The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Part 2)

In the second part of my review of Juvenilization I focus on chapters 2 and 3 which survey the response to youth culture in the 1940s and 1950s (read previous posts here and here). Chapter 4 treats the political activism of the black church during the 1960s, and there are interesting resonances between that and the activism of today’s youth. Let’s hold that discussion until the next round.

Chapter 2 highlights what Bergler calls the emerging dilemma of youth work which faced the American church during the 1940s and remains today: how do we cast a vision for social change to youth within our churches without accommodating the message of the Christian Gospel to youth culture? To illustrate the emergence of the dilemma, Tom paints a detailed historical picture of the all-encompassing social world of the high school and its enticements of youthful consumerism and the various attempts of church youth leaders in various denominations to address the situation (Mainline Protestants, Evangelicals, Catholics, and African Americans).

Tom’s attention to detail is impressive, and this should be required reading for anyone wanting to grasp the situation in American youth work today. His careful attention to history demonstrates the importance of understanding the past in order to act wisely in the present. He summarizes the effect of the church’s focus on youth as follows:

The newly labeled ‘teenagers’ would from now on be increasingly seduced by the siren song of high school social life dominated by fun, sports, dating, movies, music, and fashion. While adult values and youthful tastes have often clashed over the centuries, what was changing was the relative balance of power between the two and the length of time between puberty and full adult status….

Tom walks through the Methodist response to this new dilemma in chapter 3, and his evaluation is mixed. Tom discusses several issues, but for the sake of example we could just mention the issue of racism. On one hand, Methodist youth leaders correctly identified the problem of racism and acted to galvanize youth to change their culture, but on the other hand they did not foster “the sort of social justice spirituality needed for long term effectiveness” (91). What young people were hearing and experiencing at “hip” youth rallies, camps, and retreats was in serious discontinuity with their experience of church back home.

Questions:

I am interested in Tom’s comments about “social justice spirituality” and what he would say are the necessary practices for creating and sustaining it. For example, what practices are required in a faith community to foster and feed the imagination of young people to engage the social justice issues that are pertinent for their setting?

Particularly in light of the way activism has recently become hip within American Christianity, what must happen on a local level to shape the imaginations of young people to sustain real, lasting engagement in social issues? There is more to participating in God’s advancing Kingdom than buying Toms and riding your bike to work (fads that fade when they become uncomfortable and costly), so what do you think local churches can do today to shape and sustain that imagination? What are the practices through which that imagination is formed and sustained?

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?

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?

The Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology: Review

Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press sent me copies of two recent reference publications, and both are superb. If you have any influence over the purchasing of your university or seminary’s library, these next two reviews are for you.

First, The Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology. Given the proliferation and easy access to online resources why produce another dictionary?  What sets the Cambridge Dictionary apart is its format. Oriented around a small number of “core entries” which focus on key topics to provide a general overview of major subject areas, the Cambridge Dictionary fills a troublesome void in theological reference texts. More than a few adequately provide brief lexical definitions, and many offer longer, more in depth treatments of major topics (see below for recommendations of both), but none the middle-length treatment provided here. The editors intention was to use these core entries to “provide the conceptual ballast for the volume as a whole, serving as the superstructure around and in terms of which many of the other entries are conceived and composed” (xix).

The core entries fall into five basic categories that together map the territory of systematic theology from distinct, though “complementary, conceptual perspectives”: Continue reading

God the Peacemaker: Some Brief Reflections

Having given a summary of Graham Cole’s God the Peacemaker: How Atonement Brings Shalom (InterVarsity Press, 2009), I’ll offer some reflections and another invitation to more interaction on a few of its themes and lines of argument.

On the whole, I think the book could serve as a reasonable introduction to the mosaic of biblical teaching on the atonement.  At the same time, I felt that, given the measure of specificity granted to the volumes of the New Studies in Biblical Theology series, it would have been good in some places to slow down and go for depth over breadth.  For example, chapter eight broaches a dizzying number of dimensions of the Christian life but could have concentrated on those more closely tied to living in light of the cross.

Continue reading

Experimental Theology in America

As some of you may have noticed, I have been off the blog for a while now. My wife and I (more her than me!) had a baby girl on Oct. 31st – Brighton Angelina Strobel. We are very excited and very tired. All that to say, I’ve been meaning to write a review of a fantastic book but am only getting around to it now. The book, written by Patricia A. Ward, is entitled Experimental Theology in America: Madame Guyon, Fenelon, and Their Readers (Baylor University Press, 2009).

For those who have been following this blog for a while now, you know that we have an interest in the nature of evangelicalism. I was taken in by Bruce Hindmarsh’s claim that evangelicalism is best understood as a school of spirituality – a school that borrows heavily from other schools. Towards this end, Patricia Ward’s book goes a long way to justifying that claim (though this is my own interest and not her stated goal). This book is an excellent example of intellectual history, focusing its attention on the mystical writings of Madame Guyon and her defender Fenelon. As interesting as that is, you might wonder, why do I find it interesting? In my studies of early American theology, focusing on Edwards, I noticed what seemed to be a influence of Fenelon. Edwards did, in fact, read Fenelon, and Edwards’s spirituality does reflect some of Fenelon’s spirituality. That is what originally made me curious about Ward’s work, but now, after reading it, I am amazed at how ubiquitous Guyon and Fenelon’s influence actually was. Wesley appropriated, with caution, some of Guyon, as did figures like A. W. Tozer. Samuel Hopkins, Edwards’s protegé, was compared to Fenelon, and Fenelon became something of an ecumenical spiritual figure (as did, in her own right, Guyon). Continue reading

Reading the Decree

I am going to be taking a look at the doctrine of election through a couple of recent releases – the first, by David Gibson, is Reading the Decree: Exegesis, Election and Christology in Calvin and Barth (T&T Clark, 2009). This book has been out for a little while now, but I am also going to be looking at Suzanne McDonald’s new book Re-Imaging Election (Eerdmans, 2010). Here, I will focus my attention on Gibson’s read of Calvin and Barth on election. I think that this volume is particularly interesting because of the exegetical emphasis – putting Calvin and Barth’s exegetical considerations in parallel with their doctrinal development. Or, better, that for both thinkers, doctrine and exegesis are not two discrete tasks, but are united around, in one way or another, their “christocentrism.”

Utilizing Muller’s distinction between “soteriological christocentrism” and “principial christocentrism” Gibson invokes a corresponding hermeneutical distinction – extensive and intensive. A hermeneutic is christologically extensive when the center of christology “points outwards to other doctrinal loci which have space and scope to exist in themselves at a measure of distance from Christology and from each other” (15). Christology does not “dictate” or “control” but “shapes” and “influences” them. Likewise, a hermeneutic is christologically intensive when the center of christology “defines all else within its circumference” (15). This christology draws everything to itself, so that all other doctrinal material is read with an explicit reference to christology. Calvin and Barth represent these two facets respectively. Continue reading