The modern teen-ager may not be the best or the worst the world has ever known, but both the male and the female of the species are the most publicized in human history. From sub-teens to late teens this age group is the favorite example—both positive and negative—of everything and everyone from the advertising agency to the agonized parent. The care and feeding of the adolescent is the choice topic for columnists, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and theologians. Columns in the public press and hours in the public forum are devoted to the eating, drinking, sleeping, studying, dressing, driving, and dating habits of the contemporary teen-ager.
This attention is concerned not always so much by curiosity as by concern. There is, if you will, an élan, even a mystique, about this segment of the population that, in the light of statistical studies and current trends, has caused both wonder and alarm on the part of the bystander (who, incidentally, is not always so innocent).
We are told, for example, that one of every five children born today will become a juvenile delinquent. In the five-year period between 1955 and 1960, the crime rate for those under eighteen years of age increased 61 per cent for larceny, 49 per cent for robbery, 41 per cent for sex offenses, 39 per cent for aggravated assault, 37 per cent for murder, and 26 per cent for auto theft. It is important to realize that these are not percentages of occurrence but percentages of increase. In June of 1962, 58 per cent of those reporting for preinduction physical examinations failed to meet the minimum standards. Similarly shocking statistics reflect a disturbing increase in high school “drop-outs,” narcotics addiction, illegitimate births, and venereal disease.
Statistic-hardened though we have become, these figures become alarmingly significant when placed in context. The rapid rate of increase in crime for this age group, for example, must be set against an increase of only some 33 per cent for the entire population. The fact that 21 per cent of the unemployed in Los Angeles and 18 per cent in New York are under twenty-one years of age in a time when the gross national product of the richest nation on earth is at an all-time high gives added reason for our concern. The soaring increase in various forms of illegitimate actions and addictions must be seen against the backdrop of an unprecedented surge of church building, church attendance, and religious publication.
Obviously there is a disparity between the two sides of our cultural coin. It must be recognized for what it is because only then is there hope of a redemptive reconciliation. When this does occur, however, it will be at the level of involvement rather than indignation, and it will take the form of personal action rather than well-intentioned avowal of general purpose.
Those who live and work with adolescents, particularly those scarred victims of a world they never made—conveniently called juvenile delinquents—appreciate and applaud genuine concern. They are, however, skeptical of the “crash” program, aimed at the symptom rather than the disease. They are seasoned enough to see the juvenile delinquent as but the focus of the adolescent dilemma in a culture that preaches purity but practices opportunism, that proclaims piety but protests sacrifice, that advocates maturity but acts with irresponsibility.
Signs In All Strata
Juvenile delinquency is a symptom of a person or an age out of time. The seeds and signs of the symptom are present in every stratum of society; they are not restricted to any geographical areas, economic levels, or ethnic backgrounds. Therefore the problem cannot be resolved in isolation or merely by intention. It can be recognized in its reality and overcome only by realization of the true nature of relationship and acceptance of the personal consequence of involvement.
The adolescent is a human being, a member of the race of man and the family of God. Therefore he or she is a creature of response. That is to say, the teenager, like any other person, reacts positively or negatively to available stimuli. Juvenile delinquency is not an isolated blemish on the skin of society. It is related—in the sense of reaction or response—to adult delinquency.
If the rate of automobile accidents involving adolescents has increased, can this be separated from the fact that by parental provision and consent more adolescents have cars than at any other time in our history? Can the immorality of the teen-ager be divorced from the moral climate in which he or she is raised? Can “cribbing” on examinations be distinguished in either practice or principle from the amateur fraud annually perpetrated on the Internal Revenue Service by the same righteous parents?
Statistics on the contemporary adolescent group reveal at the same time a good bit about the homes and the society that have nurtured this segment of the population. Teen-agers live not in a vacuum but in a context. They adapt to and adopt the dominant patterns of the nurturing society at the level of their ability and interest. No child is an entity, “an island entire of itself.” The poetic and prophetic words of John Donne thus take on new meaning for the contemporary adult: “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
The Threefold Guilt
There are three prime areas for recovery and redemption, and each is related to the other two. The home, the school, and the church have all shared in conducting the experiment with the contemporary teenager. Each must therefore accept a due portion of the present consequences. The home, for example, has increasingly abdicated its central place in the life of the individual. The school and the church have been not merely allowed but encouraged to assume many of the parental functions. Parental absenteeism—whether a fact or an effect—leaves a vacuum of affection and example in the matrix out of which emerges the developing personality.
Sometimes this dereliction of responsibility is acknowledged but is rationalized on the basis that “it is good for them to learn to stand on their own feet.” More often, however, it is not recognized, but a vague sense of guilt seeks relief by exorbitant allowances and a variety of gifts. Consumer surveys indicate that in 1959 adolescents controlled some ten million dollars worth of purchasing power. This was not money they had earned but money they had been given, and it was not only derivative of an affluent society but also indicative of an unsought power. The teen-age culture is not a myth; it is a fact. It is, for some, a terrifying step-child of the economy containing the seeds of its own destruction.
The plight of the school is perhaps most clearly dramatized, not in the problem of drop-outs, but in the problem of adequate parking space for student automobiles. Confronted by a demand only distantly related to its purpose, the school has had little choice but to settle for mediocrity in instruction as the norm and the lowest common denominator as satisfactory. The highly touted “pursuit of excellence” is too seldom seen as an individual goal and too often asserted to be a public “right.” It is small wonder our schools have become centers of custodial care rather than the quest for learning, for the constitutional concept of equality has been misconstrued to mean conformity.
Contemporary churches, under the demand to “do something for our young people,” have too often geared their programs of religious education to standards and activities that are no more religious than many present school practices are educational. Confronting a time-centered culture with a timeless theology, many of the churches have taken a lien on their birthright for a serving of adolescent acceptance. Thus they find themselves merely in competition with other social agencies and activities instead of in contradistinction to them. By presenting no clear call to commitment, no direct and relevant summons to an eternal service in which alone freedom is found, many a local church has forsaken the end of its being for a temporary means to the achievement of that end.
We can, perhaps, take comfort from the fact that not all adolescents are represented in the statistics given earlier. Certainly there are many who are sound, contributing, positive personalities. But cognizance must be taken of those who are “lost,” and a greater effort must be expended on their behalf. The statistical summary clearly reveals that the experiments of parental abdication, educational equality, and ecclesiastical popularity have failed. We have tried the device of early independence, the camaraderie of conformity, and the evangelistic “gimmick” of recreation—and these have not succeeded. Is it not perhaps time to try the contemporary adolescent with his due—the truth?
Consider, first, the truth of the Christian family as it informs and is informed by the responsibilities of relationship. The truth of relationship is that each party is both contributor and beneficiary. Indeed, a case could be made for the direct ratio between the two, for this is the truth implicit in the biblical injunction to “love thy neighbor as thyself”—the keystone of meaningful human relationships. The truth of the Christian family, therefore, is that each member bears both a privilege from and a responsibility toward the other members. To avoid or disguise this essential reality is to deny to the family as a whole, the individual members, and the larger society of which they are a part, the vital element for constructive development and contributory living.
Second, the truth of education is that it is a quest to which one commits oneself. It is not an alms asked of the affluent or demanded of the body politic. It is highly individualistic and by any measure successful only to the degree to which the strength of intention meets the full breadth and depth of information. Whether this be the nuance of a poetic phrase or the knack of carburetor repair is immaterial to the point under discussion. Is it not the proper function of an educated society to stimulate and nurture in truth the variety of latent talents or abilities? Is it not the responsibility of the educator to distinguish in truth between potential and preference, to advise and counsel in truth rather than in accord with popular wish, to present the demand as well as the delight of education, and to define as best he can both the purpose and the pleasure?
Third, the truth of Christian discipleship is that it is a discipline of response. In the words of St. John, “We love him because he first loved us.” This central fact colors and conditions all we do, for Christian responsibility can significantly be interpreted as the response to the God who in Christ was “reconciling the world unto himself.” The proclamation of this truth in word and deed is the task of the Church in every age and through all its members. Those who are marked with the mark of God’s Christ are thenceforth called to discipline themselves in his Way, by the light of his Truth, and the strength of his shared Life. The call to the Christian, then, in this or any age, is a call, not to convenience or to comfort (in the popular sense of the term), but to commitment, to conflict, and to eventual consummation in the Kingdom prepared “from everlasting.” The faithful communication of this truth is the solemn responsibility of the existing Church, and only then can there be the saving opportunity for relevant response.
At the risk of over-dramatizing, but with the support of statistical evidence, it is not amiss to suggest that as far as our teen-agers are concerned, “the night is far spent, the day is at hand” to release them from the bondage of disdain, neglect, and superfluity, and allow them to walk on their own feet in the promised freedom of truth. No less than this is their due. No more than this can we give.
The Shepherd And His Dog
They were helping the shepherd to deal with a lot of very active sheep and lambs, to persuade them into the right pastures, to keep them from rushing down the wrong paths. And how did the successful dog do it? Not by barking, fuss, ostentatious authority, any kind of busy behavior. The best dog I saw never barked once; and he spent an astonishing amount of his time sitting perfectly still, looking at the shepherd. The communion of spirit between them was perfect. They worked as a unit. Neither of them seemed anxious or in a hurry. Neither was committed to a rigid plan; they were always content to wait. That dog was the docile and faithful agent of another mind. He used his whole intelligence and initiative, but always in obedience to his master’s directive will; and was ever prompt at self-effacement. The little mountain sheep he had to deal with were amazingly tiresome, as expert in doubling and twisting and going the wrong way as any naughty little boy. The dog went steadily on with it; and his tail never ceased to wag.
What did that mean? It meant that his relation to the shepherd was the center of his life; and because of that, he enjoyed doing his job with the sheep, he did not bother about the trouble, nor get discouraged with the apparent results. The dog had transcended mere dogginess. His actions were dictated by something right beyond himself. He was the agent of the shepherd, working for a scheme which was just that which was the source of the delightedness, the eagerness, and also the discipline with which he worked. But he would not have kept that peculiar and intimate relation unless he had sat down and looked at the shepherd a good deal.—From Collected Papers of Evelyn Underhill, Lucy Menzies, ed., Longmans, Green and Co., New York. Courtesy of David McKay Company, Inc.
Allen F. Bray III is chaplain and director of religious activities at Culver Military Academy, Culver, Indiana. He holds the A.B. (Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut), the B.D. (Virginia Theological Seminary), and the S.T.M. (Seabury-Western Theological Seminary).
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