catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 19 :: 2009.10.02 — 2009.10.15


Bringing up Bart

The seat of offendedness (like the seat of judgment) can be a real tricky spot to occupy.  Before we know it, it can become a twenty-four-hour-a-day job.  It becomes all we’re known for, and when we’re all caught up in all the things we’re against, we forget the beauty of the things we’re supposed to be for.  We forget what the kingdom of God looks like and all the wonderfully odd characters taking up residence there.  We forget to revel in dappled things.  We forget that we’re dappled.
David Dark, Everyday Apocalypse

When The Simpsons first graduated from an animated sketch on The Tracy Ullman Show to a full-length sitcom in 1989, I wasn’t very interested in it, even though I wasn’t allowed to watch it.  I simply didn’t get what the creators of the show were trying to do.  But I couldn’t help picking up murmurings among adults, especially in church, about Bart Simpson as the bogey-boy of teen behavior.  With his eat-my-shorts attitude, Bart was — and is still — an archetype of an ineffective rebel whose anti-authoritarian streak only serves to prop up his own youthful hedonism, rather than cultivate meaningful change within a broken system.

Those with eyes to see and ears to hear can hopefully perceive that there’s much more to The Simpsons than the surface of its irreverent humor.  These characters, including Bart, are caricatures unto something much greater than cheap laughs.  In fact, there’s a remarkable amount of love and charity to be found in the bizarre animated world of Springfield, Anywhere.

That said, I wonder how many of us who work with teenagers begin from a place of assuming our young friends to be Bart Simpsons in the flesh — that is, kids with uncontrollable impulses who will always choose their immediate desires over deeper commitments unless we distract them with a circus of wholesome entertainment.  In this context, youth group becomes a diversion for behavioral control, usually focused on a few moral risks.  Keep them in a well-lit room with foosball and video games so they won’t have time to discover the finer techniques of making out.  Fill them up with trademarked soda so that they’re too buzzed on sugar to desire alcohol. 

Surely fun should be part of the program for humans who are at a stage of life when they laugh readily, behave outrageously and haven’t forgotten the pleasures of play.  Too often, however, that fun gets consigned to a special room somewhere apart from the “real” rooms in the church, complete with secondhand couches and televisions — another nursery of sorts where they can be safe and not interrupt the adult world. 

Perhaps more insidious than our feverish attempts to divert teenagers from sex and drinking, we bring them over and over again to that altar call moment so their personal relationship with Jesus Christ distracts them from protesting systemic injustice too loudly or too close to home.  We send them to foreign countries for mission trips so they can come home feeling “blessed” by all the stuff they have and more pacified by guilt.  In essence, we too often end up discipling them to be obedient Christian consumers who can ask good questions about pornography addiction or doing devotions, but not about the principalities and powers that inspire a far more enculturated national religion than that of suffering servanthood.  I wonder if we simply fear that their fierce inquisitiveness might call our precious status quo into question.  And if that status quo won’t budge?  Papa’s going to buy you a truckload of despair.  “Perhaps it’s for their own good,” we might say.

But…what would happen if the teens and adults in a church watched The Story of Stuff together and talked about its implications for living a life of justice, including the habits of the church?  What if the high school youth group were charged with the responsibility of overseeing a fair trade coffee hour after church on Sundays and had an actual budget to transform a central gathering space to serve all ages in play and conversation?  What if we respected teenagers enough to make service rather than entertainment the core of our regular time together?  What if we trusted their rebellious spirit to open our own eyes to the ways in which we’ve become numb to prophetic critique and change?

Too often, we’re so worried about the potential for moral failings that we forget about the unique gifts teenagers offer to our communities.  And we’re so busy sheltering them from certain sins that we end up blindly sacrificing them to other idols, rather than fully integrating them into the lives of our churches and families so we all might work out together what life in the Kingdom might look like.

Some day, Lord willing, I’ll be the parent of teenagers and I’ll be able to commiserate with the impulse to do exactly what I’ve criticized here; we all need the shock of humility to wake us up to our laughable finitude.  But I hope I might have a small bit of grace to more-often-than-not let love drive out fear, and even to submit my aging cynicism to the clarity of young vision.  We like to think that wisdom deepens as we grow older, but so, I think, does our forgetfulness.  And in that way, teenagers can become mercy to us, sometimes burning with the fire of purification and at other times refreshing with the coolness of creativity and wonder — but only if we invest the time to revel in what we are truly for.

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