February 29, 2008

Christianity's misbegotten stepcousin

So, I've mentioned that I'm working on my master's thesis, but I haven't said what I'm writing about. I will say that this post is lengthy and not really keeping with my blog's usual tone . . . but it's my blog and I can write about whatever I want to write about. So, let me get all academic on you here for a bit . . .

I'll start from the beginning. A few years ago we had a speaker at camp who encouraged teens to flee from evil. That's good. I'm glad he did that. That's what we pay him to say (just kidding . . . kind of). In doing so, he implied that our campers need to stay away from "popular culture." He didn't define the term or clarify what he was saying. He just kind of put it out there. I think the thing I remember most about that night is that every one of our counselors got a smirk on their faces and glanced over at me. Why? Because two nights before that I had thrown a get together at our house to watch VH1's World Series of Popular Culture.

I have myriad problems with that statement that all boil down to this: For many Christians living in America today, the only interaction with the culture in which they live is through boycotts and culture wars. American popular culture has invaded almost every continent and culture in the world. It is drawing increasing attention not only from secular scholars, but also from the Christian community.In today’s age, it is virtually impossible to avoid contact with it. Telling a teenager to "avoid popular culture" is like telling a fish to ignore the water in which it swims.

There are all kinds of terms that I'd need to define for you and cases I'd need to lay out to continue here. In my paper I lay theological foundations that consume 30+ pages. But the basic questions I'm trying to answer with my research are: How do we teach teenagers to think critically about popular culture and how do we use popular culture as a toolkit for spiritual formation in teenagers?

Around the same time that I heard this guy at camp speak, I was given a copy of a book called Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers by Smith and Denton. This book is so informative and so disturbing, all at once. If you work with youth . . . or work with college students . . . or work with people who work with youth . . . or work with college students who work with youth . . . or if you're a Christian . . . you should be reading this book.

The good news from this book is that youth are most definitely hungry for spiritual things. Although, they found that the use of the word “spiritual” by teens has too broad of a meaning to be strictly defined. Their findings show that the majority of American teenagers call themselves Christians, have beliefs that are similar to those of their parents, believe in God, and feel positively about religion. However, while most youth share their parents’ beliefs, they still weren’t able to clearly put what they believe into words. They say:

"Our impression as interviewers was that many teenagers could not articulate matters of faith because they have not been effectively educated in and provided opportunities to practice talking about their faith. Indeed, it was our distinct sense that for many of the teens we interviewed, our interview was the first time that any adult had ever asked them what they believed and how it mattered in their life" (133).

Smith and Denton call the minimal faith held by most teens “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” This deity is described by Smith and Denton as an impersonal divine being who was rather uninvolved but helps people to feel better about themselves. For teens, religion is more or less viewed as “helpful.”They expounded on their findings even more on page 171:

"We have come with some confidence to believe that a significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition, but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity's misbegotten stepcousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This has happened in the minds and hearts of many individual believers and, it also appears, within the structures of at least some Christian organizations and institutions. The language, and therefore experience, of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, Eucharist, and heaven and hell appear, among most Christian teenagers in the United States at the very least, to be supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward. It is not so much that U.S. Christianity is being secularized. Rather more subtly, Christianity is either degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith." (page 171, emphasis mine)

Ugh. This weighs heavy on my heart. I've had to pray through the helplessness I feel when I read this and try to lay out a curriculum for the summer. We have our campers for five days. What can we do in five days to help our campers move away from Moralistic Therapeutic Deism toward and authentic faith?

That's what I'm trying to figure out.


Sara Neufeld said...

Wow, that's some heady stuff. First of all, I'm impressed that you're writing this 30+ thesis while being a full-time mom. Very impressive. You're a better woman than I! Those quotes are very interesting, sad, and I guess not all that surprising. Good post.

Smith Family Blog said...

Very interesting. I would love to read your thesis when you are through. Really for the first time in my life, I am involved with kids at church that are in their teens (as opposed to grades k-3). Sometimes I feel like don't know how to make them understanding anything.

Your note about boycotts made me smile. We don't buy from companies that support terrible things (like donating tons of money to planned parenthood or something). BUT, I get frustrated because we as Christians are always portraying our negative selves-- don't buy from this company, don't buy from that company. Why can't we do something positive, and say, "Hey! This company is great! They provide computers in schools. Buy from them!" It would definitely help portray Christians in a more favorable light.

Anonymous said...


GREAT questions. Reminds me a little of Velvet Elvis... Christian is a fine noun but a terrible adjective. (I hope it wasn't me who said that in vespers....)

On summer curriculum: I continue to go back to love Gd with all ya got, and love your neighbor as yourself. Caleb (OT) was commended because he followed God "wholeheartedly."

I also think I'd "narrow the focus"- determine what you want to communicate (simplify, simplify- remember- this is a PART of their spiritual journey- you don't have to take them from start to finish in 5 days); then... ready for this?.... TELL the speakers what your framework is, what you want to communicate, on what days, etc. If they won't, then they don't come.


I really like the idea of focusing not so much (just) on heaven, but HERE, NOW. Why does my faith matter NOW?

Just my thoughts.

John ("God's heart is filled with tenderness and delight at the mere thought og you...")

Crystal said...

I agree!! This is something I think about daily since becoming a mom...how to be in the world and not of it...how to teach my kids to idolize the right thing...Kind of what I talked about in terms of celebrities. More than anything I think our kids (and the kids in our lives) learn waaaaaay more from how WE live our lives that how we SAY we live our lives...

I'm probably not making any sense to you so I will stop. :)

Have you read "This Beautiful Mess"? I LOVE it...it focuses on experiencing the Kingdom in the here and now.

Anonymous said...

Can I just say that our sermon title on Sunday was "Moralistic Theraputic Deism"? Huh. How ironic. (Greg preached).

Anonymous said...

Wow Sara...I think about this kinda thing ALL OF THE TIME. I'm going to have to check out that book. But I couldn't agree with you more...we (you, me, teenagers, our parents, our grandparents...Christians of any age) can't just seperate ourselves from the world around us and "flee evil." God placed us in this world for a reason and we just have to learn how to find Truth among the mess that we're in. Thanks for sharing...and goodluck on your thesis...what a compelling topic! :)