Do you ever use the word “cheesy?” Well, you’d better not use it in the presence of Patty Jenkins, the director of the blockbuster film Wonder Woman. When a New York Times reporter used the word during a recent interview Jenkins replied, “[c]heesy is one of the words banned in my world. I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of.”
“When artists, who are supposed to speak freely, are afraid to be earnest and do beauty and sincerity, you’ve got a serious problem on your hands,” she said in a different interview. “Cheesy makes people afraid to be emotional. And I won’t have it.”
But why would people feel that expressing genuine emotion is “cheesy?” Aren’t such expressions valued today, when people seek to be authentic, experiential, and self-affirming individuals? After all, the call for the free expression of emotion is as old as eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Romanticism, and as current as contemporary therapy and self-help groups. But Jenkins’ exasperation indicates that something else is going on. And it’s something that should make religious people sit up and take notice.
Underlying Jenkins’ position is the current tension between the desire for emotional authenticity, and the cynical stance of the postmodern ethos. In a postmodern thought-world -– which has reigned for many decades now — cynicism and irony dominate. In this world, beliefs are “detraditioned” and “deconstructed.” All institutions become suspect. And the common assumption is that self-interest and power-plays are hidden behind nearly every deliberate action.
In that kind of climate, honest emotion, being earnest, searching for beauty, and being sincere can be squashed in an instant. All it takes is a skeptical, derisive look, an ironic comment, or to have one’s expression dismissed as “cheesy.” In fact, almost anyone who expresses longing, hope, or honest emotion is in danger of being accused of what I like to call “delusions of utopia.” In other words, you can’t get there from here. There is no better world awaiting us; “it is what it is.”
For most of us, this is a hard way to live. To get a break, some people retreat into nostalgia. They wistfully look back to a prior age where they assume values were shared, people knew their neighbors, and trust prevailed. Think about the popularity of feel-good Turner Classic Movies, old sitcoms, and vintage 1950s furnishings. While this longing might be a romanticizing of the past (and that critique is, in itself, very postmodern), it does reveal something important.
Millennials, who have grown up in a thoroughly post-modern world, may be getting weary of it all. Many now search for authenticity, simplicity, experience, and genuine emotion.This new trend could be called “meta-modernism,” as Linda Ceriello suggests in a paper she presented at the 2015 American Academy of Religion. This meta-modernist move would not totally abandon the postmodern stance but would go beyond it. As Ceriello says, young people may be emerging “out from under the thumb of hyper-relativization, irony, and deconstructive doubt.”
In my hundreds of interviews with “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) people, I hear that they are looking for another way to be spiritual. These SBNRs are searching for a heartfelt way to recognize human vulnerability, even celebrate it, and yet progress spiritually. Most important, they expect to find the sacred in the ordinary. This may be a “re-enchantment” of the world or a return to the merging of sacred and secular, where religion and society are not conceived as two different spheres.
On the surface, this trend may seem a challenge to traditional religion, since SBNRs feel no need for the organizational structures of religion, such as churches and synagogues. But I’d like to suggest, instead, that the trend could be good news. It reveals that spiritual longing cannot be suppressed, perhaps even among the most jaded hipsters.
In his book A Secular Age, philosopher Charles Taylor sketched out just such a possibility. Taylor looks around him and sees religious communities living into an era of numerical decline, where many think we are moving towards the complete secularization of society. (Some would argue we’re already there.) In such a world, religion may still exist, but it simply becomes a “lifestyle” choice, or a niche market—quite a downgrade from the days when religion was a, if not the, central organizing force within society.
At the same time, Taylor indicates that we are also moving into a new age of religious seeking. Many today are “seeking a kind of unity and wholeness of the self, a reclaiming of the place of feeling,” Taylor remarks, and he proceeds to paint a picture of a new “contemporary form of spiritual quest.”
Although no one can predict the direction this new seeking will take, I contend the outcome will be deeply affected by how religious people respond. If the church presses upon members and newcomers either a highly rigid or a rather vague theology, SBNRs will probably not be attracted. If the church survives by functioning mostly as a social service agency or an affinity community — with little emphasis on the “why” of these manifestations — SBNRs might appreciate the effort, but are still unlikely to participate. Instead the church must reform both its theology and its practices, while making space for genuine emotion.
Before jumping in, however, remember that engagement, no matter how well-intentioned, won’t be effective until we understand this emerging context. There are some preliminary steps we need to take on this journey: We must do some close observation, including serious consideration of popular culture. We need to practice compassionate listening to the concerns and goals of SBNRs. And, most important, we need the willingness to engage the very real theological issues SBNRs express. In doing these things, we will position ourselves to appreciate the opportunities and needs in the emerging meta-modernist ethos.
Engaging with SBNRs will not necessarily be pew-filling and budget enhancing, but it might have another important potential. It may call us back to the depths and roots of our faith, prompt us to share this good news, and most important, help us to live it. And there is nothing “cheesy” about lives well-lived, infused with the Holy Spirit.