By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
At the Honor Academy, a 400-acre evangelical, non-accredited Christian school just outside Tyler, serious questions of theology involving Jesus, hell and Walt Disney are being tossed around this morning. The last five minutes of David Hasz's "Making of a Leader" lecture are reserved for questions from the 500-student class.
A hand shoots up on the left side of the room. "Is it better to expect too much or too little of yourself?"
"Should you absolutely submit to your superiors even if you disagree with their decisions?"
If the leadership is godly.
"Did Jesus Christ visit hell?"
Cue the theological debate on Jesus' whereabouts during the three days between crucifixion and resurrection. Somebody quotes the book of Luke.
Next up: "Is heaven a real place?"
Yessirree, friend, and it's paved with streets of gold.
"Does God want me to learn to play an instrument?"
Don't see why not.
And finally, an item of the utmost concern: Is it OK to listen to Disney songs, since they're from the secular world? That's a personal judgment call, Professor Hasz says, but he's not a big fan, especially of that Little Mermaid kid. She disobeyed her father.
While most 18-year-olds are spending their freshman year in college trying to figure out how to get the most realistic fake ID and maximum amount of sleep per college hour, the kids of the Honor Academy are wrestling with moral conflicts over listening to the Aladdin soundtrack.
Each year, 500 new "interns" arrive at the Garden Valley campus, ready to spend a year serving Jesus Christ through a 20-year-old evangelical organization called Teen Mania Ministries. But this is no casual Bible college or mission camp. Ask anyone at Teen Mania, and they'll tell you: There are souls at stake. Millions of them.
But the magic number is four. That's the percentage of Americans who will be "Bible-believing" evangelical Christians in five years if today's generation of teens isn't rallied to Christ, according to the ministry's founder, Ron Luce. He gets his number from Christian researcher George Barna. Maybe 56 percent of Americans go to church and call themselves Christians, Luce says, but just 4 percent trust the Bible and everything it says without question. They also believe Satan is an entity as real as God and that salvation comes solely through grace, not works. Anything less than evangelical just won't do for Luce, but the prognosis isn't good.
If nothing changes, that 4 percent will only grow smaller, led into moral disarray by a Satan-guided army of mass media, advertising agencies and marketing groups whose sole purpose is the corruption of teens in the name of profits. But at the Honor Academy, Luce is teaching kids to educate themselves and their peers in the creation of a truly alternative lifestyle—sans MTV, premarital sex and secular music—that uses the same Internet technology and marketing schemes for precisely opposite ends: the dedication of today's youths to Christ.
Over the past several years, in the backwoods of East Texas, Luce has recruited thousands of anti-establishment youths into a highly organized, technologically advanced war against his worst nightmare: a post-Christian America.
And this morning, they are worried about Disney songs.
That's the phrase Luce uses on the jacket of his 2005 manifesto Battle Cry for a Generation. After years of working with the youth-centered Teen Mania ministry he founded in the '80s, Luce realized that Bible-beating and stories of a living, loving God weren't going to bring the Millennium Generation to Christ. How exciting could the Gospels possibly be when Britney Spears was stripping down to a rhinestone-studded body stocking on the MTV Video Music Awards? How could the Word compete with Instant Messenger, slick booze commercials and teen mags plastered with young, sexy Hollywood bodies? Teen Mania was no match for the multibillion-dollar media and entertainment industry.
And then Luce created Battle Cry, and he saw that it was good.
The Battle Cry movement looks like MySpace. It sounds like MTV. It feels like a revolution. Complete with military terminology, fight songs and ultimatums for the baddies—the "virtue terrorists" who are hijacking modern teenage morality—the Battle Cry movement's portrayal of Christianity is the slickest Jesus Christ has looked in 2,000 years. Outfitted with a stark black, white and red color scheme and featuring photos of teenagers lined up at attention, fists pumping in the air, the Battle Cry aesthetic is more Hot Topic than Mardel. Gone are the rainbow-patterned Bible covers, cheesy synth-tracked videos and wannabe Christian rock bands pushing a watered-down version of "cool Jesus" on a churchgoing youth population too square to demand anything different. Today's kids are hip. With it. Yes, even the Christians.
While ad agencies are branding Abercrombie & Fitch, Budweiser and Grey's Anatomyfor maximum youth-market potential, Battle Cry boldly commands teenagers to be "branded by God." Battle Cry youths boycott MTV, R-rated movies and violent videogames. At giant stadium events called "Acquire the Fire" rallies, many thousands of teens chant mantras against the secular media companies and advertisers that they believe have brainwashed their generation into becoming a pack of oversexed, demoralized zombies happy to buy whatever product or idea is pushed upon them between 50 Cent and My Chemical Romance videos. At the Honor Academy, a former VH1 producer oversees a multimillion-dollar "Center for Creative Media" that produces videos, television spots and, soon, feature films for the Battle Cry brand.