FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Whatever Happened to Absolute Truth?

with Sean McDowell | October 4, 2006
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Today on the broadcast, Sean McDowell, a high school teacher and author of Ethix: Being Bold in a Whatever World, talks with Dennis Rainey about the huge relational and emotional gap facing teens today. Hear how to encourage your teen to turn his or her faith into truth and practical moral convictions.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Today on the broadcast, Sean McDowell, a high school teacher and author of Ethix: Being Bold in a Whatever World, talks with Dennis Rainey about the huge relational and emotional gap facing teens today. Hear how to encourage your teen to turn his or her faith into truth and practical moral convictions.

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Sean McDowell talks about the huge relational and emotional gap facing teens today.

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Whatever Happened to Absolute Truth?

With Sean McDowell
October 04, 2006
| Download Transcript PDF

Sean: When it comes to shaping a kid's worldview, one of the most important things a parent can do is to first learn what they believe about the Scriptures, because so much of truth is caught not taught.  So parents first think through biblically, study the Scriptures, go to conferences, get resources and think through, and that's the first great step in shaping our kids.

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, October 4th.  Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.  In a world where everything is gray, can you help your children know the difference between right and wrong? 

 And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us.  Do you think the apple falls far from the tree?  Do you know what I mean?

Dennis: Well, you know, sometimes the apple kind of rebels and …

Bob: … it doesn't even fall.

Dennis: It tries to get away from the tree but, many times, yes.  Gravity just kind of takes over, and the apple just kind of lands right there at the base.

Bob: Right in the shade of the tree, right?

Dennis: Yeah, no doubt about it, and then some of those little apples kind of squirm their way out from under the shade and find a way to secure their own position in life and kind of grow up, and we're proud of them.

Bob: Start sprouting up and producing a little fruit of their own?

Dennis: That's right, and we have one of those young apple trees here with us today, don't we?

Bob: Young apple trees, I like that.

Dennis: I do, too.  Sean McDowell joins us on FamilyLife Today.  Sean?

Sean: It's good to be with you.

Dennis: Welcome back.

Sean: Welcome back, huh?  Yeah, we did this 12 years ago, didn't we?

Dennis: We did.

Bob: We did this when you were 19 years old.  In fact …

Dennis: You'd forgotten, hadn't you?

Bob: I want you to hear a little of what you sounded like when you were 19, and we were getting ready to do an interview with your dad, Josh McDowell, who is known worldwide as an apologist, an author, a speaker, and we wanted to know if you were required to read your father's books.

Dennis: Do you remember what you said, Sean? 

Sean: I could guess, but I don't remember exactly what I said.

Dennis: Let's listen.

[from audiotape]

Bob: One thing that your dad's known for is apologetics for being able to give a rational answer for the faith.  Has he trained that into you kids?  Has he developed that in you?

Sean: He hasn't, like, pressed it into us.  You know, he's always there to answer questions, and I, you know, definitely take advantage of that.  But he lets us be our own person, you know, he doesn't try to make us like he is, and that's the main thing that he does is express how important it is for us just to be how we are and not try to be someone else.

Bob: He doesn't have classes at night where you're expected to …

Sean: No.

Dennis: Has he asked you to read his books?

Sean: Well, he's mentioned a few at times.

Dennis: At the dinner table, he'll say, "Now, I'd recommend you read this book tonight?"

Sean: Not really like that.  Sometimes I see books that – he comes out with books so often, I don't even know – he doesn't even show them to us sometimes, but I've read a bunch.

[end audiotape]

Bob: What do you think, huh?

Sean: Oh, my goodness.

Dennis: I think you flunked, is what I think.

Bob: The ghost of Sean McDowell past, right there.

Sean: It is coming back.  That's kind of scary.

Dennis: Well, the apple tree is secure.  Sean has anchored his own spot in the orchard, and you have written a book called "Being Bold in a Whatever World," and it's entitled "Ethics."  Now, this is a book written for teenagers, college students, right?

Sean: Yup, teenagers, college students as well as parents, teachers, who want to understand kind of youth culture and some of the choices that kids are making today.

Bob: And do you think youth culture today is different than what 19-year-old Sean McDowell was facing when you were going through this?

Sean: When I was 19, the Internet hadn't even really exploded yet on the scene.  So that alone has radically changed youth culture.

Bob: But is the way young people think different than it was 15, 20 years ago?

Sean: In some ways the way that they think has changed.  I think a lot of that is due to the Internet – just that kids are exposed to so many different worldviews, so many different perspectives about life – not even looking for it.  So, in that sense, their beliefs are changed.  I mean, obviously, Solomon said there's nothing new under the sun, so there are some core issues kids will always deal with, but there's absolutely been some basic changes in the way kids process truth, the way they understand relationships, the way they think about abortion in a biblical worldview.  I mean, studies actual show that every single year the worldview is decreasing in the church and particularly young people.  So you go back 10 years ago, they had a different perspective about truth, a different understanding of the Scriptures, different understanding of who God is.  And if that trend continues, we rightfully should be pretty concerned about our youth.

Dennis: Sean, you teach high school, and you've been speaking to youth all across the country and have written this book to young people.  Help us crawl into the mind of a young person today and better understand what is their view of truth?  I mean, they're in the youth groups, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they've bought into the truth of Scripture; that it is the absolute authority on life and issues related to life.

Sean: Well, there's no question about it.  In fact, kind of a way to think about youth today is a recent book came out by a youth ministry veteran by the name of Chap Clark, and he called it "Hurt – Inside the World of Today's Teenagers."  And he basically said there's two challenges and problems with youth culture today.  One, is he said the reason he titled it "Hurt," is because there's a huge emotional and relational gap inside of our kids.  In fact, he put it this way – he said, "Every single young person who has grown up in America, every one, is only one major event or catastrophe away from falling over the edge into what most would call 'at risk.'" 

And as I say that around the country, I had a youth pastor come up to me, and he said, "You don't realize how important that is.  Just this past week we had a young Christian man who was the captain on the football team, popular, and he committed suicide."  Nobody saw it going.  So one of the huge problems, and I know this is what FamilyLife addresses, is the relational void and the hurt that results in the lives of our kids. 

But, secondly, what he mentions in his book is what I'm most passionate about is he puts this – he says, "What is new with this generation of young people is the lack of ability to construct bridges between one layer and another; the inability to see contradictions as contradictions."  So, really, what's happened with youth is they've been trained because culturally this happens – they've been trained to compartmentalize their faith so a kid will go to church, and they'll learn certain truths, but we're not making the connection from those truths to where they carry it out in their everyday lives, their relationships, the way they handle their money, their school, et cetera.

Bob: So they're not moving from beyond belief to convictions.

Sean: A very creative phrase to use my dad's title.  Nice job, I'll give you props on that one, as my students would say. 

 In other words, you're absolutely right.  A kid's belief, because their beliefs are shallow, and they're not grounded in convictions, they're not translating into their changed lives.  Now, if you ask kids how important is spiritually to you?  The majority of teenagers will say, "Very important."  In fact, in a recent study, 67 percent of conservative protestant youth said faith is very important in their lives, and this was based out of the national study of youth and religion.  One girl said, "Oh, really important, it's the center of how I live my life."  Another girl said, "Faith influences many of my decisions." 

 But if you flip that question around, and you ask teens first, "Tell me what's most important in your life."  Guess what, according to this study and my experience with youth, almost never comes up?  Religion or their faith.  So what's happened?  Religion is important to me in the religious sector of my life.

Dennis: In that category.

Sean: In that category.

Dennis: But it doesn't spill over and impact moral choices, the wisdom about living life and where they invest their life, their purpose, how they're going about spending their time?

Sean: Absolutely.  In fact, I had a student – I was talking to her this past week, and she's a Christian, and she's really – she talked about loving God and following the Bible and faith and on and on and on, and then she walks away, because she gets a phone call from her mom and then, literally, as she's talking to her mom, she blatantly told her mom a lie – something totally not true, and I knew that because of something she had said earlier.

 So when she was done, I thought, "Well, I'll just kind of confront her on this."  She walks over, and she had told me previously how much she loves and respects her parents – walks over, and I said, "You know, what you told your mom, that's not true, is it?"  She goes, "Look, what my parents don't know is not going to hurt them."  In other words, that compartment of my life, faith, is important when I go to church, and it's important maybe Wednesday night youth group, but it doesn't really affect the way that I live.

Dennis: And this is a generation, as you write about in your book that, well, if it doesn't like the way things look, it simply redefines what truth really is.  You tell the story about a little girl that brought a – was it a puppy to class?

Sean: Yeah, it was just a small dog.

Dennis: And it illustrates how truth is relative.

Sean: Yeah, well, basically, this girl – they wanted to know – they're young kids, didn't have it all figured out yet – elementary students, and they said, "Is it a boy or a girl?"  And this girl raises her hand, and she goes, "Well, I know how we can solve it.  Let's vote on it."  In other words – and that idea right there is indicative of the way kids think today – that I can actually change reality when it comes to morals and when it comes to religion.  My preference shapes truth.

 And let me give you another example of that.  This is one that happened to my dad recently.  He was speaking at a conference, and this is a well-known denomination, and he was talking to students, and he asked some youth pastors, he said, "Give me some of your top students.  I want to go interview them during my session." 

 So he walks down, and he started interviewing students, and he asked them questions that I think is pretty fair.  He brought a student up, he said, "Do you think the Bible is the Word of God?"  Without hesitation, he said, "Yes."  And my dad asked him, he said, "Do you believe it's historically accurate and true in everything it teaches?"  The student said "Yes," without hesitation.  And then he asked him, he said, "Why?"  The student looks at my dad, he goes, "Huh, that's a pretty good question.  I don't know."  Well, my dad thought maybe just one kid.  Went around the room, no kid could answer why.  And then shortly, later, my dad's at his book table, and this kid – I think his name was also Josh, comes running up to my dad.  He goes, "Josh, Josh, I know the answer.  I know why the Bible is true."  And my dad got excited.  He thought, "Wow, he did some research, asked somebody" – he goes, "The Bible is true because I believe it."  Literally thought the Bible was true because he believed it.

 My dad said, "Take a Muslim who believes the Koran.  Is the Koran true to a Muslim?"  And this student, a top leader in a well-known denomination said, "If he believes it, it's true for him."  And my dad's response, I think, illustrates the difference in the way probably those about 30 and younger process truth versus the other generation.  He simply looked at him, he said, "The difference between me and you is this – you think the Bible is true because you believe it.  I believe the Bible because I think it's true." 

And that illustrates that our kids, in their minds, when it comes to religion and it comes to morality, they literally think they can create reality simply because they believe it, and that's why kids all the time will say, "Well, that's just your truth.  That's just what your parents taught.  Who are you to judge me?"  Because when it comes to religion and morality, there is no objective truth.

Dennis: You know, what you're talking about is a real challenge for parents today who are attempting to raise the next generation, and when Barbara and I were working on our book, "Parenting Today's Adolescent," we were looking at these major issues that young people face.  Issues of sex, pornography, uses of media, peer pressure, drugs and alcohol, and throughout the book what we tried to do and what we tried to call parents to do was, number one, decide what you believe that Bible teaches about this issue so, as a parent, you know what your worldview is and what you believe about the issue of sex before marriage.

 Then, secondly, decide how you're going to start to shape and challenge your young person to begin to develop his or her own moral convictions and beliefs around the Scripture about what they stand for.  And what all the teenage years are all about, I believe, is moving your child, as you said, Bob, from belief to convictions, so that you start out with the truth, you move them to faith in the truth, but you turn that faith in the truth to moral convictions that bases choices, the choices they make every day with the opposite sex, with peers, with alcohol, drugs, around their own personal convictions.

Sean: Building convictions that will shape the way they live.  You know what you said about shaping teenagers, and I know you would agree with me on this, is I think if we're starting when they're teenagers, we've already lost the battle.  In fact, Barna study shows it used to be in youth ministry that the model was when a kid is 18 and walking across the graduation stage, if we haven't reached him by then, it's too late – majority speaking.  The reality is now, Barna says, is that a kid's worldview in many ways is shaped by 12 and 13 years old. 

 Now, the teenage years are typically when parents have to almost back up a little bit, and if they haven't built that relationship and spent that time and loved their kids, the kids aren't going to listen when they're teens, and I think it really comes back to that relationship.  I went through a period of my own life where I had some real doubts about what I believed.  I got on the Internet, and people were writing different stuff and respond to my dad's material and others, and I thought, "Well, what if the Resurrection is not true?  What if I'm believing a lie?"  And I said down with my dad, and I remember, I said to him, I said, "Dad, what would happen if I become an atheist?"  I said, "I don't know if I believe all this stuff."  And he looked at me, and he said, "Son," he said, "I think that's great." 

 And it kind of took me by surprise, because I thought, "Well, what do you mean that's great?  Are you writing a book in your head?  Are you not hearing me or something?"  He said, "I sense you want to know truth."  He said, "But take to heart the things that I've taught you.  Don't forsake it just to forsake it and rebel like so many kids do.  Take it to heart, and however I can help you, let me help you."  You know what?  Knowing that my parents loved me, period, gave me a lot of freedom, and as I wrestled through stuff, I genuinely wanted my dad's insight. 

So it really goes back to relationship, and I think the other point you made is all the studies who have backed this up, that when it comes to shaping a kid's worldview, one of the most important things a parent can do is to first learn what they believe about moral issues, about the Scriptures, because so much of truth is caught not taught.

 So, parents, if you want to shape your kids' worldview, first think through biblically, study the Scriptures, go to conferences, get resources and think through, and that's the first great step in shaping our kids.

Bob: Let me take you back, though, to the student who said, "Well, if it's true for him, it's true."  There are some things that you'd look at, and you'd say, "Well, this is subjective."  Like, "How do I look?"  You know, your wife says, "How do I look?"  Well, is there a true answer to that?  You know what I'm saying?

Sean: Absolutely.  I think what you've hit on is the key problem in our culture, and I think here is why youth compartmentalize their faith.  There are two types of truth, and let me show you an experiment that I'll do with my students.  I'll take a huge jar of, like, Reese's pieces, and I'll say to my students, I mean, there's probably hundreds of thousands in there.  I'll say, "What's the correct number of Reese's in this jar?" And they'll guess and take strategies and then eventually they'll all agree that there is a correct number to get to.

 And then I'll say, "Okay, what's the best color?  Is it orange or is it black?"  And they'll debate about it and, finally, they'll see, "You know, it's kind of a confused question."  I say, "Okay, so you realize there's two categories here.  There's one category that there's a correct answer to, regardless of what I believe or I think there's an objective truth about it.  The other one is preference."  And then I'll ask them this, I'll say, "When it comes to religion, which category does it fall into?  Is it a question of preference, like flavor, or is it a question of objective truth?"  Now, studies show 81 percent of youth will say that morality is subjective, but they don't really believe it.

 The easiest way to know what somebody believes is how they want to be treated.  And a powerful way to illustrate this – I also list this one in the book.  This is one of my professors, J.P. Moreland, he was on Crusade staff at Vermont.

Dennis: Yeah, J.P. is a good friend of Barbara's and mine.  We go way back to the Jesus movement in the late '60s and early '70s, although I haven't seen him recently.  He's a professor at Talbot Seminary and also Biola.

Sean: See, that really dates you with my parents, because my mom knew Hope in college when she was first on staff, and my dad remembers when J.P. came, so he hasn't been around for a little bit.

Dennis: Yeah, but get on with the illustration, would you?  It's still a great illustration regardless of what archaic age it came from.

Sean: Actually, yeah, it was a little bit more recent, but J.P. Moreland was in a college dorm sharing the four spiritual laws with a student, and he walked in, and he walked him through the whole thing and talked to the student about truth and the Bible and forgiveness, and the student's response was, "Look, that's just your truth.  I have my own truth.  I won't force my values on you.  There's nothing that's absolutely true.  You have your values, live your life; I have mine and live my life." 

So J.P. Moreland says, "Okay," stands up, starts walking towards the door, picks up the guy's stereo, walks down the hall.  Well, of course, immediately, the guy objects.  Why?  As soon as the objection, J.P. Moreland goes, "Wait a second.  I happen to have the personal value system that says you can walk into a freshman's dorm, take their stereo if, in fact, you have to work out, and I do.  That's my personal ethic.  Certainly, you won't force your values upon me."

 And instantly this kid was caught in a bind, because he said that there was no absolute truth, but he couldn't live like there was, and it just brings you back to Romans 1 and 2 that says we have the conscience, we know God exists, and He's written it on our hearts.

Dennis: All right, Sean, you're making a lot of sense here with our listeners.  I have a feeling that many of them want to know – are your students getting this?  Are they really capturing the difference between absolute truth and a preference?

Bob: Well, you know, what I'm thinking, as a parent, I feel like I'm swimming upstream in this regard, because every attempt you make to try to reinforce these things, the culture is just screaming back louder than you can shout in the opposite direction.

Sean: You know what?  To be honest with you, I feel exactly that way myself.  So when I say are my kids getting it?  Yeah, some of them are getting it; some aren't getting it.  The reality is I only have so much control over my own son, over my own students, and that's hard to let go, because as a teacher I want every single kid to get it.

 Now, I get letters back all the time from my students who go to college and go, "Wow, thank you for preparing me.  Thanks for helping me," and we have students who will leave and leave their faith.

Bob: You get those letters, and you think, "You were awake in class?  I didn't even think you were paying attention."

Sean: I did get one of those last week.  So it's important to remind ourselves as parents and as, you know, youth influencers, that kids really do hear, and they'll take it to heart.  We might not see it now, but if we keep training them and loving them, I believe, in most circumstances, we will see fruit.

Dennis: Just a couple of points of summary – one, I think every parent needs tools in his or her tool chest to influence his child, and your book, "Ethics – Being Bold in a Whatever World," I think would make a great – well, I want to say it would make a great graduation gift for a senior in high school before they go to college but, quite honestly, Sean I feel I'd find a reason to give it to your child, 13, 14, 15, somewhere in there and begin to enter into a dialog.

 But then, secondly, I think parents have to set their own course for their children and, as you've said, start at an earlier age to shape the moral judgment, the beliefs about truth in children in grade school and even before that, and they need a game plan for the teenage years and, hopefully, a book like "Parenting Today's Adolescent" will be a great help in equipping parents around the major 14 issues that teenagers are facing today.

Bob: When you and Barbara wrote that, I know what you had in mind was to provide parents with a resource that would help them wrestle through these issues on their own first and then develop a strategy for making sure their children are confronted with biblical truth around significant life issues.

 And while a teenager could read a book like the one that Sean has written, I think a mom and dad need to work together through a book like the one you and Barbara have written, to be equipped and ready as parents for these issues as they start coming our way in raising our children. 

 We've got copies of your book, "Parenting Today's Adolescent," and your book, Sean, which is called "Ethics" in our FamilyLife Resource Center.  Our listeners can go to our website at  In the middle of the home page, you'll see a red button that says "Go," and if you click that button, it will take you right to the site where you can order a copy of Dennis and Barbara's book or a copy of Sean's book, or if you want to get both of them together, we can send along at no additional cost the CD audio of our conversation with Sean McDowell.  You can listen to it together, or you can pass it along to someone else who might benefit from listening to these programs.

 Again, our website is, and click the red "Go" button in the middle of the home page, and you can order a copy of either of these books from us here at FamilyLife, or if you would prefer to call, the number is 1-800-358-6329.  That's 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY.  When you do get in touch with us, someone on the team will get the necessary information, and we'll figure out how we get these resource sent out to you.

 Speaking of resources, we've had a number of our listeners who have already contacted us this month interested in the CD of a message that your wife Barbara shared with a group of women not long ago on what a wife can do to help her husband be all that God wants him to be as a man, and as a husband, as a father, and we're making that CD available this month to our listeners to anyone who can help with a donation of any amount to the ministry of FamilyLife Today. 

 Those donations are crucial.  We depend on them to be able to keep FamilyLife Today on the air in this city and in cities all across the country, and so this month we decided that maybe a nice way of saying thank you to any listeners who can make a donation would be to send out the CD and make it available.  If you're going online to make a donation, and you'd like to request a copy of this CD, when you get to the keycode box, just type in those two letters, "CD," and we'll know what you want.  Or call 1-800-FLTODAY, that's 1-800-358-6329.  You can make a donation over the phone and just mention you'd like the CD from Barbara, and we'll know what you're looking for, and we'll get it out to you.  Again, thanks for listening and thanks for your financial support of the ministry of FamilyLife Today as well.  We really appreciate it.

 And tomorrow Sean McDowell is going to be back with us.  We're going to continue to talk about some of the important moral and social issues that face us in our culture today and how we can help our young people be ready to face those issues biblically.  I hope you can be back with us for that.

 I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine.  We'll see you next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

 FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas, a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ.

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