Consortium for Classical Lutheran Education 2022 conference. It is excerpted here with CCLE permission.
My husband pastors a campus church at a Big Ten university, and we live amongst college students. It is a blessed life, one in which our evenings are longer and our mornings shorter, all because we have the privilege of fostering 50-plus Gen Z-ers in the faith.
What passion and curiosity reside in the hearts and heads of our young people! But do you know what else resides there? Fear and distrust of most everything coming out of the mouth of anyone older than them.
For so many of these students grew up reading, hearing, watching, and absorbing stories that assert that they are omniscient, that no outside source is as trustworthy as their own feelings. They are certain they know what is best for themselves, and anyone who asserts otherwise is an indoctrinated false prophet of the dead past who simply refuses to sing along with Elsa, “Let it go.”
How did these young people come to trust their own corrupted gut more than the wisdom of their parents? I suspect it has something to do with Cinderella, Ariel, Elsa, and Anna; as well as Monica, Ross, Rachel, Phoebe, Joey, and Chandler; and “Modern Family,” “Sex and the City,” “Parks and Recreation,” Marvel movies, and even “Veggie Tales,” for many of our present college students were raised in homes dominated by screens.
Much of their free time was spent absorbing serial television, and while not every televised program, movie, and YouTube channel necessarily tells false stories, much of modern programming follows a storytelling formula that ensures the pet social agendas of screenwriters are always being covered in the plot and in ways that narrate lies surrounding sexual identity, the sanctity of life, the good order of creation and marriage, the strength of men, and the reality of absolutes.
Stories have always been a part of how we pass down what is good and beautiful and true to our children, but depending on the storyteller, this practice can corrupt as easily as benefit. As more and more families turn over the care of their children to institutions, programs, clubs, teams, and devices, parents are no longer controlling the narrative of the stories being passed down to their children.
The loudest, most powerful propagandist holds the bullhorn, and he makes sure the story’s plot fits his personal agenda, no matter if it is evil and ugly and false. This proves especially dangerous in the classroom, where most children spend the greater part of every day away from their parents.
We now have generations of children raised by bullhorns, and it is commonplace for a child to be occupied by some sort of program every moment of every day, whether it is a daycare program, school program, televised program, sports program, or an arts program — you name it. Many of today’s college students have had few opportunities in life to grow bored, to daydream, and to experience what happens to their bodies and minds and emotions when not occupied. They seem to have missed out on what used to be standard human experiences such as unregulated play, relating to peers of all shapes, sizes, and maturity levels, and making messy, wonderful, formative relationships with imperfect people.
I have observed that when young people are denied the opportunity to share experiences with other real people, they bond with the fake experiences and fake people they see on a screen instead. It is not uncommon for conversations amongst college students to be centered around Disney or “Game of Thrones” or the show “Friends” or countless other streamed programs. Sadly, those Hollywood-scripted shows are the memories peers share, and those designed-to-disorder plots are the common experiences with which they relate to each other.
So, what do we do about it? How do we reclaim the hearts and minds — the attention — of our children? We have to turn off the television, certainly, and power down our devices and pick out the books to be read before bedtime as well as model chastity and charity and temperance and kindness and patience in our own lives.
As Rod Dreher suggests in “The Benedict Option,” “Christians are going to have to become better tellers of our own story,” for the screenwriters are already pitching a relentless campaign for that position, programming our children into an understanding of humanity and of God that is false, an understanding that fools men, born free, into living as slaves to bullhorns.
Bo Giertz, the most celebrated storyteller in my own tradition of Lutheranism, writes: “People often think they are free when they put themselves above God’s commands and don’t do what He wants. Actually, they only stop serving one power and begin serving another. Jesus tells us there is only one way to find true freedom: to remain in His Word, listening, receiving, and understanding. Then we perceive truth, and the truth sets us free, truly free.” (“Wednesday after the Third Sunday in Lent,” To Live with Christ, Bo Giertz, 224.)
We need more of this truth that “sets us free” in the stories our children are consuming. We need to read and discuss books with them that teach toward virtue and away from vice, so our youth can recognize tyranny and slavery to sin when they see it.
And they need to know they are not alone. When the time of persecution inevitably comes — when their character and endurance are put to the ultimate test — it is helpful for them to know that they are in good company. They stand with Jesus and the Apostle Paul and Samwise Gamgee and Josip Lasta and Charles Wallace and Katniss and the Rev. John Ames and Robbie Jones and saints and angels and hundreds of years of fictional heroes who have been tested and tried and even triumphed.
Think of it this way. A child is born having no formative memories of virtues and vices. At least, we hope he doesn’t, for firsthand knowledge of tyranny and sloth and intemperance would suggest that the child has been abandoned or deceived by a parent or abused by an adult or has endured some unthinkable suffering.
But a child can still know that patience is a virtue, that joy accompanies charity, that self-sacrifice has its rewards, and that chastity is a beautiful, worthy aspiration, because he has heard the story of Joseph in Egypt and Isaac on the altar and Stephen in Jerusalem and Frodo in Mordor and Bigwig in “Watership Down” and Anne in Avonlea. These characters and stories — fiction or nonfiction — give children memories of virtues before they experience them themselves. These stories teach children into a thought pattern and into a mindset and behavior that is virtuous, that is free.
As Wendell Berry writes in his essay “A Native Hill”: “It is not from ourselves that we learn to be better than we are.” Our children need us to keep telling them good, true stories — especially the true story of their forefathers, both in the family and in the faith — so they can learn to be better than they are. For we have already seen that, if left to the world and its false stories, our children will learn to be worse than they are.