The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Part 1)

I introduced Tom Bergler’s new book on the influence of youth culture on American Christianity in a previous post (read it here). Chapters 1-7 chart juvenilization  from the 1930′s through 1960′s, then Tom draws the argument together in chapter 8.

Chapter 1 traces the response of various American Christian denominations to what was being called the “crisis of civilization” during the 1930′s. As Tom describes it, “As the traumas of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War followed each other in quick succession, people started to speak of a ‘crisis of civilization.’ They had reason to fear that their children might see the end of economic prosperity, democracy, and religious freedom” (19). By focusing on the general fear about the youth of the day, Christian leaders focused their attention on young people to catalyze change in America. In doing so, Tom argues, “Youth leaders believed they were catching the wave of the future and channeling the innate power of young people.” However, they were inadvertently building “one of the engines that would drive juvenilization in subsequent decades.”

In addition to advocating to the wider public for the influence that youth can have to revitalize America, during the 1930s and 1940s Christians responded to the challenge of the youth problem in various ways. Evangelical groups like Youth For Christ responded by launching youth revivals. “Youth for Christ leaders considered their movement a success against the crisis of civilization. They modernized revivalism, won respect in the secular press, and appealed to young people by combining entertainment, an appealing spirituality, and the powerful language linking youth and the crisis of civilization” (32). In contrast, Roman Catholics attempted to mobilize youth to save America, “on the battlefield, in the factories, and in their schools” (32-36) and African American Baptists, unlike their white counterparts, focused on social justice but through integrating the youth into the life and mission of the church rather than start new youth organizations (36-39).

Tom describes the overall effect of these efforts during the 1930s and 40s as follows:

Youth leaders and those they influenced got in the habit of thinking of youth, not adults, as the most important reformers in church and society. The people who most often heard this message were the young Christians who participated in the many large youth gatherings of the era. These future leaders learned that youth would always be the most important political and social force in the world, and by implication, not to expect much from themselves or others once they reached adulthood. According to this line of thinking, if adults were to accomplish anything of value in the political realm, they needed to become more like young people (40).

I find Tom’s closing statement to be one of the more interesting observations in the chapter: “From then on, almost any innovation could be justified in the name of saving young people. Who could worry about the long-term impact of youth work on the church when the fate of civilization hung in the balance?”

Questions

In light of all this, here are a couple questions for Tom when he has the chance (feel free to pose your own): do you think today’s youth see themselves as forces for change because of the shifts in perception you trace here, or are there are more influential causes for the recent upsurge in youth activism? How does the mission of YFC during the 1930s and 40s shape YFC’s mission today? Should we see this as a strength or weakness?

Summer Reading List

Students normally ask me what I will be reading over the summer, and I usually answer with something like, “This and that.” My goals are most often overly optimistic so I thought to sit down and figure it out.

Summer always starts with total immersion in great fiction. This year I am reading whatever I can get my hands on by John Updike. In the Beauty of the Lillies was amazing, and I now reading a collection of short stories, The Afterlife.

I am presently blogging through Tom Bergler’s book The Juvenilization of American Christianity. You can follow those posts on this site over the next month or so. Our division at Huntington (Bible, Religion, Philosophy, Ministry, and Missions) holds a colloquium in August when we give brief presentations on our current research and discuss a book we had read over the summer. This year we are reading and discussing Christian Smith’s latest, The Bible Made Impossible.

Next week I’m off to short conference on faith and learning put on by the CCCU. They sent me a copy of Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning which was great because I was planning to order it anyway. The book looks intriguing, and it will be interesting to see how they use it at the conference.

A few I am excited to read. Katherine Doob Sakenfeld has written  beautiful little study on divine faithfulness. Faithfulness in Action looks to be great! I am also marinating in Barth’s IV.4 at the moment. His account of the Christian life there is simply stunning.

Then several books fall within the category of “I hope I get to them.” We’ll see, the summer always passes faster than I am prepared. Here’s the list of books I hope time allows me to read: Billings, Calvin, Participation, and the Gift; G.R. Evans, The Roots of the Reformation: Tradition, Emergence, and Rupture; Matthew Boulton, Life in God: John Calvin, Practical Formation and the Future of Protestant Theology; Gerald Bray, God is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology.

What’s on your summer reading list – by necessity or by choice?

The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Intro)

A colleague of mine at Huntington University, Tom Bergler, just published a book on the influence of youth culture on American Christianity, The Juvenilization of American Christianity. The next cover of Christianity Today will highlight the book and include an article by Tom. I am going to review the book chapter by chapter over the next few weeks, and Tom will join in to respond to questions and comments.

A good place to start: what does Tom mean by the term “juvenilization”? As he defines it in the introduction, “Juvenilization is the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for Christians of all ages. It begins with the praiseworthy goal of adapting the faith to appeal to the young. But it sometimes ends badly, with both youth and adults embracing immature versions of faith (4).” In other words, as the American church sought to reach young people in the 2oth century it incorporated aspects of adolescent development and culture that ultimately shaped the faith of adult Christians and the way the church today understands spiritual maturity.

The effects of juvenilization have not all been negative. Yet, with certain gains also came loses, mainly the exchange of spiritual maturity for adolescent immaturity. Tom describes it this way, “By personalizing Christianity and creatively blending it with elements of popular culture ranging from rock music to political protests, youth ministries helped ensure the ongoing vitality of Christianity in America. But these same ministries also sometimes pandered to the consumerism, self-centeredness, and even outright immaturity of American believers.”

It seems that Tom’s biggest worries have less to do with the pragmatics of contemporary American Christianity – like the elements of corporate worship or evangelism strategies – and more to do with how American churches of all denominations understand and seek spiritual maturity. “Maturity” has come to be understood according to the dynamics of adolescent spirituality, and this only inhibits the efforts of churches and individuals to foster maturity as it has been traditionally understood (something I wish Tom would have said more about in the introduction. What is the foil of “adolescent” spirituality we might call “maturity”?).

The argument seems to go something like this: the American church of the twentieth century (beginning in the 1930′s) juvenilized the Christian faith in order to reach adolescents, and that strategy has created the accepted norms for mature, adult faith.

For example, Tom singles out the emotionally charged nature of adolescent faith and suggests how this dynamic comes to be the norm for adults:

Adolescent Christians see the faith as incomplete unless it is affecting them emotionally. They are less likely than adults to settle for a faith that offers only a dutiful adherence to particular doctrines, rules, or institutions. On the other hand, they have a hard time keeping religious commitments when their emotions are not cooperating. They are drawn to religious practices that produce emotional highs and sometimes assume that experiencing strong feelings is the same thing as spiritual authenticity. They may be tempted to believe that God’s main role in their lives is to help them feel better or to heal their emotional pain. Juvenilized adults agree that a main purpose of Christianity is to help them feel better about their problems (12).

I am curious, have you experienced this in your church? What does it look like? How do you recognize it?

Barth on the Christian Life

The freedom of God in which is grounded man’s becoming free to be faithful to God as God is faithful to him, the freedom in which the Christian life thus has its absolutely unique origin, is the freedom of which He, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, has made use in supreme majesty and condescension in the history of Jesus Christ. This history is the change, impossible with men but possible with God, and indeed possible only by God’s actual judgment, in which a man becomes God’s friend instead of his enemy, a man who lives for Him instead of being dead for Him. [...] The Christian is a man whose life Jesus Christ has entered as the subject of that history of His. He is a man whose acknowledged, recognised, and confessed Lord He has become. He is a man to whom Jesus Christ has given not just a potential but an actual share in that history of His. Thus Jesus Christ, His history, became and is the foundation of Christian existence; this and this alone. The Christian comes from Him, from His history, from knowledge of it; he also looks back thereto. This is the ground on which he stands and walks. This is the air which he breathes. This is the word which he has in his ears before, above, and after all other words. This is the light, the one light, the incomparably bright light, which illumines him (Church Dogmatics, IV.4, 11).

Rejected! – The unhappy job of peer review

I recently peer reviewed an essay for a scholarly journal. Unhappily I recommended the essay be rejected. I would have much rather recommended it be revised and resubmitted, but it failed on so many levels that it was beyond revising – it was really bad! It was so bad, in fact, that I had one of my seniors read a page and asked him what level undergraduate had written it. He guessed third year undergraduate. Ouch!

Still, it is an unhappy job to peer review and recommend “Rejected” because it shuts down the process of improvement in the case of this particular essay being publishing in this journal. Having had an essay of my own rejected last year, I remember what it feels like. With those feelings of rejection close at hand, I sent a lengthy explanation of my rationale in the hopes that the author will improve their methods of research and writing and do better work in the future. I am a theologian, I always hope for redemption!

How many of you have peer reviewed essays and were compelled to recommend “Rejected.” It is a conflicting experience and I would like to hear from some of you. Or, if you are willing to admit it, have you had an essay or book proposal rejected? What did you learn in the process that was useful, or how did you wish it had been handled so that it would be more useful to you?

Multifaith Event this Wednesday in Fort Wayne

I am participating in a multi-faith dialogue event this Wednesday night in Fort Wayne at Canterbury Middle School (More information here). My role will be to provide an evangelical Christian perspective on several questions: the perspective of Evangelical Christianity: According to your faith what constitutes wrong-doing? According to your faith what are the consequences of our choices? According to your faith how good must I be? How should I live my life?

What has been your experience with multi-faith events? This is my first participation in a public dialogue about religion and I am interested to hear about your experiences with similar events. Did it foster mutual understanding? Was it a debate? What was the tenor of the interaction? I have the impression that many evangelical Christians are skeptical of events like this because they fear it promotes relativism. Has this been your impression?

This event is organized by a group in Fort Wayne with the purpose of fostering mutual appreciation of different beliefs in order to promote peace in the community. It is very intentionally not a debate nor does it attempt to create a common theology. Here is an excerpt from the event website:

The premise of the Multi-faith Events is the theologies of the various faiths are different. The purpose of the events are not to find a common theology. As Rick Love of Peace Catalyst International has written, “Multi-faith dialogue is based on common ethics and the common good rather than common theology.” At the Multi-faith Events the common ethic is discovered but the goal is not to create a common theology.

The mission of [Haven Interfaith Parents] is to, “encourage an understanding and appreciation of all beliefs and faiths, with the goal of promoting peace in our community.” With the goal of promoting peace, dialogue is what must occur at the events. I recently heard someone say dialogue is listening to someone as if your life depended on the information. In order to survive everything must be remembered. That is intense listening. When I have truly listened to others I find that they are more likely to listen to me. This is the basis of all relationships. For us to understand each other we must be in relationships and we must listen to each other.

There is a passage in the Bible that tells me how to dialogue. I Peter 3:15 states, “Always be prepared to give an answer for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” It is in dialogue that we can be honest and with gentleness and respect say what we believe. Being in dialogue says we care about the relationship.The Multi-faith Events are intentionally designed to be a dialogue because I desire for those in our community to be in relationship with each other.

A Palm Sunday Sermon by Fleming Routledge, “The New World Order”

I have been reading a beautiful and challenging collection of sermons by Fleming Routledge, The Undoing of Death. Here is an excerpt from her 1991 Palm Sunday sermon titled “The New World Order.”Image

Of all the days in the Christian year, this is certainly the most disconcerting. Even the most seasoned churchgoers tend to forget, each year, exactly what we are in for when we come to church for this occasion. We start out in gala mood; Palm Sunday has always been a crowd-pleaser. The festivity of the triumphal procession, the stirring music, the palm branches, the repeated hosannas all suggest a general air of celebration. It comes as a shock to us, year after year, to find ourselves abruptly plunged into the solemn, overwhelmingly long dramatic reading of the Passion narrative. It’s a tough Sunday. Its begins in triumph and ends in catastrophe. We come in prepared to part, and we leave as if we were going to a funeral. We come in joyful and we go out stricken. All in all, it is a most perplexing day – and for those who are unprepared, it can be downright threatening.

It would be tempting, on this day, to follow good American practice and tone down the depressing parts – “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.” Many American congregations have attempted this. Were it not for the ancient liturgical wisdom given to the church, it would be perfectly possible to go to Sunday services two weekends in a row – Palm Sunday and Easter Day – without ever having to face the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was abandoned, condemned, and put to death as a common criminal on the Friday between. Our historic liturgy, however, guards against this fatal misunderstanding. [...] In this way, the church announces for all the hear that the Crucifixion of Jesus is the main event. There is no passage from Palm Sunday to Easter without Good Friday. [...]

This week, the church of Jesus Christ gathers around the heart, the center, the guts of its claim to know the truth. Continue reading

Simone Weil on Study & Prayer (more thoughts on theological education and “attention”)

I posted recently on theological education and explored the importance of attending to the thoughts of others. I am continuing that line of thought here, and I want to look at an essay by Simone Weil (“Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God” in Waiting for God (pp. 57-66).

Weil suggests that giving our attention to academic studies forms and cultivates our capacities for loving God. Whether it be geometry or Latin, training my attention upon the subject develops my capacity for attending to God in prayer. This makes sense because, for Weil, prayer consists of attention: “the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God.”

In other words, attention is like a necessary muscle for prayer, and academic  studies train that muscle through requiring me to give my attention to various tasks. So, the value of academic study related to prayer is simply that it cultivates my capacity to give attention to God.

This adds a spiritual dimension to our discussion about the place of careful, patient, and deliberate attention to the thoughts of others in the process of theological education. For Weil, a Christian view of studies will define the  ultimate purpose of study as training in the love of God, and it will therefore understand activities that require attention as opportunities to develop the capacities necessary for that end.

For example, what might working hard on a geometry problem have to do with prayer? Weil explains, Continue reading

Theological Education and Attention

I opened one of my favorite academic journals recently and was intrigued to see an editorial by Stephen Holmes on theological education. He observes that students in theological studies (especially postgraduate) are often directed to spend the majority of their efforts attending to the ideas of others. In doing so they defer the work of actually speaking well about God themselves.

Holmes wonders if this should be lamented. Could educational practices focused on careful, lengthy attention to the ideas of others actually work against the ends and purposes of our discipline? Maybe we should just get down to the business of constructive theology more quickly. Holmes describes the situation this way:

Faced with a potential research student, passionate about understanding divine providence, we advise her to study the doctrine of providence in Barth or Calvin or Thomas Aquinas; when we set ourselves to write on God’s final intentions for the saints, we fill chapters with careful expositions of Gregory Palamas on deification. We trace the ideas of others in their particular context, and defer the task of making a theological proposal of our own.[...]

If the heart of our discipline lies somewhere between this disputed territory between speaking well about God and living well before God, our seemingly endless reflections on other writers demand defense; are we in fact evading our proper calling, practicing our discipline inadequately (or even refusing to practice it)?

It is a fair question, and my postgraduate studies followed a similar pattern. In fact, when I supervise independent studies with our best undergraduate students I shape the project along the same lines Holmes describes: we select an important figure, read him or her carefully and together, trace the lines of their thought, then communicate the findings orally and in writing. Could I be unintentionally trapping these budding theologians in an endless circle of attending to others when they should be giving their own account of the living God?

Before I share Holmes’ answer, how do you see it? For those of us who care about theological education, should we lament the fact that we often focus heavily on attending to the work of others? Should we just get down to the business of speaking well about God?

Continue reading

Charity and Its Fruits – Kyle edits Updated Edition

Kyle is publishing an updated edition of Jonathan Edwards’s “Charity and Its Fruits”, a meditation on 1 Corinthians 13, which should be released sometime over the summer (Charity and Its Fruits: Living in the Light of God’s Love). I want to give Kyle a chance to talk about the project because I know he is excited about the book’s potential to make one of Edwards’ more important works on the Christian life accessible for a new generation of readers.

Kent: What is it about Charity and Its Fruits that made you want to re-release it in a new, more accessible version?

Kyle: First, there are already a lot of editions of Charity and Its Fruits floating around, but they all use Edwards’s great, great grandson’s text that is highly edited. This is one of the reasons I wanted to provide a new edition. Mine will be the first edition of Charity in its own volume that goes back to Edwards’s original. The only other time Edwards’s original is published is in the Yale critical edition which costs $150 and has two other works bound up with it. Second, Charity is an important work to understand Edwards and yet it is often forgotten behind his Religious Affections. Charity is less tied to the polemical environment of the revivals, and so it is a bit more purely Edwards’s theologizing. Edwards never wrote or spoke without polemical partners in mind, but this is as close as you get. Third, I tend to think that if you want to start reading Edwards, you should start with Charity. I like to call is Edwards’s spiritual theology, because you really see spirituality and theology come together for him here.

Kent: What can Jonathan Edwards teach us about the Christian life?

Kyle: Edwards can teach us to be theological concerning the Christian life. Evangelicals have notoriously left theology aside when they talk about the Christian life, either turning to common-sensical notions of life that are more American than Christian or simply using the spiritual tradition as their own personal buffet-line. Edwards provides us with a great example of what it used to mean to be a theologian. Continue reading

What is a theology exam for, anyway?

In the midst of semester-end examinations I look for inspiration wherever possible (perhaps you find yourself in the same academic malaise). Here Barth gives a lovely account of the value and purpose of theological exams. I close my two semester, undergraduate theology cycle with oral exams for reasons similar to this:

When properly understood, an examination is a friendly conversation of older students of theology with younger ones, concerning certain themes in which they share a common interest. The purpose of this conversation is to give younger participants an opportunity to exhibit whether and to what extent they appear to give promise of doing so in the future. The real value of a doctorate, even when earned with the greatest distinction, is totally dependent on the degree to which its recipient has conducted and maintained himself as a learner. Its worth depends, as well, entirely on the extent to which he further conducts and maintains himself as such. Only by his qualification as a learner can he show himself qualified to become a teacher. Whoever studies theology does so because to study it is (quite apart from any personal aims of the student) necessary, good, and beautiful in relationship to the service to which he has been called. Theology must possess him so completely that he can be concerned with it only in the manner of a studiosus (Evangelical Theology, 172).

Reactions: Ford Madox Brown, “Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet”

Ford Madox Brown, Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet. 1852-56 (retouched several times up to 1892). Oil on canvas. Tate Gallery, London.

During my class on 1 Peter today I invited students to reflect with me on this painting. After asking for their impressions, I directed their attention first to Peter. How does the Gospel of John record Peter’s response to Jesus’ insistence that he wash the feet of his disciples (John 13: 8 – “You shall never wash my feet”)? How does Brown’s rendering of Peter in this scene interpret Peter’s response to Jesus’ soft rebuke?

Next we looked at those around the table. What does Brown suggest about their own willingness to be served by Jesus? How about the one untying his sandals? How about Judas clutching his head? How about the others who are more or less in the light?

Finally, the image invites the viewer to consider his or her response to Jesus’ insistence that he wash the feet of his followers (Caravaggio and Rembrandt evoke the same in many of their paintings). In other words, in which disciple do we see ourselves? How will it lead us to pray?

Theology as Easter Speech

I gave a paper this morning at the Midwest Regional Meeting of the Conference on Christianity and Literature. My presentation focused on the category of mystery in the theology of Rowan Williams. Specifically, I explored how his reading of the resurrection narratives generates a doctrinal rationale for the mysterious in Christian theology. Here is an excerpt.

Christian theology is Easter speech; it stands on the brink of its own impossibility because of the unsettling character of Christ’s resurrection, then and now. It stands on this side of that brink because with the risen Christ from the tomb comes God’s work of re-creation. The world, and consequently language, is simply not the same; so those who do in fact say anything at all stand “paralyzed as if in dreams, waiting for his spring” (“Resurrection,” in Headwaters).

What does all this have to do with the category of “mystery?” For Williams, as I hope is becoming clear, the resurrection of Christ establishes an orientation and cadence for Christian theology that mirrors the encounters of those who met the risen Christ. In that pattern, Williams argues, “Christian speech is for ever entering into and re-emerging from inarticularity. There is not one moment of dumbness or loss followed by fluency, but an unending back and forth between speech and silence” (Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospels, 66). [...]

Theology’s Easter-orientation means that “mystery” —that which supersedes our understanding—is fundamental to its starting point and to its ongoing viability. At any point that theology attempts a “final word”, a total explanation or formula, then it transgresses the pattern of silence and speech which characterizes the Easter encounter.

Collect on the Incarnation

Daniel Bonnell, "Jesus Praying," pen and ink

We praise you Lord, our God, that your love for us took the strange shape of enfleshment; you made your way in this world with skin, bone, fingernails, eyelashes . . .

hungerpains, parched lips, abandonment – “made like us in all respects” but without sin.

We acknowledge our deep needs before you: our rebelliousness,  brokenness, estrangement from each other and ourselves, and our deepest need of all, to be known once and for all, inside and out, coming and going, seeking and being found.

May we make our ways in this world along the grain of your way, through Jesus Christ our Lord and according to the power of your Spirit. Amen.