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Book Review: Teen Angels

What, if anything, do they believe?

Dec 6, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 12 • By EVE TUSHNET
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Dean wonders whether some of the most apparently committed teenagers, in the Mormon church and elsewhere, are merely parroting words they’ve heard or going with the flow of their semi-closed subculture: Is their faith “foreclosed,” plucked from the tree before it’s ripe? Is the mission trip just the Mormon equivalent of studying for the SATs—something you do because you’re a good kid and you want to please your parents, not because you want to please God? But overall, she argues that the churches which challenge their children the most also often help the children develop mature, deeply held faith which can withstand shocks, doubts, and suffering.

Dean, therefore, has her own challenge for Christians who work with adolescents: Push them to take hold of their faith and let it reshape their lives. She has qualified praise for short-term mission trips to poverty-stricken areas. She knows why these trips are sometimes derided as “voluntourism,” but believes that they can also provide not just a break from middle-class American daily lives but an implicit, radically Christian critique of those lives.

On a more general level, she offers a wake-up call to Christian parents. She has two basic questions, and the more obvious one is, what are you doing to shape your children’s faith as Christians? But the deeper question is, do you want your children to be Christians at all? Would you be proud to raise a Mother Teresa, even as your heart trembles for her and you wish she’d come home? Do you want your child to be a saint, even if it might mean she’s less normal or less happy or less materially successful or less like you? Dean knows that for many parents, MTD is a lot easier to explain to the neighbors than the imitation of Christ.

There’s an interesting tension in Almost Christian. On the one hand, Dean cites studies showing that teens who are more serious about their religious faith are doing better than more wishy-washy teens on a wide range of sociological metrics, from drug use to hopeful outlooks toward the future. MTD, she notes, promises happiness but doesn’t deliver it as consistently as committed Christian faith. And yet on the other hand, Dean wants to challenge precisely these sociological markers of success. She wants teenagers who are willing to follow Jesus’ words: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” Or to put the point in terms even Jefferson might have acknowledged, pursuing happiness might not be the best way to win it.

Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington.

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