Boomers, Take It from Woody or Iron Man: It’s Time to Pass the Torch

This summer’s blockbusters showcase the importance of transferring wisdom between generations.
Boomers, Take It from Woody or Iron Man: It’s Time to Pass the Torch
Image: Kevin Winter / Getty Images

Dear baby boomers: If there were ever a time to pay attention to what’s coming out of Hollywood, it would be now.

I’m not saying that just because the Beatles-themed movie Yesterday is holding steady at the box office. From superhero flicks to kids’ movie reboots, many of the summer blockbusters of 2019 are voicing a deep longing to learn from the wisdom of previous generations. But this common impulse isn’t just about our favorite characters—it’s a wake-up call for everybody.

The immediate backdrop for these cinematic stories is the public maligning boomers, in particular, have recently faced. Some have gone so far as to suggest that boomers have “ruined everything” for younger Americans. To their credit, certain boomers have responded by apologizing for the world they’ve handed to younger generations.

As a newly 40, card-carrying member of Generation X, I’ve always found myself somewhere in the middle—a generational interloper between the graying boomers and hipster millennials and members of Gen Z. Gen Xers can be self-deprecating, apathetic, and downright cynical, but as we’ve aged, we’ve also come to embrace our unique role as interpreters and bridge-builders, mentoring our millennial friends and colleagues while “leading from below” in support of our boomer bosses.

From that perspective, I see the big screen reflecting a cultural shift when it comes to intergenerational relations. (Spoilers to follow.)

Take Avengers: Endgame, the Marvel movie that kicked off the summer season and is now the highest-grossing film of all time. The movie concludes with the sacrificial death of Tony Stark (Iron Man). Released a mere two months later, Spider-Man: Far From Home picks up where Endgame leaves off. It takes place in a world traumatized by the events of the Avengers movies (including Stark’s death), with high schooler Peter Parker trying to navigate this new landscape.

As Spider-Man, Peter may have superhuman strength. He may be able to swing effortlessly through the air on his web slingers. But he is missing a secret ingredient: wisdom. This becomes a big problem when the primary threat to his post-Avengers world is Mysterio—a villain whose weapon of choice is deception. Spider-Man can’t discern what to do because he can’t tell what is real. He is in desperate need of something more than his super strength provides.

Thankfully, even from the grave, Tony Stark comes to the rescue. Indeed, Stark haunts every frame of Far From Home, and not simply because he sacrificed his life for the sake of universe. The truly heroic (and enduring) move Stark makes is to pass the torch to a younger generation, daring to imagine a world that isn’t oriented solely around his interests and concerns. Not only does he intentionally cultivate a mentoring relationship with Peter Parker while he is alive, but he also strategically positions his own intellectual and material resources to help Spider-Man face an unknown future.

In other words, mentorship doesn’t happen by accident (not even with superheroes), and it certainly doesn’t happen when each generation is pointing fingers over who’s to blame for societal issues around us. Stark’s relationship with Spider-Man gives us an inspiring, heroic picture of what it looks like to anticipate succession and support the rising generation early on (even while demonstrating how complex and fragile an endeavor of this sort can truly be).

Still holding on

Boomers, however, aren’t in the habit of passing the torch because, well, they’ve never done it before. Think of Joe Biden’s response when reminded during a recent debate that 30 years ago he was already calling for a passing of the torch to a younger generation of leaders: “I’m still holding on to that torch.” This resistance to cross-generational collaboration is not simply a political matter. It also has profound ramifications for our churches. Multiple generations of Christians (from Gen Xers to millennials to Gen Zers) have grown up without the elders and mentors that every previous generation before them has had. And why is that? To quote a boomer, who is both wise and humble enough to address this question directly, it’s “because (I hate to say it) my generation of Boomers is not discipling the next generation as well as previous generations did for us.”

The end result is not merely that the church is “losing an entire generation,” although that is certainly happening. The problem runs much deeper, and it has become increasingly clear in my work at Fuller Seminary with countless Gen Xers and millennials who are pursuing kingdom vocations of various kinds. To put it in the words of author and pastor Jonathan Martin, it’s not that the church in America is losing a generation. It’s that “a generation is losing its elders.”

In Mark 2:21–22, Jesus talked about pouring new wine into old wineskins, which is something we are prone to do when we assume the systems and structures of the past are somehow capable of addressing the pressing questions of the present. My sense is that boomers really do want younger generations to take the reins. But for one reason or another, at the very moment when the Tony Starks of the world are about to hand their EDITH glasses to the next Iron Man … they just can’t seem to let go.

Toy Story 4 takes the theme of letting go and makes it explicit. Woody has been a faithful toy his entire existence. His raison d'être—his vocation—is to make children happy. But in the fourth installment of the franchise, he faces a reality in which he is no longer needed, not by Andy, not by Bonnie, and not by the other toys in the toy bin. Still, his dogged refusal to let go of his original calling, coupled with his inability to imagine new possibilities for his post-toy bin life, means that he is constantly getting in the way of others—ironically, the very toys and children he wants so badly to help.

For Bonnie and the toys he loves to have any chance to flourish, Woody, much like the Boomers in the audience, must find a way to let go—to let the other toys step fully into their vocation—and to have enough faith in them to know that, when he does, “it’s going to be okay.”

Passing on wisdom

Yesterday turns this idea on its head in a rather fantastical way. Like Avengers and Spider-Man, it too features a “blip” of sorts that creates an entirely new set of conditions to which the characters must respond. More specifically, Yesterday imagines a world in which The Beatles—arguably the boomer generation’s most influential pop-cultural musical group—are suddenly erased from history. Only Jack Malik, a frustrated young musician, is left unfazed, which makes him solely responsible for remembering and communicating their music to the world.

Yesterday depicts in rather stark terms what is likely to transpire if boomers don’t adjust the ways in which they relate to younger generations. Millennials, Gen Zers, and yes, even us Gen Xers recognize and appreciate the contributions of the boomer generation. After all, where would contemporary music be without artists like The Beatles? But the repeated and ongoing refusal of boomers to pass the torch of leadership (whether in the realm of politics, religion, education, or economics), even and especially when it comes at the expense of their posterity, has created a generational crisis.

At least in the US, it has produced multiple generations of people detached from their history and unaware of their origins. And this intergenerational disjointedness is bad news for everyone involved—not simply because “Hey Dude,” the 21st-century version featured in Yesterday, is clearly a far worse title for a song than “Hey Jude” but because it makes the transmission of wisdom impossible.

A great example of how the transmission of wisdom depends upon intergenerational bonds can be found in Paul’s letters to his younger protégé Timothy. Yes, Paul himself intentionally mentored Timothy. However, Paul was confident in Timothy’s ability to lead his Christian community wisely not because Timothy possessed some kind innate capacity for being and becoming wise on his own, but because the wisdom borne by his Christian faith had been transmitted to him by his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice (2 Tim. 1:5).

So, when Paul tells Timothy not to “let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12), it’s not because Paul considers old ways of thinking to be inherently passé or believes that young people always know better than their elders. Rather, it’s because Timothy was a young man who was connected to the wisdom of the generations that preceded him.

Being and becoming wise is about so much more than knowing the difference between right and wrong. It’s about developing the capacity to discern when new wineskins are needed. Indeed, Jesus’ parable about wine and wineskins is itself an expression of the ancient Jewish wisdom tradition that he inherited, developed, and then transmitted to his disciples.

It is therefore no small wonder that Peter eventually developed the capacity to discern when the Spirit was calling for new wineskins, a sensibility he demonstrated well when he agreed to ignore Jewish food laws for the sake of his ministry to Gentiles (Acts 10:9–11:18). Similarly, it is this same tradition of wisdom that moved Paul to become “all things to all people” for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:22). So, whether we’re talking about Jesus, Peter, and Paul, or Timothy, Lois, and Eunice, intergenerational wisdom is the necessary ingredient for knowing when a new situation calls for new wineskins.

All this to say: Boomers, we are in desperate need of your wisdom. But we also need new wineskins. We face a world that is of a different order than the one you encountered. To move forward, we need elders who are willing to let go, empower us, and ultimately, trust that everything is going to be okay.

Of course, don’t just take my word for it. Listen to Woody, Spider-Man, and Iron Man, or maybe even John Lennon (who is still alive in the alternate reality of Yesterday). If your eyes and ears are tuned appropriately, then each of these films has the potential for serving as a timely wakeup call.

But if this summer’s slate of films doesn’t convince you, then perhaps you’ll heed the words of someone who knows a thing or two about pursuing wisdom in the midst of intergenerational crises: “No one pours new wine into old wineskins. … No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.”

Kutter Callaway is associate professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary and co-director of Reel Spirituality. His most recent books are Deep Focus: Film and Theology in Dialogue and The Aesthetics of Atheism: Theology and Imagination in Contemporary Culture. He hosts the Kutter Callaway Podcast and tweets @kuttercallaway.

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