Kids today are growing up in a compulsively connected world. Information is incessant, smartphones are ubiquitous, and with a click or a tap young people have 24/7 access to a never-ending digital conversation.
Of course, such connectivity comes at a cost. Much of this information is pumped out by an agenda-driven media with a message of their own—a message that sounds good, nice even, but is inherently poisonous. It is becoming louder, stronger, and constant. And young people are drinking it in.
This is the message of expressive individualism—the belief, Tim Keller explains, that “identity comes through self-expression, through discovering one’s most authentic desires and being free to be one’s authentic self.”
This is the follow-your-heart, believe-in-yourself, chase-your-dreams, Disney-Hallmark-MTV gospel. It is the catechism of our culture. It is what our youth are learning. You are the creator of your identity. You are free—even obligated—to be whomever or whatever makes you feel good, no matter what anyone says.
Cultural vs. Biblical Catechism
Expressive individualism is steadily becoming pervasive. It bleeds through everything—movies, music, books, news reports, private conversations. Think of Hollywood for the most obvious example. Moana, Disney’s latest animated family flick, has been getting rave reviews for its stunning graphics and gorgeous soundtrack. But Christians have also noted its less praiseworthy underlying ideology. Russell Moore recently tweeted this after watching the film with his kids:
Moana might be Disney’s most visually beautiful film, with the catchiest soundtrack in maybe 20 years. Caveat: If you take your kids, be prepared to deconstruct some pantheism mixed with polytheism and expressive individualism.
The movie (much in the tune of its predecessor, Frozen) teaches kids that they must look within to find their true identity and purpose—even if people tell them not to, even if they’re “breaking the rules,” as Frozen’s Elsa so proudly declares. This theme weaves its way through much modern children and young adult media—its sitcoms and cartoons, its novels and comic books, and, of course, its movies.
But this narrative of self-fulfillment seeps into youths’ hearts in quieter, more implicit ways as well. Back in 2013, Will Smith’s son Jaden Smith sought after an emancipation ruling for his 15th birthday. He wanted to be free from the confines of his parents’ authority. Our culture crafts independence to hold spectacular allure for young people, making us long to get out on our own, and to not have to abide by rules or deal with oppressive parents. This isn’t the healthy encouragement to gain independence as we grow in maturity; it’s an anti-community, anti-authority doctrine. And when the world makes it seem so freeing and so fun, it isn’t a hard sell.
Another cultural idea propelled by expressive individualism is the self-esteem movement, typically aimed at teenage girls. This movement teaches some true and beautiful things Christians would affirm, such as the inherent worth that flows from being an image-bearer of God. But in much of the “ra-ra, you go, girl” mentality there exists a deeper craving for self-fulfillment. It doesn’t matter what “the haters” say. You’ve got to be loud and proud and, no, no, don’t just love yourself, sister; worship yourself. Be whomever you want to be and find your happiness in that self-realized identity. Embrace the true you, and shame anyone who doesn’t.
Yet all of this flies quite blatantly in the face of Scripture’s teaching.
Instead of following our hearts, God calls us to follow his will and keep his commands (Prov. 3:5–6).
Instead of bucking against authority and breaking rules, God calls us to honor our parents and respect authority (Eph. 6:1–3).
Instead of looking within to find our identity, God calls us to look to Christ alone (Col. 3:1–3).
Instead of idolizing our bodies, God calls us to steward them for his glory (1 Cor. 6:15).
Instead of going our own way, God calls us to take up our cross daily and follow Jesus (Luke 9:23).
Instead of individualism, God calls us to obey and adore the King (Eph. 4:15–16).
The narrative of self-fulfillment is an enemy of the gospel.
My Call to Parents
Parents, you have a clear responsibility in this cultural moment: Teach your children the truth. Over the years my parents have modeled three vital practices that have given me the foundation to think critically and engage biblically with our culture’s ideology. I’d encourage you to follow their example.
1. Teach your kids the Bible regularly and persistently.
Equip them with so much truth that they’ll be able to detect deception a mile away. Teach them Christian faith and practice. Ask them questions, answer their questions, and demonstrate how to defend the gospel against accusations. God is worthy of our trust and worthy of our lives. Showcase this to your children.
2. Encourage thoughtful engagement with media.
When you and your kids go see the next film, don’t miss the opportunity for worldview training. Ask them questions. Share your own thoughts. Model what it looks like to be a discerning media consumer.
3. Initiate conversations about current events.
From the presidential election to a viral video to the sermon preached in your church last Sunday, invite dialogue with your kids. I’ve learned so much about cultural engagement and biblical thinking through the countless conversations with my parents. These compounding discussions about what’s going on in our world have made it easier for me to identify false ideology when I find it and to combat it with truth.
Your kids are trying to figure out who they are. They’re trying to navigate a complex and changing world and to understand their place in it. They’re trying to anchor their identity. And by and large, our culture has one message for them: Look within, follow your heart, and find your identity in your desires. The Word of God has a different message for them: Look to God, receive a new heart, and find your identity in Christ alone.
Parents, teach your children life really isn’t about them; it is about Jesus. For only when they grasp this point will they become who they were truly created to be.