Today, Kenda Creasy Dean speaks for herself in our ReadTheSpirit interview with the author of “Almost Christian.” There’s a lot to discuss here! This book has drawn some criticism.
Criticism 1 of “Almost Christian”: Who sez!?!
Some readers have fired back: Hey, what’s wrong with “MTD,” or “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”? By definition, if Americans widely think this is good Christianity, then who are we to say there’s something wrong with it? Isn’t MTD, actually, a pretty good “civil religion” for our diverse country today? Yes, these are questions worth debating. Or, let’s zero in more specifically on the detailed case Kenda Creasy Dean makes for “orthodox” Christianity in her book: Who says she’s got the right “orthodox” formula? Again, a question worth debating. (Can you see how valuable this book may be for small-group discussions?)
Criticism 2: Is this really so “hot”?
“Why does ReadTheSpirit and OurValues keep calling this ‘the hottest’ new book? Should we really be flocking to a book just because it’s the most popular new thing on the market?” That email arrived on Monday from a reader chiding us for focusing on a book partly because of its popularity.
ReadTheSpirit is not alone in concluding that this is an important new book. Also on Monday, we heard from journalistic colleagues nationwide, mostly praising this new book. Bill Tammeus, a nationally known religion newswriter from Kansas City, sent along a link to his review of “Almost Christian” published late this summer. “Freelance theologian” and “ecclesial gadfly” Tony Jones also called Dean’s book an important contribution—here’s one of Tony Jones’ commentaries on “Almost Christian.” All of us are calling this book a “must read” for anyone concerned about youth ministry—and the future of Christianity in America.
Criticism 3 of “Almost Christian”: Is this really new?
We want to clarify that the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) already produced an important 2005 book, “Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers” by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton (and also by Oxford University Press)
As a long-time religion newswriter, I reported on that book’s release and interviewed Christian Smith in 2005. At that time, writing for Gannett newspapers’ wire service, I interviewed teen-agers myself to expand our news story on Smith’s and Denton’s landmark book. At that time, the authors already were describing Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, but the “headlines” from their 2005 book mainly focused on the remarkable level of positive religious commitment they found among American teens. This news seemed to run counter to what most American adults had assumed about teenagers’ spiritual lives.
What Kenda Creasy Dean has done in her new book is to move MTD front and center into the “headlines” about these findings and ignite a new national debate—one more reason this book is a great choice for small-group discussion now.
LINKS TO OUR THREE-PART SERIES:
- Problems and Prescriptions: The meaning of “MTD” and 3 prescriptions from “Almost Christian.”
- Kenda Creasy Dean online: An introduction to her resource-rich website.
- Kenda Creasy Dean interview: ReadTheSpirit Q-and-A with the author of “Almost Christian.”
HIGHLIGHTS of ReadTheSpirit Interview with Kenda Creasy Dean
on “Almost Christian: … Faith of Our Teeangers …”
DAVID: We want to help readers understand your new book—and understand more about you as the researcher and author behind this book. So, how do you describe yourself?
KENDA: I am a parent, a pastor and a professor—and I say those three things in that order. My title is Professor of Youth, Church and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. I’m ordained in the United Methodist Church. I am hardly a disinterested researcher. I am clearly invested in this from the bottom of my vocation on up as a parent, a pastor and someone who has done a lot of youth ministry.
DAVID: Let’s jump right into “MTD,” Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This critique has been out there in the public square since Christian Smith’s and Melinda Lundquist Denton’s book, “Soul Searching,” but suddenly with your book—MTD has jumped front and center into the public debate on Christianity. I was in the Washington D.C. area recently meeting with church leaders. Both your book and MTD popped up there as an urgent issue.
I’ve been covering religion as a journalist long enough to have witnessed a number of earlier catch-phrases turned into clubs that were used to beat people over the head. Remember “New Age” and “Secular Humanism”—and I could list others? Each new-catch phrase seemed to capture a trend in American religious life, but often the phrases became clubs that people used to beat up on other Christians they didn’t like. So, let’s talk about MTD right off the bat. What does it mean?
KENDA: It’s a way of describing the default religious position of American teenagers as described in the National Study of Youth and Religion. It boils down to thinking that relgion helps them to be nice, so it’s moralistic. Second, it helps them to feel good, so it’s theraputic. But, third, God really isn’t very involved in it—God is distant—so that’s the deism. The basic idea is that religion is supposed to help us be nice, feel good—and leave God out of it unless absolutely necessary.
DAVID: But it is a faith. It’s not a rejection of religion.
KENDA: It is a faith in that there is an assumption that God is out there and God is watching over what’s going on. God is theoretically available if you need to go that route. Teenagers are very positive about the way they talk about religion. The think religion is a good thing, but they tend to say religion is good for other people—and it will be good for them, too, if they ever need it. They tend to look at themselves as people who won’t need much from religion.
FUTURE OF RELIGION: TOO MUCH FOCUS ON “MY” STRAND?
DAVID: I just published a piece on “The Future of Religion,” which appeared in a couple of different websites. In that piece, I describe religion as having two major strands: Revelation to be accepted—and quest to be pursued. One strand is all about faithfully receiving traditions; the other strand is about our deciding to look for spiritual answers ourselves. I’d say your MTD is pretty much that second strand—people choosing for themselves a spiritual pathway from the available ideas around them. It’s saying: When it comes to religion—hey, I’m the “decider”!
KENDA: Absolutely right. It was unthinkable to the kids we talked with that anything outside of them could possibly influence them. They were very much embedded in their own cognititve place of development. Yes, they would acknowledge the role of their families. They would tell us that they were Christian or Buddhist or whatever because their parents are Christian or Buddhist. They would tell us: It’s the way I was raised. But, then, if we asked them about the origins of their moral foundation—they would tell us it was because they chose to be like this. We are the masters of our own destinies and, if God wants to come along for the ride, then that’s fine, but we’re driving this ourselves.
DAVID: Our faith is like a product on the shelf, just waiting there until we need it.
KENDA: That’s a fair way to describe it. Part of the reason I think kids have that impression is that adults tend to treat it that way, too. We are convinced that religion is somehow a good thing for people to have. Think about what we tend to do as parents—we we take kids to church where they can get religion. It’s like taking them to the religion store. If we take them, then they’ll find this product for themselves. In our culture, we also tend to encourage kids to do things that will look good on a college application and that will make them nicer people, overall. There is a tendency to regard religion and going to church as a means to an end.
DAVID: The criticism that’s embodied in this idea of MTD may be valid. It’s certainly getting a lot of fresh attention through your new book. But, are you worried at all that “MTD” will wind up becoming a club that people will use in congregations to beat up on clergy or other leaders they don’t like? That happened with phrases like “Secular Humanism” and “New Age.”
KENDA: I do have concern here. I have struggled with that a lot. How do we find useful new ways to talk about our faith that don’t fall back into these facile categories—that don’t just become slogans. But, in writing this book, I needed to explain what we have found in the church. And I needed to contrast that with the Christian faith that I am convinced has a wide embrace but also is clearly patterned after the life of Christ.
DAVID: This is a tough book for parents to read, and I say that as a parent myself. You’re really being critical of adults more than youth.
KENDA: This is difficult, because parents love their kids. They want to know how to fix their kids. That’s what they’re often looking for. And, what I found is that you can’t just fix this. The kids aren’t the problem. As you read this book, you can see me almost throwing my hands up at what we’re finding in the church. This isn’t just a book about kids. It’s a book about the state of the church.
DAVID: But, I didn’t come away from this book, overall, feeling that it was a “downer.” Yes, the opening sections are a real blow to the forehead. There’s strong stuff in those opening sections. But you do go on to recommend some classic approaches to the faith. You do try to give people a way forward.
KENDA: Part of the good news here is that people in youth ministry—and I count myself among them—truly love youth and love working with them. We do this because we want to help them and we want to change the church through the next generation. This is one way that, together, we can make that difference in the world.
PRESCRIPTIONS: TRANSLATION, TESTIMONY AND DECENTERING
DAVID: In the final section of your book, you outline three prescriptions: Translation, Testimony and Decentering. We’re going to try to explain these to readers, but I also want you to help us summarize them, Kenda. Let’s start with Translation. What do you mean?
KENDA: I’m borrowing the term “Translation” as a way to reframe our understanding of mission. On a practical level, translation is a big part of what missionaries traditionally do—literally translating things. Mission is the transmission of faith across boundaries—and that includes transmission of faith across generational boundaries, too. In the same way God sent Christ into the world, Christ then sends us into the world. We are human translations of God’s mission for the world. We are translating the faith from one group of lives to another.
But—if that’s going to happen, first of all, that means you’ve got to be in contact with the set of lives that has the message to be translated. As long as we’re stuck in age-level ministry in most churches, we tend to avoid contact between teenagers and people who have been a part of the church all their lives. As someone who cares about youth ministry, this is maddening. There is no program or Bible study or curriculum out there that says: Here’s how you translate faith 1, 2, 3. This process I am describing really is the result of lots of personal contact over time between people so that we can experience their lives and see the importance of faith. It’s not enough to separate faith into this subject we talk about only from the pulpit or in Bible study or in some other discreet place.
DAVID: OK, so let’s move on to Testimony. Explain a little bit about Testimony.
KENDA: We need to give kids opportunities to put their faith into words, to be able to talk about Christianity in the way they talk about anything else. Again and again as we interviewed young people, we found that they were very articulate about everything else in their lives—until the discussion got around to religion or faith. Then, the kids would tell us: Nobody’s ever asked us these questions before! And this was coming from kids who were active in their congregations. That experience made me conclude: Wait a minute! Why aren’t we asking kids to articulate their faith more regularly?
DAVID: And then, Decentering. Tell us about that.
KENDA: That’s my updated phrase for what the medieval church called detachment, habits of mind and heart that detach ourselves from things that distract us from God. We do this in order to re-attach ourselves to God. Detachment now has a modern psychgological meaning that can be confusing when we hear the word today. So, I used a different word: decentering.
It’s the need to get out of our own way so that we can come into closer relationship to God. Talk to anyone in youth ministry—and everyone says that retreats are the most important part of what we do. Well, yeah, of course that’s true. It requires kids to leave behind their homes, their iPods and all these other connections—and it requires them to go somewhere and focus on other things. These are experiences that decenter us and that help us remember who we are. When we decenter like this, we are able to encounter the Other, to encounter God, in new ways. In youth ministry, we immediately think of doing this through mission trips and retreats, but we also can do this through prayer and other practices.
DAVID: Your book has been called a “wakeup call.” It can sting like a slap in the face, if people really care about religion and young people. But, you did make a huge effort to write this new book. You obviously are passionate about what you’re writing. Are you hopeful it can make a difference?
KENDA: As time goes by, I’ve changed a little bit on how I answer that—even in the last couple of months. I’m more hopeful now than I was at first. The truth is this whole project left me deeply disappointed with the church I’ve given my life to. But one thing that gives me hope is teenagers themselves. I talked to a lot of them while I was working on this book and I’ve talked to more since it came out. They are telling us that this shallow version of Christianity we’re trying to hand them just is not all that important. Kids are honest about that and I think that leads us to question how we’ve been doing things.
I also believe that God is way bigger than the church, or whatever the church may be doing at any moment, and that’s also something that always gives me hope.
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