catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 7 :: 2006.04.07 — 2006.04.21


Rebel rebel?

Last weekend, 25,000 Christian teenagers descended on San Francisco for an event called Battle Cry. According to coverage in the San Francisco Chronicle, the rally, sponsored by Ron Luce?s Teen Mania, is intended to counter a popular culture industry that glamorizes sex, violence, and a host of political issues like (take a wild guess) homosexuality and abortion. Christians are smack in the middle of a culture war, Luce insists?some are even calling it ?the war on Christians??and so young evangelicals must raise a rallying cry in ?a reverse rebellion.?

I remember what it was like to be a teenager, a tricky period of self-discovery when it feels like the whole world is against you. Even more so when you?re a Christian, and everything you read, all the adult leadership you hear, all of the musicians you like, are telling you that you are persecuted minority. When you?re a teenager, it?s easy to believe. Most feel insecure and uncool anyway, and it?s just amplified when you go to church? and like it. Everyone thinks you?re a goody-goody.

And so what relief you must feel when you are allowed to characterize yourself as a rebel.

For today?s young evangelical, faith in the public square is far more complicated than it was when I was in high school. My Christian friends and I resigned ourselves to a life of geekdom. There was no way anyone wearing a shirt emblazoned with the name ?Jesus,? no matter which corporate logo it spoofed, was going to break the ranks of the popular crowd. We learned to be happy on the outskirts.

Not so today. Thanks to publications like Relevant magazine, which ape the hip design and snarky content of mainstream press, it is now possible to be both faithful and cool. In fact, for today?s young Christians, coolness is virtually mandated?how can you expect to be a good witness if you?re alienating your peers with earnest missionary tactics? Much better to slip in under the radar, listening to the music they listen to, watching the movies they watch, mocking the celebrities they mock. People are much more likely to listen to you if you like the same things they do, if you look like them.

This coolness is just a veneer, however, for all the old ideas and theology still persist beneath the Urban Outfitters clothing and the iPod earbuds. We can see this readily in the Teen Mania Battle Cry event. Protesting sex, drugs, and rock and roll is extremely uncool. It is old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy, stodgy-old-white-guy. No self-respecting teenager would be caught dead at such an event?unless she or he was convinced that they were taking part in the essence of cool. And what is the essence of cool? Rebellion against the status quo.

Christians are supposed to be in the world, but not of the world, which provides a convenient theological framework for construing oneself as a rebel. A Christian may listen to Death Cab for Cutie or watch Donnie Darko: she is simply following the mandate to be in the world. But she also believes staunchly that homosexuality is a sin, that people should obey authority especially when embodied in Republican political figures, and that the earth was created in seven 24-hour days. These ideas may be deeply troubling to the general public, but about this, the young Christian needn?t worry: she is not ?of the world.? She is a revolutionary?or so Teen Mania tells her.

One particular example of this example of this sort of calibrated coolness is the way attitudes toward strong language have changed. In my youth group heyday, it was assumed that what we called ?swear words? were always off-limits and always inappropriate for Christians to say and hear. Everyone knew what the swear words were?there were around eight of them, give or take a few depending on how strict your denomination was?and everyone knew that God would be displeased if we said or heard them. No exceptions, ever.

Not so today, at least in some sectors of evangelicalism and particularly among the younger evangelicals. The rules still exist, hard and fast, but they?ve become increasingly complicated, annotated with footnotes, exemptions, and classifications.

Again we can look to Relevant magazine, and the commercialized ?emerging church? in general, for originating a culture in which these guidelines took shape. With its mission to reject what it calls “dead religion,” Relevant aims to convince spiritually curious young people that, as founder and CEO Cameron Strang put it in a 2003 interview, “Christianity isn?t about a set of rules. It?s about a life spent pursuing God.”

Elements of this subcultural shift are signposts of maturity and open hearts, a movement away from legalism and towards the compassionate acceptance demonstrated by Jesus in the Gospels. But in some ways this perspective plays out only as a different kind of religion, manifesting more like cultural capitulation to the gods of Cool than faithfulness to the biblical mandate of being “in the world.” By emphasizing the very real necessity of a faith lived beyond church walls, many young evangelicals no longer see traditional no-no’s?like using those eight swear words?as sins to be avoided. Rather, they are displayed as a neutral badge of relevance.

Unlike the publications of my teenage Jesus freak years, Relevant gives kids a sanctified entree into previously forbidden realms. Not only do they have permission to hear this language in mainstream movies, music, and television, but it’s now okay to say it, too?with some clauses. If Relevant?s popular message boards are any indication, words like “hell,” “ass,” and “damn” are popular, benign passwords into mainstream culture. Say ?the f-word,? though, and your faith will probably be called into question or at least given a stern rebuke.

I?m not saying we ought to return to the old rules, to the hard and fast legalities of language or any other area previously banned for Christian engagement. But that is exactly the point: the old rules still persist beneath the guise of being worldly-wise. There is no real engagement here. There is no rebellion. There is only the same shrill, hysterical legalism, just disguised a little beneath its hip, scruffy haircut and its Ugg boots.

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