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“…I Won’t do What you Tell me.”

By January 7, 2012 8 Comments


There were some excellent posts this week – some real heavy hitters.  Theresa’s post on vocation was excellent, so was the Michelle Bachman piece.  I do, after all, live in Iowa and we’ve had our fill of Michelle Bachman.  Minnesota can have her back.  (By the way, I was going to write on “Iowa” and what a bunch of backward, toothless, hillbillies we all are.  Instead, I’ll point you to this fine piece of work – assuming you haven’t seen it already.  Warning! Some “language” is bleeped out – so don’t click on the link if you’re going to be offended.)

The post that really grabbed me was Jamie’s discussion of young people.  Straight to the point, I happen to believe the kids are, and will be, “all right.”  Look, I get the whole “moral, therapeutic, deism” concern. I very much appreciate Christian Smith’s work, and Jamie’s for that matter – I use Desiring the Kingdom in my youth ministry courses.  However, I’m increasingly of the mind that the best thing we can do for young people is leave them alone.  Give them some space… quit freaking out about their moral and religious decline.  In many ways it has become an obsession rivaling the helicopter parenting phenomenon – churches wringing their hands and bemoaning the situation of young people.  Program after program in schools, churches, and parachurch organizations madly try to solve the problem, whipping young people up into frenzy.  After all, there must be a problem if so many adults are spending so much time and money on it, right?  

The real problem is the over institutionalization and management of young people.  Schools – including (maybe especially?) Christian schools – are encroaching upon more and more of their lives, wanting to control what they do, how they think, what they believe.  Youth programs, who take their cue from schools even as they complain about them, try to grab the time that’s left over.  We’re even starting to infringe upon the last refuge many young people have in this panoptic existence, as we try and take Metallica or Lady Gaga to church.  What if we actually took the cultural expressions of young people seriously and let them be?  What if, instead of seeing their music, movies, and fashion as prime examples of moral decay, we recognized them as the means by which they work to construct an identity and make meaning outside of the watchful eye of institutional authority?  Yes, I understand that these expressions are often quickly co-opted by the capitalist paradigm – but young people are not stupid.  Why do you think most music or fashion lasts a only short while?  

I taught high school for ten years.  During that time I developed a soft spot for the hooligans… the kids who hated school and most likely engaged in “extra curricular” activities that didn’t match up with what was expected of Christian school kids.  I came to believe that for some of them the “rebellion” was cathartic.  It was healthy.  I found myself thinking, “If I were in your shoes I’d be doing the same thing.”  Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to minimize the serious consequences that can come from certain behaviors.  However, the responsibility of those who work with young people is to practice discernment – when to recognize there is a significant problem, and when to recognize the kid’s going to be ok.  One of the lessons I learned is that for all of the trouble they caused, the “naughty” kids were some of the most charitable.  I remember one ornery student, who died tragically just before graduation, would spend his study halls and lunch hours hanging out with students who had various “disabilities.”  They loved him, and he reciprocated.  Did he have the right theology?  Not sure.  Did he buy the Christianity we were selling?  Nope.  Did he live out the gospel?  Absolutely.

Personally, I believe the way forward in the pastoral care of young people is the cultivation of charity.  Not just in the youth, but in the adults.  This means loving our kids in a way that gives them the space and freedom needed to “screw up” well.  To let them know that regardless of what they believe, what they look like, or what they choose to do – they are and will be loved.  Look, in many ways I agree with Jamie.  The Christian community does play a significant role in identity formation, and yes, the “liturgies” that form and shape us are crucial to this process.  We have a responsibility to proclaim the gospel to all people – including our kids.  I would even go so far as to say we’ve done a poor job of it and should find ways to do it better.  Let’s do so, however, driven not by fear, but by love and charity.  Trusting, hoping, and believing that the kids are and will be all right.

Jason Lief

Jason Lief teaches Practical Theology at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. He served as editor of Reformed Journal for many years and was one of the original bloggers on the RJ blog. You can find more of his writing at


  • James K.A. Smith says:

    Your kids are still young, Jason–talk to me in 10 years! 😉

    More seriously, I think Chris Smith (and this Smith) would be sympathetic to your point. Indeed, I think "programming" comes in for direct criticism in this literature. I think we would both say that the church could do much more by actually doing less, as long as that "less" is also more intentional and recognizes that it needs to intentionally counter the powerful "secular" liturgies of formation that can so easily trump Christian formation.

    And for the record, I have elsewhere articulated a critique of Smith's methodology insofar as it only seems to measure articulation–it is a very "talky" methodology, that measures young people's ability to talk about their faith and morality, which is certainly not a measure of whether they act as disciples of Jesus. They might certainly exhibit the latter (which is what really matters) without being accomplished at the former. As Wittgenstein once said, to paraphrase: "I can be a master of the game and not know how to articulate the rules." I think this resonates with your final example, no?

  • Joel says:

    Excellent post. Perhaps we need to remember the wisdom of a church-planter friend of mine (and a few others too) when doing youth ministry: "Its good to believe in the providence of God."

  • Jason Lief says:

    Your first comment should be taken seriously! I acknowledge it is easier for me to talk / write about such things when the monsters my kids are worried about are the ones they think are in the closet. It's much easier to talk about these issues when I'm, at this point anyway, talking about other people's kids.

    I agree with your comments. At the same time I think we need to recognize the ways in which young people already push back against against the capitalist paradigm that undergirds their institutional life. Too often they can be portrayed as being duped by consumerism and technology when in fact their cultural experience is much more nuanced. How can the Christian narrative – the formative "liturgy" of the Christian story – speak to and supplement these cultural expressions rather than replace or co-opt them? I think it begins by taking their cultural world seriously.

  • Theresa Latini says:

    Jason – thank you for this post. There's much I could comment on, but for now I'll simply add that I think you are onto something important (theologically and culturally) when you argue for cultivating charity among adolescents. This resonates with my research on vocation (more on that in my next post) and with much of the newest research on human relationality from the field of interpersonal neurobiology. Moreover, many authors are arguing that our contemporary context calls for an empathetic way of being in the world. This is fueled in part by research in another related field — social neuroscience.

  • James K.A. Smith says:

    @Jason: Yes, we certainly need to take their cultural world seriously–it's also our cultural world, especially as more and more adults prolong their adolescence. Taking their cultural world seriously will reduce to neither total condemnation nor wholehearted affirmation.

    What needs to be taken seriously, however, is not just preferences but formative power. I think we still underestimate that, seeing ourselves–and hence young people–as largely "observers" of culture. I think that's a problematic model. (I'm finishing the manuscript for the sequel to Desiring the Kingdom which is taken up with these matters.) I also think we overestimate our agency vis-a-vis cultural currents. I don't think we are determined automatons, but also I also think we–and hence young people–underestimate all the unconscious formation that co-opts us into different stories.

    IN fact, the lyrics of Fleet Foxes' "Helplessness Blues" just hit me anew. Might this be an anthem for what we're talking about? Listen to it at Here are the lyrics (which really require the music to be appreciated):

    I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
    Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
    And now after some thinking, I'd say I'd rather be
    A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me

    But I don't, I don't know what that will be
    I'll get back to you someday soon you will see

    What's my name, what's my station, oh, just tell me what I should do
    I don't need to be kind to the armies of night that would do such injustice to you
    Or bow down and be grateful and say "sure, take all that you see"
    To the men who move only in dimly-lit halls and determine my future for me

    And I don't, I don't know who to believe
    I'll get back to you someday soon you will see

    If I know only one thing, it's that everything that I see
    Of the world outside is so inconceivable often I barely can speak
    Yeah I'm tongue-tied and dizzy and I can't keep it to myself
    What good is it to sing helplessness blues, why should I wait for anyone else?

    And I know, I know you will keep me on the shelf
    I'll come back to you someday soon myself

    If I had an orchard, I'd work till I'm raw
    If I had an orchard, I'd work till I'm sore
    And you would wait tables and soon run the store

    Gold hair in the sunlight, my light in the dawn
    If I had an orchard, I'd work till I'm sore
    If I had an orchard, I'd work till I'm sore
    Someday I'll be like the man on the screen

  • Jason Lief says:

    Jamie – Yes, I agree that formation is a crucial part of this conversation. And yes, it is important for us to examine the discourses that undergird the cultural expressions we often take for granted. What I am suggesting is that certain manifestations of popular culture – more specifically youth culture – become the means by which such discoruses are ruptured. For example – heavy metal music, and all that goes with it, CAN be a means by which young people give the finger (metaphorically of course) to the status quo of the captialist instituional paradigm -especially in the west. (One could look also at hip hop, country, etc.) Specifically using Michel de Certeau's categories of "strategies" and "tactics" – the subculture of heavy metal becomes one way in which young people mess with the "strategies" of the status quo – making space for the possible construction of an alternative identity and way of being in the world. Now, I fully recognize that there is no such thing as pure agency… we are always immersed within social and discursive contexts. Yet – are there certain manifestations of popular culture that open up the possibility of new articulations and new meanings? I think Charles Taylor's engagement of "carnival" in The Secular Age gets at what I'm trying to say – in fact, Taylor makes a very quick and subtle reference to heavy metal music as a contemporary version of "carnival." Certain forms of popular culture provide young people the opportunity to participate in alternative narratives, symbols – liturgies – that open them to a different identity. This opening, I believe, is where the Christian story can speak.

  • James K.A. Smith says:

    I don't want to harp on this, but I feel like we're straying quite a ways from what I was talking about in my original post–and more importantly, from what Smith documents in Lost in Transition. This is decidedly NOT some version of "Ahhhh! The kids are listening to Metallica!"

    Nor is it some reactionary concern that translates into overparenting. Indeed, I think Smith & I would agree that often it is overparenting that coddles children to become the moralistic therapeutic deists they are: my parents exist for me; I am their entire world; ergo, God the Father must be just that kind of parent, and I must be the center of the universe.

    So let me just remind us of two things and and then let it drop (though if these themes became further fodder for conversation, in light of the articles Debra mentioned, great): First, let's keep in mind that Smith is not offering some James-Dobson-esque, anecdotal, alarmist decline narrative. Whether or not you think the kids will be just fine, all of us need to grapple with the data the NSYR puts before us. And it seems to me that the best explanation of that data points to some qualitative shifts, not just more of the same. So anecdotes to the contrary do not really count as counter-evidence.

    Second, let's keep in mind that the worry here is not about pietistic violations. This is NOT a worry about sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll. In fact, what we should be worried about are all the surreptitious ways that the supposedly "good" things we offer our children are actually de-forming them. One time when I saw my kids watching more saccharine Disney channel drivel that was teaching them to be good little consumers and egoists, I broke down in exasperation and shouted: "I'd rather you watch sex and violence than this crap!" (Not one of my better moments as a parent, I'll admit.) Don't even get me started on "The Little Mermaid!" The point is that it is the supposedly benign, or even "good" things that might actually be deformative. And Smith isn't shy to show that it's our youth groups and parachurch ministries that are creating little Oprah-fied MTDs.

    So by all means, there are alternative expressions of culture that are actually closer to the kingdom of God than 95% of the supposed "safe" Christian kitsch that is fed to young people. To point that out, however, is not to have addressed Smith's concern.

  • Jason Lief says:

    Jamie – sure, we can drop it. I will say, however, I do not feel we've strayed from your point. My point in bringing up the heavy metal, and de Certeau for that matter, is to emphasize that while young people are immersed within narratives and insitutional discourses they have no control over (meaning they may be unaware of the formative power of these discourses) it's not as if they simply take what is given and end up plugged into the Matrix. Young people take what the dominate ideological paradigm gives them and often make it into something else. They "mess" with the system. High School students are great at this – finding every possible loophole to assert agency in a context where they have little power. I think this goes for Disney as well. I have two girls… the both love princess. (My oldest for the longest time wanted to be a mermaid… yes, her favorite was the Little Mermaid. One of the greatest moments of her life thus far was meeting Ariel at Disneyland) Now, I agree that there are formative discourses at work in such films. I will say, however, my daughter could care less. She loves mermaids because she loves water… she loves creatures. All the narratives about finding a "prince"? She could care less.
    My point? Yes – we should care about "moral therapeutic deism." Yes – we should emphasize formation. At the same time – let's not assume young people are just suckers being duped by the captialist paradigm. They may have very little institutional agency – but they are able to use what agency they do have to make something else of what is given them. My argument is that the church must take this very seriously.

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