Kids and God don't get along. I think they used to, back in the day, back when priests scared the love of God into them with big fiery paintings, birch rods and punitive fondles. But then it all went a bit far; fondling turned into fucking and the state had to step in. Without the punitive fondling though, Christianity didn't know where to turn and in its confusion wound up rapping at youth clubs and sponsoring evangelical rock bands. While this shit worked on Americans, the cynical children of cynical Brits remained cynical and these days it's fair to say that British kids are more into Chvrches than churches.
That said, is this all about to change? The other day, while in the midst of one of those internet voyages where you start on Gawker and end up on Redwatch forums, I found myself on the Alpha Course website.
Looking over their site, I briefly wondered if I'd got my tabs mixed up and stumbled on a piece about a new streetwear zine on HypeBeast. The crisp photography, the half-there typeface, the lovely wood table, the coffee, this looked more like the home of a creative agency than a wing of God's salvation army.
The features in the in-house magazine were notably more street-style blog than scripture. I mean, I've only seen the pages that they'd elected to show on the site, but the artfully placed shots of the mag seemed to place as much emphasis on photography as they did theology. I'm assuming that elsewhere in this zine is a picture of Terry Richardson grinning alongside a topless Cliff Richard.
Sure, the feature title "A Different Kind Of Leader" has its religious overtones, but only when you realise what this magazine is. On first glance, it's the sort of thing that could easily accompany a feature on Ron Morelli or Ryan Gosling in Dazed.
The website also features this guy fairly heavily. Yes, it might look like the artwork for a "mysterious" UK bass producer recently signed to an XL imprint, but – in actual fact – he's sat next to a piece called "Architecture of a Question". The said piece isn't by the guy in the photos, it's by someone called Tim May, who looks like this and seems to be the brains behind this 21st century reinvention. A central part of which is apparently using pictures of models to help liven up a whimsical think-piece that contains passages like:
"The questions that dominate my experience move quickly beyond the material. They require more than a description of qualities of potassium or of the molecular structure of a leaf to give any kind of a meaningful answer."
I clicked on this link and can assure you that young Dan is no Kierkegaard. He basically just asks, "Is there an afterlife?" in the blank manner of a man asking a Travelodge manager if there's a gym. The questions aren't questions that people ask themselves, but questions they want you to ask the Alpha Course, so they can give you a pamphlet on them. (Spoiler, the answer to all the questions is God.)
His "story" isn't really a story at all, of course, rather a promotional tool for Alpha Course. And what's wrong with that? Propaganda is a basic tenet of conversionism, something the evangelical Alphas are pretty big on. The funny thing about this whole feature though is that what matters isn't Dan or his story, but rather his shirt and his haircut. My guess is that Dan has been styled to look like Disclosure's older, harder brother because Alpha want to attract people who like Disclosure.
Which is disingenuous on two fronts: Firstly – well, they're hanging centuries of faith and belief off some fleeting fads, which is pretty lame. And secondly, Alpha aren't super cool cosmopolitan guys, they're a Christian organisation whose "mastermind" thinks being gay is a choice and who reportedly count that international awesome war guy Tony Blair among their admirers. Dan, you see, is supposed to be one of us, but he's clearly one of them.
But whatever – "Christians have different opinions on gays to the rest of us" isn't exactly headline news. But you know what is? After years of trying, Christians are CATCHING UP WITH YOUTH CULTURE. We've commodified cool so much that they've just gone out and bought it off the rail. I mean, they've even gone and made a fucking mixtape. One that features CHANCE THE FUCKING RAPPER. Granted, it also features Alt-J, but this is a Christian group's official website here; we weren't expecting any Night Slugs mixes or Ace Hood tracks.
Sure, maybe they're two or three years behind the game with their chillwave iconography and hazy focusing, but it's not exactly this, is it? It made me wonder who was behind this. Perhaps a graphic designer who'd done too much coke and found the Lord in his darkest hour? Maybe it was something we were going to see more of; creative types forced into finding salvation in their godless existences and channelling their work into stuff like this.
And look, they've even thrown in a skateboard, in some vain effort to entice the godless OFWGKTA #swag brigade.
To top it off, they've got an app. Of course they've got an app. Over a DJ Premier-esque beat, a friendly northern voice explains that the app is for "building alphas", informal talks on those "big questions" that you can invite your mates to. The social media aspect of it is a strange one – surely it would mean you were only ever going to be preaching to the converted? If Jesus were around today, he'd probably be a Twitter man rather than a Facebook man – somebody trying to get his point across to as many people as possible. Like Owen Jones or Olly Riley. But the Alpha have taken the Facebook approach, which seems strangely at odds with their evangelical message.
Maybe this is a stretch, but isn't this app basically a quick fire version of seminary? Instead of years of study and training, all you need to get your own congregation is 3G.
One man who's really spreading the word, however, is Judah Smith, the Godhead of cool Christians, the OG Tumblr John The Baptist. You see, while the Alphas' use of mixtapes, ASOS and street lingo is an amusing attempt to capture the UK zeitgeist, it is – of course – the Yanks who have taken it to the next level. And the editorial staff of Alpha Life have realised this, running their main feature on him.
Smith is chiefly famous for being Bieber-approved, which partly explains his 250,000 Twitter following, but he's not Scooter Braun with a Bible. Far more than just a hanger on, Smith is a mini phenomenon in his own right and is no doubt the Church's brightest light in its search for new minds. He's loud, he dresses like somebody from a bad YouTube sketch about Williamsburg, he talks like a cross between Riff Raff and Forrest Gump and he has a routine called "Jesus is bringing sexy back". He's basically Russell Howard with dogma.
I've got a feeling that his is a career that will either end in scandal or in massive amounts of power. If there's anyone susceptible to blind faith, it's beliebers. He could be the American Apparel Jim Jones if he wanted to be. (He probably doesn't, though – he probably just wants to talk about God for money.)
But while it's funny to laugh at Alpha's attempts to jump in on the Boiler Room generation, it doesn't really reveal too much about the Church itself. Christianity, by its very doctrine, has to recruit, and the methods are always going to have to change with the times. They've clearly just surmised that mixtapes, big glasses and moody black and white photo shoots are currently the best way to do that. Ten years ago, they were after emo kids; ten years into the future they'll be doing the same with something else. It's vaguely sinister, yes, but that's how religions operate – they adapt to the world they exist in. Otherwise they'd still be putting Midianites to death and trying to peddle P.O.D. records.
The really worrying part is how easy it is to appear "hip" these days. It seems that the idea of it has been commodified so much, made so readily available, that even the Christians – traditionally the least cool people on Earth – have managed to make a passable attempt at it. Like everything else, cool seems to be something that you can gain entirely online now. It's a pre-made kit, you just need HypeBeast, Instagram and enough savvy to have heard of Chance The Rapper.
At the risk of sounding like worst kind of old fart, it seemed to me that, once upon a time, youth culture was something that Christians could never quite grasp. Sure, they probably had a few Christian rappers in Air Max and a few God-fearing indie bands in Converse, but – on the whole – youth culture was so ungodly that they wouldn't touch it. The trends were too niche, the music was too nasty, too strange and the kids were actively against it. They tried to be edgy, but they couldn't hack it.
This whole thing reflects badly on all of us. We're the generation whose religious icons are shallow style-bloggers and whose cool kids are losing their schtick to Christians. God help us if there's an armageddon.
Follow Clive on Twitter: @thugclive
More times people have got it really, really wrong: