Rebel with a Cause

Blogger and scholar Adam Laats recently made an fascinating point on his blog, I Love You But You’re Going To Hell.

In her latest “Wrestling with Angels” column, the singer and author Carolyn Arends describes her recent heart-to-heart with her fourteen-year-old son, an ardent young-earth creationist. No way, her son told her, would he ever want to go to the wrong university, where he would have to “sit in some biology class in a secular school and be told I descended from apes.”

Arends was surprised. Though she admits she was a “keen young-earth creationist as a teenager,” she had come to agree that the world had been created through “evolutionary processes.”

The second striking point about Arends’ column is its reminder that we Americans can live in parallel universes, where everything looks the same but all the meanings have reversed themselves. I can’t imagine my daughter will ever go through a young-earth creationist “phase.” But if we substitute the phrase “anarcho-syndicalism” or “joys of marijuana” for “young-earth creationism” then I can imagine a very similar scenario to Arends’.

Oh, the memories this brings up. It’s actually very true to my own experience.

I was a young earth creationist before my parents were, strange to say. I had found literature from Answers in Genesis and Henry Morris in my church’s library. I embraced it with a passion. My parents humored me. After attending a homeschool conference where Ken Ham was keynote speaker, my parents became ardent young earth creationists.

This wasn’t the only issue where I went more extreme than my parents. Growing up with the influence of the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, of the purity and courtship movements, homeschooled and rotating between AWANA Bible club and services at my family’s evangelical megachurch, I took everything all the way, often even further than my parents did. I’ve written about this before.

[My friends] were all girls like me, raised in similar households with similar beliefs, and we together drove each other more extreme in our quest for holiness. We thought about wearing headcoverings, even though our families didn’t. We liked the idea of having a home church, though our parents never tried it. And more than that, we discussed whether girls should perhaps stay home from college. In fact, even though my parents expected me to go to college and always had, some of my friends almost talked me out of going. I concluded in the end that my friend was right, that girls shouldn’t go to college, but that I still needed to do what my parents expected of me and make the best of it.

And the thing is, I did see myself as a rebel. I was rebelling against mainstream culture, I was rebelling against ungodliness, I was a rebel for God. I sought to go against the flow – wearing skirts and baggy dresses even when it wasn’t popular and refusing to listen to contemporary music. I gloried in being different, in standing out.

What’s interesting is that even the subculture I grew up in has started actively marketing and selling rebellion. In 2008, homeschool leader Greg Harris’ sons founded The Rebolution.

The official definition of the ‘rebelution’ is “a teenage rebellion against low expectations.” When you look around today, our culture does not expect much of us young people. We are not only expected to do very little that is wise or good, but we’re expected to do the opposite. Our media-saturated youth culture is constantly reinforcing lower and lower standards and expectations.

The word ‘rebelution’ is a combination of the words “rebellion” and “revolution.” So it carries a sense of an uprising against social norms. But in this case, it’s not a rebellion against God-established authority, but against the low expectations of our society. It’s a refusal to be defined by our ungodly, rebellious, and apathetic culture. Actually, we like to think of it as rebelling against rebellion.

And it’s exciting, because the Rebelution has become a type of counter-cultural youth movement among young people from around the world, who are not only rejecting the lies of popular youth culture, but they’re returning to biblical and historical levels of character and competence.

We were rebelling, yes – rebelling against rebellion. Reading the Bible was an act of rebellion, going skirts only was an act of rebellion, and I even considered wearing a head covering as an act of rebellion. Remaining under my father’s authority was an act of rebellion, planning to be a homemaker was an act of rebellion, dreaming about naming my numerous future children things like Thankful or Obedience was an act of rebellion.

The odd thing is that I was taught that those “so-called” rebels who dyed their hair and got multiple piercings and tattoos were actually ascribing to conformity in their all-black goth uniforms. (Note: I don’t actually know squat about goth culture or about what public school high schoolers do to rebel.) What I didn’t realize was that if this applied to goth kids, it applied to my race into homeschooled jumpered conformity as well. What I was doing was only different inasmuch as I chose a different subculture with which to align myself in opposition to the mainstream culture.

Whether or not teenage rebellion is some sort of natural or universal biological thing, it is an important part of growing up in our society today, and that goes for both evangelicals and homeschoolers just as for anyone else. And given this, evangelicalism in general and the Christian homeschool subculture in particular have made concrete efforts to harness this rebellion and channel it safely in ways that simultaneously police the edges of the subculture and feed youth’s desire for meaning, purpose, and defiance.

It also bears pointing out that youth rebellion and evangelicalism actually have strong ties historically. While the term “evangelicalism” goes back further, most scholars emphasize the importance of the First Great Awakening (the 1740s) as a founding movement for evangelicalism in America. And the First Great Awakening was made up mostly of youth, and its culturally subversive message concerned many of the more established religious teachers. The same thing happened with the Second Great Awakening (the early 1800s), and once again older and more established religious leaders found themselves on the defensive. Then, during the 1960s and 1970s the Jesus Movement was made up of young people who followed a “hippie Jesus” and defined the religious norms of the time. The Rebolution’s similarities too and differences from these previous movements would be interesting to explore.

A Matter of Patriarchy
A Letter from Jesus and Living in Fear
On Indiana
On Orgies, Bisexuality, James Dobson, and Evangelicals
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • machintelligence

    I think the teenage drive for nonconformity is a nearly universal trait. It can obviously go in either direction, and is best summed up in the following statement: “I want to be different–just like everyone else.”

  • Anat

    Have you read Juduth Rich Harris’ ‘The Nurture Assumption’? Part of her thesis is that kids socialize themselves within a subculture of their peers, and this peer environment has a more lasting effect on adult personality than the home environment (though childhood home environment has a significant lasting effect on how people behave in the presence of family members they grew up with).

  • smrnda

    I’ve always thought that a knee-jerk ‘rebel against the norm’ is just as unthinking as doing exactly the same thing as everybody else. Perhaps growing up I didn’t feel a need to carve out some rebellious niche for myself because I’d lived in enough places where I wasn’t part of the majority culture (Shanghai, Taiwan, and living in a mostly Black neighborhood in the US.) There’s really no point in ‘rebelling’ when nobody expects you to be the same as everybody else to begin with, which makes me think that a lot of evangelical Christians must imagine that the rest of the world is some kind of monoculture.

    I’ve read a few things by Joshua Harris where he goes on about how adolescence is a recent innovation and how little is expected of young people, but I think he’s badly mistaken to think he’s an expert on these matters. His notions of what young people are doing are gleaned from the most shallow, vapid pop culture artifacts that are out there or the most alarming statistics and anecdotes. I kind of see this occurring with other Christian figures as well, and I also notice that they get immensely shocked and offended by things they lack the context to understand. Perhaps a feature of fundamentalism is disbelieving that context matters.

  • Aimee

    I was a public schooled goth-ish teen but I relate to this in a way. I think teens often feel more strongly about things – whatever their values are they are likely to be more committed to them than an adult, albeit in a more simplified way. Children and teens see things more in black and white or simplified terms because they lack the experience to understand nuance in many situations – I think abortion is a good example of that.

    Even where kids are more liberal – say gay marriage – they are for simple reasons ie: love is love (totally valid reason of course!). I desperately wanted to be able to separate myself from my parents, to really know who I was and not just act the way other people wanted me to. So that meant experimenting a lot with my look and delving into ideas that my parents disagreed with.

    And though I acted out in predictable ways, it wasn’t that I was copying my peers (few of my friends acted out the way I did), it was more because those were the few things I had any control over at all – what to wear, what to read, what to write about, what music to listen to (to a point my parents controlled my clothing but I could adapt it easily enough).

    I think it is safe to say most people, whether in their teens or early twenties, go through a period where they test themselves to see if they really believe or really like the things they say they do. That usually starts with rebelling against something they have been told they “should” do/believe – either by society or by their parents or both. If it is really true afterall, they will end up back with that belief but with the strength of experience.

    I’ve noticed a bit of a reverse of this rebellion period when people get married or have kids they often revert back to how their parents were because that is the only thing they know. I’ve only noticed it with people who didn’t put much thought into their rebellious period (at least as far as values go). So my plan with my kids is to push for their rebellious time to be useful, we’ll see how well that works.

  • Kit

    I actually strongly disagree with the “low expectations” thing – conversely, I think we place much higher expectations on children now than we used to. I am, of course, speaking from a disillusioned young-adult perspective, and obviously I’m very middle-class and grew up attending public school – quite mainstream, I’d argue.

    I mean, we expect our kids to go to college and/or university now. We didn’t used to, because twenty five or thirty years ago you could graduate from high school and get a good job. Trades aren’t good enough for our children anymore – College or university is a must. Because every kid needs to go to university, the standards for getting in have gone up for the top schools (which of course you must go to), and you can’t just get in with good grades anymore. You have to have good grades, AND play an instrument like a master, AND have tons of volunteer experience, AND be athletic AND be on Student Council – and even if you can’t, you feel like you should! And then there’s the debt – once you graduate, you NEED a high-paying job if you want to be out of debt by the time you’re 30. I actually think expectations have gone up to a large extent. Of course, my experience working on student committees for student mental health, where these concerns are openly spoken of, are quite influential in how I see it. :p

    • Bix

      It’s true–the big difference, historically, is that adolescents in middle-class families are no longer expected to be economic producers. That doesn’t mean it’s been replaced by a culture of “low expectations”. I knew lots of very driven young people in high school and university. People feel a lot of pressure to excel in multiple areas, as you said, and it can create a very competitive atmosphere. And in my experience it was mostly coming from the kids, not the parents. If anything, some parents felt uneasy about how much their kids were taking on.

  • Charlotte

    I think you’d find the goth subculture very interesting. It’s actually quite complicated, there’s no way I could describe it in a comment, but one of the most interesting things about it is how people in the goth community see emotion. They reject the idea that there is something wrong with being sad or with being angry. That’s why you get the whole “gloomy goth” stereotype, they don’t see anything wrong with not pretending to be happy in all the time. From what I’ve experienced, goths are actually very well rounded individuals with high levels of self-confidence. Some are even perky, though they do seem to have an interesting sense of humor. I find the goth mindset to be very healthy, I wish more teens got into the subculture (honestly, this whole thing was very funny to write, being a teen myself). They’re also very accepting, you find a lot of atheists and pagans in that subculture, and sexuality and gender identity are not a very big deal. The only thing that’s kind of iffy is race, the goth “ideal” is still very pale and white.

    • The_L

      I don’t know, I’ve seen black Goths on the internet. “I’m so goth, even my SKIN is black!!”

      There’s also a level of fashion diversity within the subculture that surprised me as a teen when I first discovered it. There are leather goths, lolita-style goths–in the 90′s there were cyberpunk goths but I think that’s gone more steampunk now. You can do a surprising amount with black, brown, and dark colors. :)

      I don’t dress goth as an adult (I’m a teacher, for one thing, and it looks a bit odd to teach in that sort of thing), but I do make doll clothes, and I’m tempted to experiment with goth looks at 1:3 and 1:6 scale. Buying the black lace, leather, and velvet for a doll is a lot cheaper than buying the amounts you’d need for a full-size person, and the styles of black boots they make for dolls are surprisingly easy to adapt to a goth look.

      By the way, obligatory jokes: If you’re a Goth, where were you when we sacked Rome?
      You’re Gothic? You don’t look like a 13th-century cathedral to me. :)

      • Charlotte

        Cyberpunk is still pretty big, it seems. Or at least cyberdreads are. There’s been a lot of overlap with Japanese street fashions lately. Gothic lolita is just so pretty.
        My style of dress is all over the place, I’m still trying to build up a dark mori girl look. Black lace, scarves, and arm-warmers. Mmm…

  • Christine

    Third rate minds are only happy when they think the same thing that everyone does. Second rate minds are only happy when they think differently from everyone else. First rate minds are only happy when they’re thinking.

    I don’t think that there was an attribution when I first saw that, but that helped me get over the “I have to be different from everyone else or I’m an idiot” phase that everyone goes through. The skirts-only type of movements, however, do more than just encourage second/third rate thinking (depending on how you see it). They’ve given meaning, that carries over to mainstream culture, to wearing skirts. I like to wear skirts for practical reasons (not at work obviously). But if I’m wearing a skirt, I have to be careful to not wear a bandana at the same time. Or even if I don’t wear a bandana, am I sending a message that I am part of a cultic movement? And that, from what I can tell, is not a side effect – these people want mainstream culture to see skirt-wearing as “holy” (or, in actuality, that the wearer thinks herself holy, but they won’t see that).

  • Rae

    I sort of picked up on the idea that “rebelling against mainstream culture” was still conforming to some standards set by mainstream church culture (Like Focus on the Family’s stuff for teens). So I started practically cross-dressing. To church. Under the guise of “modesty”. If success can be measured by the fact that as far as I could tell, none of the adults knew what to do with me, then I guess I succeeded…

    Speaking of modesty, isn’t The Rebelution the people who did that really, really ridiculous modesty survey?

    • http://http// John K Pate

      I think the “Christian heavy metal/goth” scene is attractive for some evangelical youth for the same kinds of reasons. At least for me, listening to these bands (rackets & drapes, extol, saviour machine, etc.) and dressing in a gothish-way let me feel like I was rebelling against both the evangelical christian school I was attending and more mainstream culture.

  • Scotlyn

    Libby Anne, if you haven’t already done so, I recommend you read “The True Believer” by Eric Hoffer. It probes the whole “belonging to a greater mass” phenomenon extremely well, and I do remember these temptations in my youth – to be caught up in a cause much greater than myself, one big enough to deserve my full dedication, heart & soul! In my case, I remember devouring books about Christians in concentration camps – eg Corrie ten Boom, and bemoaning the fact that my life was fated to be too easy. No one would be testing my faith under rigourous or dangerous conditions, so I would have no opportunity to prove how wonderfully enduring it could be.

    Interesting times.

  • Kacy

    I can certainly relate. I became more fundamentalist than my parents when became a Calvnist, and then I took this a step further when I became a Catholic. In some ways I was rebelling against both mainstream culture and my mom’s Bible-belt cultural Christianity. I think youth groups encourage this form of Rebellion by upholding youth enthusiasm as ideal and proclaiming each generation of high schoolers as the “Joshua Generation” or the “Generation for Christ.” When I was in youth group, the phrase “this generation” was repeated as something of a mantra, and it was commonly believed that Jesus would return during the lifetime of our generation. Ten years later, and I still hear these said in youth groups about the new “Joshua Generation.” I wonder how long this Rebolution will continue.

  • Larry Spencer

    I, too, was a young-Earth creationist. When our oldest daughter was choosing a college, I decided I should put to rest once and for all my lingering doubts about YEC. That started a chain of events that culminated with my leaving the faith:

  • Sgaile-beairt

    ….ancient & medieval authors, all around the world, are full of old fogies deploring the Youth these days….all they want to do is drink & gamble & whore around….their music is lewd….their danceing is worse….they didnt use the word teenager”‘ but they sure had the concpt!!

  • Daughter

    Whether or not teenage rebellion is some sort of natural or universal biological thing, it is an important part of growing up in our society today

    I’m not sure I agree with that, thinking back on my own teen years and of the teenagers I’ve known since then. Adolescence today is a time of exploring and figuring out who you are, and that may be a relatively new phenomenon, since in the past people’s choices were a lot more constricted.

    But that process of figuring out who you are, which may involve experimentation with different values, clothing, behaviors, etc. is often unconnected to any acts of rebellion. In other words, a lot of youth aren’t choosing to behave or dress or whatever in certain ways out of defiance toward their parents or other adults. They’re just trying to figure out what’s right for them – and may still strongly respect and honor their parents all the while. Charlotte’s description of why some teens choose Goth culture is an example of this.

  • A Reader

    Ugh, the Rebelution. My youth group read that a year or 2 ago. I was already basically an atheist, but I didn’t say anything and just went along with it (there’s an entire book. Not sure whether you’ve written about it or not, but it’s out there). It’s all about how doing exactly what every parent wants (getting high-profile internships, reading the classics, being a “good kid”) is rebelling. There’s nothing wrong with being a high-achieving kid, but they take it too far–I think at one point they were demonizing sleepovers with friends, although I could have the wrong book there. Besides which, they acted as if their way was the only way, when in reality a lot of people don’t have the ability or family connections to do the things that they took for granted.