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Young and Looking for Religion

Jason Zengerle has a really worthwhile piece posted at TNR online (subscription required, I think) in which he details the growing number of converts to the Orthodox Church in the US, a large number of which are former Evangelicals. He charts a … Read More

By / August 28, 2007

Jason Zengerle has a really worthwhile piece posted at TNR online (subscription required, I think) in which he details the growing number of converts to the Orthodox Church in the US, a large number of which are former Evangelicals. He charts a general disillusionment with the materialism, politics, and anti-intellectualism of the Evangelical church that has a lot of younger believers turning to the Orthodox Church: 

 This is an appealing idea, particularly to younger Orthodox converts who view evangelicalism as corrupted by the generation born right after World War II. "Baby boomers had an overweening confidence that our creativity and spontaneity was fascinating and rich," says Frederica Mathewes-Greene, a one-time charismatic Episcopalian who's now a prominent Orthodox speaker and author. "The following generation sees it as not all that rich. They find the decades of the rock band onstage performing songs kind of shallow. They're looking past their parents for something earlier."

 In the past year, two friends of mine, both from reform (if that) Jewish families, have graduated rabbinical school and, to the confusion and chagrin of their parents, become conservative rabbis. Along with Zengerle's article, I think this too hints at a nascent conservatism in my generation that is not so much political as it is private and personal. It's not necessarily at odds with political liberalism, though I think that's because one aspect of it is a disillusionment, if not a disgust, with political promises (which is often then realized as a sort of reactionarily willed ignorance). Zengerle writes of one young convert:

 But it wasn't just the foreignness of the Orthodox Church; it was its bigness that appealed to DeRenzo, as well. Indeed, as she continued to talk, it became clear that, as an evangelical, she had felt very small and alone. It was a surprising sentiment to hear from someone about the evangelical movement. After all, ever since the rise of the Moral Majority, American evangelicals have arguably been the most politically powerful religious group in the country. But perhaps the most telling revelation of the Orthodox conversion trend is that this political power has not translated into a sense of spiritual power–or belonging. For these converts, it seems, the Orthodox Church has solved the unbearable lightness of being evangelical. "When I was in [an evangelical church], I was thinking, This is great, I love this,'" DeRenzo said. "But I thought, and I don't mean to be morbid, but eventually some day this pastor is going to die or I'm going to move away, so if this is the only place in the world where the truth is, that's tragic." DeRenzo paused and looked around the sanctuary at the icons and the candles. She went on, "Coming to the Orthodox Church means that I am in communion with that church no matter where I am in the world, that I can go into that church wherever I am and have the same liturgy and celebrate the same way. I'll be in communion with other people. And that is so huge. That hugeness is so exciting."

 In truth, I think that the thirst for this "hugeness" is much more evident in the careerism, obsession with dating and marriage, and general "life plans"–which evoke an undynamic and conformist conservatism more in tune with the political Evangelical brand–that mark my generation than in any sort of general turn towards a deeper, more meaningful, more individual religious experience rooted in the authority of tradition. Still, it has me rethinking my initial contempt for my ex-hebrew school buddies turned conservative rabbis, though also wondering whether their new conservatism (which lets them wear NY Yankee yarmulkes) shouldn't be considered next to the more drastic, and, arguably, subversive, turns towards Orthodoxy. 

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