Can a Glamorous New Bible Reach the Cosmo Teen?

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When one sees a crowd of teenage girls standing in the food court of a suburban mall, chances are they are not debating the correct interpretation of “justification by works” in the Epistle of James. Indeed, chances are these women have almost no contact with the words of Scripture at all. It is quite likely, however, that these girls have read a copy of Glamour or Teen People magazine sometime in the last week. It’s here that one evangelical publisher sees an opening for the Bible.

And so Thomas Nelson Publishers has given us Revolve: The Complete New Testament, a magazine format with the some of the substance and all of the style of a glossy teen glamour monthly. The New Century Version of the New Testament is interwoven with a “Blab” advice column, self-help quizzes, and eye-catching graphics.

Just like Cosmopolitan, the publication offers “beauty tips” on every couple of pages, but with an allegorized twist. So, just as when plucking one’s eyebrows one places a warm rag over one’s pores to prepare them for the pain, kind words to a friend will help in breaking bad news. Just as one applies foundation before putting on the rest of one’s makeup, Jesus is the “foundation” of our lives. Just as moisturizer is necessary every morning for one’s dry skin, the mercies of the Lord are new every morning. And, just like Tiger Beat, this Bible has photographs of attractive guys every few pages in a “Guys Speak Out” column in which the boys answer questions such as “Do you prefer quiet girls or outgoing girls?” or “Describe your ideal girl”.

The impulse behind the Revolve phenomenon is commendable-even commanded by Scripture. After all, Cosmo girls are part of the cosmos for which Jesus offered His life as a propitiation for sin (1 John 2:2). They are not being reached via gospel tracts or Gideon Bible distribution. The Great Commission demands, therefore, that the churches take the gospel to the nations-and to the generations. The creators of this new Bible probably see themselves as missionary Bible translators-contextualizing the Scriptures in the “language” of an increasingly unreachable people group. Yet the issue is more complicated than just one more missiological strategy. The evangelical community must think through whether such “niche Bible” gimmicks carry with them some unintended-and counterproductive-consequences.

The first unintended consequence of the Revolve strategy is what it communicates about the authority of Scripture. The Bible distinguishes itself from other claims to authority precisely because of its otherness. Because it is the voice of God Himself, it arrests the attention of human beings through its own weightiness. Thus, God wonders why his own prophets are not “afraid” to heed His words through His mediator Moses (Num 12). The Scripture claims to stand over humanity as a “two-edged sword” carrying with it the
authority of the Creator God Himself and piercing through consciences to the hidden places of the heart (Heb 4:12-13). Is it possible to avoid trivializing the gravity of the Scripture as the authoritative Word of God, when the Bible is packaged as something as frivolous as a beauty magazine (or a sporting magazine, for that matter)? Have you lost something about the conscience-piercing nature of the Book of Galatians when it is interspersed with tips on how to apply lip-gloss?

Likewise, it is hard to see how the unique authority of the Bible is preserved when it is thrown together with other-seemingly equal-claims to authority. The Gospel of John is on the page as the text of this “magazine” right along with interviews with teenage boys about what they like best in girls and advice from some anonymous columnist. Now most of this counsel is sound. One young man writes, for instance, that he finds immodesty to be “gross.” Still, should we be endorsing a young girl accepting the authority of the thoughts of attractive men, right along with the reading of the Word of God? She will find many “cute boys,” after all, who find immodesty anything but gross. That is irrelevant. What is relevant to her, however, is the voice of her Creator coming to her with the authority of His Christ.

The second unintended consequence is what this Bible communicates about the nature of the gospel. In this sense, the Revolve Bible is nothing new. Evangelicals have long believed that the way to get attention is to reincarnate the gospel into a vanilla-flavored version of whatever worldly fad is the going thing. Thus, we have the embarrassment of “Christian boy bands” seeking to imitate-usually badly-the music of “N’Sync”. We have Christian wrestling federations and Christian karaoke clubs and Christian line-dancing competitions. But these things just don’t seem to penetrate a secular youth culture. Why? Because they have glamour magazines and boy bands and karaoke clubs-and they are done better than we can do them.

And yet these same teenagers are scared to death of death and loneliness and guilt. The revivals that we are seeing among teenagers come through a remarkably ancient plan-Christians who love teenagers enough not to seek to ape their pop culture, but instead to dwell among them and point them to something completely different, the gospel of a crucified and resurrected Messiah. They can find out Justin Timberlake’s birthday in Teen People. What they most want to know is how can I find peace with God? Why obscure the awesome natureof that proclamation with so much fluff and silliness?

Evangelical Christians who are in tune with teen culture will see that teenagers don’t want more of the glamour culture. It is killing them. You can see this in the faces of gaunt anorexic teenage girls trying desperately to look like the “ideal” woman they see in the celebrity magazines. You can see it in the desperation of teenage girls who buy the cultural assumptions that a woman’s worth is measured in how physically attractive men consider her to be. This is not Jesus’ view of women. When Jesus encountered a
woman bound by the cultural expectations of her civil religion and by the sexual expectations of the men in her life, He did not patronize her (John 4:1-26). Instead, he confronted her with the offer of the cleansing waters of the Spirit-the same offer He has sent forth into the whole world.

It is here that the Revolve phenomenon most painfully falls short. The gospel simply is not glamorous. It stands against all the values of the glamour magazines, which celebrate celebrity, consumer wealth, and sexiness. The gospel instead presents an executed Jewish king, who commands teenage girls to be crucified with Him. The Revolve Bible carries with it an inescapable implied message: you can be a Christian and still remain comfortably within the subculture ofshallow middle-class North American consumerism. Is this the proclamation ofJesus and the apostles?

Revolve is a good-intentioned attempt to take the gospel to a teenage world in need of Christ. But the apostle Paul warns us that certain kinds of cleverness of speech can actually remove the scandal of the gospel, which is precisely what holds the power to save. With our proliferating gimmicks with the Bible, evangelicals must ask whether our cuteness just might be “emptying the cross of Christ of its power” (1 Cor 1:17).

And, sadly, this issue is just the beginning. Newsweek magazine reports that a new Bible for teenage boys is in the works also-modeled after the popular “lad” magazines such as Maxim. One can only wonder how they will pull this off, given the secret to these magazines’ success with pubescent boys: scantily clad women and expensive power tools. Should we expect a smiling cover illustration of a smiling, bikini-clad Jael, complete with a bloody tent peg (Judges 4:17-22)? It is hard to see such making the cut in the neighborhood evangelical bookstore.

But, then again, one never knows.

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).