Cake and Steak

An article that ran Friday at CNN came onto my radar screen today thanks to a couple of recommendations at what Morgan Freeberg calls the Hello Kitty of Blogging. The headline was catchy: “More Teens Becoming ‘Fake Christians’.”

The piece is an interview with Kendra Creasy Dean, a Methodist minister and seminary prof at Princeton, who has authored a book called Almost Christian. Dean argues that:

American teenagers are embracing what she calls “moralistic therapeutic deism.” Translation: It’s a watered-down faith that portrays God as a “divine therapist” whose chief goal is to boost people’s self-esteem.

This is the watery sort of smiling, happy Jesus stuff we see from the Osteens of the world and their ilk. And not surprisingly, it’s not the sort of thing that inspires passion in teens (or in the odd blogging medievalist, for that matter.) And it shows.

Though three out of four American teenagers claim to be Christian, fewer than half practice their faith, only half deem it important, and most can’t talk coherently about their beliefs, [a] study found. Many teenagers thought that God simply wanted them to feel good and do good[.]

If that were all there was to it, we could get our spiritual guidance from Pepsi cartons. In fact, it reminds me of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, in which the vicious teen gangster sneers at notions of right and wrong for the “stronger food” of Good and Evil. Like Pinkie Brown, many American teens find this sort of milquetoast Christianity  — the “gospel of niceness” — either flavorless or cloyingly sweet.

I have great sympathy for them. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve felt rather disconnected from the way faith is practiced at my home congregation. I don’t find much substance there, and while the Good News remains Good, that doesn’t mean it’s better pureed. Elizabeth Corrie, who runs what the article calls a “theological boot camp for teens” at Emory, in fact uses a metaphor I’ve used among some of my friends:

“We think that they want cake, but they actually want steak and potatoes, and we keep giving them cake,” Corrie says.

And I see this in my students as well. One of my most beloved students has recently moved the church in which she was raised for a more conservative branch of the denomination. I think that a significant portion of her move may be rooted in what she sees as the moral limpness of her old church.

It’s nothing new, of course, dating at least back to the church at Laodicea, but now it’s our turn in the barrel. So how can we energize our own faiths and those of my daughter’s generation? Dean has an observation:

No matter their background, Dean says committed Christian teens share four traits: They have a personal story about God they can share, a deep connection to a faith community, a sense of purpose and a sense of hope about their future.

Corrie, in turn, calls on us to perform what she calls radical acts of faith, while making sure that we make clear that we are doing because of our faith. This, she says, is more powerful than any number of sermons, and of course she’s right.

And this is where I know I myself fall short. Right now, events in my life have put me in a position where acting at all, much less acting radically, seems too difficult to muster, and the gospel of niceness I find at my church these days is not sufficient. Nonetheless, I believe, because I can’t do anything else, and I make no secret of that. It’s probably not very radical, but it’s all I have right now, and I hope it’s enough, both for myself and for my daughter. Although my church seems like a bakery these days, I’ll keep trying to serve steak at home — or at least hamburgers.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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