Generations

September 3, 2007 | 31 comments
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The tireless Kevin Barney is hosting a discussion of LDS apologetics for teenagers over at BCC, trying to get a handle on the tone, approach, and content of a fireside-type presentation to LDS youth on that topic. Reflecting on this, it occurred to me that one of the challenges is how the topics that get thrown at Mormons (and that therefore get discussed by LDS apologists) change from generation to generation and how this might be a problem.

Here’s the setup: Teenagers are (obviously) in their teens. Their parents are in their thirties and forties. Local leaders span roughly the forties to sixties. Senior LDS leaders cover an age bracket from about the sixties to the nineties. That’s four different generations (which I will not try to name). The problem is that each of these generations faced (or faces) a different set of apologetic issues in their formative early years. So when you say “apologetics,” the issues that leap to mind to different individuals are often a function of their generational cohort. An “apologetic fireside” might have a completely different agenda depending on the age or generation of the person planning it.

Let me try to give some examples. I think for the local leadership, most of whom came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, the priesthood issue, “women’s liberation,” and drugs were examples of issues that would confront young Latter-day Saints. I think the issues of that period were primarily doctrinal, and an informed response would explain the basis (or lack thereof) for LDS doctrines related to these or other issues by reference primarily to the scriptures and the doctrines implied there.

In the 1980s and 1990s, historical issues became more central to criticism and the LDS apologetic response. The emergence of the New Mormon History probably moved the discussion toward these issues, but external events such as the rediscovery of the Joseph Smith Papyri certainly played a role as well. An informed “apologetic response” to these types of issues requires some familiarity with LDS history. Since many Mormons are fairly uninformed about LDS history (as compared to their knowledge of the scriptures and LDS doctrine), it was harder for many Latter-day Saints to respond to these issues, even for themselves.

Here we are in the nameless first decade of the 21st century. Historical issues are still standard fare for apologetics, but my impression is that a new set of cultural issues are now the primary apologetic concern of LDS teenagers. In high school and college, LDS youth have to deal with or explain to their peers issues like why LDS youth won’t get tattoos, why LDS youth won’t typically cheat on exams (answer sharing is surprisingly common at some schools), why modesty is such a big deal in the Church, etc. While there is a doctrinal angle to these issues, of course, I think it is fair to call them “cultural” because LDS youth aren’t being asked to defend LDS doctrine, they’re being asked to defend LDS culture and their own “intolerant” lifestyle choices. And it there’s one think teenagers don’t want to be called, it’s intolerant.

Obviously, I’m generalizing a bit and it wouldn’t be hard to throw out a cultural issue that faced Mormons in the 1960s or a doctrine that remains an apologetic issue today. But I think the contrast is useful. Coming back around to Kevin’s apologetic fireside, I doubt most LDS parents or local leaders think of cultural issues as needing apologetic responses, but teenagers (who have to deal with it more directly) probably do. Maybe they need less of a doctrine and history review than some clear thinking about the historical and practical context of pressing LDS cultural issues. Maybe “three reasons not to get a tattoo other than that my body is the temple of my spirit” is what they’re really after.

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31 Responses to Generations

  1. m&m on September 3, 2007 at 2:03 am

    Interesting thoughts, although I suspect what the youth need are answers regarding a combination of cultural and other issues. I think homosexual issues are a big one for kids today and that wasn’t so true for me or any earlier generations. But I think you bring up some really good points — that even ‘little things’ that we take for granted really do set the youth apart and perhaps make them seem more ‘peculiar’ and thus bring up more questions or ridicule.

    I would wonder if drugs and sex are still on that list, too. I just visited with some friends who moved from Utah County to West Jordan (maybe 50% LDS). Their oldest daughter talked of how her teacher asked how many students think premarital sex is wrong. She was the only one in her class to say so.

    (Maybe some of the youth need some reminders about sticking to Church standards even when it’s not popular?)

  2. Sarah on September 3, 2007 at 3:05 am

    I definitely think it’s the “why” that kids have trouble with now, though depending on the location you can still get “how to respond to weird hat-related Joseph Smith questions” and “is there a way of politely responding to ‘do you worship Satan’?”

    But a lot of the things that current leaders would have had in common with the overwhelming majority of their peers are now contested issues. I know adults who don’t understand why the Church wants kids to wait till they’re 16 to date, and who honestly think that abstinence (not teaching it, the very idea itself) is completely unworkable. Most of my 20-something friends don’t see anything wrong, morally, with almost any kind or level of “experimentation;” I’ve had at least one conversation in which a 19-year-old said “I just don’t see marriage as ‘sacred’ or anything.” It’s like a giant gulf has spontaneously appeared and a lot of people on both sides haven’t even realized it’s there yet. I imagine (and hope) that fifty years ago, whatever Mormon apologetics was, it generally didn’t have to defend the ten commandments or chastity as standards worth holding to.

    And the Church’s teachings on modesty, tattoos, coffee, etc., make us look like aliens when compared with most high schoolers. I don’t think you can have a battle about that when you’re still back at “what’s so wrong with sleeping with my boyfriend, anyway?” And the judging/tolerance thing is huge: it’s just plain “judge not” as far as daily society (at least, the cultural/on TV part of it) is concerned.

    Anyway, like I posted on the BCC thread, I think focusing on coherent responses is the best strategy. That stupid worshiping Satan question still has me as baffled (in terms of an appropriate answer) as I was the day I was asked it.

  3. Jonathan Green on September 3, 2007 at 3:08 am

    Dave, I think that’s a pretty smart analysis of the problem. It’s a good point to keep in mind.

  4. Kaimi Wenger on September 3, 2007 at 3:13 am

    Good point, Dave. The older generation often has a hard time connecting to youth, I think, without sounding ridiculous and/or fighting 30-year-past battles.

    I still remember the pamphlets I was given as a young man, advising me to avoid “necking and petting.”

    When really, the easiest way anyone from my generation could have avoided any possibility of necking would have been to suggest “necking” (using that term) to any young lady in school . . .

  5. Norbert on September 3, 2007 at 5:42 am

    …or calling her a ‘young lady.’ : )

  6. Bill MacKinnon on September 3, 2007 at 7:51 am

    Is the term “apologetics” or “apologist” helpful or unhelpful in preparing teenagers to deal with difficult questions and issues. I got to thinking about this alongside Kevin’s advice about not getting too defensive about uncomfortable questions. Is preparing teenagers to deal with very current questions about “September Dawn” and Mitt Romney’s candidacy irrelevant — something that should concern only their parents’ and grandparents’ generations — or is it relevant?

  7. Kevin Barney on September 3, 2007 at 9:09 am

    Dave, I think you are basically right in this. One of my resources is going to be a list of questions that were gathered from youth for a recent youth conference in our area, and while there is a mix there is also a pretty strong predominance of cultural type questions (sex, alcohol, coffee, drugs, tats, gays, that kind of thing).

  8. queuno on September 3, 2007 at 9:59 am

    We’ve changed from “don’t do bad things” to “embrace good things” as a personal behavioral model since I was a kid.

    I think many of the same questions and issues still exist, just with a twist. It’s no longer birth control and women’s lib and strict rules, it’s now homosexuality (and especially gay marriage), questions over gender roles, and the issue of authority and revelation. It’s the age-old question of where is the line between being “in” and “of” the world.

    Where’s the line between evangelically “pushing” our standards and “don’t ask/don’t tell:/”live and let live”/”what he does it none of my business”/”I am not my brother’s keeper” (aka providing for free agency)?

    These are the types of things I see the our youth struggle with — and they were the same things we struggled with — it’s just that the questions have changed. Slightly. But not that much.

    Remember, youth haven’t yet quite mastered the nuances — the grey areas between the white and black poles — that adults claim to have mastered.

  9. Ardis Parshall on September 3, 2007 at 10:22 am

    If “apologetics” is providing explicit answers to very narrow questions, then we’re on the right track.

    However, I think it is a great mistake to give kids the idea, or endorse it if they already have it, that the questions they face are so much more difficult than ever before, that their challenges are so much more extreme than that faced by any previous generation. That would mean that none of the old answers are applicable and that their teachers really have no idea of what they face.

    Defending chastity in the ’60s meant explaining why morality was more than avoiding pregnancy (achieved via the Pill) and curing STDs (then VD; achieved through new drugs). Has the importance of chastity changed now that a primary threat is called “hooking up”?

    The passions current for animal rights and fighting global warming, and occasional insistance that the Church is irrelevant if it doesn’t get involved, are the same passions involved in zero population growth and Earth Day marches of my teen years.

    You say Darfur; I say Biafra.

    If kids demand clear-cut narrow answers to black-and-white narrow questions because they aren’t yet mature enough to understand broader principles, well, okay. Maybe it’s a function of my age, but I believe that the more things change, the more they stay the same; and with Joseph Smith, I endorse teaching correct principles so that we can all govern ourselves.

    [Honest, queuno, I was writing this while you posted yours. I could have just said Amen.]

  10. Brad Kramer on September 3, 2007 at 10:56 am

    I’m not sure how (or if) this is relevant to this specific discussion, but I have also noticed (anecdotally–so take it with a grain of salt) something of a generational split among the LDS. My sense, based upon personal experience with people I know, is that people from my parents’ generation are far more likely to embrace certain key anti-Mo themes (JS the pedophile/obvious charlatan, BY the Stalinesque dictator, BoM as a thinly veiled, obviously fraudulent work of bad fiction) on their way out the door of orthopraxy than persons in my generation. Various middle-aged friends and relatives who have left church activity seem to have felt compelled to read Fawn Brodie or the Tanners or Ed Decker as a way of intellectually justifying the break with something so integral to their conditioned identity.
    Conversely, I know lots of people roughly my age (28) or a few years younger, friends, former mission comps, siblings etc) who are not active in the church because they aren’t committed to living by LDS behavioral standards (they usually want to party and have sex) but don’t question the fundamental claims or doctrines of the Church–that is they don’t look for intellectual rationales for their (mis)behavior. And they usually acknowledge that it is misbehavior. My sister often admits openly that she has a testimony but chooses not to live up to it. I have no interest in arguing which approach is “better”–fighting or accepting the cognitive dissonance. But the difference does seem to be there. I also wonder if there is a Wasatch-Front-v.-diaspora dynamic at work here, since all my anecdotal examples come from people who were raised in Utah.
    On a more specific topic, conversations with people my age on the subject of gays differ markedly from similar conversations with people my Dad’s age or older. Older people seem far more likely to think that gays are self-consciously choosing a lifestyle in a brazen act of ayes-wide-open rebellion against God and that they are actively and perniciously recruiting susceptible young men into their ranks. People my age, even if they think that homosexual acts are immoral and against God’s will, have usually had some informal social interaction with gays and, therefore, don’t tend to take the more hysterical rhetoric seriously.

  11. Bill MacKinnon on September 3, 2007 at 11:06 am

    Ardis, I don’t think anyone can argue with the meaning or intent of “apologetics” as you’ve explained it. My point above was simply that the word — loaded with meaning in the LDS context and that of other religions — is so close today to “apology” in the minds of many (presumably teenagers as well as adults) that it is apt to get entangled in a relatively recent phenomenon. I refer to the spectacle in which we see wave after wave of anxious, beleaguered individuals (President of the U.S., CEOs, NFL players, soon-to-resign senators) and institutions (nations, churches, armies, corporations) offering up under pressure an apology to those they “may” have offended/hurt. One generation may react to the word “apologetics” in its proper, traditional sense; another, exposed to a steady diet of televised perp walks or their press conference equivalent, may be put off by a word that rightly or wrongly conjures up images of such apologies. Wouldn’t “answers for teenagers” or “straight talk” be a more direct label, or does the latter drop one into the generational tiger pit of [relatively] new meanings for old words like “gay” and “straight.” This generational thing is a brute…

  12. Julie M. Smith on September 3, 2007 at 11:43 am

    m & m,

    I remember Prop 22 in our extremely liberal CA town (Davis). I had assumed that our LDS kids would be called homophobes or worse. Well, turns out that it was their classmates who were talking about wanting to kill f*#^ and our LDS kids who were saying “you don’t have to approve, but you shouldn’t hurt them.”

    Anyway. Never underestimate the sexual insecurity of high school students.

  13. Adam Greenwood on September 3, 2007 at 11:50 am

    Dave B., this is impressive. I give it my highest standard of praise–”obvious once you’ve mentioned it.”

  14. Ardis Parshall on September 3, 2007 at 11:50 am

    Bill, I wasn’t responding to to the particular points you raised, but like you, I wonder how the word “apologetics” plays to anybody who doesn’t recognize its peculiar contextual meaning — would a teen think he was being told to apologize for Mountain Meadows as if he bore personal responsibility, or to apologize for Mitt Romney as if his candidacy were an embarrassment regardless of one’s personal politics? And I don’t think there is anything out of place with preparing someone — anyone — for very current matters like “September Dawn” or the 2008 campaign — heck, that’s pretty much what the whole Boggernacle is about, no? (This doesn’t really contradict my earlier comment, either — I just don’t think we should get so bogged down in the specific current questions that we forget that much broader, eternal principles are applicable, that we don’t have to reinvent the answers to every rephrasing of an old question.)

  15. Bob on September 3, 2007 at 11:50 am

    Sorry, I am having a hard time relating to this discussion. As a teenage Mormon in the 1960s, there would never be these conversations. “What are you?” Ans: Mormon. “and you?” Jew’., end of conversation, we each believed fully his Church was right , the other’s was not. If I brought up ‘apologetics’ with a Church leader, the answer would have been “Stop your relationships with non-members”.
    Now I see two ‘problems’: 1) Wanting to relate and get along with the ‘World’. 2) Mormon on Mormon, what do I do when my fellow Mormon believes differently than I was taught?
    Finally, you can’t build your Models on ‘Generations’ because it’s an idea is only in your head, “Generations” are not real, anymore then ‘Decades” are real.

  16. Bill MacKinnon on September 3, 2007 at 12:20 pm

    Ardis (#14), Exactly! Bob (#15), generations become real only when I rant to my wife [again] about adults and kids wearing baseball caps backwards in restaurants or at a family dinner table, just as my father couldn’t believe (and said so) my departure for the world of work in 1962 unencumbered (JFK-like) by the to him obligatory fedora. As someone said during the 1970s, only the Old Foggies running the U.S. Navy would think to remove bell bottoms from the dress-blue uniforms of their sailors at precisely the time that the rest of American culture concluded that they were cool.
    /s/ Still Hatless if not Clueless

  17. Ardis Parshall on September 3, 2007 at 12:21 pm

    Really, Bob? That certainly goes against my experience in the earliest ’70s. We even had a unit in social studies in my sophomore year (public school, Missouri) where we were expected to research our own religion and present a synopsis of beliefs to the class, not in the way of proselyting but as a comparative study. And I certainly was never told by any of my Church leaders to stop relationships with non-members — not in any of the three states in which I went to high school. Out-of-faith dating was discouraged, yes, but nothing else. Ever.

  18. Dave on September 3, 2007 at 2:39 pm

    Kevin (#7), thanks for weighing in. Good luck with the presentation.

    Brad (#10), that’s a great point. I’m sure there are other ways generational mindsets or viewpoints affect what is said or done in church.

    I do have to give myself a pat on the back for writing six paragraphs on this topic without once using the term “generation gap.” That term seemed to disappear once Boomers became adults (uh, for those that did).

  19. Bob on September 3, 2007 at 2:49 pm

    #17: Really. My non-member friends knew I had “Church’ everyday, and thought that weird, Catholics their own schools and clothes=weird JWs no Xmas=weird, and Jew were OK, if kids. Beyond this, little concern about Religion.
    Most Mormons I knew were runaways from Salt Lake City. My Dad, in his mid 40s, was among the oldest of the Ward in the San Fernando Valley

    I could have worded #15 Better. The message I got was: don’t talk ‘mysteries’ in Church, don’t talk Religion outside of Church (Contention)

    #16: There are Generations within a family. Your father, you, your son. That is real. Others are made up. It’s just one long line of people. But feel free to start one any time! Let have a Cell Phone Generation!

  20. m&m on September 3, 2007 at 2:55 pm

    Julie, interesting. I got the sense that the youth where we lived (Bay area) were having to hold their own as more people more boldly went for gay rights. But I could be mistaken.

    Either way, it’s a lesson in standing up for what we (the youth) believe, including that we should love people and be kind even if we don’t agree with them or what they do. (Think Pres. Hinckley on that topic, no?)

    I believe that the more things change, the more they stay the same

    I tend to believe this, too.

  21. Ray on September 3, 2007 at 3:21 pm

    fwiw, my experience has taught me that any differences in issues that face different generations only become divisive issues among the generations when the older generation stereotypes the other generation(s) and/or refuses to see the issues of the younger generation(s) as legitimate – and, in practical terms, exactly like those they faced as youth and young adults (just as real and difficult and emotional). (e.g., when they say, “There’s no good music nowadays,” instead of listening to their children and accepting their music as just as good as what they liked in their youth.)

    With that as the foundation, I agree with Ardis in #9. At the most basic level, each and every one of us face the exact same challenge – building and maintaining our understanding and testimony of the Restoration and the foundation concepts of the Gospel in the face of opposition from “the world”. If apologetics helps people (youth or adults) understand that foundation and provides them with resources and tools and a sounding board and assurance and the ability to say “I don’t know yet; I will find out” and a broader vision to realize that very intelligent people have addressed their issues without losing faith, then it works; if not – if it merely gives them some canned answers to parrot back when confronted with certain topics, then it fails, IMO – since there will always be more more topics than they possibly can include in a repertoire of canned answers.

  22. Ardis Parshall on September 3, 2007 at 3:35 pm

    Good point, Ray — the Geezer Impulse definitely needs to be suppressed!

  23. Jack on September 3, 2007 at 3:37 pm

    I think it goes both ways, Ray. A lot of younger folk can’t stand the “old” stuff.

  24. Jack on September 3, 2007 at 3:38 pm

    …though my kids are listening to a Beatles CD even as I type.

  25. Ray on September 3, 2007 at 4:42 pm

    Jack, I don’t think the younger kids should have to be as mature as the older folks should be. If there is allowance made for generational differences, I think the youth shouldn’t be the ones expected to make it.

  26. Jack on September 3, 2007 at 5:41 pm

    OK, I hear you–and I agree that the older generation should take more responsibility in closing the gap. But in terms of identifying the root problem, it isn’t only because the new doesn’t resonate with the old. It’s also because the old doesn’t resonate with the new–and I think the latter tends to be a bit more irrational than the former.

  27. Brewhaha on September 3, 2007 at 8:28 pm

    I don’t think things have stayed the same at all. Technological changes have changed the rules of the game. For instance, porn has been around for a long time but now people not only have to deal with the porn but with the “ease” of obtaining porn. This is a different threat than it used to be. This same argument holds for anti-mormon ideas. They have always existed, but now the current generation has to deal with the “ease” of obtaining these ideas.

    In addition, new ideas in science, archeology, anthropology, sociology, and psychology are bringing to light new issues that previous generations NEVER had to wrestle with. Our youth need to be prepared for new challenges and they need to be prepared by people who are bridging the generation gaps themselves. Good luck to us all.

  28. meems on September 4, 2007 at 8:25 am

    m&m, where are you in the Bay Area?

  29. Bob on September 4, 2007 at 6:11 pm

    #21 & #25. The Geezer answers: I believe the challenge of the boy is to become the man. The challenge of the man is to show the boy, it is not for the man to learn again to be the boy.

    Show me the Music of today, as good as yesterday. Give me a match to Bing Crosby, Armstrong, or Motzart. I always told my kids to enjoy whatever the wanted, just don’t tell me Rap is good music, or Britney is the next Billy Holiday.

    Apologetics are canned answers. I too don’t like them. But what are you saying their answer should be “I don’t know”, or “what you really want to ask is….? What are these hard questions you think they are going to face? How are they to talk with people not in the Church?

  30. Ray on September 4, 2007 at 6:39 pm

    Bob –

    1) It *is* the responsibility of the man to understand the boy. When my oldest was about 16, I made a comment about how I didn’t like one of his songs – since I couldn’t understand the words. His response was absolutely profound: “I can understand them, and they are amazing. (He was right, btw.) You just need to learn how to hear them.”

    2) Brad Paisley (and much of the new country that has replaced what I knew growing up as soft rock), Yellowcard (some of their songs are truly profound), “Bring Him Home” (and many more from Broadway musicals), Paul Overstreet (Christian country), Yo Yo Ma – and I could go on and on and on. If you think there is less good and great music available now than in the past, you simply haven’t looked hard enough.

  31. Bob on September 4, 2007 at 9:44 pm

    #30: “I can understand them, and they are amazing. (He was right, btw.) You just need to learn how to hear them.” Ray, you have Gershwin, Cole Porter. Irving Berlin, turning in their graves! You can look up the Lyrics on the Internet: Junk!
    You’re right..Brames, Duke Ellington, John Lennon, etc. are no match for Yellowcard and their album ‘Midget Tossing”. I must catch up.

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