Cultural Garbage

The NY Times offers up another generally worthless article that cites an alarming but controversial statistic up front, only to suggest at the back end that the statistic upon which the article is based is probably bullshit, anyway. This time it’s about evangelical leaders who are afraid of losing teenagers.

There was one bit I found interesting, though. In an effort to combat the pop culture purveyed “on MTV, on Web sites for teenagers and in hip-hop, rap and rock music” that subverts their message, Teen Mania youth ministry founder Ron Luce, asked the thousands of teenage attendees at Acquire the Fire, a two-day “Christian youth extravaganza and rock concert” put on by Teen Mania, to expel “cultural garbage.”

Mr. Luce led the crowd in an exercise in which they wrote on scraps of paper all the negative cultural influences, brand names, products and television shows that they planned to excise from their lives. Again they streamed down the aisles, this time to throw away the “cultural garbage.”

Trash cans filled with folded pieces of paper on which the teenagers had scribbled things like Ryan Seacrest, Louis Vuitton, “Gilmore Girls,” “Days of Our Lives,” Iron Maiden, Harry Potter, “need for a boyfriend” and “my perfect teeth obsession.” One had written in tiny letters: “fornication.”

Some teenagers threw away cigarette lighters, brand-name sweatshirts, Mardi Gras beads and CD’s — one titled “I’m a Hustla.”

“Lord Jesus,” Mr. Luce prayed into the microphone as the teenagers dropped their notes into the trash, “I strip off the identity of the world, and this morning I clothe myself with Christ, with his lifestyle. That’s what I want to be known for.”
It occurs to me how futile (and hypocritical) it is for religious leaders to ask teenagers to throw away “cultural garbage” at an event which is just so much cultural garbage of its own. The root of the problem isn’t so much the specific brand of culture that teens are buying, but the nature of consumption itself. Packaging Jesus Rock the same way MTV packages hot artists is always going to leave teens with a choice between two products, rather than a choice between two philosophies.

The Amish have stripped off the identity of the world; evangelicals at a rock concert where branded t-shirts, CDs, and tangential paraphernalia are hawked in a way not remotely dissimilar from the way they would be at Ozzfest haven’t.

Are teens wearing t-shirts advertising Teen Mania really “clothed with Christ,” or just clothed with Luce’s brand in the same way as a teen wearing a Sean Jean jersey? What’s the difference? Luce is still encouraging teens to consume a brand, and his only hope of retaining their alliance is that his brand is cooler than the rest—and that’s a battle he can’t win. Teens who aren’t totally dedicated to a life of abstinence until marriage and hatin’ the gays will eventually drift off toward mainstream culture; teens who really understand Christ will rebel against this perverted version of his message, once they stop to consider that the only time Jesus ever threw a shit-fit was when snake oil salesmen turned his Father’s house into a shopping mall. Luce will be left with the daft, self-loathing wankers who have no critical thinking skills and an entrenched need to make themselves feel better by expressing superiority via self-righteous moralizing—the exact people who give the conservative evangelical movement its bad name, but keep its leaders’ pockets lined.

The greatest irony of men like Luce is that they ally themselves with the political party who define consumption as the ultimate patriotic duty, who revere wealth above all else—a concept wholly antithetical to the message of Christ. It isn’t Iron Maiden and “Days of Our Lives” that Christian teens who want to clothe themselves with Christ’s lifestyle need to excise from their lives, but consumerism—the whole idea that buying shit, including tickets to Acquire the Fire, makes them better people, and that what they buy can make them better Christians.

Of course, that idea would put Luce and the gang out of business, so I don’t imagine we’ll be hearing that from their stage-lit pulpits anytime soon.

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