Confusion or Clarity? Youth Culture At the Crossroads

– by Walt Mueller
©2002, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding

He survives a plane crash into the sea – and after weathering four years on an uninhabited island, Chuck Noland is rescued and brought back to civilization. Chuck Noland – played brilliantly by Tom Hanks in the film Cast Away – represents each of us and the options we face on the way to choosing what we value in our quest for meaning and purpose in life.

In the film’s powerful and moving final scene, Noland – a man changed by four years of forced isolation and introspection – stands at the middle of a quiet and desolate intersection on the stark Texas plains. Not sure which direction to take, the movie closes as he surveys his four options, each of which stretches straight as a road to an endless and unknown horizon.

On a recent trip to downtown Manhattan I gathered some sense of what it must be like to be a teen standing at the noisy and crowded crossroads of adolescence in today’s youth culture. It was five o’clock in the afternoon- the peak of rush hour – on a rainy Tuesday afternoon. We were walking through Times Square. My senses were overloaded by activity happening in every direction. A 360 degree spin filled my field of vision -up, down, and side to side – with people, cars, and advertisements. The smells of hot dogs and soft pretzels were making me hungry. I stopped and satisfied my taste buds. I was surrounded by the sounds of hustle and bustle, everything from taxi horns, to barking street vendors, to loud music pumped out onto the street from storefronts. Even my sense of touch came into play as I got pushed, shoved, and bumped in the rushing river of people moving to and from who knows where. My friend Mike turned to me and said, “This is amazing isn’t it? It’s known as the crossroads of the world!” I thought to myself, “If I didn’t already know where I was heading, how would I know where to go?”

Adolescence is a period of life spent at the crossroads. It’s a time marked by overwhelming change, numerous questions, and a search for answers. But the crossroads where they stand are anything but quiet and desolate. Not sure which direction to take, our children and teens are presented with an abundance of confusing options. The noise can be deafening. Perhaps the signposts they choose to follow are the ones that are most attractive, loud and convincing in response to their unspoken teenage cry of ”Show me the way!”

As I look at the choices, pressures, and challenges facings kids in today’s youth culture, there are some signposts that seem to be attracting more youthful attention than others. They are signposts that are big, bold, and convincing. No matter where our kids position themselves at the crossroads, these signposts fill their field of vision and overload their senses with pointed and powerful persuasion, saying “This is the way!”

If we care about kids, where they are, and where they’re headed, we’ve got to look with them at the signposts that are catching their attention and leading them along in life. By looking at the most popular and powerful signposts we can gain insight into our children’s needs/questions, as well as the sense of urgency and diligence needed to provide them with proper direction. In this way, they serve as signposts for us, pointing the way to a land of crisis that is in desperate need of spiritual relief aid. As I stand with kids at the crossroads, here’s three troubling signposts – all getting bigger, increasingly attractive, and more effective by the minute – that I see grabbing their attention.

The signpost of anything and everything sexuality. This signpost points away from the freedom and joy of experiencing God’s wonderful gift of sexuality within the lifelong covenant and commitment of marriage. That’s God’s intended best! Instead, it points to a place where kids are encouraged and expected to indulge their sexuality with whatever, wherever, however, whenever, and with whomever. On my trip to Times Square I saw evidence of this attitude when I looked up at one of those “so big you can’t miss it” billboards hanging on the side of a building over the crowd. There was contemporary poster girl Pamela Anderson totally naked, lying on the front of a huge Pony basketball shoe. A sentence packed with sexual innuendo completes the ad: “IT JUST FEELS BIGGER.” The billboard had become an accepted and “normal” feature of the landscape of the world’s crossroads. If our culture’s acceptance of that visual message isn’t convincing enough, then mark your calendar to check out MTV’s dose of special spring break programming that will air next spring. Once you watch you’ll agree – kids have followed this signpost.

The signpost of postmodern relativism. While the relativistic signpost has been sitting at the crossroads for a long time, it’s growth has led to a larger following. It leads to an amoral place where the thread of commonly held standards that once ran through the tapestry of our culture has been removed from the fabric. Instead, “I have my truth and you have yours.” Neither one is right for anyone else, unless of course, they choose that “truth” as their own at that given point in time. While toleranceof varying viewpoints is celebrated as a virtue, that “virtue” is quickly giving way to celebrating varying viewpoints. I kept my eye on the “pond” of today’s youth culture when Rosie O’Donnell – a favorite among children and teens – outed herself earlier this year. There wasn’t a ripple of negative or concerned response in the pond. After all, “Rosie can do whatever Rosie wants to do.” I’ve also watched as MTV’s reality peek into the twisted home life of burnt-out rocker Ozzy Osbourne’s family has gripped young viewers – vaulting The Osbournes into television history as the most popular show ever on MTV and the most popular show on cable at this moment in time. Each episode features the family’s profanity filled conversations and rantings. Poor Ozzy is so fried by his lifestyle of rocker excess that he struggles to finish a sentence, complete a thought, and lift a glass to his mouth with his shaky hands. Rarely if ever does the show warrant adjectives of young audience response such as “sad,” “sorry,” “depressing,” or “wrong.” Instead, the culture laughs collectively because “it’s hilarious.” After all, who’s to say that there’s anything wrong with the Osbournes and the way they’ve chosen to live their lives? I think you’ll agree – our kids have followed this signpost.

The signpost of the deconstructed God. The great news is that youth culture is wearing spirituality on its sleeve. It’s exciting to know that suddenly it’s okay to talk, sing, and write about God. But the spoken, sung, and written about “god” is not necessarily the God who has revealed himself in his written word – The Bible – and in the incarnate Word – Jesus Christ. Instead, today’s “god(s)” is created in the image and personal preference of every one who speaks, sings, and writes. In his best-selling book, Conversations With God For Teens, Neale Donald Walsch channels “god” by asking “god” the questions teens would love to ask “god.” He explains his methodology to his readers this way: “Now it might sound good if I said that I ponder my questions for hours, meditating and praying and remaining in the stillness until I am brought to enlightenment and tremble with the energy flowing through my fingertips. But the truth is, I put down the first thing that comes to my head.” The fruit of this methodology is a book full of answers for kids needing a signpost – answers that can be reduced to this axiom – “I (God) say that you can do whatever you want to do.” This new “god” looks and sounds nothing like the God who was, is, and always will be. The one true God looks and sounds nothing like Walsh’s creation. . . . a “god” who tells teens, “Right and wrong do not exist as absolutes, but only as momentary assessments of What Works and What Doesn’t Work. You make these assessments yourself, as individuals and as a society, given what you are wishing to experience and how you see yourself in relationship to everything else that is.” It’s frightening to ponder, but I think you’ll agree – kids have followed this signpost.

So what do we do? Do we just sit back and complain? Do we try to silence the signposts we don’t like by taking an axe to their base? Perhaps the best approach is illustrated by something else I saw on that rainy Times Square Tuesday afternoon back in March. As we walked down the sidewalk I noticed a group of people – mostly young, but some old – set apart from the rest of the crowd by the jackets they wore. It looked like there were around 30 of them, all wearing bright yellow windbreakers. They stood out like sore thumbs. The logo and text printed on the back of their matching jackets identified them as a high school group from New Mexico. They were spending the afternoon visiting the crossroads of the world. The barrage of sights, sounds, and “signposts” was peppering them from every direction. As we got closer it was obvious that the group’s adult chaperones had strategically placed themselves at the front, rear, and sides of the group. Like a group of border collies, they kept the teens herded together and moving on to their intended destination. As I passed, I asked the chaperone bringing up the rear about his group and their trip. Then, before I walked on, I remarked, “I think the yellow jackets are a brilliant idea.” His response was this: “They sure are! This way we can keep our eyes on them and they can keep their eyes on us. We know right where they are and they can see us. We don’t want to lose any kids in a place like this.” Perhaps our role – as parents, youth workers, and the church in the 21st century – is to serve as border collies and signposts.

It’s easy for kids to get lost in the negative aspects of today’s culture. They’re standing at the crossroads deciding which way to go. As the people of God, we’ve got to keep our eyes on them. We need to know right where they are. We must be aware of the signposts they are following. And, we should serve as signposts to show them the way.

In his classic book on discipleship, The Fight, Dr. John White reminds us of our need to be more than just border collies. Instead, we should become signposts. “A signpost points to a destination,” writes White. “It matters little whether the signpost is pretty or ugly, old or new. It helps if the lettering is bold and clear. But the essential features are that it must point in the right direction and be clear about what it is pointing to.”

The kids you and I know are standing confused at the crossroads. What signs do they see? Which direction are we pointing them to? Is it to the wide and well-traveled road that leads to destruction? Or is it down the narrow road that leads to life? Will we serve as signposts for truth – signposts so big and convincing – that we eclipse the signposts already there?

 

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For more information on resources to help you understand today’s rapidly changing youth culture, contact the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding.