Tara Isabella Burton’s wonderful ‘Strange Rites’ charts some of the wide array of movements among Millennials that are taking on religious character.
The book takes us on a journalistic tour of some examples of ‘pick & mix’ religion before describing three movements that Burton describes as religions. I’ll briefly outline them below, but the book deserves a wide reading. She doesn’t draw conclusions but helps you get inside the head of the way people in our cities—and to some extent our churches—are thinking and feeling.
She writes about Millennials in the US, and we’ll return to the applicability of her work, but the overarching story is that just like the printing press was not just a contributing factor to the rise of Protestantism but deeply affected its character (it’s a religion of books), the internet is doing the same thing.
It remains to be seen if we get another major stream of Christianity developing. What we have got are endless moulding and changing sets of beliefs that can be bolted together to form ways of life. To give us: meaning, community, ritual and purpose. That’s the definition of religion she’s working with, a semi-unified set of beliefs and practices that hit those four buttons. It’s not that different from what I mean when I talk about story though that is more explicitly the meaning and purpose sections of her definition.
Burton calls this bolt-on approach ‘intuitional’ religion as opposed to ‘institutional’. Strange Rites shows us that it’s an American invention that predates the internet but has been turbo-charged by it. I would contend the internet has also spread it around the world and beyond Millennials to the first supra-national generation: Gen Z.
Burton outlines three new religious movements vying for dominance, none of which would call itself a religion but at least two of which are widely described in religious terms in cultural comment:
Social Justice Movement
Or, if you’ll forgive the terrible pun, the “Great Awokening”. The intersecting movements and concerns that want to see racial, economic, sexual, and political justice. The precise definitions of justice morph and meld with time, but it tells a story that we need to make a better world. There is a desire to create a paradise where everyone enjoys the fruits of an equal society (who wouldn’t want that?) and narratives of punishment and repentance for wrongdoers. Redemption is found through the transformation of culture.
Notably for Christian observers there is no language of forgiveness, and it is materialist in every way.
Blending with ‘Transhumanism’ or other similar movements. Harder to notice and with less adherents, the followers of this movements are particularly powerful as they are associated with Silicon Valley and ‘Big Tech’. Think Elon Musk and Peter Thiel. The story here is to transcend our bodies’ limitations through ever-increasing uses of technology. Redemption is found in new ‘bodies’.
Again, this is entirely materialist in outlook. While the Social Justice Movement is loudest in the discourse, the Techno-Utopians probably have the biggest effect on our daily lives. Look for example at how your phone is changing you.
Firmly opposed to the previous to, and with crossover with the ‘Alt-Right’ and ‘Red-Pill’ movements, Burton tries to draw a big tent that stretches from Jordan B. Peterson to actual Fascists. Often pitched to Christians as the culture war allies we need against the previous dangers (spoiler alert: please no), this is broadly a story that cultural progressivism is contrary to Human Nature, and our Nature will out in the end. This is typically expressed in ways that mimic naturalism and its most extreme can tend to ‘blood and soil’.
We might happily note the spectre of natural law, but this tends to be an entirely materialist approach to it. Again.
Assessing the new religions
Most takes on this oppose Christianity to one of these, but we should note two things. Firstly, Christianity is opposed to every single one of them. Jesus brooks no rivals. Secondly, each contains truth. Did you notice how each story mirrored the true story but only in part? Our nature does matter, as does natural law. We will be transformed into something beyond it, and there is better kingdom with a better culture awaiting us. The stories are convincing because they contain elements of truth. All good lies do.
I’m particularly interested in the extent to which these trends are present in the UK and among Generation Z. It’s hard to assess with data, and hopefully someone does the work (or thinks it would be interesting to pay me to do the work!), but my inclination would be that all three of these are present to some extent.
I also think they’re present in our churches. Lots of our people will follow elements of these various movements. That, in and of itself, may not even be a problem. Not everything each movement ‘teaches’, if we can speak that way, is wrong. They contain some truth. The problem comes if we aren’t equipped to sift the truth. Dear friends, we aren’t.
The second problem comes when we follow them religiously. It’s easiest to see with the Social Justice Movement because its louder, but I’ve heard Techno-Utopianism expressed in my church too. I think the Atavism is more likely to keep its head down, but it will be present.
The third problem is when we realise that we ourselves are being catechised by one or all of these. If you are reading this, and someone didn’t print it on paper and hand it to you, you probably are being. If you’re reading it on a phone, you almost certainly are being. What we have to begin to grapple with is what counter-formation to these cultural forces—these powers and principalities—looks like.
What does it look like?
I think part of the answer is telling better stories. Bet you weren’t expecting that.
If we start to tell the old story better, and in ways that are deliberately and specifically aimed at the stories these movements promulgate then it will win. It always has. There’s a reason that every good story when boiled right down looks like a prince who kills a dragon at great cost to win a princess. That’s the story of the Universe. That’s the gospel.
If when saying that I sound dangerously like Jordan B. Peterson and so make myself out to be an Atavist, here’s the key difference: Atavism says you need to be the prince. While not terrible advice, that isn’t the foundational story of the Universe. Before you’re the prince you need to be the princess.
The other part is this: we have to act like St. Boniface and chop down Thor’s tree. That’s the part we aren’t so good at: finding the narratives and artifacts of these stories and cutting them into pieces, before planting a ‘Jesus tree’ in their place to help reform our people towards the Lord.