SCIENCE POP QUIZ: How many ribs do men have? How many ribs do women have?
If you answered twenty-four to both, you are correct!
RELIGION POP QUIZ: How many ribs do men have? How many ribs do women have?
If you answered twenty-four to both, you are doubting biblical inerrancy, have succumbed to the lies of the devil, and are probably an entitled, narcissistic Millennial!
Confused? So are a number of young Christians who have aged out of Sunday school and come to laugh at a silly “fact” they were taught growing up: Namely, that men have one fewer rib than women. This missing/extra rib was presented as a marvelous evidence of the Bible’s historical veracity, because according to Genesis, Adam was formed from the dust, and Eve was formed from a rib that God surgically removed from Adam. Someone decided telling children that men today have twenty-three ribs (or eleven? are we talking pairs or singles? this was never explained!) while women have twenty-four would single-handedly prove Christianity, especially doctrines like Creationism, true. (Which is about as logical as saying, “Look, there’s some dirt, just like Adam was made from! The Bible must be true, because dust!”)
I don’t know where I heard this first. Maybe during a Sunday morning service, or in VBS, or at some conference. But I remember on a few separate occasions hearing about women’s magical extra rib. I was a kid, and it was presented as science, so I thought, “Cool!” and went back to playing with my Barbies.
Until one day about a year ago (after I had MADE IT THROUGH COLLEGE) that I came across some thinspo thing about ribs showing, and went, WAIT A SECOND. The extra rib hypothesis came rushing back and I realized, uh, duh, that’s nonsense.
Yes, sometimes thinspo has more truth in it than Sunday school. Yikes.
This rib thing may be just a teeny tiny lie, but it is unquestionably a lie. It’s a twisting or rejecting of science to make Christianity seem truer or smarter or more believable. But with little lies like this, the church instead makes herself ridiculous and, more importantly, untrustworthy. It makes me wonder what other small lies and big I have not uncovered. It makes me wonder why an institution purposefully misinforms children. (And this isn’t an isolated incident, as I’d hoped; I asked on Twitter if people had heard this growing up, and the response — from evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Catholics — was both comical and alarming.)
There is a lot of talk right now about the great Millennial exodus from the church. Boomers and Xers explain it away as our problem: We’re too entitled, vapid, selfish, narcissistic. We expect our churches to cater to us with coffee shops and hip tunes and job offers and skinny jeans. We’re uncommitted. We’re distracted. We listen to Justin Beiber, that devil with a pompadour.
But we Millennials are responding, and how. Rachel Held Evans made waves with her op-ed on CNN last week, and many, many others are continuing the conversation.
There is a lot to discuss here, but there are two points, coming from RHE and others, that resonate as especially true and important.
One is evangelicalism’s hesitance to allow theological doubt or trust science. We ‘kids’ aren’t supposed to rethink our stances on biblical literalism, evolution, relationships, homosexuality, culture wars, or Adam’s missing rib, because that’s allegedly undermining the gospel and God’s sovereignty, not to mention disrespecting the parents and teachers who have brought us up in the ways of the Lord. It is okay for us to ask a few questions, but only if we accept the answers we’re given, even if those answers seem as insubstantial as a missing rib.
To varying degrees, many of us have been indoctrinated within the four walls of mainstream (or fringe) Christianity. So it’s not about entitlement or selfishness when we leave; it’s about disillusionment and intellectual honesty. We are not necessarily dismissing church history or rejecting orthodoxy. We’re seeking truth, reclaiming the mysteries of faith others have mired in modern, nonsensical explanations.
The other point I think is important is the tendency for older generations of Christians to (unintentionally) show a lack of grace or empathy in the name of doctrine and duty. We kids say, “I had a terrible experience at church, so I haven’t gone in a while,” and instead of someone saying, “That’s too bad, why don’t you tell me about it, how can I pray for you?” too often the response is, “Well, churches are made up of fallen sinners, life is difficult, get over it!” This communicates our pain doesn’t matter. This communicates emotions are not to be trusted. This communicates our humanity is not as important as the number of chairs occupied on Sunday morning.
There are Millennials who have wholly rejected Christianity, sure. You can’t change that. But many of us love the church and hold fiercely, achingly to the beauty & truth of the gospel. A lot of us, like me, have wandered away for a while, dealt with our traumas, gotten comfortable with our doubts, and come back, at least for now, even if we still sometimes struggle to see God through stained glass. Others will return later. Still others never will. Want to guarantee they don’t? Tell them they’re wrong to doubt. Tell them they’re disrespectful to criticize missing rib theology. Tell them they’re heretics for questioning some other secondary doctrine evangelicalism has idolized. Tell them they’re wrong to process through pain at their own pace.
There is no magical formula to keep Millennials, or anyone of any generation, glued to the pews. We’ve left, and sometimes returned to, church for as many reasons as there are individuals. But let’s be clear: everyone will benefit from more reasonable, honest conversations, with less silencing of dissent and more wrestling with uncertainty. Because when you tell us the gap in Adam’s side was mystically, genetically transmitted to all men throughout all time, we will doubt your credibility and reconsider our association with your institution.
So give us time. Give us grace. Give us space. We aren’t all entitled narcissists — or maybe we are, but not because we skip church for a few weeks or several years. We aren’t all prodigals or apostates. Many of us are just finding God away from the buildings where we instead found lies and hurt for so long.
And some of us will come back, ready to fight for the bones of a faith less weighed down with blubber.
Other voices, other views:
Micah J. Murray’s “Why We Left the Church (Our Stories)”
A Deeper Story hosting “Jesus in the Church”
David Hayward’s “why millennials are leaving the church really”
Caris Adel’s “Apparently I’m Entitled, and I Don’t Care”
Rachel Held Evan’s “Be careful of dismissing another’s personal painful (or joyful) Church experience”
Cole Carnesecca’s “Millennial Presumptions”
Emily Maynard’s “Why I Can’t Go to Church on Sundays” and “I Went Back to Church”
Trevin Wax’s response to RHE
Esther Emery’s “Prodigal Daughter”
Marci Glass’s “Millennials and the Worshiping Church“
Illustrations from Gray’s Anatomy.