“Awakening at Littleton”

by Jody Bottum (First Things, August/September)

Jody Bottum, books and arts editor of the Weekly Standard and poetry editor of First Things, writes on the religious fallout from the Columbine High School murders: “And then at last they reached a bright-eyed seventeen-year-old named Cassie Bernall. Either Harris or Klebold (none of the cowering students could see which it was) put a gun to her head and asked, ‘Do you believe in God?’ She paused for a second, according to her classmates. And then she answered, ‘Yes.’ ‘She was scared, but she sounded strong,’ said her Bible-study friend Joshua Lapp, a sophomore who was hiding nearby, ‘like she knew what she was going to answer.’ Staring at her, the gunman asked, ‘Why?’ Before she could reply, he pulled the trigger and shot her through the temple, killing her instantly.

“In the weeks immediately following the killings in Littleton, newspaper columnists and magazine pundits — conservative and liberal alike — spent page and page trying to decide whether Harris and Klebold were somehow representative of America's teenagers. … But there's a far more important question than whether or not Harris and Klebold symbolize what out children have become, and it's whether or not Cassie Bernall symbolizes what our children will become. … If the fourth Great Awakening [of religious fervor] that people have been predicting since the 1970s actually occurs, it will have begun on April 20, 1999, and Cassie Bernall will be its martyr, its catalyst, and its patron saint.”

Bottum describes the mood of the onlooking crowds in the weeks after the Columbine killings as “like that of a citywide, outdoor revival meeting. … The praying crowds seemed to have no special desire to hear politicians come to town and demand gun control, or television commentators denounce pornography on the Internet and violence in popular music and the failure of the public schools, or Hillary Clinton call from the White House for increased government spending on counselors and therapists to help children solve their problems ‘with words instead of weapons.’ … The mourners wanted instead to hear the story of teenage girls with guns to their heads being asked to deny the Lord.”

Bottum sees this as not only spiritually sound, but plainly healthier than the fixation on the sick killers on the part of many secular commentators. “Which question is better put to an average sixteen-year-old: Can you imagine taking a gun and killing everyone who's ever made you mad? Or, Can you imagine refusing to deny God at the cost of your life? To be a teenager is to fit every profile, to imagine oneself capable of anything. For such children, Harris and Klebold must be literally maddening, and Cassie Bernall literally inspiring. …

“Cassie Bernall died a death so archetypal, it is almost an adolescent's fantasy of martyrdom. She had no time to calculate the probabilities; she simply had a gun put to her head and the question of her faith posed in a context of life and death. It's like a fourteen-year-old boy's daydream of being martyred: a sudden rolling of life to a single point and an instantaneous fulfillment of Christ's promise in Matthew 10:32: ‘Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father.’ This is an image to move a child to enormous heroism and sacrifice, while Harris and Klebold form an image to engender insanity.

“The evil of Harris and Klebold has at least discredited the hip adolescent pose of Marilyn Manson. … It's discredited the pretend violence of the comic book culture and the supposed harmlessness of the ‘content neutrality’ asserted by Internet providers. It may even have finally discredited the claim of groups like People for the American Way that religious hatred is the root cause of violence.

“But the goodness of Cassie Bernall may do something far more than these small victories over a corrupt popular culture bought by fifteen deaths in Littleton, Colorado. It may deliver a victory in the culture wars so massive that all the narrow policy wars are simply forgotten. To picture her standing there trembling in the school library, with a gun to her head, the question ‘Do you believe in God?’ hanging in the air, is to believe that a change of heart is possible, that God may be loose in America again, that the pendulum may have finally begun its long arc back.”

Ellen Wilson Fielding writes from Davidson, Maryland.