West, Diana. The Death of the Grown-Up. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 2007. 256 pp. $15.99.
In The Death of the Grown-Up, author Diana West examines what it means to be “mature,” and how the arrested developments of post-World War II Americans have contributed to the degeneration of American society as a whole. Taking on a range of topics—from parental irresponsibility to multiculturalism that fails to examine itself—West argues that western civilization’s obsession with youth is not just annoying or embarrassing but ultimately destructive. In the preface, she writes, “Chucking maturity for eternal youth may have created the culture of perpetual adolescence, but it should now become apparent that this isn’t the same thing as achieving cultural longevity. . . . What if it turn out that forever young is fatal?” (xiv). It is from this sobering perspective that West sets out to prove just how far society has gone in its quest to never grow up.
In Chapter 1, “Rise of the Teen Age,” West informs her readers that our current understanding of teenagers is relatively new; in generations and centuries past, the teenagers weren’t seen so much as “older children,” but rather as “young adults”—young adults who are closer to being fully-functional and contributing members of society and their particular spheres of influence. However, in the years following World War II, West writes that the United States—slowly but surely—became obsessed with lengthening the time one stays “young,” an obsession that has continued to this day. The moment a child or young person becomes an “adult” is much more vague than ever before. She writes, “ . . . between the Very Beginning and Journey’s End, an important aspect of Middle Age has gone missing—the prime of ‘making a life’” (5). The responsibility and accountability that comes with age, assumed “maturity,” and “making a life” for oneself have, in West’s eyes, been replaced by an elongated period of childhood—childhood which, by virtue, is devoid of one having to account for their actions and thus devoid of the onus of “making a life” for oneself. West elaborates on this lengthened childhood in the following three chapters.
In Chapter 5, “Sophisticated Babies,” West presents the reader with what she views to be the logical outcomes and consequences of affirming youth merely for the sake of affirming youth (youth and things “new” being seen as superior to what is “old”). Because parents are acting more like their children (in terms of maturity and discretion), there seems to be a double standard (a severe lack of discretion West seems to attribute to a stunted maturity in “adults”) when it comes to what their children can and cannot be exposed to: “Society takes it on itself to rule out garlic and cayenne as being too spicy for her years (think: kids’ menus), but not birth control methodology and polymorphous sexual experimentation” (92). In the following chapters, West examines where “boundaries” of acceptability and decency lie and where they should lie and what it means to be an American in 21st-century, multicultural America. Finally, in Chapter 9, she argues how a nation of selfish, hyper-individualistic children in adults’ bodies can destroy a society. She writes on the subject on manhood and womanhood (true adulthood) and relates this to how selfless, mature, men and women not only protect their fellow citizens (the heroics of the New York City police officers and firefighters during 9/11 being an example) but actively stand up against injustice, violence, and tyranny. It is especially in this chapter that West takes a hard stance against Islam and how the religion itself embodies and endorses an oppressive worldview that, if left unchallenged, puts America and western society in jeopardy.
As a single 25-year-old who enjoys Spongebob Squarepants and is still financially dependent on his parents, there were sections in the book that were particularly convicting. Her words made me reexamine my own life, my own maturity, and how I may be contributing to the problem. The overall subject matter of the book is a particularly hot topic in this seminary (and perhaps the Southern Baptist Convention as a whole)—what it means to be an adult (Southwestern calls it “biblical manhood and womanhood”). Therefore, I am grateful to West for writing the book. In a society where words whose definitions have long been assumed to be clear—words such as “man,” “woman,” “child,” “adult,” even “family”—are becoming less and less so, The Death of the Grown-Up is a welcome voice of reason and sanity in the midst of a society gone hell-bent on staying “young.”
In spite of what I found to be valuable in this book, there were areas that were lacking. As a seminary student who believes in God’s power to save and redeem even the most dire of circumstances and the most depraved of sinners, I found parts of the book to be merely a sociological and political commentary from a conservative talking head, albeit with better writing skills and superior research. Though she presented arguments that I would definitely agree with (that parents need to focus on developing their children’s character more than their college and career prospects; that the virtues of “tolerance” can lead to intolerance in its own right; etc.), there seemed to be a lack of pointing back to Christ and the power of the Gospel to save those who desperately need saving (this is assuming that she is even a believer). Perhaps West is indeed a Christian but desired to reach a wider audience through this book. However, this criticism leads me to my next criticism, which is that there seemed to be no solutions—spiritual or unspiritual—presented on the part of West. Despite the bleak picture she portrays of 21st-century western society and America, West, in the end, fails to provide the reader with any concrete solutions to combat such a growing problem.
As a Christian, I believe that the Gospel and salvation through Christ gives one a better perspective of who they are, as a result of a better perspective of who God is and what God has done and continues to do. Therefore, having a better perspective of God and self through the Gospel aids parents in parenting (showing a sacrificial love to their children, much as God sacrificially loved us in the form of Christ’s death on the cross), helps children to respect their elders, and gives individuals a better sense of respect and responsibility they have toward their fellow man born in the likeness of God. That said, West does not speak of this, nor does she provide any solutions whatsoever in helping our country to “grow up.” By the time one is finished with the book—assuming one is convinced by West’s arguments—there is much grave pessimism, tinged with a distinct lack of hope for society.
From a reader’s standpoint, I will freely admit that I know very little about Islam and what exactly Muslims believe. Therefore, I cannot adequately assess how founded and accurate her claims about Islam are.
Regardless if one agrees or disagrees with West’s findings, the book does succeed in causing the reader to think more about he exposes himself to. In Romans 12:2 Paul admonishes his early readers to “not be conformed to this world.” Through The Death of the Grown-Up, West helps to make less vague to the 21st-century American reader what “conformity” and world patterns consist of. What West ultimately succeeds in is moving the reader to be more discerning and intentional when it comes to what forms of culture and media one takes in (and, among those things, what one chooses to embrace), how one raises their children, and how one relates (relating consisting both of an understanding and the resultant actions) to their fellow human being.
Brett Koji Imamura
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Fort Worth, TX