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.