Review: The Vanishing American Adult by Ben Sasse

The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-RelianceThe Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance by Ben Sasse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A good-hearted, tough-minded, generous, hopeful, Mr.-Smith-goes-to-Washington who nonetheless knows his Augustine (and, more importantly, his Paul) well enough to take account of human depravity in his politics.

An earnest, Christian, Ivy-league educated, cornfields-to-Congress husband and father and former university president who saw sad deficiencies in his students and worked to remedy them in his children.

I don’t fundamentally share the hope Sasse has for America; I just don’t have it in me. I think we’re too far gone. But his view from the heartland—both of America and, in a way, of the Western tradition—is still one I wanted to set firmly before my vision as my own children exit toddlerhood and start coming under my more direct influence. And I’m very glad I took the time to listen to Sasse. I picked up a conviction first helped along by Vern Poythress that I need to provide what my culture no longer does: structured, coming-of-age rites of passage for my children. I need, too, to take even more seriously my job of passing on what’s valuable in Western culture to their fresh minds and hearts—along with the spiritual truths I have already eagerly taught them (and will continue to teach). I need to teach them not just “the value of hard work,” which is a bit nebulous as far as learning objectives go; I need to teach them (and I loved this idea from Sasse) that far more joy comes out of production than out of consumption.

Memorably, and now famously, Sasse sent his fourteen-year-old daughter off to a ranch to learn the value of dirty work. He recommends travel and reading of great works (he is the product of St John’s Great Books program—and of Harvard and Yale). Above all, he recommends structured and intentional transference of adult responsibilities to children and teenagers. I hear and now adopt his vision.

I have something of a secularometer when I read books nowadays, and very clearly Sasse is not a devotee of the self-help genre. He is an orthodox evangelical Christian. He makes regular and explicit reference to his faith and even gets a little into the weeds of Christian theology, encouraging readers to explore the relationship of Genesis 3 and Romans 5, for example. He did not implicitly privilege empirical modes of knowing, citing study after study like many books in the same Amazon category. I really appreciated that. Instead he relied on biblical insight and classical/traditional arguments. I probably would have increased the Bible citations and been a little more glum about the possibilities of pluralism. But I didn’t write the book.

Sasse is someone I have come to really admire. He’s a leader with a careful and non-partisan vision for America’s future. He may be The One Mark Lilla was looking for when he asked (in
The Once and Future Liberal
) for someone to unite Americans of all kinds around a shared story—even though I’m sure Lilla would not want Sasse in the role. I think someone with a clear belief system—including a belief in the “classical liberal” wisdom of the American founders—is actually best suited to retrieve a system which is supposed to allow for liberty of individual conscience while still pulling Americans together behind a common vision. I pray—I pray—that Sasse’s star will rise. What a mercy to us if it does.

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Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

1 Comment

  1. Donald Johnson on November 12, 2017 at 12:56 am

    Interesting, I don’t know much about Sasse. I would share the hope that someone like that can make some difference, but I also share the pessimism. Even if Sasse were to rise to the level of President, say, how much could one man do to overcome the effects of the nihilistic cultural tide that overwhelms us? At most he would only have eight years at the helm. Barring some cataclysmic attendant circumstance that sparked real revival, I would guess his influence might slow the flow a little bit, but meanwhile the water is getting deeper.

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