BOB GARFIELD: At the peak of their popularity six years ago, the Left Behind books sold better than any other hardcover novel. Sales of the most recent book are expected to be much more modest. So where are the Christian media headed from here?
An article in the current Rolling Stone suggests one answer. It profiles Ron Luce, the founder of an evangelical youth group called BattleCry. For several years, Luce has been holding massive stadium rallies around the country that are part rock concert and part religious revival. In between shows, he runs a missionary boot camp in Texas called Honor Academy, where the most gung-ho are groomed for the spiritual war to come.
"The angriest man on the religious right" is how the article's author, Jeff Sharlet, describes Luce, and Luce isn't toning down that anger for the sake of his media image. In fact, says, Sharlet, he's playing it up. JEFF SHARLET: Ron Luce is this brilliant media strategist who recognizes that, look, if I speak about war – if I say that media makers, in fact, are like al Qaeda, which he does in his book, BattleCry – if I say these things, these things are so sensational I'm going to get a lot of attention, and I'm going to grab the attention of kids. And what happens is these kids who don't necessarily understand that that's a media strategy, come to accept that as a basic way of looking at the world.
And so, I spent about a week at Luce's Honor Academy in Texas, talking with kids, and that was the normal tenor of conversation amongst the really sweetest kids, who would sit there and gently tell you over a lunch of lasagna about the need to wage total war on secularism. BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so these youths are rallied to war. What exactly is the war against? JEFF SHARLET: The people that he focuses on most often are media makers. The one thing that Luce does differently is that he trains media infiltrators, and that's his term, is we want to infiltrate secular media. And so, he created, as part of his academy in Texas, a really nice high-tech school for training kids how to produce media. He hired a VH1 Behind the Music producer, who'd become born again, to direct it. And at this point, these kids are – I think their biggest success was for a heavy metal band called Pillar that had a video on MTV; I think a lot of fans didn't know it was Christian.
They're very aware that Christian media for decades was just awful and cheesy, and it's just pure kitsch. And I think now they recognize that if we can produce really quality media but that nonetheless has this fundamentalist message, then we're going to win kids over. If they can, you know, get to Hollywood and make movies that are actually pretty good, like The Chronicles of Narnia, those become the media equivalent of gateway drugs to bring you in to drink the full Kool-Aid of fundamentalism. BOB GARFIELD: Now, you know, if the premise of Ron Luce and his teenage followers is that the media are the leading edge of the secular war against Christ, there could be no better example for them than the cover - [LAUGHTER] - of the Rolling Stone, in which your article appeared. Would you care to describe the cover of the Rolling Stone for me and what you thought when you saw it? JEFF SHARLET: Well, we have Rosario Dawson and Rose McGowan, the stars of the new movie Grindhouse, and they're naked and rubbing their butts together, covering their breasts and other private areas with their hands and belts of bullets. And there's a big red headline that says - BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] JEFF SHARLET: - "Very Bad Girls." BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] JEFF SHARLET: I have to admit I took some delight in thinking of just how red with rage Ron Luce [LAUGHS] is going to turn when he sees this issue.
You know, here's the thing. Look, is this cover sexist? [LAUGHS] Of course it is. Does it objectify women? Yes. And it's one of the interesting things about Ron Luce is that 80 percent of [LAUGHS] his critique of media is very similar to the critique I heard in my Godless, demonic, secular, very leftist media history courses at college. It's the same analysis. Luce has a different solution. Luce just wants to destroy it.
But even though there's this aggressive rhetoric, they're not going to go off and attack, you know, the headquarters of NBC. It's about teaching them to never look at NBC again. BOB GARFIELD: So are they Jihadists? Are they saboteurs? Are they moles? JEFF SHARLET: [LAUGHS] BOB GARFIELD: What is the vision? JEFF SHARLET: I think they're moles and saboteurs who inspire themselves with the rhetoric of Jihad. One video he made shows a kid watching MTV, and then crawling up over the couch behind him is a suicide bomber. And this suicide bomber represents secularism. And Ron Luce writes often that secularism and Islam are almost indistinguishable, that they're in this together to destroy Christianity.
So the suicide bomber crawls over and then blows himself and the innocent boy up, the idea being that that's essentially what MTV is trying to do to you, is to kill you. And the response to that is to join this sort of military maneuver, and then the videos will show here's you marching off to war, and suddenly the boy replicates and replicates, and so now we have an army of a thousand identical boys, marching.
It is – and I use this word very advisedly – it is the aesthetic of fascism. Ron Luce isn't a fascist, but it is the aesthetic of fascism. And one of the strange things about Ron Luce is it's also the aesthetic of [LAUGHS] Stalinism, that these red flags that they wave - and you're not a member of this movement – you're a trench mate. It is designed to draw very stark lines and to dehumanize those who are on the other side. BOB GARFIELD: It sounds monstrous. Is there any benign way of viewing this? JEFF SHARLET: Yeah. Yeah, there is. A lot of these people are there not because they hate the world so much but because they want to be engaged with the world. Unfortunately, Ron Luce and his angry rhetoric are the ones who get to them first. And I feel like sort of the benign read of this is if someone goes and talks to them and says, look, you know, we care about you too, and we want you to feel proud of what you believe in and so on, but that doesn't have to be framed by hating other people, I think these kids will respond to that beautifully and brilliantly.
These are some of the gentler and kinder kids I've met. They don't want to be in a war, but that's all they're being offered. BOB GARFIELD: All right, Jeff. As always, thanks very much for joining us. JEFF SHARLET: Thanks, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: Jeff Sharlet wrote about the group BattleCry for the current issue of Rolling Stone.