29 August 2010

More Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

I haven’t blogged on Christian Smith’s Souls in Transition in some months (for my entries on this excellent book see here, here, and here--and places in between).  A link making the rounds on Facebook brought it back to mind.  The link is to an interview of Kenda Creasy Dean who was one of the researchers on Smith’s earlier book, Soul Searching: the Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (OUP 2005).  Dean has followed up on that research with her own new book, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church (OUP 2010).  Her conclusion concurs with Smith’s: instead of Christianity, American teenagers are embracing the religion of "moralistic therapeutic deism," a watered-down faith that portrays God as a "divine therapist" whose chief goal is to boost people's self-esteem.  That teenagers whose religious beliefs are such leave any semblance of the Christian faith in their 20s is hardly surprising; there are, after all, better ways to boost one’s self-esteem than going to church and hanging around with others whose “faith” is similarly thin.

Of course, the actual content of orthodox Christianity centers around a holy God who is justified in condemning both sin and sinners to perdition but who--in himself--has atoned for the sins of his people.  The results of failing to enjoy the benefits of God’s atoning work in Christ are frightful to contemplate, at least if we credit the Scriptures and the great bulk of those who stand in the Christian tradition.

Why would American teenagers substitute the thin gruel of MTD for the content of historic Christianity?  Ask their parents.  After all, concludes Dean, parents are the most important influence on their children's faith,.  The ultimate blame for teens' religious apathy rests on adults.  And not just any adults but the parents of the MTD generation--the Baby Boomers and those who trail just behind.  The ersatz “virtues” of credentialing, success, niceness, and the like have replaced both the classical and biblical virtues.  We--and I speak of my own cohort of Christians--have raised a generation more characterized by “I don’t care” than even “I don’t know.”  Which reminds me of a poem by Sietze Buning,

“Today is review,
What is your only comfort in life and death?”
“That wasn’t in the catechism lesson this week.”
What do you mean by the Providence of God?”
“I can’t remember.”
What do you mean by a holy catholic church?”
“I don’t know.”
What does God require in the third commandment?”
I don’t care.”
I don’t care?
I have bowed until I can bow no more.
Nobody says I don’t care in my class.”
You grabbed your grubby Stetson,
You opened the door.
Pale and shaking, you yelled,
“I would rather have you say God damn than I don’t care.
We laughed,
surprised at the words you knew.
It didn’t occur to me until now
that God damn and I don’t care
mean the same thing.
I wish I could tell you
who must have cried “Woe is me” all the way home
what a good catechism lesson that was
on the third commandment. 

MTD teens are the children of parents who haven’t learned there is no difference. 

(Sietze Buning was the pen name of the late Stan Wiersma, a native of Sioux County, Iowa and long time professor of English at Calvin College.  “Delayed Reaction” can be found in Purpaleanie and other Permutations (1978).  The object of review is the Heidelberg Catechism.  The third commandment in the typical Protestant enumeration is "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.")

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