Evangelical Christianity and the Teen Depression Epidemic

Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have written an important new book titled The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. It’s a lucid, eye-opening and (in my opinion) convincing work. I’ll have more to say about it in a future post. But I wanted to highlight a particular chapter that left me absolutely gobsmacked—and very worried about how evangelical churches are(n’t) responding to it.

One of Haidt and Lukianoff’s premises is that iGen, the generation that came of age in the late 2000s and accounts for most undergraduate students today, is exhibiting extraordinary levels of anxiety and depression. iGen’s mental and emotional struggles are a key component of the “coddling” ethos of the modern US college campus, the ethos that promotes “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and administrative over-protection of students. In the authors’ view, because iGen students are entering college with these struggles, they expect and receive a disproportionate amount of deference from college administrators. This deference, though, is misguided, and it feeds the students’ perception that they are fragile and that the world outside them is threatening and must be held at bay—which in turn increases anxiety and emotional suffering.

Put aside for a moment whether you track with that argument (I do, but that’s for a later post). What Haidt and Lukianoff suggest is that there is a serious mental health crisis with young Americans, so serious that it has substantially transformed the philosophy and administration of centuries-old colleges and universities. If they are right, then I would submit that the anxiety and depression of a whole generation of Americans merits the focused attention of Christians and churches no less than their sociopolitical views or churchgoing habits.

Using data from the CDC, the authors put together a chart on adolescent depression rates that floored me:

According to the data, in 2011 about 11% of adolescent girls reported having had a “major depressive episode in the past year.” By 2016, that number had reached 19%. In other words, the depression rate for adolescent girls nearly doubled in just five years. For adolescent boys, the depression rate did not spike this dramatically, but it has risen. In fact, the suicide rate for adolescent boys has spiked:

From 1999 to 2007, the suicide rate for adolescent boys went on a fairly consistent trajectory downwards. Around 2008, however, the story is flipped: A consistent upward trajectory that results in an almost 20-year high suicide rate in 2016.

I’ve been trying to get my mind around these statistics, and there’s something I can’t stop thinking about. Having been raised in evangelical church culture my entire life, and having quite a bit of experience in youth ministry and outreach, I don’t believe I ever, once, read or watched any treatise on discipling teens that emphasized anxiety and depression. I saw a lot on virginity, drugs, peer pressure, and the like, but never anything substantial about pointing the gospel directly and explicitly at these emotional and mental struggles. If the church hasn’t been helping here, who has?

Answer: Schools. I’m starting to believe that in the absence of serious attention to anxiety and depression within evangelical approaches to ministry, students have found their best resource in the guidance counselors and administrators of their schools. This has handed public education institutions a singular crisis that these administrators are unable to handle with anything more meaningful or life-giving than the creation of safe spaces. Conservative evangelicals like myself who rigorously criticize contemporary campus culture must awaken to the reality that this culture was created because spiritual and emotional problems went unaddressed by the people and places most in a position to offer help—not to mention the people and places that literally receive money to help!

Is there any serious movement afoot within evangelicalism to address anxiety and depression? If not, how can we blast the coddling of the American mind on college campuses, a coddling that very well may have roots in the silence of our culture’s Christian ministers on what amounts to an epidemic in our society? My thinking here is straightforward. Pastors and church leaders: think of anxiety and depression as just as real, just as serious, and just as worthy of your preaching, counseling, and attention as pornography, abortion, transgenderism, and divorce. Youth leaders: If you’re assuming that your students need help in overcoming temptation to sexual immorality, you should also assume that they need help in overcoming depression and emotional distress. We need within churches a culture of help, not of ignorance. The evidence is staring right at us.

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A Brief Word to Book Reviewers

-Sneering dismissal of an author is acceptable to the degree that his book likewise is sneering and dismissive. What works marvelously well in a review of Richard Dawkins doesn’t in a review of Mitch Albom. You might have the same opinion of both writers, and that’s fine! But responding to Mitch Albom as if he’s Richard Dawkins is not only misleading and disingenuous, it’s obnoxious, like the preacher who screams from the pulpit “He leads me beside still waters.” If a meek and mild book is silly and false, then, as meekly and mildly as you can manage, call it silly and false. Don’t use a machine gun to rid the garden of squirrels.

-If you find yourself editing a citation from the book in a way that’s advantageous to your point but that wouldn’t be advantageous if you were to cite it more fully, you are in the process of misrepresenting the book. What you think the author really wants to say is not the same as what s/he said. Acknowledge the words that are really there and then make a case why your interpretation is valid. “Here’s what I think they mean” is perfectly defensible. “Look at what they said” is not.

-Write the review for the benefit of people who don’t necessarily have presuppositions about the author or the subject. Write something that would be helpful for the people who don’t subscribe to your Twitter feed or blog newsletter. If that’s difficult, declare what you’re writing a thinkpiece instead of a review. There’s no shame in it.

-If you can’t think of anything positive to say about the book, look at the cover. In my experience a suspiciously large percentage of the books that I couldn’t think of any redeeming qualities for had excellent outer designs. Work goes into that too, y’know.

In Defense (Somewhat) of Self-Help

When I was in Bible college, few things received scorn as unanimously and frequently as the self-help genre. The corner of your local bookstore dominated by big, bright covers and names like Oprah and Tony Robbins was, almost all of us young, restless, Reformed pre-seminarians agreed, poison. We understood that the self-help genre was a gospel-less, Jesus-less, church-less, and worst of all, theology-less morass of pop psychotherapy and New Agey gobbledygook. The enormous sales numbers of such books was an implicit challenge to my generation of Christian leaders: Whatever the cost, get these books out of your church members’ homes, and get them reading the Bible instead.

To this day, I still feel a twinge of guilt whenever I am listening to a “motivational speaker,” the same kind of twinge I got as a 15 year old sneaking down to the basement to listen to Top 40 radio. Though I can’t hear any bad words, I know this “sound” is not something I, as a Christian, should enjoy. The sound of someone telling me to focus more, to identify my purpose, to take more charge of my days and to understand my limits and my potential and my calling—well, that’s the sound of non-gospel. Right? Right?

Here’s what I’m having a hard time with nowadays. For all my theological education, I tend to have only the foggiest, most vague ideas about my life. I know that the whole universe exists for God’s glory. That fact, alas, did not translate into a workable budget for me last year. I know that God works all things to the purposes of His will, and that no one can thwart him. But not one person in my church or seminary life has ever explained to me that the reason I feel behind at the end of most weeks is that I haven’t identified what was most important to me at a personal level. A few weeks ago, I randomly stumbled across a YouTube video of a motivational speaker who warned his audience against failing to set priorities. If you don’t identify what matters, he said, your days and then weeks would bleed into a directionless, reactionary existence. Whoops.

For all my Christian culture’s scorn of self-help, couldn’t we at least have talked about actually living life in a non-theoretical, non-gospelly cliche way?

One of the things I am having to slowly unlearn is the idea that having good theology is the most important thing in life. I cringe even as I write that sentence, because for years to even think a sentence like that indicated, I believed, a willingness to embrace bad theology. The only people who talked about moderating the importance of theology, I was convinced, were people who wanted me to believe the wrong thing. It turns out I was wrong on both counts. It turns out, on the contrary, that while those whose professional lives rest comfortably at the intersection of study and theoretics (which describes a huge percentage of the “thought leaders” in my corner of Reformed evangelicalism) can afford to say “theology” when they mean “all wisdom everywhere,” many of us cannot afford to do the same.

Sometimes it was supposed in Bible college that the real reason people read self-help books is that they don’t want to be confronted with the moral demands of the Bible. I actually think that’s incorrect. I think most people read self-help lit because they know they need insight, motivation, and perspective from outside themselves. What’s more, I think many Christians read secular self-help lit because they have tried and failed to resize their life to fit a 20 minute per-day devotional box. They read books on becoming a better them because they believe, rightly, that Jesus calls them to be something greater than what they naturally are, but so much of their “gospel-driven” books seem to think that their problems will go away if they know more about divine sovereignty and human agency. In the absence of a relatable explanation of what following Jesus means for being an authentic human being, most people will assume that what they need to know about being an authentic human being and what they need to know about following Jesus are two separate issues.

In my experience, Reformed evangelicals are often so eager to engage in polemics against culture that we often create a conflict that isn’t actually there. And in this case, we tend to create a conflict between common sense and faith. Self-discipline, forward-thinking, intentionality, awareness of one’s own weaknesses and strengths—how is any of this inherently frictional with Christian confession? If it’s not, then another question: Where is the theologically orthodox and accessibly literary body of Christian self-help literature? Perhaps we balk at the phrase “self-help.” Fine. What ideas do we have for alternatives? Is there a space for Christians writing about motivation and inspiration and discipline in a way that is decidedly spiritual but not decidedly reducing life to propositional theology?

I hope all will understand that my point is not that our reading or thinking should be less Christian. My point is that there’s something to be said for not setting up false antitheses, and for articulating a Christian vision of human flourishing that actually meets felt needs, not just intellectual ones. If we sigh at pop culture’s flocking to the latest TED Talk for spiritual guidance—and there’s much to sigh about there—perhaps we should ask ourselves what our seminaries and churches are doing about it.

 

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My Year in Books

Let’s get this out of the way: Year-end reading lists are usually more helpful for making us feel guilty about what we didn’t read than making us thankful for what we did.

My own year of reading was certainly no exception; the pile of books that I read this year seems so small compared to that of others. Yet, I think it’s important to actively fight against this feeling. There is probably a place for reading to have read, but it’s a place that is often far more prominent in my ego than it needs to be. Reading at whim and for pleasure is, all variables being equal, vastly superior to reading to keep up. The former can, and often has, turned something in my soul. The latter usually just confirms my preexisting insecurities and arrogances.

With that prologue finished, here are the books I spent the most pleasurable time with this year. This isn’t an exhaustive list of my reading (though I won’t pretend that the exhaustive list would be much bigger), nor is it a definitive breakdown of everything I liked this year. Rather, these are the books that stayed with me the longest after I read them, the books I thought about the most, the books I marinated in the deepest. Most are from 2017, though not all.

 

-Brian Jay Jones, George Lucas: A LifeA compulsively readable biography. While it doesn’t offer quite the psychological insights I hoped, Lucas’s eclectic, unlikely career is vividly told with lots of fascinating new anecdotes.

-Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option. If you haven’t read the book, you don’t quite know the argument.

-Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise. An accessible and unpretentious assessment of a major cultural development. An essential read for anyone trying to understand the impact of the internet on how we think. Speaking of which…

-Alan Jacobs, How To Think. One of my most underlined books of the year. I like to think of it as a long essay about the epistemological consequences of social media. I can hardly think of a more timely work.

-John Stott, The Cross of Christ. This was my first foray in a Christian classic. Stott’s defense of penal substitutionary atonement is beautiful—so much so that it’s odd to even call it a “defense.” Of all the nonfiction I read this year, this one drove me to prayer and worship the most.

-Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter. Greene’s psychological novels dig deep in my soul. This story about a duty-bound English police officer and his crisis of faith and marriage kept me up late hours of the evening. The ending is one of the most spiritually moving pieces of fiction I’ve read.

-Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart. An exquisitely written novel about some of the most fundamental human experiences. Aspiring storytellers should know this book.

-Sarah Shin, Beyond Colorblind. This excellent work is a rare thing: An evangelical treatise on race, white privilege, and community that is both thoroughly Christian and unflaggingly level headed.

-James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love. Probably the second-best book I read this year. On that note,

-Joe Rigney, The Things of Earth. My #1 read of 2017. I will be re-reading this book regularly. It has given me something for which I’ve longed for a while: A theological perspective on enjoying what God gives, and why doing so doesn’t conflict with enjoying who God is.

The Other Woman

Thinking about this passage from Brian Jay Jones’s lovely biography of George Lucas:

What wasn’t right was that George and [then-wife] Marcia’s thirteen year marriage was quickly imploding, largely because of Lucas’s own neglect. He knew he could be difficult to live with. “It’s been very hard on Marcia, living with somebody who is constantly in agony, uptight and worried, off in never-never land,” Lucas told Rolling Stone. Charles Lippincott, Lucasfilm’s master of marketing, wasn’t entirely surprised…”George would take problems to bed with him,” said Lippincott, “and [Marcia] said this caused a lot of problems.”

But it went deeper even than that; for George Lucas, movies would always be the other woman. As devoted to Marcia as he might be, there was forever one more movie, one more project, demanding the time and attention he couldn’t or wouldn’t give to his wife.

I’ve read a lot of Christian books and heard a lot of Christian speakers talk about strategies for avoiding adultery (the “Billy Graham rule” is a timely example). But I don’t believe I’ve ever read an entire chapter or listened to an entire session by a Christian on strategies for avoiding having an affair with work. Why is that? Why, for people who believe that husbands ought to sacrifice themselves for their wives as Jesus Christ sacrificed himself for his Bride, is the threat of all-consuming careerism not taken more seriously?

Right out of college I spent over a year working in the marketing department of a well-to-do mortgage firm. It wasn’t a particularly good experience, but it was at least eye-opening. I heard the way professional men and women casually talked about how little time they spent at home. If you want to know how what is supposed to sound like complaining can actually be a form of bragging, hearing professionals talk about their time away from home is an education. It was remarkable to me how easily a company that was explicitly “family-oriented” corporate rhetoric could nonetheless cultivate this kind of attitude.

Even worse, it’s scary how easily the veneer of godliness can be applied to this “other woman.” If a man is working long nights and weekends so he can spend time away from his family and with a female coworker, he would be (rightly) rebuked. But if he’s working long nights and weekends just because he derives from his career a peace and identity and thrill that home cannot match, what do we say then?  If you want to get really uncomfortable, go back to that previous sentence and replace the word “career” with the word “ministry.” The temptation for celebrity pastors to put their spouse and family on autopilot must be sore indeed when there are so many book deals and conference invitations to be gained.

It’s sobering to think how many Christians might pat themselves on the back for not being the foolish young man whom Solomon sees going by the house of the forbidden woman, when the only reason why is that they are still at the office with the “other woman.” “The safest road to hell,” said Screwtape, “is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

Thoughts on Christian Publishing

On Twitter, Jared Wilson flagged this list of the bestselling Christian books of 2016. I’ve seen previous iterations of this list, and each one that I’ve seen looks frighteningly alike. The gentlest way to say it: the Christian publishing industry is utterly dominated by therapeutic self-help literature. What’s more, the sheer amount of non-literature on the list is staggering; adult coloring books and joke books are all over the top 20, and “Jesus Calling” appears nine times in the top 100, thanks to various editions.

Now it’s always easy to overreact to this kind of thing. The reality is that times are hard for serious, substantial writing, whether Christian or not. Social media technology’s assault on concentration and thoughtfulness does not discriminate on the basis of religion. And the list isn’t all bad; there are plenty of good writers and good books on it.

What I’m more interested in though is the gap between this list of bestselling Christian books, and the evangelical online writing economy. Put simply, the contrast between the work that outsells all other work in Christian bookstores and the work that drives traffic and conversation in the evangelical blogosphere is astonishing. The two worlds look nothing alike. When was the last time you saw an article on your social media written in the first person voice of Jesus, assuring readers of prosperity and emotional centeredness? Have you ever seen a viral relaxation exercise from Desiring God, Tim Challies, Focus on the Family, or even Patheos for that matter?

Sure, there’s some silliness out there. Yes, the lows of evangelical blogging can be really, really low (you’d be better off with a coloring book than some sites I know of). But as I think about it, it just seems to me that even the ridiculousness of evangelical blogosphere is almost always ridiculousness you have to think about. Can the same be said about many bestselling Christian books?

As I look out on the confessional evangelical writing scene, I see a lot of good, even in places where I’d find much to disagree with. There is quite a bit of thoughtful, meaningful commentary out there right now. So when I see a list like this, I can’t help but wonder: Where’s the disconnect? Why am I seeing such a stark difference between the content I inhabit on a daily basis and the content that the average Christian is consuming at bestselling rates? I don’t have an answer for that.

There are a few things I do know:

  • The space right now for creative Christian writers is enormous. There is a real material need in American Christian culture for literary talent. We can’t talk to teenage and twentysomething believers about using their gifts for the good of the body of Christ and only point them toward vocational ministry or the mission field. Christian art matters (it always has), and it requires Christian artists. They won’t grow out of the ground; they have to be cultivated, encouraged, identified, and supported.
  • The impulse in Christian literary circles to divide “theology” from “Christian living” is a terrible rip off. It results in verbose, stiff, academic theology, and shallow bubblegum devotional lit. The sad fact is that some of the best evangelical theology is being produced by people who can’t write, in books that will never be read, all because somewhere down the line we Reformed evangelical types decided the humanities were not relevant in training theologians. Adult coloring books are that mentality’s harvest. This has to be reversed, and it has to be reversed by people who can think deep thoughts about God AND say them in beautifully arresting way.
  • You get what you pay for. These trends in Christian publishing aren’t going to be thwarted by moaning bloggers like me. They’re going to be thwarted by churchgoers who use their income to purchase good books by good writers. And for that to happen, those who are already reading good books by good writers have to tell others about them–including pastors.

I actually believe Christian publishing is primed for a sustained season of excellence, for reasons already mentioned above. But perhaps the biggest obstacle in the way of such a season is the church’s own passivity. For years many evangelical churches labored under the illusion that spiritualized entertainment was going to rebuild American Christianity and fill the pews. It turns out though that not even the church can out-distract Buzzfeed and Facebook. So what now? Maybe we should give the whole teaching thing another go round.

The Slough of Internet Despond

The latest nominee for Tweet of the Year comes from professor James K.A. Smith:

I am endlessly perplexed by people who say–and there are many who do–that social media and the internet “community” are the best measures of What’s Really Happening in the world today. These folks will point us to Twitter if we want to know what’s really making an impact in our culture, the things people are really talking about. There’s an entire journalism industry, in fact, being formed around the idea that the internet has a personality, and that this personality is every bit as consequential to your experience of the world as the 10PM news. Thus, you get stories in your news feed like, “Celebrity XYZ Recently Said This, and the Internet is NOT Happy About It.”

If you spend most of your day scanning social media sites and blogs, you will probably come away with a very specific idea of what American culture is like. The latest hashtags will probably convey some sense of despair or outrage; the latest viral videos will either do the same, or else distract. But here’s the thing: Because of the effect of digital media on human attention, the internet is designed to be totally absorbing and supremely now. If you’re riding the bus and two people behind you are quarreling, you probably won’t get off the bus and feel a palpable sense of depression for the rest of the day at how selfish human beings can be. On the other hand, if you’re reading Twitter hashtags and following back-and-forths between really angry users and the target of their outrage, you will almost certainly turn off your phone and feel consumed by it. That’s not because the outrage you just watched is more real (actually the opposite is probably true), it’s because your brain absorbed it in a qualitatively different way than it absorbed the bus ride (for more on this topic, I recommend this outstanding book)

This is exactly why a dive into social media will lead you to believe that the world is probably a terrible place to live right now. Everything, from the littlest of impolite slights to the most difficult issues of human justice, is magnified with unending intensity on the screen. If you turn off your phone and head down to the library or the coffee shop, though, it kinda seems the people you’re sitting next to don’t have any idea that they should be packing their bags for the bomb shelter. They talk normally, seem relatively calm, maybe even kind. It’s almost as if you’re experiencing two distinct cultures: One a perpetually moving but never anchored sea of consciousness, bent every which way by advertising and technology; and the other, a culture of place, permanence, and sunshine.

I know a lot of people, some very close to me, who are going through difficult times right now. There are thousands of people in Louisiana this second who have suffered cataclysmic loss. Yet invariably, the most miserable people I run into are not these people. The most miserable people are the ones who don’t suffer, but merely hover–attached to the world by ether, spending their emotions and their hours consuming a diet of pixels.

 

Essay: The New Puritan Shame Culture

Hester_Prynne

In the April 1886 issue of The Atlantic Monthly Julian Hawthorne, son of Nathaniel, reviewed his father’s The Scarlett Letter. Towards the conclusion of his stunning, 9,000+ word essay, the younger Hawthorne reflected on the moral irony of  Hester Prynne’s world:

 This [the scarlet A] is her punishment, the heaviest that man can afflict upon her. But, like all legal punishment, it aims much more at the protection of society than at the reformation of the culprit. Hester is to stand as a warning to others tempted as she was: if she recovers her own salvation in the process, so much the better for her; but, for better or worse, society has ceased to have any concern with her.

“We trample you down,” society says in effect to those who break its laws, “not by any means in order to save your soul,—for the welfare of that problematical adjunct to your civic personality is a matter of complete indifference to us,—but because, by some act, you have forfeited your claim to our protection, because you are a clog to our prosperity, and because the spectacle of your agony may discourage others of similar unlawful inclinations.”

But it is obvious, all the while, that the only crime which society recognizes is the crime of being found out, since a society composed of successful hypocrites would much more smoothly fulfill all social requirements than a society of such heterogeneous constituents as (human nature being what it is) necessarily enter into it now.

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