Book Review: Souls in Transition

Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults by Christian Smith with Patricia Snell. Oxford U. Press, 2009.

Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford University Press. 2009) is chock-full of insights and all the graphs and tables you could ask for. Some of the most significant to me were the commentary on emerging adult culture — which the authors saw as governed by an intuitional morality — one just knows what is right for oneself but is also characteristically free-wheeling in terms of alcohol consumption, sexual hook-ups, risky behaviors and often a lack of clear purpose. Of course, not all are like this — there are those who continue to adhere to religious beliefs, who generally both abstain or limit such behaviors and are much more engaged in altruistic behaviors like giving, volunteering, etc.

One of the most striking findings, and consistent with the earlier research (see Book Review: Soul Searching) was that parents and other adult figures along with one’s own religious experience and practices of scripture reading and prayer were the greatest indicators of continuing to be highly religious as emerging adults. These influences far outweighed youth groups, peer influences and even experiences like mission trips. As a general rule, the researchers found that most people tended to continue to embrace the same level of commitment, with perhaps slight decline during emerging adult years. They noted that, contrary to studies of boomers, college for this cohort was not a place of losing faith. Rather decline is much greater among those who don’t attend college. I was heartened as a college minister to find the researchers attributed this different to the influence of parachurch ministries on campuses. And it was fascinating that on the basis of the NYSR data, the authors propose that the interest of this generation in “spirituality”, while present, is over-stated.

The concluding chapter posed some of the most interesting ideas in the book. The authors suggested that for mainline protestants, the somewhat greater decline in their numbers is actually a sign of the success of their ideas of tolerance, openness and free inquiry. By the same token, they attribute the personal subjectivism and anti-institutionalism of many evangelicals to sola scriptura and the ability of every individual to be their own interpreter of scripture. This anticipates more recent work by Smith where he attacks evangelical biblicism. I personally think this is painting with a broad brush because many evangelicals (consider the Wesleyan quadrilateral) have recognized the importance of tradition and there is a strong contemporary movement within evangelicalism to go back to the early fathers and to re-engage with both the theological and formative traditions of earlier believers as well as over-simplifying the evangelical view of scripture.

Nevertheless, this last chapter, as well as the book as a whole are worthy of much reflection for those who are concerned about the emerging generation.

From the desk of the editor . . .

Thank-you to Bob Trube for reviewing Souls in Transition and Soul Searching! In trolling through Emerging Scholars Network‘s numerous references on these books, Naomi Schaefer Riley’s review of Souls in Transition (Wall Street Journal. 10/2/2009) and the Wall Street Journal’s offering of an excerpt from Chapter One came to my attention. Note: Both pieces are still available and (if you have read them already), I encourage you to follow the above links to consider them.

Furthermore Katelyn Beaty’s Christianity Today interview of Christian Smith on Souls in Transition is quite insightful. In the interview Smith shares:

Author and researcher Christian Smith, Ph.D. is on the faculty at Notre Dame where he serves as the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society. Picture from Accessed 8/26/2013.

Most of what happens in emerging adulthood works against serious faith commitments and putting down roots in congregations. Most emerging adults are disconnected from religious institutions and practices. Geographic mobility, social mobility, wanting to have options, thinking this is the time to be crazy and free in ways most religious traditions would frown upon, wanting an identity different from the family of origin — all of these factors reduce serious faith commitments. — Lost in Transition: With his latest research on emerging adults, sociologist Christian Smith helps the church reach out to a rootless generation. Interview by Katelyn Beaty. Christianity Today. 10/9/2009.

With regard to secular colleges not serving as the “faith killer” they had for some time, Smith comments:

If anything, college is no different in terms of the faith corrosion outcomes on youth. It may even strengthen the faith of some. We think this is partly about a growing number of evangelical faculty at secular colleges. Another factor is the increasing presence and legitimacy of campus religious groups and ministries [InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Campus Crusade] that provide support systems — not just fellowship, but also intellectual engagement that may have been lacking in past decades.

The culture has also changed: “spirituality” is more acceptable now than in past decades. Most faculty know you cannot say stupidly anti-religious things in the classroom and get away with it.  — Lost in Transition.

May by the grace of God, such truly be the direction of campus ministry, higher education, and our engagement with both. To God be the glory! ~ Thomas B. Grosh IV, Associate Director of the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN), with responsibilities including the editing of ESN’s blog and Facebook Wall.


Note to the reader: The Emerging Scholars Network (ESN) continues to encourage those who have read the book “under review” to comment. In addition, we acknowledge that some who have not read the book “under review,” also bring helpful insights to the concepts/data explored in a given book, the writing of a particular author, and/or the understanding of the concepts/data as offered by the reviewer. As such we are open to “civil” on-topic comments from both those who have read and those who have not read the book “under review.”

Deep down ESN longs for reviews such as those offered by Bob not only to foster dialogue, but also to serve as teasers — providing an opportunity for our readers to discern what books to place in their personal and book discussion group queue. If you have books you desire to review and/or to have reviewed by ESN, please email ESN.

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Bob Trube

Bob Trube is Associate Director of Faculty Ministry/Emerging Scholars Network, and Senior Area Director for InterVarsity's Graduate & Faculty Ministry team in the Ohio Valley (Ohio, West Virginia, and Western Pennsylvania). He resides in Columbus, Ohio, with Marilyn and enjoys reading, gardening, choral singing, and plein air painting.

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