Maybe it began earlier than the 1950s and 60s, but those decades seem to mark the rise of the fascination with youth in American culture. The famous line that celebrates all things young, often wrongly attributed to James Dean, declares, “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse behind.”
Popular music, that telling barometer of popular culture, has kept pace with this trend. Nearly every heavy-metal band of the 1980s and ‘90s had a stock ballad about young heroes going down in a “blaze of glory.” Other popmusic references stress the invincible power of youth. Rod Stewart sings of being “Forever Young.” In their hit single “We Are Young,” the contemporary super group Fun declares that these same youth will “set the world on fire.” Bruce Springsteen’s barstool-seated narrator in “Glory Days” drowns the disappointments of his middle-aged life by retelling stories of high school exploits and triumphs. None of us may want to relive our awkward junior high moments, but who among us doesn’t harbor secret desires to be young again and seemingly able to conquer the world?
The subtle and not-so-subtle pulls of the idolization of youth manifest themselves in three areas. The first is an elevation of youth over the aged. This reverses the biblical paradigm. The second is a view of being human that values prettiness (not to be confused with beauty and aesthetics), strength, and human achievement. Think of the captain of the cheerleading squad and the star quarterback. The third is the dominance of the market by the youth demographic. That is to say, in order to be relevant and successful, one must appeal to the youth or to youthful tastes. These manifestations of our youth-driven culture deserve a closer look.
The trend of exalting youth and sidelining the elderly stems from a deeper problem summed up in the expression, “Newer is better.” We celebrate the new and innovative while looking down on the past and tradition. There is a compelling vitality to youth and to new ideas, but that does not mean there is no wisdom to be found in the past. It is a sign of hubris to think one can face life without the wisdom of those who have gone before. There is something about being young that makes the young think they are immune to the mistakes or missteps of those who have gone before. We all think too highly of ourselves and our capacities. Simply put, we need the wisdom of the past and of the elderly.
The idolization of youth even seeps into the church. One of the ways in which we see this is in the stress on church youth groups. Curiously, Jonathan Edwards, in his letter to Deborah Hathaway, referred to as “Letter to a Young Convert,” encouraged her to join with the other youth in the church to pray together and to discuss their progress in sanctification as an encouragement to one another. In short, he was calling for her to start a youth group. Youth groups can serve a significant purpose and can be meaningful ministries. However, they can separate the youth from the other age groups in the church. The church needs to worship, learn, and pray together, old and young side by side. The culture tries to push the aged away. The church cannot afford to do that.
As we need the wisdom of the elderly in the body of Christ, we also need the wisdom of the past. Newer isn’t always better. Sometimes it’s worse; sometimes it’s wrong. As the church, we are a people with a past. The Holy Spirit is not a gift unique to the church in the twenty-first century. We ignore or disdain the past to our detriment.
The way out of enslavement to this undue celebration of youth is to foster a genuinely diverse community in our homes and in our churches. Generation gaps can be awkward and barriers to both sides having genuine and authentic fellowship. But God has designed His church in such a way that we need each other. Paul specifically commands Timothy to have the older teach the younger (Titus 2:1–4). We miss out when we think we have nothing to learn from others at different stages of life. The church of today also misses out when it thinks it has nothing to learn from the church of yesterday.
The older may feel intimidation in trying to reach out to the younger, but the older should take the initiative. Young people can take the buds out of their ears and look up from their iPods. Children and grandchildren need to hear the stories of their parents and grandparents.
The second manifestation of our youth-driven culture is a warped view of humanity. Our culture determines a human being’s value based on how he or she looks. Parents, teachers, youth pastors, and pastors know how body image can be absolutely devastating to today’s youth. We also know theologically that human dignity, and hence human value, stems from our creation in the image of God. Our youth-obsessed culture uses a flawed metric for determining human worth.
Conversely, we also lose sight of human frailty and depravity. We are not strong. Isaiah reminds us, “Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength” (Isa. 40:30–31a). The theme of God’s strength manifested in our weakness reverberates through Paul’s writings. We will not hear it, however, if we are fixated on images of youthful strength and invincibility.
We need to help youth see that their value derives from being made in the image of the Creator and of the Redeemer. In today’s culture, adolescence is increasingly difficult to navigate well. Our youth are surrounded by images of the pretty and the skinny, the young and the beautiful. Images of perfection bombard them. My friend Walt Mueller, author and president of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding, has been studying the advertising industry for years. His conclusion? Overt and subtle images pass before a typical teen’s eyes potentially hundreds of times a week. Add to that the body-image message coming through much of pop music and movies, and you see the challenge. Youth culture needs the church’s help to think biblically about a healthy, God-honoring view of self and others.
The third manifestation of the youth culture has to do with the way the youth demographic drives the market. The economic engine driving much of popular culture, in terms of movies and music at least, is that group with discretionary funds—teens and twenty-somethings. Youth groups and even churches, desiring to be successful, hurry to catch up.
The ever-insightful Southern writer Flannery O’Connor once weighed in on a debate over the use of a controversial novel in a public school classroom. Rather than debate the particular merits or demerits of the book, O’Connor raised a deeper question. She observed that advocates for the book made their case by claiming it was trendy and hip, for which reason the young people of the day were into it. Why not meet them where they were?, went the argument. O’Connor instead made a case for reliance on the literary canon, not popular fiction. Then she went on the attack in her closing lines: “And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed” (“Fiction Is a Subject with a History—It Should Be Taught that Way”).
Some may dismiss O’Connor’s argument, seeing it as an elitist appeal. But she raises a fair point. There are felt needs and there are true needs. Sometimes it takes quite a few decades to see the difference.
Sociologist Christian Smith coined the phrase moralistic therapeutic deism to describe the prominent religious view of American youth. His description sticks, but how should we respond? To simply cater to such tastes is to pander. In doing so, the gospel and the demands of the Christian life are lost.
One of those rock ballads I alluded to earlier echoes again and again a haunting line: “Give me something to believe in.” It tells a story of seeking, but finding only disappointment and disillusionment. Yet the desire to believe in something persists. Sociologists tell us that contemporary youth culture values authenticity. We reach out to youth culture best by not pandering and by not pretending to be hip—it’s too hard to pull it off anyway. One person’s respect for another grows immensely when one simply speaks and lives the truth in love.
Youth culture today faces a great deal of anxiety. On nearly every level, an uncertain future waits on the horizon. But these anxieties are only the symptoms of the real problem, shadows of the anxiety humanity faces because of alienation. Our sin separates us from God. And we need someone to believe in. None of us, young or old, needs a therapeutic religion. We all need the gospel. And we all need a church of young and old—and in between—that proclaims and lives the gospel.