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After Columbine, martyrdom became a powerful fantasy for Christian teenagers

Cassie Bernall and Rachel Scott weren’t just victims — they became part of a bigger narrative, with far-reaching effects.

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Columbine HS Massacre Remembered Ten Years Later
Youth pastor Julie Outzen, 23, of Denver commemorates the ten-year anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings at the Columbine Memorial Park April 20, 2009 in Littleton, Colorado.
Photo by Marc Piscotty/Getty Images
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Twenty years ago, on April 20, 1999, 12 students and one teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, were massacred, shot by two angry young men — Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold — who then took their own lives. Twenty-three others were wounded. The shooting was an unmitigated tragedy that sparked nationwide arguments over video game violence, goth culture, guns, teenagers’ use of the internet, and more. And it provided a kind of template for many acts of mass gun violence that would follow.

In some ways, a lot has changed in the intervening decades; in others, nothing has changed at all. Mass shootings happen so frequently in America that a majority of the country’s children will participate in a shooting drill at school; such drills are required by law in six states, and conducted voluntarily in many others. In some instances, teachers have been told they should carry guns or have been shot with pellets during drills. Kindergartners are learning nursery rhymes to help them know how to deal with a shooting incident.

In 1999, though, these measures weren’t commonplace. So Columbine was a watershed moment in the consciousness of American teenagers — a moment where safety started to feel like an illusion, and you could be exposed to danger anywhere: at home, at the grocery store, at the mall, in the classroom. Those same teenagers would live through the events of 9/11 just two years later, and the two moments have come to define the world for older American millennials, who live in the shadow of acts of large-scale, senseless violence that render even home soil unsafe.

But if you were a Christian teenager in 1999, the word “Columbine” doesn’t just make you remember feeling suddenly threatened in places you thought were protected. It’s synonymous with both a cottage industry that sprang up around the shooting, a raft of commercial products that retold its stories — sometimes with dubious connection to the facts — and an ethos of martyrdom that seems in retrospect to have summed up what it was like to be a youth-group kid at the turn of the last century. And the results have lasted far into the future.

Cassie Bernall was immortalized as the girl who “said yes”

A martyrdom mythology sprang up around Cassie Bernall, who was 17 when she was shot by Eric Harris at Columbine. As the story was first told, Harris asked Bernall if she believed in God moments before he shot her, and she said yes.

The story provoked a flurry of pop culture commemorations. The most famous is probably pop singer Michael W. Smith’s hit song “This Is Your Time,” which became the title track for his Grammy-nominated 14th album, released in 1999. The track won Song of the Year at the Dove Awards — which are basically the Christian Grammys — and the music video for the song, which also won a Dove Award, included a clip of Bernall speaking about her beliefs.

Smith also co-wrote a book titled This Is Your Time: Make Every Moment Count, published the following April, in which he recounted “the story of how [he] came to write the song and of his relationship with others who have stood for Christ in the face of death.”

Many commemorated Bernall’s life by calling her death a “martyrdom.” The Christian rock-metal band Flyleaf recorded a song about Bernall, called “Cassie,” which includes the lyrics “All heads are bowed in silence / To remember her last sentence / She answered him knowing what would happen / Her last words still hanging in the air.”

And the year after the shooting, Cassie’s mother, Misty Bernall, wrote a book called She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall, in which she talked about her daughter’s conversion to Christianity, struggles with faith, and death.

Meanwhile, Bernall’s story proved to be a rallying point for youth ministry: In a 1999 Weekly Standard column, Joseph Bottum wrote about 73,000 teenagers who “wept along with sermon after sermon on her death” at a rally in Pontiac, Michigan.

Rachel Scott, a proud Christian, also became a figurehead after her death at Columbine

A similar aura sprung up around Rachel Joy Scott, another Columbine victim. Scott was an outspoken Christian who planned to become either an actress or a missionary upon her graduation, before her life was cut short. She was the first victim of the shooting, and, as with Bernall, Harris reportedly asked her if she believed in God before he killed her.

Scott’s mother, Beth Nimmo, said in interviews that Scott had offered friendship to Klebold, who had become privately infatuated with her. Nimmo also said that both Harris and Klebold had “mocked [Scott] and made fun of her because of her Christian values. She was on their target list.” (Later reporting on Columbine, including Dave Cullen’s definitive book on the event, disputed the idea that Harris and Klebold targeted anyone specifically during their killing spree, since their larger plan was to set off bombs and kill indiscriminately.)

Scott’s journals were published by Nimmo, and both of her parents co-authored their daughter’s biography. Scott had written in her journals, “I am not going to apologize for speaking the name of Jesus. ... If I have to sacrifice everything ... I will." Her father, Darrell Scott, drew on a theme from his daughter’s journals to write a book called Chain Reaction: A Call to a Compassionate Revolution, and in 2008 he published a book called Rachel Smiles: The Spiritual Legacy of Columbine Martyr Rachel Scott, which included new excerpts from her journals and photographs.

Memorial Marks Anniversary Of Columbine Shootings Days After Va. Shootings
Visitors at a memorial honoring Rachel Scott and other Columbine victims in 2007.
Photo by Kevin Moloney/Getty Images

In October 2016, the film I’m Not Ashamed, which stars Masey McLain as Scott, was released in theaters. McLain also authored a three-week tie-in devotional called It’s Worth It, released at the same time. The movie made about $2 million at the box office — a modest amount of money for a Christian film, though its studio, Pure Flix, is distributing distribute the film on its streaming platform. It received positive reviews from Christian outlets, but mainstream outlets found it exploitative. The Guardian’s Jordan Hoffman argued that I’m Not Ashamed was “exploiting this young woman’s horrible fate to fit a previously constructed phony narrative of oppression.” (The film also suggests that Klebold and Harris were influenced in their actions because their school taught the theory of evolution, rather than divine creation.)

What actually happened at Columbine doesn’t quite match the popular narrative

Understandably, the accounts of what exactly happened when both Scott and Bernall were shot are a bit muddled. But in the months that followed, the facts didn’t really matter. The Columbine massacre fit a previously constructed narrative for the country in 1999, with widespread ongoing fear about violent youth culture, video games, and music and how they were affecting kids and teens. It’s human nature to make the facts fit a narrative, rather than the other way around. Columbine was no different.

Reporter Dave Cullen, who was one of the first people on the scene, argued in his 2010 book Columbine now considered the definitive work on the subject — that the event formed the template for the next nearly two decades of “spectacle murders,” particularly in the way mythologies and stories that form in the wake of such a tragedy are repeated over and over until they effectively become true.

Harris and Klebold were widely reported to be social outcasts after the massacre, part of goth or “trenchcoat” groups at Columbine. But according to Cullen, this was eventually shown to be a false narrative — neither boy was high school royalty, but both had circles of friends, and Harris was known to be a bit of a ladies’ man.

Columbine HS Massacre Remembered Ten Years Later
On the 10th anniversary of the Columbine shootings, a woman looks at 13 crosses representing the victims.
Photo by Marc Piscotty/Getty Images

And as the public mourning began to fade and the FBI conducted its investigation, it started to become clear that the story about Bernall, in particular, was probably falsely reported. It was likely another girl entirely, Val Schnurr, who told Klebold — not Harris — that she believed in God before he shot her in the school library. (Schnurr survived.) Bernall was also in the library, though further from Klebold, and Harris did find her. But later eyewitnesses stated that Harris found her cowering under a table, said “Peekaboo,” and then shot her, without Bernall uttering a word.

The eyewitness accounts seemed to point to the fact that while Bernall was tragically murdered, the martyrdom story was built on false evidence. However, who actually said what in the library on April 20 became a point of major dispute, as Hanna Rosin reported in the Washington Post on October 14, 1999. When Schnurr told her story at the youth rallies that were held in the months following the events at Columbine, she — a Catholic — was seen as suspicious, perhaps a copycat trying to ride her martyred classmate’s coattails. Bernall’s story had completely overshadowed her own.

And it seemed unlikely that the mythology would be changed by any emerging facts. As Rosin wrote:

Despite the nagging existence of Val Schnurr and Misty Bernall's best efforts to humanize her daughter, the Cassie myth has taken root. Because at this point, it's moved far beyond Cassie.

"You will never change the story of Cassie," says Dave McPherson, the pastor at the Bernalls' church. To illustrate how far it has gone, he tells a story of traveling to a remote church in Sudan a few months after the shooting. The congregation's first request was that he tell the story of Saint Cassie.

"The church," he says, by which he means Catholic and Protestant, worldwide, "is going to stick to the martyr story. It's the story they heard first, and circulated for six months uncontested. You can say it didn't happen that way, but the church won't accept it. To the church, Cassie will always say yes, period."

In the months that followed Columbine, many teenagers professed “a Christ-sanctified death wish”

Books and songs about Cassie Bernall and Rachel Scott circulated widely — especially among teenagers in suburban churches, as I and many others can personally attest. They prompted not just teenage soul searching but also that other teenage phenomenon: aspiration. Rosin described a “kind of teenage hysteria, a Christian-sanctified death wish” that the Columbine martyrdom mythology had inspired.

A teenager named Tina Leonard, Rosin reported, told a Southern Baptist news service that “God has laid it on my heart that I'm going to be martyred. When I told one of my friends, he said, 'That's awesome. I wish it could happen to me.’”

That might sound horrifying. But for many Christian teenagers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it made a strange kind of sense. If you were a Christian teenager during the period of time following the era of the grunge-and-flannel dropout Gen-Xers, following your faith was preached to you as a radical act. “Extreme” and “radical” and “fully sold out” were common terms in Sunday school curriculums, at youth rallies, and in teen-focused devotionals and study Bibles. Teens were supposed to be “sold out for Jesus.” Anything less and you were a bad Christian.

Those who guided Christian culture in the ’90s were on the hunt for teen-specific ways to inspire young people to stay true to their faith. Conferences, teen-focused books and publications, music that sounded like mainstream music but had Christian lyrics, and T-shirts and other cheap commercial products splashed with sayings like “WWJD” (What Would Jesus Do) and “FROG” (Fully Rely on God) abounded. Though youth groups had been around for decades, they exploded as centers of not just spiritual growth but also social life for teenagers across the country.

Billy Graham Mission
Teenagers at a DC Talk show in Cincinnati in 2002.
Photo by Mike Simons/Getty Images

An enormous part of Christian teen culture in the years before Columbine was standing up for what you believed — the power of prayer, the existence of God, the wrongness of premarital sex — in the face of people who might make fun of you for it. You might be ostracized, but by standing up for your beliefs, your faith would only grow stronger.

One of 1995’s most popular Christian albums was from the musical group DC Talk (whose styles have ranged from rap to alt-rock to something like stadium rock). It was called Jesus Freak — a phrase gleefully borrowed from a derogatory term used for hippie Christians in the 1970s — and its title track, which contains some echoes of Nirvana, was about not caring if people made fun of you for your faith. The (extremely catchy) chorus mused, “What will people think / When they hear that I'm a Jesus freak / What will people do when they find that it's true / I don't really care if they label me a Jesus freak / There ain't no disguising the truth.” The song won three Dove Awards.

The album was followed in 1999 — the year of the Columbine massacre — by Jesus Freaks: Stories of Those Who Stood for Jesus, the Ultimate Jesus Freaks, a book co-authored by DC Talk and the advocacy group the Voice of the Martyrs (which supported Christians in closed and oppressive religious regimes around the world).

The book built on one of the most revered texts in the Christian faith: Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, published in 1563. It told the story of people who died for their faith, all the way from Stephen (whose stoning in the Book of Acts led to the conversion of the Apostle Paul) to contemporary teenagers in religiously oppressive regimes who had chosen death rather than conversion to a faith other than Christianity. Several companion volumes have been released since then, including one tellingly titled Live Like a Jesus Freak: Spend Today As If It Were Your Last.

And it’s no accident that the late 1990s and early 2000s were the heyday of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’s mega-best-selling Left Behind novels, which mix elements of thrillers, adventure stories, horror tales, and conspiracy theories to dramatize the end of days, in which millions of people from around the world suddenly disappear in an event called “the rapture” and the events foretold in the Bible are set in motion, including the rise of the Antichrist. (Left Behind depends on one way of interpreting the Bible known as dispensationalism, which has its roots in the 19th century and is particularly popular among evangelicals.)

The first installment of the Left Behind series, also titled Left Behind, was published in 1995. Fifteen more books followed. Book 10 debuted at the top of the New York Times best-seller list in 2002, and seven other novels in the series reached the top of the charts.

The books follow a core group of characters who were “left behind” after all the Christians on Earth vanish. Some of them quickly become Christians and start an evangelization movement. Some also become involved with plots to protect believers and resist the globalist one-world government, which eventually requires citizens to take the “mark of the beast” to participate in trade and obtain food. The believers are largely forced to operate underground, working to convert as many people as possible until time runs out, always in the face of danger and death.

Authors Of Prophecy Book Attend Signing
Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins sign copies of Glorious Appearing, the 12th book in their best-selling Left Behind series.

Reading Left Behind, revering martyrs throughout history and around the world, rocking out to “Jesus Freak,” weeping to “This Is Your Time” — alone, none of these activities necessarily lead to the martyrdom hysteria Rosin that reported and that many people who were teenagers then remember.

But combined with the potency of real (or real enough) homegrown martyrs like Rachel Scott and Cassie Bernall — ordinary teenagers who thought about boys and struggled with their faith and were “sold out” for Jesus — it’s easy to see how a teenager like Tina Leonard might feel like God laid it on her heart that she would be martyred. Maybe not at school. Maybe not on the mission field. Maybe it would only be during the dark days before the rapture took Christians away from the days of tribulation. But it would happen, Leonard believed. And it was going to be “awesome.”

Martyrdom hysteria has died down, but the fetishization of persecution persists today

Though Christian books and movies about the Columbine martyrs are still being released today, the martyrdom hysteria isn’t as prevalent a part of Christian culture. (DC Talk’s Jesus Freaks books in 2002 and 2005 focused on “revolutionaries.”) And there’s some indication that all of the “sold out for Jesus” rhetoric of the 1990s and 2000s may have backfired, with a landmark 2015 Pew study finding that the number of American millennials who consider themselves religiously unaffiliated has grown sharply over the past decade.

But the persecution ethos persists. It’s fallacious to equate correlation with causation, but to many, it was not surprising to learn that a 2017 study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found that white American evangelical Protestants believe Christians face serious persecution at a higher rate than Muslims; 57 percent said that Christians face “a lot of discrimination” in the US today, while just 44 percent said the same of Muslims.

Similarly, the 2014 film God’s Not Dead was a runaway hit — filmed on a $2 million budget, it raked in more than $60 million at the box office and made it more or less possible for its production company, the aforementioned Pure Flix, to form a distribution arm.

A big part of the God’s Not Dead series is a song by the popular 90s-era Christian band the Newsboys, whose lead singer today, Michael Tait, was in DC Talk when it recorded Jesus Freak in 1995; about 15 minutes of God’s Not Dead amounts to a Newsboys concert video. Like I’m Not Ashamed, the God’s Not Dead movies depend on the idea that Christians are facing increased persecution, but that it is something to be celebrated and even sought.

The martyrdom piece is missing from all three of the God’s Not Dead films (though it appears in I’m Not Ashamed). In both, the Christians always win their arguments. The only person who dies, so far, is the bad guy (which in God’s Not Dead is the atheist philosophy professor and the film’s main antagonist).

Advertisement for God’s Not Dead 2, starring Melissa Joan Hart as a teacher who lands in court for mentioning Jesus in a public school classroom.
Advertisement for God’s Not Dead 2, starring Melissa Joan Hart as a fictional teacher who lands in court for mentioning Jesus in a public school classroom.
Pure Flix

But there’s some indication that the “awesomeness” of martyrdom has been converted into a kind of fantasy of oppression, wherein persecution is something to be wished for, not something to escape. Writing about the “evangelical persecution complex” for the Atlantic in 2014, Alan Noble noted that the problem with many Christian narratives of persecution is that they “fetishize suffering.”

And he noted the direct link between those narratives and broader conservative rhetoric over the past several decades: “Several major conservative political pundits and organizations have made a name for themselves by selectively highlighting cases of alleged persecution of Christians,” he wrote, highlighting the so-called “war on Christmas” pushed by TV and radio personality Todd Starnes and ousted Fox News host Bill O’Reilly.

“The danger of this view is that believers can come to see victimhood as an essential part of their identity,” Noble continued, concluding that “for evangelicals, preparation for this must begin in our own house, as we learn to better discern good theologies of suffering, edifying stories of persecution, and distorted reports of discrimination.”

Most of the people who rushed to tell the stories of Bernall and Scott after the horrific events of Columbine did so with good intentions: to grieve, to commemorate loss, and to inspire courage in teenagers who were reeling from sudden instability and fear. But in a now-familiar pattern, their stories were turned into banners for causes, mythologies that couldn’t be altered by the truth. They were fed into a wider narrative that continues to profoundly affect American public culture at large.

And one has to wonder if all that happened after the fact doesn’t disgrace the memory of not just two but a dozen ordinary teenagers and one teacher, who, one bright morning 18 years ago, found themselves where they never wanted to be: on the receiving end of an angry classmate’s gun.

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