An Introduction to the Myth of Adolescence

Series | Lies Every Teen Believes

“The facts are simple,” says Charles K. Johnson, president of the International Flat Earth Research Society. “The earth is flat.”

As you stand in his front yard, it is hard to argue the point. From among the Joshua trees, creosote bushes, and tumbleweeds surrounding his southern California hillside home, you have a spectacular view of the Mojave Desert. It looks as flat as a pool table. Nearly 20 miles to the west lies the small city of Lancaster; you can see right over it. Beyond Lancaster, 20 more miles as the cue-ball roles, the Tehachapi Mountains rise up from the desert floor. Los Angeles is not too far to the south.

Near Lancaster, you see the Rockwell International plant where the Space Shuttle was built. To the north, beyond the next hill, lies Edwards Air Force Base, where the shuttle was tested. There, also, the Shuttle will land when it returns from orbiting the earth. (At least, that’s NASA’s story.)

“You can’t orbit a flat earth,” says Mr. Johnson. “The Space Shuttle is a joke–and a very ludicrous joke.”

His soft voice carries conviction, for Charles Johnson is on the level. He believes that the main purpose of the space program is to prop up a dying myth–the myth that the earth is a globe.

The preceding excerpt is from an article titled: “The Flat-out Truth” printed in Science Digest, July 1980. The man mentioned in the article, Charles Johnson, died March 19, 2001, having fought the lonely and futile battle to, in his mind, “restore the world to sanity.”

A Google search for “flat earth” reveals a somewhat surprising reality that there are still many people today, even in the 21st century, who believe our earth is flat. There are even entire organizations devoted to fight the idea that the planet we live on is a globe.

But there is a simple problem: the earth is not flat. It is a lie that the earth is flat and that lie has generated a flat earth myth. A “myth” is just a traditional story accepted as history. A myth serves to explain the worldview of a people. And the story of a flat earth is quite literally a worldview; a made-up view of the world; an imaginary story passed from generation to generation.

In addition, I have come to find that there is a bigger myth, a bigger “story” than the story that our earth is flat. The bigger myth is the myth that asserts everyone used to think the earth was flat.

Now I admit, I didn’t always pay great attention in school. But until doing some research one Saturday night I’m sure I remember reading and discussing in school the whole account from 1492 where everyone thought Columbus was crazy for sailing off into the ocean because they all thought the earth was flat. I’m positive my teachers regaled me with the great drama on the high sea as sailors readied themselves to mutiny against the great Captain Columbus, fearful that after so many days without finding land they were sure to sail right off the edge of the world.

That story is all wrong. I read some fascinating research by a gentleman named Jeff Russell, a professor of history at the University of California in Santa Barbara. He says in his book, Inventing the Flat Earth, that throughout history and up to the time of Columbus, “nearly unanimous scholarly opinion pronounced the earth spherical.” Russell claims there is nothing in the documents from the time of Columbus or in early accounts of his life that suggests any debate about the roundness of the earth.

He attributes the myth about flat-earth popularity to the creator of another story, the story of Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving. Irving wrote a fictitious account of Columbus’s defending a round earth against misinformed priests and university professors.

The book was titled The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus and was published in 1828. It was a mixture of fact and fiction with Irving himself admitting he was “apt to indulge in the imagination.” Its theme was the thrilling victory of a lone believer in a spherical earth over a united front of Bible-quoting, superstitious ignoramuses, convinced the Earth was flat. Irving invented the picture of a young Columbus, a “simple mariner,” appearing before hooded theologians at the council of Salamanca, all of whom supposedly believed–according to Irving–that the earth was flat like a dinner plate.

There was, in fact, a meeting at Salamanca in 1491, but Irving’s account was pure fiction. He “let his imagination go completely…the whole story is misleading and mischievous nonsense.” The well-known argument at the Council of Salamanca was a question of the distance between Europe and Japan that Columbus presented and therefore had nothing to do with the shape of the earth. Needless to say Irving took some “dramatic license” to make the story more exciting.

But if the majority opinion was not that the earth was flat, how did the fictional version become the non-fiction truth taught in schools and schoolbooks as of the early 1860’s?

Russell says the flat-earth mythology flourished mostly between 1870 and 1920, and grew in a environment with an emerging acceptance of evolution. He says the flat-earth myth was an ideal way to dismiss the ideas of religion in the name of modern science.

The fundamental reason for promoting the lie about a flat earth was to defend Darwinism and provide ammunition against the creationists. The argument was simple and powerful: “Look how stupid these Christians are. They are always getting in the way of science and progress. These people who deny evolution today are exactly the same sort of people as the idiots who denied that the earth was round. How stupid can you be?”

So not only is the earth not flat, it has never been the popular view that it was! We might say the liberal media of the 1800s spun the truth to make Christians look stupid for teaching a flat earth and make evolutionists look smart. But the idea of a flat world is a lie. And the idea that everyone thought the earth was flat is an even bigger lie.

But this is not a series on the geometry of the earth. The major lesson from flat-earth beliefs is how well-spun myths mislead and how easily they blind one to contrary evidence. Embedded lies are major obstacles to the truth.

And there is a parallel myth running rampant in the church today; dangerous lies propagated by parents, spread by many youth pastors, defended by educators, and swallowed by young people themselves. The presuppositions of our generation about teenagers have become a story–a way we talk about life, and this story is a myth called adolescence.

The lies depict teenagers as helplessly incompetent, irresponsible, and in a perpetual identity crisis. Young people are portrayed only as problems waiting to happen, they are guaranteed to be rebellious, and always at the mercy of their hormones. Belief in these lies has become so commonplace that hardly anyone questions the reality or legitimacy of adolescence, resulting in an inability or unwillingness to hold teenagers responsible for what they do. This has produced widespread confusion among adolescents themselves and frustration for authorities.

Let me be clear as clear as possible, the popular idea of adolescence is not true and it is painfully unbiblical. Adolescence is not a fact–just like the earth is not flat. It is equally wrong to think that everyone has always recognized adolescence as a fact–just as everyone has not always believed that the earth is flat.