An important but challenging task for youth pastors and parents involves helping our children understand the messages of the world. However, given the pluralistic nature of contemporary society, one struggles to identify a cohesive ideology underpinning the values of the world.
The culmination of my best understanding of the ethic of today’s secular world has come from two unexpected sources: The ESPY Awards and Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
In July of 2015, the ESPY’s awarded Caitlyn Jenner (formerly known as Bruce Jenner) the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage for her transition from manhood to womanhood.
A few months later, I watched some of the struggles Kris Kardashian Jenner faced as a result of Jenner’s gender transition. She expressed feelings of grief, almost as if her ex-husband had died. As a step in mourning, she and her daughter, Kim, went through old clothes of Jenner’s to remember Bruce, the person who was lost, and to try to embrace Caitlyn, this new person Jenner had become.
In secular terms, here were two conflicting values. In making the change, Jenner was “true to himself” and showed (as ESPN would interpret the events) the courage to “follow his heart.” At the same time, Jenner’s choice had painful consequences for Kris and family, akin to those that one may experience if a spouse ran off with another partner. In this way, Jenner’s choice violated society’s high value for family loyalty.
When ESPN bestowed on Jenner the highest of all their awards, the message was clear: human autonomy and individualism stand above all other virtues in modern society.
The abortion industry and pro-choice movement thrive on these values. Human autonomy and individualism possess such ultimate importance, the termination of human life and the psychological harm done to women are secondary to the point that they barely enter the conversation.
At the risk of oversimplification, I think understanding the nature and danger of elevating human autonomy is a starting place for helping kids understand the modern worldview, which counters Christianity. Underneath the message of so many songs, the moral of so many movies, the principles of so many causes, and the promises of so many political campaigns stands an unequivocal appeal to individualism.
Understanding Human Autonomy and Individualism
We can boil down the morality and ethics of Western society into one cliché: be true to yourself. Out of this somewhat trite platitude unfolds these philosophical tenets:
- You belong to yourself. You are the captain of your own ship.
- You determine what values, ethics, identity, and spiritual beliefs are right for yourself.
- Whatever rules you establish are fine, so long as they do not infringe upon or condemn another person’s human autonomy or inflict violence on another.
- You follow those values and beliefs out of your inner strength.
- You – and nobody else – judge your success in “being true” to these values.
The John 3:16 of non-believing college students today is “you do you.” For example, one person may not want to engage in random hook-ups, but if that’s what you want to do, “hey, you do you.” Smoking marijuana may not “work “ for one person, but if it works for another, then “you do you.” This cliché functionally affirms and blesses human autonomy.
Beneath these beliefs resides the sovereignty of the individual. In a sense, we are all our own little worlds, coexisting alongside the world of others. We govern our worlds according to our personal tastes and preferences.
Let’s Not Present Autonomy as an “Us Versus Them” Matter
While the modern world celebrates and elevates autonomy, biblical Christianity points to individualism as the seat of all human evil.
The Bible frames all problems in human history through the Fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. What was Adam and Eve’s nefarious deed? Did they murder anyone? Did they detonate a nuclear warhead?
No. They ate an apple.
The sin was not found in the wickedness of the deed itself, but in the essence of the act. Adam and Eve believed the lie of the serpent: you can be like God. In other words, you can be your own god and king. You don’t need God; you can live on your own terms and under your own authority.
The Bible effectively says that all sin, injustice, and destruction throughout time flow out of man’s belief in human autonomy.
As we talk to young people about the messages of the world, a temptation arises to demonize both secular society and non-Christians. Christian leaders would do well to remember that the Bible does not present this as a “them” issue, but as an “us” issue. At the very least, whenever a Christian fails to walk in the Spirit, he or she is trusting in his or her own personal lordship and individualism.
While I will offer more specific and practical direction on how to address this message in the second part of this two-part article, Attacking the Lie of Human Autonomy with Young People, I would start with this general advice.
First, as we see messages and ethics that conflict with scripture, we must show young people how those messages demonstrate a confidence in human autonomy and independence. We can look to commercials, pop songs, movies, and political issues as opportunities to analyze the ideology beneath the message.
Secondly, we must point to biblical commands as God’s way of showing us when we are believing the lie of individual sovereignty. Any sinful act essentially communicates, “I can do life on my own terms. I can be like God.” For example, various forms of sexual sin – from premarital sex, to pornography, to visual lust – communicate that we can have greater confidence in our approach to sexuality than the one God has designated.
Finally, may we proclaim the Gospel of grace as a means of humility and hope. The Gospel reminds us that all people wrestle with wanting to live independently from God. The nature of Christian life involves the cycle of wandering on our own, falling, repenting, and receiving God’s grace as we are restored into right relationship, where God rules as Lord of our lives.
If nothing else, we need to help young people understand that the way of Christ – to follow and trust Jesus as our King – contrasts starkly from the world’s exhortations to trust in your self. Christianity tells us to depend on God in all things.
Tune in tomorrow on Rooted for Part Two of this article.