Soul Searching, Part 6- Religious Inarticulancy and Language Learning

Thus far the evidence we have considered from the book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers has painted a fairly positive picture of the attitude of teenagers toward religion. However, now that we begin to examine their personal religious beliefs, what quickly becomes apparent is that while they may generally consider religion a good and beneficial thing, their understanding of it in their own lives lacks a great deal of substance.

Two sections to consider:

Again, nobody expects adolescents to be sophisticated theologians. But very few of the descriptions of personal beliefs offered by the teenagers we interviewed, especially the Christian teenagers, come close to representing marginally coherent accounts of the basic, important religious beliefs of their own faith traditions. The majority of US teens would badly fail a hypothetical short-answer or essay test of the basic beliefs of their religion… Most teenagers held religious beliefs that, judged by their own religion’s standards, were often trivial, misguided, distorted, and sometimes outright doctrinally erroneous. The point here is not that US teenagers are dumb or deplorable. They are not. The point is simply that understanding and embracing the right religious faith and belief according to their religions does not appear to be a priority in the lives of most US adolescents- and perhaps many of their parents. Faith is usually just there, around somewhere, and most teens do believe something religious or other. But religion simply doesn’t seem consequential enough to most teenagers to pay close attention to and get right. Rather, most teens seem content to live with a low-visibility religion that operates somewhere in the mental background of their lives. -p. 137.

We do not believe that teenage inarticulacy about religious matters reflects any general teen incapacity to think and speak well. Many of the youth we interviewed were quite conversant when it came to their views on salient issues in their lives about which they had been educated and had practice discussing, such as the dangers of drug abuse and STDs. Rather, our impression as interviewers was that many teenagers could not articulate matters of faith because they have not been effectively educated in and provided opportunities to practice talking about their faith. Indeed, it was our distinct sense that for many of the teens we interviewed, our interview was the first time that any adult had ever asked them what they believed and how it mattered in their life. Very many seemed caught off-balance by our simple questions, uncertain about what we were asking, at a loss to know how to respond. It was clear that, for many teens, very little in their lives had prepared them to be able to explain, even in basic terms, what they believe and how that fits into their lives… Religious language is like any other language: to learn how to speak it, one needs first to listen to native speakers using it a lot, and then one needs plenty of practice at speaking it oneself. Many US teenagers, it appears, are not getting a significant amount of such exposure and practice and so are simply not learning the religious language of their faith tradition. – p. 133.

In my own experience as a youth director, I have discovered that the fastest and most effective way to get my youth quiet is to ask a question. No one wants to answer, no one wants to speak. Which is unfortunate, not just on the level of making lessons sometimes momentarily awkward, but because it is going to make it harder for these teens to evaluate the claims they will be exposed to later in life that compete with and even contradict the beliefs they learned growing up.

If I can encourage anything in my youth, it is that I want them to be comfortable (hopefully fluent, but I’ll settle for comfortable if I can’t get them there) at discussing what they think and believe about very important matters of their faith and spiritual life.

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