Teen Conversion Narratives in Popular Culture

As someone who grew up in a very religious family and educational culture (I essentially attended the school from Saved!), I am fascinated by stories of persons who did not grow up that way, but chose religion on their own while still young. Two TV series have dealt with this phenomenon in a serious way–The Americans and The Good Wife each featured teenaged daughters who became born again Christians, despite the lack of religious sentiment in each of their fictional families. A similar conversion narrative is played for laughs in Arrested Development, when teenaged daughter Maebe decides to be Christian to get out of school:

“Where can I get one of those necklaces with the ‘T’ on them?” “That’s a cross!” “Across from where?”

What I particularly like about the storyline in The Americans* is that Paige, the daughter, found religion to be a way of expressing her maturing personality and values. Paige is the American daughter of deep cover Soviet spies, something she doesn’t learn until she is in her early teens. Faced with what appear to be disinterested, absent parents, she turns to a Christian church to express her ideas about faith, justice, morality, and existence. Her parents, Phillip and Elizabeth, have no such beliefs, and in Elizabeth’s case, are quite hostile to religious beliefs of any kind. Yet they allow her to progress in church and get baptized–partly to keep their own secrets, partly to allow Paige some measure of agency.

The interesting wrinkle is that born again Paige becomes an activist, protesting against war, nuclear proliferation, and general injustice, thus (somewhat) aligning her values with her parents’, albeit unknowingly. Despite this potential for a closer relationship, the truth about her parents drives a wedge between them; the 15 years of lies make it difficult for Paige to find any common ground between herself and her parents.

On The Good Wife**, daughter Grace also feels a familial disconnect which steers her toward conversion. After suffering through the humiliation that was her father’s sex scandal and the resulting estrangement between her parents, Grace is adrift, similar to Paige. With both parents’ attention decidedly elsewhere, and wrestling with the moral questions brought on by the scandal, Grace turns inward and soon finds comfort in Christianity.

Her parents, Peter and Alicia Florrick, are not religious (although Peter briefly turns to a local minister for “guidance” in the wake of his scandal, in order to repair his public image) and Alicia in particular has a difficult time understanding Grace’s new faith. Her concerns stems from Grace’s newfound independence and whether her conversion is truly one of the heart, or just a way for her to separate herself from the damaged Florrick family. Additionally, Alicia is herself an atheist, which makes it somewhat difficult for her to support Grace’s spiritual growth.

In each fictional case, the young woman demonstrates a maturing independence with her religious conversion, which I think is an interesting twist on the rebellious teen trope. These shows ask, what if finding mainstream religion was an act of rebellion? How would that affect family dynamics? In The Americans, it clearly causes major upheaval, as her spiritual values and anger cause Paige to reveal the Jennings’ secret to her pastor. For The Good Wife, it allows Alicia and Grace to find a new way to relate as mother and daughter, even if that means Grace now has something she can’t fully share with her mom.

While these are both fictional tales of young women finding God in defiance of family traditions or beliefs, decidedly non-fictional podcast host and writer Carrie Poppy was also a young teenaged convert to born again Christianity, though she “de-converted” in college and now identifies as an atheist. And yet, her story shares some striking similarities with both Grace and Paige.

In an email interview, Poppy notes that her family was never religious, outside of her mom’s occasional holiday church attendance. Her parents were “mostly absent,” leaving her and her sister to their own devices for the most part, so when Carrie got saved at a church camp she attended, it helped provide some structure for her life. She had a church family to look after her now, and a belief system that she could follow. Plus, there was the feeling of superiority it provided: “it was definitely something that made me feel like I had something OVER my parents. I got something they didn’t; I was morally upright and they weren’t.” She also mentions doing a fair amount of preaching to her parents during that time, even fighting and crying over things like swearing. And yet, she remembers that her parents never prevented her from going to church or continuing with her beliefs: “If nothing else, it gave them free childcare in a safe place while they weren’t home.”

So, what do these stories, fictional and non, tell us about belief and youth and family relationships?

I think these stories demonstrate that there is more than one way to rebel against authority and the constraints of family life. After all, the Jesus Freaks of the late 1960s and 70s were a somewhat rebellious social movement, too. Turning toward religion while in a non-religious family can also be quite radical, as it suggests you can find a higher authority, or a more powerful moral compass beyond your parents. It is, in a sense, a direct challenge to their power as parents.

I’m also interested in the way these stories illustrate the value of seeking, especially for young women. Whether or not one believes in a religious or spiritual faith, and regardless of whether one holds to that belief permanently, the act of spiritual and/or intellectual curiosity is something that should be encouraged. Now, I realize that all three stories are of white persons coming to a Western, evangelical version of Christianity, which carries plenty of its own baggage, and which is not something this post is meant to promote. Rather, I want to read these stories as examples of young women seeking truths, finding them on their own, and then processing those truths independently. This is not to say there is no role for family or family traditions in terms of religious belief; rather, I want to highlight that it can be valuable–or at least interesting–for a young person to seek, find, reject, or embrace spirituality exclusively on their own terms.

*This is up to and including Season 3, as I don’t have cable, and thus am not current with the show.

**Again, not caught up through the end of the series.

Many thanks to Carrie Poppy for answering my questions via email. Be sure to check out the fantastic podcast she co-hosts with Ross Blocher: Oh No Ross and Carrie! It is a funny, thoughtful, and intelligent look at claims of the paranormal, spirituality, and fringe science. They show up, so you don’t have to!

Citations

  • Poppy, Carrie. Personal Interview. 28 and 30 April 2016.
  • Schaefer, Frank. Crazy for God. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press. 2007.
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