Walker Percy and the Millennials

We millennials are the ultimate products of the postmodern project. We are the children of the screen, the device. We are in constant flux, ever-entranced by the new and the expedient. And yet we’re also besieged by meaningless academic or vocational competition. Success is all about results and nothing more. Our world, as British philosopher Roger Scruton often says, can be defined as a “tyranny of the present.” It echoes Pope Benedict XVI’s condemnation of the “dictatorship of relativism.”

The cult of materialism which so dominates the culture is the only thing many of us know. It is inherited from our parents who were also raised in a relatively secular culture. Thus, faith is often alien to us.

And many of us are scared. We’re afraid of boredom, failure. And we’re also terrified of this being all there is. How else does one explain the popularity of Drake’s “The Motto”, which popularized the now-ubiquitous phrase YOLO (you only live once)?

If you’re going to live only once, then it is understandable that you would act a little wild and crazy—hooking up, drinking too much, worshipping the impermanent.

Faith in anything else is so distant to the lives of many young people—which is why, in a recent “Word on Fire” video, Fr. Robert Barron said that effective evangelization should begin with introducing people to the beautiful. We millennials can become blinkered when we hear about the Church in a more direct way—after all, we’re ‘spiritual, but not religious.’

Fr. Barron asserted that Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited can offer the faithful “a very intriguing program for evangelization that has particular relevance to our time.”

I’d like to suggest that the works of Walker Percy also fit that category—and I think they are of particular relevance to my generation.

I grew up around the Church. But, to echo a priest friend of mine, my family and I weren’t  holy rollers. Still, God was often there. I participated in all of the sacraments—First Communion, Reconciliation, Confirmation—and I attended CCD. Around high school, however, I started drifting away. I declared myself a strange combination of Catholic and Deist, and I often repeated the secularist phrases of the day—since we eat eggs, abortion isn’t bad—that were fed to me by the culture. I was even an atheist for a few days, because I wondered:  Why do bad things happen? Since they do, God, therefore, must not exist. Of course, I quickly recanted this statement. Catholic guilt, even for the one who has drifted away, works wonders.

After high school I attended a Catholic liberal arts college, where I studied politics and literature. It was here my faith was reawakened. I drank fully the nectars of the Catholic intellectual tradition. It, as I like to joke, opened my mind—without the help of LSD. I also participated in Campus Ministry. And the retreats they offered demonstrated to me the power of faith to move people. I’m not sure exactly when—and I know it was a combination of all of these things—but I was soon captured by God.

I haven’t looked back.

I recognize that many aren’t so lucky. Some get pulled into the quicksand of modern culture without realizing they are in danger. Others cannot hear God over the constant static. And then there are those who turn away.

So I return to Percy.

His novels are based on a simple premise. They are a search for an answer to the great question that rests in the hearts and minds of all men: why? His characters, like us, are wanderers. Let’s take Binx Bolling, the protagonist of Percy’s The Moviegoer, which won the National Book Award.

Binx is someone who spends his time either bedding female coworkers or going to the movies. He is also a man of science. And he’s successful; he makes money working as a stock-broker.

But none of this gives him happiness. He also notices that most of the people he encounters are worse than unhappy—they are, in fact, barely alive. Binx observes:

For some time now the impression has been growing upon me that everyone is dead.

It happens when I speak to people. In the middle of a sentence it will come over me: yes, beyond a doubt this is death. There is little to do but groan and make an excuse and slip away as quickly as one can.

This, I would argue, describes the state of far too many in the millennial generation. We find vices and devices and new, yet fleeting things rapturous because our souls are decaying. We cannot live without God. The latest cultural trend is not a substitute.

Binx recognizes this too, and so he began to search. On this he said:

What is the nature of the search? you ask. Really it is very simple, at least for a fellow like me; so simple that it is easily overlooked. The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. This morning, for example, I felt as if I had come to myself on a strange island. And what does such a cast away do? Why he pokes around the neighborhood and he doesn’t miss a trick. To become aware of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.

We all—with our various obsessions and interests and quirks—are searching. We hope that the latest episode of “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” will lift us into the transcendent. Once such shows are cancelled we move onto something else.

The hookup culture doesn’t only define late-night flings.

At the end of the novel, Binx begins to realize that faith alone can bring him eternal joy—and nothing else.

If guided appropriately, the millennial generation might cease its ironic postmodernism and instead fall into the loving embrace of Christ.

After all, Binx Bolling woke up. We can, too.

Jon Bishop, 24, lives and writes in Wilmington, MA.