19 Jun 2007

Teenage Holy War

Ron Luce: "I want an attacking church!" He isn't just looking for followers -- he wants "stalkers" who'll bring a criminal passion to their pursuit of godliness.

JEFF SHARLET - April 3, 2007

This is an excerpt from Rolling Stone magazine.

This is how you enlist in the Army of God: First come the fireworks and the prayers, and then 4,000 kids scream, "We won't be silent anymore!" Then the kids drop to their knees, still but for the weeping and regrets of fifteen-year-olds. The lights in the Cleveland arena fade to blue, and a man on the stage whispers to them about sin and love and the Father-God. They rise, heartened; the crowd, en masse, swears off "harlots and adultery"; the twenty-one-year-old MC twitches taut a chain across the ass of her skintight red jeans and summons the followers to show off their best dance moves for God. "Gimme what you got!" she shouts. They dance -- hip-hop, tap, toe and pelvic thrusting. Then they're ready. They're about to accept "the mark of a warrior," explains Ron Luce, commander in chief of BattleCry, the most furious youth crusade since young sinners in the hands of an angry God flogged themselves with shame in eighteenth-century New England. Nearly three centuries later, these 4,000 teens are about to become "branded by God." It's like getting your head shaved when you join the Marines, Luce says, only the kids get to keep their hair. His assistants roll out a cowhide draped over a sawhorse, and Luce presses red-hot iron into the dead flesh, projecting a close-up of sizzling cow skin on giant movie screens above the stage.

"When you enlist in the military, there's a code of honor," Luce preaches, "same as being a follower of Christ." His Christian code requires a "wartime mentality": a "survival orientation" and a readiness to face "real enemies." The queers and communists, feminists and Muslims, to be sure, but also the entire American cultural apparatus of marketing and merchandising, the "techno-terrorists" of mass media, doing to the morality of a generation what Osama bin Laden did to the Twin Towers. "Just as the events of September 11th, 2001, permanently changed our perspective on the world," Luce writes, "so we ought to be awakened to the alarming influence of today's culture terrorists. They are wealthy, they are smart, and they are real."

Luce is forty-five, his brown hair floppy, his lips pouty. On the screens above the stage, his green eyes blink furiously. "The devil hates us," he exhorts, "and we gotta be ready to fight and not be these passive little lukewarm, namby-pamby, kum-ba-yah, thumb-sucking babies that call themselves Christians. Jesus? He got mad!" Luce considers most evangelicals too soft, too ready to pass off as piety their preference for a bland suburban lifestyle. He hates what he sees as the weakness of "accepting" Christ, of "trusting" the Lord. "I want an attacking church!" he shouts, his normally smooth tones raw and desperate and alarming. He isn't just looking for followers -- he wants "stalkers" who'll bring a criminal passion to their pursuit of godliness.

Cue Christian metal on the mammoth screens flanking the stage: "Frontline," a music video produced at Luce's Honor Academy in east Texas for the band Pillar. It opens with a broken guitar magically reassembling itself, a redemptive reversal of four decades of rock & roll nihilism. Then comes the gospel: "Everybody with your fist raised high/Let me hear your battle cry!"

In the hall outside the arena, kids line up to buy BattleCry T-shirts and hoodies and trucker caps, a dozen designs scrolled with goth and skater patterns. A brown tee for boys features a white silhouette of a kid with a baseball bat, a devil behind him rubbing his horns after a beat down. no more lies, reads the legend. On the second day, when the time comes for even the youngest to enlist in Luce's army, I find myself sitting on the main floor of the arena next to a couple of twelve-year-olds, Hanneh and Mallory. Hanneh has straight blond hair; Mallory's a redhead with curls. Mallory wants to borrow my pen. "I have to write a message to MTV," she says. She hunches over in her seat, her hair hiding her hand as she scratches it out. "Dear MTV," she reads aloud, "leave those kids alone!"

Then she adds a kicker: "Repent." I ask her what she means. She giggles as if I'm teasing her. "Ron Luce said so!"

Luce knows that most of the kids who attend his shows come for the music (P.O.D. headline his biggest events; a screamo band called Flyleaf gets top billing in Cleveland), but he also knows that from their numbers, he's growing a new hard core for American fundamentalism. Luce recruits the politically powerless -- kids too young to vote. "That makes 'em want to fight," he tells me backstage after one of his events. "They get so livid. They're mad. They've been very cleverly marketed to. Kids started finding out that we cannot just stand back and let these people do this to us."

Luce calls his crusade a "counter-rebellion" or a "reverse rebellion" or sometimes simply "revolution." The Cleveland event, Acquire the Fire, only one stop in what is becoming Luce's permanently touring roadshow, is not meant to save souls -- most of the kids say they accepted Jesus when they were four or five -- but to radicalize them. He's been doing this for two decades, but it didn't take off until days after the Columbine shootings of 1999, when Luce rallied 70,000 angry, weeping kids at the Pontiac Silverdome outside Detroit. In 2006, he brought his rallies to more than 200,000 kids. Overall, he's preached to 12 million.

They're the base. Of that number, Luce has sent 53,000 teen missionaries around the globe to preach spiritual "purity" -- chastity, sobriety and a commitment to laissez-faire capitalism -- in Romania, Guatemala and dozens of other "strongholds" that require young Americans to bring them "freedom" -- a Christ they believe needs no translation. Luce selected more than 6,000 for his Honor Academy, some of whom become political operatives, media activists and militant preachers who then funnel fresh kids into the Academy. It's a vertically integrated movement, a machine that produces "leaders for the army," a command cadre that can count on the masses Luce conditions as its infantry.

Luce says only four percent of the U.S. will be Christian, by which he means "Bible-believing," when the current generation, the largest in American history, comes of age. To understand how a nation more actively Christian than at any point in its past is about to become some vast Sweden -- Luce's archetypical wasteland of guilt-free sex and socialized medicine -- you have to know that his antagonism toward secularism is dwarfed by a contempt bordering on hatred for what he dubs "cultural Christians." He considers them traitors.

At Acquire the Fire, Luce tells the kids to make lists of secular pleasures they'll sacrifice for the cause. Hanneh starts with Bow Wow and Usher, bites her pen, and then decides to go big: "Music," she writes, then "Friends" -- the nonfundamentalist ones -- and "Party." This, she explains, is a polite way of saying "sex." Not that she's had any, or knows anyone her age who has, but she's learned from Luce that "the culture" wants to force it upon her at a young age. "The world," he tells her, is a forty-five-year-old pervert posing as another tween online.

Luce sometimes brings a garbage truck onto the floor to cart the lists away, but this is a relatively small event, so Hanneh and Mallory trot over to one of the trash bins stationed around the arena and drop theirs in. "I feel so much better," Mallory tells Hanneh. Hanneh nods, smiling now. "I feel free," she says.

Later, one of Luce's PR reps takes me backstage to sift through the bins of rejected affections. Most kids mention music, movies, girlfriends and boyfriends, sex or, surprisingly often, just condoms, but a number of new warriors are oddly precise about their proposed abandonings. They cast into perdition Starbucks (multiple votes), Victoria's Secret (ditto; Luce encourages kids to confront the managers of lingerie stores), cereal (Special K and Cap'n Crunch), hip-huggers, "smelling amazing," "vengeance," "medication" and A&W root beer. "I would say it's ridiculous what they are doing to root beer," wrote the boy who will drink A&W no more.

"This is a real war," Luce preaches. When he talks like that, he growls. "This is not a metaphor!" In Cleveland, he intercuts his sermons with videos of suicide bombers and marching Christian teens. One of the most popular, "Casualties of War," features an elegiac beat by a Christian rapper named KJ-52 laid over flickering pictures of kids holding signs declaring the collapse of Christendom: 1/2 OF US ARE NO LONGER VIRGINS, reads a poster board displayed by a pigtailed girl. 40% OF US HAVE INFLICTED SELF-INJURY, says a sign propped up over a sink in which we see the hands of a girl about to cut herself. 53% OF US BELIEVE JESUS SINNED, declares the placard of a young black man standing in a graffiti-filled alley.

Luce lays out cooked statistics, images, assertions. He doesn't explain -- he warns. To the crowd of watery-eyed teens he recites letters he says their peers have sent him, souls lost to what he calls, over and over, the "pigpen" of secularism. It's a reference to the sorry fate of the prodigal son in the Gospel of Luke, who wound up tending hogs until he submitted to the authority of God and was restored to his riches. There's an unnamed girl who left Jesus and then "got date raped." There's "Emily," who dated a non-Christian boy -- "now she works in pornography and lives a bisexual lifestyle." Luce sneers: "pigpen." There's "Heather," who wrote to Luce to complain that "my father is passive, and my mom is controlling." "Pigpen," Luce says, his voice filled with sorrow for the girl with the sissy dad...



  1. 'Bible Answer Man' Hank Hanegraaff Defends Teen Mania Ministries

    By Jeff Schapiro | Christian Post Reporter
    November 9, 2011

    A widely respected Christian researcher and radio host is defending Teen Mania Ministries after an MSNBC documentary portrayed the group as a cult. Hank Hanegraaff, president of the Christian Research Institute and host of the radio program “Bible Answer Man,” has released his critique of the documentary, which aired on Sunday night. In the critique, he describes the documentary as “a case study in sophistry, sloppy journalism, and sensationalism.”

    MSNBC's documentary “Mind Over Mania” is disturbing at first glance. Young people are shown at a Teen Mania Ministries event crawling through mud, eating worms and pushing themselves to their physical and emotional limits. The experts featured in the film suggest the ministry operates like a cult and uses mind control tactics on young people. TMM, however, says the film's claims against the ministry are “outrageous” and inaccurate.

    In support of Teen Mania, Hanegraaff first addresses the film's allegations that the ministry brainwashes interns who enroll at its Honor Academy. The film features mind control recovery experts Doug and Wendy Duncan, who use Robert Jay Lifton's Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China to try to show TMM as a cult. The problem, Hanegraaff says, is their evidence falls short of their accusations, and “many of the arguments proffered against TMM could just as easily be used to establish historic Christianity as a thought reform cult.” He says the model the Duncans used to attempt to prove their point has been “utterly discredited.”

    Kelly Schwalbert, a former Honor Academy attendee, wrote in a blog post that she never experienced abuse or mind-control tactics as an intern. “I would not classify myself, while at Teen Mania, as under mind-control,” she wrote. “I was not brainwashed. I knew enough about God and myself to read the Bible and follow the Bible. The leadership I was under did not make me 'conform' to anything.”

    Schwalbert later showed sympathy for those who had bad experiences with TMM, but emphasized that “it is not a cult.” Later, Hanegraaff's critique moves on to accuse MSNBC of showing images of interns “gagging” on worms in order to stir up an emotional response, but he says NBC's “Fear Factor” show was popular at the time the video footage was taken. He also said TMM no longer does that particular activity during its camp.

    “Mind Over Mania” also never acknowledges that ESOAL (Emotionally Stretching Opportunity of A Lifetime) campers knew how challenging the event would be going into it, and they could have stopped participating at any time. The ESOAL camp has been changed drastically since the shooting of those video clips, Teen Mania founder Ron Luce told The Christian Post, and its name has also been changed to PEARL, an acronym for Physical, Emotional, And Relational Learning.

    Kimberly Warne, another blogger who says she spent two years at the Honor Academy, is critical of both TMM's ministry and financial practices. “Over the last couple decades, Ron has grown this organization into a multimillion dollar machine by convincing thousands of young people to pay to work,” wrote Warne. “Sometimes he succeeds in molding these youth into his cookie cutter version of modern Christianity ... Sometimes he breaks them down into depression, faithlessness, and a lost sense of self.” ...
    MSNBC denies claims that the film inaccurately portrays the ministry and says it has spoken with TMM's founder and president, Luce, about the disagreement.

    read the full article at:


  2. MSNBC Responds to Accusations Over Teen Mania Documentary

    By Jeff Schapiro | Christian Post Reporter
    November 09, 2011

    After the president and founder of Teen Mania Ministries sharply criticized MSNBC for airing its "Mind Over Mania" documentary on Sunday, the network issued a response saying his accusations against the network are false, and they have told him so.

    TMM president Ron Luce says “Mind Over Mania” casts his ministry in a “very inaccurate and negative light” by not fully explaining video and audio clips of TMM events and by trying to make the ministry out to be a cult.

    He is also accusing filmmakers of lying in order to gain access to TMM's Honor Academy interns and ministry leaders for interviews. He says TMM was told by filmmakers his ministry would be just one component of a series on religion in America, but the “mockumentary” didn't at all turn out as he initially thought it would.

    In an email to The Christian Post on Tuesday, however, MSNBC disputed his claims, saying, “MSNBC strongly disagrees with Mr. Luce's characterization that what was broadcast in Mind Over Mania was inaccurate. MSNBC did not approach Mr. Luce and his group under false pretenses and we have shared those thoughts with Mr. Luce.”

    The Garden Valley, Texas-based TMM is a globally-recognized youth ministry and is the umbrella organization over well-known youth events like Acquire The Fire. The ministry's mission is “to provoke a young generation to passionately pursue Jesus Christ and to take his life-giving message to the ends of the earth.” But Luce says “Mind Over Mania” makes it seem like a cult that uses mind control tactics to manipulate young people.

    The documentary features former interns from Teen Mania Ministries who say the group did them more harm than good and may even be a cult.

    In response, Teen Mania stated that it “welcomes any question of our motives and our methods in communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ and are dedicated to using feedback to create a better experience for the young people we serve, but MSNBC’s Mind Over Mania segment ultimately takes issue with the fact that many of the Biblical tenets celebrated in Christianity are at odds with our current culture.”

    Since the documentary aired Sunday night, individuals have taken to Twitter to express their opinions about TMM and its Honor Academy.

    “Happy with the #mindovermania documentary,” Twitter user Shannon Kish posted on her account. “Though they only touched the surface of Teen Mania and its problems.”

    Another post by Cassie Hendon said, “Watching an 'expose' on Teen Mania on msnbc. Sorry, not buying that TM is a cult.”

    One blogger, who is identified only as “A Friend of Teen Mania” and claims to be an Honor Academy alumni, is trying to rally support for TMM by compiling the testimonies of current and former Honor Academy interns who say the ministry positively impacted their lives.

    Though TMM, like any organization, has its faults, the blog's author says, the ministry's leaders have always been willing to discuss any concerns and as such are much more supportive than the documentary portrays them to be.

    “I have seen firsthand the efforts made to correct any injustice and I have experienced nothing less than humility from the executive leadership when any alumnus has brought a situation to light,” the blogger wrote. “I, being an alumnus of the Honor Academy and a lifelong partner of the organization can say wholeheartedly that I endorse the motives and character of the staff and executive leadership team.”