Growing Up Religious: Christians and Jews and Their Journeys of Faith
by Robert Wuthnow
Beacon Press; 400 pp.; $27.50
The Bible is frustratingly silent on the question of how to raise religious children. The Gospels largely skip the childhood of Jesus, telling us only that Jesus' parents lost him for a few days when he was 12 and were surprised to learn he was at the temple. Mary and Joseph, this vignette suggests, did not have a complete handle on how to cope with the religious needs of their son.
The Old Testament is full of people who are failures as parents: Adam and Eve raise a son who commits fratricide, and Jacob raises a whole bevy of sons who try to commit fratricide. Moses, proving the truism that great leaders are rarely ideal family men, rears sons who are unfit to succeed him as leader of the Israelites. In Deuteronomy, parents of a stubborn and rebellious son are instructed to stone their child to death. (Not to worry: the Talmud, clearly troubled by this dictate, took on the question of what constitutes "stubborn and rebellious" and offered a list of requisite nasty traits and acts so lengthy that no one ever qualified.)
The most oft-quoted bit of biblical wisdom on the topic of rearing children comes from Proverbs: "Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray" (22:6, nrsv). But how, exactly, does one go about training one's son or daughter in the right way?
In Growing Up Religious: Christians and Jews and Their Journeys of Faith, Robert Wuthnow suggests that theologians have proved singularly unhelpful in addressing this question. He challenges the reader to come up with one denomination that "has a helpful understanding of childhood."
If theologians have ignored childhood, scholars and other writers have misrepresented the role of religion in children's lives. "In popular treatments," Wuthnow writes, "childhood faith is largely romanticized as a kind of innocent quest to know God: Children are more or less religious by nature, spontaneously raising questions about life and death, about God. … They are the teachers of adults, the source of tender, candid, and often humorous insights into the mystery of being." This view of children as innately interested in and specially connected to God has been perpetuated by all manner of Americans, from Puritan divine Jonathan Edwards (who devoted many pages to lauding and explicating the conversion of four-year-old Phoebe) to my grandmother, whose favorite bit of family lore recounts the day she stumbled upon my five-year-old cousin Lily sitting in the backyard, looking at a flower, musing: "God, if you are God, then you made everything. But God, who made you? And who made that God? And who made the God who made that God?"
According to Wuthnow, this romanticized notion is a reaction to a "much sterner view that prevailed throughout much of American history" where children "needed to be guided rigorously in the development of their faith and in a divine struggle for their mortal souls." Parental duties included not merely taking their children to church but also reading aloud to them from sacred texts, instructing them in the finer points of theology, and teaching them how to pray.
Wuthnow is convinced that neither description of childhood religiosity is accurate. A more accurate understanding of what it means "to have grown up religious" can be gleaned by talking to adults about the "religious dimension of their upbringing." He concludes that the innate spiritual curiosity of children has been greatly exaggerated, and that "stern instruction" "stands out in the memories of relatively few adults."
Furthermore, Wuthnow argues that even in the most religious households, instruction in the basics of doctrine is often haphazard at best. People who "perceived their parents to be exceptionally devout" nonetheless learned little from them about who God is, how to pray, or how to interpret Scripture. Children often learn to mimic the rituals of their parents' religious lives—lighting a vigil candle to the Virgin Mary, donning teffilin for the Jewish morning prayers, cooking a special meal for Sunday dinner, cleaning the house for Passover—without ever learning the reasons behind such ritual acts.
Wuthnow may have intended Growing Up Religious to be read by a primarily academic audience; it is not a how-to book. Nonetheless, parents trying to raise children committed to religious values, beliefs, and traditions, and clergy who care about nurturing the religious sensibilities of the youth in their congregations, will want to pay attention to Wuthnow's conclusions. Many Christian parents, presented with the observation that parents have by and large failed to teach their children the basics of the faith, have panicked.
I casually mentioned Wuthnow's argument to my friend Tina. A week later she called me up and said that she had been spending an hour a night going over the Apostles' Creed with her two sons, "making sure they understand it."
Tina's actions were noble, but she may have missed the point. That the adults Wuthnow interviewed did not remember the doctrinal instruction they received as youths does not mean that they learned nothing about religion from their parents. If they did not recount in vivid detail the catechetical instruction they received in preparation for their confirmation, they remembered the flannelgraph, and Sword Drills, and the two-day, little-sleep, soft-drinks-and-sleeping-bags retreat that their youth group took. What they recalled fondly about religion—and what often drew them as adults back to the church—were the rituals and sacred objects that were at the center of their religious upbringings.
"Being in Sunday school," writes Wuthnow, "was more memorable than anything they may have been taught. Fried chicken or seders or statues of Mary provided the texture of their spiritual understandings." Wuthnow does not suggest that parents and churches should therefore "abandon catechetical instruction or other methods of passing on the content of religious traditions." But that doctrinal instruction should take place within the context of "honor[ing] the spirituality of chicken dinners, of gefilte fish, of family Bibles, and of stained glass windows."
Growing Up Religious suggests that the truly memorable and lasting aspects of a religious upbringing happen in the home with one's family. When recalling holiday celebrations, for example, people did not focus on midnight mass and Easter Vigil but on what happened at home before and after those services.
Karen Stacy recalled that her family "concocted" its own Christmas service at home. She doesn't remember the Bible readings, but the special ornamentation: "It had Scripture readings … but the best part from my point of view was that there were candles all over the place. I thought that was very nifty."
When Mary Shannon remembers Saint Patrick's Day, she makes no mention of anything specific to the fifth-century evangelist who converted Ireland and rid it of snakes. Rather, she recalls "wearing a lot of green … and a lot of green ribbons in my hair. … For us the celebration was always very family oriented. … We always had some kind of a big meal. … There was always wine at our meals, not beer, when it was a celebration."
Even memories of the Sabbath were more about home than church: the important meal on Sunday was not the Eucharist but the gathering around the dining-room table after church. Preparing for church meant not spiritual preparation but ironing your finest dress and polishing your shoes.
Material culture plays a large part in the recollections of the adults Wuthnow interviewed. Wuthnow argues that most of the people he interviewed "do not believe in the immediate physical presence of God, the devil, or ghosts … but they are … deeply influenced by the pictures and other representations of the sacred that were in their immediate environment. Had it not been for these objects, the sacred would likely have been little understood or appreciated."
Throughout Growing Up Religious, adults recall with delight statues of Saint Cosmos and the Virgin Mary, pictures in Bible storybooks, menorahs, Sabbath candles, mezuzahs. Even among those who grew up in homes bereft of objects that were explicitly religious, objects that "came to be associated with religious practices" loom large in adult recollections. In Raman Wilkins's childhood home, the only "religious" object was a Bible. When he spoke about Christmas and Easter, however, he said that "these were very special times because the family used different dishes. Most of the time … they drank from old jelly glasses, but on Christmas and Easter they got to use real glasses." It was, Raman said, "like a religious experience."
If the home is central to many adults' recollections of religion, churches and synagogues also play an important role. Again, we see that the lasting impact of the church is more about "sights and smells and sounds" than about the stated "theological … reason for sending children to religious services[:] to train them better to understand, and thus worship, their Creator."
Many of the people Wuthnow interviewed were able to describe their childhood churches and synagogues "in as much detail as they can their own homes." The altar, the stained-glass windows, and the paintings were, it appears, more significant in forging children's religious identities than any preacher's sermon.
One man, who moved away from his childhood church when he was 12, says that three decades later he still dreams about the church at night. What he remembers about church is not prayer or Communion but rather this: "I'd come out of service and I'd climb the walls. It was a particular stone material where it had little garnets embedded in it, and I'd chip out those little red stones and keep them. It was just a tremendous sort of hands-on relationship with this church."
As in many of his other books, Wuthnow evinces concern in Growing Up Religious over the possible decline of religious commitment in America. He hypothesizes that "growing up religious … [may be] declining and [that] fewer parents are training their children in the same ways they were trained." If so, Growing Up Religious "may well capture a dimension of American culture that is being lost."
The problem is not merely that religious upbringings per se are on the decline but that the nature of religious upbringings may be changing, with parents and teachers focusing increasingly on doctrinal indoctrination and losing the 1950s-era infusion of religious ethos described by the people Wuthnow interviewed.
Although Wuthnow does not call attention to it, modern Orthodox Judaism in America offers an example of this shift. A 1994 article by historian Haym Soloveitchik argues that traditionally Judaism has been a mimetic culture: young Jews learned the minutiae of daily practice, from what renders a pot nonkosher to which objects cannot be carried on the Sabbath, not by study but by mimicking their parents and other adults in their community. The current generation of twentysomething Orthodox Jews, however, are no longer satisfied with the religion they absorbed at home, and they are challenging their parents on everything from hair covering to meat kashering on the grounds that parental standards may be lax. The new litmus test is not what the community has traditionally done but what the books say is acceptable. The same doctrinaire stance can be found in certain Christian communities.
In the last sentence of Growing Up Religious, Wuthnow warns that "spirituality is likely to survive as a feature of American childhood—if parents and grandparents are committed to its importance" [italics Wuthnow's]. Not only parents and grands, but all Christians should be concerned with what and how we teach our children. We would do well to pay attention to Wuthnow's findings that what makes an impact on children is more incense and crosses and leisurely lunches after church than the intricacies of the doctrine of atonement. We should strive for religious infusion as much as for religious instruction. "Train[ing] children in the right way" may involve, in Wuthnow's words, "creat[ing] an environment in which spirituality [is] fully and deeply embedded," rather than merely drilling children on the Apostles' Creed.
Lauren F. Winner is Kellett Scholar at Cambridge University.
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