Part Augustine’s Confessions, part sociological treatise, part scriptural explication, and part source book for Christianity 101, Jeremy Langford’s God Moments sets out to both speak for and speak to a generation that seemingly is as interested in spirituality as it is uninterested in setting foot inside a church.
The unifying thread is Langford, the 32-year-old editorial director for Sheed & Ward publishing company currently pursuing a master’s in theology at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, who tells his own unabashedly Catholic story, weaving it around studies and statistics chronicling the attitudes of Generation X, the writings of great theological thinkers and mystics, and his personal experiences with both peers and famous men of God—most notably the late Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago.
Noting that his generation hungers for personal experience of God while remaining skeptical of institutions, he presents himself as both apologist for and link to the wisdom of the church, making the point that those who seek, rebel, and question have always had a vital role to play.
Langford leads by pointing out that his generation came of age in an era when institutions began to crumble as they focused more on their own needs than on those of the people they served, creating a “culture of divorce” of which the author gives a heartbreakingly personal example, telling the story of when, as a 10-year-old boy struggling with the feelings surrounding his parents’ recent divorce, a playmate referred to his situation as a “broken home” and sent him into an emotional tailspin. These failings—of the family, corporations, government, and the church—gave shape to the yearnings of the youth of his era, and Langford spells them out for the reader in the form of four key hungers (healthy personal identity, intimacy in relationships, meaningful work, and life-giving spirituality) and four key qualities of the Gen Xer’s search (suspicion about institutions, emphasis on personal spiritual experience, the need to make sense of the suffering they feel they’ve undergone, and comfort in ambiguity).
As the elements of the story intermingle, the case is made that these “slackers” are actually seekers, and Langford lays claim to the heritage of Galileo and Ignatius, innovators who clashed with the institutions of their day, as he seeks to bring the Gen Xer’s search for authenticity in an era of duplicity into the church. Diving into explication, he styles Jesus’s question to his disciples in the Gospel According to John—“What do you seek?”—as a quest for one’s authentic self, and then turns the tables on a generation seemingly obsessed with self-definition, gradually leading the reader to the conclusion that, within the safety of a seeking institution, the quest for self-awareness inevitably gives way to seeking God’s will and, with time, practice, and the richness of the “Catholic imagination,” a sacramental way of living one’s life—the realization that we seek a God who has already found us.
Most moving are the descriptions of life transformed by seeing things through the lens of mature spirituality. Returning to John, we are reminded of Jesus’s invitation to “Come and see,” and Langford speaks to the depth of understanding that emerges as one dives deep into Christian life. He is at his strongest as he confronts the dark night of the soul, describing not only his own moments of confusion and despair, but those of Terry Anderson, a reporter who was taken hostage by radical Shiite Muslims in 1985 and found his faith in captivity, and of Cardinal Bernardin. Bernardin faced false charges of sexual abuse, which he met with honesty and courage, and afterwards sought and achieved reconciliation with his accuser. Langford worked closely with Bernardin during the final months of his life and shares, in a powerful, moving series of anecdotes illustrating six spiritual principles, the insights the cardinal imparted.
Despite its flaws (questions are sometimes begged, a few non sequitur arguments are forwarded, and Langford’s anecdotes are occasionally tedious when placed alongside passages from the great works of Christian thought), the sheer enthusiasm of Langford’s work is what convinces. He is very much a man of his generation, and his “God moments”—interactions that lead to spiritual clarity—are inviting and refreshing. The reader cannot help but be impressed with a young man who is able to share not only the twists and turns of his spiritual path, but to set them in the context of his much-misunderstood generation while at the same time anchoring them in the wisdom of his faith tradition.