Adolescent Passion: A Connection Between Church and Culture

As I write this essay, there are only three days left until the arrival of the long-awaited Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Like Harry Potter fans worldwide, I have been anticipating the arrival of this book for the past two years. I’ve even pre-ordered it from amazon. com, which I admit is not as impressive as waiting in lines at local bookstores for the synchronous global release.

My adolescent neighbors and friends, from ages ten to sixteen, have been feverishly talking about The Hallows since the end of the school year. I join in their speculation: Will Voldemort be vanquished? Will Harry live? Who else will die and who will fall in love in the meantime? Will J.K. Rowling leave an opening in the narrative for a return to the series in the future? Or will this seventh book complete the series and take its venerable place on my bookshelf next to C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings?

I don’t recall any popular culture text fueling such global excitement and joy among adolescents and adults alike. (By “text,” I mean any popular culture artifact such as a book, music, movie, magazine, etc.) Typically, adults remain out-oftouch with cultural trends, shaking their heads in disbelief at the latest music and fashion. Christian Harry (When I noticed myself doing the same a number of years ago, acting perplexed by grossly oversized jeans, the antithesis of the tight-legged Jordache and Sasson of my adolescence, I knew that I had crossed over some invisible but very real boundary.) Unfortunately in the church, incredulity quickly turns toward judgment and disdain. Parents, pastors, and youth group leaders find myriad ways to warn teens against the seductions of culture. “Don’t get your belly button pierced; your body is God’s temple!” “Don’t listen to hip-hop; respect your elders!” “Don’t watch sex in movies; in fact, don’t think about sex at all!”

While some in the church seem to have baptized Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No!” campaign, others have chosen to “turn a blind eye” to adolescent culture. The efficacy of either approach is questionable at best. (Consider the fact that a number of the child stars in the former First Lady’s campaign became illegal drug users themselves.) Moreover, neither response reflects the Reformed tradition, which understands the church’s vocation as participation in Christ’s work of transforming both persons and cultures.

This volume of Perspectives explicitly seeks to demonstrate the kind of dialogue that facilitates this aspect of the church’s vocation. Rather than ignoring or rejecting adolescent culture, it encourages us to “jump in with both feet.” But before taking the plunge, some background information may help steer us toward respectful, authentic, and honest connection with adolescents and popular culture.

Adolescence and popular culture are creations of the twentieth century. Thomas Hine, author of the best-selling book, The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager (Harper, 2000), argues persuasively that adolescence is a “social invention” emerging from the establishment of mandatory high school. For the first time in human history, an entire group of persons biologically mature enough to work and have their own families have been given a mandatory “time out” from the full responsibilities of adulthood. They spend their days in educational institutions interacting predominantly with their peers. In previous centuries, unmarried teenagers worked on the family farm or business. They contributed meaningfully to their family’s economic well-being.

Today nearly 50 percent of teens work fifteen hours each week, yet they have little to no financial responsibilities. This means that they have significant disposable income as well as leisure time. Businesses are more than willing to create products that appeal to this population, and marketers are more than adept at hooking young buyers. Consequently, teenagers are the leading consumers in our country, annually spending $100 billion on themselves.

Both adolescents and the Christian faith are characterized by passion. In her book, Practicing Passion (Eerdmans, 2004), Kenda Dean describes adolescents’ longings for true love, for ecstatic experiences, and for self-sacrificial faithfulness to worthy causes and worthy people. Such passion witnesses to the pathos of God, who in the Incarnation of the Son, went all the way and gave his all for the sake of love. It is this passion revealed in Jesus Christ that provides the foundation for and gives direction to subsequent human passions.

When the church denies its passion, popular culture provides alternatives. In the past century, much of mainline Protestantism adopted a rational faith that denies mystery, transcendence, and spiritual experience. Youth ministry became a “wholesome extracurricular activity.” Evangelical churches used gimics to convert teens and, in the process, treated teens as objects rather than subjects in relation to God and others. Both expressions of Christianity reduced Jesus to a dispassionate ethical role model.

Pop culture readily fills this passionless void. The music, movie, television, and fashion industries co-opt passion and tell adolescents “who they should be and what they should like.” Advertisers disseminate shallow, cheap, and often distorted versions of passion–e.g. causal sex without consequences and adventure in the form of violence.

Adolescents and popular culture are theological texts. Adolescents teach us something about God, about ourselves, and about God’s intent for human life. They witness to the core of our humanity as being-in-encounter. Their longings for fidelity and intimacy signify the telos of all creation, communion with God. They remind us of the importance of our bodies, which are necessary for communion. In short, their passion can be interpreted as yearning for life in the kingdom of God. The same is true even for distorted passions flaunted in popular culture, which nevertheless contain a kernel of truth, if not more.

This brings me back to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I can think of no better opportunity for the church to connect authentically with adolescents and culture. He may live in a world of magic, but Harr y is a thoroughly modern adolescent. While Voldemort does interrupt Harr y’s “time-out” from adult responsibilities, Harr y leads a life fairly sequestered from adults. Thankfully a few wise mentors affirm Harr y, see him for who he is, and impart their wisdom to him. Furthermore, Harr y and his friends exude passion–passion for truth, loyalty, love, and justice. Perhaps we could interpret them as theological texts, examining their God-given longings and capacities for intimacy, fidelity, and spiritual inspiration. Perhaps we could jump into adolescent culture with both feet simultaneously and firmly planted in God’s promise to redeem all creation.

Theresa F. Latini is the assistant professor of pastoral and congregational care at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.