By Stephen W. Hiemstra
The phenomena of adulting may seem like a curiosity of postmodern slang, but it is actually at the heart of a powerful shift in American culture having profound implications for the Christian church. Since the Reagan administration in the 1980s, the American economy has failed to deliver on the “American Dream” for the majority of citizens prompting a search for a new cultural myth to replace it. Unable to deliver an increasing standard of living for everyone—a nuclear family, house, two cars, healthcare, and pension—even though denial continues to be practiced, the “myth of perpetual youth” has increasing substituted for the American Dream. In effect, advertisers have led the way in declaring—don’t worry about not having a spouse, house, car, health plan, or pension—just enjoy being young: age is just a number.
The Christian Family
This increased focus on youth stands in opposition to the Gospel.
One of the defining characteristics of the Christian faith is honoring each individual as being created in the image of God. The Apostle Paul’s writing is particularly clear on this point. He writes:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28)
No ethic group is better than any other; no economic class is better than any other; and no gender is better than any other. But Paul goes further in his household codes:
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (this is the first commandment with a promise), that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land. Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph 6:1-4)
He is essentially saying that because we are all created in the image of God, no age group is better than any other. Neither a new born nor a senior standing at the gates of heaven is better than one another. Christians are to value life stages equally, honor the stage you are in, and not cling to any particular stage as if it were intrinsically preferred.
In this sense, Christianity is a holistic faith that embraces each stage of life with equal joy. This makes particular sense in a Christian context because our faith is rooted in history. Creation is the beginning and the second coming of Christ will be its end. Knowing the end is in Christ, we can journey through life in Christ meeting the challenges of each stage in life without fear.
The Allure of Youth
The holistic nature of the Christian lifestyle puts it in direct conflict with today’s youth culture where putting on a big of weight or allowing people to see your gray hair puts you at risk of being shunned and ridiculed. Celebrities in our culture—athletes, movie stars, musicians, fashion models, the rich—all hide their age judiciously and show as much skin as possible to reinforce the illusion that they remain young. The Christian idea that beauty consists of character and appearance in sync runs counter to this obsession with appearance.
Promotion of Inadequacy
While this obsession with youth may seem random, the disfunctionality of remaining an adolescent well into adulthood and encouraging adolescent attitudes about market purchases is a direct consequence of strategies employed by advertisers. Inadequacy marketing directly assaults the spirit of most religious teaching, irrespective of theology, because most religions aid our maturation and help us to contribute to society. Hence, the phrase—the dark art of marketing—is truly dark.
Marketing expert Jonah Sacks (2012, 89) writes:
“all story-based marketing campaigns contain an underlying moral of the story and supply a ritual that is suggested to react to that moral.”
Inadequacy marketing has two basic steps. Step 1 focuses on creating anxiety focusing on an emotion at the base of Maslow’s pyramid, which ranks needs from physical needs (base) to emotional needs (top).1 The advertising moral always begins with “You are not…and plays off of at least one negative emotion: greed…fear…lust.” In step 2, the ritual proposed is implicitly or explicitly to shop and buy a particular product—pictured as a magical experience (Sachs 2012, 89 and 93). While not all marketers employ inadequacy marketing strategies, the airwaves are inundated with them daily and the same strategies are employed by authors, film-makers, advertisers, religious leaders, and politicians of all stripes. Advertisers use inadequacy strategies because they work, but an inadvertent result of so much of it is to encourage base instincts and a negative self-image particularly among children and those already prone to suggestion.
If large corporations find it in their financial interest to keep us feeling inadequate, then the increasing focus on youth in our culture is likely not a random outcome. If people regress to a younger age or never mature beyond a adolescent (teen or preteen) view of the world, what does that imply?
The obvious implication is that an environment is created that mitigates the natural maturation of young people and encourages adolescent attitudes and behaviors. One could speculate that even darker outcomes are possible, such as:
- Is the increased violence in society a consequence of this immaturity, because adolescents are much less likely than adults to associate their actions with consequences?
- Is the growth in anxiety associated with problem that more people have not developed the coping skills required to survive in an adult world? Alternatively, is anxiety among young people to be attributed to the excessive attention from other age groups following their every move and mimicking their behavior?
- Do the increasingly androgynous tendencies in society (gender confusion) reflect a preteen asexual mentality? Does the tendency towards hypersexuality (or perhaps even pedaphia) reflect a teen mentality being adopted by other age groups?
Clearly, much is at stake in encouraging people to follow a normal pattern of maturation rather than getting stuck in a particular stage in life.2
Jonah Sacks. 2012. Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell—and Live—the Best Stories Will Rule the Future. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
1 Sacks (2012, 130) lists Abraham Maslow’s needs as: physiological (base), safety, love and belonging, self esteem, to self actualization.
2 This ts a theme of a popular song: U2 – Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=emFUtuotHL4).
The Myth of Perpetual Youth
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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.