Monday, October 25, 2010


There are only a small handful of people on this planet I love more than I love my books. And I adore even the difficult ones, those described by Mark Helprin as “hard to read, that could devastate and remake one’s soul, and that, when they were finished, had a kick like a mule.” But the worst kick I’ve received from any book in quite a long time came from Kenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian – depressing, alarming, with the feel of what it must be like when the doctor says “It’s malignant and there’s little chance of a cure,” and you knew it all along but had let yourself fantasize that everything would really turn out to be okay.

Dean teaches at Princeton, and is smiling in all her photos; but she's not making me smile. Her book runs 250 pages, but the diagnosis could be captured in something as short as a blog. On the very first page the bell tolls: “American young people are, theoretically, fine with religious faith – but it does not concern them very much, and it is not durable enough to survive long after they graduate from high school. One more thing: we’re responsible.”

I knew that, but kept deceiving myself that maybe teenagers have a robust faith they just don’t put on display, sort of the way they don’t tell you about the inner workings of their minds, and don’t reveal the complexities of their relationships. But Dean has done the research, and I’ve followed up by asking a few teenagers myself, and it’s plain as day: teenagers aren’t against religion at all. But when asked to give an account of what Christianity is, they fumble, stumble… and the basic sense they have of the rich treasure that is the Scripture and two millennia of rich theological tradition and practice is that Christianity is about being nice, feeling good about yourself, and perhaps being able to call upon God for assistance in the occasional emergencies of life.

That’s pathetically thin – and yet Dean says this is what parents either believe themselves, or it’s the most parents have been able in their shyness to put on exhibit for their children; and she claims this is what the churches have trumpeted as well, through a long diet of vapid sermons, youth group programs about hip topics like “friendship,” and a hollow round of Church activities that are more about being nicely busy than about anything courageous or radical. We are close, but only “almost Christian.”

Dean’s studies have turned up a paltry few – perhaps as high as 8% of all teenagers – who have a lively faith, pray regularly, read a Bible and have a sustainable spirituality. But for the rest, God, holiness, prayerfulness, and the Bible simply are not on the radar screen. Partly they have lived with screens: they are wired, connected, on Facebook and texting, with ever attenuated attention spans and no exposure to the quiet of contemplation or the absorption in the printed Word of God. Partly they simply have witnessed the most superficial faith imaginable in churches and their homes.

The gloomy failure of a generation of parents and their churches to do better is exasperating. I suspect we thought that by some mysterious osmosis kids would soak up faith, or be sharper at the life of faith than we are (the way they are more internet savvy than we). Or we imagined that if we simply deposited them in a Sunday School room on the Sundays we happened to be in town, and sent them to youth group, and on the occasional mission trip, all would be well.
What teenagers have no clue about is the kind of thick, deeply meaningful life of faith that understands the curious strangeness of God’s way that doesn’t sit well with our culture, or the delights of being still and contemplating the wisdom of life, or living close to the heart of God in a way that can bring comfort and hope during crises or more chronic agonies, or the vision of who we are as creatures fashioned in the image of God and what that means for our identity and how we interact with others.

This makes me brutally sad, and I simply have to stop looking at Almost Christian, and writing this blog, or driving by the local high school – where I feel I should stop and co-opt that loud speaker system and issue a grievous apology for the failure of the church to do better. We have left our beloved children empty-handed, sending them out into the world with quick brains but hollow souls. We need to apologize to ourselves: no wonder we are so weary, so confused, so angry. We’re “almost Christian,” and therefore miss the real thing.

I try to remind myself that Dean’s title, Almost Christian, comes from a sermon John Wesley preached. He was discouraged but not at all defeated. His whole purpose in preaching the thing was to persuade people to get busy about the endeavor to become “altogether Christian, not an “almost Christian.” Perhaps there is still hope – but we had better get active, right now, with our own reading and prayer, not thinking we will out-entertain the entertainment culture, but offer a vital if bizarre alternative, and decide we will be the kind of people Wesley described – those who can cry out, “My God, my All!”

Wesley’s questions are daunting: “Do you desire nothing but God? Are you happy in God? Is he your glory, your delight, your crown of rejoicing? Do you love your neighbor as yourself? Do you love every man, even your enemies, even the enemies of God, as your own soul? As Christ loved you?” Until we can answer these questions, we have to knuckle under in shame to the doctor’s sad diagnosis: it’s malignant, and the way we are going we have no hope. But “with God nothing is impossible” – so even in this funk Dean has put me in, I believe in miracles. I wonder if we can tackle this – or be seized by the sorry truth of where we are – and let today become the beginning of something new and vital? It's not too late for the younger children, is it? and God can really redeem any of us, teens, parents, churches?