the New Sincerity

Last weekend, Jack and I curled up on the sofa to watch “Safety Not Guaranteed,” an indie comedy about three magazine employees who travel from Seattle to the Washington coast to investigate a classified ad.

“Wanted: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke,” the ad begins. Jake Johnson plays cynical journalist Jeff, Karan Soni is the detached Indian intern Arnau, and Aubrey Plaza excels as the depressed, lonely intern Darius.  Darius, outwardly hostile and standoffish, secretly wishes time travel were real so that she could go back to the time before her mother died.

I’m pretty much going to {spoiler} the whole movie for you here, so skip this paragraph if you want to, but something kind of magical happens when they get to Ocean Shores, Washington: it’s as if they’ve fallen into a wonderland of sincerity, worlds away from the cynicism of Seattle intelligentsia.  Jeff reconnects with an old flame who bakes pies and rubs his shoulders, and he un-ironically falls for her.  Arnau leaves his books long enough to make a friend.  And Darius grows close to Kenneth (Mark Duplass), the writer of the classified ad.  Even after her trust in him is shaken, she chooses to believe in him rather than to embrace her old cynicism, and it seems that the very strength of their sincere connection is what powers his time travel machine (yep, the time machine works - that's the power of sincerity).

The movie is a perfect example of what Jonathan Fitzgerald writes about in his new book Not Your Mother’s Morals (full disclosure: I received a free review copy from Jon, and it's only 99 cents on Amazon right now!).  Fitzgerald, managing editor of, Huffington Post blogger, and columnist at Patheos, argues that in pop culture today, “detached irony and cynicism have ceded ground to an emphasis on sincerity and authenticity.  The ‘too cool to care’ attitude that typifies Generation X has become ‘cool to care’ for Millennials. This New Sincerity has become the vehicle for a resurgence in moral storytelling in popular culture.”

In the short book, which is part memoir, part cultural analysis, and part graduate-thesis, Fitzgerald writes winsomely about his upbringing in a slightly charismatic evangelical culture, its suspicion of everything on the television, and the alternatives created by “Christian pop culture”.  His stories are familiar to any of us who weren’t allowed to watch the Smurfs because of the magic, or who rocked out to Amy Grant, you know, until she went “secular” with “Heart in Motion”.

Putting that critical perspective of pop culture he grew up with to good use, Fitzgerald examines how the moral messages about God, Family, and Country in pop culture have changed over the last sixty years or so.  While some evangelical Christians argue that pop culture today is a moral wasteland in comparison to the squeaky-clean offerings of the 1950s, Fitzgerald disagrees. Offering examples from film, tv, music, and books, he shows that a growing emphasis on being sincere has opened up possibilities for honest discussion of morality within our culture, and that that’s a good thing. If sincerity is "in," our sincere Christian faith can't be as easily dismissed.

The kind of morality ushered in by the New Sincerity isn’t a strict code, he argues, but a moral posture, one that acknowledges that what is “right” looks different in different circumstances. Is he arguing in favor of “situational ethics”? my old evangelical self gasps.  Yes, of course he is.  How can morality exist without a situation?  The best stories are the truest ones, and the truest ones show the complexity of our lives, the complexity of our moral decisions. The New Sincerity lets us tell those stories and offer real, moral conclusions without being mocked.

The book is short, and Fitzgerald’s argument needs further fleshing out to be truly compelling.  There are plenty of examples from pop culture that don’t fit his cynical/sincere dichotomy, and some of the examples he uses don’t hold up under deeper examination.  The tv show Glee, for example, demonstrates the power of sincerity, as he notes; but it also demonstrates the weakness of art turned didactic. In addition, Fitzgerald neglects to address the role that changing media has had in fostering the New Sincerity; Lady GaGa connects to her fans in a way that Madonna didn’t in large part because of new media like Twitter, which demands a level of transparency.

In his conclusion, Fitzgerald contends that the New Sincerity is something to embrace, because it offers the best kind of place to dialogue about faith.  Let’s try, he urges, to “stave off” the (inevitable?) descent back into cynicism.  

Maybe I appreciate Fitzgerald's book, and the film "Safety Not Guaranteed," so much because when I was leaving Seattle, almost three years ago, I wrote that it was time in my life “to move out of cynicism and towards sincerity”. Growing in my faith has meant embracing the discipline of earnestness. For those of us who identify with Generation X, sincerity can be a difficult posture in which to reside, but I think I'm with Fitzgerald here. Let's do something that requires sincerity, and the possibility of failure: let's try, and while we may not manage to build a time machine, maybe we'll find that something a little magical - some deeper, truer, human connections - can exist.