Monday, July 16, 2007

Interview with Gordon Lynch: "After Religion: 'Generation X' and the search for meaning"

Gordon Lynch is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Birkbeck College, University of London, and the author of four books addressing different aspects of religion, spirituality and contemporary culture. He has previously trained as a counsellor and taught counselling studies for four years, before moving on to lecture in practical theology at Birmingham University. He has a range of interests in contemporary culture, and also has a Masters’ degree in Art and Design History. He was the co-founder of the UK Research Network for Theology, Religion and Popular Culture and is co-chair of the Religion, Media and Culture group within the American Academy of Religion. His most recent book (just out in June) is The New Spirituality: An Introduction to Progressive Belief in the Twenty-First Century (IB Tauris, 2007).

Morehead's Musings: Gordon, thank you for agreeing to answer some questions for this interview. I was intrigued by your book After Religion: 'Generation X' and the search for meaning (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2002). You begin this book somewhat autobiographically as you share your own story of growing up Evangelical in the U.K. only to lose your faith. Can you summarize some of your personal story?

Gordon Lynch: It’s hard to summarise this briefly, but essentially like many other people, I found that the Evangelical culture that I lived in didn’t grow as my experience of myself and the world did. In my case, I became much more conscious of issues of suffering and how it was hard to reconcile what I heard and sang about God in the Church with the realities of many people’s lives. I totally accept that for some people these tensions can be resolved within the Evangelical tradition, or Christian faith more generally, but for me, once I’d started to question things I found that this eventually left me outside the mainstream of the Christian tradition. This was a slow process, taking several years to work through. In terms of where I am now, broadly speaking, the ideas that I’ve been writing about in The New Spirituality represent the religious milieu that I’m more comfortable with.

MM: Can you also tell us something about your academic background, where you received your training and what academic posts you have held and currently hold?

Gordon Lynch: Like many people interested in religion and contemporary culture, I’ve had quite an eclectic background with degrees in theology, counselling psychology and art/design history, from universities in Durham and Birmingham in the UK. I think that getting a handle on contemporary religion and culture demands an inter-disciplinary approach, and that sharp social analysis requires us to engage with theories and methods that we wouldn’t necessarily get simply on traditional theology degrees.

MM: In the book you set the social and cultural stage for the first chapter titled "After Religion?." Can you describe the differing attitudes to traditional religion and Christianity in the U.K. and the United States? And do you see any general trends towards the types of spirituality that people seem to be moving toward and experimenting with that might be at odds with traditional church experiences?

Gordon Lynch: This is a really big question. To put this briefly, in the USA there is much more residual connection to institutional religion in the UK. In the UK, only around 6% of the population attend church on a regular basis and this will probably fall a bit more for demographic reasons in the next couple of decades. People are also more likely to say that they are not religious (or spiritual) in the UK than they are in the USA. However, under the surface there may be more similarities. Two recent studies of youth attitudes to religion and spirituality – one in the USA, Soul Searching by Christian Smith and Melissa Denton, and one in the UK, Making Sense of Generation Y by Sara Savage et al – actually came up with very similar findings. These were that young people, regardless of what their formal connection to religion was, actually placed little emphasis on religion in their lives. In Smith and Denton’s terms, where young people did think about God, God featured as a divine therapist only to be sought out in times of trouble, and as someone who rewarded good people with heaven when they died. God or religion played little active role in these young people’s sense of meaning and identity – their sense of meaning and value seems to come from elsewhere.

In terms of spirituality beyond institutional religion, I’ve actually become much more sceptical about how widespread this is. The numbers of practising Wiccans and Pagans in the UK and USA are tiny, for example – probably just over 1% in the USA at most. Similarly when Heelas and Woodhead measured the number of people actively involved in alternative spiritualities in the town of Kendal in the UK (which has a relatively thriving alternative spirituality scene), they found that only 1.6% of the population were involved. I suspect that the reason why Mind-Body-Spirit sections of bookstores have grown is that people who buy books in that genre tend to buy lots of books of that kind. Similarly, surveys of bookstore genres suggest that there are roughly similar numbers of specialist alternative spirituality bookstores to specialist comic bookstores. In terms of the wider population, these are pretty minor scenes. I suspect that in the UK, the default position is for people not to be interested in spirituality at all, and in the USA where people are interested in spirituality they’re most likely to combine with this some form of Christianity (albeit it mixed in with some elements from other traditions).

MM: You point out in your book that "Generation X" is often defined by a certain age range through date of birth. But you take exception to this. Can you briefly describe the influences on your thinking here and touch on your suggestion that Gen X might more helpfully be thought of as a mindset? And can you summarize the various qualities that you see exemplifying Gen X?

Gordon Lynch: I’m personally not sure how useful the term Generation X is now, because it’s too in-grained in people’s minds as a description of a particular generational cohort (i.e. ‘baby-busters’ born between the early 1960’s and late 1970’s). My scepticism about this was fuelled when I read an interview with Douglas Coupland (the author of the novel Generation X in which he lamented the way in which a certain ironic, detached yet longing approach to life that he portrayed came to be depicted as the attitude of a whole generational group. I wrote After Religion at quite an early stage of my thinking about these issues, and I wouldn’t even talk in terms of a "Generation X" set of attitudes now. People are more complex than this, and its probably more of a priority for missiologists to think about the very different ways in which people find meaning, value and purpose in life – and the spiritual horizons they construct for themselves – rather than trying to construct generalized patterns of ideas and values. Having said that, Ronald Inglehart’s work on post-materialist values is worth thinking about as a reflection of a contemporary shift in values, as in Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead’s work on the turn to the self in their book, The Spiritual Revolution.

MM: In one section of the book you talk about the post-evangelicals and the emergents within evangelicalism. Why do you see this as an important facet of late modernity and the Gen X mindset?

Gordon Lynch: In After Religion, I was trying to describe an approach to faith which was critical, sceptical of pre-packaged ideas, yet also wanting to find forms of meaning that connected with contemporary cultural life. These emphases definitely underpin the currents that led to Dave Tomlinson publishing his very influential book The Post-Evangelical in the mid-1990’s in the UK, and we’ve also seen these concerns coming more to prominence in the USA in the emerging church movement of recent years. I think it’s not surprising that if people engage with advanced educational resources and a media critical of received truths, then these emphases will be brought into the life of faith communities. This has got to be a good thing. One of the underlying points in my book Losing My Religion? is that churches can sometimes not be good environments for adult learners, in which they are able to connect their changing experiences with their religious context. If churches want people to think exactly the same thing in ten years time as they think now, then they close down people’s capacity for ongoing reflection and development, and this is intellectually and emotionally stifling.

MM: In the past I read Tom Beaudoin's book Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X (Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998). You interact with Beaudoin as you discuss the relationship between Gen X and popular culture, but you disagree with his thesis that popular culture serves as a "Scriptural text". Can you describe your view in contrast with Beaudoin's, and how might we properly recognize the significance of popular culture and the role it plays in the social and spiritual expressions of Gen X?

Gordon Lynch: My criticism of Virtual Faith there was that Tom had moved too quickly from his own interpretations of popular culture to assuming that this was how other people would interpret popular culture as well. There are problems with this, though. For example, I used to set a classroom assignment in which students would watch the video of REM’s "Losing My Religion" and then read Tom’s interpretation of it. Hardly any of them interpreted it in the same way that Tom did. This shows that, as scholars, we need to be careful that what seems to us to be obvious readings of popular culture may not be obvious to other people. In academic terms this has led to growing interest in the "turn to the audience"; actually going out and studying what sense and uses people make of popular culture, and not assuming for instance that just because there are religious symbols in The Matrix trilogy that people who watch those films actually see any religious significance in them. This can be a big shift for people trained theologically who are used to interpreting texts, rather than studying what audiences actually do with those texts, but it’s a really important area to develop. Incidentally, I know Tom well and it’s worth saying that he wrote Virtual Faith when he was doing his MA, which was an amazing achievement. Tom agrees with that criticism about the lack of attention to audiences in Virtual Faith. I think he’s also one of the most innovative and interesting young theologians working in the USA today.

MM: In the final chapter you discuss the place of God and traditional religion such as Christianity in relation to Gen X. You mention how many have moved beyond a consumerist approach to spirituality and now seek "to live with a sense of meaning, value and mystery." Can you describe the alternative approach to thinking about God that you discuss in this chapter and how this differs from a traditional Christian conception and an atheistic view as polar opposites?

Gordon Lynch: I think what I was suggesting there was that some people are drawn to a mystical faith, grounded in their experience of nature and the body, rather than to atheism or more orthodox, doctrinal religion. It’s an idea that’s developed much more fully in David Tacey’s book, The Spirituality Revolution. I have to say, now, that I think that’s slightly wishful thinking on my part. When I subsequently developed more research on the mainstream club scene, I found very little evidence of this mystical spirituality, and more evidence of a general concern with personal development and well-being, and the quality of friendships and intimate relations. As I’ve suggested earlier, interest in spirituality beyond institutional religion is a relatively small cultural scene. I might be sympathetic to it, but numerically it’s not huge.

MM: How has your thinking developed since the book After Religion was written?

Gordon Lynch: I think some of the previous answers will touch on this. One thing is that I’ve developed a much greater regard for paying attention to the fruits of empirical research. Theologians and missiologists are too often guilty of making broad claims about cultural changes and patterns without looking to see whether empirical data actually supports these claims or not. This is a shame, as it means that some theological truisms (e.g., about post-modern culture) fail to do justice to the complex ways in which different people live their lives today, and fail to account for how different social variable and structures shape the horizons within which people live their lives. In a similar vein, I hope I’ve learned to separate out what I wish was happening in the contemporary religious landscape from what is actually happening. I think I’ve also become more cautious about how easy communication is between religious and secular views, and in my next bit of work I want to try to encourage some more constructive dialogue there than is currently taking place, courtesy of Richard Dawkins, etc.

MM: Gordon, again, thank you for taking the time for this interview. You have given readers a lot to think about as they attempt to live out a spiritually meaningful life in the late modern West, and there is much here for evangelical reflection as well.

Gordon: Thanks John, pleasure to take time for this.

1 comment:

Matt Stone said...

Though provoking John.