Alex and Brett Harris have just come out with a book entitled Do Hard Things. There are few books more counter-cultural or necessary for teens to read. As a pastor I often weary of trying to minister to teens who will not be impressed by anything because they expect the church to spoon-feed/entertain them rather than teach them Bible content and (horror of horrors!) doctrine. Even the church’s expectations of teens is that they are not able to handle doctrine because that’s too deep for them. This book is excellent in its ideas, well-written, well-organized, and easy to read, yet profound in application. Alex and Brett have written a book I hope and pray will change millions.
The basic thesis of the book is the title. However, the title needs a bit of explication. Culture has low expectations of what teens can do and what they should do. However, since the Bible does not speak about “teenagers” as such, and since, in history, people in their teens have been expected to be adults, Alex and Brett maintain that the teen years are not for slacking off and partying, but rather for accomplishing things for Christ. The subtitle is helpful: “a teenage rebellion against low expectations.” It is an edgy title, since Alex and Brett are clearly playing on teens’ desire to rebel. But it is really gutsy to rebel against the entirety of culture, all the more so since the cultural expectations are often more hidden than explicit.
I was pleased that the Harris brothers carefully qualified the message of the book to exclude a works righteousness paradigm. It is not possible to earn salvation by doing hard things. This message is always needed because we are inherent legalists. In fact, we might even think that we have to maintain favor with God by doing hard things. Plainly that is not the message in this book. The only way to heaven is through trusting in Christ, who has done THE hard thing (impossible for us) of taking upon Himself the guilt of our sin, and giving us His spotless righteousness that we may not only have our sins forgiven, but also have an entrance into eternal life.
What was especially inspiring about the book was the stories of real life people that were included to emphasize the point being made. The stories fit the point they were making very well.
They start the book with a description and refutation of what they call the “Myth of Adolescence.” The illustration of the elephant was exactly to the point: culture can hold on to us quite easily by its expectations: as easy as a simple rope can hold on to the elephant, because the rope has the elephant’s mind bound into thinking that the elephant cannot go anywhere. The ridiculousness of this way of thinking becomes obvious when the examples of George Washinton, David Farrugut, and Clara Barton are taken into account. They write: “The problem we have is with the modern understanding of adolescence that allows, encourages, and even trains young people to remain childish for much longer than necessary” (p. 33). They myth is that the teenager is an invented category (stemming from the unintended consequences of the child-labor laws) seeking to describe those young people “with most of the desires and abilities of an adult but few of the expectations or responsibilities” (p. 35). The power of the cultural expectation is well delineated: “we live in a culture that wants to tell us how to act, how to think, how to look, and how to talk. It tells us what to wear, what to buy, and where to buy it. It tells us what to dream, what to value, what to live for- and it’s not Christ” (p. 43). The better way is to see the teen years as the launching pad of life.
Doing hard things then requires doing things outside of our comfort zones, doing things that go beyond what’s expected or required, and doing things that are too big to do alone. I also deeply appreciated their expansion of the category “hard things” to include the small everyday things like chores that may seem pointlessly repetitive. The example of the Vikings is very inspiring in this regard.
I have no real criticisms of the book. But I do have some challenges for the Harris brothers. My estimate is that the project of challenging teens to do hard things is only half done (at most!) in this book. There are hints of the world of ideas laced through the book, but another book needs to be written. I even have the title for it: Think Hard Things. One of the biggest problems today is that cultural expectations also shackle the teen world of ideas. Of course a teen cannot do a Ph.D. while being a teenager. They’re too young. Of course a teen cannot learn calculus in high school. Of course a teen cannot learn Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. Of course a teen cannot learn…Society has dumbed down education to the lowest common denominator. Unfortunately, this shackle is a lot harder to shake, since adults control the education system. Why not change it? We have a grass-roots movement here capable of shaking the entire world. Teens have their parents’ ears. And we have two young men who have the ears of that movement. Based on books such as Douglas Wilson’s book Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, much could be accomplished in the realm of ideas.
Why not apply the lessons of doing to the hard problems of philosophy and thinking? Teens, learn Greek, Latin and Hebrew and become theologians, and see the stunning grandeur of biblical truth, far, far deeper than you could think possible. Learn Greek and Latin and become classically educated. Learn to think logically. As Dorothy Sayers said in her essay, the teen years are probably the best years for learning logic, since teens love to argue and debate. Do that well.
Another area that needs addressing is television and visual media. Neil Postman’s book here (Amusing Ourselves to Death) is vitally important. We are becoming an illiterate society because entertainment is transforming culture into a visually based culture rather than a verbally based culture. Simply compare the Lincoln-Douglas presidential debates (thirty minute segments followed by fifteen minute rebuttals) to today’s presidential debates (five minute segments and thirty second responses!). Our attention spans have been ripped to shreds because of commercials.
Going along with this is the cultural malaise regarding art of all kinds. Kenneth Myers’s book All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes details the differences among the various levels of art. To spend all our time or even most of our time in popular culture, never learning about great art is cultural death. We need to be thinking about high culture that challenges our scope and makes us grow more than popular culture, which is barely worth one listen (in the case of music), let alone sustained attention, whereas a Beethoven Symphony will give us new layers of meaning the deeper we go. This is not to say that we should just chuck popular culture entirely. However, popular culture is for entertainment, not for growth. If we want to grow, we need to be in high culture.
Furthermore, the Enlightenment has resulted in the fragmentation of knowledge. One branch of learning cannot speak to another branch of learning. The problem of the one and the many in philosophy is ugly here, since knowledge is simply assumed to be many. And yet God is one. In fact, the Trinity has important ramifications for the problem of the one and the many. These are just some of the myriad areas that Alex and Brett could impact for Christ. And then, after that, comes Believe Hard Things…