Yellow, grey, yellow, grey. My basketball shoes skipped along the dotted line on the asphalt as I made my way past Dairy Queen on a hot fall afternoon. It was my fortune to live close to my school, so that rather than having to carpool, or wait for a bus, all I had to do was walk home, stick my house key in the knob, and the afternoon was entirely mine. My mom was a nurse and worked in the afternoons and my dad tended a congregation as the pastor of a small church. And I? I loved stories. I especially loved imaginative stories. I’ll never forget the first time that I watched the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie over at the next door neighbor’s house when I was 8 years old. I was enthralled with such a strange new story that, at the same time, drew on such an ancient tradition like martial arts. Now at 12-years-old, I was skipping home to watch Spider-Man and a Disney show called Gargoyles in my sacred hour and a half before my mom came home . What did all these viewing experiences have in common? I never talked to my parents about any of them. Likewise, I never told them that I liked to watch Lois and Clark: the New Adventures of Superman, nor that I watched The Dark Crystal, Reboot, Beast Wars, or Biker Mice from Mars. So how did I learn about them? I talked to my friends at school. How did I get a hold of them? My friends recorded them for me, or I recorded them myself. I stashed the VHS tapes under my couch at home. Why all of the secrecy?
When I was 8, I remember finding a rock station on my parents’ FM cassette deck. My best friend Sean and I were walking around the corner of my house, cassette player in hand blaring rock music, when my dad confronted us. My dad told me in no uncertain terms that I was not to listen to this kind of music – that it was wrong. I still remember the shame associated with that interaction – the embracement of being scolded in front of my peer, and something else. I remember the distinct feeling of disagreement with my dad. I have the clear emotional memory of disagreeing with my dad’s assessment, and from that day forward, because of the shame of our interaction, and because I didn’t feel invited into any kind of a dialogue, when I had things I wanted to watch, things that I felt like my parents would disagree with, I simply snuck it.
I remember at one time my mom saying that she felt like Satan was coming into our house through the TV. Once again, I had the distinct feeling of disagreement. As I grew, I would listen to their reasoning. They would use texts like Philippians 4:8, and texts like 2 Corinthians 3:18. I remember the dissonance of these texts with stories of incest, rape and murder written into the very pages of the very same Judeo-Christian texts themselves.
At the same time, in my secret story sessions with Gargoyles, I was being converted to ideals of racial equality and the importance of community, in my secret story sessions with Spider-man, I was being converted to the ideals of service and self-sacrifice. In my secret story sessions with The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I was learning the importance of self-control, commitment to comrades, and team work. The way I see it, it wasn’t Satan coming through the TV, it was the ideals of the Kingdom.
NEXT STEPS: Young Adult Ministry Training
Last year I watched a Frontline documentary called “Generation Like.” It was an expose on the ways that brands use kids to market their products to each other via social media. It also showed how kids market themselves to other kids on social media. My first gut reaction to this documentary was the urge to protect every young mind in my purview from all of the controversial content on the internet. My mind went immediately to internet blocking programs, to lectures that I could give, to sermons I could preach. Then, after watching it several times, I started to get the real message of the documentary. It was that there was once a time when we could lecture, preach, directly advertise, and otherwise drill ideas into the heads of our youth, and there was a better-than 50% chance that it would stick. What this documentary clearly demonstrated was that for the vast majority of youth, the old way of communicating would immediately be out competed. The real epiphany wasn’t the realization that the “drill it in” way of communicating is out competed by the interactive dialogue of content and ideas on the internet, but that it is out competed by the simple knowledge that such a dialogue exists. If kids know that we are keeping them from being empowered, for most of our kids we haven’t just lost the battle, we’ve lost the whole war.
I came to the realization that we have two choices when it comes to our youth. The first choice is that we can attempt to shelter them and censor every possible stream of content that they have access to. For a fraction of youth, that might work, they might respect our wishes. For the rest, however, they will gain access. How? Libraries, friends’ computers, friends’ phones, friends’ TVs, the local tech store, the local Wal-Mart, friends’ conversations, smuggled devices, magazines, comics, books, etc. This is not a hypothetical; I’ve seen my friends do this, and I’ve done it myself during a decade with less access. I’m not making an argument of opinion here, I’m stating a fact. If kids are interested in it, they will gain access to it, and parents who censor will often be completely oblivious to it. How bad can it get? I’ve had 8th grade students whose parents told me that their child was not allowed to watch afternoon cartoon shows, and yet the student was completely caught up on Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad.
What’s even more disturbing is that kids are extremely adept at picking up on a parent’s, pastor’s, or teacher’s comfort level with subject matter based upon what they censor. When they censor material, they create a taboo around whatever subject matter they are censoring. This guarantees that kids will only ever talk about these subjects with their peers who are often just as naïve about the subjects. In short, when we censor, we are actually telling kids “You are on your own – figure it out. I don’t ever want to hear about what you’re processing.”
We also have a second option, however. We can be aware of our youth and their interactions with challenging material. We can approach them with questions and dialogue rather than judgment. We can empower our youth with tools of genuine discernment which go deeper than the over simplistic question of asking “Is this good for me to be watching or not?” and instead asks “What is the creator of this work trying to say about the world and human nature, and do I agree with him or her, or do I disagree, and why? What are the implications of their ideas in the real world?”
And now for the mirror… Do I really have the courage to have these kinds of discussions with my students and the other youth to whom I minister? Can I be that vulnerable? It takes a HUGE amount of vulnerability. I so often find myself jumping to condemnation when I see them watching a raunchy music video. I find it so easy to jump into conversations saying “Why are you listening to that trash?!” instead of asking “What draws you to this song? What do you think this singer is saying about themselves and their values? Do you agree with them? Why?” When it comes down to it, it’s easier to preach than it is to know and to be known.
I now understand my parents’ decisions to censor because I understand how counter intuitive it is to refrain from censorship. I, like those who raised me, have easily snapped into judgment mode and lectured the kids around me about what they view. I now know how strong my parents’ desire to protect and shield me was. I know that they were doing what they were doing out of love, as ineffective as it was.
Yellow, grey, yellow, grey. I often think back to those days of stealing glimpses of Spidey and the gargoyle clan on the small screen in the afternoons while my parents were away. I wonder what understanding between my parents and me was lost because of the taboos that they raised around the material which spoke to me so deeply.
The bright side is that I have good conversations about these values with my parents today. I feel that they do know me better now, and I know them better. At the end of the day, it wasn’t censorship that saved me or my relationship with them, it was how they showed Jesus’ love that won out in the end.
I must admit, I feel a certain level of discomfort at knowing that I too have two boys, and that someday I’ll have to remember to counter my gut instinct to censor material and belittle and dismiss that which makes me uncomfortable. I hope they stay innocent for a while yet, but this world thrusts us into knowledge as fast as that color down the middle of the road switches from the yellow line to grey.[/box_holder]