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Review: Soul Searching

Gregory E. Reynolds

Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, by Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, x + 346 pages, $25.00.

Never has it been more important to understand what is going on in the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. Smith's book does what few before him have done: explore the religious and spiritual dimensions of the lives of American teenagers. Even studies that do focus on the sociology of religion usually look at those eighteen years old and older. The National Study of Youth and Religion is a unique scholarly research project conducted from 2001-2005 by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where Christian Smith was Stuart Chapin Distinguished Professor and Associate Chair of Sociology. He is presently the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, Director of the Center for the Sociology of Religion, and continues as Principal Investigator of the National Study of Youth and Religion. He studied at Wheaton College; has a BA from Gordon College; and an MA and a PhD from Harvard University. Melinda Denton is the project manager of the National Study.

The book is based on hundreds of thirty- and fifty-minute telephone surveys and 267 extensive face-to-face interviews with religious and non-religious teenagers in forty-five states. The questions cover a "broad range" of differences in religion, age, race, sex, socioeconomic status, rural-urban-suburban, regions, and languages. It is the largest study of its kind to date. The website of the National Study of Youth and Religion youthandreligion.org is a rich resource for parents and others who are involved in the nurture of youth.

Smith and Denton upend much conventional wisdom by drawing conclusions from his research that will come as a surprise to most. For example, the research reveals that 1) religion is a significant presence in many teenagers' lives; 2) the religion of teens is remarkably conventional, not alienated or rebellious; 3) few teens are interested in eclectic spirituality as opposed to conventional religion; 4) religious diversity is not more varied than it has been for a long time; and 5) parents have the most significant influence on the religion of teens. Unremarkably, the research also confirmed that life outcomes are far better for religious than non-religious teens (259-264).

More disturbing is Smith's discovery (he calls it a "conjecture") of an emerging American culturally pervasive religious outlook that he calls "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" (MTD). He believes that this may be the "new mainstream American religious faith for our culturally Post-Christian, individualistic, mass-consumer capitalist society" (262). Smith perceptively relates this emerging outlook to pervasive digital communication and therapeutic individualism.

The analysis of this emerging consensus (Chapters 4 and 5, especially pp. 162–192) reveals a five-point creed (162-163), which is more like five cultural assumptions.

  1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to solve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Smith goes on to unpack the terminology of his label "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." Moralism is a central element in American religious thinking. Thus religion helps a person be good. Central to a happy life is being a good person. Being good makes a person feel good about himself. Being nice, responsible, hard working, likable, and fulfilling your potential are the right way to live. Goodness saves people in the end and makes them ready for heaven.

Religion is also therapeutic. This is not a religion of repentance from sin, Sabbath keeping, self-denial, or serving a sovereign Lord. Religion is about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace, in short, subjective well-being. God is always there for you, to help you through problems. Helping others and prayer make one feel good about oneself.

Finally, all religion has a God who created a moral order but is not "personally involved in one's affairs—especially affairs in which one would prefer not to have God involved" (164). He is involved only when people call on him. He is not just distant as in eighteenth-century Deism, but he is there to meet our needs if we wish. He is not a demanding God, but a combination of the Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist. He gives you whatever you want, but not anything bad.

People take from their faith traditions whatever suits them—a kind of designer-religion. Thus, of all teenagers interviewed, including "conservative Protestants" (a category broader, but more clearly defined than evangelical), few spoke of grace, Jesus Christ, sin, etc. "Feeling good and being happy" summed up their aspirations. "The cultural influence of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism may also be nudging American civil religion in a 'softer,' more inclusive, ecumenical, and multireligious direction" (170).

The consummate sociologist, Smith digs deeper to explore the social context fostering MTD. He identifies three major cultural themes among others: therapeutic individualism, mass-consumer capitalism, and electronic communications.

Therapeutic individualism is a theme explored at length and with great depth by sociologists like Robert Bellah and Christopher Lasch.[1] Smith gives a brilliant summary. The individual self is the only authentic source of all knowledge, especially spiritual and moral. Personal experience is the final measure of what is good and true. We do not adjust to society, but seek liberation from it (173). The self is no longer sacrificed or denied, but is to be affirmed and actualized by society. Instead of pastors, parents, and lawmakers, we have therapists, counselors, and social workers. Alcohol and drug abuse, gambling, and domestic violence are no longer sins or crimes, but diseases or disorders. The sovereign self is enthroned and rules. People are guided by feelings instead of clear thinking based on moral and spiritual principles. It pervades every institution. External authority and tradition, especially in matters of religion, are no longer part of the "plausibility structure" of American culture. Spirituality is a means of self-fulfillment.

Therapeutic individualism served and is in turn served by mass-consumer capitalism. Mass-consumer capitalism is not merely "the efficient production and distribution of goods and services; it also incarnates and promotes a particular moral order" (176). It defines the human self "as an individual, autonomous, rational, self-seeking, cost-benefit-calculating consumer" (176). It seems that this is the way it has always been. But this is actually a product of the Industrial Revolution. Christians become spiritual consumers in the religious market, choosing a church and teaching that suits their autonomous quest for self-fulfillment, "satiating one's self-defined felt needs and desires" (176).

Mass-consumer capitalism fosters a move from tradition-centered to individual-centered religion (177). Authority resides in the autonomous self. Designer religion is the result of the mass consumer concept of the menu of choices—unlimited choices. In the name of choice and non-conformity, submitting to this mentality is a "major act of conformity" (177). For example, TV is not about entertainment, much less education, but about buying audiences. TV religion is thus a contradiction in terms. Mass-consumer capitalism creates needs, but meets very few actual human needs. It appeals to the darker side of human nature: insecurity, envy, greed, vanity. The American teenager is increasingly the target of advertising, like the drug dealer hanging out at the school yard fence, except parents invite him in. The warning signals are everywhere.

The final major influence is electronic communication. Communication technologies (computers, the Internet, e-mail, cell phones, etc.) have changed the entire structure of the social space inhabited by teenagers. They have decentralized the "authority of gatekeepers" (179). Focusing on non-cognitive images of commerce and entertainment, the rational, thoughtful mode of print is fast disappearing. A whole new way of thinking dominates culture, which cultivates the sovereign, mass-consuming, happiness-seeking self. Not an easy self to assimilate into a confessional church.[2]

Filled with charts and sample interviews, this book is a rich resource that Christian educators, church officers, and parents need to be made aware of.

How Should This Analysis Shape Our Teaching and Living?

Cultural and sociological analysis is an eminently Christian concern in light of the life-altering demand of the gospel enumerated by Paul in Romans 12:2: "And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God." The following practical conclusions are based on several of Smith's explicit recommendations, along with a few additions of my own—which are implicit in the book.

1. We should continue to cultivate intra-generational ministry growing out of worship, not creating separate worlds of teenage and adult life. We must refrain from promoting "alienating stereotypes" such as treating teens as if they are aliens, rebels, or impossible to understand. On the other hand we must not idealize youth as a goal, but rather demonstrate the desirability of growing up into mature adults. Perpetual adolescence should be frowned upon. Thus, we should engage teenagers as young adults in the making.

2. We should teach our teens to distinguish between civil public discourse and the offensive public communication of their religious convictions; between biblical tolerance, which is loving communication of the truth, and secular tolerance, which is silence about one's religious convictions. Political correctness and philosophical relativism are silencing the public and personal witness of the church among teens.

3. We must be alert to the ways that our culture seeks to undermine a healthy concept of the church and human life, and seek to develop cultural and apologetic awareness in our teens, e.g., make them aware of TV programs that portray adults as stupid, unwise, or immoral. Show them the unhealthy effect of segregating teens into various groups, which subtly—and sometimes not so subtly—teaches them that they are by nature not welcome in the adult world.

Teach them good stewardship of electronic media. Acquaint them with the messages of all inventions; the ways that technology changes our world and our view of the world as a total environment that needs to be critically analyzed. Challenge them to discover the ways that mass media and culture allure them to conform in ways that are contrary to godliness. We need to help them understand maturity defined by being servants of God and others, not selfish consumers (Smith's "instrumentalist view" of religion—it works for me).

4. Finally, we must teach our young people to own the language of the Catechism and the Bible. One of the pervasive problems with the teens Smith interviewed was a lack of ability to articulate their beliefs. Rote memory is the beginning—but an essential beginning—not the end. We should emphasize the particularity and exclusivity of the claims of Jesus Christ and the gospel—as our second public profession vow says: "its doctrine of salvation ...the perfect and only doctrine of salvation." Talk to them about the attributes of the Trinity, Christ's person and work, the meaning of the gospel, sin, repentance, self-denial, etc. Smith heard almost nothing of these things expressed by "conservative Protestants." Public service ads regularly tell us to talk to our teens about drugs. It is even more important to talk to our teens about what they believe.

I recommend this book to all church officers and those who lead in Christian education. This book can help us assist parents in fulfilling the second vow of baptism in which they promise "to instruct" their children "in the principles of our holy religion as revealed in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and as summarized in the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of this Church; ... and to endeavor by all the means of God's appointment to bring [them] up the nurture and admonition of the Lord."

[Portions of this review were originally given to the adult class in Amoskeag Presbyterian Church, Manchester, NH, and titled "Soul Training: What We Can Learn From Christian Smith about Instructing Our Children in the Principles of Our Holy Religion." The lecture is available in audio format at pilgrimcrossings.org under Sermon Audio/Sunday School.]

Gregory E. Reynolds
Ordained Servant
Amoskeag Presbyterian Church
Manchester, New Hampshire

Endnotes

[1] Robert N. Bellah, Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World (New York: Harper and Row, 1970); Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William N. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (New York: Harper and Row, 1985). Christopher Lasch, Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged (New York: Basic Books, 1975); The Culture of Narcissim: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: Warner Books, 1979).

[2] See Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (New York: Viking Penguin, 1985); Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage, 1993).

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