[A summary of pages 1-94 of Andrew Root’s Book, Faith Formation in a Secular Age: Responding to the Church’s Obsession with Youthfulness]
The first half of this book maps out the historical story, or better, the philosophical genealogy showing how and why the Church has become obsessed with youthfulness. To tell this story is to show how the flows of our cultural history has moved the majority of us to see the point of life NOT as following an external authority or lining ourselves up with any greater realities. Instead we now focus our attentions on our own youthful, individualized meanings and purposes. It wasn’t always this way.
Andrew Root argues along the lines of the famed philosopher Charles Taylor that post 1960s, we are all living in a huge, calendar-like transition in our world. Our age is now “secular” in a very unique way. Like Taylor, the author of this book sees that our culture has shifted from acting primarily based on “duty” (1900s-1950) to now acting primarily in order to attain “authenticity” (1960s-on). As a result, the culture (and worse, the Church with it) has become obsessed with youthfulness. Youthfulness is our current cultural and ecclesiological “teenage dream” (to borrow a phrase from Katy Perry) that promises a life that is exciting, meaningful, and sensual. Here is my summary of Root’s summary of how it happened:
The dawn of our “Age of Authenticity” began way back in the Enlightenment (1600s-1800s). 500 years ago, people believed there were “secular spheres” and “sacred spheres” and the point of life was to commune with the sacred forces whenever possible. At this time in history, all people acknowledged sacred realities, and sought them. A few examples: The gothic cathedrals were understood to be powerful, holy things. A place where the eternal meets the temporal. The farmer also hoped to experience God as he milked his cow. And so on and so forth.
With scientific advancements that led us into the 1800s-1900, the “secular” versus the “sacred” was drastically redefined. In this second phase of secularity, the distinct divide disappeared as the human will and human rationality became the driving power of reality. In this revised scenario, “the sacred” becomes a distinct and special location where religious belief and practice are “allowed” their freedom. In the former age people were always on watch for the sacred. In the modern age, the sacred is understood to be bound within particular institutions, locations, or ideologies.
This trajectory creates the conditions for our current version of secularity in the 21st century where many people ultimately find transcendence and divine action unbelievable. The difference between our modern age and past ages is the default assumptions about what is believable and desirable.
Up to the 1920s, youthfulness had little draw to the masses. The age of authenticity was not fully in affect. Duty, obligation, and authority, mixed with a sense of adventure, set the terms for American life. Then came the wars. World War I was supposed to be the war that ended all wars. Then, its nightmarish twin was hoped to. But this too was not to be, for wars became the constant disposition of the Western world in the 20th century as they shifted cold and then back to hot again.
While these wars did not end all wars, WWII does seem to have ended the old world as we knew it, opening the door to the age of authenticity and the obsession with youthfulness. The Unites States entered the war in 1942 economically depressed. But with the dropping of the atom bomb, everything changed. The economic depression was soon over and in the almost two decades that followed the war, we rested in the light of our glorious victory.
At this time, an idea called “Keynesian economics” became popular, asserting that the engine to economic growth and strength rested in consumer spending. FDR exhorted people way back in 1933 to return their money from under their beds to the banks, allowing it to provide for a parched economy. After the war, the new challenge was to make every citizen a constant and continued buyer. And this is exactly what the citizens did. They saw their duty was to spend their money. They obeyed, by spending.
When this happened, the American economy became a “raging river the likes of which no nation had ever seen.” America became a superpower through consumption. This is partially why we call the men and women of WWII the “greatest generation.” Besides the fact that this generation had so many babies, they are great to us because they did something we cannot imagine: They followed duty and obligation over the desires of the self. They spent when they didn’t want to because that is what they were told to do. By the late 1950s it became their duty and their reward to move to the suburbs, drive a new car, and fill their green lawns with playing children.
What then swings the door open for the age of authenticity is this new consumer-based society. It is the duty to buy that brings forth the age of authenticity.
“Having picked up gun and grenade in the European and Pacific theaters, the weapons of the Cold War were tract housing, GE refrigerators, and Buicks.”
Conformity to the mass society became the call to duty;
keeping up with your neighbor’s buying became your national obligation.
For the first time in the American economy, the mass society had no need for the young in the labor market itself. At this point, toys became big business. To keep the consumptive drive of mass society going, segmentation became a central social strategy.
In the 1950s a distinct and powerful national youth culture built not on obligation but on the segmented products of the mass society formed for the first time. The postwar mass society also provided something to the young beyond free space and new toys: substantive education. The 1960s was the first decade that the vast majority of American teens not only attended high school but graduated with a diploma (Up until the 1930s, most teenagers worked for a living on farms, in factories, or at home, whatever the family required at the time).
In the 1960s, the new duties of a child became not to work the family land or honor family tradition, but to receive an individual education. What is unique is how the segmentation of the mass society made the teenage period self-contained. This allowed for the new assumption that just as products needed to be created for the young, to be sold by the young only to the young, so a youthful version of Christianity must be presented to the young by the young, only for the young. Pastors, then, needed to be turned into youth pastors. This, I learned, was mostly a Californian invention.
Faith formation begins to happen inside segmented spaces, disconnected from the larger experiences of others. Faith starts to be understood as participation in your segmented group – such as going to Young Life club, or youth group, with fewer and fewer ties to the broader church.
The experiment of making consumption an individualized duty in society and in church functioned well until its moral integrity was questioned. In the early 1960s it became known that the producers of products (especially car companies) were using a strategy called planned obsolescence: They make their products so that they would break down, or at least become obsolete, within a year or two. People had dutifully bought, conforming as they were told, and yet they discovered the whole game was rigged, so they began to lose trust in the system of conformity.
This is partially why Charles Taylor says that the 1960s were a hinge which moved the desire for authenticity [rather than conformity] to the populace, pushing it from avant-garde artists and writers in the 19th century to the masses, particularly in North America, in the 20th century. In the 1960s we all started to become uncomfortable with the language of conformity, duty and authority and began looking for tools that would free us from such repression. Out of this soil emerges not just a weed, but an indigenous plant species we now know as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD).
But meanwhile, this same generation in the 1960s was also grappling with issues such as racism and the holocaust. They started to see that conformity often leads to oppression. They realized their system of conformity via consumption was suspect. Right at this time comes Freud who constructs a whole theory around repression and the need to voice authentic desire. So the youth of the 1960s demand a jailbreak, not by overthrowing the consumptive desire for want but by fully embracing the authenticity of their desires. Rather than conforming to the authorities, their focus turns inward to what they want.
This gets us to the rise of the hippie (the result of a massive sixties generation that came of age) and the summer of love in 1969 when it became clear to all that our social imaginary had completely changed. The masses begin to believe that authenticity [NOT conformity or duty] is central to humanity. “The establishment” or “The Organization Man” was the new enemy. Refusing to grow up became the central act of revolt. Jake Whalen and Richard Flacks explain this further:
“The sixties youth revolt was in part about the possibility of redefining ‘adulthood’ in our society. If a single theme united the otherwise disparate forms of political and cultural protest that characterized the period, it was the romantic belief that the young could make themselves into new persons, that they need not follow in their parents’ footsteps, that they could build lives in which they could exercise a degree of self-mastery not given by the established structures of role, relationship, and routine.” (55)
The new goal was for individuals to free themselves from the shackles of bourgeois conformity by remaining forever full of youthfulness. While their parents were driven by duty and conformity, the young were driven by the pursuit of authenticity and the search for the hip or the cool. After all, whatever is cool, is true! While the drive to overthrow one culture with a counterculture never occurred for the hippies, the success of the 1960s youth movement was much more pervasive in both the broader culture and following it, the church.
Mostly through marketing, what happened in the sixties is that hip became central to the way American capitalism understood itself and explained itself to the public. Salvation became synonymous with authenticity and the sacraments of this new religion were the material realities (cars, clothes) named cool. “Cool” in America becomes the very lifeblood of capitalism. This switch turns buying from conformity to competition and keeps the consuming going. Marketers saw in the rebellious youth not an enemy of the system, but the new icon to keep people spending their money.
In the 1950s, you had to have a new car and a white fridge because it was your duty. But now you needed the coolest sports car and the brightest clothes to express your authentic individuality. To reveal that you were cooler than the other conforming squares in your neighborhood. Purchasing became a way to set yourself apart from others. Consumption is now the way towards distinction. I buy not to keep up with the Joneses but to beat them and to be cooler than they are. Authenticity and individuality become the new measure of “the good life.”
By the end of the 1960s, the youthful rebel stands at the height of authenticity while buying stuff becomes an emotive experience of authentic expression, a way of remaining in or returning to your youth. This is when youthfulness becomes an idealized place where each person purchases their specific wants and desires as they bathe in the glory of being cool. “Youth” becomes a posture available to all!
Note how the the cultural imagination is now drastically different than it used to be. Religion can now be understood apart from any real divine action or transcendence (the Deistic element of MTD). Our anthropology is now one of self-pursuit (the Therapeutic in MTD) and our ethic is primarily individualistic (the Moralistic in MTD). These are the people walking into church, and these are the people the church is trying to minister to.
In the early 1970s, churches begin hiring a specific pastor for (only) the youth! After all, Calvary Chapel churches were showing that if you could get the youth, you could, quickly and profoundly, build a church. The survival of the church is now perceived to revolve around the youthfulness of the church. Church leaders, marketers, producers and publishers see great entrepreneurial possibilities in this strategy… Root maintains, “the countercultural revolution has never ended.”
Everything is now different. By the 1980s-90s, faith formation and church participation are pursued by many people as a way to support their particular, individual pursuits for happiness and success. The Neo-Evangelical movement meanwhile affirms this desire and encourages everyone that they can find all the satisfaction they are looking for (not in drugs, sex, or rock or roll, but) in Jesus! So you get everyone acting like the Jesus Freaks. The Calvary Chapels. The California charismatics.
Root says that is now. We now live in an age where people see church as a place to help them stay authentic and young. We live in an age where church is a place to go to get an extra dose of excitement, or a helpful reminder that I can be a better person this week! In our journeys towards authenticity, the church is left offering some fun events, some good ol’ Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, and hoping people don’t forget to show up. The loss would be too unbearable.
“It is little wonder, then, that in the last fifty years the churches that have sought to be the most like youth group have fared the best, for they’re seen as authentic. They possess the spirit of youthfulness.
It is odd that a church built in the suburbs in 1998 that looks like a movie theater could be considered more authentic than a two-hundred-year-old gothic building in the city. But because authenticity is bound to youthfulness, it is so…
When we link faith to the authenticity of youthfulness, we make youthfulness itself faith’s measure.”