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Smells Like Teen Spirit

I’ve been pondering connections between David Bentley Hart and Nirvana this afternoon. As in, the band, not the state of blissful detachment from desire and suffering. Apparently, psychologists have discovered that our musical tastes begin to take shape as early as age thirteen or fourteen and by the time we’re in our early twenties these tastes are locked into place pretty firmly. One study indicated that “popular songs released when you’re in your early teens are likely to remain quite popular among your age group for the rest of your life” and that many of us stop listening to new music entirely after around age thirty-three. This probably explains why I struggle to appreciate the throbbing, migraine-inducing EDM that drifts up from my son’s corner of the basement.

It also explains why I still, despite being some distance (chronologically and emotionally) from teenage angst, occasionally throw Nirvana’s Nevermind into the headphones. It came out in 1991, when I was sixteen years old, and was the soundtrack of high school. It was the same year that Metallica’s Black Album exploded on to the scene, for those who wanted less grunge and more straight up stadium rock aggression. Similarly, U2’s The Joshua Tree and Def Leppard’s Hysteria came out a few years earlier (1987) when I was just starting to listen to my own music and to form something of my own identity. These albums and songs from that half-decade or so of my life still catch my ear in a unique way and get plenty of play at the gym or driving down the highway or even (occasionally, er, rarely… um, certainly not right now!) when I’m writing.

Why? Well, there are probably many reasons, from the neurochemical to the social, but according to the psychologists,

research has shown that the emotions that we experience as teens seem more intense than those that comes later. We also know that intense emotions are associated with stronger memories and preferences. All of this might explain why the songs we listen to during this period become so memorable and beloved.

Makes sense to me. So what does any of this have to do with David Bentley Hart? Well, the following passage from his most recent book That All Shall Be Saved provided the impetus for these reflections. Hart is referring to a certain Catholic philosopher who argued for the existence of a fiery, eternal, and well-populated hell:


I cannot take the claims of this Catholic philosopher entirely seriously from any angle, for the simple reason that his actions so resplendently belie what he professes to believe. If he truly thought that our situation in this world were as horribly perilous as he claims, and that every mortal soul labored under the shadow of so dreadful a doom, and that the stakes were so high and the odds so poor for everyone—a mere three score and ten years to get it right if we are fortunate, and then an eternity of agony in which to rue the consequences if we get it wrong—he would never dare to bring a child into this world, let alone five children; nor would he be able to rest even for a moment, because he would be driven ceaselessly around the world in a desperate frenzy of evangelism, seeking to save as many souls from the eternal fire as possible.

What drew my attention to this quote was both the moral clarity and logical coherence of it (which I suspect many of us would agree with) and how stubbornly such doctrines (i.e., the eternal conscious torment of the unredeemed) cling to those of us who were exposed to them at an early age. I remember thinking along virtually identical (if not nearly so eloquent) lines as Hart in my teenage years. If this really is how the world is, if this really is how God is going to judge, if this really is the fate of my non-Christians friends and neighbours simply by virtue of their not arriving at the right beliefs (i.e., those of my little tribe) in their handful of decades on the planet, then how am I supposed to go to school and play hockey and blissfully listen to Nirvana and Def Leppard in my bedroom?! How can any of us spend a moment of our days doing anything but frantically trying to rescue the lost?! Eternal destinies are at stake!!

Like the Catholic philosopher Hart refers to, I suppose I answered with my life. I had little interest in living as if such a frightful view of the world was actually true. So, I didn’t. I guess I don’t actually, underneath it all, think that’s how God and the world is. But the idea of a fiery, eternal, and well-populated hell doesn’t die easily. Even though I don’t rationally believe in the hell Hart critiques and haven’t for some time, I still recognize myself in the quote all these years later. It’s hard to eradicate it from my theological memeory entirely.

I wonder if what is true of musical preferences is at least partially true of theology. The stuff we’re exposed to in those formative, identity-shaping years of life, say between 12-20, lodges itself deep into our brains, and it takes quite a lot to get us to unlearn some things or expand the boundaries (or shrink them, when necessary) and to generally consider something new. I know people who believe that the task of Christian faith is pretty much to preserve the theological content and belief structure that they accepted as a teenager unmodified or re-examined for their entire lives. There’s nothing new worth considering, no new insights or expressions that might necessarily blur some boundaries or unsettle some rusty certainties. I wonder if this is sometimes the theological equivalent of putting “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on repeat for decades on end and never listening to a new song.

I still like the music of my teenage years. It does connect with me in a unique way. But I’ve also tried to expand the playlist a bit over time. I’ve come to appreciate new sounds, different genres and instrumental configurations. I’ve even—against all odds!—come to like some (not all) of my son’s music. I’ve also realized that some of the music of my teenage years was uniquely terrible and best consigned to the dustbin of history. What is true of music is probably also true of theology. I received some good things in those teenage years for which I am deeply grateful, but I’ve also had to let some stuff go. This is probably as it should be. None of us gets everything (or even many things!) right as a teenager after all, whether it’s our music or our theology.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Wow, thanks for this man. It was deadly, cutting to the heart.

    October 11, 2019
  2. Mike #

    Your creative use of analogy makes for very deep and interesting contemplation, Ryan.
    In my own christian experience, over time, my theological beliefs change…and then they change back, this vacillation can be very troubling and confusing. I’ve researched the doctrine of Universal Salvation and came to believe in it until someone or some book convinced me otherwise. The argument for and against Universalism can plainly be made from scripture, which is totally confusing. I sometimes wonder if it is somehow possible in God’s economy that both views could be true, depending on one”s Emotional Intelligence and/or “”measure of faith. After all, scripture does teach some amount of leeway concerning certain personal beliefs, some eat meat and some forbid it, yet both are right in the sight of God. etc etc

    I have a Universalist sibling who affords herself the luxury of picking and choosing her christian beliefs solely according to the criteria of “positive” or “negative” consequences, which is, I suppose, born from Postmodern Relativity and personal childhood trauma.

    October 11, 2019
    • Paul Johnston #

      Perhaps the, “Universalist Paradox”….thank you big bang theory :)….can be described as the difference between potential and outcome, Mike.

      October 15, 2019
  3. Faith, like musical tastes can be as narrowly defined or as broadly experienced, as each one of us chooses. We are free to decide.
    Beware of pop psychology that defaults to a primitive view of humanity’s potentials regarding free will and choice. This is the argument of the cynic. The purview that man is only animal and not of transcendent Spirit also.

    October 15, 2019
  4. Paul Johnston #

    As for the Catholic reference (sounds like Hillaire Belloc….could be many) if you so desire, we can discuss the truth or lack there of, in this statement (and others like it) in subsequent posts.

    Such commitment would most likely require more than a few responses. I’m willing if you are.

    October 15, 2019
  5. Paul Johnston #

    Hart’s problem and those of others like him is that he sees Jesus as a liberator. Liberators free the enslaved, so surely the great liberator, Jesus will free all or almost all, of humanity. The problem here is that clearly Jesus is not a liberator, he is a Redeemer. Logically nothing is redeemed unless something remains irredeemable. How many aren’t redeemed? Well if Matthew 25 is to be believed, particularly with regard to the, “10 Bridesmaids” the outcome seems to be a 50/50 thing. Billions of sheep, billions of goats….hell, whatever else there is to say about it, doesn’t lack for a population.

    October 16, 2019
    • The distinction you’re trying to make between “liberation” and “redemption” seems unclear and forced to me. It’s hard to read the gospels and imagine why it wouldn’t be both/and not either/or. They’re not mutually exclusive categories. Jesus seemed to quite clearly understand himself as a liberator. See Luke 4:16-21, for example. Or the Transfiguration scene in Luke 9, where Elijah and Moses speak of Jesus’ “departure” (Greek = exodus) which he will accomplish in Jerusalem. Sounds like liberation to me. At any rate, I desperately hope that Jesus is a liberator for I need liberation.

      October 17, 2019
      • Paul Johnston #

        Fair enough, perhaps this is better. Liberation is simply, “setting free the captive”. The liberated play a passive part in this regard. They either are or aren’t set free. If liberation is the understanding surely Jesus would ultimately free everyone….the empty hell advocacy…. if even one soul remained in hell this points to some insufficiency in God and would make Jesus a failed liberator. One of the tenents of Rob Bell’s
        thesis in, “Love Wins”. If however we see Jesus as a redeemer, “one who frees from sin” then our part is in no way passive. If we persist in sin, willfully unrepentant, even unto death, how are we redeemed? Does not God honour our free will in life? Why should we think it any different in death.

        I’m with Jesus on this one. His judgement is perfect. He does not send people to hell, rather he honours their choice. Many will choose hell.

        CS Lewis gets it right. Hell is locked from the inside.

        October 17, 2019
  6. Was this not the great failing of Israel? Didn’t they expect a messiah/liberator and not a messiah/redeemer? It was political action they sought. Free us from the hell of Roman occupation, so to speak. Whereas Jesus came to free us from our attachments to sin and the hell that creates, here on earth and into the afterlife.

    As for the Luke chapter you sight, I see it differently. I see it as consistent with the idea of a redemptive/spiritual freedom, and not an act of political liberation. They were being told of God’s love for them, there place in His kingdom. The idea that the burdens of their lives were not a reflection of them having sinned but rather the cumulative effect of those who had sinned against them. Further they were not incited to take political action but to love God, themselves and others. In this way mitigating, as best as possible, against the deleterious effects of their enslavement.

    Matthew 25 is our best guide regarding what hell is, and is like. It is real, it is a, “fiery eternity” and it is well populated.

    We must follow the ways and words of Jesus, not our own interpretations. Jesus death on the cross becomes a satanic rite, a macabre death cult manifestation, if all are made free. A free for all of pride, lust, murder, rape and every other despicable act imaginable. I mean why not, there is no hell, there is no eternal damnation…or very little of either to bother about.

    We cannot allow a childhood trauma to determine our existential understandings. Jesus understands our fear and commiserates fully with us. Go to him and be healed. Do not however, use such experiences to cloud your understanding of the reality of hell. Satan may have had sway over some who terrorized you in your youth. {Why we pollute the minds, of the still to young, over the terrifying impacts of belief systems, still shocks and offends my Spirit) But in my honest opinion, if our response to this possible abuse is to deny the reality of an eternal hell then I truly believe, Satan wins again.

    October 18, 2019
  7. Ryan, in rereading you original post I am moved by the italic portion of your concerns. “If this is how it is”….

    Satan must always first pervert our understandings of a words true meaning before he can use these same but newly redefined words, against us. Orthodoxy in it’s true form was meant to mean and was lived by our first ancestors as, “a daily worship, adoration and prayer life centred around Jesus”. Of course this reality, expressed communally would require some, “rules of order” but the rules themselves divorced from daily, worship adoration and prayer have no meaning.

    They can be used as a cudgel against us, rather than the tool they are meant to be. Once the words true meaning is perverted it doesn’t take long for these rules to seem onerous, incomprehensible and even dangerous. It is precisely these outcomes that have led the majority of Christians into believing orthodoxy is malleable, at best and even dangerous, at worst. This is why outcomes/orthopraxy/liberation theology becomes the preferred path. The idea that right outcomes should be held in highest esteem and we should regard orthodoxy as either an irrelevancy or something that must always be changed if it interferes with our chosen outcomes.

    This was Satan’s encouragement to Adam and Eve in the Garden…”we could know what God knows” we could be our own God’s. The cosmic truth of the Garden story doesn’t just happen once in time but is better understood as happening once, through time. We are always, generation after generation, “in the garden”….

    The truth must return, if we are to be set free. Orthodoxy understood as daily worship, adoration and prayer underpinned by rules that help makes this so must always precede any action if we hope that said action is true; is from God.

    October 18, 2019

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