Mass Entertainment Is What’s Left After Popular Culture Disappears
Saturday, February 19, 2005, 4:06 PM

Touchstone contributing editor, Anthony Esolen, replies to these letters on movies from our readers:

What a gratifying mailbox of letters these were! Mr. Ivery’s I especially liked. I’m afraid he’s got his reviewer nailed, countersunk, filled with putty, and sanded smooth. I’ll venture to suggest, moreover, that the Golden Age of American movies, roughly from 1935 to 1955, owed much of its glory to the fact that the directors, writers, and actors had themselves done a great deal of the work that he describes. Some boys like Stan Musial escaped the mines to play baseball; others made movies. They knew what it was like to swing a pickax, or pitch hay, or lay brick. They knew what it was like to get drunk and brawl, and come home sheepishly awaiting worse.

In other words, in important ways these films did arise from, and were an expression of, a truly popular culture: a man like John Ford grew up in much the same poverty as did the fellow who saved a buck to take his wife and kids to see Fort Apache. Clark Gable in It Happened One Night could play the man’s man and news hound always living off his last ten dollars because, like everybody else, he had his own scrambling to do when he was young. And the long shadow of the Church is cast over the films of many of the greatest directors: Ford, Capra, William Wyler, Howard Hawks, Elia Kazan.

But now I think we need to distinguish between popular culture and mass entertainment. Long gone are the days when those who made movies were the brothers and sisters of people who laid bricks. So too, long gone are the days when those who made movies shared the beliefs and joys and sorrows of people who laid bricks. Movies are now mass entertainment. And mass entertainment, in all its forms, destroys popular culture.

I say this as a guilty consumer of one form of mass entertainment: I’m a die-hard fan of the Saint Louis Cardinals. I have been since I was a kid, and have a perfectly appalling data bank of statistics memorized. But when I was eight years old, watching the Cardinals beat the Red Sox in the World Series, the game really had not yet crossed over from the culture of the people into mass entertainment. Almost, but not quite. If you watch old clips of the games, you notice that there’s no glitz, no pre-game analyses, no post-game interviews to speak of, no entertainment extravaganza. It was a ballgame. People wanted to watch a ballgame, because in their own persons they had played ball themselves, or had watched it, in their own small towns. Even my small town had a semi-pro team in the now defunct Mountain League. They played on a sandlot with no fence—it was about 400 feet to the river embankment. Every once in a while a big guy would plug one in the river.

So here is a non-theological reason why we should turn our backs upon mass entertainment (and I think Miss Bluett would agree with me here—she’s a lover of medieval drama, which truly was an expression of popular celebration): we will never have a popular culture to redeem until we reject mass entertainment. Can’t have town choirs when everybody’s plugged into headphones, listening to Britney Lopez or Jennifer Spaniel or the vast indistinguishable Whatever.



Readers Respond to Hutchens on Film Reviews
Saturday, February 19, 2005, 12:26 PM

Several readers respond to Film Reviews by S. M. Hutchens:

First of all, I’m just a regular working-class stiff, certainly no scholar, so what do I know? I do know, however, that the scholars at Touchstone do have the clued-in sensibilities of the regular working-class stiff, which, in my opinion, is very, very good, and which I commend.

The question of my credentials aside (and that’s a big aside), what often comes to my mind when reading movie reviews by Christians in Christian publications, is that the author frequently seems to be just really, like, well, intellectually hip to the fact that he’s a truly clued-in Christian writing a truly relevant movie review that, like, really demonstrates that even Christians (like himself) can be, like, intellectually, culturally, and coolly relevant (and perhaps even more importantly, enlightened!!!). In my opinion, what the writer really needs for an education—for enlightenment, even—is to work in a facility where, say, he’s lifting grown adults out of wheelchairs every day, and cleaning their butts. Or a job as a laborer on a road construction crew. Not for a day but for a few years. Etc., etc. Oh, well. Good job, and take care,

Kevin Ivery

———-

I too have grown increasingly uneasy about viewing many films. In part of course this is because of the continual decline in the moral quality of contemporary films, but it is also in part a realization that the very nature of films makes us voyeurs, and we have little doubt about the ethical propriety of such acts for the Christian. This problem has always existed for films, but it has become more pronounced as the level of voyeurism increases: we witness today not merely the private and the mundane in the lives of others, but quite commonly the perverse and the blasphemous.  We leave feeling unclean, or as S. M. Hutchens puts it, defiled.

The analogy of films to books is weak because films are too brief to allow the luxury of character development such as one finds even in mediocre novels, and because the viewpoint of the film is not really that of a character or an omniscient narrator (as in most novels), but rather (again) that of the voyeur, the not-so-innocent stranger who happens upon the scene. We watch films not as we read books, that is, to learn from the lives of our fellows, but instead simply to leer at lives we cannot or would not lead ourselves.

Regards,

Bill Reichert
Palos Verdes, California

———-

The point [Hutchens] makes—whether, as Christians, we should even watch films, theatre and television (let alone review them)—is one I’ve been turning over in my mind of late. I’m currently reading Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth. Pearcey’s central thesis is that Christians are to develop an overarching, Christ-centered worldview. We are then to go forth and strive to win back every facet of culture through our God-given vocations in art, business, law, education, medicine, politics, etc. She includes the entertainment industry as one of these vocations.

It’s a commendable thesis, but it seems to me that, in some cases, she’s asking the wrong question. It’s not whether we need Christian actors, writers, producers, filmmakers, and so on; it’s whether we, as Christians, should expend so much of our minds and spirits on the commodity produced in the first place. At best, the time we waste keeps us from the enjoyment of so many other aspects of God’s good creation. I’m thinking here of the pleasure of building good, solid relationships with friends and family, of reading, cooking, gardening, and, above all, plumbing the depths of the Bible and the wisdom of the saints. At worst, it corrupts us and turns us away from God. It awakens in us “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” And it’s addictive: the more we consume, the more we want to consume, and we’re caught in the cycle.

As for the “pert and urbane reviews in culture-sensitive Christian magazines,” I ask myself, as Mr. Hutchens does, whether the reviewers ever stop to examine themselves. I’ve seen over and over their defense for the work they’ve chosen. They are watching the film, or play, or TV show, with their critical Christian faculties fully engaged. This will enable them to serve others in two ways. One, they will be able to deliver informed criticism to other believers, separating for them the Truth from the deception, the pure from the impure, pointing out anything redemptive. Two, they will have points of reference from which to interact with unbelievers. These arguments seem plausible on the surface but are really devoid of inner truth. Was it Chesterton who said that Good is infinite in its variety, while evil is always depressingly the same? How many formula Hollywood screen offerings must one watch to realize that they’re no different than the tens of thousands that have come before? Five? Twenty? Two hundred? Is not the defense I cite above rather an excuse not to give up an activity that they know in their heart of hearts is not pleasing to God, but that they believe they cannot live without? I  suspect that’s the answer.

As believers, we’re called to soak our minds in the true, the noble, the right, the pure, the lovely, the admirable, the excellent and the praiseworthy. It’s axiomatic that reality in this fallen world will, all on its own, provide each of us with more than a lifetime’s worth of evil and ugliness. Must we daily seek to feed our imaginations with it, too.

(I guess I’m advocating for Touchstone to avoid movie reviews).

Respectfully,

Jenna Young
Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan

———-

Sir, I was intrigued by the article on film reviews. I would like to see you explore this further. I grew up and pastor in a conservative church that is part of the American holiness movement. When I was a child in the ‘50s going to the movies was pretty much prohibited, and in my own home TV was discouraged. I enjoy watching movies and occasionally (rarely, really) go to the cinema. I try to be careful about what I allow to be played in my home, and I have TV Guardian technology on my video player that filters out profane and coarse language, etc.

I believe that one of the reasons we (my denomination) have struggled to take young people into the church as members for the last 15 to 20 years has been our stance on entertainment. Now our church discipline no longer bans theater attendance per se, but cautions us generally about the sensual, violent and profane material which we can access directly into our homes by a variety of means. Even as we have become more liberal in our lifestyles, we still have yet to shake our antediluvian image in the larger church world, and some of our prohibitions give rise to amused derision from our brothers and sisters in other denominations, not to mention skepticism and incredulity on the part of the unregenerate.

I too have wondered about the effects on reviewers who expose themselves routinely to movies like Sideways or Meet the Fockers, to mention a couple of recent films that are apparently pretty crass and vulgar. I do freely admit to reading such reviews, so I may be aiding and abetting a practice I question myself. My sixteen-year-old son is fascinated with the movie industry, and is always wanting to watch rare or offbeat movies like La Dolce Vita or Tokyo Story. He loves to read articles about Orson Welles, Spielberg, Tarantino, and others. My struggle as a father is how to guide him in developing a Christian world view and the pursuit of holiness without being legalistic.

Well, I am rambling a bit, so I best close. I have heard both sides of the argument: World Magazine, for example, feels they must know what is playing at the local cinema even though some of their conservative readers take them to task over it from time to time. And I suppose sites like Plugged In and others feel they are doing parents a service, as well.

I believe the issue of knowing how to be in the world yet not of the world in relationship to popular culture as a whole is one that we as a church have struggled with, going from legalism to license at times. Thanks for addressing this issue.

John Mark Poling

———-

While I’ll admit that Camelot has serious moral problems—what pro-lovers treatment of Lancelot and Guinevere does not?—I cannot concede [Hutchens’s] assertion that Christians should think twice before coming into contact with any forms of theater. “The fulminations of the church fathers against the theatre and ‘spectacles’“ mostly regarded the Roman circuses, hardly surprising when one considers that the circuses were the sites of martyrdoms and live pornography. Theater died in Western Europe for centuries because of Roman excess, but when it came back, it came back in the churches. Look at the rich and centuries-long traditions of medieval theater, from the first “Quem quaeritis?” play in 969 to the great Corpus Christi cycles of the fifteenth century, and beyond to the erudite morality plays of court circles like that of St. Thomas More. To say you are considering ”the difficulties the churches seem historically to have had with plays and players” is to say you are considering a post-Reformation tradition while skipping over centuries of drama.

Post Reformation, religious drama was problematic because plays were used as propaganda vehicles by partisans of both sides. To survive, plays and players took on a more secular tone. Nevertheless, the underlying Christian sensibilities remained the same: Shakespeare’s latest plays resound with the hope of the Resurrection.

Yes, as time went on, dramas became more and more a- and immoral insofar as they strove to maintain popularity. But not all plays are immoral, anymore than all books are (and we won’t even go into the fact that novels, by so thoroughly submerging the mind of the reader in the fictive world, can seriously warp the moral sensibility). Nor are all movies or all television programs immoral. By all means, avoid the bad. But by all means, encourage the good.
 
Plays and movies are not inherently “historically inimical to the faith” any more than novels, poems, or philosophy. By separating “Christian dialogue with Athens, Paris, and Rome” from Christian dialogue ”with Corinth, Pompeii, Hollywood, and Cannes,” you are saying that what one believes philosophically can have no expression artistically.  On the contrary, what we believe MUST be expressed in what we create. David wrote psalms. Hundreds of anonymous clerics wrote plays, as did Chesterton and Tolkien. Christian artists cannot change the popular tone of their media by withdrawing from it, but by engaging it and using it to make something beautiful for God.
 
If we retreat from Hollywood, then Hollywood reigns unchallenged. That would be a shame. Equally shameful would be the case if all the Christian playwrights and actors I know were asked to give up their ministry because of a historical misunderstanding. I, for one, will keep watching plays and movies. From them I can learn the tricks of the trade, and from them I can steal—the oldest trick in the book—the technical wonders that make plays on any subject work onstage. (Bad plays on any subject aren’t really worth producing.) I can keep writing my plays, incorporating both my technical know-how and my religion and philosophy. Knowing the ropes, I can tie my own knots. Lifelines are made of such as these.

Still a Christian playwright,
Kate Bluett

———-

You have a serious magazine, to which I have at last subscribed!

I realize that Hutchens didn’t say you were, but he hinted that the idea of a regular film review might be a consideration; and the hint of a possibility is enough to make me type. I think the worst thing about popular culture in general, and movies in particular, is that they are such a distraction. If you use the pages of your magazine to pursue distractions won’t you lower the standard of seriousness, and debase the coin you mint? Do not be so foolish as to practice something so embarrassingly evangelical as the ‘Christian’ film review. Don’t you think that serious scrutiny of the vast majority of film would be as supercilious as the gourmet hot dog?
 
With great sincerity,
Joel Zartman

———-

Just wondering if anyone has paid attention to the Christianity Today/Books & Culture 10 best films of 2004 list, which I noticed yesterday on their website. They have two lists, the ten most redemptive films and the ten critically best films.

I found it sadly instructive that the ten critically best films were very similar to what one would find on a virulent secularist’s ten best list: they included Dogville, Million Dollar Baby, Vera Scott and others that to my second-hand knowledge (I have not seen any of the films but try to follow cultural trends through criticism), contain serious anti-Christian and anti-human themes and platforms. I may be presumptuous, but do we see another example of the faithlessness of the evangelical pseudo-intellectual evidenced here, eager to pander and ingratiate himself with our cultural elite? It would be more understandable if our cultural elite offered something really tempting, such as the past paganisms and heresies of strong-minded rebels. But what our elite presents as important is such chaff and swill.

David Bunn,
Salinas, California



Fame As Commodity
Saturday, February 19, 2005, 8:08 AM

In response to Bobby Maddex in Fame-Induced Apathy:

The media have to fill time and column inches—with something. “Fame” (or “celebrity”) is the commodity invented to fill this time. It doesn’t matter who the person is, what he does, or what he amounts to: he (or she) is anointed as a “celebrity” and thereby qualified to fill the time.

The short shelf life of Fame establishes both that it’s a commodity and that it’s fungible. The young instinctively absorb this (that it’s fungible), that anyone can be “famous,” and therefore they too can be a “fame commodity” in the media machinery. They also understand perfectly well that fame has no relation to the talent or intrinsic worth of the “famous person;” in fact, this relation may well be inverse.

The corollary is that the media establishes reality. If something or someone is recognized by the media, it or they “exist;” if not, it does not exist. Thus, the media serve an ontological function for the young, which is often overlooked. The young need to be told what is real and what is not real, and in the absence of substance in education and/or parenting, they accept the media as their substitute parent.

Mark D
Sarasota, Florida



Film Review: Constantine
Friday, February 18, 2005, 3:33 PM

In Constantine (out today), Keanu Reeves plays a chain-smoking, world-weary exorcist, John Constantine, who wields a Latin-inscribed, crucifix-shaped Tommy Gun in battles with nearly-headless “soldier demons” about contemporary Los Angeles.

Able to see from a tender age dark spiritual beings that inhabit the incarnate edges of our world, his parents come to think him insane. Subjected to shock treatments and shrinks, as a despondent teenager he takes his own life but is resuscitated after visions of a hellish plane just beyond our ken. Now he lives to send half-human, half-demon predators back to the inferno, hoping to earn a ticket to paradise the next time death kindly stops for him.

Enter a dagger assumed to have been used in the crucifixion and somehow tied to apocalyptic prophesies (found under the ruins of a freeway bridge wrapped in a Nazi flag!), the angel Gabriel (ticked off at God for making the achievement of heaven too easy for humans by the grace of forgiveness), the son of Lucifer (who has possessed a peasant Mexican—demons like to inhabit Latinos in this film), a gorgeous detective (Rachel Weiss) looking for answers to why her twin recently committed suicide, a retinue of bookish, trinket-laden spiritualists, the aforementioned demonic half-breeds, with hints of the end of the world and… you get the idea.

Suffice to say the film portrays a dualistic creation wherein God and Satan have “made a wager for the souls of men.” Gabriel and the son of Lucifer team up to rush the Apocalypse on mankind (remember, please, that Gabriel wants humans to suffer greatly for their sins before they enter paradise—no reasons are articulated for the “rebellion” of Lucifer’s son), while Constantine, with the help of the young Ms. Weiss, discovers their intentions and, after they swipe the pretty young thing whom he’s begun to fall in love with, sets out to stop them.

I cringe at the sort of “Christian criticism” that finds fault with artifacts of our culture, picking them apart here and there for signs that they are worthy or unworthy of our regard—trying to baptize them or excommunicate them—especially in light of what self-described Christian artists too often produce.

Still, I cannot justify anyone witnessing a film that maligns the character of God as acutely as does Constantine. While the forces of darkness get all the screen time (the director, to his credit, admits it’s easier to depict evil than goodness), what we learn about the God who represents the side of the angels is just enough to identify him with the God Christians are supposed to worship—here is the Catholic church, there is the crucifix, here is the holy water, there is the statue of Mary (in the window of a storefront Pentecostal church!)—but who could not be further from the God who enters our world himself, becoming one of us, to redeem creation and humanity from destruction and the grave. The Christian God, mocked here as a figurehead of hapless deism at best, is no mere bystander, indifferent to our suffering and careless about our annihilation.

Is Constantine “just entertainment” (how much do we dismiss with those words?) or does it purport to tell a story which, even if fictional, symbolizes something about this world? The creators seem not to want to commit. Their answers—surprise, surprise—are impressionistic. A good work of art does not distort God and Lucifer, the angels and the demons, so baldly and so badly. It respects them more than this art does. Constantine flipping Lucifer his middle finger as an invisible force pulls his dying soul into an idyllic, cloudy afterworld tells you all you need to know about this movie, and is a clue to exactly what’s wrong with it. Christ has more respect for Satan than to give him “the bird.”

Constantine doesn’t work as art or story or theology. To the extent that it does certain things well (its depiction of hell as a never-ending nuclear firestorm engulfing but never quite consuming the entire surface of the earth in a dimension of time and space just beyond our senses is harrowing) the story the film tells is yet a false one. Not to mention the confusion the film sows by mixing the symbols of traditional Christianity with dualistic tomfoolery.

There are young men, in particular, who may appreciate its occasional one-liners, and jaw-gaping visual conundrums (one of these at the beginning of the film is disturbing precisely because the technical achievement is so astounding). But is Constantine good enough as art or story that moviegoers should subject their imaginative life (waking or sleeping) to the collective frames of this film just to be cut by whatever shards of goodness, beauty or truth it might produce? No.



Saturday: Children’s Poetry Readings on C-Span with Joseph Bottum, Others
Friday, February 18, 2005, 10:53 AM

Joseph Bottum, former Books & Arts editor at the Weekly Standard and the new editor of First Things, sends us this note:

I put together a reading of children’s poetry at the American Enterprise Institute a couple weeks ago, and it is re-airing on Book TV/C-SPAN2 this weekend: on Saturday, February 19 at 4:00 pm. [Check local listings.]

Along the way, I read selections from a new manuscript of my children’s poems, and the friends I gathered read their favorite classic works by various authors.

My own view is that you haven’t really lived till you’ve seen Bill Kristol read “Goodnight, Moon” or Christopher Hitchens recite Kipling’s “If—” or Mary Eberstadt do Ogden Nash’s “Isabelle.” Anyway, the occasion is more or less my farewell to Washington, and I thought you might get a kick out it, if you get a chance to see it.



Hart Book on Tsunami Forthcoming
Friday, February 18, 2005, 10:32 AM

David Hart tells us that he has a short book on the Indian Ocean Tsunami, The Doors of the Sea, coming out in the fall from William B. Eerdmans & Co.



Over at Crux: Fame-Induced Apathy
Friday, February 18, 2005, 10:16 AM

Bobby Maddex, editor of Crux (part of our family of publications), recorded a series of commentaries for the Moody radio network on themes central to the new magazine. Transcripts of these radio talks are now available on the Crux website. I thought our readers would appreciate this insight from the second commentary in the set:

[What Douglas] Coupland (author of Generation X) calls “Fame-induced Apathy” [is] the attitude that no activity is worth pursuing unless one can become very famous pursuing it. Much to my embarrassment, I must admit that there exists no better characterization of my generation’s misguided approach to life.

I first noticed it when a friend showed up at my house with a t-shirt that read “I am not famous,” the implicit message being that one might have mistaken her for a celebrity if not for this wearable message to the contrary. Also embedded in the shirt’s statement is the notion that my friend, who also happened to be donning movie starlet sunglasses, blond highlights in her hair, and a pair of stylishly torn jeans, wants to be mistaken for a famous person. Indeed, the more precise message in her case would have been “I am not famous—yet!”

It is no coincidence that the proliferation of reality television shows coincides with my generation’s replacement of the Baby Boomers as the demographic targeted by Hollywood and Madison Avenue. These shows are not so much creating an appetite for fame as satisfying a desire that already existed. Whether it’s The Real World, American Idol, The Apprentice, or Survivor, such programs are merely supplying a shot at the celebrity status that we so desperately seek, even if it is a fame of the most exploitative and fleeting variety. The understanding here is that obscurity is tantamount to failure. Andy Warhol’s prediction that each of us will experience fifteen minutes of fame has become a promise—a right as inalienable as the freedom of speech.

And then there are those cosmetic surgery shows like The Swan and Extreme Makeover. Did you know that the American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery reports that the overall number of cosmetic procedures has increased by 228 percent since 1997? Clearly, we are no longer content with admiring our celebrities; we want to be them in all their aerobicized and airbrushed glory. Pseudo-documentary television series like VH1’s The Fabulous Life and Behind the Music are also indicative of our lust for fame. Such biographical material encourages the illusion that we are intimate with the famous—just a few steps away from being famous ourselves.

With notoriety ostensibly closer to us than it has ever been, why not go for it? Why not leave our mark and be known? The problem, of course, is that such lifestyles are antithetical to Christianity. Remember when Jesus healed the synagogue ruler’s daughter in the Gospel of Luke? He charged the parents to tell no one what had happened, exhibiting in the process a humility made all the more profound by His status as God. Even more telling are the Beatitudes in which Christ announced that it is the meek who will be blessed, not the ambitious. The longing to be identifiable—to be stalked by the paparazzi and autograph hounds—simply does not jive with a Christian worldview.

To harbor delusions of grandeur, then, is to separate oneself from God. It is my prayer that my generation will stop seeking to store up such treasures on earth and choose instead to obscure itself in the anonymity that attends a life truly well-lived.

—Bobby Maddex



David Hart, At It Again
Thursday, February 17, 2005, 6:50 PM

David Hart, the Eastern Orthodox theologian and frequent contributor to Touchstone, is writing about the Indian Ocean Tsunami again in the just-arrived March issue of First Things.

The last section of this brief essay is luminous, and parts of it are written in conversation with comments posted here by Mere Comments readers after Hart published an article in the Wall Street Journal days after the eathquake and resulting waves swept away what today is reported to have been over 300,000 souls.

A salient portion from the middle part of the new Hart essay:

Christians often find it hard to adopt the spiritual idiom of the New Testament—to think in terms, that is, of a cosmic struggle between good and evil, of Christ’s triumph over the principalities of this world, of the overthrow of hell. All Christians know, of course, that it is through God’s self-outpouring upon the cross that we are saved, and that we are made able by grace to participate in Christ’s suffering; but this should not obscure that other truth revealed at Easter: that the incarnate God enters “this cosmos” not simply to disclose its immanent rationality, but to break the boundaries of fallen nature asunder, and to refashion creation after its ancient beauty—wherein neither sin nor death had any place. Christian thought has traditionally, of necessity, defined evil as a privation of the good, possessing no essence or nature of its own, a purely parasitic corruption of reality; hence it can have no positive role to play in God’s determination of Himself or purpose for His creatures (even if by economy God can bring good from evil); it can in no way supply any imagined deficiency in God’s or creation’s goodness. Being infinitely sufficient in Himself, God had no need of a passage through sin and death to manifest His glory in His creatures or to join them perfectly to Himself. This is why it is misleading (however soothing it may be) to say that the drama of fall and redemption will make the final state of things more glorious than it might otherwise have been. No less metaphysically incoherent—though immeasurably more vile—is the suggestion that God requires suffering and death to reveal certain of his attributes (capricious cruelty, perhaps? morbid indifference? a twisted sense of humor?). It is precisely sin, suffering, and death that blind us to God’s true nature.

There is, of course, some comfort to be derived from the thought that everything that occurs at the level of what Aquinas calls secondary causality—in nature or history—is governed not only by a transcendent providence, but by a universal teleology that makes every instance of pain and loss an indispensable moment in the grand scheme whose ultimate synthesis will justify all things. But consider the price at which that comfort is purchased: it requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of—but entirely by way of—every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known; it requires us to believe in the eternal spiritual necessity of a child dying an agonizing death from diphtheria, of a young mother ravaged by cancer, of tens of thousands of Asians swallowed in an instant by the sea, of millions murdered in death camps and gulags and forced famines. It seems a strange thing to find peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome. Better, it seems to me, the view of the ancient Gnostics: however ludicrous their beliefs, they at least, when they concluded that suffering and death were essential aspects of the creator’s design, had the good sense to yearn to know a higher God.

The article is not yet available on the First Things website, so interested readers who are not subscribers will need to head to their local newsstand or to a library that carries the journal.



A Free Book with New Subscriptions to Touchstone
Thursday, February 17, 2005, 2:37 PM

creedculturebig 1 A Free Book with New Subscriptions to <i>Touchstone</i>

If you’ve been putting off getting a Touchstone subscription, wait no longer. Our Business Director, Geoff Battersby, would like to make a special offer to Mere Comments readers who are not yet Touchstone subscribers.

If you subscribe now through this offer, exclusive to MC readers, along with a full year of the magazine (10 issues) you’ll receive a free copy of Creed & Culture, which collects the editors’ picks for the best Touchstone essays (from 1990–1997).

The thoughtful articles in Creed & Culture by contributors such as Vigen Guroian, James Hitchcock, Thomas Howard, S. M. Hutchens, Russell Kirk, Paul Mankowski, David Mills, Leon J. Podles, Patrick Henry Reardon, and Huston Smith make for absorbing reading, but also constitute a valuable compendium of the best contemporary Christian thinking on literature, culture, and theology.

Fine print: This offer is for new subscriptions only. The book will ship only after payment for the subscription is received.



The Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers
Thursday, February 17, 2005, 12:05 PM

Michael Cromartie, of the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), recently interviewed Christian Smith, University of North Carolina sociologist and author of Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (out next month), for the EPPC website. Some excerpts from this excellent exchange:

Michael Cromartie: You say that “today’s youth are depicted as disillusioned, irreverent, uniquely postmodern, belonging to something that is next and new.” Indeed, “when it comes to faith and religion,” we’re told, “contemporary teenagers are deeply restless, alienated, rebellious and determined to find something that is radically different from the faith in which they were raised.”And yet, you conclude, this largely unchallenged perception is “fundamentally wrong.” Why is that?

Christian Smith: Teenagers today (and I am talking about 13- to 17-year-olds) are invested in society as it is and in mainstream values. They are well socialized into the mainstream, they are committed to it, and they want to succeed in it. From the Sixties we’ve inherited the notion of the “generation gap,” but that model simply isn’t adequate to describe what we are dealing with today. For the most part, young people have a great deal in common with their parents and share their values. That may not be immediately apparent, but underneath, not too far below the surface, there is a lot of commonality.

There is good news for the church in your study. But there is plenty of bad news as well. For example, you found in your in-depth interviews with teens that a vast majority of them are “incredibly inarticulate about their faith, their religious beliefs and practices.” You found very few teens from any religious background who are able to articulate clearly their religious beliefs and explain how those beliefs connect to the rest of their lives.

One way to frame this problem is to think of the language of faith as something like a second language in our culture. And how do you learn a second language? You learn a second language by listening to others who know how to speak it well, and having a chance to practice it yourself. I don’t know how much teens are hearing other people speak the language well, and it really struck us in our research that very few teens are getting a chance to practice talking about their faith. We were dumbfounded by the number of teens who told us we were the first adults who had asked them what they believed. One said: “I do not know. No one has ever asked me that before.”

You argue that “what legitimates the religion of most youth today is not that it is the life-transformative, transcendent truth, but that it instrumentally provides mental, psychological, emotional, and social benefits that teens find useful and valuable.”

Yes, not only for the kids but also for their parents. The instrumental good has what you might call a public health justification. If I get my kid involved religiously, he will be less likely to do drugs, he’ll get better grades, and will wear his or her seat belt. And I think a lot of parents are very interested in that, quite understandably.

In the United States we have a competitive religious economy. And I think a lot of religious organizations—consciously and unconsciously—make that instrumental pitch to families: we’ll be good for you. Now it’s an empirical fact that religious kids are doing better. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating that. But when that becomes the key legitimation of what religion is all about, then that’s a whole different matter.

Based on our findings, I suggest that the de facto religious faith of the majority of American teens is “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” God exists. God created the world. God set up some kind of moral structure. God wants me to be nice. He wants me to be pleasant, wants me to get along with people. That’s teen morality. The purpose of life is to be happy and feel good, and good people go to heaven. And nearly everyone’s good.

There’s another area in which you found a disconnect between public rhetoric and actual practice: you say that although many Americans talk about what a pro-family, youth-loving society ours is, it is not at all clear that many of our practices and institutions support these claims.

I don’t think our society is organized around what’s best for our young people. They don’t get enough sleep, and school is not set up optimally for what’s best for their learning. It’s set up for the convenience of other people, and social control, and so on. We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that we love our youth so much. Maybe we do, but we don’t structure our society the way we should to translate that deep concern into meaningful action. We don’t spend enough time together. Adults have their own issues and their own problems, which are understandable, and some adults are working through their own adolescent issues!

You point out that the evidence clearly shows that the single most important social influence on the religious and spiritual lives of adolescents is their parents.

Yes. This is one of the things that really hit us hard: that parents still have an enormous amount of influence on their kids’ lives, even though I’m sure that’s very hard for them to believe at times. Adolescents are not routinely coming to their parents and saying “thanks so much for steering me in the right direction. I really appreciate it. I really want you to know that you are a big influence.” They don’t say it, but it’s still a fact. Parents have a lot more influence, and therefore responsibility, than they realize. Teenagers will never admit that they look to their parents for guidance, but most do. Here’s another striking thing: We asked teenagers in interviews, what thing would you most like to change about your family, if anything? The most common answer was “I wish I was closer to my parents.” When asked, why aren’t you closer?, they said, “I don’t know how to do it.” There is genuine interest. I think parents often misread signals.

But this is true of religious educators as well as of parents. Most, though not all, religious educators in this country are failing. Most young people are not being formed primarily by their religious faith traditions; rather, they are being formed by other notions and ideologies. And in part this is because adults are afraid to teach. They are afraid of young people. They are afraid of not looking cool when they teach real substance.

And yet youth actually want to be taught something, even if they eventually reject it. They at least want to have something to reject, rather than an attitude of anything goes. Teens need an opportunity to articulate, to think and to make arguments in environments that will be challenging to their faith. And I don’t think they are getting that. In general, religious traditions that expect more and demand more of their youth get more. And those that are more compromising, more accommodating, more anything-goes, end up not getting much.

For the complete interview click here.


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