Boomer Legacy?

July 30th, 2007

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Wise elders?
In the July-August Harvard Business Review, Neil Howe and William Strauss suggest that generations born after a great war or other crisis tend to “grow up as increasingly indulged children, come of age as the narcissistic young crusaders of a spiritual awakening, cultivate principles as moralistic midlifers, and emerge as wise elders.”1 So far, Baby Boomers have mastered indulgence, narcissism and moralism. But “wise elders?” This might require reframing our view of faith, fame and forever.

To be fair, Baby Boomers have an enviable record. We are impressive entrepreneurs; generating significant work opportunities, expanding the economy, creating enormous wealth and helping lift millions of people worldwide out of poverty. But many of us who profess to follow Christ have done it by narrowing faith to good feelings, fame to personal gain and forever to pie-in-the-sky. We ought to reframe all three.

First, our faith ought to garner fame from serving others, not ourselves. To date, Baby Boomer Christianity is mostly about “seeking inner life, self-perfection, and deeper meaning.”2 It’s a self-centered faith where we first ensure our needs are met, our homes well appointed and our kids’ educational costs covered (we’re “helicopter parents” – always hovering over our kids). We then give out of our surplus, not our sacrifice.

To be fair, we were told we’re the center of the universe. Boomers began as feed-on-demand Dr. Spock babies. Then it was milk trucks and diaper services in the 50s. Boomers dictated TV programming (sorry about Mod Squad), music and college life in the 60s and 70s. We sanctioned “greed is good” in the 80s, bankrupting the environment and economy. Today, we push for “carbon-neutral lifestyles” while buying carbon offsets so that our cars, toys and homes don’t count against our carbon footprint. We’re famous for moralizing about self-denial. But that generally kicks in after self-fulfillment.

Second, our faith ought to garner more fame from God, not just our friends. In the ancient Judeo-Christian faith, fame is a good thing. Baby Boomers get it half right in yearning for recognition. Its part of our human DNA and why Jesus’ disciples only argued over one thing: who is the greatest?3 Boomers are ahead of C.S. Lewis, who was initially repulsed by the idea of fame. In his famous 1942 sermon titled “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis imagined fame to be a competitive passion “of hell rather than heaven.”

When I began to look into this matter I was shocked to find such different Christians as Milton, Johnson and Thomas Aquinas taking heavenly glory quite frankly in the sense of fame or good report. But not fame conferred by our fellow creatures – fame with God, approval or (I might say) “appreciation” by God. And then, when I had thought it over, I saw that this view was scriptural; “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.4

Half right about fame, Boomers are half wrong about how it is gained. It’s not only by climbing a ladder but holding it for others. Jesus unambiguously cleared up the disciples’ argument about greatness: serve others and be prepared to suffer.5 Serving others and sacrificing our own comforts earns genuine fame. This is why Howe and Strauss fear that Boomer pontificating about self-denial will ring hollow. “To be sure, much of it will be symbolic only… aging Boomers will glorify the virtues of self-denial but personally maintain (to the extent their incomes allow) their creature-comfort indulgence.”6

Third, we need to postpone more of our fame for a later date. Again, Boomers are half right in longing for recognition and reward. We’re half wrong in wanting it this side of heaven. Our desire for reward is too weak or watered down, as C.S. Lewis reminded us:

Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.7

Jesus says we can enjoy our rewards now or postpone enjoying them until the new heavens and earth. It’s our choice. Jesus is not stingy. We can have our fifteen minutes of fame (as Andy Warhol put it) or delay our deepest delights for eternal enjoyment. It’s actually a tension – we can enjoy much of life now and be pleased forever. The most famous and recognized will be those who served and sacrificed the most. To date, our legacy as Baby Boomers is indulgence, narcissism and moralism. If we are to emerge as wise elders, our view of faith, fame and forever ought to migrate from Boomer biases to a more biblical Christianity.

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1 Neil Howe and William Strauss, “The Next Twenty Years: How Customer and Workforce Attitudes will Evolve,” Harvard Business Review, July-August 2007, p.45
2 Howe and Strauss, p.43
3 C.f. Luke 9:46-48 and Luke 22:24-30\
4 “The Weight of Glory” was originally preached by C.S. Lewis as a sermon in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, on June 8, 1942: published in THEOLOGY, November, 1941, and by the S.P.C.K, 1942
5 C.f. Luke 9:46-48 and Luke 22:24-30. Over 12 times in these two chapters alone, betrayal, suffering and death are associated with serving.
6 Howe and Strauss, p.47
7 C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”

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