Every Wednesday in Holy Relics, Martyn Jones explores artifacts unique to Christian subculture.

* * *

YOUTH LEADER enters. YOUTH LEADER is 24 with curly hair and a lip ring; he is athletic; he is engaged; he is almost unapproachably cool. YOUTH LEADER sits at one of several rectangular tables connected to form a large box. There are teenage boys seated at tables all around and they grow quiet as he sits.

YOUTH LEADER: Okay. (Leans forward on fists, looks out at everyone, pushes at lip ring with tongue.) I know this isn’t an easy topic to talk about, you guys, but I’m really serious about this.
(Young teen boy directly to left of YOUTH LEADER looks down at hands, tries to hold in a chuckle. Instead, chuckles.)
YOUTH LEADER: Here’s the book we’re going to be reading. (Reaches under table, pulls out armful of books, passes copies to teen boys on left and right.) One chapter a week for the next eight weeks. And you should already know who you’re going to be meeting with from the email I sent.
(Young teen boy next to YOUTH LEADER opens book and scans a page. Tries to hold in chuckles.)
YOUTH LEADER: Before we break off into our groups, I just wanted to give you guys a word of hope about this. When I was in high school a few years ago, I did it every day. It was just a part of my day. I know that’s where a lot of you guys are at. (Meaningful look at assembled teen boys.) But I want you to know that when I met my fiancée, I got serious about beating this, and it’s been six weeks now since I’ve done it. So it’s possible.
(Young teen boy next to YOUTH LEADER still failing to contain chuckles.)
YOUTH LEADER: Okay then, let’s pray and then you can go.
(YOUTH LEADER prays over group. “Amens” are said. Young teen boy looks down at the book again, chuckles.)
YOUTH LEADER: (With exasperation) Michael, what is your problem?
(MICHAEL is still chuckling. As he raises his pimply face to YOUTH LEADER everyone notices that MICHAEL looks absolutely terrified.) 

* * *

Don’t think about an elephant. Are you thinking of an elephant? I told you not to do that. You’re not allowed to. You need to stop thinking about the elephant, and here’s how: repeat to yourself the words, “I will not think about the elephant.” If you think about the elephant still, you probably deserve to die.

* * *

Teen boys JAMIE, DON, and ALAN are gathered in a room at a fake bar next to the back half of a spray painted Camaro, which protrudes from a neon green wall below a Skillet poster. There are saggy, dirty couches everywhere. The three are variously drinking orange sodas and eating candy out of torn wrappers. JAMIE is on the side of the bar near the wall; DON and ALAN are seated next to one another on barstools across from him.

DON: Hah hah. Well, I guess we’d better start. Who wants to go first?
ALAN: I will, I think.
DON: Ok, so—how were we putting it? “How is your home life?”
ALAN: Yeah, that’s right. 2 and 0. (Pleased.)
DON: What?
ALAN: What’s up?
DON: Like, so… you mean, you watched something two times and didn’t, uh-
ALAN: No no, you reversed it. Like, I did something twice, and didn’t watch anything.
DON: Oh. Okay, not bad.
ALAN: Yeah, I feel pretty good about it. Just was, like, praying a lot before bed and stuff.
DON: Cool. That’s good, man. Yeah.
(JAMIE looks at both; smiles; nods at both; is softly tapping right forefinger on bar counter.)
ALAN: What about you, Don?
DON: I think Jamie should go cause he looks like he has something to tell us. (Solicitous look at JAMIE. Hint of a smile.)
JAMIE: Yeah, oh man. Do I.
(DON and ALAN exchange quick look. JAMIE observes this, laughs.)
JAMIE: No, hah hah. Of course not. I don’t know how to. And like, what is in those videos and stuff, even? Bunch of pervs, hah hah. 0 and 0 for me, as always.
(As JAMIE says this DON and ALAN make exaggerated shows of their relief, are secretly disappointed.)
ALAN: Again, though, what’s to explain? Do you seriously not-
DON: You just, you know, start thinking about stuff. And then, like, well-
ALAN: So like-
DON: I mean, come on, dude, it’s just- (Obscene/instructive hand motion. ALAN and JAMIE laugh.)
ALAN: Yeah, um, it’s not hard, man. But hah hah, like, why are we telling you this?
JAMIE: I don’t know. It sounds weird, you guys. Like, literally how did you even learn to do that. (Intonation that of a statement rather than a question. Looks down at half a peanut butter cup; chuckles at it but is frowning. Shifts on barstool.)
DON: Well if you don’t have anything, I guess I have to go, and so, my home life was, um, 5 and 3.
ALAN: Don! What happened, dude?
DON: My parents were out of town for the first half of the week. (Sighs, hangs head. Thinks about death. Sharp burning sensation in stomach and DON imagines it is GOD stabbing him. Starts to develop this idea further but is cut off when YOUTH LEADER appears at door.)
YOUTH LEADER: Five minutes and we’re going to reassemble, guys, so pray for each other if you haven’t, thanks.
ALAN: Well I guess we know who needs prayer!
DON: Haha, yeah. (Grimace.)
(JAMIE prays for everyone, with enthusiasm. ALAN nods and murmurs assents. DON’s hands are on the fake bar counter and halfway through he balls them into fists. “Amens.” They exit.)

* * *

What does it mean to be good? What makes you good? There are still days when I catch myself thinking that the sum of Christian virtue is to keep one’s hands out of one’s own pants, and then out of everyone else’s pants. So does it become somehow possible to congratulate myself on days when I have not yet had any dealings with pants at all.

* * *

Following week: same group, assembled in the same room at the same fake bar next to the same spray painted half of a Camaro and Skillet poster. JAMIE again seated on the side near the back wall; DON and ALAN are opposite him. Each has a glass bottle of orange soda in front of him.

ALAN: Let me just get this out of the way now and let you guys know I was 7 and 4 this week and I don’t want to talk about it. (Laughs without smiling or giving any outward indication of mirth.)
DON: Welp, okay then. Guess I know who’s getting prayed up today. (JAMIE shifts on his seat, looks past DON and ALAN.) Dude, just a word of advice, like, I think it’s helpful to work out. Like, when you’re feeling it, know what I mean? Just go for a run. Even at night, you can do pushups. Helps me stay right with the Lord and not, like, you know. (Nods with pursed lips at ALAN, who sits in silence. After a beat, turns to JAMIE.) So do you want to have your fun now or later, Jamie?
JAMIE: 1 and 0.
DON: Troll.
JAMIE: I’m serious, dude.
DON: What! (Looks at ALAN, mouth agape; ALAN’s mouth is also agape. Mouths agape, they look back at JAMIE, who is tight-lipped and distant and looking past them into the neon green distance.)
JAMIE: I was at home on Thursday after dinner and while my family was watching TV in the living room I went in my room and did it. And it felt incredible and afterwards I wanted to die. I hate you guys.
DON: Holy crap!
JAMIE: There was a mess.
ALAN: Hah hah hah! Oh man, I can’t believe this. And like, we totally-!
JAMIE: Yeah, thanks a lot, you pervs.
DON: Holy crap!
JAMIE: I feel like garbage. I don’t know how God forgives this stuff.
ALAN: Aw, dude, I’m sorry bro. Jeeze, this is terrible. (Smiles at DON, who smiles but quickly frowns. ALAN then frowns.)
DON: Welp.
ALAN: We should just pray right now I think. Man, this is crazy.
DON: Jamie, I’m really sorry that we led you into this, bro. This wasn’t supposed to be your thing.
JAMIE: Well whatever man, let’s just move on or whatever. (Throat catches.) 
DON: Okay. Well, um, I was 4 and 0 this week. Not awful. Anyway, Alan, do you want to pray?
(YOUTH LEADER enters.)
YOUTH LEADER: Hey guys, five minutes and-
ALAN: Dude, Jay, we accidentally taught Jamie to get off and he totally did it. (JAMIE stares wide-eyed at ALAN.) 
YOUTH LEADER (JAY): Oh my God. Shut up, Alan.
JAMIE: I actually hate you.
YOUTH LEADER (JAY): Jamie, I’m sorry-
JAMIE: Do you even get it? I feel disgusting. (Looks at YOUTH LEADER JAY, back to ALAN.) I feel like God is actually sighing at me right now. I walked out of my room and couldn’t look at my family. (Throat catches and JAMIE lets himself go. His tears fall unevenly in a gentle patter on the bar counter. He thinks about dreams where he is naked in public. He thinks of his father, who may have heard him in the act. He tries to steady his breath but his diaphragm involuntarily spasms in little heaves. Everyone is looking at him.) And that book, Jay—(he looks at YOUTH LEADER JAY)—I read where the author was all “and I can’t get the image out of my mind of this naked girl, and this naked girl,” and he goes into all this detail and God, why did I even join this stupid freaking group. (Dissolves into tears.)

* * *

What’s a youth pastor to do, surveying his young charges as they ogle each other across the room? Well, in some cases he’s going to try to address the problem head-on and come up with a new program for the fellas who are serious about Jesus. The wisdom he’s received in Bible college and elsewhere suggests that lust is the guys’ exclusive domain, so he thinks the ladies in his group are best left alone. Or perhaps they’d be well served by a parallel group geared toward modesty. 

And how are the boys? Awash in guilt, endlessly repeating their self-abuses and followup confessions and repentances, unable to speak directly about the thing that has them down again and again and again and confounded by that inarticulacy, which fuels the cycle of obsession, shame, and being at desperate grips with themselves in the dark. Or they don’t care. 

The relevant bit of evangelical protestant theology that is so hard to ‘get,’ so hard to accept and incorporate into the institutional life of evangelicalism, is grace. Ego-defeating, morality-altering, superabundant, God-given grace.

Grace is for murderers, thieves, slanderers, those bent on destruction, adulterers, and even—dare I say it?—people who are intimate with themselves.

Who knows what a grace-filled program of this kind might look like? Who knows if the occasion for grace is even well-located on the institutional level; perhaps it’s best expressed on earth in relationships between individuals. But Lord, my prayer is for kids like Jamie, whose tears may contain equally the promises of apostasy or transformation. It’s in the next words of Jamie’s youth pastor that one of these promises might be activated, and those words are not for me to write.


  1. Interesting article, Martyn! I thought it was interesting how you use the story of one in-duress teen to communicate such an interesting perplexity facing the church. As you write so interestingly, youth group accountability groups are interesting, to say the least. Interesting article on an interestingly difficult subject to talk about! Interesting article, Martyn!

  2. As a fellow now in his late 40’s who grew up in a Fundie-Evangelical church and is now an agnostic, my response to all this is, “Guys, it’s just not that big a deal. Don’t worry about it.”

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