but I still agree with him.

It takes courage to believe, live into, and embody a hope that flies in the face of existential despair and anxiety. As Christians, we understand we are wholly accepted through Jesus.
When we courageously accept our acceptance from God, then we can also courageously reject the other words, things, or realities that seek to strip us of our rootedness in God’s grace. When you are lonely and in a place of despair or darkness, through God’s grace your light can be remembering that you are forever accepted by the One who matters. When you are struggling because you receive harsh words from co-workers or your boss, through God’s grace the final word spoken to you and over you is that you are accepted by him. And when you have made decisions that make you fear rejection from others and you struggle to even accept yourself, through God’s grace you have no reason to fear, you are always accepted.

This is God’s grace: his grace through Jesus has the power to overcome all separation. Do you have the courage to believe him? Do you have the courage to live out of his grace?

What Psalm 131 Teaches Us About Humility and Rest

What Psalm 131 Teaches Us About Humility and Rest

My heart is not proud, Lord,

    my eyes are not haughty;

I do not concern myself with great matters

    or things too wonderful for me.

But I have calmed and quieted myself,

    I am like a weaned child with its mother;

    like a weaned child I am content.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord

both now and forevermore.   Psalm 131:1-3 NIV

 

There is something about Psalm 131 that has spoken to me over the past few years. It’s a psalm for those Brennan Manning describes at the beginning of his book The Ragamuffin Gospel: “It is for inconsistent, unsteady disciples whose cheese is falling off their cracker. It is for poor, weak, sinful men and women with hereditary faults and limited talents.” It’s a psalm for me.

Psalm 131 isn’t for the super spiritual…it’s a psalm that guides the Christians who need the help returning to a place of humility and rest in God over and over again. It’s also a psalm that reminds us to reorient all of our hopes and center them around a different kind of Hope. 

There are a total of 15 psalms of ascents, which were to be sung as the Israelites ascended or made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for annual festivals. Psalm 131, one of four psalms of ascents attributed to David himself, is the second shortest psalm in the book of Psalms. Here’s how David starts this tri-versed song:

Verse 1: “My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; 

When I first read this verse I was confused. It’s almost that David is proudly declaring that he’s not proud! Well, that’s in fact what the early church father Jerome thought; in essence, he figured David was proud of himself for being humble. The church fathers typically have lovely insights, but in this case, to be puffed up about one’s own humility is an oxymoron. You can’t be prideful about being humble; that’s just pride, too. 

I don’t think that’s what is happening here. David is not prideful about being humble. Instead, what David is doing is speaking to his own heart. He’s telling something to his soul, and at the same time, vocalizing it to God. Ultimately, he’s recognizing that his heart has adopted an inner posture of humility. 

This becomes more clear as David keeps going: “my eyes are not haughty.” This isn’t haughty like a hottie. Haughty means puffed up. Vain. Arrogance. David is really just saying, “I don’t look down upon others. I don’t feel the need to be better than others anymore. I don’t feel the need to compare myself to others to make myself feel better anymore. I don’t feel the need to compete for attention anymore.” David is putting words to an inner disposition. For whatever reason, whatever the circumstance, he’s been pushed out of a posture of pride and into a posture of humility. 

He goes on. “I do not concern myself with great matters…”

Great matters. When I think of great matters, I think of the big questions of life that we all have. Why does this happen and not this? Why does this person get cancer and this person doesn’t? Why does this person get promoted or get this chance, and this person doesn’t? Big questions. These questions take a toll on us because life is not fair. We can’t predict life, and therefore it befuddles us. We can’t come up with a reliable pattern. 

What David is saying here encompases the big theological questions, too. How is it that I can have a choice, and yet God holds me accountable for my choices? Nothing surprises God and at the same time everything is in His sovereign will…how can that possibly be? 

Christians have been studying these things intensely for hundreds of years, and so for some theological questions we have helpful answers. Simultaneously, what David is effectively saying is something very simple: “I don’t have all the answers. I don’t have all the things figured out and you know what? I can’t. I can’t explain everything.”   

In the past few years of my life, I’ve resonated with this verse. Sometimes it’s a relief to not have to explain the world. Sometimes it’s a relief to not have to try to make sense of everything. Many times I have tried to make sense of everything to the point it just wears me out. But, I’ve gotten older and experienced more of life, I’ve come to realize that we really do live in a fractured world. It’s a broken world, and you know what? I don’t need to be perpetually surprised by that. 

David continues: “or things too wonderful for me.” This really means, “things beyond myself.” Things beyond yourself. 

Job says something very similar at the end of the book that carries his name. After everything happens, after all the hardship goes down, Job finds himself wanting to put God on trial for the things he has experienced. In a wild turn of events, God shows up to court, and He has some questions for Job. Job’s response to those questions goes like this: “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me.

There is something in this verse about embracing our limitations. Can we embrace our limitations? Or is that shameful for us? 

In the United States, we aren’t comfortable with limitations. We are always supposed to take on more and do more….more is always better. We really like the passage, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” We get tattoos of that one don’t we? How many people are getting tattoos of this verse in Psalm 131? 

Again, I’ve been put in situations when I’ve had to learn to understand that I have limitations: emotionally, physically, and even intellectually. I was always a really good student and I got into the number one ranked university when I graduated from high school. However, when I got to seminary, I remember sitting in a classroom with other graduate students and thinking that I was not the smartest person in the room and I couldn’t even pretend that I was. For whatever reason, I felt ashamed about that. Over time, I had to learn to ask myself an important question.  Can I embrace my limitations and actually be okay with them? 

Can you embrace your limitations? Are you constantly comparing yourself to those around you? Are you competing with your friends or coworkers? Are you looking on Instagram and Facebook, seeing the lives of some of your friends, and feeling jealous about their ability to travel or have the freedom they do? Can you embrace the limits of time you have in one day? 

There’s relief and joy found in embracing who we are, how God has gifted us, where He has placed us, and what He has given us. All of those are bound with some limitations…and there’s a recognition here that these limitations are actually good.

David has learned to choose this posture of rest, and he says it like this: “I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.”

He carries on in the second verse: “I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.” 

I’ve never had a child (shocker…I’m a 30 year old man living in a one bedroom apartment in River Market). But from what I know about it, weaning is a long, painful process. Weaning is basically teaching the child that their mom isn’t just a giant milk machine, which can result in the child just crying and crying incessantly. But it’s a process that ends in the calm, resignation of the weaned child and its mother. So the image we are supposed to get here is the image of an exhausted, calmed, trusting child, resting on its mother’s chest. 

Here’s the jump. In our dependence on God, we tend to see Him as a giant milk machine in the sky. Sometimes we say oh God I just wish you’d do this. Just change this for me. If only you’d make X happen, then I’d be ok. I think at times those prayers are totally fine. But there also comes a point in our lives where God says to us:

“You know that thing that I’ve given you before, well I’m not going to give it to you anymore. It’s time to grow up. You have to learn to let go of that. Why? Because I want something even better for you. I want you to want me for me. I don’t want you to want me only for the stuff I give you.” 

This maturation process is always difficult. There are times my prayer life has looked like crying, complaining, and just a lot of frustration. These times, painful and long as they can be, always end up with me in calm resignation. I once again find myself resting in the arms of my Father. 

What David is getting at here is a bit of what I think St John of the Cross writes about in The Dark Night of the Soul. The dark night of the soul is a period that feels like abandonment but is actually a progression into the fellowship of God. This is a part of what it looks like to mature as Christians. When God doesn’t meet our immediate need in the way we want, or our plan A doesn’t work out, we are challenged to learn a new kind of dependence and hope. 

The journey of the Christian faith always comes back to hope, and our psalm ends with a call to hope, too. 

“O Israel, put your hope in the Lord both now and forevermore.” 

For David, hope is only found in one place. In the Lord. There is a hope that will never fail us. Our plans will fail us. Our jobs. Our friends. Our own bodies. But there’s one place that we can put our hope that will never fail us. 

We have limitations, but there is One who doesn’t have limitations. We try to make sense of the world and can’t, but there is One in whom and for whom all makes sense. We are the ones who struggle with self-centeredness, pride, self-pity, and all that comes with trying to do things completely on our own, but there is One, who is always waiting for us to return and rest our heads on His chest. 

Friends, our hope is in the Lord. David reminds himself, and the people of God not to forget where real hope lies. 

“O Israel, put your hope in the Lord both now and forevermore.” 

Where’s your hope? Do you need rest? There’s Someone eagerly waiting for you to rest your head on His chest. He’s always there, and He always beckons you to himself. 

Understanding Our Metamodern Moment

Understanding Our Metamodern Moment

Maybe you are familiar with the terms modernism and postmodernism…or at least you’ve heard them before. But how about the term ‘metamodernism’? Have you ever heard someone describe the cultural moment we live in as ‘metamodern’? Probably not…but it’s time we wrap our minds around this fairly new terminology. Let’s start by refamiliarizing ourselves with modernism and postmodernism:

 

The modernist era – late 19th and early 20th centuries – was a movement that, in terms of religion, was largely defined by the idea that science and reason had overtaken faith. It’s almost like modernism was saying we know too much and we’ve learned too much to believe in religion anymore. The famous Nietzsche quote represents this era well: “God is dead, and we have killed him.” Nietzsche meant that we have progressed with science and reason to the extent that we have killed off any thought of the divine being real. 

 

For quite some time philosophers, sociologists, historians, theologians, and artists have agreed that we moved beyond modernism and we have been living in a postmodern moment (starting in the mid-twentieth century). 

Postmodernism claims that conflict in the world surrounds the common theme that there are many people who claim absolute truth in many ways. Because these people know the ‘truth,’ they try to enforce this knowledge on others. Knowledge is used as power, and thus ‘truth claims’ are used as forms of control. Postmodernism is a reaction against modernism and is ultimately defined by its cynicism. When cynicism dominates, everything is relative. Ever heard the phrase, “I just have to live my truth?” That’s a product of postmodern thinking.

In a postmodernist framework there is complete suspicion of any ultimate truth claim. A large reason why living missionally as a Christian is difficult in the postmodern era is that people are very suspicious of the gospel, which is the Truth claim of all truth claims. 

A taste of postmodernism’s interaction with the Christian faith is illustrated well in the exchange between Jesus and Pilate in the gospel of John: 

 

“Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” (John 18:37-38)

 

Postmodernism offers the predominant idea that there isn’t really any ultimate truth. It leaves us grasping for something concrete, yet never really finding it. It ultimately leaves us yearning for more, but at the same time, it asks the question: what use is there in yearning? 

 

Here is a different kind of question: Does postmodernism have the final word in our cultural moment? I’m convinced it does not. 

 

Since the early to mid-nineties, artists, particularly in literary spheres, began to recognize that something else beyond postmodernism was afoot. They sensed that artists were moving and gesturing beyond the dominant postmodernist framework. 

 

The ‘New Sincerity’ movement in the late eighties and early nineties started to break away from traditional postmodernism. One of the authors on the forefront of this movement was the prolific author David Foster Wallace. In the early 1990’s, David Foster Wallace wrote an essay, E UNIBAS PLURAM: Television and U.S. Fiction, where he articulated this shift: 

 

The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles…The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘Oh how banal.’ To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness.” 

 

Wallace suggests this new thing, movement, terrain…or whatever it is…is post-postmodern. The ‘new rebels’ gesture to an oscillation between irony and sincerity, between cynicism and hope, between apathy and nostalgia, and between relativism and truth. 

 

This ‘thing’ is not just a back and forth between these two eras…the oscillation requires something new simply because there’s a dialogue of the two with each other and not a simple one-way, singular rejection of postmodernism to modernism. Something new is formed, and whatever this new movement is, it transcends beyond what we have known thus far. This thing has now been labeled as an entirely new era known as metamodernism. 

 

Metamodernism is as global and as big as modernism and postmodernism. It encompasses philosophy, social science, politics, and more. That means just like modernism and postmodernism, it’s difficult to encompass in a blog. It’s better that I try to illustrate it for you with another example from a recent work of literature. 

 

Here’s an excerpt from Karl Ove Knausgaard’s famed work, My Struggle. The final segment of his three thousand six hundred page novel was published in 2011. His novel won over twenty international awards, and the Guardian called it “the most significant literary enterprise of our lifetime.” The New York Times called his writing “arrestingly beautiful.” Here’s a brief excerpt, where Knausgaard’s main character (himself) is wrestling with the Christian faith:

 

“... when I read the writings of Christian mysticism or the Church Fathers, pervaded as they are with the rapture of religious excitement, I find myself confronted by something utterly alien to me, which does not occur at all in my life or in the world around me, other than the occasional glimpse offered by TV into some ecstatic religious movement… the kinds of experience that were once the most important of all, meditations on God and the divine, holy rituals and cults, visions and raptures occurring in lives wholly devoted to God and the divine mystery, this resolve to seek meaning, this fervor, with all its spectra of intuitions, moods, and emotions, is no longer sought or, if it is, then only on the peripheries of society, outside our field of vision, perhaps occasionally evoked in respect to some odd and obsolete phenomenon in TV entertainment: So, you’re a monk? What’s it like not having sex? When we closed the door on religion, we closed the door on something inside ourselves as well. Not only did the holy vanish from our lives, all the powerful emotions associated with it vanished too. The idea of the sublime is a faint echo of our experience of the holy, without the mystery. The yearning and the melancholy expressed in romantic art is a yearning back to this, a mourning of loss.

 

Knausgaard is grappling… but can you recognize with what or with whom? In this quote, Knausgaard embodies a metamodern framework: he’s cynical and yet sees both sincerity and hope in faith. He’s noticing the apathy of his world toward faith, and yet for some reason, at the same time, he’s nostalgic for faith. Knausgaard believes in relativism, but he’s not satisfied with it, he yearns for truth. We see the oscillation. 

 

A characteristic of metamodernism is a willingness to engage something that might carry with it a truth claim. Knausgaard is yearning for more than postmodernism and suggests he is open to more.

 

Here’s where I think it gets concrete for us: people in our world are yearning for more. People in the west are skeptical of religion, and yet paradoxically, in fact are often very open to it. People feel like something was lost when we did away with religion in the eras of modernism and postmodernism.

 

As I live my life in downtown Kansas City, engaging many different kinds of people from different walks of life within my sphere of influence, many are often skeptical of faith but they aren’t opposed to it. Most commonly, people are very intrigued about my vocation as a pastor and my journey of faith into the pastorate. The notion of being a person of faith draws them in. It’s almost as though there’s a desire pointing them beyond the apathy they’ve known into a place where sincerity and hope lives. 

 

Here’s the question we are left with: how do Christians – how do we – live on mission in this kind of metamodern cultural moment? How does the church live on mission in a world that is suspicious of Christianity and yet paradoxically very open to faith? 

 

What metamodernism engages that postmodernism doesn’t are things like hope, real actual hope, and the potential for truth claims to actually be, well… true. Within metamodernism there’s a resurgence of sincerity in chasing after truth, while still not forfeiting all that was learned from postmodernism. Metamodernism is the great yearning for authenticity and real truth at the same time.

 

I don’t know all the answers on how to navigate this complex reality. But – in a very metamodern type of way – I think this new era should give Christians hope. Metamodernism tells us that there are fresh ears open to the gospel and eager to hear what it has to say. Maybe we’ll have the confidence to share it.