There has been much interest in a recent New York Times Magazine piece by A.O. Scott tracing the demise of American adulthood through the lens of popular culture. Citing the likes of Mad Men, young-adult fiction and comic-book movies, Scott observes that we have “witnessed the erosion of traditional adulthood in any form” to such an extent that “nobody knows how to be a grown-up anymore. Adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable.”
“Should we mourn the departed,” he asks, “or dance on its grave?”
While Scott doesn’t offer much of an answer to that question, Alissa Wilkinson of Christianity Today suggested one in her response, “Is Pop Culture Too Juvenile?” Wilkinson largely agrees with Scott’s characterization of pop culture – that, in his words, “the world is our playground, without a dad or a mom in sight.” Yet she makes a distinction between being juvenile and being childlike. The latter, she says, is to be “returned to a time when things like faith, and hope, and love came easily.”
When it comes to the topic of adulthood, there is a seeming paradox we find in Scripture. On the one hand, we are exhorted by the Apostle Paul to give up “the ways of childhood.” Yet we also find Jesus imploring us to be like children. Which is it, especially in today’s climate of youth-oriented popular culture?
What might be helpful here is to consider Thomas E. Bergler’s use of the word “juvenilization.” In a 2012 Christianity Today article, he described the juvenilization of American Christianity as “the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for adults.” And so the opposite of maturity is not "childlike," it is "juvenile."
The opposite of maturity is not "childlike," it is "juvenile."
In the context where Jesus’ appeal to be like children emerges, the disciples are arguing about who will be greatest in the Kingdom. Jesus points to a child as an exemplar of Kingdom values and attitudes. Children represent a posture of dependence, humility, faith and trust. As a child of God, there is freedom to risk, freedom to fail and, ultimately, freedom to obey. However, there is no freedom to live in a perpetual state of arrested development.
Bergler warned, “One reason no one wants to grow up in America is that many adults don't make their life stage look very attractive.” Pop culture, meanwhile, celebrates the attractive joys of youth. Yet in my role as a professor and a pastor, I meet with far too many young adults who have grown up in a world run by “childish adults,” be they fathers who have abandoned their families or mothers who have become addicted to pain killers. A selfish refusal to grow up and become responsible has resulted in broken homes with no protection, security, love, truth or grace. These are the parentless playgrounds Scott alludes to, and they are a nightmare.
To be certain, Christ calls us to never let go of our sense of wonder, dependence or childlike trust. Indeed, to do so is the very means through which we fulfill Paul’s charge to grow into maturity. But this is a far cry from a call to spend our days at the playground. Ask anyone who grew up without an adult in the house and they will tell you: sooner or later, parenting your parents gets old.