Previous | Next

Spring 2002 · Vol. 31 No. 1 · pp. 54–61 

A Generation of Ghosts

Randall Schroeder

I don’t like the term “Generation X.” But I do appreciate irony. While X is sometimes a symbol for Christ, and thus for hope, many of us Gen-Xers raised in the Evangelical community share our generation’s widely reported disenchantment. Unlike the caricatured Gen-Xers of film and fiction, our malaise grew not from a lack of direction; it grew from too much attention and direction.

We can never belong to the Evangelical community, yet never fully extricate ourselves from it either.

In my own experience, Evangelicalism places undue attention on the distinction between the kingdoms of heaven and earth (sometimes called “the world”). While the eventual kingdom of heaven is a place where all tears are dried, the present kingdom of earth is a shadowland of phantasms and dangers, especially sexual dangers, which somehow eclipse all discussion in their utter scariness. Thus, for an Evangelical kid, many day-to-day transactions become inflected with fear, whatever Christ said about perfect love. Further, Evangelicalism interprets the Bible literally and is exclusionary in that it cannot accept other spiritual practices: when Christ says, “No man comes to the father but through me,” he means it. For these reasons, Evangelical children must be raised within a narrow set of values—in which purity and judgment are stressed, in which specific behaviors and thoughts are forbidden—to ensure that they don’t get attached to the shadows, and go instead to heaven. {55}

BUT WHERE IS THIS HEAVEN?

Some of us Gen-Xers realized early on that all the values and concepts at Sunday school were organized around the category of “belief.” “Do you believe in heaven?” the Sunday school teacher would ask. Do you believe in Jesus? Do you have faith? Either Jesus was real, said C. S. Lewis, or he was a devil or madman. There were no other options.

Later, we came to suspect that the Zen masters were right, that belief was actually less compelling than experience. But experience—spiritual experience—was exactly what we did not get at church. We didn’t want to wait for Heaven. We had no interest in “holding the fort,” as the old hymn goes. In fact, we doubted that eternity even had anything to do with time because, again, we wanted experience which is exclusively a feature of the present, not of some projected time line. Most of the folks at church were getting the experience—through prayer, through song, through sharing, through Bible-reading. What was wrong with us? Why did we feel nothing?

For some of us, the Evangelical worldview is simply too tight, too humorless, too devoid of awe, too thin on mystery. It offers us little emotional connection. We feel emptiness at the notion of a well-defined personal God and explicit historical time line. Our spirits are parched by foregone conclusions and clear designs.

We feel the precepts of Christianity to be rules, rules which can never work for us. We find standard apologetics unconvincing because we know that apologists who explain surrender as rue freedom do so from the inside: they already feel the emotional benefits, the connection. But if you don’t feel it, if the idea of surrender to Jesus doesn’t sprinkle your spirit, then it’s all just rules, constraints, margins, limits.

Now, if the Holy Spirit isn’t going to change your mind or temperament—if he’s not going to make you feel it—and still you linger in the flock, what do you have? You have nothing: emptiness, frustration, disconnection. Maybe you didn’t pray enough. Maybe your family and friends didn’t pray for you enough. Maybe you read the Bible with an agenda, or without an agenda, or without attention, or with too much attention. Maybe you didn’t try hard enough. Tried too hard. Didn’t let go of your desires. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Maybe you didn’t really want it. But who’s going to make you want it?

Nobody.

SO YOU GET OUT

Backslide, they call it. End of story.

Except it’s never the end of the story. The Evangelical experience {56} has conditioned our behaviors, judgments, and inclinations, possibly for a lifetime, in a complex web of conscious and unconscious desires and fears. We may dismiss the system of belief, hoping for some alternate form of experience, but we can somehow never fully untangle what we have learned. It’s a complex root system with the potential to nourish or poison, depending on context. Many Gen-Xers have accepted Christ over and over as young people, in a kind of frenzied promiscuity that is an index of our frustration and a sign of fear’s power. But when we finally leave the church and attempt to grow a new life, some of the problems we face seem insoluble because they grow in so many directions and remain almost necessarily unspoken. Ironically, all the problems boil down to one branch of experience.

Relationships. Especially the ones we have with ourselves.

For many people with troubled histories, the past is like a rock to the head. You get smashed, but you know exactly what smashed you and which direction it came from. But for some of us Gen-Xers, the past is more like a gentle stream, which, over time, wears a deep groove into the landscape. There may be little day-to-day pain, no identifiable trauma, only a secret and relentless set of pressures with effects that are subtle, dispersed, and shifting. There is no one to blame. The Evangelical community displays both love and compassion. There are those who truly love the sinner and hate the sin, those with a genuine burden not only for the lost, but for the hungry, sick, and hurt. There is a legacy of courage and conviction here. Selflessness. Strength. True affection.

But there is also another legacy, of dark currents cruising beneath love’s radar. Deep down we all know it—the trio of undertow: judgment, guilt, and fear. And to misuse St. Paul, these three remain; they operate like an IV drip, plugged in, day after day, month after month, year after year.

Some, of course, inhabit the fixed roles that are available in the Evangelical community. They accept Christ, get baptized, and participate in the church. They dress and act within a narrow bandwidth of conservatism. They believe. For them, fear, guilt, and judgment may do their proper work according to the Evangelical worldview: fear may convict, judgment may remind of the clear consequences of sin, guilt may appropriately attach itself to selfishness or pride. But for those of us who question the Evangelical worldview and look for other roles—roles more suitable to our spirits—judgment, guilt, and fear become corrosive. They warp and corrode, until we buckle and collapse inward, seemingly hearty on the outside, but rusted within.

It happens in subtle and largely unconscious fits and starts. We fear {57} sins we don’t even believe to be sins. We feel guilt that would be inappropriate in any context. We feel, in episodes, existential dread that has no object. And most of all, we judge people without even knowing it. We judge those whom, rationally, we have no moral issue with. And some of us know exactly the apologist’s predictable response, that these are signs of conviction, the work of the Holy Spirit. But if this is the work of God, it feels like cruel work because we know already that surrender will bring us no peace, no belief, no joy. We know this not rationally, not as some form of intellectual counter-apologetics, but experientially, in our spirits. The only possible mode for us within the Evangelical community is the hollow and deadening existence of Christianity by default.

NOT GOOD ENOUGH

My own experience may be more bizarre than most, though certainly not the most bizarre I’ve heard. My life has been charged through two biblical metaphors—forbidden fruit and the rapture—both of which have played themselves out more literally in recurring patterns, leaving me, by turns, fearful, angry, mournful, and confused.

The rapture is a potent icon of abandonment in that it bears a likeness to that which it represents. The rapture is literally an abandonment of lost souls. But the rapture is also an index of abandonment in that the two have a causal relationship, and the symbol actually produces and reproduces the feeling it stands for. In practical terms this simply means that as a child I felt love to be conditional. I feared that unauthorized or sinful behaviors meant abandonment, the withdrawal of love. If nothing else, I had to keep up appearances and fool everyone, even, eventually, myself.

And when, as children, we would listen to sermons about hell, or watch “end-times” films like “A Thief in the Night,” my anxiety would become acute. That anxiety remained hidden, of course, necessarily so. And it grew. When my parents would go missing for a few minutes, or come home a little late, I would become convinced that the rapture had occurred. I had been abandoned. I would frantically dial the pastor’s phone number, and if no one answered, then the assistant pastor’s, then an usher’s, then a deacon’s, then another deacon’s, until somebody answered, somebody, finally, and I could hang up wordless, and slump in a chair overcome with relief at this temporary reprieve.

I, like many others, became periodically obsessed with the unforgivable sin. Here was something that could guarantee your abandonment. Everything at church seemed a little vague, because there was no {58} experience to attach the concepts to, but especially that unforgivable sin, which was simultaneously dire and unexplained, and, I thought, one of God’s better jokes. I wanted so badly to know exactly what it was. I wanted so badly to avoid it. But here’s the tell-tale twist: in a darker part of my being, I also wanted to know what it was so I could commit it.

So the first metaphor connects with the second.

FORBIDDEN FRUIT

I tell you, I never blamed Eve. I understand Eve better than I do any other biblical character. Of course she’d eat. For me that tree had nothing to do with free will and everything to do with the enchantments of taboo. When the sacred is exclusionary and limited, then the profane becomes its shadow—what else could you expect?—and if one cannot find intensity of experience in the authorized daytime versions of the sacred, in the sermons of Dr. Jekyll, then one will go at night to visit Mr. Hyde.

A highly symbolic example is from my own life. I used to, late late at night, with a combination of desire and anguish, pray to the devil. This seems mildly amusing now, but at the time it was invested with unspeakable terror. It was experience, no denying that. I immediately had to pray to God to undo my sin, then again to the devil under the shadow’s compulsion, then again to God, as the charge polarized back and forth between the sacred and profane, now almost indistinguishable. To me the point is clear, ironic, and as paradoxical as any of Christ’s aphorisms. You simply cannot insist on both forbidden fruit and purity.

The profane’s attraction finds its fullest expression in sexuality, predictably, a situation which I need not elaborate here. But the process is, again, fairly predictable. It begins when, despite my actual values, I judge people on some preconscious or semiconscious level for their sexual “sins.” It is not completely clear who or what is getting judged—the actual person, the act, my own identification with the act? And it is not conceptual judgment, but a raw, conflicted and painful experience which morphs easily between anger and deep sadness. Judgment quickly expresses itself as the desire for punishment—mine and yours.

As soon as this desire appears, so too does judgment’s shadow, and the charge polarizes. The desire to punish sexuality is twisted inside out and enacted as sexual punishment itself—harder, faster, weirder, less personal, more pornographic. My experience transforms from sacred, to profane, to genuine decadence, and whether the shadow’s desires are enacted literally or not, the process has reproduced itself because I now have more raw material to judge, if only in myself. {59}

I am offering no new insights here. Only a reminder. It is telling that many in the Evangelical community cannot even see this process for the cliché it is. So I say this matter-of-factly: some of us have done things our parents could not even begin to imagine. Impurity has been enchanted with such horror. I wonder if the concept and experience of purity itself, when so relentlessly defined and controlled, can ever bear consistently healthy fruit. Or is the tree of knowledge always to be carved with lovers’ initials, and whitened with pesticides?

I’M NOT THE ONLY ONE

The effects of judgment, guilt, and fear are fruitful and multiply, and nowhere more fully than in our relationships. I see the fallout in my generation. People perpetually unattached, living through a series of disconnecting half-relationships, or attached in hollow relationships. Or, sadder still, opting out altogether, somehow just too tight, too fearful to connect. Those who cannot let go of judgment or guilt. Those who run away, over and over. Those who pretend they can make a clean break. Those who slide into dissipation and dissolution. Drug abuse. Alcoholism. Sex addiction.

Sometimes we compress our lives, with tight parameters for experience—“this is what I’m comfortable with, no more”—and inhabit almost surrogate forms of the Evangelical roles we have rejected, roles attenuated in order to avoid equal measures of joy and pain. I see us constructing lives that are fundamentally shallow. We will not admit to weakness. We relentlessly control personal information, guided by fear. We expend enormous gusts of energy trying to become detached observers of life who are wry, bemused, above it all. Who are we kidding?

We can never belong to the Evangelical community, yet never fully extricate ourselves from it either. We cannot resolve our disconnections within the Evangelical community and create new roles because those new roles would compromise the exclusivity of the religion and the literalness of the Bible. Most sadly, because of what we have learned, we can never fully connect with any other community and perhaps never fully with any other person. We live in a dark shadowland between communities. We are a generation of ghosts.

This condition is maintained and reproduced because we never talk about it, not even to ourselves. One reason, it seems to me, is that we have also inherited another Evangelical legacy, that of the unspoken and repressed which manifests a lack of genuine intimacy. Here my opinion may be most in conflict with the way the Evangelical community sees {60} itself, as a culture of sharing. But I have observed the unspoken many times, in church, at family gatherings, even, ironically, at the spectacle of “sharing sessions”: we don’t talk about certain things, and we don’t talk about why we don’t talk about them.

I have often wondered about this and can offer only speculations from “outside.” Perhaps the unspoken is conditioned by the very architecture of Evangelicalism which presupposes that at some point you need to do the trick of estranging yourself from yourself: surrendering, literally saying goodbye to an old self. You must believe in the miracle that Jesus erases the cracks inside. And you must estrange yourself from yourself many times, throughout life: each prayer for forgiveness is a small act of disconnection, a small goodbye. This may be healthy if you truly believe that your sinful self is not the true you anyway. But if you question this belief, then the act of confession becomes an act of self-alienation.

This is not something an Evangelical child ever admits to parents. Instead, we grow up in houses full of small secrets and forbidden fruit: high school dances we lie about, rock music we listen to at a friend’s, profanity we say at school, sexual feelings we don’t share. We hold a vast infrastructure of desires, doubts, and disillusionments deep inside where eventually they disappear from immediate awareness, only to erupt elsewhere.

GHOSTLY SECRETS

For those who finally reject the Evangelical tradition, this ghostly heritage of repression materializes in a predictable way: there are simply many things we can never tell our parents, even as adults—a vast ocean of unsaids, all conditioned by the threat of yet another disconnection, another small death of attempted intimacy, but also by the threat of destroying your parents with the knowledge they cannot hear, the knowledge that you are going to hell, as real to them as alienation is to you. I think that Evangelicalism cannot easily accommodate these truths for the very reason that Evangelicalism is too clear in its theological mandate, or, to put it in its shadow-form, too inflexible. Its source of strength is also its greatest weakness, as a generation of parents find they live in narrow glass houses that can only be shattered by renovations.

This is the final destination for those like me, the knowledge that we must remain islands, even to our own families, and that the legacy of judgment, fear, guilt, and alienation has a riptide that washes backwards to the previous generation. We see their pain, and despair of it, and are powerless to stop it. And the practical effect is a loss of intimacy {61} everywhere, across every generation.

There is no blame here. Nobody carried out some deliberate program of disconnection. The Evangelical worldview, when chosen as an adult, is radical and admirable. But when that worldview completely conditions an upbringing, its radical properties can sometimes be hazardous. Depending on your spirit’s compass, sometimes judgment, fear, and guilt are appropriate, do work, do have homeopathic properties.

Sometimes poison is the cure.

But sometimes poison is just poison.

Randall Schroeder grew up in a Mennonite church in southern Alberta, Canada. Since the original writing of “A Generation of Ghosts,” he has become a practicing Buddhist in the Burmese tradition, a practice he finds compatible with any religion, or none. He believes he has finally tasted the fruit of the spirit missing from his childhood.

Previous | Next