Lynn Schofield Clark on Teens’ Fascination with the Supernatural

Interview of Lynn Schofield Clark by Dick Staub
Well, good afternoon everybody. This is your friendly guide, Dick Staub. You know, everywhere you look in popular culture you can see teenagers’ fascination with the supernatural, Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Left Behind series. But the latest manifestations of this fascination, why? What does it mean? An interesting question for evangelicals. How has evangelicalism actually played a role in this phenomena.
Q. Well, these are but a few of the questions explored by our next guest,
Dr. Lynn Schofield Clark. She is Assistant Research Fellow at University of Colorado School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She is the author of a fascinating new book titled From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural. It is published by-it is published by Oxford. And we welcome Lynn to the show today. Thanks for joining us today.
A. Thanks very much, Dick. It’s good to be here.
Q. So let’s-let’s just talk first about the phenomena that attracted you to this
study. What was it that-that-that got you interested in the first place?
A. Well, actually Dick, I had been a youth director at a number of different
churches and at youth community centers throughout Pennsylvania and Ohio before I had gone to graduate school, and so the beginnings of the book really date to my experience of interacting with young people about the media.
Q. Yeah.
A. In fact, I had one story where I was working with a… I used to visit the kids
who didn’t come to church. And I went to a church that was multi-cultural and so I went to visit a young African-American boy named Freddie, who was 14 years old. And I asked him, Well, why don’t you come to church? And he kind of shrugged and said, They don’t speak my language.
Q. Yeah.
A. Well, what’s your language? And he said, Music. And it really got me started
thinking about how young people think about the media and wanting to, I really wanted to understand so that I could talk about popular culture not just as something that is bad for young people –
Q. Yeah.
A. – but thinking about how popular culture is used as a language by young
people, and so then something that we need to understand so that we can talk with young people about what they care about.
Q. When you-when you look at kind of the lay of the land in our country right
now, in the introduction you talk about “the rise of fundamentalism combined with a rise of indifference.” So that today’s youth as it relates to religion just in general broad strokes – and we’ll get in a little more detail in a minute – is-is kind of an interesting mix of-of very intense devotion to religion and complete indifference to it. And then you look at the issue of religion and spirituality popping up in popular culture, and that juxtaposition is really kind of interesting and fertile territory.
A. Uh-huh, yeah. I definitely think so. And that’s… I think that young people
tend to talk about popular culture as a way of expressing their interest in spirituality, too.
Q. Yeah. Now, there are differing views within the academic community about
how teens use culture or view culture. And you talk about one of the approaches is the tool kit. Talk about the tool kit and some of the other ways that academics and researchers are looking at the teenager’s relationship with popular culture.
A. Okay. Well, a lot of people in academia think in terms of media studies
particularly are looking at how the media become a source of symbols or resources for identity. So you know, kind of like identity is something that we can wear or something that we can claim and show who we are by what we identify ourselves with. And particularly in our context that tends to be consumer goods, things that we can buy or things that we can watch or things that we can listen to. And so the idea behind a tool kit approach to culture is that at some-some religious organizations they have become very intentional about creating a tool kit that they can then help young people to identify themselves. I think one example of that is the What Would Jesus Do bracelet.
Q. Yeah.
A. That’s a cultural item that young people can put on and wear and then kind of
that’s a way to say I am an evangelical Christian because I have this special –
Q. Yeah.
A. – marker. And media do that, too. Young people can choose their music
choices, for example, because they are identifying with a particular kind of a group or maybe they choose to watch a television program because their friends watch it. So it’s a way for young people to talk about what they care about and who they are in relation to media.
Q. You know, when you talk about the What Would Jesus Do bracelet, it kind of
introduces already this interesting phenomena of evangelicalism and its relationship with popular culture. Mark Knowle, and other historians of American religion and of evangelicalism, have pointed out that evangelicals have been probably the most marketing-oriented of all religious phenomena in American culture.
A. Right.
Q. And so you point out that in a certain sense evangelicals introduced the whole
notion of angels and aliens and-and end-time stuff into the popular culture and yet on the other hand they don’t… Evangelicals tend to not think of themselves as-as exploiters of trends in popular culture. What Would Jesus Do is a perfect example of establishing in a commercial venue a religious symbol.
A. Uh-huh.
Q. And yet evangelicals don’t think of themselves as doing that.
A. Yeah, that’s true. They think of themselves as being against it, or at least
some do. I mean, I think that most evangelicals are really pretty open to ways to see Harry Potter, for example, as a story about good versus evil.
Q. Yeah.
A. But yeah, there definitely is concern among the more conservative
evangelicals about those kinds of issues. And as you point out, evangelicals have always been very concerned about evil and how it’s been represented.
Q. Yeah.
A. And they’ve created some of those representations, and that’s what I talk
about in the book.
Q. Now, you mention-you mention your own kind of, kind of background as a
youth director and so forth, and you talk a bit in the introduction to the book about your personal vantage points.
A. Uh-huh.
Q. Raised a liberal Protestant, 11 years old, playing with witchcraft spells,
exposure to evangelicalism, Tony Campolo. Give us a little sense of your own pilgrimage so people understand what has shaped your perception of-of the religious lay of the land and-and of popular culture, and of evangelicalism.
A. Okay. Well, as I say in the book, I started out as a liberal Protestant. I didn’t
even know what evangelicalism or fundamentalism was. And this was… I was growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s just as the moral majority and the evangelicals were really kind of taking center stage in American culture in a way through politics. And so my first exposure to evangelicalism was through those news stories –
Q. Yeah.
A. – and also when I went to college I became very interested in trying to make a
difference. That was the thing that really appealed to me about Tony Campolo. It was kind of on a progressive side, I guess, activist kind of side.
Q. Yes. Where did you go to college?
A. I went to Westminster College –
Q. Okay.
A. – in Pennsylvania, which is a nice little liberal arts school –
Q. Yeah.
A. – with Presbyterian affiliation. And I actually am married to a Presbyterian
minister’s son now.
Q. Oh, wow.
A. So we met at Westminster College.
Q. Uh-huh.
A. So we have pretty… My husband and I both have pretty deep connections in
relation to Protestantism and-and in relation to evangelicalism. When I was in college I led the music group at my college chapel group, and I was very involved in some of the more evangelical movements, partially because it was really the place to be in the ‘80s.
Q. Yeah.
A. It was exciting, there was a lot going on – I think there still is.
Q. Yeah, vibrancy and life.
A. Absolutely. Yeah. And the music was terrific. And there was just a lot of
people who really were passionate about making a difference in the world who ended up being in those places, and that really was something that was important to me.
Q. Somewhere in this book you’ve said that you’ve-you’ve – and I couldn’t find
it – I read the book and then I went back and tried to find this and I couldn’t find it, but something about you’d kind of hoped to not have to make evangelicalism a big part of this study, but then it was almost unavoidable. That’s my recollection of what you said.
A. That’s right, yeah.
Q. What do you mean by that?
A. When I-when I was setting out to do this study, what I was really interested in
were the kids who didn’t go to church or didn’t go to any religious affiliation. I was really interested in the kids who were kind of on the margins and, you know, as you described earlier, there’s a continuum now within religious life in the US. And if you think of it as a continuum from no involvement to religion to lots of involvement and very conservative fundamentalist circles, those two ends are the things that have been growing for young people.
Q. Yeah, yeah.
A. And so I thought I was going to study… I thought there were a lot of people who were studying fundamentalism right now because you can see it as a sub-culture and it’s interesting and different. But I wanted to study the other side, you know, the people who didn’t go to church and the people who weren’t-didn’t have any exposure to religion so that I could understand –
Q. Yeah.
A. – how they were putting things together. But what ended up happening was, I would talk with those young people with little background in religion about religion and they would talk about their beliefs in kind of a way that mixed popular culture ideas with evangelicalism.
I’ll tell you what. We’ll pick up there because that is a very interesting observation and I think it’s absolutely right on. We’re going to be back with more of our guest, Dr. Lynn Schofield Clark. Her book is From Angels to Aliens, published by Oxford. Don’t go away.
(Break.)
Well, this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with Dr. Lynn Schofield Clark. She’s an Assistant Research Fellow at University of Colorado School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She’s the author of From Angels to Aliens, published by Oxford, subtitled, Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural.
Q. This book is just out. And while it is certainly documented in the way that a
scholar would expect it to be, it’s a very, very easy read in terms of grasping the ideas and seeing the applicability, so I think this is going to be a tremendous resource for all kinds of people from parents to people that are involved in-in working with teenagers in all manner of-of-of groups because as-as Lynn has already pointed out the popular culture has become, for better or for worse, the locust of-of conversation about belief. And though the popular culture itself can tend to be fairly superficial, nevertheless-nevertheless, it has become a language as one of the-one of the kids in the research study that Lynn conducted said. Or actually, I guess, one of the kids that she worked with in her-in her youth ministry. Let’s talk about your purpose and methodology and then get right into some of what you found in this book. What-what were you setting out to do in your research project, and how did you go about doing it?
A. Okay. Well, as I said initially Dick, what I wanted to do was study young
people who were not involved in religious organizations and see how it was that they were interpreting media, particularly because, as you’ve noted, a lot of popular culture is making references to religion and to spirituality, so I wanted to see that these young people who have little background understand these things. Do they influence what young people believe, or are they somehow, you know, encouraging alternative spirituality, I guess, is the thing that a lot of evangelicals fear is, they fear that perhaps Harry Potter is going to encourage people to go into witchcraft, for example.
Q. Yeah.
A. And so I wanted to really investigate that and see what is it that these young
people are saying, and is it true that maybe people are going to, you know, becoming more interested in these outlandish things. So what I did was I did a study that involved in-depth interviewing with young people. First of all, with their families.
Q. Yeah.
A. I would go and interview the family members and the teenagers altogether.
Then go back and interview the teenagers individually. And then I chose six teens who worked with me as case study teens, and so I got to know them really in depth over a couple of years and they would… They actually led a couple of discussion groups for me and would meet with me occasionally, sometimes just for social events where we’d go out to dinner –
Q. Yeah.
A. – and just talk about what was on their minds, and other times it was more
formal and I would bring my tape recorder along and tape record our conversation. And I think I really relied on my background as being in youth ministry –
Q. Yeah.
A. – to really conduct this study.
Q. Yeah.
A. Because I think that in order to really study teenagers you have to be able to
talk with them and really listen to them in a way that they know you are valuing what they’re saying.
Q. Yeah.
A. And you can really do that best by building a relationship with them and
trying to communicate to them that you want to know what’s going on with them.
Q. Now, you-you-you start by dealing with what you call angels, aliens, and the
dark side of evangelicalism. And then you move into the supernatural and contemporary culture, and those are kind of the two major strands. And as we mentioned before the break, you kind of had hoped to not have to deal so explicitly with evangelicalism, but it became apparent that it is a dominant strand and kind of feeder and interacter in today’s teenage world. Talk a bit about what you mean by-by the influence, impact, dark side of evangelicalism around the issues of angels and aliens.
A. Okay. Well, I think that probably most people in your audience can
remember when the film The Exorcist came out.
Q. Yes.
A. And that’s probably a classic example. It came out in 1970 and it was the first
film that was a horror movie that really significantly drew on religious symbolism to say, you know, to kind of pit good versus evil in a way that was very scary and horrifying.
Q. Yeah.
A. And a lot of people at the time were very concerned about The Exorcist and
whether it was going to introduce all these terrible ideas. It was also something that became an important marker for youth culture, even though youth weren’t initially the audience for it.
Q. Yeah.
A. But horror films then, since that time, drew on religious story lines to try to
tell stories that were scary. But this wasn’t something that was new to The Exorcist. It goes all the way back. I think that probably one of the earliest references that I found was from Jonathan Edwards who, in 1741, who was preaching about the dangers of hell and how scary it was using horror as a way to introduce people to Christianity.
Q. Yeah, absolutely.
A. You know, kind of the hell, fire, and brimstone tradition.
Q. Yeah.
A. You know, and so I think that a lot of what we see in horror is playing on that
tradition that goes back to the 18th century.
Q. Well, and within that… Ironically, and I believe this is true, I think the Left
Behind, or not Left Behind, Thief in the Night was a religious film –
A. Right.
Q. – that played on the idea of the rapture.
A. Yes.
Q. And-and I think it was even just before The Exorcist. It was certainly around
that time.
A. Uh-huh.
Q. So it was not-it was not the case that evangelicals were kind of sucked into a
culture that was fascinated with this stuff, evangelicals were already fascinated in making this stuff.
A. Right. Yeah, exactly. They were making up their own stories and trying to
kind of maintain some control about how we think about –
Q. Yeah.
A. – what evil is, what it looks like, and what the end of the world looks like.
Q. Yeah.
A. And those are all very dramatic stories.
Q. Yes.
A. So yes, evangelicals put the stories out there, but they can’t control what
happens once that entertainment potential is discovered by people in Hollywood who figure, this is a good story, we can make a buck on it.
Q. Well, I suspect few evangelicals make a connection between Harry Potter,
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Left Behind.
A. Yeah.
Q. Because Left Behind is in a different category that evangelicals find it’s
purposeful, it’s intentional, it’s biblical. But the reality is the thematic content has a certain interest to the broader popular culture, and that’s evidenced both by the evangelicals preoccupation with that, because if you look at evangelicals forays into filmmaking, it’s been very heavily weighted towards apocalyptic –
A. Right.
Q. – kind of stuff.
A. Yeah.
Q. As opposed to anything that would be kind of more mainstream. Now, you
talk about what I would describe as almost a schizophrenia in evangelicalism, that evangelicals on the one hand feel very strongly that we should be separated from the culture –
A. Uh-huh.
Q. – but on the other hand, there’s this kind of missional calling to infiltrate the
culture.
A. Right, okay.
Q. Talk a bit about that.
A. Yeah – well, and I think that’s-that’s really true, just along the lines of what
you were saying – I mean, I think that evangelicals can really celebrate – and a lot of people do celebrate the fact that Left Behind is on the bestseller list right now, for example. And that series has done so well. But evangelicals ultimately can’t control how those stories will be interpreted by their audiences.
Q. Yes.
A. And so that’s where the tension comes from because people will pick up those
books and just think, oh, this is a great story, I just want to read it because it’s entertaining and I like being scared. And they get that from, you know, centuries really in our culture of having an opportunity to be scared or titillated through entertainment media.
Q. Yeah.
A. So it can be that it’s possible that some people are looking at the Left Behind
series and becoming inspired or becoming more interested in seeking out their faith, but on the other hand, others are just reading it and thinking, oh, this is just a nice entertainment story.
Q. Yeah. Well, I mean, The Ring, The Omen, those kinds of movies –
A. Right.
Q. – it could be that the appeal that they have with teenagers is the same appeal
that Left Behind has.
A. Uh-huh, yeah.
Q. That they’re more tagged into the-the kind of dramatic and dark side than they
are the actual, you know, missional intent than an evangelical would have. Now, when you look over at the supernatural in contemporary culture you interact with Touched By An Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Angel, as examples of shows that are dealing with the supernatural in contemporary culture.
A. Uh-huh. Yeah, I think that all of those… What’s interesting to me about
those programs as well as The Matrix and Neo and Smallville, and other programs, is that I think that a lot of these shows are highlighting young people who are in roles where they are able to work with a small group of people and counteract some force that’s huge, really just bigger than any kind of reality we can imagine, and they’re able to come out successful because they have some kind of inner strength. And because they’re called. And I think that’s a really significant message for us about where young people are. It tells us about… It tells us, I think, that a lot of people, when they look at youth culture, they tend to focus on things like Britney Spears, you know?
Q. Yeah.
A. And American Idol and some other, you know, the program that features
young men who are always trying to do obnoxious things.
Q. Yeah.
A. And those things all are telling young people that the mythology that we need
to kind of celebrate is that consumption is good, everybody should try to be famous, whatever it takes to be famous, spend money to be somebody. And I think what’s interesting about these stories about Buffy, Neo, Harry, is that all of these are young people who are not in line with that same myth.
I’ll tell you what. We’ll pick up there when we come back. Don’t go
away.
(Break.)
Well, this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with Lynn Schofield Clark. She is the author of From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural, published by Oxford. She is an Assistant Research Fellow at University of Colorado School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
Q. We were just talking about the supernatural in contemporary culture and how
Touched by an Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, though many people are put off by kind of the supernatural context of-of the characters they, in fact, represent an alternative to a lot of programming that is-is-is targeted at-at mindless, stupid, consumeristic teenage fascination, and in that sense kind of sets a-a better perspective on-on the individual and the individual eyes of a generation. Is that an accurate way to describe it?
A. Yes. I think you said that very well. That’s what I was trying to say.
Q. Well, when we-when we look at-at shows like-like Buffy or Angel, they are-
there are religious people – and I would say this is not just evangelicals – I mean, I’ve-I’ve been in the homes of liberal Protestants and Catholic parents who-who kind of have the same concern as evangelical parents about a show like Buffy or Angel because they sometimes sense that there’s a fascination with demons, with… They even wonder if this is an occultish type of program, and so forth. How do you… What did you observe and learn when you looked at that phenomena?
A. Well, I think, as I was saying about Left Behind, the Left Behind series
actually, I think that we find some of the same phenomenas. First of all, when people are going to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer or other programs, that takes place in what’s called a certain genre.
Q. Yes.
A. Genre is a word that we use to describe a certain group of media products that
might be related. Like horror is a genre, or the western genre. And so Buffy fits into a kind of an interesting genre because it’s kind of combining hip, comedy, youth culture, but when young people come to that they recognize that that is supposed to be something different –
Q. Yes.
A. – than if they were to go and see a truthful story, or like if they were to go to a
Billy Graham film, for example.
Q. So they understand the-the genre and the media much better than often their
parents do. I mean, we understand… Parents understand melodrama and understand that you don’t take the script and literally read it and become horrified by the script, you understand that it’s a spoof.
A. Right.
Q. And within the teenage media consumer there’s this incredible sophistication
about-about the medium related to the message –
A. Uh-huh.
Q. – and the niche artistically. And so they sort it all out. And-and they have, in
that sense, one of your questions was, how much does the media actually influence them on issues of spirituality and so forth. What kinds of things did you conclude based on their savvy about-about the medium?
A. Well, I think that one of the things is that I did interviews, so it was a
relatively small study. I think it would be interesting to look at the whole nationwide if we can.
Q. Yeah.
A. But I think that I did look for examples where there might be kind of an
imitative effect. But I think, by and large, I concluded that most-most young people are sophisticated in terms of their understandings of the media and they are interpreting the media through lenses that are established before they get to the media.
Q. Yeah.
A. So it’s not that the media are persuading them to think one way or the other,
or to think, gee, wouldn’t it be nice to go worship demons now that I’ve watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer –
Q. Yeah, yeah.
A. – but instead they’re looking at it from the perspective that they bring.
Q. Yeah.
A. And that’s where parents come in and other religious leaders is that they’re
the ones that help to form that perspective that young people bring to the media.
Q. Yeah.
A. So even in the one case that I found that was kind of imitative where there
were a couple of young women who were trying out some of the spells that were from that popular teen movie called The Craft, even in that case, you have to understand that those particular young people were not just kind of trying that out, out of the blue.
Q. Yeah.
A. They were trying to make connections with a Wiccan tradition that their parents ascribed to.
Q. Well, and this is where I think evangelical parents need to become a little more media savvy so that they can in fact be useful to their kids –
A. Uh-huh.
Q. – and help their kids sort all of this stuff out.
A. Uh-huh.
Q. Now you – we’re skimming fast here, folks, so you’re just going to have to go out and get the book and-and go more into detail here – but you end up with five categories of-of relationships to media, religion, and supernatural belief. You call them the resisters, the mystical teens, the experimenters, the traditionalists, and the intrigued teens. Can you just kind of give us an overview of what each of those are?
A. Okay, sure. The first ones that I discovered, I guess, when I was doing the interviews are the traditionalists. And those were the young people who were most interested in making sure that I knew that they believed there was a strict separation between what they saw in the media and what they believed.
Q. Okay.
A. And usually they used very moralistic kinds of terms. Like one young woman who talked about how Jesus wouldn’t want you to be watching this because it’s not very Christian-like.
Q. Yes.
A. And so traditionalists were just not even going to really be interested in engaging in any media, but particularly youth media.
Q. Yeah.
A. Then the next one that I came across was intrigued teens, which was actually one of the young women that I knew who was-who said… I was asking her about different supernatural programs and she said that the X-Files is not really what you believe religiously, but just what you believe. Like whether you believe in ghosts and stuff. And she was trying to make a separation between what she sees in the media and what she believed. But when it came right down to it, she was having a little bit more of a difficult time, particularly because of horror movies.
Q. Yeah. Well, this would be the kid that says, I like it, but I shouldn’t, but I like it.
A. Yeah, that’s right. I like it, but I shouldn’t. And she, you know, was seeing religion in things like Buffy or –
Q. Yeah, yeah.
A. – The Exorcist, and so she was having a harder time making a distinction. Then there are teens, the mystical teens, who really don’t draw a distinction. You know, angels, ghosts, whatever, they’re the ones who really don’t have a whole lot of background in religion to begin with and they don’t really care about whether or not there’s too much different.
Q. Yeah.
A. Then there were the experimenters, and those are the ones, as I had mentioned before, the kids who went and tried witchcraft spells or tried to do some kind of a paranormal experience or something like that, and were intrigued by the possibilities in the supernatural realm, not necessarily just because of what they saw in the media, but because it really fit into other things that they were doing in their lives.
Q. Yeah.
A. Particularly in trying to reject and rebel against adult culture. And then the resisters were the ones who really were most interested in rebelling and rejecting culture. And I thought that they were the ones who were resisting not only evangelicalism, I guess, or conservative religion, but all of middle class culture and what it represented.
Q. Yeah. So they’re really the “march to the beat of a different drummer,” both they don’t want to be part of the sub-culture religiously, they don’t want to be part of the broader culture, they’re kind of resisting all of those influences in their life.
A. Yeah. And the hard part about that, I think for me, was that the teens who I found that were fitting into that group were the ones that were most disadvantaged, the people who were just really economically in a tough spot. And so those were young people who had a lot of strikes against them already. So even though they were resisting against the culture, it was hard for them to find other ways to be encouraged or to make it different.
Q. Now, what we have from these categories are some really useful observations about the categories. But without a-a broader statistical study using quantitative research as opposed to qualitative, we don’t really know how many are in each?
A. Well you know, the thing that’s interesting is that we know that there are about 30 percent of young people who say that they’re conservative. So I would guess that that’s about where we’d find the traditionalists –
Q. Yeah.
A. – is, you know, about 30 percent say yes, they’re pretty conservative. Only about 3 to 5 percent of American teenagers say that they’re not at all believers in God or not at all interested in the supernatural realm. They’re just complete, you know, skeptics, or they might call themselves secular.
Q. Yeah.
A. So that leaves a pretty wide range that falls somewhere into those other categories.
Q. Yeah.
A. Intrigued teens, mysticals, experimenters, and resisters. And so it may be, it may not be as important which ones fall into which categories, but just the fact that there are a large group of young people who are not traditionalists and who are also not skeptical.
Q. Yeah. But back to the issue of they’re not connected religiously, but they’re fascinated with spirituality.
A. Uh-huh.
Q. So what role does the media play in answering questions that they have?
A. Well, that’s a good question. I mean, I think that it depends on what the teenager is coming to the media with. Because if that person is coming thinking, I’m just going to watch this, and this is just entertainment and, you know, they’re going to pick up some things obviously. But whether it leads them to seek other things out is an open question.
Q. Yeah.
A. I think some media, some young people do that, some young people will see something in the media and say, gee, I’m really fascinated by Wiccanism, so I’m going to, you know, now that I’ve heard about it from Harry Potter or from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, now I want to find out a little bit more about it and maybe try it out. But then, I think there are a lot of teens who don’t take it any further than that.
Q. Yeah.
A. You know, maybe they’ll just do one little web search or something to find something out.
Okay. We’re going to be back with some concluding comments. Time flies when you’re having fun with Dr. Lynn Schofield Clark. Her book is From Angels to Aliens, published by Oxford, available at your local bookstore. We’ll be right back. Or online.
(Break.)
Well, this is Dick Staub back with you. Our guest is Dr. Lynn Schofield Clark. She’s Assistant Research Fellow at the University of Colorado School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She is the author of a really excellent new study titled From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural, published by Oxford. If you’re involved with teenagers intensely, whether in some official professional capacity or as a parent, certainly if you are involved in trying to understand that world as a researcher, this is a book that you really need to spend time with. And it is now available in your local bookstores or online. Again, it’s From Angels to Aliens, published by Oxford.
Q. You know, Lynn, at the very beginning of the interview you talked about the-the kid in the youth group who said he didn’t go to church because they didn’t speak his language.
A. Uh-huh.
Q. And then you talked about symbols and-and symbol-making and the What
Would Jesus Do bracelet as an example of evangelicals making a symbol. But Hollywood is full of making symbols, as is the music industry and-and film, and so forth.
A. Uh-huh.
Q. On that issue of language, just to go back to what we were talking about just
before the break, if it is true that-that the kid goes into a film with a certain preset, in other words, I-this is just for fun, I’m not, you know, I’m not here to learn anything about theology. But the film in fact is-is absorbed with theological subjects, if that is a language to that young person and it creates symbols that take places-occupy positions in their mind, and then they go out and they do have conversations with their friends about that movie and they’re using the language and symbols that they have at their disposal, which have not been provided by religion or perhaps not even by their parents –
A. Uh-huh.
Q. – but as it relates to supernatural are provided by popular culture, doesn’t it
almost inevitably mean that-that popular culture becomes more than just an entertainment, that it actually becomes some form of education?
A. Well yeah, I think it can be that. I don’t think that-I don’t think that any
media organization has set out to make it that way, but certainly that’s true that there-that for young people who aren’t in religious organizations, they’re probably learning more about what religion is from Seventh Heaven or Everwood –
Q. Yeah.
A. – you know, than necessarily what they’re getting from church, because
they’re not getting it there.
Q. Well, and it’s also, you know, it’s forming the ethical questions. Like
Everwood has taken on abortion, they’ve taken on a number of different subjects –
A. Uh-huh.
Q. – and-and they do put it in a religious context, you know –
A. Yeah.
Q. – so that there is-there is… Here’s how religion is dealing with this issue in
your life. And for kids that are disconnected from religion I think that that can, in fact, be a powerful influence, even if they go in not thinking that that’s what they’re going to get.
A. Right.
Q. When you wrap this whole thing up, as parents, what does this say about our
intentions with our kids and the approaches that we are taking with our kids? You do a lot of work with boomers who, in fact, have these teenagers.
A. Yeah, right.
Q. What are you learning about that?
A. Well, I think that really there are three things that I think are helpful to
remember about young people and their relationship to media. First of all, for parents and for teachers and other people who work with young people, they need to get familiar with young people’s media, because if we do understand it as a language, we need to kind of move beyond the idea that we’re going to just say, oh, punk music, that’s horrible.
Q. Yeah.
A. Listen to those terrible words and crap. But instead… Because I think young
people, when they hear those kinds of criticisms, because they use music as a way to identify themselves, they think, oh, you’re judging me.
Q. Yes.
A. We don’t want to give that impression as adults. I think we want to try to
listen to them, ask them about it, and try to incorporate references in our conversations about media with them.
Q. Yeah.
A. And I think even in the cases of things like punk music or rock music or, you
know, rap music or whatever it is that you’re really, that we as adults think, oh, my gosh, we can look at those and think… You know, for example in punk music, a lot of it is about shocking adults –
Q. Yeah.
A. – and about trying to –
Q. Totally.
A. – yeah. It’s all about trying to say, hey look, middle class culture ain’t all that
great.
Q. Yes.
A. You know, and that there is-it’s all about consumerism.
Q. Yeah, yeah.
A. There’s a big critique there. And I think that a lot of parents can tap into some
of those bigger pictures.
Q. Okay. So familiarize yourselves with the media. What’s the second thing?
A. Second thing, remember that they’re skeptics about institutions, that they’re
not necessarily thinking that they want to have the answers, but that they want to be able to ask the questions.
Q. Yes.
A. And so that they’re-they’re aware that there’s ambiguity in our faith traditions
and they want those of us who are associated with religious organizations to be honest about that –
Q. Yes.
A. – and not assume that everything, you know, that The Matrix is a Christian
movie, for example.
Q. Yes.
A. You know, but just try to be aware that there are a lot of ways, a lot of paths.
Q. Yeah.
A. And then, third, we need to look for ways to connect their interests with
spirituality so that when there’s a TV program or a popular song that references religion in some way we, as adults, think about that as a way to use it and talk with them about what we think is important.
Q. Yeah. If it’s a language, if we learn the language, we can speak the language
with these kids that live in our house that happen to be bilingual.
A. Right.
Q. And we better figure it out and start learning that other language.
A. That’s right. It might be the only way to communicate with them sometimes.
I did find a lot of parents who were doing that and I was really encouraged about that. You know, the parents who were able to see the media and not just have a knee jerk reaction about, oh my gosh, this is horrible, but instead were able to say, Well, there’s some good and some and some bad there, but I want to teach my kids about what’s good and what’s bad, and so I’m going to talk about it with them and try to find out what it is that they care about by talking the media with them.
Q. Now, in your subject, in your chapter conclusion you tell a Mark Twain story
where he said, “The gospel of Christ came filtered down to 19th century Americans through stage plays, through the despised novels and Christmas story, rather than from the drowsy pulpit,” which reminds us that, as Phyllis Tickle says, “More theology is retained from one hour of television and film in an average week than all the churches, synagogues, etc., combined.” So there’s this idea that there’s this trickle down of religious instruction. So when you-when you get into your conclusions you-you kind of frame it around the dark side of evangelicalism and the religion of the possible. Can you kind of summarize what you mean by that?
A. Sure. Yeah. Well, we talked about the dark side of evangelicalism, which is
the part that-that media has picked up on, the idea that demons and the end of the world is entertaining.
Q. Yes.
A. But then the religion of the possible is, I think, that that kind of speaks to the
idea that this is a generation that is interested in spirituality but is skeptical about institutions. And so they’re interested in the possibilities that might be out there.
Q. Yeah.
A. And that’s why actually a film like The Matrix appeals to them, I think, is that
it shows, you know, it shows that there’s clear good and evil, but yet there’s a lot of paths and a lot of things that we can draw on –
Q. Yes.
A. – as we’re going along on our own journey.
Q. Yeah.
A. So I think that this is a generation that is very interested in possibilities and
questions. And the media, because they’re trying to appeal to young people, are also trying to keep those kind of interpretive doors open, trying to keep open lots of possibilities so that young people who come to certain stories, some of them will say, Wow, I really saw the Christ story in that, whereas other young people may come and say, Wow, I really saw a story about Buddhist enlightenment in that, or about Jewish prophecy.
Q. Right.
A. And the more that media can keep that open, the more successful they’ll be.
Q. Right.
A. And so therefore they want to try to do that so they can appeal to the widest
possible audience. But I think that for us, as adults, it’s our job, then, to take those various media that have lots of different openness and take seriously the idea that young people want to explore lots of possibilities and let them ask the questions and just be there to listen to them and to try to build relationships with them where they know that we care about them and we can model for them what we think is important.
Q. Now, you have an interesting sentence somewhere in that last chapter where
you say from, it’s about moving from reflexive scholarship to personal. What do you think of all this? I mean, here you are, you’re not just a researcher, you’re a mom.
A. Right.
Q. So-so what-what how did this whole thing affect you?
A. Well, I think it, you know, it did convince me that I need to be aware of what
my kids are interested in and try to-try to get into that world by talking with them about the media.
Q. Yeah.
A. My kids are much younger than teenagers so I’m not quite dealing with the
issues.
Q. Yeah, but you’ve got time to ramp up then.
A. Yeah, that’s right. So I need to get prepared.
Q. Yeah.
A. Right now we’re pretty much talking about Dragon Tails and Teletubbies.
Q. Well, that’s where it all starts.
A. Right.
Q. Yeah, that’s where it all starts.
A. It’s harder with teenagers. And so I think that the media do provide us with
lots of terrific, glitzy stories, and it’s a good resource that parents can use in their parenting.
Q. Well folks, as I’ve said, we have skimmed the surface of what is a really well-
documented, interesting, conversational read titled From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural. It is published by Oxford, which means that it’s got a nice, robust intelligence to it, but it’s also written in a very readable style. By Dr. Lynn Schofield Clark, the book is From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural. We’ll be back with more right after this. Don’t go away.

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