Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 95 (August/September 1999): 28-32.
On April 20th, at around 11:30 in the morning, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into Columbine High School in suburban Littleton, Colorado, armed with pipe bombs and at least seven guns. After killing a student on the lawn and another in the hallway, they moved to the library, where they murdered ten more of their classmates and a teacher before killing themselves.
Several students were shot simply because they were popular. Two were killed because they were athletes, and Isaiah Shoels was singled out because he was black. The seventeen–year–old Rachel Scott the boys killed apparently simply because she had a Bible, shooting her in the leg and taunting her to "Go be with Him now" before killing her. They mocked the eighteen–year–old Valeen Schnurr for believing in Christ, and when she tried to tell them that they would be able to stop killing if they too believed, they left her with permanent nerve damage from nine wounds. The seventeen–year–old Kacey Ruegsegger survived after being shot in the face and shoulder for being a believer.
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 after page trying to decide whether Harris and Klebold were somehow representative of America’s teenagers, whether their actions symbolized a murderous insanity present in all of American society. Rumors about the boys surged in the first days after the killings: that they were angry homosexuals striking back at the homophobic culture of Colorado, that they’d chosen Hitler’s birthday because they were Nazis, that they were racists, that their "Trenchcoat Mafia" school club was a front for Satanists.
The truth seems both simpler and more inexplicable. Children of fairly successful, middle–class suburban families (one father was a retired military officer), the two boys worked in the local pizza restaurant and used their home computers to walk through the World Wide Web collecting depravity—confirming themselves in an incoherent mishmash of anything that seemed shocking, dangerous, vile, or pornographic.
They liked guns because they’d been warned against them. They admired Hitler because they’d been told he was ultimate evil, embodying the absolute opposite of everything in their clean, gentle suburban lives. They toyed with a racism they neither had much occasion to use nor actually felt, merely because they’d been lectured repeatedly on how bad it was—and then Harris posted on his website a screed against racists. He posted diatribes as well against his neighbors, against the sort of athletes Hitler in fact praised, and even against people who used bad grammar. A sort of mocking, giggling indulgence of hatred seemed to be the only lens through which Eric Harris looked out at the world, and anyone who caught his attention, for any reason, deserved to die, because it was so much fun to imagine that they deserved to die: "If I say something, it goes. I am the law. . . . Feel no remorse, no sense of shame."
There are hundreds of thousands of American teenagers playing at this cool, fun hatred. The dark comic books that celebrate it make millionaires out of their authors, and ironic, animated television shows like the deliberately crudely drawn South Park (set in a mythical Colorado resort town not far from Littleton) are advertising goldmines. The "goth" shock–rocker Marilyn Manson—whose albums Harris and Klebold collected—receives gold–record awards for promoting the frisson of hateful mockery. While his roadies hawk T–shirts reading "Kill Your Parents," Manson slashes himself with bits of glass, wears iris–warping contact lenses, declares himself the Antichrist, and parades with naked women on dog leashes. His autobiography, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell, which reached number sixteen on the New York Times best–seller list last year, includes—in the midst of its long anti–Christian tirades—an account of a champagne brunch he threw to celebrate his girlfriend’s abortion and a laughing description of an infamous incident in which he’d buried, in several pounds of sliced luncheon meat snatched from a buffet table, a naked deaf girl who’d snuck backstage to service the band members.
This is what the hip nihilism of the French philosophy professors looks like after twenty years of commercialization have sanded it down to something vulgar enough to fit in the minds of middling teenagers—and, unsurprisingly, there eventually came along a pair of boys sufficiently detached from reality that they were willing not just to pose at it for a couple years before they went off to college, but to act on it, once and for all.
But there’s a far more important question than whether or not Harris and Klebold symbolize what our children have become, and it’s whether or not Cassie Bernall symbolizes what our children will become—for this murdered high school coed was not a typical American girl, and that’s what may make all the difference. If the fourth Great Awakening 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.
Out in Colorado, the mood of the crowds that gathered around the padlocked Columbine High School in the weeks after the killings was like that of a citywide, outdoor revival meeting: a little quieted by the funeral processions of the murdered victims, a little muted by the police barricades and yellow tape, but an amazingly public and unselfconscious display of Christian piety. On a park hill overlooking the school, a local carpenter, Greg Zanis, set up fifteen crosses, for the thirteen victims and the two murderers. Matt Labash, a writer for the Weekly Standard reporting from Littleton, tells of watching as the choir members singing "Amazing Grace" on the hilltop gently removed the pen from the hand of a woman who had scrawled "evil bastard" on one of the murderers’ impromptu memorials and wiped clean the cross. Afterwards, the carpenter took down all the crosses to keep those of the murderers from being a temptation to those too hurt and angry to forgive—then put back up the thirteen victims’ crosses, only to have them removed by the city’s park service in response to a complaint by the local Freedom from Religion Foundation against the "monstrous Christian–oriented memorial" on public land.
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." Though President Clinton assigned $1.5 million federal CARE funds for counseling the survivors, and private donations have reached $5 million, no one seems sure what to do with the money.
The mourners wanted instead to hear the story of teenage girls with guns to their heads being asked to deny the Lord. Rachel Scott is a "Christian American martyr," her pastor declared at her funeral, and the thousands who’d lined up for her memorial service sang hymns of joy. "Now she’s in heaven. She’s so much better off than any of us," one of Cassie Bernall’s friends told a reporter. "I just thank God she died that way," said another. "She’s in the martyrs’ hall of fame," her pastor at the West Bowles Evangelical Presbyterian Church declared at her funeral. "I am just so happy that Cassie is smiling down on us right now," added one of the parishioners who knew her. "She’s in a good place." Strangers flew in from Florida, New York, and California to be at her funeral. Young Life, the evangelical ministry that had been working in her Columbine High School, held an impromptu prayer service for her in Denver in the week after her death, and 1,500 students showed up. A previously scheduled evangelical Teen Mania rally in Michigan on April 24 turned into a Cassie Bernall festival, with 73,000 teenagers in Pontiac’s Silverdome weeping along with sermon after sermon about her death.
It is distinctly American for our social options to seem limited to either anarchy or Christian revival, with the ordinary civil society of liberal democracy merely the long arc between the extremes. But even the violence specialists, the child psychologists, and the grief counselors—the experts of the therapeutic culture who filled the television talk shows and the newspaper op–ed pages in the days after the Littleton deaths—ought to recognize this popular canonization of Cassie Bernall as healthier than their endless admonitions to "talk through with your children" the murderous impulses of Harris and Klebold. 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.
Fearing that her death will help right–wing preachers whip up the "absurd" belief that Christians are a threatened minority in America when "the real martyrs today are in China and Sudan," one prominent Protestant commentator denied in the second week after the murder that Cassie Bernall had suffered anything that could properly be called martyrdom. She wasn’t killed by any agency of a government aiming to suppress her religion, but merely by insane criminals aiming at thrills; her mocking assassins would almost certainly have shot her regardless of her answer; and she fell in the midst of other victims slaughtered for other reasons—or for no reason at all.
The fact remains, however, that 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.
But Cassie Bernall’s life and death contain the possibility of something much greater than merely a healthier psychologist’s tool for (as one grief–management therapist put it in a television interview) "helping our young people deal with their feelings about the Littleton tragedy." In early March, in remarks at the end of a press conference announcing the formation of the exploratory committee for his presidential campaign, Texas Governor George W. Bush seemed for a moment to deny that he would work to overturn Roe v. Wade. Free–associating his way into actually praising President Clinton for his 1992 campaign slogan of "safe, legal, and rare," Bush rambled until he ended up appearing to doubt that he could do anything to help stop abortion until the American people had a complete "change of heart." Cassie Bernall’s death could lead to exactly that changed heart: "Now undoubtedly it is, as it was in the days of John the Baptist, the axe is in an extraordinary manner laid at the root of the trees," as Jonathan Edwards declared in his famous 1741 Great Awakening sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."
It’s hard to tell how many of the stories now circulating about Cassie’s life are completely accurate. She had undergone a conversion experience in Christian summer camp when she was fifteen, and there’s always, in such stories, a temptation to exaggerate her goodness after her conversion. One of her friends relates that she was, in the days before her murder, planning to cut off the long hair that was her favorite feature and give it to an organization that makes wigs for children in chemotherapy. Another explains that she left her Christian school and returned to the Columbine public high school as a sophomore because it offered a greater opportunity for witnessing to nonbelievers. It’s certainly true that her funeral was attended by the gang members, drug addicts, and street people she’d tried to evangelize as part of a Victory Outreach program in the Five Points neighborhood of Denver. But how much effect she’d had on them before her death remains undecidable.
Similarly, there’s always a temptation in such stories to exaggerate her badness prior to her conversion. Back when she was in junior high school, Cassie had begun to dabble in witchcraft, alcohol, and drugs, her parents told ABC’s religion reporter Peggy Wehmeyer. Some friends and family members claim that she was involved in weekend rituals involving cat sacrifices. Her youth minister, Dave McPherson, says now that he thought her beyond help: "There’s some kids you meet that you think there’s a chance, and there’s other kids that you say, ‘She’s gone.’ I never gave Cassie a hope. She was disconnected, she wasn’t going to listen to anything, she was into black magic, the dark stuff."
This much is confirmed by multiple sources: After discovering letters describing violent acts she and her friends imagined doing to their parents, Brad and Misty Bernall acted on McPherson’s advice. They enrolled their daughter in a Christian school, sent her on an intense weekend retreat, and prohibited her from leaving the house except to go to church. "It’s hard," her father explained, "because you know you’re taking a chance of driving your child further away from you." But one day Cassie came home, changed into a believer: "It’s like she was in a dark room and somebody turned the light on, and she saw the beauty that was surrounding her." Her youth–group leader, Jeremiah Quinonez, recalls her telling him, "I went to this church camp and a bunch of people prayed around me. I don’t know what happened, but I was just changed. I felt this huge burden lifted off my heart." (Cassie’s mother has written She Said ‘Yes’: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall, to be published in September.)
The girlish vocabulary of her letters can hide a little of the spiritual depths the girl seemed to be reaching for. "Isn’t it amazing this plan we’re a part of?" she wrote a friend. "I mean, it’s a pretty big thing to be part of God’s plan!" "Honestly, I want to live completely for God," she wrote another. "It’s hard and scary, but totally worth it."
But there is something undeniable and mature underneath her American teenager’s phrasings, a deeply moving faith almost presciently circling in on the Christian tropes of martyrdom and death. In a poem her brother discovered on her desk the morning after her death, Cassie wrote of her willingness "to suffer and to die" with Christ: Whatever it takes / I will be one who lives in the fresh / Newness of life of those who are / Alive from the dead. On the videotape she made for her youth group the night before she died, she vowed to be "a good example to nonbelievers and also to Christians." Two weeks before she died, she wrote a letter to her friend Amanda Meyer, "It’s so frustrating to be patient and wait for God’s perfect timing. It’s so hard to remember that his timing is not our timing. That he knows best. I need to learn to trust, be faithful and trusting . . . and choose his will."
The mainstream media has been surprisingly good at reporting the details of Cassie’s story. Barbara Bradley related the death on National Public Radio in the first days after the murders. Peggy Wehmeyer reported the story repeatedly on ABC’s evening news. The Washington Post felt compelled to put the word "martyr" in distancing quotation marks, but nonetheless carried the story on consecutive days, as did the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and many other papers. The Chicago Tribune called Cassie "humbling and awe–inspiring" (though warning that "absolutists . . . tend quickly to become absolutely intolerant and intolerable"). The Weekly Standard carried four commentaries on her death in addition to Matt Labash’s cover story about her life and Christian conversion in Littleton.
Even the reaction to the Littleton murders has received some mainstream reporting. On May 31, Time carried an article called "A Surge of Teen Spirit." The New York Times ran a similar report on June 6, and Newsweek on June 14. But the power of Cassie’s martyrdom remains an essentially underground story, moving along the Christian e–mail distribution lists and fax trees to bubble up in sermons and prayer–group discussions across the country. It’s a growing belief that God is abroad again in America. It’s an expanding notion that Cassie Bernall’s death is not a meaningless tragedy but a call for repentance so profound it prohibits even blaming those as corrupt as Marilyn Manson or his murderous devotees, Harris and Klebold. It’s an ever–widening faith that the whole pornographic, violent, anarchic disaster of popular American culture will soon be swept away. Not because (as the culture wars activists have been demanding for two decades) direct government action has been taken against the social corruption or because the court decisions that allowed it to flourish have been undone. Or at least not exactly. Those things are expected, but the people moved by Cassie Bernall’s martyrdom perceive them to be almost incidental consequences of the national change of heart that is, after Littleton, trembling on the cusp of breaking forth. The Great Awakening began in New England, as Jonathan Edwards relates in A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, when, at "the latter end of the year 1733, there appeared a very unusual flexibleness, and yielding to advice, in our young people."
Not everyone seems persuaded. Testifying before Congress on May 27, the father of the murdered Rachel Scott argued against gun control on the grounds that "Columbine was not just a tragedy—it was a spiritual event. . . . We need a change of heart and a humble acknowledgment that this nation was founded on the principle of simple trust in God." But Pastor Don Maxhousen denounced such "escapist theology" when he was reached in June by Time magazine for comment on the spiritual reaction to Columbine: "As a Lutheran, I would be helping a family focus on getting through a long dark period in their lives."
But there is, in the response to Littleton, the possibility of an answer to those who’ve offered a counsel of despair about the American soul. Last February, in a much–noticed open letter to his supporters, the longtime conservative activist Paul Weyrich declared that the culture wars were over—and that the Right had lost. "I no longer believe," he wrote, "that there is a moral majority." The only option for serious men and women is now to withdraw from the dominant American society by throwing out their TVs, homeschooling their children, and breaking off into small, lifeboat communities of the saved. In their book, Blinded by Might, issued a few weeks later, the columnist Cal Thomas and the former activist Ed Dobson declared that political work by groups like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition—"a bunch of moralizers who want to force a worldview down someone’s throat"—has hurt Christian witness, which should enter the public square only to stand like a sheep among the wolves.
Christian leaders were not as quick as they might have been to see the promise of Cassie Bernall’s death, and in the first weeks after the Littleton murders many on both the left and the right tried to force the story back into known territory. Franklin Graham, son of the evangelist Billy Graham, denounced the public schools. Boston’s Bernard Cardinal Law complained that guns are "too accessible and too acceptable." "What is causing all this turmoil?" asked Susan Swanson of Chicago’s Luther Memorial Church when reached for comment by the Associated Press. "The media? TV? The Internet? Music? Or far–right–wing hate groups?" In his first radio commentary on the April 20th shootings, Chuck Colson decried the corruptions of American culture. Only with his second commentary the next week did he focus on the surprising work of God in the martyrdom of Cassie and leave behind the culture wars rhetoric.
But the people whose job it is to sniff the wind almost immediately began to sense that something might be changing in America. Oprah Winfrey quickly moved to schedule Cassie’s parents on her enormously popular television program. The Republicans began by promising a Clintonesque "national conversation" with the usual violence experts and child psychologists. But within two weeks their presidential candidates were in New Hampshire speaking of the martyred girl’s effect on their hearts.
Curiously, President Clinton never seems to have sensed the change. In June, he was still trying to cast the murders in high–school therapy terms—and offered Columbine as a metaphor for Kosovo: "In both cases, there at least is some evidence that part of the problem was one group of people looking down on another group of people and getting to where they hated them and then getting to where they thought it was legitimate to take them out."
When Vice President Gore called for God’s help in mourning the Littleton students, he was attacked from the left by Richard Cohen in the Washington Post for failing to demand gun control, and from the right by Focus on the Family’s Tom Minnery for daring to mention God "only after it is too late." But he returned from Colorado to campaign in Iowa by staking out the reforming power of Cassie’s martyrdom as the insight that distinguished him from his Democratic presidential rival, Bill Bradley.
"Imaginary evil is romantic and varied, full of charm; imaginary good is tiresome and flat," once wrote the twentieth–century French mystic Simone Weil. "Real evil, however, is dreary, monotonous, barren. Real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating."
The evil of Harris and Klebold has at least discredited the hip adolescent pose of Marilyn Manson (who was forced by booking agents to cancel the remainder of a tour he’d just begun). 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. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State received considerable mocking when he issued a press statement on May 19 declaring that the Christian victims of Harris and Klebold were somehow responsible for the massacre: "Evidence indicates that the two students who killed their peers, and ultimately themselves, at Columbine High felt alienated and ostracized. . . . We know from experience that school–sponsored religious displays and worship invariably make some students feel like second–class citizens."
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.
J. Bottum is Books & Arts Editor at the Weekly Standard and Poetry Editor of First Things.