Reviews

Cover for Item Reviewed

Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers

Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton

Reviewed by: Mark A. Garcia

Date posted: 11/19/2006

Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, by Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton (Oxford University Press, 2005; hardback, 368 pages, $25.00). Reviewed by Dr. Mark A. Garcia.

In a country obsessed with youth, it may come as a surprise to learn that there is precious little out there that is truly helpful in understanding the dynamics of teenage religion. We would be greatly served by a capable study of this topic, and we now have one

This book is interesting, though somewhat startling. The bulk of the book is devoted to social research, conducted by means of surveys and interviews, but the writers do a good job at keeping the book from becoming a statistical manual. They stick to their main concern: understanding the religious views of young people in this country. To this end, they interviewed hundreds of teens from widely different ethnic, geographical, religious, and economic backgrounds and contexts, and assessed this information in light of the findings of the National Study of Youth and Religion.

The result is a useful tool for interpreting American teenage culture. Beyond this general benefit, however, Orthodox Presbyterians will find a more distinctively Reformed reason for welcoming this book. It is important for its stinging indictment of our modern optimism about what's really going on, spiritually speaking, at this stage of personal maturation and development. We're inclined, I think, to go along with our culture's assumption that the teenager - ever curious, ever passionate, and ever questioning - is a relatively uncommitted spiritual seeker. Like rushing water, the thinking goes, the teen needs only to be guided in the right direction.

But are teens uncommitted seekers, or is there more to the story of their wide-ranging religious sensibilities and interests? The authors of Soul Searching demonstrate compellingly that the answer to this question is not just surprising, but also dark. Their thesis is that contemporary American teenagers have moved toward a faith that may be termed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), helpfully summarized on pages 162-71.

Even after accounting for "adolescent inarticulacy about religion," the authors are convinced that there is a body of belief that functions as the "de facto dominant religion among contemporary U.S. teenagers" (p. 162). They summarize its features along the three lines indicated by its name. First and foremost, this religion is deeply moralistic. The moral of the human story is to pursue the good of being happy, and for the average American teen this comes to those who are nice and kind, pleasant and self-motivated. In this respect, MTD is inclusivistic, since all religions share a concern for the good, moral life.

In addition, MTD is humanitarian. It is concerned for well-being, which is typically understood in therapeutic terms. The problems of life, most American teens apparently believe, have little to do with "sin," classically understood, but with subjective wellness. Smith and Denton link the fact that "most teens are religiously inarticulate" to their faith in the quest to feel happy (p. 164). Reveling in the ambiguities of personal subjectivity ("it just makes me feel good") inhibits the church's traditional concern for a believer's clear confession of faith.

This leads to the third feature of MTD: it has a false view of God. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism "is a belief in a particular kind of God: one who exists, created the world, and defines our general moral order, but not one who is particularly personally involved in one's affairs - especially affairs in which one would prefer not to have God involved. Most of the time, the God of this faith keeps a safe distance" (p. 164). For good reason, then, the authors have termed this faith a form of deism, which is the belief that God created the world, set it in motion, and then essentially withdrew from it, leaving it to operate mostly on its own. In the therapeutic world of MTD, God becomes involved in my life as I need him, which significantly qualifies the classical eighteenth-century deistic view.

I mentioned that Smith and Denton have reached a conclusion that is not only surprising, but also dark. The darkness enters when we learn that their assessment does not have in view the religious views only of the unchurched. Instead, MTD

"is visible among black and conservative Protestants, Jewish teens, [and] other religious types of teenagers" (p. 163). MTD, in other words, is the faith-system of many youths within American churches.

The authors' MTD model resonates compellingly with Reformed Christians who, in the tradition of Cornelius Van Til, recognize that no matter what we are told (or may wish to believe), teenagers are not searching for God and truth as essentially innocent, curious explorers. On a biblical, Reformed view, teens, like all human beings, are never really indifferent and uncommitted. Instead, created in the image of God and confronted with his authoritative revelation, teenagers inevitably respond with either a Spirit-enlivened faith and repentance or. with idolatrous unbelief.

Put differently, teens, like all sinners, think and act in terms of a truly religious commitment. The authors find that this commitment is generally not to the traditions of their parents and grandparents, but to a very different, very new faith. This new faith, MTD, accents how the rejection of God and his revelation reduces to a would-be autonomy that exchanges the truth of God for a lie (Rom. 1 :25). This will certainly not be a popular assessment of American youth, but we must recognize it to be a biblically realistic assessment.

What does all this mean for us? Among the probing questions raised by this study, it needs to be asked whether the biblical, Reformed insistence on the depravity of every human heart has been compromised in some way by a quiet acquiescence to our cultural obsession with teenage exuberance and optimism. If we have not acquiesced, we can praise the Father for his mercies in granting us light and life in the truths of his Word. But if we have acquiesced, perhaps we will find the conclusions of this study sobering in a life-giving way.

Soul Searching is a fascinating look at contemporary American religious life and an illuminating, if disturbing, expose of the faith of American youth. It is a useful book for which we can be thankful. It is most relevant to ministers and parents of teenagers, but I hope it will find a much broader audience than this.

Return to Formatted Page