The Juvenilization of American Judaism?

A new book came out this summer The Juvenilization of American Christianity by Thomas Bergler that discusses the rise of Evangelical Christian youth groups and how over time they developed a religion based on youth culture. The book is receiving great reviews and it is filled with examples that parallel Jewish experience.

The idea of religious youth groups was created at the turn of the 20th century based on the research of E.D. Starbuck (William James’ research assistant). He showed that adolescents choose religion based on socialization, so liberal Protestants created groups that had outings, study, and social action. This new book shows the importance of Christian youth groups from the 1940’s until today noting how they changed over the decades. But the focus of the book is on the Evangelical groups that replaced the study and social action with emotionalism, popular culture, and anything goes. In a similar manner, Orthodox Jewish youth movements were just synagogue based youth groups in the 1950’s, then they became an outreach, then they became an entire emotional youth culture. Now they are shifting to media, spirituality, and beyond. Not everything in his book has a Jewish parallel, but much does. Many trends have matured and others ran amuck.

I will point out a few choice ideas and paragraphs. Let me know where it rings true for Orthodox youth movements. As you read it, think about those who spend their entire lives looking to reproduce their adolescent emotions that made them religious, think about the desire for pulpit rabbis who training is in youth work and not learning, think about the many who graduated youth movements and then had a lack of adult aspirations, and finally think of those whose Orthodoxy is a form of consumerism. Also think about those who would say or do anything for kiruv. Did youth kiruv dilute Judaism? Read the excerpts below.

For Bergler, the youth culture “set the stage” for the widespread juvenilization of American Christianity. They had, in fact, created a “full-fledged juvenilized version of evangelical Christianity” (174). The youth culture was beneficial in that it helped to create “an enduring and adaptive way to sustain a conservative Christian identity in American society.” These youth grew up with a sense for engaging cultural forms and have since carried that into the music and movie industry. Further, it provided an alternative version of conservative Christianity for those disillusioned with American fundamentalism.

Juvenilization happened when no one was looking. In the first stage, Christian youth leaders created youth-friendly versions of the faith in a desperate attempt to save the world. Some hoped to reform their churches by influencing the next generation. Others expected any questionable innovations to stay comfortably quarantined in youth rallies and church basements. Both groups were less concerned about long-term consequences than about immediate appeals to youth.

In the second stage, a new American adulthood emerged that looked a lot like the old adolescence. Fewer and fewer people outgrew the adolescent Christian spiritualities they had learned in youth groups; instead, churches began to cater to them.

Since the fate of the world depended upon winning as many youthful converts as quickly as possible, preachers at YFC rallies didn’t worry about ways they might be subtly altering the gospel message… Jim Rayburn, founder of Young Life, agreed: Accepting Christ as Savior did not mean giving up pleasure and wearing a long face. As he put it, “It’s a sin to bore a kid.”

At the same time, the new breed of evangelical youth leaders stressed that following Christ included absolute obedience to his commandments and separation from “the world.” This seemingly contradictory combination of fun and moral strictness actually worked quite well at capturing teenage loyalty in a competitive religious and entertainment marketplace. Mainline Protestant youth leaders often complained that YFC rallies were stealing young people away from more worthy, social gospel-oriented youth programs.

Bergler describes the simultaneous promise of fun combined with a renunciation. Religion became a product to consume. Bergler points out how the alloy of these two ingredients produced a product to be consumed- ice skating and giving one’s heart, guitars and submission- similar to the emotional attachment to a rock band. He also points out how it creates a serious divide of us and them for those who do not share in the purity.

Youth for Christ leaders promised teenagers that they could have fun, be popular, and save the world at the same time. But in order to do so, they had to give their lives to Jesus and maintain a pure “witness.” Many teenagers internalized that call to separation from “worldly” corruptions, but in return, they demanded that Youth for Christ leaders provide them a Christian youth culture complete with fun, popularity, movies, music, and celebrities. This combination of spiritually intense experiences, bodily purity, and youth-culture fun transformed thousands of young lives and guaranteed the long-term vitality of white evangelicalism.

But adapting Christianity so well to white, middle-class youth culture brought its share of compromises to the Christian message. The faith could become just another product to consume; a relationship with Jesus might become just another source of emotional fulfillment. And the obsession with teenage bodily purity made it difficult for white evangelicals to respond in love to those perceived to be impure outsiders, such as juvenile delinquents and African Americans (148).

Bergler shows that the values that attend the cultural forms that were used to reach youth seeped into the Christian youth culture. The values of pop-music, TV, and celebrates became the values of the religion. In Bergler’s own words, the process of youth group religion creates a religion that resonates with adolescent emotions, confused, inarticulate, self-obsessed and concerned with their own personal problems. It is an approach to religion formulated without theology. Compare the following passages to the emotional manipulation of an ebbing or kiruv kumsitz. The devotional moment of committing to God in the dark serves as a lifelong paradigm. Think of the recent literature of Tatz and other Yeshivish works that shift Torah study, theology, or ethics to finding people in one’s personal life

Juvenilization tends to create a self-centered, emotionally driven, and intellectually empty faith.In their landmark National Study of Youth and Religion, Christian Smith and his team of researchers found that the majority of American teenagers, even those who are highly involved in church activities, are inarticulate about religious matters. They seldom used words like faith, salvation, sin, or even Jesus to describe their beliefs. Instead, they return again and again to the language of personal fulfillment to describe why God and Christianity are important to them.

Smith and his research team labeled this pattern of religious beliefs Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Teenagers learn these beliefs from the adults in their lives. It is the American cultural religion. Teenagers are “moralistic” in that they believe that God wants us to be good, and that the main purpose of religion is to help people be good.

The house lights go down. Spinning, multicolored lights sweep the auditorium. A rock band launches into a rousing opening song. “Ignore everyone else, this time is just about you and Jesus,” proclaims the lead singer. The music changes to a slow dance tune, and the people sing about falling in love with Jesus. A guitarist sporting skinny jeans and a soul patch closes the worship set with a prayer, beginning, “Hey God …” The spotlight then falls on the speaker, who tells entertaining stories, cracks a few jokes, and assures everyone that “God is not mad at you. He loves you unconditionally.”

If you ask the people here why they go to church or what they value about their faith, they’ll say something like, “Having faith helps me deal with my problems.”

The newly labeled ‘teenagers’ would from now on be increasingly seduced by the siren song of high school social life dominated by fun, sports, dating, movies, music, and fashion. While adult values and youthful tastes have often clashed over the centuries, what was changing was the relative balance of power between the two and the length of time between puberty and full adult status….

Finally, the book has some discussions of the phenomena of adolescent renunciation. Starting to keep the prohibition of negiah is a renunciation that allows one to feel a relief from adolescent struggles and in youth culture it is given a redemptive meaning making it worth it. Or the renunciation of no longer do prohibited work on the Sabbath such as gymnastics, TV, or part-time job now has a redemptive meaning of showing the Torah is true. If renunciation is the model for religion, then it is pretty hard to show renunciation after a certain age when one has already built a religious life.

The ultimate way for a teenage girl to prove her bodily purity and confirm her powerful Christian witness seemed to be to get elected prom queen and then refuse to dance… Such stories confirmed that Christians could be popular, have fun, and save the world at the same time, but only if they preserved their pure “witness.” This youthful spirituality held a powerful appeal because it reassured teenagers that their renunciation of youth-culture pleasures was contributing directly to the all-important Christian mission of saving souls. In contrast, Roman Catholic teenagers heard just as many urgent messages about sexual purity, but did not catch a vision for how their personal abstinence could save the world. As a result, the enforced sexual morality of the Catholic ghetto did not fare as well in post-1960s America as did the voluntary, mission-inspired evangelical version.

Quotes were taken from
Bergler’s article in Christianity Today
A blog review part 2
The same blog review- part 3

7 responses to “The Juvenilization of American Judaism?

  1. Yes, so we clearly have a juvenile religious culture. However, given that it is a product of a larger trend of extended adolescence it is hard for me to imagine an alternative. One could also point to the requisite extended stay in kollel as a juvenilization of hareidi religious culture. If you go back a century the typical rabbinic biography involved taking a first position in one’s early twenties.

  2. I guess it’s a question of what kind of affect is getting produced. A lot of this rings true of my own growing up in the leftwing milieu of Habonim-Dror, but without all the religious renuncuation. Also, we were much more into drugs. Also, left out by the post are sex and music. I’m not sure how those carry over into the religious summer camp-youth movements.

  3. It is clear enough that the practices in MO over the years, beginning with the efforts of Rabbis Jung, Lookstein etc. have become more stringent and halacha bound. What remains unclear is whether there is unique differentiating culture of MO, and whether there is a logic to its development over time. In the case of MO there was a period when the whole point was not to have a particularly distinctive culture. MO Jews were just like everyone else, except they did not abolish mitzvot and halacha as did the Reformers. This was felt to be inadequate since ‘everyone else’ covers a whole lot of ground, from high brow academia to consumers of pop culture and much else. I do not think this problem has ever been solved definitively. Until we have a clear baseline of the golden era of normative MO culture, how can we say MO is becoming juvenilized? What was the distinctive adult version of MO culture?
    If we need a model I would suggest the vacillations in the gay world. In the 70’s the line was gays were like everyone else except for their sexual behavior. In the 90’s it was claimed they were different from everyone else and part of a subversive feminized queer culture, but pretty much like everyone else when it comes to sex except for object choice. Since gay culture changes quickly and since some of the versions don’t work well with masculine identities, nothing is ever settled. Both groups sense they are different, but not too different. Both have difficulties in explaining to themselves and others what are the distinctive marks of their culture. Charedim have no such problem, they love being outsiders.

  4. Tzadik Katamon Yifrach

    “Juvenilized” NCSY style judaism seems preferable and also more authentic than the suburban bourgeois varieties.

    I don’t like shlock-rock, but I prefer it to rabbis who talk mostly about current events.

  5. I used to not like Schlock-Rock ™, but it has grown on me. Also, we came to know the Solomon family, who are really good people.

    NCSY was designed as outreach. LSS flirted with it in the 1980s, and rejected it as “not aimed at us, we’re already frum”, which was true for most of the shul kids involved in youth groups. I liked it, though, being a not-yet-frum person in the group. Also, I met the guy who introduced me to my wife in NCSY.

    Ramah camps seem to be a major influence on Conservative Judaism – it raises a cadre of observant, knowledgeable kids beyond what the relatively few Solomon Schechters can produce – the immersion environment of summer camp teaches a lot more than half-days at school, for any environment (in my case, I did most of my advancement work for the year at Scout camp). By the same token, though, since Conservative is not a comfortable place for most to be observant, the Ramah camps have raised a number of Modern Orthodox Jews. Conservative synagogues need a next generation of knowledgeable shul leadership, but they are driven away by social factors.

    Fun combined with an adolescent renunciation/rebellion – that’s NCSY for you. How to bring that enthusiasm home with parents who actively oppose your desire to start keeping shabbat & kashrut is left as a challenge for the reader.

    But making BTs among the young (without kidnapping, please) is certainly made more effective because of the rebellion aspect, and kids’ greater enthusiasm about things. Pied Piper, anyone?

  6. Thirty years ago if you had a talmid chacham it was something respectable. Today if you’re not ying-bop-heying at shalosh se’udos there’s something wrong with you. I blame it on the psychologists making out that if something is not a feel good experience then it’s ‘not OK’!

  7. Pingback: Eerdmans All Over: September 14, 2012 « EerdWord

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