What are the most powerful ways culture influences the beliefs and behaviors of students? Should parents and other youth influencers be concerned, in particular, about the influence of the occult? Sean and Scott interview youth ministry guru Walt Mueller about the most pressing areas of concerning for both reaching and equipping the next generation. And they offer practical tools for any concerned adult for how to engage young people today.

More About Our Guest

Walt Mueller is the founder and President of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding (CPYU) and has been working with young people and families for over 35 years. As a result of his work with CPYU, Walt has become an internationally-recognized speaker and author on contemporary youth culture. He has many resources on student culture available at CPYU.org.

Episode Transcript

Sean McDowell: Welcome to the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith & Culture. I'm your host, Sean McDowell, professor of Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.

Scott Rae: And I'm your co-host, Scott Rae, dean of Faculty and professor of Christian Ethics, also at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.

Sean McDowell: Well today since it's Halloween, we wanted to do a unique show with somebody who has a very interesting perspective on youth culture. Rather than just talk about demons and the occult and some of the conversations that are important that come up, we want to talk about, is this really a trend within culture today and within student culture, how big of a deal is the occult? Should we be concerned? Where do we see it manifested? Et cetera. And when you talk about student culture and how to analyze culture, I don't know anybody better than my friend, Walt Mueller. He is the founder and president of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding, which is a nonprofit organization serving schools, churches and communities across the U.S., Canada and worldwide. It is one of my go to organizations to just kind of get my fingers, so to speak, on the pulse of what's happening in culture. So, Walt, thanks so much for joining us.

Walt Mueller: Thanks.

Sean McDowell: Before we get to students and questions related to the occult, I want to know more broadly, how do you approach culture as a map and a mirror? What do you mean by this?

Walt Mueller: Yeah, when I define culture and I'm talking to youth workers and parents, I try to simplify it in terms of a more functional definition. And so I will often tell them that culture, youth culture is the soup that our students swim in everyday, and the ingredients in this soup, because of the rate of changing culture, change from day to day. So our job as people who are involved in cross-cultural missionary work, whether we're parents or youth workers or pastors, is to stir that soup up every day to see what's in there today that maybe wasn't in there yesterday and maybe what's gone. And then I work to help people understand that there's a function here, and culture functions versus a map, it is directive and prescriptive. In other words, if I'm swimming in it and I'm a vulnerable young person, my pores are open, I'm marinating in this, and it's shaping the way I think. Sometimes without me even knowing it.

And it maps out life because of beliefs and values that I need to embrace, and then those things of course, result in behaviors. So that's how it serves as a map. It guides us from point A, simply stated, the dependence of childhood to point B, the independence of adulthood and how I'm going to live the rest of my life. It shapes my world view.

As a mirror it's a helpful tool for those of us who are in ministry and who are trying to reach kids and understand kids because we stand over their shoulders and we look into the mirror of what it is that they're engaging with. So the types of things they're reading, the types of things they're listening to, the types of things they're watching. And we allow it to reflect back to us who our kids are. Sometimes, well usually it states much better than kids could state themselves what they believe in, what's behind their behaviors. So much like Paul in Act 17 when he went into Athens and he walked around and looked carefully at their objects of worship working to listen and understand before he spoke. I would say to people do the same with today's youth culture. That way you get to understand kids and you know what to say a little bit better, when to say and how to say it when you're engaging with students.

Sean McDowell: So is that really what it takes to understand culture, is just watching closely, listening, asking questions, paying attention. What does that look like for you regularly and what would that look like for parents and others who are just trying to understand what's happening with young people today?

Walt Mueller: Yeah, well certainly there's a couple of levels here, Sean, that I think we need to pay attention to and listen to. One are those overarching macro trends that are out there and in the culture today. These are things that, because we live in a globalized world, things that tend to be threads that run through youth culture, no matter where you are. So, watching some of the mainstream television shows that might be out there, just paying attention to the newspaper. I love that whole idea of starting your day with a Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, or as John Stott says, "Do dual listening. Listen to the word, listen to the world." So look for what those macro trends are and certainly... Like listening to your podcast or checking out our website, cpyu.org. There are loads of places you can go to find out what those things are.

But then you also have to look at the micro culture that's unique to your situation. So a youth worker, what about the students you're working with? Or parents, what about your particular kids and the kinds of things they're engaging with, the types of people that they're interacting with, the experiences that they have in the local situation? And those tend to be a little more nuanced. But I'll tell you over the course of time, this globalized youth culture is having a greater and greater impact on people and almost making it so that even the micro cultures that are out there are lining up much more.

Scott Rae: So while you've been at this for several decades now, you've seen a lot of changes in youth culture over the years that you've been involved working with students. What are the big changes that you've seen that sort of stand out to you in youth culture over this time period you've spent working with students?

Sean McDowell: And by the way, I kind of consider you a youth ministry father. And in case you feel aged, I throw my dad in the youth ministry grandfather realm, so...

Scott Rae: Don't ask the parent.

Walt Mueller: That makes me feel-

Sean McDowell: Well he's been around a long time, but you've been doing this enough, and I mean it a compliment that you really bring some expertise to study in youth culture.

Walt Mueller: Yeah. Well you took my breath away there for a minute, then you redeemed it. Now that was great. I love that. Yeah. You know, just when I wake up and look in the mirror, that's one of the biggest changes I see. By the way, guys, when I look in the mirror that's the biggest change. No longer am I youth culture, I'm now old guy culture. Well, it's interesting, and you'll not be surprised by this, but just in terms of general large trends. I've lived long enough and read enough history wise to go back to post World War II, the 1950s and 1960s and that shift from a more modern rational world to a more postmodern feeling oriented world. And certainly there's a lot more to it than that. But that's one of the biggest shifts I've seen.

Certainly, you see that in marketing where all the advertisements used to appeal to reason. This product A is better than product B because it works better. Here's the proof, as crazy as some of those ads were. But now we sell with emotion and it's not so much the product itself that we're trying to sell, but a world view associated with a product as the ads tell stories. And that really is the biggest shift, that we've moved from a more rational world where there was more of a commonly held standard and objective standard of right and wrong that all the institutions and culture by and large agreed with, now to this, just this shotgun out there where people are firing in all directions and everyone decides for themselves what's right and what's wrong.

And that shift has taken place so quickly that when I first started in youth ministry, there were certain assumptions we had or things that we didn't even have to address in terms of emotions and things. Now, the rational appeal to the scriptures was deeply embedded, and now, everybody's out there doing their own thing and it's very syncretistic. It's a buffet spirituality where everybody picks and chooses what they want at any given point in time.

So I would say that's the big thing and I'll tell you one of the biggest trends right now that I'm really pushing on and working to understand is what Charles Taylor in his book, A Secular Age, Robert Bellah talked about this, and I know you guys are familiar with this, but expressive individualism. Where our highest value and goal in life is to be authentic to who we are, and we see this working out, well, primarily, it's in all areas of life, but I think a lot in area of sexuality and gender. And so fluidity really is sort of a mantra of the age. You can just drift all over the place in how you view yourself, the identity you place on yourself, your understanding of your gender identity. And even when it comes to faith, we see this, it's undermining Orthodox Christian faith, and to me that's deeply troubling.

Sean McDowell: Part of my question is how tied is this individualism to the naturalistic world view? And what I mean by that is within the Christian world view, it's about loving God and loving other people. So there's a supernatural realm outside of me. There's the way the world is, and I conform myself to that reality. But this individualism, for example, I think about Coke. I remember this commercial when I was a kid, it was Coke versus Pepsi and the idea is like there's two options. Now you buy your own soda making machine to the exact flavor you want, and if that's not good enough, get a soda now with your name on it. So I agree 100% about this expressive individualism. Is that kind of tied to losing this sense of the supernatural? Is there a connection there? Because if there is a supernatural, then there's a truth outside of me I need to conform my life to.

Walt Mueller: Yeah, I think in some ways that's pretty accurate. So we've moved from this more objective standard of transcendent truth to a more subjective way of living life, which would be what you refer more to naturalism. That would certainly be a good home for that. But I do think, Sean, that the good news, and I know you know this and this is why we can make the appeal, the gospel appeal to all people, because all people ultimately are longing for that transcendence. And just to make that connect is the big thing. This is what Paul did. Again, I go back to Athens, Act 17, that passage has been so instrumental in my understanding of how to not only work to [inaudible] culture now, but to use culture to reach people.

I mean, we know this, that as Pascal said, that God shaped vacuum is there, or Augustine, that restless heart is there. So there's always that yearning for transcendence. But I think young people were definitely, and older people as well, just generally in our culture, we're not going to the right place to find it. And, let me say this, I fear that in our ministries we are not being as direct or as straightforward as we can, must, should be, in terms of communicating the truths of the gospel to young people. I think we're afraid of turning them off because we've bought so much into having to placate them for the particular type of world view that they've embraced.

Sean McDowell: This is a really powerful point that as we talk about different world views, we have to remember that kids always have been, and always will be, made in the image of God and yearn for this kind of transcendence in the way that you described it. So that is really helpful to not get too caught up in the trends of the day. Since today's Halloween, let me ask you this. How do you make sense of, there's kind of this show, Stranger Things, in which it seems like there's a supernatural element. They have the mind flair that possesses one of the characters, the demogorgons seem like they're these demon like beings. And there's this upside down world, which also seems like a supernatural realm. But when the kids want to access this world, they go to a scientist. So it's really not a supernatural story. It's purely a natural story kind of cloaked as if it's supernatural. Do you think that's... talk to me about that. Is the occultic powers real that we're seeing, is it all naturalistic? How is this generation looking at the supernatural realm?

Walt Mueller: Well that's a great insight and here's how I would answer that question. I don't know how to say... How to answer how this generation is looking at that realm. But this is a great case and a great example of when you're dealing with a student who's engaged with a show like Stranger Things, ask them that question. That question you just asked me because their response will reveal to you whether or not they see it as a supernatural world or as a natural world. And either way they go with that... That's a diagnostic question in many ways and, either way they go with that, that is going to open doors for you to first understand more deeply where they're from and where they're coming from, and then where you need to take them to, how to begin to respond to them.

So my guess is, I've engaged with youth workers and kids and, even me myself watching Stranger Things, who would see it as a supernatural thing, sort of the world of light and the world of darkness, seeing it that way. And then there are others who would see it more as... Of course, I look at it through the framework of a Christian world and life. I'm trying to interpret it that way, and I think many of our kids who at least have a little bit of understanding of that will see it that way. But there's others who don't, who will see it purely in the way you've just described.

Scott Rae: Well, let me follow up on that just briefly. I think most of our listeners will assume that any reference to the things like Stranger Things brings out, it sort of automatically involves a belief in the supernatural. How is it that you could have the phenomena that the show like that describes, and be strictly relegated to naturalism?

Walt Mueller: Well, I think a lot of it rests on someone's assumptions, and this is where I would go back to what I just said. I come at it from the perspective of a Christian world and life view. I would say that I liken this to how in my situation, how 20 years ago I watched The Matrix, and kind of that world beneath and [inaudible] the Matrix there and then I start to interpret it through the scriptures. But those who don't have that notion or that idea, I think they will go at it from a naturalistic view point.

I'm not sure they will see it from a supernaturalistic view point, and that's where I think we can use it as a stepping stone in conversation to take them into things that are good, true, right and honorable, as we look at the scriptures and see that there is something objective out there that is transcendent, the sovereign God of the universe who made us and then work through the biblical story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration to bring them to an understanding of how they fit in to that grander story, how they fit into God's story.

Scott Rae: So, while a show likes Stranger Things, sort of is one of the ways I think that people are being introduced to the demonic and the world of the occult. But I wonder before we go any further exploring that, can you explain to our listeners exactly what you mean by the occult? How should they understand exactly what that is?

Walt Mueller: Yeah, and that's an interesting phenomena too because, from a Christian perspective, when you look at things that are dark or things that are demonic or things that are what the scriptures would call, I would even include the world and the flesh, but the devil, the course of this world, the zeitgeists. I think when you look at those things, some of them are more sensationalistic. That's what most people would interpret to be the occult. But I think there are things that are just much more veiled that we need to be concerned about, especially in our North American setting. When I talk to missionaries, they will talk about manifestations of the demonic and the occult in ways that are kind of like what we would've played with, maybe a horror film, demon possession and just some of the more sensationalistic stuff.

But I think as well, there's this element that we overlook that is what really sneaks in to us, even as followers of Jesus Christ and even within the church, in terms of the way that the enemy operates. Getting us to question, let's say, so really anything of the enemy. So, for example, when you go back to Genesis and just at the time of the fall, when Satan says, "Did God really say?" I find that there's so much questioning of God's truth right now in the church and Satan is using, the enemy is using that same ploy, that same tactic to undermine Christian belief in Christian nurture and sanctification as we start to question. And I think this has resulted a lot in the rise of expressive individualism in the church and even some of the more progressive types of, well quote, unquote, progressive types of Christianity that are out there.

I hope that makes sense. But you know, again for me as a follower of Christ, I am working to understand that the way the demonic or the satanic or the occult comes through in my life would be through temptation, accusation, doubt, distraction, deception, coming to an understanding or being tempted to come to an understanding of an imbalance between truth and love. And those are some of the ways that I think are actually the most dangerous, and the ones that we should be aware of.

Sean McDowell: This is really helpful for fresh reflect upon, because I grew up in the 80's and early 90's, and there was concern about blatant occultic beliefs. You'd hear testimonies at churches and camps about Satanists and people would talk about back masking where they'd play Ozzy Osbourne's music backwards and it would allegedly say, "Worship the devil," or something like that. But you don't even hear these kind of concerns today. What you're saying is that really satanic beliefs are much more powerful when they're subtle, rather when they're explicit. And I think we saw this about, gosh, it's been maybe 12 or 13 years ago when The Da Vinci Code came out. The whole church was in uproar about this and deeply concerned about the message in The Da Vinci Code, which was fiction but not the same response to the typical TV shows that people are showing and watching and music that is not as explicit. Is that really the heart of your concern and have you seen that shift in terms of how Christians approach occultic beliefs today as well?

Walt Mueller: Yeah. I think we look for the extremes, Sean, and we get lost in the extremes. We react to the extremes. The extremes are what get the press. But then we lose the reality of how the enemy works by focusing on those extremes. So a great example of what you're talking about. When I talk to parents, I find that many parents will judge film solely based on the rating system, and so they will keep their kids or they'll keep themselves from any R rated films because of violence, sex, and profanity. They fail to say that there's violence, sex, and profanity in the scriptures as well. And that doesn't justify all the violence, sex, and profanity that is in film.

What I've often said is, you're missing some good truth, some truth and some good stories. If you purely make your decisions based on the ratings and you're inviting in, if you just base your decisions for your children on the ratings, you're inviting in world view elements that are deeply distressing from time to time in some of the G rated or PG rated or PG13 rated films that when we trust that there's no violence, sex or profanity, we fail to understand the world view ideas that are implicit in those things. And sometimes even explicit. We overlook those.

Scott Rae: And that's such a good point about how the subtlety of demonic influence is really what is capturing our youth today. But there are others who are being captured by the more overt types of occultic behavior that you're referring to. So what are some signs that a high school or college student might actually be being influenced by a cultic belief.

Sean McDowell: Like Wicca? Wicca would be an example we've heard about a lot recently. How prominent is that?

Walt Mueller: Yes. Yes. And you know, there was some research that just came out on that. The Pew Foundation actually was tracking along with... I believe it was Middlebury College in Connecticut, they were looking at how many practicing Wiccans there were... Excuse me, it was Trinity College in Connecticut. So from an estimated 8000 Wiccans here in this country in 1990, they found that in 2008 there were 340,000 practitioners. Pew Foundation studied the issue even further in 2014 and found that approximately 1,000,000 to 1,500,000 people identify as Wiccan or Pagan. I lived in Salem, Massachusetts when I was in seminary back in the early 80s and I would guess that many of those original Wiccans, that's where they live. Now these folks would not say they're actual Satan worshipers. They would differentiate themselves. They would talk more about white magic and Satan not being a personal being and worship of the earth and Goddess worship and things like that. As opposed to those who would be in the more extreme, the upside down pentagram type of a cult, satanic worship.

I would say just, simply stated, watch who they're hanging out with. Look carefully at the way they dress because this is a subculture that really does adopt an outward appearance in many ways. Again, when I was in Salem, it was the way they wore their clothing, a lot of black, a lot of long dresses, a lot of makeup, things like that. And it's not always that, but keep an eye on that. And in addition, you need to know as well that the kids who get drawn into this, they're trying to find a place to belong. That's what extreme subcultures typically are. And this particular subculture is unique in the sense that it offers the powerless power, especially if they have been squashed by peers or other adults in their lives. This is a way for them in their mind to grab a lot of power to exercise over others.

Sean McDowell: Well, this is great stuff. Let me ask you a last kind of practical question. What's your advice if parents, youth workers say, "Hey, my kids want to dress up, celebrate Halloween. Should we throw on a Halloween bash?" What's your wisdom when that kind of question comes up?

Walt Mueller: Yeah, that's a tough one, Sean, and I go back and forth on that because I grew up with that in a healthy way without any knowledge at all of any sort of background, the Halloween and Halloween practices, and I hear things back and forth as people argue that. I had a conversation with a family yesterday and I just asked them the question. They're very deliberate about faith matters and they said, "Basically what we do is we let our kids go get candy. We don't do anything scary. We don't embrace any of it that's scary."

And I know people are all over the map on that. Again, I would think that that's why it's there, but I also know that it can be a doorway and we have to be careful about that, and a lot of it goes with what sort of bent or direction are our kids heading in terms of their interests as it relates to pop culture and film, their friendships, that sort of thing. But I'm also very careful about, and I know I'm not giving you a really direct answer here, but we don't want to give the devil a foot hold and I find that to be some of the best advice out there. And so parents have to make up their mind on this as they think through and pray through this and take a good hard look at their kids, their local community and the kinds of things their kids are involved in.

Sean McDowell: That's a great response. Just kind of guidelines how to approach this and also wisdom from working with students for a long time. We really appreciate you coming on, especially that we recognize religions like Wiccan and other Pagan ones still do have a foothold in our culture, but probably in terms of numbers and influence through media and other forms, this expressive individualism is coming through and it's undermining our kids' confidence in the gospel and the way that they relate to the Lord and they live out their lives. So this encouragement you've given us to pay close attention to what's happening in culture and to engage our kids to see it from a biblical perspective is just wonderful. I want to commend to our audience, I read your weekly update from cpyu.org, kind of the culture update is one that I go to to just make sure I'm tracking with what's going on with student culture today. So I hope our audience, will check that out.

Walt Mueller, thanks so much for taking the time to come on the show.

Walt Mueller: Thank you.

Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith & Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Walt Mueller, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and consider sharing it with a friend. Thanks for listening and remember, Think Biblically about everything.