Growing up Nostalgic: Perpetual Adolescence and the Kingdom Come

“An ethic unshaped by eschatology is neither Jesus’ nor Christian.” – Tremper Longman

How does an immature culture grow up? Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver is about the dangers of being lost in adolescence. By the end of the movie, the viewer is pointed to a road we infer leads to maturity, but only after a cinematically stunning tour de force. The imbedded rhythm of the film sweeps one along from scene to scene. The score follows the script—or vice versa—ebbing and flowing in and out of dialog, music, and car chases choreographed like masterful dance numbers.

The title star, “Baby,” is the best getaway driver this side of the Mississippi. Working for a man he owes (deftly played by Kevin Spacey), Baby speeds one crew after another to safety following each bank heist.

Baby has been living the Billy the Kid life since his mother and father were killed in a car wreck. Baby survives the crash, albeit with scars which he sees in the mirror and hears in his head. His tinnitus explains his ever-present ear buds, which helps drown out the ringing in his ears through a series of arduously arranged playlists.

As becomes evident, Baby is unable to mature beyond the accident. His independence on the road only accentuates the obvious fact that his whole life is one of unhealthy dependence upon his parents. He’s still a child, still a baby; his identity fundamentally defined vis-à-vis his mom and dad. His parent’s relationship was confrontational, he’s pacifistic—letting Jamie Foxx’s character abuse him with no recourse; his dad was a bad driver, he became a good driver; his mother sang, he lives in a musical world; she was a waitress, he can be found in her old diner day in and day out like a boy lost at a carnival returning to the last ride where he saw his parent.

Defining immaturity as dependence is a callback to an older era, matching the mid-century feel of the whole production. If Wright were trying to name a problem with our age, making Baby a prototype for overly dependent Millennials, he wouldn’t be alone in his diagnosis. In his new book The Vanishing American Adult, Ben Sasse likewise sees the Achilles heel of the coming generation as their over reliance on others.

Following Jeffery Arnett’s work on adolescence, Sasse uses the term, “self-focused age,” referring to a time in life “when there are few real responsibilities, few ‘daily obligations,’ limited ‘commitments to others.’ In a stage when young people were once supposed to learn to ‘stand alone as a self-sufficient person,’ they find themselves increasingly paralyzed by over-choice.” Put frankly, “Our kids simply don’t know what an adult is anymore – or how to become one. Many don’t even see a reason to try.” Thus, Millennials are trapped in perpetual adolescence; a decadent, morbidly self-gratifying state in which one consumes more than contributes.

The crux of Sasse’s advice is simple, “roll up your sleeves!” His own daughter, as an example, spent a summer working on a ranch, learning life lessons about hard work, responsibility, and self-reliance. She takes ownership of her own life, her own actions, her own income. This is also the lesson Baby has to learn.

In the climactic scene in which Baby is running away from the law with his lover, he surprisingly surrenders. He throws the key to the car off a bridge, lifts his hands, goes to court, then prison, and serves his time. With his ear buds out and his cars impounded, he confronts life for himself, taking responsibility for his actions. He makes a new life, which may not be as glamorous as his old, but is his nonetheless.

The movie ends ambiguously in a black and white shot with Baby’s girlfriend picking him up in a vintage car, wearing a poodle skirt, seeming to embody the romance and innocence of 1950’s Americana. Whether this scene is a fantasy is left to interpretation, but the implication is clear: if only Baby could go back to a time before he was born, before his parents were born, then he could gain complete independence from his and their sins.

Sasse also wants us to go back, “Many Americans coming of age today don’t understand the country they’re inheriting.” So let’s get back to our roots, argues Sasse. Let’s throw the keys off the bridge, live within our means, make an honest living, and get to know the American experiment in which we find ourselves. To go forward, we actually need to go backward, as Baby did.

Back to where? To which age? Sasse is clear not only in his book, but in his media appearances and speeches as well: “American exceptionalism is a claim about what happened in the American founding, and if we don’t understand why the American founding was extraordinary, you can be sure that our kids won’t understand why America is extraordinary.” Sasse’s remedy is tied up in what he calls “civic catechesis;” an immersion in the primary sources of American liberty.

To be sure, America’s founding was extraordinary, and we would be fools not to retrieve wisdom from any and every age. Yet, I’m sensitive of the temptation to make any bygone era the cure-all for our modern ills. When I hear sentiments akin to “Make America Great Again,” I always question: even if we could go back twenty years or two hundred years, what would keep the exact same problems from coming back again? For example, might there be a connection between those today that believe they can choose their own gender and those of yesteryear who prioritized the individual’s will? This is not meant to be a slight upon the founding fathers, only an admission of the obvious: maturity is found by going to the future, not the past.

It’s incumbent upon the church, now more than ever, to be a beacon of such forward-looking maturity, a witness not to some golden age of the past, but to the age to come. This passage from Moby Dick offers a clarion call:

“The pulpit is ever this earth’s foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world… Yes, the world’s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.”

Too often, the pulpit assumes a lesser place on the ship of society. Rather than casting a fresh vision of human flourishing, we look to the past with rose-colored glasses, believing if we could only go back we’d do it differently, we’d do it right; we’d stay the course.

None of this is to say either Baby Driver or The Vanishing American Adult are inherently flawed; only that, given our current political mood, both can be wrongly used to justify a wistful, naïve understanding of perpetual adolescence’s cause and remedy. Christians must balk against any idea that our salvation will come driving a 1950’s Cadillac or a 1770’s chariot. Through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, the future is invading the present. Maturity lies ahead, not behind.

Dustin Messer teaches theology at Legacy Christian Academy in Frisco, TX. Additionally, Dustin is a senior fellow at the Center for Cultural Leadership and is on the preaching team at Christ Church (PCA) in Carrollton, TX. A graduate of Boyce College and Covenant Seminary, Dustin is completing his doctoral work in religion at La Salle University.

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