Compassion, Creativity, and Connecting with a Burned-Over Generation

David Zahl
Wednesday, March 2nd 2011
Mar/Apr 2011

When confronting the Great Commission, the most vital question is the “what.” What is the message that needs to be proclaimed to all nations? What do disciples look like? And what is the point? (1) This article, however, is not going to address those questions. This article concerns itself instead with the “how” of the Great Commission. Of course, the business of disciple-making is God’s work and not ours, and to dwell on questions of strategy or approach almost automatically invites Pelagius to the table. On the other hand, to ignore the specific circumstances of one’s mission field seems a tad naive, or worse, a little despairing. How many times have you watched a well-meaning minister of the gospel shoot himself in the foot by presuming knowledge or goodwill that isn’t there, or by adopting a shrill method that precludes any chance of success (and says less about the message and more about how out-of-touch the messenger is)? To be clear, the gospel message must and will transcend any circumstantial concerns. But as much as talking about the “how” is possible, there are some basic principles that might aid us in smuggling the good news through the elaborate defenses of the modern man.

In particular, how do we connect with what might be characterized as today’s “burned-over” generation? I use the moniker in reference to the “burned-over district” in upstate New York, which after surviving two Great Awakenings has been left spiritually bereft and is subsequently the birthplace of more cults than any other geographic region in America. The label may be a bit dramatic or curmudgeonly—Lord knows this generation is no better or worse than any other—but not to acknowledge the depth of the current disillusionment is an exercise in denial. We are dealing with a generation that has suffered the full brunt of megachurch semi-Pelagianism, kids who by and large have been robbed of any chance to hear the gospel as good news. This applies just as much to those who have experienced it firsthand as secondhand—that is, to the religious as well as the nonreligious.

When Christianity is linked as tightly to behavior as it has been in twentieth-century American evangelicalism, it should come as no surprise when it is widely perceived as bad news: a noose that breeds hypocrisy and neurosis in its followers. At best, it is seen as a relatively harmless illusion that helps people sleep at night—at worst, as destructively moralistic claptrap with little or no understanding of human suffering. As if that wasn’t enough, traditional Christian language has been publicly yoked to a political agenda that young people find alienating. So the situation is not good. At the risk of indulging in alarmism, the Lutheran in me might say that this profound muddling of law and gospel in today’s churches has succeeded in raising psychological defenses to record heights, not to mention creating an army of refugees whose theological baggage is enormous. (2) Fortunately for us, Reformation theology—if it can escape its rhetorical and temperamental straightjacket—lends itself perfectly to the situation.


Anger is a rational response to the “burned-over” state of things at those who have hijacked the words of life and at those who have let it happen. Yet as righteous and inspiring as it can be, anger must eventually give way to something else if anything constructive is to occur. After all, if you resent those you are trying to reach, you will not reach them. One thinks of the tables of radical atheist books (and the responses to them) at Barnes & Noble these days—are they converting anyone? To me, it would seem that the antagonistic attitude prevents anyone who doesn’t already agree from picking them up.

We know instinctively that blame is counterproductive. Regardless of how justified it may be, it paralyzes and alienates where it’s meant to correct (as such, it seems to be one of the devil’s chief instruments). For genuine connection to begin, for bridges to be built, blame must be allowed to transform into compassion. This almost always entails some admission of culpability, achieved by holding the situation under the microscope of original sin. We all like sheep have gone astray. Our wills are bound just as much as anyone’s, even those of us who by the grace of God have been exposed to the beauty of justification by faith. The burned-over generation never had a chance—if all I’d experienced of Christianity was feel-good sentimentality (a.k.a. denial), or worse, an engine of self-righteousness and judgment, I would have walked away too. So we begin with compassion.

New Words

Compassion acknowledges the religious wreckage by first giving the “old words” a rest. We must admit and accept that much of the historical language of Christianity has long been co-opted by a moralistic subculture and divested of its descriptive power. It’s a sad-but-true fact that anyone who grew up during the rise of the religious right has likely been anesthetized or at least overwhelmed by religious talk. In their new book American Grace, Robert Putnam and David Campbell argue that “we’re living through the second aftershock [of the twentieth century in America’s Christian churches]…a revolt against the association between Christian faith and conservative politics, in which millions of Americans (younger Americans, especially) may be abandoning organized Christianity altogether.” (3)

So when the great American novelist Thornton Wilder prophetically wrote that “the revival in religion will be a rhetorical problem—new persuasive words for defaced or degraded ones,” he wasn’t kidding. If we are serious about meeting the burned-over generation where they are, we start by translating our precious jargon.

Of course, the line between translation and alteration/manipulation is a thin one. If there is hesitation here, it is well founded: the message too frequently gets lost in translation. Giving the old truths fresh expression is one thing; dressing the Christian message up as something that it’s not in order to dupe people into coming to church is another—particularly when the new dress makes it less appealing, which it almost always does. To be clear, we are not talking about relevance. (4) The gospel is no more or less relevant than it ever has been, and even if we wanted to, we couldn’t change that. A recent episode of the terrific NBC sitcom Community lampooned a church’s attempt to be relevant by turning Jesus into a viral-video rapper. Those are simply the old words recontextualized in a particularly pathetic way. We’re talking about locating the places where the law and the gospel are currently and most obviously finding their cultural (horizontal) expression, bringing them to light in as plainspoken a way as possible.

Proclaiming vs. Instructing

So what do these fresh terms look like? Most overtly, new words are just that: new words that contain some uncorrupted kernel of the original meaning. I think of the arresting albeit inadvertent synonyms for law and gospel that country singer Chris Knight uses in the title of his song “Love and a .45” (“One’ll kill you/One’ll keep you alive”). But more than that, communicating in fresh terms entails proclaiming rather than sermonizing. Moral didacticism needs to be kept in check when dealing with a burned-over generation—not because it is wrong, but because it is tired. Instead, we demonstrate and observe—we look to connect rather than convince. This may seem contradictory to a theology of the Word, but it isn’t. Indeed, the gospel in all its historic profundity and Mel Gibson severity must continue to be proclaimed as loudly and eloquently as possible. Of course! But with the burned-over generation, which has been exhausted by pie-in-the-sky sermonizing, this proclamation will regain its power only by avoiding the lazy, pat biblicisms or naked assertions to which the “telling” approach often punts when its imagination atrophies.

As a side note, this means that the Internet is a key frontier. We all know that the Web makes a lousy forum for debate. Despite some bright spots, the Christian blogosphere is nearly as mean-spirited and narrow as the politically partisan, in which entrenched parties throw stones and build cases from behind their screens. But the Internet does make a great evidence room, an ideal showcase for the endless stream of corroboration that the media (i.e., human beings) produce so naturally and constantly: truly, even the most mundane news stories will testify that love in the face of deserved judgment bears fruit and that criticism provokes rebellion. Like a hurt child, the burned-over generation is much more likely to engage from a place of safety—which the Internet, with all its dubious anonymity, does provide for better or worse.

So argument is not our primary means of connecting. You might call this a phenomenological apologetic. It rejects the obsession with results that has crippled so much modern outreach by subconsciously imposing a patronizing attitude in the one reaching out. Who wants to be a project? I certainly don’t. No, results are fundamentally not our business. A correspondingly high pneumatology leaves no room for hidden agendas or secretly hoped-for results (or outright condescension) normally embedded within religious rhetoric. This is refreshing.

Proclaiming rather than instructing does not always come easy to folks who have grown up in reformational situations. We tend to get nervous that if we do not spell things out, they will be misunderstood, that people might get the wrong idea. (5) Our emphasis on doctrinal clarity, which has served us so well in other regards, can be a bit handcuffing if misapplied when attempting to connect with a generation that couldn’t care less. A little obliqueness actually serves the cause; curiosity is our friend, illustrations even more so. Yet there persist strong objections about metaphors getting mixed and leading to confusion. That there is no perfect illustration for the gospel goes without saying. If we are to find new persuasive words, some of them may be ambiguous at the outset. No one ever learns to speak another language without first reconciling himself to ample mistakes.

Us vs. Us

At the same time, those of us with reformational convictions have a great advantage here precisely because of our doctrinal clarity. Three theological strands in particular give us an upper hand: the doctrine of total depravity, the doctrine of imputed righteousness, and the distinction between the law and the gospel.

First, total depravity. The burned-over generation is a cynical, disillusioned bunch. They have been fundamentally disappointed, not just by religion but by life and society and so forth. In the Reformation traditions, they will find a more accurate (read: pessimistic) description of reality than elsewhere, one that truly accounts for the full spectrum of human behavior. A realistic anthropology—a.k.a. the level-playing field of self-centeredness for which “total depravity” functions as shorthand—allows us to affirm cynical and nihilistic understandings of human enterprise, without being defined or threatened by them. Truly, life as a tragic impasse, rife with suffering and self-inflicted trauma, is precisely the condition the cross addresses. We have a firm grasp on the depth of the issue.

Reformational Christians are also free to abandon the “Us vs. Them” rhetoric that has made the culture wars such a losing battle. We can do this because we believe in imputed righteousness, as opposed to infused righteousness. That is, the basis of our relationship with God is outside of us, found exclusively in Christ. By regeneration we are new creations in Christ, but when it comes to our vocations in the world we are very uncomfortable with any assertion of qualitative differences between the Christian and the non-Christian. We align ourselves instead with a more universal understanding of human nature, of original sin as evenly distributed: male or female, black or white, and most importantly, both believer and nonbeliever.

A considerably more pithy way to express this attitude comes to us in Tony Hendra’s memoir Father Joe: “There are two types of people in the world. Those who divide the world into two types of people…and those who don’t.” (6) A theology of connection will sympathize every time with the outsider; it will err on the side of the nonreligious. If this comes off as overly critical of other believers (which it often does in practice), it is out of compassion for the lost. We see the church as a hospital for suffering, broken people, not a clubhouse or school for zealous perfectionists, and consequently we look to embrace the Alcoholics Anonymous ethos:

Imagine walking into a church where all who entered were asked to sign a waiver at the door that said: “I’m a sinner and by stepping into the room today I acknowledge that fact.” Ministry and church life (and evangelism!) would be tremendously more effective. Unfortunately, you can come into church these days and sign up for any number of identities: Easter/ Christmas type, fanatic/Pharisee, sinner, middle-of-the-road, or whatever. In AA there is only the option of sinner. (7)

Imputed righteousness also removes the enormous judgment obstacle that keeps us from connecting on a personal level with those outside the faith. Our claims of self-improvement are no longer viewed as a basis of our witness, causing our off-putting facades of holiness to crumble, leaving transparent human beings where there were once unapproachable Christians. Indeed, the freedom of imputed righteousness gives sinful men and women permission to confront and confess their pain, to look their self-defeating and regressive tendencies in the eye for once, knowing that they don’t go into those dark crevices alone. We no longer have to pretend to be anything other than what the gospel tells us we are: hopeless sinners in need of mercy. We can observe and confess our own turmoil without identifying with it. We are simultaneously justified and sinful. We might even find that we have compassion for others who function similarly. To the burned-over generation, this looks like Christians who aren’t afraid of darkness or honesty. It also looks like Christians who reject any sense of superiority out of hand and are therefore not holier-than-thou—at least not more than anyone else.

The Seinfeld motto of “No learning, no hugging” stands. Hypocrisy as a defining trait of the fallen man need not be explained away or denied. Human foibles suddenly lose their frustrating aspect and become a refreshing place of humor! A Pharisee will take himself too seriously. A person who believes in imputed righteousness will not. Fortunately, humor lowers defenses. You will know them by their self-deprecation.

Next, far from believing that the burned-over generation is areligious, we believe that they, like us, are intensely religious. The late author David Foster Wallace describes it this way:

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things—if they are where you tap real meaning in life—then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already—it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power—you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart—you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on. (8)

Wallace conflates worship with identity for good reason. What is our current obsession with identity if not a measure of idolatry? Isn’t it the American religion? Or, at the very least, an indication of our limitless need for justification and therefore our universal conflict with the law.

The third place, then, where reformational Christians have an advantage in connecting with the burned-over generation is their understanding of the distinction between the law and the gospel. At heart we are trying to connect what we see as the central message of Christian theology to “the cares and concerns of everyday life.” This message, as we’ve received it, operates theologically—and thus experientially—within the dynamic of law and gospel. We believe these words speak to an enduring human reality—not exclusively a “Christian reality” but a human reality, period. The law asserts itself over all creation and provides an immediate point of connection with the entire human race. Who doesn’t deal with some degree of pressure or criticism? Who isn’t struggling with some form of (not) measuring up? Preached in all its psychically excavating fullness, the law demolishes “Us vs. Them” mentality once and for all. No one is righteous. All have fallen short, us included. We can speak to the burned-over generation from an equal and therefore genuinely sympathetic footing. It’s not a put-on. The gospel is for both the non-Christian and the Christian.

Phrased differently, a biblical anthropology eschews any talk of Christians “engaging with” or “transforming culture.” We are the culture! In this way, the culture wars are supplanted by a war on culture wars. We are fundamentally not against the burned-over generation because we are a part of it.

Making Use of Uselessness

Finally, speaking of culture, there is no greater ally in the struggle to connect with the burned-over generation than the arts. Art has the power to conjure up the ineffable, to make us aware of things we already knew (but didn’t know that we knew), to penetrate our defenses and to sneak through our ideological filters. If it’s any good, it operates outside those boundaries. Creativity is both our mode and model for connecting.

Oscar Wilde famously wrote in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, “All art is useless,” and we would tend to agree. In fact, some might say that any work of art that can be reduced to a platitude is not really art at all. Art is not meant to instruct. When well-meaning Christians turn film or music or poetry into an ideological instrument, they do it a great disservice, paradoxically excluding the very folks they’re trying to reach with their interpretation. We must let (good) art speak for itself, and if it has any quality—that is, if it has any grounding in reality—it will inevitably shed light on life and therefore truth.

Yet art is more than expressive; it is experiential. At its best, it can get us in touch with emotions and perceptions we haven’t been able to articulate, moving us on a subrational level—a heart level—which is precisely where the good news is also aimed. It can open us up. The psychological word here is abreaction. James Smith puts it this way:

Unhooking the arts from a “theological” instrumentalism grants space for the arts to reveal the brokenness of creation without being supervised by a banal moralism. A painting or a poem reveals the world with a harrowing attention that will sometimes bring us face-to-face with what we’ve managed to willfully ignore up to that point. (9)

This is the most difficult of things to do for the “Christian” artist, or for anyone with a strongly held conviction—to have the art form itself be an experience of, rather than didactically affirm either directly or through a clumsy symbolism, Christian life, which is after all just life. Ironically, this most difficult thing can be done only without conscious effort to create a “Christian” work. If it’s being supervised by “banal moralism,” it will by definition not connect. A prescribed message or outcome will destroy the project from the get-go. It must come directly from the gut. Believers who set out to make a “human” piece of art, independent of any pietistic “law” or “should” related to its outcome—if they’re in touch with themselves—will connect with both believers and nonbelievers.

The vast majority of the so-called Christian artists who are connecting with the wider world adopt this approach. Take Stuart Murdoch of the Scottish pop band Belle and Sebastian, for instance. Murdoch is clearly a Christian (he teaches Sunday school at his home Protestant church in Scotland), yet his songs aren’t vehicles for his ideology; there’s absolutely no attempt to convince anyone of anything. Christianity is not a source of insecurity for him; it’s simply a fact of life—a line about church-going dropped here, a reference to the New Testament there—and as such, it becomes a much more attractive one. Devoid of defensiveness, the authenticity is contagious, and it connects with the burned-over generation (his audience is primarily non-Christian), which is starving for authenticity and emotional depth. The same is true in the films of Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, Barcelona, and Last Days of Disco), which employ a similarly “peripheral approach” and almost seem to take Christianity for granted—perhaps the more convincing endorsement of all.

Most of all, art that connects with others will be the art that connects with us, at least if we’re honest with ourselves (which, again, the doctrine of imputed righteousness facilitates). It will be art that experientially gets us in touch with the deepest aspects of our experience: bondage, love, judgment, loss, conflict, guilt, forgiveness, and so on. We explore it, unafraid of where it takes us, confident that the truth is the truth is the truth. In other words, if we don’t genuinely like the art we’re sharing, we might as well not bother doing so.

The Ministry of Freedom and Illumination

Not surprisingly, the closest corollary to ministry in this context is the creative process. Many would say that when we are in the realm of creativity, we are in the realm of the divine. We are dealing with desire, not duty—inspiration, not obligation. Creativity must be the basis of any effort to reach a generation that values authenticity. The burned-over generation can smell a phony a mile away, but creativity cannot be contrived. Ministry that flows from inspiration or desire, as the case may be, will connect. Like the Holy Spirit, it will be joyful and spontaneous and heartfelt.

The law—in this case, the content- or performance-related “ought”‘stifles ministry in the same way that it stifles creativity. Criticism blocks inspiration, and perfectionism paralyzes—just ask Axl Rose, Michael Jackson, or Stanley Kubrick. But grace, both the common and not-so-common variety, is the word that grants the artist permission to confront the real horror and beauty of the inner life. It is a productive force—one that allows the artist as well as the preacher to connect with others. So we can embrace ministry as a creative endeavor with inspiration at its core, checking duty at the door.

This sort of creativity responds to the Great Commission quite radically. It asks not how we should fulfill it but how we want to fulfill it, because the “want” and the “should” are ultimately the same. Nothing else matters because nothing else will be genuine. So how are you inspired to make disciples? That is how they will be made, thank God—through inspiration rather than obligation.

In the meantime, as we wait on the Holy Spirit for illumination, we work to expunge the superficial distinctions between Christian and non-Christian wherever possible, dwelling instead on the common ground of human suffering and mining the plumb line of spiritual longing that exerts itself in all our endeavors. We chase after new persuasive words, confident that the message will always have more traction than our delivery of it. We resist our hardwiring for imperative-based ministry. Finally, we live our lives openly and with some degree of self-understanding, trusting that the good news will come to the burned-over generation as it comes to us—from the outside and in spite of our resistance.

1 [ Back ] See Michael Horton's "The Great Announcement" in the January/February 2011 issue of Modern Reformation.
2 [ Back ] The 2009 American Religious Identification Survey found that "the percentage of Americans claiming 'no religion' almost doubled in about two decades, climbing from 8.1 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008. The trend wasn't confined to one region. Those marking 'no religion,' called the 'Nones,' made up the only group to have grown in every state, from the secular Northeast to the conservative Bible Belt. The Nones were most numerous among the young: a whopping 22 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds claimed no religion, up from 11 percent in 1990. The study also found that 73 percent of Nones came from religious homes; 66 percent were described by the study as 'de-converts.'" Christianity Today: http://www.
3 [ Back ] As paraphrased by Ross Douthat, The New York Times:
4 [ Back ] This topic has had more than a fair airing recently with the high-profile release of Brett McCracken's book Hipster Christianity. To catch up, read the pieces McCracken wrote for The Wall Street Journal:, and Christianity Today: See also James Smith's smart review for The Other Journal at Mars Hill: Both men make valid points.
5 [ Back ] Again, Michael Horton's recent article "The Great Announcement" has some wise words along these lines.
6 [ Back ] Tony Hendra, Father Joe (New York, Random House, 2005), 190.
7 [ Back ] John Z. and Tom B., Grace in Addiction: What the Church Can Learn from Alcoholics Anonymous (New York: Mockingbird, 2010), 5.
8 [ Back ] David Foster Wallace, This Is Water (New York: Little, Brown, 2009), 99-110.
9 [ Back ] See
Wednesday, March 2nd 2011

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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