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For some of us, the words “pass it on” evoke memories of summer camp, holding sticky hands, and singing “it only takes a spark…to get a fire going…and soon all those around…are warmed up by its glowing. That’s how it is with God’s love…once you’ve experienced it…you spread his love…to everyone…you want…to pass…it on.”
One of the reasons I study evangelicals and youth in history is because I am fascinated by the ways that one generation tries to pass along their beliefs to the next generation. While this occurs at many levels – political leanings, social practices, family rituals, seasonal celebrations or observances, sports, hobbies, etc. – for many, the passing on of religious beliefs is especially significant.
The methods of passing on these beliefs and practices take many forms. Some parents force their children to attend events, retreats, religious schools, after school programs, and observances and rituals as children. But what happens when children grow up? Do they embrace the beliefs and traditions of their youth? Or do they reject them? Sometimes they keep some beliefs and practices but jettison other beliefs and practices. Or they keep up spiritual habits until they eventually own or discard them. This seems to be a difficult transition for most parents and grandparents who desperately want their children and grandchildren (and great-grandchildren) to follow in their footsteps, but recognize they cannot force their progeny to embrace their religion.
This week, I re-read Puritan writings and talked about Puritan motivations, goals, and ideas for what a Bible Commonwealth looked like in 17th century colonial America. I couldn’t help but notice that the Puritans struggled to pass their beliefs and practices onto subsequent generations. The first generation left England to become a “citie on a hill” and to demonstrate to the world what the Church of England should look like. But the second generation grew up in the colonies and didn’t remember persecution in England. The third generation knew even less about the struggles and passion of the first generation and so the religious commitments dwindled into a more watered down version of the first generation of Puritan immigrants to the colonies. But this isn’t limited to the Puritans, is it?
My brother gave me the memoir Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen. Janzen’s anecdotes and descriptions of people from her life are rich and this book made me laugh so hard that tears squeezed out of my eyes. Besides the fact that Janzen is an excellent writer, she also is successful in holding up a mirror to her home Mennonite community and family. As an academic, Janzen reflected on her complex relationship with the faith of her childhood:
“Knowing what we know about human nature, would we even want to return to those days when we believed morality was simple, when goodness was something you learned on Marmee’s knee?
Consider how impossible it is, for example, to aspire to the role of virtuous woman when professional commitments dramatically interfere with jam delivery to oldsters. Consider what happens when scholarship and education expose many of the assumptions of organized religion as intellectually untenable. Belief in literal angels, for instance, is something I am not prepared to endorse. Yet I cannot deny the genuine warmth my mother seems to radiate—indeed, that all these Mennonites seem to radiate. It’s clear that this Mennonite community is the real deal. They really do try to practice what they preach.” (166)
Janzen recognizes the authenticity and warmth of the religiously-committed community where she was raised. She struggles with some of the key aspects of her family’s faith and larger faith community, but is still able to admire the commitment of her parents. “My parents had always modeled commitment—to each other, to their word, to their church, even to the lane they had chosen to drive in. When things got sticky, did Christ-followers bail out and change their minds? That’s nutso! When there was dissension in the church body, did they up and leave the church? In their dreams, maybe!” (167)
What is the most effective way to pass your dearly held faith to subsequent generations? I’m not sure that I know the answer. But living authentically and modelling a faith that is willing to be questioned and tested while staying committed seems like a good start.