This is a must read for all who are serious about evangelistic engagement. Chad Brand gives a superb snapshot of the modern psyche.
Spiritual Challenges to American Youth
by Chad Brand | Nov 05 2011 | Uncategorized
We had The Reinvent conference today at SBTS. I was asked to speak on spiritual challenges to American Youth. They are legion, but the ones I chose to highlight are the following.
1. Radical Secularism. While our nation’s body politic outlined in the American Constitution (1789) is a secular form of government, it is not a radically secular government (like the one created in the French Revolution), nor was it a government opposed to religion. Not at all. It was a government that encouraged religious practice and at the same time guaranteed religious liberty. But in the last fifty years, a subculture of radical secularity has invaded our society. And it is growing.
Beginning in war-ravaged Europe in the inter-war years (1918-1939) and continuing during and especially after the second World War, seen especially in the existentialist philosophies of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Martin Heidegger, and then morphing into the deconstructionism and nihilism of Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes, this spirit infected the majority of Europe’s reigning intellectual Mandarins. The church was stifled, if not virtually silenced. There is little that remains of the once-vibrant Reformation heritage of Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland (perhaps the least-ravaged), and Scandinavia. It is a massive spiritual wasteland that has no soul except a secular one. The problem is that Europe’s problems are eventually absorbed by American culture.
And it is becoming that way here. One recent study of American teenagers concluded that the majority have radical secularism as their religion. One may quibble with the adjective “majority,” but it is clear that this spirit has invaded youth culture in our northern and western metropolitan areas and through social media and popular culture is also making its way to the rural and southern communities of our country. This is what the church is going to have to face in reaching the youth of our day. It is also what we have to face as an infecting principle toward the youth of our churches.
2. Popular New Spiritualities. Four decades or so ago the New Age Movement made its present felt in our part of the world. Those of us old enough can still remember watching Shirley Maclain running down the beach in the climactic scene of “Out on a Limb,” crying, “I am God. I am God!” You don’t hear much about the New Age Movement anymore, but not because it is not here. It has simply changed designations. Now we hear about the New Spirituality. It manifests itself in some ways similar to the older movement, such as in astrology, Tarot cards, crystals, Eastern religious practices, and necromancy. But now the cooler aspects of the New Spirituality include speculation about UFO origins of human life or even of all biological life on earth. (The History Channel recently ran a series proposing this very thing! Erich van Daniken was even one of the “experts” interviewed!) Angel therapy, universal affirmation, and various reincarnations of Gnosticism are characteristic of the newer versions of the New Age Movement. Accompanying these are a new fascination with vampires and zombies. For some, these are just curiously fascinating. For others they have become a fixation, especially for those with a radically secularist worldview, and who thus have nothing to fill the void of the “unknown” in their lives. These all pose threats to the spirituality of American youth, the members of our society most vulnerable to the lure of these kinds of things that “glow in the dark.”
3. The “New Atheism.” While this is really nothing new, it certainly is atheism redivivus. Atheism was almost unknown in Western culture before the nineteenth century. I believe it was Hegel who first proclaimed, “God is dead,” and that while being a good Lutheran! But Friedrich Nietzsche turned it into a mantra in the late nineteenth century, and sang the tune right into his final years in an asylum. For him, the bankruptcy of the church (as he saw it) coupled with Darwinian evolutionary theory made it clear that humans are nothing but featherless bipeds. As such, their “conscience” was not natural, since animals have no conscience of moral or immoral acts. Your dog may learn not to poop on the carpet, but it develops no moral conscience about such things; it simply learns that when it does such a thing that there is a consequence. In Jurassic Park when the scientist and the two children are holed up in the branches of a tree to protect themselves from the predators, they hear a T-rex roar in the distance. The girl says, “I hate that kind!” The scientist simply replies, “They just do what they do.” Indeed! You don’t want them to do what they do to your children, of course, but it is not an immoral act. So, for Nietzsche, the conscience is an imposition by religion, tradition, and culture. Hardly a satisfactory explanation of a nearly-universal human phenomenon!
Enter the new atheists. In 2004 Sam Harris published The End of Faith, a new broadside launched against religion in the aftermath of 9/11. Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’ God Is not Great have gained the greatest press. These are all assaults on religion based primarily on their analyses of the problem of evil and the difficulty it poses for (mainly) monotheistic faiths. These books lack any real sophistication and any Christian with a couple of philosophy courses under his or her belt would realize that, but for those who are untutored in philosophy, they can be persuasive. (Check out Albert Mohler’s book, Atheism Remix.) The problem is that Christian high-schoolers often are unequipped to deal with such tirades, especially when they are unleashed in a spirit of proselytism, and it gets only worse when the proselytizers are state university professors insulated from angry parents and protected by tenure. It seems that such professors (often unrepentant members of the hippie culture of the ’60s and 70′s, now come into their own) find great joy in de-converting young Christians fresh with enthusiasm about their collegiate education and unprepared for the onslaught that greets them in a literature or philosophy course. Marxism is dead almost everywhere geo-politically, but the old dinosaurs have found a place of refuge from extinction on state university campuses in the United States.
4. Undiscriminating Sexualism. Here is a piece of good news. In 2007 only 47.8% of high school students admitted to having had sexual intercourse. Good news? Well, in 1991 that number stood at 54.1%. It is bad, but not as bad as then, if we can trust these statistics. But there is a difference. Now sex is just a common expectation, even though some have chosen to defer longer than twenty years ago, and with the age of marriage rising these young people will have a higher rate of sexual experience before marriage as the need to wait evaporates in college years and after. Also, the stigma of homosexuality has been removed, due to the increasing visibility of homosexuality in the culture and because of the removal of the “ick factor” toward homosexual behavior. So, in the end more young people are sexually active before marriage than before, and homosexuality is more accepted than ever.
Biblical injunctions about sex outside of marriage (1 Cor. 6) and about homosexuality (Rom. 1) and the spiritual danger that such activities generate are ravaging our youth. If sex does in some sense make people “one,” then we are becoming “one” with an ever increasingly large number of people. Small wonder that people come to their pastors complaining that their lives are fractured and fragmented. They are fractured and fragmented because we have left little pieces of ourselves all over the sexual landscape. This is spiritual suicide by bits and pieces.
5. Uncritical Pluralism. Since at least 1893 at the Chicago Parliament of Religions there has been a determined effort on the part of many to argue that all religions are pathways to God. Swami Vivekananda gave an address at that gathering claiming that religion is like a large mountain, and that the various religious traditions were simply finding different pathways up that mountain. Since then there have been various attempts to argue that all religions are essentially one. This is a common refrain today, and is especially espoused by youthful optimists, hoping that east and west, north and south can join hands and say, not, we are Christians, we are Islam, but we are the world. Or, in John Lennon’s expression, that we can eventually have a religion that is no specific religion. We just need to assimilate to one another, and in a kind of Borg-like fashion, ignore that fact that there are differences between us. “Resistance is futile!”
Why can’t Buddhists worship with Christians and with members of Bah’ai? The answer is that any world in which both Christianity and Hinduism are true would be pure chaos; it would be the Negative Zone of Marvel Comics fame. A world in which nothing can exist for long. Just think of eschatology. Hindus believe that all is ultimately one–one thing–and that in the “end” (if we can even use such a word for a monistic ontology) that all will be one. Each drop of water will once again be but a part of the wider ocean, no differentiation, no distinction, gods, humans, black holes, and universes just one thing, and that one thing, nothingness. What a different picture is painted in Revelation 21 and 2 where resurrected humans beings are reconciled to God in a new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells. Unless that is just ridiculous poetry, it has nothing to do with Hindu eschatology.
But the biggest death-knell to Pluralism is the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. There is nothing analogous in world religions. Krishna might descend to the earth in the form of an avatar in Hinduism, but he is not implanted in the womb of a young woman, does not grow to adulthood, does not face substitutionary death for the sins of mankind and then be uniquely raised from the dead for our justification and our future resurrection. That is what Scripture teaches about our Savior and about our faith. Pluralism holds no hope because no other faith provides for the affirmation of this created order that is found in the Incarnation, no other faith provides for the possibility of forgiveness that is found in the Cross, and no other faith provides hope for life beyond the grave that is found in the Resurrection of Christ. Christ is the only hope, and if that is not clear, nothing is. Our young people need to be informed of what other faiths believe (see Winfried Corduan’s, Neighboring Faiths), but the greater antidote is found in a faithful exposition of the person and work of Christ.
6. Agnosticism toward Truth. The final spiritual crisis that faces our youth is the agnosticism toward truth that is found in contemporary culture. In our culture we have armies of leftists who argue that there is no such thing as truth. Of course, what they mean is that there is no such thing as traditional claims to truth–that they are all misplaced. Curiously, most of the time after making such an allegation such persons go on to propose for some changes in government, or is social engineering, claims made on the basis of something they obviously believe to be true. One of the best examples comes from a debate between Jurgen Habermas and Michel Foucault in Paris around 1980. Foucault had launched his usual assault against traditional Western truth claims, but then began to outline certain political changes that needed to be made Habermas called his bluff, asserting that you cannot make an assault on claims to truth and then propose specific political changes that must be made, and especially that there are things that have to be done. Foucault’s supporters accused Habermas of committing “Enlightenment Blackmail.” But he was right. Our youth have to be convinced that there is such a thing as truth. As Paul Copan has put it in his book, That’s Just Your Interpretation, there has to be such a thing as truth, and Everybody knows that! Modern critics make the same claim about truth and then go on to argue for Greenism, or Feminism, or Speciesism, and some other Ism. Don’t let our kids be blindsided by immoral people who simply want to hoodwink them!
The challenges to youth ministry, or any other ministry, are legion in our world. But let’s not forget that part of the spiritual warfare before us is also a war of wits, of words, and of wisdom.
Chad Owen Brand