Exploring the Role of Media in Religious Identity-construction Among Teens

by Lynn Schofield Clark

Lynn Schofield Clark is a Ph.D. Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Center for Mass Media Research, School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Colorado at Boulder.

This report was written in May, 1998.


A summary of the author’s doctoral dissertation research on U.S. teens and religious identity, in which she explored two interrelated questions: what do teens mean when they say they are religious (or not religious)? And how do these identifications relate to their experiences with the visual media?

In my dissertation research on U.S. teens and religious identity, I explored two interrelated questions: what do teens mean when they say they are religious (or not religious)? And how do these identifications relate to their experiences with the visual media? To uncover answers to these questions, I interviewed over 100 members of families with teens, including five teen case studies with whom I spent time over a period of several months. In addition, I trained three of these five to serve as leaders of what I called peer-led discussion groups (focus groups organized and led by teens for which I was not present) and then directed three more focus groups with parents of teens.

I believe that what I observed through this research represents a generational shift, with particular reference to the role and attention to religious symbols. The first trend relates to the differences between teens and parents in their general approach to issues of religion. There were five overlapping but somewhat distinct themes that framed the answers to the question of what teens mean when they say that they are religious (or not) that then in turn frame their approaches to what they see in the media. First, religion is in many cases equated with religious institutions, and is identified with or rejected as a point of identification on that basis.

Second, religion is defined as the moral code, that which gives guidance to what is right and wrong in society. Identification may be based on whether or not one agrees with the particular (usually conservative) moral code one identifies with the religious institution.

Third, religion is seen as one category of a multidimensional life, representing the extent to which religion is seen as a personal choice. For those embracing a religious identity within this theme, religion was described as a sentimental feeling of goodness.

Fourth, religion is understood as a key aspect of racial/ethnic identity, particularly among those teens who identified with a religion other than Christianity.

Fifth, religion is understood as something related to the mystical and inexplicable, or supernatural, in life.

Interestingly, the teens did not mention several attributes of religion that were discussed among the parents of teens, such as the definition of religion as a source of ultimate meaning and purpose for one's life, or a source of history, tradition, social justice, and community. The teens definitions were by and large much more therapeutic and individualistic. While this is at least somewhat consistent with what we might expect developmentally from teens, it is worth noting that this generation of young persons has less experience with religious institutions and formal belief systems than any of its predecessors. While this may or may not be the case for the individual teen, it is certainly the case for the environment of their peers, in which context so much of religious identity occurs.

Therefore, there are few indications that teens, who may come to value these attributes mentioned by their parents, will actually equate them with religious traditions and institutions at some later point. I should note that most of the teens in my study had some religious affiliation, which makes these findings all the more interesting and provocative for current leaders of religious organizations.

Second, I observed that there is a flattening of religious symbols for teens. Rather than finding that most teens are reverential toward the symbols that represent what is most meaningful to them or even the symbols most closely associated with their own tradition, as Fowler asserts in his oft-cited argument of adolescent faith development, I found that teens actually approach all religious symbols more like what Frederic Jameson called bricoleurs. In constructing their religious identity, teens pick symbols from a variety of sources that may or may not be related to institutional religion, and may or may not be related to their specific institutional affiliation, if they have one.

Like other commodified symbols of the postmodern condition of late capitalism, symbols can and must be made useful. Perhaps the most pointed example of this process occurs among teens with little or no experience with formal religious institutions but who still self-identify as religious, such as 19-year-old Jodie.

When asked what television show was most like her own beliefs, she responded: It would have to be X-Files. Because, no matter what anybody says. My dad's a real science fiction freak, he's the one that kind of got me into that, thinking about aliens. Well, I've seen everything that everyone's compiled together about aliens. There's no doubt in my mind that we are not the only intelligent life...God was a higher being. How do we know he wasn't an alien? On X-Files, Mulder, he would say something like that, how do we know God's not an alien?

Jodie's comments illustrate a television practice which I believe represents a third interesting trend in media and religion among teens: a process I call regeneration. I use this term to refer to the way in which Jodie reads into the text a meaning that was not intended (at least, I believe that there is no evidence within the program that the character of Mulder has directly equated God and alien life).

Jodie draws upon an understanding of the character of Mulder as a doubter of metanarratives/believer in alien forces for her projection of what he would say about God. This is not only a negotiation of meaning, as it moves beyond interpretation strategies related to the text. When she employs the example to explain to me her own views and thus constructs within our conversation an element of her own religious identity, she is noting that the negotiated meaning contributes something to her larger belief system - even if what it contributes is less than coherent.

Yet even among teens with what they considered to be a significant affiliation with a religious organization, there was a sense in which teens see themselves as the ultimate authority over which religious symbols are or can be made meaningful. Like their unaffiliated counterparts, they approached mediated symbols as those that could become meaningful when given a religious context. This is why such seemingly contradictory mediated symbols as those emerging on science fiction programs like The X-Files may be just as useful in religious identity-construction as programs with overtly religious symbolism such as Touched by an Angel. Distinctions may be made by teens, but both types of programs still seem to exist within, as one teen termed it, a broad realm of beliefs: both of these programs, as well as other popular teen programs such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, express some theme of divine (or at least supernatural) intervention into everyday life.

What will all of this mean for the future of religious identity and the role of the media in this process? Perhaps we will have to tune in to programs like The X-Files (and their audiences) to find out.