Reading Between the Lines: The Potential of Popular Young Adult Fiction in Adolescent Spiritual Formation
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Popular culture is a powerful, shaping force in the lives of teenagers between the ages of fourteen through eighteen in the United States today. This dissertation argues the importance of popular fiction for adolescent spiritual formation and it investigates that importance by exploring the significance of narrative for theology and moral formation. The dissertation employs mythic and archetypal criticism as a tool for informing the selection and critique of narratives for use in adolescent spiritual development and it also incorporates insights gained from developmental psychology to lay the groundwork for the development of a curriculum that uses young adult fiction in a program of spiritual formation for teenagers in a local church setting. The dissertation defends the power of narrative in Christian theology and concludes that narrative shapes the imagination in ways that alter perception and are important for the faith life of teenagers in particular. I go on to argue that not all narratives are created equal. In using literary myth criticism in concert with theology, I use the two disciplines’ different aims and methods to fully flesh out the potential of theologies intrinsic to works meant for a largely secular audience. The dissertation compares various works of young adult fiction (M.T. Anderson’s Feed and Terry Pratchett’s Nation in dialogue with a theology of creation; Marcus Zusak’s I am the Messenger and Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl in dialogue with salvation and saviors; and the four novels of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga in dialogue with a theology of hope (eschatology). The dissertation explores how each theme surfaces (even if only implicitly) from both literary and theological standpoints. The dissertation concludes with a sample four-week lesson plan that demonstrates one way the theological and literary critique can be formed into a practical curriculum for use in an adolescent spiritual development setting. Ultimately, this dissertation provides a framework for how practitioners of young adult formation can select, analyze, and develop materials for their teenagers using new works of popular young adult fiction. The dissertation comes to the conclusion that popular fiction contains a wealth of material that can challenge and shape young readers’ own emerging theology.