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Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults
by Christian Smith and Patricia Snell
Christian Smith has done it again. His Soul Searching (2005) was an award winning sociological survey of the religious beliefs and attitudes of American teenagers (ages 13-17). Souls in Transition (2009) is a captivating follow-up in which Smith traces the lives of these same teenagers now that they have become “emerging adults” (ages 18-24). Various social forces, including increasing delay in marriage, have expanded this “tweener” stage as young people slowly adapt to the realities of full adulthood. Emerging adults are likely to be in college, switching majors and careers often in preparation for a changing economy, and struggling financially and spiritually. To this latter issue Smith devotes the majority of his attention.
Souls in Transition is both fascinating and frightening. The stories and stats woven together reveal that America’s emerging adults wander a wilderness of devastating presuppositions and crippling lifestyle choices. For example, Brad, a 21 year old member of a large evangelical church in Colorado, has been living with his girlfriend for 2 years, attends church sporadically, believes that the key to happiness is looking out for himself, cannot define the most basic tenets of the faith and yet is confident he is a Christian and will be all his life. Heather, a senior at a Catholic college, claims to be a Catholic believer and yet expresses the thoroughly relativistic spirit of her age quite well when she asserts,
There is truth in religions. More than one can be right. I feel like it’s just whatever suits you. Catholics say there is only one but I don’t see what the big deal is….It’s kind of, whatever floats your boat. I mean, who am I to say that what someone is doing is weird or wrong? (200)
Smith and Snell do not resort to hyperbole or hype. They don’t need to. The interviews lend all the drama required to keep the reader engaged.
While the stories are gripping, thankfully Smith and Snell provide the sociological data which anchors their reflections and conclusions. The persuasive presentation and insightful analysis of the research data are the greatest strengths of the book. Ever wonder why your emergent adults are so interested in the latest “status” of their Facebook friends and so uninterested in world affairs? Curious about their group dating habits, their passion for ‘just hanging out’ and dislike for strong value judgments? Smith outlines the cultural values and assumptions that powerfully mold the attitudes and behaviors of today’s emergent adults.
Smith particularly excels at exploding popular sociological myths. For example…
Myth: Young adults are into spiritually but not religion. This hoax has been promoted most recently by Emergent Church authors who insist that postmodern young adults like Jesus, they just don’t like the church; they are serious about the inner life of faith but uninterested in the external forms (creeds, propositions, membership). Smith fairly but firmly puts such nonsense to rest.
What we can say… is that little evidence supports the idea that emerging adults who decline in regular external religious practice nonetheless retain over time high levels of subjectively important, privately committed internal religious faith. Quite the contrary is indicated by our analysis. The emerging adults who do sustain strong subjective (internal) religion in their lives, it turns out, are those who also maintain strong external expressions of faith, including religious service attendance. (252)
Those who try to “be the church” without going to church end up with no significant religious life to speak of. Consequently, Smith offers a “wake-up” call to evangelical parents who hope for the best when their college age children drift away from the church.
Therefore, certain people interested in seeing strong religious and spiritual lives among emerging adults and who wish to take comfort in the hope that religion remains subjectively robust for them even when they have dramatically reduced participating in more objective, public expressions of faith are not, we see, supported in that hope by the empirical evidence.” (254)
Going to church matters after all.
Myth: Parents have little impact on teens and young adults. Smith complains that most Americans have swallowed hook, line and sinker the ‘parents of teenagers are irrelevant’ myth.
In the course of the NSYR research, for example, we have repeatedly been told by parents things like ‘Ever since my daughter turned 13, she doesn’t listen to me anymore.’ All too often, it seems, those parents then take such messages as opportunities to ‘check out’ from a series of concerns or responsibilities about their children, which they tell themselves they can no longer influence anyway….Oddly this withdrawal of parental influence on adolescents seems most especially evident when it comes to religious commitments and practices…Very often, as a result, many adolescents are left floating in a directionless murk to figure out completely on their own some of life’s most basic questions… (284)
Christian parents pay attention! Though your teen and emergent adult wants to be respected as evolving adults, they also want (and need) your input and guidance on the most significant matters of their lives. Smith proves convincingly that nothing has a greater impact on the religious convictions and behavior of emergent adults than religiously serious parents who are committed to teaching their children the tenets of their faith. Oh, may the Lord find our parents faithful in this!
Smith closes with some keen insight into the religious forces which have molded today’s fiercely relativistic, morally self-sufficient, emergent adults. He argues persuasively that the current religious culture is evidence of the triumph of liberal Protestantism and the unwitting fruit of certain evangelical emphasis. One disappointment was that Smith sounds faintly sympathetic to the Roman Catholic response to these cultural trends even though his study clearly shows that Catholic emerging adults fare among the worst when it comes to living consistent, traditional, religious lives. Why not make a plug for strong, Biblical and confessional churches as the need of the hour? Surely Smith is not unaware that such churches exist. Nonetheless, the book succeeds brilliantly as an engaging, insightful analysis of the religious beliefs, values and assumptions of emergent adults.