001 America’s Youth Culture

We who work with young people today sometimes sense the acute need for cross-cultural communication! While they live in the same nation, speak the same language (granted some latitude), and apparently embrace many of the same values as their elders, today’s youths clearly live in a distinct milieu. As with any culture, the first step to establishing the dialogue basic to both teaching and preaching. involves understanding it as well as possible.

Several studies have been published during the past few years which serve a useful sources, opening pathways for us older folks to pursue in our hunt for insights into “youth culture.” First, we must understand its language, its mode of communica- tion. In the opinion of Neil Postman, the educator who three decades ago published Teaching as a Subversive Activity, television has become our era’s truly subversive, mind-molding medium. It’s today’s lingua franca. Thus he argues, in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin Books, c. 1985), that the electronic media, particularly TV, have degraded American culture. Speaking “as plainly as” possible, Postman analyzes and laments what he judges “the most significant American cultural fact of” our times, “the decline of the Age of Typography and the ascendancy of the Age of Television.” This development absolutely alters “the content of politics, religion, education, and anything else that comprises public business” for they must conform, like athletic contests breaking for commercials, to TV’s dicta (p. 8).

TV’s triumph consummates what began a century ago, when the print-based culture, basic to reflective thought and exposition, began to caving in to “the Age of Show Business,” (p. 63), wherein electronic-powered media (e.g. telegraphed “news” and photographed “pictures”), shifted folks’ attention from substance to style, from realities embedded in first-hand experiences to images and distractions transported from afar. In the process, an addictive drug, “entertainment,” began insisting that politics, education, and religion be packaged in visually attractive ways. The “image” became more than pre-eminent–it effectively displaced reality!

In Postman’s opinion, what we know about ourselves comes primarily from TV. Consequently, “how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged” (p. 92), and “in courtrooms, classrooms, operating rooms, board rooms, churches and even airplanes, Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other” (p. 92).

TV’s deleterious impact clearly appears when religion turns electronic. TV always entertains, so religious programs must also entertain. Consequently, religion becomes entertaining rather than enchanting. This is a critical distinction, for Postman insists religion should usher us into sacred realms of reality through deep, being-level enchantments. When we’re entertained, we’re simply diverted by yet another “show.” Inevitably, TV sermons are “not anything like the Sermon on the Mount” and televangelists exude “good cheer” while promoting affluence” (p. 121), as does the rest of TV. But the tube can’t tolerate calls for self-denial or self-sacrifice.

Education, too, suffers the corrupting waves of the electronic media. Postman, a professor of education, worries that teaching degenerates to “an Amusing Activity” rather than a genuinely educative process. Apart from sleeping, watching TV consumes more of America’s children’s time than any other activity! It’s emerged as the main source of young people’s ideas and ideals; more than anything else, it provides the ethical instruction embraced by this nation’s young people. Packaged in a vacuum without prerequisites or traditions, focused on platitudes rather than perplexities, committed to simple story-telling rather than reasoned exposition, TV certainly “teaches”–and it teaches so powerfully that media-molded youngsters cannot cope with traditional ways of learning, reading, thinking, communicating.

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Whereas Postman sees popular culture from a non-Christian stance, Kenneth A. Myers, in All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians & Popular Culture (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, c. 1989), considers related phenomena from a Christian perspective. In his judgment, “the challenge of living with popular culture may well be as serious for modern Christians as persecution and plagues were for the saints of earlier centuries” (p. xii).

Above all else, popular culture seeks to answer one question: “the most edifying way to spend one’s time” (p. 53). It insists, as did Michael de Montaigne, that leisurely diversions best suit us. What the skeptic Montaigne celebrated as the best means of self-fulfillment, however, appeared to Blaise Pascal the recipe for self-destruction. In fact, Pascal asserted that “all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.” It’s almost as if “They have a secret instinct which impels them to seek amusement and occupation abroad, and which arises from the sense of their constant unhappiness” (p. 55).

Modernity has, quite clearly, fashioned a “culture of diversions.” Whatever’s new, whatever can be had now, allures us. So we demand amusements, entertainments, athletic contests, concerts–anything to divert us from mundane realities! Strangely enough, “killing time,” the very substance of life, seems to be a positive preoccupation of our culture!

Myers analyzes, in perceptive chapters, popular culture’s “idiom,” rock music, and its “medium,” television. While he makes no blanket condemnations of either, he questions their worth. Some rock music, he thinks, draws listeners into an almost gnostic spirituality–offering “a superior form of knowledge,” which is “immediate rather than reflective, physical rather than mental, and emotional rather than volitional” (p. 137). Much like those 19th century Romantics who relished sensation, primitivism, emotionalism, and sexual license, rock music easily sucks its addicts into a swirl of artificially-induced ecstasies in a self-created universe.

Television, popular culture’s “medium,” is “the entertainment appliance” comfortably enthroned as the hearth of the American home. In fact, it’s “not simply the dominant medium of popular culture, it is the single most significant shared reality in our entire society” (p. 160). Since TV mainly transmits images rather than words, it propagates a society stripped of rational norms, making “it increasingly difficult to sustain any broad commitment to any truth, since truth is an abstraction requiring language” (164).

Those of us who struggle, teaching and preaching, to keep young people’s attention, must realize that today’s youths have had little practice attending to anything for more than a few moments. In fact, according to Tony Schwartz, whose Media: The Second God Myers cites, reading requires a “concentration” which is “unimportant in electronic learning.” What films and TV require is an “openness” to the diffuse, oft-subliminal “patterns of information conveyed by electronic stimuli.”

Having focused on many of popular culture’s shortcomings, Myers concludes his study with a call not for resignation but for thoughtful response. In his opinion, “You can enjoy popular culture without compromising Biblical principles as long as you are not dominated by the sensibility of popular culture, as long as you are not captivated by its idols” (p. 180). Like the broader technological society of which it’s a part, the electronic media will not disappear. They will continue to dictatorially shape our culture. Christians may not effectively alter its agendas, but we must somehow forge a counter-cultural response to it, creating islands of scriptural sanity where more lasting realities such as health, truth, beauty, and goodness endure.

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In Generation at Risk (Minneapolis: World Wide Publications, c. 1990), Fran Sciacca, a teacher in a Colorado Springs Christian high school, shares his concerns for the young people with whom he works. Deeply involved, as a student “radical,” in the ’60’s counter-culture movement, Sciacca laments the insidious impact of the values he once championed. Thus he seeks, in a rather personal way, to provide “an examination of the historical-cultural context” (p. 13), to provide us some clues with which to make sense of what’s happened during the past three decades. We must discern modernity’s ingredients, yet he thinks few church leaders or even youth workers understand the Weltgeist culture now incubating adolescents.

Sciacca especially fears that conservative evangelicals have mindlessly merged themselves with a thoroughly secularized non-Christian world. “We embrace the same values, work for the same goals, and live for the same reasons as our non-believing neighbors, all the while professing that we are citizens of the kingdom of God” (p. 130). Unless the Church, and especially its leaders, awakens to the threat, he thinks (too pessimistically, I suspect, in the light of two millennia of Church history!) the coming generations will largely lose the faith!

Sciacca’s work lacks some of the careful analyses and creation/culture-affirming nuances of the other works I’ve read, and he sets forth, in many ways, American Fundamentalism’s separatistic anti-culture mind-set. Yet he daily deals with “Christian” high school students, senses their lack of foundations or moorings, cares for them, and helps us if we want to understand them.

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Whereas Sciacca focuses on high school youths, John Davison Hunter, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, portrays Evangelical college students in Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, c. 1987), using data drawn from nine liberal arts Evangelical colleges (members of the Christian College Coalition) and seven Evangelical seminaries. Hunter regards Evangelicalism as indeed the healthiest of American religious sectors, and he endeavors to predict what it will become in the hands of the coming generation. To accomplish this, he focuses on four areas: Evangelicalism’s “theology; its view of work, morality, and the self; its ideal of the family; and its political culture” (p. 15).

Theologically, he finds young Evangelicals far less certain than were their elders of such things as an inerrant Scripture, a literal hell, of salvation solely through faith in Christ. They frequently value the “social gospel” as much as, if not more than, the traditional evangelical concern for “saving the lost.”

(Though he labels these issues “theological,” he does not in fact treat truly theological themes such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, etc.; here his sociological orientation may blind him to those “theological” concerns young Evangelicals still espouse.) Hunter finds the efforts of Evangelicals to attain scholarly respectability, to escape the ghetto-style mentality of earlier Fundamentalism, subtly eroding the earlier certainties of Evangelicalism’s theology.

Likewise, he finds data showing the decline of the traditional evangelical work ethic–and especially its “moral asceticism.” In earlier times, evangelicals sought to be non-worldly, but today’s representatives often seek to identify and conform to the world. Formerly “worldly” activities such as playing cards, social dancing, attending movies, drinking alcohol, are now widely indulged. “In a word,” Hunter says, “the Protestant legacy of austerity and ascetic self-denial is virtually obsolete in the larger Evangelical culture and is nearly extinct for a large percentage of the coming generation of Evangelicals” (p. 73).

Even the traditional family, once a bedrock certainty for Evangelicals, has lost its moorings. The broader culture’s drift toward androgyny (the blurring of sexual roles), has swept along great numbers of Evangelicals. Though far lest feminist-oriented, though far more supportive of the nuclear family, than the “secular” society, Hunter’s data indicate “Evangelical family specialists (including many ministers) advocate and defend a model of the family that is said to be traditional but in fact has no real historical precedent (in Christendom or anywhere else) in the name of a constituency that has largely abandoned it in favor of an androgynous/quasi-androgynous model” (p. 114)

As Hunter evaluates the evangelical scene, he believes the old certainties have largely dissipated. “Orthodox” belief systems have lost their molding power. Things once judged “sinful” no longer seem so, and “there are not new prohibitions replacing the older ones” (p. 162). Evangelicalism, in many ways, seems in the process of eroding away.

The liberal arts colleges, initially instituted to preserve orthodoxy and implement behavioral standards, have instead accelerated the erosion of one-time certainties. Inexorably, it seems, “exposure to the realm of higher education weakened the grip of religious conviction over a person’s life” (p. 171). Evidence, Hunter insists, shows that amidst a weakening evangelicalism, “the educational process is a contributing factor.” Instead of buttressing church traditions in the lives of their adherents, higher education undermines them. Significantly, college faculty, especially in the humanities and social sciences, “are even less committed to the theological and cultural traditions of the Evangelical heritage” than their students. Obviously, this has “a profound effect on the world view of students” (p. 175).

Amazingly, he finds that the schools most committed to blending faith and learning fail most miserably! Ironically, “the more intent Evangelical higher education is on preserving the integrity of its traditions, the less successful it is” (pp. 178-79). In fact, “Among Protestant colleges, the more serious a commitment to the task of higher education, the more prevalent the liberalization and secularization tendencies” (p. 177).

Much of the problem, Hunter thinks, stems from the lost “cultural hegemony” Evangelical Protestants earlier enjoyed in this country. This century has vastly re-cast the face of America. Modernity, with its moral pluralism, its imposed world-wide horizons, has set the agenda for us all: and it demands responses Evangelical have not been equipped to make. How they will cope with the world which has opened, like a chasm around them, Hunter cannot predict.

Nor, I suspect, can we! But we can certainly learn from the data Hunter gives us. We can begin to honestly address the realities of our young people’s world and respond to it, and to them as they are, rather than what we wish it were!

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Finally, perhaps the finest of the recent books evaluating the impact of popular culture on American’s youth is Dancing in the Dark: Youth, Popular Culture and the Electronic Media, ed. Roy M. Anker, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, c. 1991). Under the direction of Quentin J. Schultze, a team of scholars at Calvin College devoted a year to this study, and they present us a balanced, scholarly, valuable treatise.

Initially, they remind us that “youth have been a ‘problem’ for hundreds, probably thousands, of years. Every adult reading this book was very likely part of a generation that criticized and was criticized by its elders” (p.3). In many ways, today’s youth simply reveals, in distinctively adolescent ways, the broader American culture, which as a consumer society clearly believes happiness can be bought.

Having acknowledged this, having surveyed the various forces of “modernization” which have shaped youth culture throughout this nation’s history, the authors then focus on the primary force in modern young peoples’ lives: the electronic media. “Indeed, it is hard to underestimate teh dramatic extent to which radio, television, cable, satellites, and the VCR have changed the ways that youth relate to each other and to other generations” (47). Attuned to the media, today’s youths have a shared network which radically severs them from traditional social ties with family and church. Thus they find irrelevant those “traditional institutions” which revere “history, maturity, or wisdom” (58).

Consequently, what “maps of reality” youngsters obtain come from music and films rather than parents and teachers. With ever increasing amounts of money and leisure time, America’s youth indulge in walkmans and concerts, TV and videocassettes and compact discs. Add to this the mobility and privacy of the automobile (owned by increasing numbers of teenagers), and you find a sub-culture effectively insulated against the broader world. With enormous profits accrued courting young people, the entertainment industry has deliberately exploited “ad nauseum the emotional, social, and physical tensions of their adolescent market” (98).

Dancing in the Dark effectively establishes the bond binding youth culture and the consumer society–and this uniquely distinguishes its presentation. We cannot separate the two! Often those who most condemn youth culture promote the very consumerism which underlies it. “For all its seeming divergence, the world of youth is largely shaped, sustained, and strained by the broad and aggressive consumer culture that envelops North America” (112). On the surface it may seem different, but at its heart “the ‘wisdom’ that the entertainment industry gives youth is consumerism” (112).

TV shows, especially MTV (which is “one nearly continuous advertisement”), records and films are produced by profit-hungry corporations; for all their counter-culture posturing, rock stars and media celebrities demand rich dividends for their “artistic” presentations. They celebrate, by their lifestyles, if not their lyrics, the “goods and services” a consumer society substitutes for “meaning, intimacy, and identity” (p. 139).

Individual chapters focus on rock music, MTV, and teenage films, giving thoughtful treatment to each. The authors refuse to “bash” all forms of contemporary entertainment; they insist that rock music certainly meets some deep needs of teenagers, though often in inadequate if not perverted forms. Of MTV they have little positive to say, and today’s films, so saturated with casual sexuality and violence, have little to recommend them. Yet the kids are watching–and they are influenced by all three media.

So adults must study, and discuss, and help youngsters sort out what it all means. Like it or not, youths seem addicted to the electronic media; it’s the milieu in which they live and move and have their being! “Teens swim in an electronic sea, mesmerized by the ever-changing spectacle of strange and colorful shapes and sounds. Enrapt, they readily forget about the dangers of drowning” (251). Unless their elders, parents and teachers and pastors, help them, they may well drown!

Dancing in the Dark should be read by all who work with Christian young people. It insists we take seriously what deeply shapes today’s youth. It insists we not mindlessly brush aside all that’s new or challenging to our aging prejudices. Yet it argues, with persuasive data, that the main ingredients of today’s youth culture threaten the very health of the young people ingesting it.