Ray's story is a little dramatic, but it's not unique. Increasingly, young people seem to be asking questions about a deeper meaning to life--and finding answers in such new places as the Web, radio and the movies as well as the traditional venues of churches and other religious organizations.
"Kids are very savvy very young," says Kim Kirberger, author of the 13 million-selling Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul books, a spin-off of the original Chicken Soup series. "We have a very empty culture, and kids are realizing that money, possessions and success don't necessarily make for happiness. There has been an upsurge in teens looking for answers about life."
This is reflected in a corresponding surge in demand for spiritual books aimed at teens. Conversations with God for Teens (Hampton Roads Publishing), with an introduction by Alanis Morissette, came out in November. The Goddess in Every Girl: Develop Your Teen Feminine Power (Inner Traditions), which seeks to help teenage girls find their "inner goddess" through meditations, games and rituals, is coming out this summer.
Titles that are more explicitly based on the Bible are also growing in popularity. The Prayer of Jabez for Teens (Multnomah Publishers) has sold more than 800,000 copies since it came out in July, while the Extreme for Jesus series (Thomas Nelson) is the largest brand of Christian teen books and Bibles in the world. Started in 1999, the company has so far sold 1 million books and Bibles. The books, including journals and fiction, are to regular religious literature what skateboarding is to skipping, and the imprint plays up the association with extreme sports. "Church has been made too easy," says Extreme's brand manager, Hayley Morgan. "Kids are looking for something they might fail at initially, but eventually get. The books are a call to action; they're like a coach. They're asking, 'Are you in or are you out?'"
The "extreme" pitch may be part of the appeal. "We live in confusing times," says Rabbi Gary Davidson of Temple Beth Shalom in Long Beach, Calif. "There's a high rate of divorce, crime, drugs, peer pressure, alienation, school violence. People want a foundation on which to build their lives." Add to this the regular tumults of adolescence, and you have a generation that wants answers.
But the questions they are asking are as old as the Bible itself--and a very traditional part of being teenagers. "During high school, kids have a developmental task," explains Debra Haffner, director of the Religious Institute for Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing, in Norwalk, Conn. "They have to develop their own ideals. They need to answer the questions 'Who am I? What do I believe?' It's not uncommon to try on different sets of values, even to 'church shop.' It's the beginning of an ongoing search for meaning."
Sometimes teens' search for faith will be an act of rebellion against their parents. More often, kids become exposed to a spiritual life because their parents are making a point of signing them up for classes or choosing their viewing and reading material. Natasha Vejvechaneyom, 12, of Carrollton, Texas, was enrolled at the Dallas Buddhist Center by her family. Now she's a regular. "I'm kind of a religious person," she says. "Lots of the kids there may find this weird, but I like the meditating. Whenever I meditate, I feel good inside."
One hundred and forty miles away, a 42-year-old mother of four has found an ingenious way of making sure her kids get exposed to her religious beliefs. Rulinda Eakin of Wichita Falls, Texas, has the home radio attached to the light switch in her bathroom. "When we flip the switch up, KTEO comes right on," she says. KTEO is one of 27 stations across the country that carry his KIDS RADIO, a Christian radio network for children ages 3 to 12 that plays biblically based music and stories. Station director Dodd Morris says his kids is a "place parents can trust." The station's goal is to make faith a part of kids' lives every day, "not just on Sunday mornings."
Video and kids go together like Adam and Eve, so it's a natural medium for spiritual instruction. "I don't know if we coined the term edutainment, but we love to use it," says Jane Zylberman,
director of acquisitions and public relations for Ergo Media, which sells Jewish-themed videos; its sales of children's videos increased 36% last year.
One reason for interest in the videos, Zylberman says, is the high rate of assimilation and intermarriage among Jews. "We get a lot of grandparents whose grandchildren are being brought up in a mixed-religion household," she says. "Giving a video is not offensive. They call us and say, 'My grandchild is not being brought up with any religion. I don't have the influence to teach it myself,' so they give a video as a present." For parents who live in more remote areas, or without access to a synagogue, the videos provide a way for them to pass Jewish belief and culture on to their kids.