Tuesday, May 22

Insult & Injury: Teen Editions of Popular Christian Books

I've read more than my share of self-improvement and Christian lifestyle books. Some have been useless; others have been incredible. But, to be perfectly honest, very few were a challenge to read. Unlike works I've read in other genres, I never needed a dictionary and I rarely needed to figure anything out via context. As a category, self-improvement / Christian living books tend to be written in fairly simple language.

So I've been baffled by the "teen editions" of some of the genre's biggest sellers flooding the market lately.
It makes perfect sense from the production end, of course. For almost zero new effort they can vastly expand their sales.

But from a consumer standpoint, I have to wonder why people aren't at least indignant at an arrangement that costs them money and hurt their teens in the bargain. Let's take a minute to look at the facts, shall we?

1. Teen editions are a prime example of planned obsolescence. They are designed to be replaced by the adult version of the book as the recipient ages, prompting people to unnecessarily pay for the same material twice.

2. Teens want (& need) to be challenged. (See the amazing book Do Hard Things, which covers this in depth if you haven't read it.) Teens want to matter, and they want respect. Being given a teen edition of a book is like being told to sit at the kiddie table at Thanksgiving dinner - it's all the same food, but the message that you're not big/old/smart enough to be included in adult conversation comes through loud and clear.

3. Failure to read adult books robs teens of prime learning opportunities. During their teen years most people begin the move from blind acceptance of the faith with which they were raised towards a place individual faith. This almost always includes searching and wrestling with tough questions. What better time to teach them how to ask the right questions and sift out the truth with discernment? While they still have ready access to parents and trusted youth leaders is exactly when we want materials in their hands that will stretch them. This is when they should be laying the foundation of Bible study and utilizing Christian living resources that they'll use the rest of their lives... an unlikely event if they're breezing through a simplified, brightly colored booklet!

4. Teen editions amplify the age divisions in churches. This subject is much to big to handle effectively here, but the short version is that there is no precedent in the Bible for the modern practice of dividing church services and Bible study by age. This practice is much more likely caused by the overflow of Victorian/ industrial revolution era educational theory (reference Now You See It). This age division does not help churches but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it hurts them; teen editions only aggravate this existing situation.

5. Continuously lowering the reading level of Christian literature  pushes valuable classics increasingly out of reach. The KJV Bible is typically considered to be on a twelfth grade reading level, The Message estimated to be barely at fifth grade level, and the NIV around an eighth grade level. Using that as a rough guide, your average Christian living/ self-improvement book runs between sixth and tenth grade reading levels, with a few maybe reaching a twelfth grade level. Now think of the classics like the Screwtape Letters, St. Augustine, or the sermons of Jonathan Edwards that have informed Christian belief and debate for decades (or longer). If we give this generation everything - including their Bibles - at a tenth grade reading level or lower, how long do these valuable older texts have before they are ignored altogether as "too hard to read" and their wisdom discarded?

Am I just overreacting? Maybe. Are all teen editions a bad thing? Probably not. But it's well proven that people rise or lower themselves to the level of our expectations; maybe, then, we would be wise to raise our expectations when it comes to the books we hope will help us find truth and live well.

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