On the LCG and Tomorrow’s World websites, they reran one of my old commentaries recently, “Smells like teen marketing” — from 2007, I think. I still agree with what it says, and I’m delighted they found it worth running again. It’s nice to feel useful, even if just a little bit! The piece is a bit dated, perhaps, which is my fault. For instance, the play on words in the title probably goes right over most heads, now (inspired by the title of Nirvana’s “Smells like teen spirit”), and I probably should have kept that in mind. Still, I think the idea is true, and I still find such efforts as it describes supremely irritating. Rather than repeat them here, let me encourage you to read the commentary, itself here. (Also, if you would like to see the comic strip that inspired the post, you can find it here.)
But I mention it because something in today’s news reminds me of what motivated the commentary in the first place. I was reading a WSJ commentary this morning by (again) Peggy Noonan concerning ISIS — “A New Kind of Terrorist” — and something she said was directly related to what was on my mind when I wrote that commentary years ago. Feel free to read the whole WSJ piece (as usual, it’s a good one), but here’s the passage that jumped out at me (emphasis mine):
“They [ISIS] have a talent for war and draw fighters from throughout the world, particularly young men from the culturally fractured and materialist West. Those young men, desperate to belong to something, to be among men on a mission, to believe in something bigger and higher than their sad selves, are ripe for jihadist recruitment.”
I believe that. I believe that young men and women, both, long to be a part of something more serious than the distractions and leisures of youth, something bigger than themselves and more meaningful than the world they can create around themselves, and something that brings into their lives a universe of more depth and significance than the one our mainstream culture offers them.
And, as Noonan suggests, that makes these extreme flavors of Islam more tempting than they should be. It has little competing with it in kind for the minds and hearts of Western youth. MTV’s “Rock the Vote” and the like? I don’t think so. Such efforts and those like it seem to have an air of condescension to me — and if I detect that, surely savvier-than-we-give-them-credit-for youth detect it. It strives to come across like “We’re reaching out for you” but feels like “We’re talking down to you.” (Or even worse, “We’re talking down to where we stupidly assume you are.”)
Religion (all the more, the truth and the very real God behind that truth) should be an exception. Yet, as presented to youth, it rarely seems to be that way to me. That’s what I find irritating in so many “Christian” efforts I have seen “reaching out (down)” to youth to get them engaged in faith, and that’s what I talk about in the “Smells like teen marketing” commentary — all the attempts to pander to youth with images of skateboarders, partying teens, etc. — virtually begging them to consider God and faith and “church.” The young kid in school who tried to be everything he thought he needed to be to get the cool kids to accept him was not merely continually rejected by those kids. He was not respected. And those who claim to represent God and, yet, who pander and prostitute themselves to whatever their research says “kids” find popular today in order to win them over using the shallowest of appeals achieve the same effect. They don’t picture a God you can respect.
Such shallow appeals — pictures of skateboarders on billboards advertising your church, etc. — are not the same as Paul’s work to be all things to all men (1 Cor. 9:22), though some might argue that they are. We see Paul applying that principle in action in places such as Acts 17 (specifically, vv.22-31), and we see no hint of pandering. We see him relating to the Gentiles — wisely and with savvy and care — but still presenting a God who demands respect and expects you to follow Him, not the other way around. The modern attempt by mainstream “Christianity” inspires in me a picture of a twisted, alternate-universe version of Paul, not challenging the Greeks to turn to God but presenting the Lord to them as a toga-wearing college dude who just wants to party alongside them at their orgies and such, but, you know, just without all the sex and idolatry and gluttony and “bad stuff” in the hopes that they see this tamer version of their own lifestyles as appealing enough that they would just “give God a chance — He’s not such a bad guy!” (Aside: Mr. Weston’s sermon “New Wine into Old Wineskins” also comes to mind here. Excellent sermon.)
Extremist Islam seems, to me, to present its potential recruits with something different. Barbarities aside (and, truly, never completely aside, of course), it confronts such young recruits with a larger world than their own — a world that presents itself as too important, too significant, and too worthy to pander to you, but a world you can still become a part of. A world whose greatness can become a part of your life, as well. “You want more skateboarding, concerts, partying, whatever?” the recruiter might ask. “Why seek out a ‘God’ who presents such things, when you’ve already got it. Stay with your friends. Worship that ‘God.’ Do your little things. But do you want something greater — something grander? You want access to a world, and a God, that will ennoble you? You want something that will challenge you, yes, but which is actually worth the challenge? Then let’s talk.” And that “talk” is about a serious “god.”
It’s a lie, of course. The “god” of the terrorists is the “god of this age” (1 Cor. 4:4), but he is not God. And he asks the young men and the young women whom the radical Islamicists seek to recruit to simply exchange one shallow lie for another lie. A lie that promises to satisfy deeper longings, true, yet still a lie.
That deeper longing such susceptible youths possess is there for a reason (cf. Ecc. 3:11), and the hole in the deepest parts of their very selves which they seek to fill is shaped perfectly to be filled by the Truth, by the God of that Truth, and by His Son. But for every real need, the Devil has a lie ready and a false fulfillment to offer.
Jesus Christ provides the only real and eternally lasting fulfillment of such deep needs for belonging, for being a part of something greater than you are — something authentically significant and something higher than you are. He provides the real mission for those who long, in Noonan’s words, to be among “men on a mission.”
But He needs to be represented in such a manner — not as one pandering to your lowest selves, hoping you will accept Him into your party on your terms even if it means you won’t respect Him. Rather, present Him as a God willing to allow you to share in the amazing things He is doing — giving you the rare opportunity to join in His Work. To shoulder, alongside Him, a worthy burden. To strive, alongside Him, for a worthy goal. And to become, with His help, something greater than you could ever be without Him.
The “God” who panders to youth comes across like He needs them. No one respects a “God” like that. Something in us tells us that, if he is “God,” he shouldn’t “need” anything. The God who is God knows that you need Him.
The pandering “God” of such pathetic “Christian” youth marketing efforts desires to tap into your wants and desperately hopes that you may want him. The real God exposes you to your deepest need, and challenges you to seek the fulfillment of that need in Him. Such a God does not need to pander.
There is a reason that mainstream “Christianity” is dying in the West among teens and young adults and radical Islam is finding new recruits in those same age groups. The god of violent, extreme Islam that is presented to the youth of the West for consideration is a lie, true, but at least he is serious. He expects respect and he expects you to meet his standards — the sort of thing you would expect from someone claiming to be “God.” The idea of combatting such an appeal with an increasingly MTV-flavored “God” desperate to be liked and thought of as “cool” is ridiculous and, frankly, nauseating.
Stop pandering. Let God be God — the one who said not “Hey, will you let me party with you,” but, rather, “Walk before Me and be blameless” (Genesis 17:1). Those who don’t think our youth can respond to such a God aren’t giving them enough credit.
The terrorists seem to have figured that out.