Our ‘mobile’ generation, ever on the move, has developed a powerful sense of its own rootlessness. So it’s not surprising that discovering our family roots has become a major pastime. Surpassing the nation’s fitness fads, cooking concerns, and a myriad other self-help gigs, genealogical research (GR) is now big business.
A simple search for ‘genealogical research’ using Google, the Internet search engine, throws up 3.3 million links worldwide and 237,000 in the UK alone. So great is our need to discover our place in the great scheme of things, that GR has become a national obsession – a surrogate religion.
We move home every few years; we spend hours getting to and from our place of work; and we travel enormous distances to holiday destinations. It is this constant mobility, observers suggest, that makes us feel our lack of roots. It seems ironic that in this age of strong-minded ‘postmodernism’ we should be scouring musty records in dusty churches in search of our identity.
Boosted by Internet search capabilities, GR has brought researching family history within the grasp of all. And with it have come the inevitable ‘experts’. Family research experts have now joined the army of lifestyle gurus who tell us what to eat, what to wear, how to be healthy – and even what to think.
Talking about gurus, have you noticed how they multiply like rabbits? Whole TV channels are given over to offering lifestyle choices and ‘expert’ advice. When we go to the news-stands we are visually assaulted by a phalanx of shiny lifestyle magazines, all different yet somehow all the same. And on each cover the latest smiling guru beckons us to buy – and learn the ‘secret’ of a more meaningful life.
We know well enough that the latest ‘expert advice’ will probably be overturned by another expert next week. But it doesn’t deter us. We digest their every word of wisdom just the same.
Somewhere inside us, of course, we know we have heard it all before. Nevertheless, undeterred, we pour hard-earned cash into the pockets of the latest ‘authority’, avidly buying their books, CDs and videos. But we miss the irony. The gurus get rich selling us their ‘secrets’ – but what worked for them never seems to work for us.
Snake oil and self-discovery
They had a name for it in the Wild West – snake oil. We flit around searching for ‘snake oil’ – something to provide a quick-fix for the gnawing emptiness in our soul. GR is but one demonstration of this quest.
Yet this frantic search for roots betrays a surprising fact – our self-confident mobile generation (with its grandiose individualism and anti-authoritarian assertiveness) is at heart vulnerable and needy. The burgeoning GR industry bears testimony to our deep desire to discover who we really are and where we fit in.
Not long ago we saw Jeremy Paxman, the tough-guy TV presenter, sobbing on-screen. Appearing in Who do you think you are? Paxman was exposed to the suffering of a previously unknown distant relative.
Why weep? Wasn’t she a meaningless figure from a bygone age? Not at all; she represented his roots. Paxman was not shedding crocodile tears. This lady’s pain was all too real – altogether too ‘connected’ for him to handle with equanimity.
Tracing one’s roots, it seems, can lead to a powerful sense of spiritual self-discovery. Sadly, although Paxman’s flirtation with past realities touched his heart, it probably did nothing to meet his inner needs. As Mick Jagger’s generational anthem put it, we ‘can’t get no satisfaction’.
We all believe in something
The decline in religious belief does not mean that people now believe nothing. Everyone believes in something! It is just that an increasing number of us are switching to faith in guru ‘saviours’ in our search for belonging. Ultimately, whatever our opinions, we betray ourselves as people of faith after all.
Our ‘guru-mania’ may not be religious in the conventional sense but it bears all the hallmarks of religious faith – indeed it is far less rational than a trust in God. When it comes right down to it, we all ‘live by faith’. The question, therefore, is not whether we rely on faith but rather in what or whom do we place our faith?
Surely, that has to be the most important question of all! The dramatic rise of GR to a national pastime betrays a key misjudgement. The army of gurus who inhabit our TV screens and national glossies may just have fewer spiritual answers than we think.
Don’t fall in a ditch
Referring to the false gurus of his own day (the Pharisees), Jesus said, ‘Let them alone. They are the blind leaders of the blind; both will fall into a ditch’ (Matthew 15:14). These particular ‘lifestyle experts’ really gloried in their family and religious pedigrees. They were the GR gurus of their day (read Philippians 3:4-7 if you doubt me). And they commanded the rootless to put their faith in them and their endless rules for human living.
But Jesus Christ knew better. He demonstrated that both true roots and the ‘peace which passes all understanding’ were to be found elsewhere.
As both God and man, Jesus offered a unique answer. Surveying over four thousand people who thronged a hillside near Capernaum one day, he told his disciples, ‘I have compassion on the multitude for they have continued with me …’ – and he proceeded to feed them all (Matthew 15:32-39).
In doing so (and in many other ways) Christ revealed himself as the God in whose image we are made – and in whom ‘we live and move and have our being … for we are also his offspring’ (Acts 17:28). Now there are real roots for you!