In Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, c. 2005), Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton provide an amply documented and academically persuasive portrait of America’s youth. Smith is a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina and the principal investigator of the National Study of Youth and Religion—a well funded, methodologically clear endeavor that relies upon both extensive surveys and personal interviews. Denton is the study’s project manager. “To our knowledge,” they say, “this project has been the largest, most comprehensive and detailed study of American teenage religion and spirituality conducted to date” (p. 7).
America’s teenagers are remarkably religious; 40 percent attend “religious services once a week or more, and 19 percent report attending one to three times per month” (p. 37). Only 18 percent have no religious involvement. Amazingly enough, “teens as a group profess to want to attend religious services not less, but actually more than they currently do” (p. 38). They praise their congregations as “warm and welcoming” (p. 61) and find adults therein reliable and trustworthy. Their parents, more than anyone else, influence them, and they reveal little hostility toward them. Such youngsters have little interest in fringe or “alternative” religions and seem to be quite conventional in almost every way. “The vast majority of U.S. teenagers identify themselves as Christians” and “regularly practice religious faith” (p. 68). The mantra of avant garde folks like Michael Lerner—”spiritual but not religious”—hardly registers with typical teenagers.
One interviewee, incidentally, was attending a Nazarene church and spoke highly of it. He liked Wednesday and Sunday night services, the youth group and Sunday school. What he found attractive in the church was this: “It’s good people, you know. And not only that, I also actually learn,” something important to him because he wanted to know how to “be a God-fearing person and go to heaven or whatever, you know?” (p. 100).
The more devout among them are thereby advantaged in “a host of ways,” making a positive difference in: “risk behaviors, quality of family and adult relationships, moral reasoning and behavior, community participation, media consumption, sexual activity, and emotional well-being” (p. 219). Whether one considers drugs and alcohol or school attendance or getting along with parents, the religious teenagers do much better. They watch less TV, fewer R rated movies, less pornography, and play fewer video games. In some categories—such as pornographic movies, where the “devoted” teens watched 0.5 a year while the “disengaged” saw 2.5—the statistics reveal dramatic differences. “Nearly all Devoted teens believe in waiting for marriage to have sex, compared to less than one-quarter of the Disengaged who believe the same” (p. 223). Devoted teens are far happier than the Disengaged and feel more closely connected with others. They craft positive plans for the future and seriously ponder “the meaning of life” (p. 226). The statistical tables delineating these differences, found on pp. 220-227, are most impressive in demonstrating the authors’ conviction that religion helps teens.
The positive news regarding the role of religion in teenagers’ lives must be balanced, however, by information regarding its doctrinally deficient nature. Our youngsters have little knowledge of any content to the Christian faith! They take a thoroughly individualistic approach to questions regarding God, man, and salvation—though they are generally quite inarticulate when asked to explain much of anything about their views. Indeed, the authors conclude: “In our in-depth interviews with U.S. teenagers, we also found the vast majority of them to be incredibly inarticulate about their faith, their religious beliefs and practices, and its meaning or place in their lives” (p. 131).
Their religion is best defined as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” They believe in a rather distant (unless needed to solve one’s problems) God, who “wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions” (p. 162). “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself,” and “Good people go to heaven when they die” (p. 163). They believe God “designed the universe and establishes moral law and order. But this God is not Trinitarian, he did not speak through the Torah or the prophets of Israel, was never resurrected from the dead, and does not fill and transform people thorough his Spirit. This God is not demanding. He actually can’t be, because his job is to solve our problems and make people feel good. In short, God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process” (p. 165).
Today’s teenagers also entertain a view of human nature quite at odds with the Christian tradition. Teens “tend to assume an instrumental view of religion. Most instinctively suppose that religion exists to help individuals be and do what they want, and not as an external tradition or authority or divinity that makes compelling claims and demeans on their lives, especially to change or grow in ways that may not immediately want to” (p. 148). While they freely acknowledge their sins, they apparently feel no condemnation as sinners! They share the broader culture’s presumption that we are autonomous individuals, free to shape our future in accord with our own desires. Religion is viewed as an enjoyable activity, but it ought not particularly influence one’s decisions. Autonomous individuals can hardly judge the behavior of others, and today’s teens are radically non-judgmental. “The typical bywords, rather, are ‘Who am I to judge?’ ‘If that’s what they choose, whatever,’ ‘Each Person decides for himself,’ and ‘If it works for them, fine'” (p. 144).
“What we heard from most teens,” Smith and Denton say, “is essentially that religion makes them feel good, that it helps them make good choices, that it helps resolve problems and troubles, that it serves their felt needs. What we hardly ever heard from teens was that religion is about significantly transforming people into, not what they feel like being, but what they are supposed to be, what God, or their ethical tradition wants them to be” (pp. 148-149). The youngsters interviewed rarely expressed interest in a religion that “summons people to embrace an obedience to truth regardless of the personal consequences or rewards. Hardly any teens spoke directly about more difficult religious subjects like repentance, love of neighbor, social justice, unmerited grace, self-discipline, humility, the costs of discipleship, dying to self, the sovereignty of God, personal holiness, the struggles of sanctification” (p. 149), or any of the classical themes of Christian discipleship.
For those of us working with young people, this book is both encouraging and chastening. Kids are hungry for God and the churches are bringing them into religious fellowships. Unfortunately, they learn little about the great doctrines of the Church and rarely are challenged to live out the sterner stuff of the scriptures.
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Barbara Curtis, in Dirty Dancing at the Prom: And Other Challenges Christian Teens Face (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, c. 2005), provides a deeply personal insight into the lives of today’s adolescents. Prodded by one of her son’s remarks regarding the school prom—where “freak dancing” rather resembled sexual foreplay—she launched an investigation, primarily through interviews, into teen culture, hoping to help parents struggling with the issues she faces. What she found is (to her) alarming. Neither today’s dances, nor today’s teenagers, are quite the same as they were 40 years ago. Indeed, perhaps “it’s time proms carried warning labels” (p. 8). And not only proms but many aspects of teen culture merit them as well!
Curtis has twelve children (three of them, Down Syndrome children, adopted) and became a Christian only after she was well into the parenting process. In fact, her oldest daughter went to her high school prom and spent the night with her boyfriend. Having almost no religious roots, living in northern California, they took a laissez-faire approach to most everything, lacking any “moral compass to guide us, just following the crowd” (p. 10). She and her first husband were “hippies” who named their first two daughters Samantha Sunshine and Jasmine Moonbeam! Her second husband, a “spiritual seeker” was similarly rooted in the ’60s ethos. “Drugs, promiscuity, and radical politics” were part of the air they breathed in MarinCounty!
They became Christians, however, as a result of attending a conference where they were presented with Campus Crusade for Christ’s “Four Spiritual Laws.” Everything changed! They suddenly saw the world differently, bathed in the Light of Christ. “Though Tripp [her husband] and I had known about Jesus, we had thought of Him simply as a great spiritual teacher. . . . . This was the first time we had heard the truth about who He was. We did receive Jesus, then and there, on March 21, 1987. Tears were streaming down our faces, and we knew something profound had happened” (p. 108). And they wanted to rear their children differently. So, after home-schooling some of their children in California, they moved to Virginia, hoping to find a more solid, family-friendly society. But teen culture respects no state boundaries, and she found herself facing the great challenge of helping her kids deal with its harmful currents.
In the process she discovered the importance of seven items that constitute the chapters of this book: 1) Being Grounded in God’s Love: Self-esteem; 2) Setting Limits: Self-Assurance; 3) Avoiding Temptation: Self-control; 4) Developing Compassion: Self-sacrifice; 5) Standing Up For What’s right: Self-Respect; 6) Making the Most of Mistakes: Self-help; 7) Living with Integrity: Self-satisfaction.
Curtis discovered, firstly, how important it is to anchor teens in the reality of God’s love. When battling with self-esteem issues, so frequently savaged by their peers in the desensitized atmosphere of the schools, kids need to know they are precious in God’s sight. Those who grow up in homes where they know that both God and their parents love them are far more likely to be self-confident and resolute in resisting temptation. “Self-esteem is tied to knowing God’s love for us,” Curtis says (p. 21). Loving children requires parents to stick together. “So perhaps the most loving thing parents can do for their children is to honor their own wedding vows—for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness, and in health, until death” (p. 25). Statistical studies demonstrate the significant suffering kids endure when their parents divorce. Curtis herself grew up “fatherless” and feels “the hole in the souls of fatherless girls” (p. 25). Girls also need godly dads who protect them! “There’s a part of every woman that still longs to be Daddy’s little girl, to feel completely safe and protected” (p. 26).
Protecting kids means setting limits. Curtis confesses she “was once a permissive parent. Having grown up with no spiritual foundation or moral guidelines myself, I didn’t have anything really to pass on. And since my background wasn’t undergirded with love, I had no understanding of what parental love looked like” (p. 31). She had no rules for bedtimes or much of anything else. She thought loving meant letting others do whatever they felt like. Then her oldest daughter, as a high school junior, began coming home at two in the morning. Mom awakened to the fact that youngsters lack wisdom and need guidance—and even clear rules. She also discovered that “kids don’t just need limits—they secretly want them” (p. 32). Love issues reasonable rules. Youngsters will always test them, but parents must uphold them for the good of their kids. This means that a mom or dad can’t be a child’s “best friend”— something 43 percent of the nation’s parents aspire to! Best friend parents, of course, never make rules or require homework or do anything to displease their “friend.” Truth to tell, however, kids both need and want parents! As one of the girls Curtis interviewed said: “‘I want my mom to be my mom'” (p. 46).
Many of the rules, in our world, necessarily focus on protecting kids from illicit sexual activities—evident in the fact “that more than one third of babies born in the United States were born to unwed mothers” (p. 48). Youngsters obviously need to develop the invaluable trait of self-control, though they find little encouragement to do so in the movies, songs, and TV programs that powerfully shape them. “The switch from romance to eroticism in entertainment has put enormous pressure on today’s teens” (p. 50). Thus parents have a great task: to both require obedience and encourage self-discipline. Curtis lists helpful ways to do so: encourage group dates; open your home to your kids’ friends; give them cell phones and keep them accountable; “eliminate latchkey hours;” and supervise entertainment.
Kids also need to learn compassion. By nature, they’re not so, necessarily! They learn to recognize, as Rick Warren says, “It’s not about you.” Others matter. And they should matter to teens. Being part of a big family certainly helps cultivate this, as Curtis makes clear. But kids still need to be taught to care for others—often by serving siblings at home. They need to know the difference between loving sinners and hating sins. They need to become aware of a world full of needs and hurts—something easily acquired through an acquaintance with world missions. Parents praying for missionaries and supporting World Vision or Compassion International clearly teach children elementary compassion lessons.
Standing up for what’s right, even when it’s unpopular, elicits a profound sense of self-respect. So parents need to both illustrate and encourage it, because our kids are on the “frontlines” of the culture war. Persecution—albeit it often subtle—is a fact of life for Christians in the public schools. The kids she interviewed all testified to the challenges they face at school. Getting involved in athletics or drama frequently forces a teen to make choices regarding his values and convictions. In the Curtis family, the author’s husband has consistently insisted: “It’s not who’s right but what’s right.” Films, such as High Noon, to Kill a Mockingbird, and Bonhoeffer, afford opportunities to emphasize the need for courage in living righteously. Kids thus nurtured generally find the courage to stand up for what’s right and discover, in the process, a great sense of personal dignity.
Growing up is marked by successes and failures. Learning from one’s mistakes, growing through disappointments, prepares one for adulthood. Curtis, of all people, knows the truth that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The doctrine of original sin was validated by both her own transgressions and with every baby she reared! Confessing her own failures to her kids, as well as to God, showed them the value of openness and honesty. Failures aren’t fatal. With God’s help, the slips and sins of youth can be both confess and transformed into wisdom and strength. And that’s what’s needed for the integrity that makes one satisfied with life.
For parents seeking to understand and rightly rear their teenagers, Dirty Dancing at the Prom provides welcome assistance.
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Two Canadian philosophers, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, give us an analysis of the impact of an earlier generation’s youth culture in Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture (New York: HarperBusiness, c. 2004). The rebels of the ’60s, the baby boomers, talked much about changing the world and making it a non-materialistic utopia of peace and beauty, but as adults they have tacitly repudiated their early idealism. The authors lament this loss, rather like socialists forever insisting on the purity of a system that never quite works as it should, but they insist we understand what happened through an analysis of the false ideas that have flourished since the ’60s.
Failing to think deeply enough and implement their convictions, counter-cultural radicals simply celebrated the wrong things—hippie attire, mindless music (today’s rap most the latest manifestation), mind-altering drugs. They generally imagined that reality could be shaped in accord with one’s nostalgia or hopes in anarchical utopias. Radicals imagined they would save the world by “subverting” the dominant culture through “alternative” art, clothing, “appropriate technology,” organic food, “free range chicken,” fair trade coffee, voluntary simplicity, and protest songs. In fact, as the baby boomers moved into positions of power in various institutions, they brought “their hippie value system with them” (p. 197).
“When the Beatles sang ‘All you need is love,’ many people took it quite literally” (p. 71). Rather than deal with the nitty-gritty problems of poverty and illiteracy and injustice, rather than understand the importance of productivity and personal discipline, counter-cultural rebels followed the lead of folks like Theodore Roszak and fixated on what he called “the psychic liberation of the oppressed.” They swallowed aphorisms coined by the likes of Herbert Marcuse, with his curious admixture of Marx and Freud, who lamented “repressive tolerance,” a phrase, Heath and Potter say, “makes about as much sense now as it did then” (p. 35). Which is to say it’s nonsense.
In short: critiquing mass society has failed to change it. The counterculture has majored in critiques for 40 years, but little resulted from their efforts. Sanctimoniously denouncing various kinds of “commodification,” radicals have settled into comfortable echelons of privilege (working at “cool jobs,” especially in universities, in “cool cities” such as Seattle and San Francisco) appropriate for themselves as the new “creative” class, earning twice as much as the working class. Indeed, “Cool is one of the major factors driving the modern economy. Cool has become the central ideology of consumer capitalism” (p. 188). Consequently, “the modern no-collar workplace, with its casual dress codes and flexible work hours” looks for all the world “like a hippie commune under professional management” (p. 202).
Nation of Rebels takes seriously the counter-culture of the ’60s, and it merits thoughtful reading. There seems to be much truth in the book’s thesis that the impact of the boomers was secondary rather than primary, and the changes they wrought were harmful rather than helpful.