Book Review: Hurt, by Chap Clark
Author: Chap Clark
Title: Hurt: Inside the World of Today's Teenagers
Publisher: Baker Academic
Rating: 5 Out of 5 Stars
"The foreign and seemingly hostile world of adolescents." Chap Clark, associate professor of youth, family and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, saw what few adults are ever privileged to see: the real subterranean world that teenagers today inhabit. In his book Hurt, which has challenged and changed youth workers all over the country, Chap Clark presents his case for understanding middle adolescents today. This is the best book for the intersection of sociology and ministry, and thought it's an academic book, it's written in a very accessible style.
This book is divided up into three parts, with appendices: Part I, The Changing Adolescent World; Part II, The Landscape of the World Beneath; and Part III, Where Do We Go from Here?. Appendix A directly applies the content of the book to the work of youth ministry and Appendix B explains the scholarly apparatus that framed his sociological research of midadolescence.
Chap Clark spent months working at a public high school as a substitute teacher and researcher. The students, faculty and administration all knew that he was gathering information and most cooperated. Through interviews, interactions and even surveys, Clark began to see what forms the foundation of current youth culture: systemic abandonment.
Adults have systemically abandoned adolescence today. In the 50's and 60's there arose many organizations whose purpose was to help guide the adolescent into adulthood in a smooth and healthy manner: schools, Little League, youth ministry programs, etc. By the 90's, however, there was a definite shift where they ceased to serve the teen and instead served the adults, their organizations and expectations (for instance, the careers of high school football coaches).
These changes, among others, contributed to the systemic abandonment of adolescents by adults, and thus the rejection the adult world by teens. Though they share a high-achieving face, youth today have created "the world beneath", a subterranean place of safety and acceptance, which many teens perceive they are not getting from anyone in the adult world (parents, teachers, coaches, youth ministers).
What I liked about this book. Chap Clark is the Jane Goodall of youth culture. He was an outsider who sit on the steps between what adults see and what the world beneath holds. Clark makes sense of the contradictory social data on the Millennial Generation. So many studies, articles and books show how it is more achieving, better adjusted and healthier than the previous (my) generation. While at the same time other, more disturbing, trends are also identified, like the rise of cheating and lying, the lowering of the age of one's first sexual contact, the increase in depression, cutting and anxiety levels, pornography addiction, and the toll that the breakdown of the stable family home has on an adolescent's behavior and self-worth.
For Chap, these two seemingly contradictory assessments of youth today are reconciled in his understanding of the world beneath.
Chaps discussion of layers made a lot of sense to my experience with teens in high school ministry. They are forced to develop layers in their personality in order to navigate safely adults' expectations. Layers are almost whole personalities compartmentalized in the teen, tailored for a given person or situation (youth group layer, school layer, best friend layer, dealing coach layer, being with family layer), each complete with a distinct set of values and priorities.
These layers are structured independently, with little or no "bridge" to connect each other. Thus, teens can act in completely contradictory ways and never see the inconsistency. They don't possess the abstract reasoning to do this, and won't until late adolescence.
Chap dives into the "landscape" of being a teen today in Part II. It shows how the world beneath, layering, and systemic abandonment is played out in a variety of areas. Most important is "Friends". Chap uses the term "peer clusters", because "group" and even "clique" do not go far enough to explain friendships in the world beneath. Peer clusters are the real family of the adolescent: they implicitly provide rules and standards of behavior acceptable to the cluster, conduct rituals, assumes the role of nurturing, develop ways of moderating disputes between one another, including excommunication. Loyalty to the cluster is the chief virtue.
These peer clusters show us another way that teenagers are not the same today that they were 20 or 50 years ago. Peer clusters are how teens develop their new found individual identity. Their world revolves around it. Consequently, in youth culture there is stratification. There is no real "youth culture" to speak of, and the social hierarchy of the American public high school no longer exists. Sure there are really popular kids and also outcasts, but it no longer possesses homogeneity.
For the new evangelization this is a genuine glimpse into adolescence. It is a solid tool for the formation of youth ministry methods that address the real hurt that lies at the background of midadolescence today. Evangelism and catechesis of teenagers involves adults being more courageous than before because youth are already coming from a position of hurt. They are weary of adults and their agendas, and so we cannot present the Christian faith as just another adult expectation. We have to be brave enough to "waste time" with the teens in an expectationless environment.
Furthermore, our task of catechesis is more difficult because as the period of adolescence lengthens their mental capacities take longer to mature. Moral formation now has to deal with personality layering. Teens may act morally in their Christian layer, but school, work, home and socializing with friends are different stories. Youth culture stratification means we need a wider variety of adults to appeal to a wider variety of teens.
As evangelists we cannot sit this one out. We must show the teens that, thought the adult culture has abandoned you, Christ never will.