Thursday, November 29, 2012

We'll Get What We Are

This morning I finished reading what may be one of the more important books I've ever read. Co-authored by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers  is a work of sociology intending to understand better, as the title suggests, the spiritual lives of adolescents. Before I continue, let me say simply this: if you are a parent, or someone who works with teenagers, you must buy this book. My only regret about reading this book is that I didn't read it before I started teaching high school.

Let me give a quick layout of the book:
  • Chapter 1 uses the stories of two Baptist teens to establish some of the book's main themes: American teens are religiously complicated; for many teens, religion and spirituality are very important in their lives; few teens are engaged in what many of us believe about them, namely, that they are "spiritual but not religious" or "spiritually seeking"'; American teenagers are typically extraordinarily inarticulate about expressing central tenets of their faith traditions; religion competes for teenagers' time; parents play an enormous role in their spiritual formation; religious involved teens exhibit "more positive outcomes" in life. 
  • Chapter 2 gives the "Big Picture" assessment through the statistical data gleaned from over 2,000 interviews. 
  • Chapter 3 begins to frame the data in chapter 2 by looking at three categories of adolescents: "spiritual seekers", "spiritually disengaged", and "religious devoted."
  • Chapter 4 suggests that American teenagers are influenced by the prevailing religious sentiment of "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." (More Below)
  • Chapter 5 May be the best thing I've ever read on framing the cultural context in which teens are raised. It considers the social forces vying for teenagers' time and explores the enormous pressure exerted upon teens by cultural forces that we, as adults, are responsible for. 
  • Chapter 6 considers three teenage Catholics in an effort to understand why Catholic teens are so inarticulate about their faith.
  • Chapter 7 looks at how religious involvement has salutary effects on adolescents' lives. 
I want to make three point about the book. Again, I strongly urge readers to acquire this book. It's not Moses coming down from the mountain, but it's pretty close. 

Point 1: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

The authors, after an extensive program of interviewing adolescents, found that beneath religious denominations there is what we might consider a "religion within religion" that joins teenage religion: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. The traits, as defined by the authors:
  • A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  • God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die. 
It's not as if this were a recited creed; rather, it's sort of a shared religious sentiment that cuts across denominational boundaries. Each of these points could be developed. For instance, point #2 might be expanded to consider what 'nice' and 'good' mean in our culture, which in the USA tends to mean "don't judge other people." This attitude, in turn, leads toward a fairly profound moral relativism and a reluctance on the part of many teenagers to take firm stances on moral issues. 

Point 2: We'll Get What We Are

One of the great canards operative in our culture is that teenagers are essentially mysterious and strange.  Based on their research, the authors suggest that the primary influence in teenage religious growth and development comes from their parents. If parents take their religious life and spiritual development seriously, there is a strong likelihood that their kids will as well. As Chapter 1 points out, adolescents are not per se hostile to religion. But if parents demonstrate a reluctance to practice what they preach, is there any wonder why the kids seem disengaged? 

The Chapter 5 lays out some of the key issues at play in our culture today. It'd be nearly impossible to rehearse the main lines of the chapter in a short space, but the influence of Mass-Consumer Capitalism does deserve quick mention. The culture of mass-consumer capitalism understands humans as "individual, autonomous, rational, self-seeking, cost-benefit-calculating consumers." So understood, the purpose of a person's life becomes satisfying one's own needs and desires, taking care of the self, putting "I" before "we." 

Teenagers are not a foreign species. I have had many wonderful conversations with young people over the years and I've never thought them to be aliens! Parents and other adult influences, however, must feel empowered to engage them in a meaningful way and to socialize them. Too often, I fear, parents cede authority to our consumer-culture and let the market, rather than the mother and father, rear the children. 

I didn't intend for this to be a book review. It's not. There were so many moments, however, that confirmed my own experiences with adolescents and brought to me a greater sense of awareness of their cultural context that I simply had to say something, even if what I've shared is somewhat stuttering. The richness of this book simply must be experienced. 

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