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Are Evangelicals Fueling Teen Fascination with the Powers of Darkness?

The horror of Buffy Summers and the fantasy of Harry Potter draw from conservative religious imagery while fans feed on conservative opposition, says the author of From Angels to Aliens.
Jul 14, 2003 12:35 AM EDT

You write in your book that teens find it easier to discuss their media interests rather than their own life experiences. What does young people's participation in popular culture tell us about their spirituality? It tells us that many different myths are competing for young people's attention right now. A lot of people have focused attention on some of the most popular television shows and films, like American Idol, the Survivor series, and Temptation Island because they've gotten a lot of large teenage audiences, as well as some films that feature young people in starring roles that are really all about celebrity and consumption. Those have been called the myths of the Mook and the Midriff. The Mook is the person who is willing to make a fool of himself in front of lots of people to gain fame, and the Midriff is the Britney Spears type person who becomes a sexual object.



As in Jackass and Legally Blonde?



Exactly. But what's interesting to me are the stories that in the fantasy, supernatural, and even the supernatural horror genres, which portray a different picture of teenagers. I'm thinking here of stories like Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They feature teenagers in central roles who are called by something beyond them to do something bigger than themselves. They do that by joining together with a small group of friends who support their mission.



To me that's a sign that young people are not satisfied with the consumerist myths that they're getting all the time from popular culture. Instead, they're open to spirituality and to other paths that lead them toward deeper meaning in their lives.



When you started the study, you were going to research unchurched teens. But then evangelicalism became a significant part of the picture. Why?



Even when I was trying to construct a study where I was avoiding evangelicalism?because I thought enough studies of evangelicals have already been done?I kept running into it at every turn. Some of the most interesting cases to me were the cases of young people who came from very little religious backgrounds. When I asked them about their beliefs and their experiences with the supernatural, they often used the language common to evangelicals?language such as angels and demons, and how bad behavior is punished. They said we should be on our best behavior because that's something that is honorable to God. I think evangelicalism has defined the way that we think about religion in the U.S.



What made you think immediately of evangelicalism?and not the Catholic faith or the Eastern Orthodox faith that also include beliefs in angels and demons, or even the Jewish faith, which includes the practice of exorcism?



One thing was the way that American history has unfolded in relation to Protestantism. Even though we are a country without a state church, a lot of our legal documents take as civil religion a lot of guidelines that come from Protestantism. One example of this is the orientation to individual experience, as opposed to tradition and ritual.



Secondly, horror and fantasy in film and television borrow specifically from Protestant evangelicals traditions of hellfire-and-brimstone sermons from the 17th and 18th century and the idea that there is this horrific supernatural realm beyond this world.



Is this part of what you call "the dark side of evangelicalism"?



The dark side of evangelicalism is this kind of horror impulse, which is rooted in evangelicalism and that surfaced in 17th- and 18th-century sermons and 18th-and 19th-century fiction, then became the impetus behind film and television programs.



Jonathan Edwards and Cotton Mather are among the ones who were concerned about things like witchcraft, amulets, and spirits from beyond. They were worried about people who were being drawn to alternative religions because of these things. People like Nathaniel Hawthorne and the poet William Blake picked up on some of those themes and popularized them in fictional form and in poetic form, and therefore removed them from the religious realm.



I call it the "dark side of evangelicalism" because I think when we look at horror, or even to things like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Matrix, we don't really necessarily think of them as being about evangelicalism. And yet they borrow from frameworks of images, symbols, and stories that date back to periods when Christianity was under siege from different places within culture.



What made you think that evangelicals unwittingly end up encouraging young people's fascination with the powers of darkness?



There's always been tension between evangelical Protestantism and commercial marketplace. On the one hand we've seen popular culture borrowing from evangelicalism. On the other, you see evangelicalism borrowing from popular culture so that they can put together novels like Left Behind, for example.



The other thing that goes on is that teen culture is always about rebelling against what the norms of a society are at any given time. Teen culture has long been interested in the supernatural, partly because it's an area that adults can't control and don't think is legitimate. So as evangelicals bash things like witchcraft, it becomes more intriguing for young people who might be drawn to those things?simply out of a desire to rebel.



But what are evangelicals supposed to do? What's the alternative? Many teens want to have sex. The parents who care for them explain to them why it's harmful to them. They don't think, "I'm not going to tell my teen not to have sex because if I do, she will then want to rebel and jump in the sack with her boyfriend just to spite me."



Whether we're talking about the occult or premarital sex, I think those kinds of conversations are best handled on a one-to-one basis or in a small group setting. The young people could be part of youth groups where they can form strong bonds and define themselves by being able to resist the more dominant avenues for experimentation in different areas.



The problem that I was trying to highlight comes in because evangelicals have access to the public stage and are able to create a culturally legitimate viewpoint that's taken seriously by journalists and by other people. By saying, "We know what's bad, and we're going to claim the cultural authority to say what's bad for everyone," it becomes an issue that is more problematic.



But isn't it just freedom of speech? Many other interest groups also have cultural platforms and when they have an opinion about something, they are free to express it.



Freedom of speech is important for all groups, but I think the other side of that is that freedom of speech in media, in the U.S. context anyway, always takes place within a commercial marketplace. Therefore, people are always trying to construct storylines that are sensational and will draw audiences. Evangelicals, just like every other group, have named and claimed some issues about which they circulate their views.



I think there is a tendency in some evangelical circles to define the way issues should be understood. That can be limiting to discussion on a more local level for young people who might be interested in talking about religion and spirituality.



You emphasize throughout your book that evangelicals have introduced this definition of evil into public consciousness, but then lost control over it once the definition was woven into culture. But who really can be expected to maintain control over any ideas that are introduced into the public discourse? In a free society, isn't it a given that once an idea is floated, anyone can say anything about it? Your book, for example, is an idea that you're floating in the larger culture. You don't have control over what people are going to say about it. So, in the same way, can we really blame evangelicals for "losing control"?



Oh, gosh, no. The media have a life of their own. In order to be involved in public life today, you have to give up control to some extent. But what I was trying point out is that for religious organizations, it's an uncomfortable situation, and it has been for several hundred years because religious organizations have wanted to claim authority over what they say and what they think.



I'm talking more about a process that I think is largely inevitable. But I do think that evangelicals tend to try to pretend that they can somehow fight against media. And I don't think it's that easy of a relationship. They're always changing each other in ways that no one can expect.



Is there anything legitimate about evangelicals' caution against young people's interest in the supernatural or its portrayals in the media?



I think most people would agree that there is some truth to the fact that young people do experiment with evil and can do horrible things as a result of that experimentation. It's really important to me that young people from all different kinds of backgrounds, whether they're Goths or jocks or whatever, have connections with adults who are not just their parents. That seems to be a key role for youth ministry: to talk about what is a hopeful and positive way to embrace life for ourselves and others, and what might be destructive ways that we want to try to redirect. So if talking about the supernatural helps people to have that conversation, I think that's a good idea.



Recently I've seen a lot of news stories that talk about evangelicals actually embracing books such as Harry Potter. Christianity Today recently published a Weblog item on its website in which it reiterated that most evangelicals are supporting the books. Where does this reality fit in your paradigm?



It's important to distinguish between evangelicalism and the more conservative fundamentalist traditions. Historically, evangelicalism arose in the early part of the 20th century as a reaction against fundamentalists being too removed from culture. And evangelicalism said, "We need to be about embracing what's good in culture and encouraging people to negotiate with culture, as opposed to just rejecting it."



Where the fundamentalist groups thought that they needed to hole up and be separate from the culture overall, evangelicals have always kind of been involved in a struggle with how much of popular culture to accept and how to draw boundaries. But there is a contingent within evangelicalism that leans more toward fundamentalism. That's probably where the misperception comes from.



What's the significance of your findings for youth ministers and parents?



It's important for adults to look beyond the immediate media content that they may find objectionable, because teen culture is always about shocking parents.



It's easy for adults to become very worried about the violence and the sex?and that's understandable. But parents and youth leaders who are savvy are able to say, "Yes, there's sex and violence in some of these stories, but there's also a larger myth there. And we can tap into what's meaningful to young people if we can get them to talk about that." For example, punk music arose out of a dissatisfaction with consumerism in middle-class culture.



Young people, when they hear critiques from adults who are just reacting to their popular culture, hear it as a criticism of themselves. Teens aren't able to sort that out. That's the job we need to take on as adults and as youth leaders.