Vital Signs

Teen Angel

"This is not your Grandma's pageant!" the announcer proudly proclaimed. No, indeed, this was the 1999 Miss Teen U.S.A. pageant from Shreveport, Louisiana—"Brittney's Beat" (a reference to teen super-Lolita Brittney Spears). Why even acknowledge that this sorry event happened? Because it provides a window into the existence of an American phenomenon, one that has profoundly shaped our culture—the teenager.

In Western civilization past, there was no such thing, per se, as a teenager. There were children, and there were adults. In patriarchal Christian society, a girl passed from being under the authority of her father to that of her husband. Boys became young men, husbands, and fathers. Both were deemed fit to marry in their mid-teens, having been taught hands-on how to manage a household. Households were units—like church and country—in which there was a level of solidarity. Children worked alongside their parents to support the household. A father as "head of the household" bore responsibility for his wife, children, and servants, both monetarily and spiritually. This structure flows from Scripture and the tradition of the Church. We Lutherans see it emblazoned in the Small Catechism, where Luther begins nearly every passage with "This is how the head of the household is to teach concerning . . . "

In modern America, child-labor laws helped to nail...

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