Kids and God don't get along. I think they used to, back in the day, 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 too far; fondling turned into fucking and the state had to step in. Without the diddling, though, Christianity didn't know where to turn and in its confusion wound up rapping at youth clubs and sponsoring evangelical rock bands. The problem with that approach, however, is that the music is terribly contrived and too desperate to fit in with youth culture, enabling anyone who isn't already a believer to spot God's Trojan horse from a mile away.
That said, is everything 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 gotten 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 elected to show on the site, but the artfully placed shots of the mag seemed to put as much emphasis on photography as theology. I'm assuming that elsewhere in this zine is a picture of Terry Richardson grinning alongside a topless Cliff Richard.
Sure, the above feature's title, "A Different Kind of Leader," has religious overtones, but only when you realize 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" bass producer recently signed to an XL imprint, but in actuality it's a guy standing next to a piece called "Architecture of a Question." The piece isn't written 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 whole operation. 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 Kirkegaard. 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 tenant of conversionism, something the evangelical Alphas are pretty big on. The funny thing about this article 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 Baauer's older, harder brother because Alpha wants to attract people who like Baauer.
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 made up of super cool cosmopolitan guys, they're a Christian organization 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 than 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. Our generation has commodified cool so much that they've just gone out and bought it off the shelf. 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.
OK, 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 voice explains that the app is for "building alphas," informal talks on those Big Questions that you can invite your pals to. The social media aspect of it is a strange one—surely it means you're only going to be preaching to the converted? If Jesus were around today, he'd probably be a Twitter man instead of a Facebook one—somebody trying to get his point across to as many people as possible. Like Donald Trump or Jose Canseco. But Alpha has taken the Facebook approach, which seems strangely at odds with their evangelical message.
One man who's really spreading the word, however, is Judah Smith, the Godhead of cool Christians, the OG Tumblr John the Baptist. The editorial staff of Alpha Life realize this, and devoted their main feature to 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, dresses like somebody from a bad YouTube sketch about Williamsburg, talks like a cross between Riff Raff and Forrest Gump, and he has a routine called "Jesus is bringing sexy back."
I've got a feeling that his is a career that will either end in scandal or 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.
Follow Clive on Twitter: @thugclive
More times people have gotten things really, really wrong: