“This is not your Grandma’s pageant!” the announcer proudly proclaimed. No, indeed, this was the 1999 Miss Teen U.S.A. pageant from Shreveport, Louisiana—”Brittney’s Beat” (a reference to teen super-Lolita Brittney Spears). Why even acknowledge that this sorry event happened? Because it provides a window into the existence of an American phenomenon, one that has profoundly shaped our culture—the teenager.
In Western civilization past, there was no such thing, per se, as a teenager. There were children, and there were adults. In patriarchal Christian society, a girl passed from being under the authority of her father to that of her husband. Boys became young men, husbands, and fathers. Both were deemed fit to marry in their mid-teens, having been taught hands-on how to manage a household. Households were units—like church and country—in which there was a level of solidarity. Children worked alongside their parents to support the household. A father as “head of the household” bore responsibility for his wife, children, and servants, both monetarily and spiritually. This structure flows from Scripture and the tradition of the Church. We Lutherans see it emblazoned in the Small Catechism, where Luther begins nearly every passage with “This is how the head of the household is to teach concerning . . . “
In modern America, child-labor laws helped to nail shut the coffin lid of the mortified Christian family. The abstract “child” was deemed fit only for (public) school, not for work, and the federales became the de facto heads of households by usurping the God-given rule of fathers. Adolescents, fit physically (if not mentally, for lack of training) for the responsibilities of marriage and family, became modernity’s tertium quid—no longer children, not trained or allowed to be adults.
This discrepancy has taken its toll upon our culture. Rock ‘n’ roll, the soundtrack of our VH-1 lives, is a teenage product, marketing sex in the form of nursery rhymes. Soda pop, America’s syrupy, puerile wine, is the ubiquitous drink in our restaurants. And oddities like the “age of consent” remain unchallenged in our society and cast teenagers—particularly girls—as sexual objects.
It is illegal for an 18-year-old male to fornicate with an “underage” female. And yet the Miss Teen U.S.A. producers, the censors, the contestants’ parents, and the viewers do not flinch at underage girls parading around in high-cut bikinis while the two announcers say such things as “I like Miss Texas’ body.”
Increasingly, this third category of life has become identified with virtually unrestrained lust and immorality. Rather than question the cultural factors that define these adolescents as people fit for sex but not for marriage or the responsibility of work, we fret over our children’s exposure to Dawson’s Creek and the Backstreet Boys.
Because of the lurid attractiveness of what the Psalmist called the “sins of our youth,” being a teenager has been elevated to the American ideal. “Those were the best days of my life,” pined rock ‘n’ roller Bryan Adams. Fortysomethings (in what traditionally would have been considered the “best days of one’s life”) have mid-life crises and long to be teenagers again.
Rather than stand up and fight, churches since the 1950’s have hired “youth pastors” to provide sexy activities and Clearasil Bible studies to teens. In the 70’s, youth pastors began to hawk “Christian” rock—a marketable, sanitized, money-and-sex machine. Private Christian high schools (modeled after government schools) adopted all of the trappings of their secular counterparts— a displaced, coed group, spending eight hours a day together, plus road trips to the teams and cheerleaders, proms, and homecomings. Yet church leaders an puzzled by statistics that indicate that their young people now have higher rate of premarital sex and pregnancy.
This cultural degeneration cannot b undone by getting the Miss Teen U.S./pageant to return to one-piece suit; It cannot be fixed by flooding the market with more “innocuous” shows like Touched by an Angel or by hiring a hipper youth pastor. It must be solved b restoring real homes—or rather, households.