What do millennials want from religion? Three shows have the answer.

A few years ago I interviewed the lyricist-composer Dave Malloy, who had adapted a section of Tolstoy’s War and Peace into the Broadway electropop opera “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.” In the opera, the emotional underpinning of the depressed aristocrat Pierre Bezukhov’s life is not the relationship between him and Hélène, his estranged wife, or between Pierre and his unrequited crush, Natasha, but between him and God. “How did I live?” Pierre sings in his defining solo. “Was I kind enough and good enough?”

Back in 2013, during the first Off Broadway run of “Comet,” a character experiencing a religious crisis felt revolutionary, even transgressive. But in the six years since, more and more media aimed at millennials is getting serious about life’s Big Questions. Characters are increasingly likely to worry not just about their romantic prospects, but about their spiritual ones. The most affecting of today’s dramas are about the relationship between human beings and the infinite: a conflict between ordinary mortals and a God more and more of us do not even know how to conceive of, let alone engage with. Think “Good Omens,” “Santa Clarita Diet” or “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.”

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“Hadestown,” “The Good Place” and “Fleabag” tackle life’s big questions.

While at least 40 percent of millennials claim no religion, 72 percent of America’s religiously unaffiliated still believe in a Higher Power, a Great Something. The quintessential millennial experience is not asking whether to believe in something; it is asking what, exactly, are we meant to believe in. While millennials have all too often been accused of solipsism and selfishness—we all come out from underneath Lena Dunham’s rompers—our latest crop of millennial-focused media betrays both moral seriousness and moral curiosity. More and more characters are wrestling with the same question that defined Pierre’s search: How can you be good enough when you’re not even sure what good is?

Among the most on-the-nose dramatizations of this quest is the NBC series “The Good Place,” which follows the postmortem adventures of an admitted dirtbag, Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), as she navigates the titular Good Place: a heaven-like suburbia she believes she has been admitted to by mistake. By the close of the series’ first season, we learn that Eleanor isn’t in the Good Place at all, but rather—along with her newfound friend and love interest, the moral philosophy professor Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper)—in a beta test of a new Bad Place that is designed to prove the Sartrean truism that hell is, indeed, other people. Over the course of the subsequent two seasons (a fourth and final season is yet to air), Eleanor and Chidi not only try to escape to the real Good Place but also try to help others get into the Good Place. Disheartened by the realization that seemingly nobody gets into the Good Place (being a truly good person all of the time, it transpires, is all but impossible), they try to bargain with the powers that be. Maybe people can’t always be perfect, they say, but they can get better.

While at least 40 percent of millennials claim no religion, 72 percent of America’s religiously unaffiliated still believe in a Higher Power, a Great Something.

While Eleanor and Chidi’s budding romance makes up a part of the show, it consistently takes a back seat to their friendship—and, in particular, the way the two of them act as what Aristotle once called friends of virtue, encouraging one another to become better people. Eleanor becomes less selfish. Chidi stops spiraling into self-indulgent neurosis.

There isn’t much of a theology, as such, in “The Good Place.” The metaphysical architecture of the afterlife—hell, demons, torture, judges—is structured for comic effect, not spiritual seriousness. The viewing audience is implicitly expected to find the idea of an everlasting hell implausible, and therefore funny. But what “The Good Place”does have, in abundance, is a sense of moral seriousness that takes place in a thematically, if not narratively, godless world. The real question “The Good Place”asks is not what will the afterlife be like, but how do we live if there probably isn’t one? Among the most affecting narrative arcs of the show takes place in its third season, when Chidi and Eleanor are given another chance at life on earth but (erroneously) think that they’re doomed to the Bad Place no matter what they do. Rather than indulge in hedonism (for Eleanor) and anxiety-spiraling (for Chidi), they decide to use their time on earth to save as many other people from the Bad Place as possible and make a Good Place here on earth.

Both “Fleabag” and “The Good Place” are stories about characters’ relationships not just with one another, but with their idealselves.

That same combination of moral hunger and spiritual uncertainty defines the British television show “Fleabag.”The two-season story of the titular, chain-smoking, compulsively sexual millennial wreck (Phoebe Waller-Bridge, also the show’s writer and creator), “Fleabag”culminates in a wrenching affair between Fleabag and a young, attractive priest (Andrew Scott). What starts out as just another “Fleabag”-patented misadventure—of coursethe self-sabotaging Fleabag would fall for the most emotionally unavailable man of all—turns into a delicate meditation on what it means to love another person for the better and what it means to love at all.

Fleabag thinks  she’s in love with the priest. But as the second season progresses, she comes to another epiphany. “I want someone to tell me what to wear every morning,” she admits to the priest, right there in the confessional. “I want someone to tell me what to eat. What to like, what to hate, what to rage about…what to not joke about. I want someone to tell me what to believe in.” The story of Fleabagis not the story of her relationship with the priest. Nor is it, exactly, the story of her relationship with God. When we leave Fleabag, she is still wandering off the beaten track of faith. But like “The Good Place,” the series is fundamentally the story of a woman wrestling with the Big Questions in what seems to be a godless world. At their core, both “Fleabag” and “The Good Place” are stories about characters’ relationships not just with one another, but with their idealselves: flawed people learning to be good people.

They are stories about the perennial need for  religion—and about the millennial uncertainty about what that religion will look like.

So too “Hadestown,” the Tony Award–winning Broadway musical by Anais Mitchell that has been hailed as a spiritual (and financial) successor to the smash hit “Hamilton.” A modern-day retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, set in a railroad town reminiscent of old-school New Orleans that sits alongside the track “to hell,” “Hadestown” focuses less on the relationship between its two (relatively thinly drawn) lovers than on what it means for Orpheus to see and enact goodness in the world.

In this version, the mythic bard is working on a song beautiful enough to bring back spring, long absent from the town. Orpheus’s pursuit of that one song—something beautiful enough not just to soften Hades’s heart to restore spring (and implicitly Eurydice, trapped in the underworld), but to make the world “as it should be”—grounds our emotional experience. Orpheus’s final, triumphant love song isn’t to anyone, but rather for everyone: a vision of how the world could be a better place, if only we made it so. Orpheus’s story is (spoiler alert) a tragic one: He turns back to make sure Eurydice is following him out of hell, breaking his agreement with Hades; his own lack of trust in Eurydice (and himself) means that he cannot benefit from the vision of that future. Yet the musical closes with the cast committing to try, once more, next spring, to make the world not just a betterplace, but the place it morally, spiritually, ethically, should be.

Central to all three contemporary pieces is the implication of atheism, or at least a non-Christian metaphysic. The call to goodness is purely existential: things are terrible, life is meaningless and chaotic, but try to be a good person anyway. It is a tragic vision of the world, hopeful only in the call for human resistance against that meaninglessness.

In the absence of a Christian conception of divine grace, the most we can hope for is what happens at the end of the Greek myth in “Hadestown”: a failure of human will, a tragic recognition and a promise to try to do better next time—a promise we know will fail. (Of all the Greek myths, Orpheus and Eurydice is the one where we most long for a deus ex machina: a god who will not let Orpheus turn back). At their best, all three pieces explore that failure and that tragic hope. In so doing, they reflect a much greater cultural hunger for stories that deal authentically not with a purely “secular” world, but one in which Christian answers no longer commonly feed spiritual need.

They are stories about the perennial need for  religion—and about the millennial uncertainty about what that religion will look like.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Nora Bolcon
2 months 4 weeks ago

I actually find hope in this article as someone female and a practicing Catholic, a mother and wife, and a woman who was and is called to ordained priesthood from her youth. This article explains and describes to me what I see in my daughter and my son who are now teens struggling with Catholicism. They were both just confirmed this last June. They are not OK with putting up with crappy, lame, sexist, LGBT hating, overly judgmental, woman controlling, "Pro Life" politically manipulated versions of Church or Religion or Christianity. They demand a real, just, and merciful and loving Jesus and Church or they are 100% gone!

In my view this makes them not atheistic but authentic in their spiritual quest for salvation and goodness and God. Many priests and Catholics have told me that we have entered a post Christian time. Bull! We Catholics have not offered to our children the real Jesus. The real Jesus treats men and women, all races, nationalities, and sinners the same. We teach women should have no vote or same sacredness and sacraments as men, we have not always treated different races equally either - we would keep the black priest out of the vastly white majority parish if we thought the parishioners were wealthy and would not want an African American Priest. We have pushed for candidates who continually and both personally and politically abuse women, and minorities and refugees, and then act like we don't know how all these bad things are happening. Our kids are not blind to any of this.

My children and I have discussed sexuality and religion in depth and they are far more willing to bring these things up to me than my parents were willing to do so with me. We have discussed priesthood - for men and women, sexism, social activism, the power of democracy to do both good and bad and that it, like our church, requires that people actively care and fight to make them both better than they were before or they both will fall into severe decline. It is a challenge to raise Christian kids today and unfortunately it demands we not always support or pass down certain teachings of our church and that we help our kids differentiate between faith in Christ and his Divine Heavenly Body The Church, and its imperfect flesh based church in our world's reality. The first of these versions of Church is perfect but the second needs us to care, pray, fight for her- by fighting and casting out what is bad in her, and by inviting in what is good around us but may have been excluded from our traditions without reason.

I tell my kids Church should be exciting but it isn't unless you care about what the church can mean to yourself and others and the whole world. There is a great line in the movie "Gladiator". The emperors' sister explains to her brother, the emperor of Rome (and later to another character), after he asks her "What does it mean when people say we must support the Greatness of Rome?- What is the Greatness of Rome?" she replies: "It is an ideal of Rome, a vision. It is not spoken about or described in detail, for fear it will dissolve, so fragile is its existence in the people's imaginations." To me this is the Greatness of Rome - Its Church which belongs to Christ and all who are a part of her equally. She is impossible to explain, fully, yet there are concrete things that must be done by her supporters, in this world, to see her vision most vividly while we walk upon the earth.

Michael Bindner
2 months 4 weeks ago

One of the ancient hallmarks of religion is a well told myth with a moral hook (tragedy, comedy, history & romance) Share the catharsis of Jesus on the cross. Just don't tell them they are going to Hell for stupid reasons or they will say to Hell with religion. Spiritual=Recovery

John Mack
2 months 3 weeks ago

These stories, and the theme of this article, seems positively Calvinist to me. in destroying any attempt to earn salvation or change one's afterlife (you trip to heaven or hell is pre-ordained, immutable, and just even if you can't understand why), Calvinism stressed human agency here on earth, the pursuit of virtue and good works in order to properly glorify God, even if that God is sending you to eternal torture, because that God's very nature requires that we glorify him here on earth and in so doing make earth a better place. Nothing new, just a very American twist on religion as -good works, human agency and salvation be damned because it is irrelevant. In a way Calvin was reviving the notion of the City of Man, a civil society and government created by the good will of sober and dutiful people who accept their mission of glorifying God by practicing "they will be done on earth as it is in heaven." In this system religion does not exist to comfort but to challenge everyone to practice virtue and help others to do so. Calvin's system swept aside the Catholic medieval emphasis on "getting to heaven" that arose out of a despair that this world could ever be justly governed. In fact the Celto-Roman senates of the Christian Roman city states in the diocese (a civil administrative unit) of Gaul (France and Spain) were very well governed, with taxes used for the common good (including the manumission of slaves, slavery thought to be a sin by the Christians) and common civil amenities. The movie Gladiator (advised by a Jesuit) illustrates this transition from building the City of Man through a state of despair that looks only to the afterlife for the existence of a good society. Maximus, a Stoic, strives to restore just governance to Rome but is defeated and looks to the grave to reunite with his family slain by the emperor's Pretorian Guard. Note that Maimus's wife, in Spain, stands on the open road to greet the Roman soldiers headed her way to kill her and her child. She lived in the well governed Diocese of Gaul and had every reason to trust the Roman military as it had existed under Emperor Marcus Aurelius and the command of Stoics like her husband. Augustine, still influenced by his Manichaeism, sounded the death of any hope or the City of Man and set up the theologic framework for the Middle Ages. He also created an innovative and heretical notion of Original Sin, making all human being share not only the consequences but the guilt of of the sin of Adam and Eve. In the Eastern church the doctrine that we all share in consequences of the sin of Adam and Eve, but not in any guilt, still prevails. Baptism, unlike in the west, is seen simply as the joyous entrance into the Christian collective where one is to find and join a people of good will actively sharing in God's lovingkindness towards all of humanity. Baptism is not seen as a liberation from original sin, or a driving out of devils, as has become the case in Roman Catholicism and most of its Protestant offshoots. Baptism is certainly not seen in both the east and the west as a liberation from the consequences )suffering) of the sin of Adam and Eve. But only in the west is the infant or the adult being baptized seen as guilty of that original sin. In the east the person is guilty only of the sins committed by that person. The glorification of original sin and guilt and bloody redemption from that guilt is a rather sour view and not conducive to emphasizing the need to practice the virtues that help "thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

John Mack
2 months 3 weeks ago

These searches for "religion" sound more like the search for a godless philosophy of ethics and meaning as taught in the pagan academies of Greece, academies closed by the Eastern Christian emperor in order to enforce Christian religious conformity on his empire.

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