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From Post-gazette.com


Teens explore their faith through popular culture

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick

Tuesday 14 October 2003

Lynn Schofield Clark found her focus as a researcher on the day she discovered that the teenagers at the church where she volunteered had tuned out the sermon. They were in the balcony critiquing a music tape.

The tape was Christian, so the kids were interested in faith. But their faith was more informed by popular media than it was by the church.

"The way teens communicate with each other is by making reference to popular culture. It’s important to know that language is out there, and to be open to using that language," Clark said.

Using TV shows and movies, Clark will explain how parents and youth group leaders can use popular culture to explore faith with teens tomorrow at the Loews Waterfront Cineplex in West Homestead. Her seminar, "From Angels to Aliens : Teens, the Media and the Supernatural," is sponsored by Presbyterian Media Mission and Christian Associates of Southwestern Pennsylvania. It runs from 9 :30 a.m. to 2 :30 p.m., costs $30 and includes lunch and a viewing of the recently released youth-culture movie, "The School of Rock."

Clark, assistant research professor at the University of Colorado’s School of Journalism, has interviewed 150 teenagers and their family members about the cultural forces that shape their religious beliefs.

"She talks about what kids are looking for in shows like ’Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’ in terms of religious experience," said Gregg Hartung, director of Presbyterian Media Mission. "The mainline churches that are able to tap into that find that youth are coming to their doors."

Teenagers, Clark said, have grown up in homes that are either highly religious or not religious at all. Those she’s surveyed often report having been taken to church only once — by a grandparent.

Into that atmosphere have come TV shows with spiritual themes, pioneered by "The X-Files" and "Touched by an Angel." This season, five others explore teen spirituality : "Joan of Arcadia," "True Calling," "Dead Like Me," "Carnivale" and Fox’s upcoming "Wonderfalls."

Most offer a vague spirituality in the form of a power beyond this world but avoid associations with any specific faith. That theological ambiguity troubles some religious viewers who think it implies that theology is irrelevant. And scenes depicting pagan religious practices — exemplified by the tongue-in-check teen angst horror show, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" — trouble them even more.

But what teens take from those shows depends on their background, and few view the shows as gospel. "There was nobody, in all of our interviews, who said, ’I watch "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and now I believe there are vampires,’ " Clark said. "When young people interpret television, they know it’s fantasy."

Some shows, such as "Touched by an Angel" and "Seventh Heaven," are respectful of traditional religious institutions. Others, notably Buffy, have an irreverent attitude toward religious institutions.

"That turned some kids off about Buffy. They felt it was strange, and didn’t like the humor that poked fun at the apocalypse," she said.

On the other hand, she interviewed Wiccans — popularly known as witches — who disliked Buffy because they felt it distorted their own faith and practices.

But, as in the Harry Potter stories, witchcraft in Buffy symbolizes the moral dilemmas that young people face and their desire to gain control over difficult circumstances, Clark said.

"In Buffy, horror is a metaphor for teen life, and teens are able to identify with a character like Buffy, who on a day-to-day basis, is involved in the ongoing struggle between good and evil."

She believes youth leaders and parents need to discuss with teens the theological questions these shows raise. For instance, teenagers are interested in life after death, but it’s almost a taboo topic in mainline church youth groups, she said.

"Christianity has been so focused on individual morality in our youth groups, that oftentimes we focus almost entirely on behavioral issues," she said.

But the shows are evidence that teens are wrestling with deeper questions about the meaning of life and morality, she said. The close relationships that Harry Potter and Buffy have with friends and mentors can express a desire that young people have for supportive adults and a caring community.

"It’s important to recognize that whatever you think about the spirituality of Harry Potter or Buffy, that they address the unresolved issues of teen culture," she said.