Seventeen gets religion
Girls' fashion bible adds faith section
By Rachel Zoll
NEW YORK -- Faiza worships five times a day, while Rhianna is as likely to believe in God as in the Easter Bunny. Kristin prays too, but to the God and the Goddess.
This teenage religion debate can be found on the pages of a magazine better known for explaining how to match lipstick to blush -- not exploring the concept of a higher power.
But under editor-in-chief Atoosa Rubenstein, the venerable girls' publication Seventeen has added a faith section that includes inspirational messages, personal stories of spiritual struggle and testimonials on issues ranging from prayer to gay teens who attend church.
The content is serious. Verses from the New Testament are printed beside sayings from the Prophet Muhammad. The teachings of Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama are also featured.
Rubenstein said she started the section not to spread a religious message, but to provide a forum on an issue she believes is important to this generation of girls.
"I feel, and had sensed that my readers felt, that there was an entire magazine that wasn't speaking to a part of them," Rubenstein said. "I just noticed more and more our readers were talking about their faith."
Experts on religion and youth trends agree. They theorize that teens are rebelling against the broad, undefined spirituality of their baby-boomer parents, and are seeking out environments -- like those in church -- with clearer rules that help them cope with day-to-day problems.
In a recent study by Teenage Research Unlimited, a market research firm in Northbrook, Ill., 58 percent of teens ranked faith as among the most important parts of their life, said Michael Wood, the company's vice president. Still, he knew of no other teen fashion magazine with a religion section.
Rubenstein, who was the founding editor of CosmoGirl!, said she first proposed a faith section several years ago when she was just starting out in magazine publishing. The response from the other editors, she said, was that a fashion magazine was no place for God.
A year ago, she took over at Seventeen with a mandate to revamp the publication and she revived the religion idea. For guidance, she formed an interfaith advisory board that includes an evangelical Christian preacher, a priest from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, a Reform Jewish rabbi, a Buddhist teacher, an Episcopal youth minister and two Muslims.
The only nationally known member is Irshad Manji, author of "The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim's Call for Reform in her Faith," who has won several awards for her popular book, but has also become a target for criticism by some conservative Muslim leaders.
Rubenstein, whose mostly beige office is punctuated with bright pink chairs and zebra pillows, said she considers herself spiritual. She was raised Muslim, the daughter of Iranian immigrants, and said she prays for help and inspiration in difficult times.
"It's a part of my life that is important," she said. "Yes, I'm into fashion. Yes, I'm into makeup, but at the same time my faith is very important to me."
The section debuted in August, and Rubenstein said the reader response has been mostly positive so far, with a few of the more religious readers complaining about some testimonials from skeptics. In the first issue, the section came just after a detailed article on contraception, which Rubenstein called "a very modern and realistic" presentation.
A companion Web site, seventeen.com/reallife/bigquestion, lets teens post comments on whether they pray. More than 1,800 people have responded so far.
The Rev. Christopher Robinson, a DePaul University professor who researches religion in the media, said the section was less interesting than some other pop-culture treatment of faith, such as the hit CBS show "Joan of Arcadia," about a teenage girl who talks to a God who takes the form of random people.
"My impression is it gives you a nice feeling to ask these questions, but it makes no demands on you at all," Robinson said of the magazine. "It's fun to hear about what other people think about God. It doesn't call me to make a stand."
Laurie Whaley, of the division of Thomas Nelson publishers that created Revolve, a top-selling Bible for girls that looks like a fashion magazine, said she was impressed that Seventeen was addressing religion in any form. She predicted it would attract readers.
"The teen culture today, they're very, very much about faith," Whaley said. "I think it's appropriate to have a faith section regardless of what your periodical is about."