As we prepare for this year’s Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry, we are asking several writers to write about what the word “declare” means for them, for their ministry, and for the church. Throughout history, prophetic voices have made declarations—often ones that are uncomfortable to the religious elite. We hope to bring some of that same discomfort into our lives and yours over the next few weeks. If you are interested in thinking through the meaning of “declare” further, sign up for the Forum today!
I have always identified with the nerds, the dorks, and the geeks. I grew up on Final Fantasy, Star Wars, and fanfics. I loved school, books, and politics. I was awkward in school, especially around girls.
And I, like many teenagers for decades, internalized the nerd narrative fed to me, placing the dorks and losers in an epic struggle against the evil jocks and bullies, a world of shallow people who just didn’t understand or get us.
But let’s question our internalized misogyny, our temptation toward hate and self-victimhood, and our blinders to racism and hate. Let’s be nerds refined by Jesus Christ.
At its best, the nerd/dork identifier can empower teenagers to realize that their sense of self-worth doesn’t have to conform to the expectations of people. You can like school or comic books or science—and still exist!
For instance, Vlogbrothers John and Hank Green are NerdFighters and bring together teens from all around the country who feel like outcasts or different in their schools. They show them that they have an internet community of support. Their mantra, “Don’t Forget To Be Awesome,” promotes self-compassion and self-love among those for whom isolation, depression, and ostracization are real struggles.
Exploring the Dark Side
But there is a dark side to the nerd narrative, specifically with men.
Back in 2014, a 22-year-old man named Elliot Rodger went on a killing spree, targeting women. Youtube videos and a self-proclaimed manifesto discussed feeling rejected by women despite being a good guy, as well as other misogynist and—interestingly—racially-charged attacks.
When it happened, Arthur Chu wrote an article on misogyny, entitlement, and nerds, and how he disturbingly saw himself reflected in the mind of the murderer, another alienated man who saw himself as righteous and persistent and a “nice guy” and entitled to “win the girl” like Mario wins the Princess.
Chu writes, “I’ve heard Elliot Rodger’s voice before. I was expecting his manifesto to be incomprehensible madness—hoping for it to be—but it wasn’t. It’s a standard frustrated angry geeky guy manifesto, except for the part about mass murder… listen up, fellow self-pitying nerd boys—we are not the victims here. We are not the underdogs. We are not the ones who have our ownership over our bodies and our emotions stepped on constantly by other people’s entitlement. We’re not the ones where one out of six of us will have someone violently attempt to take control of our bodies in our lifetimes.”
Confessing the Darkness
Three years later, we have seen how prominent the pockets of (mostly white) men on the internet in the alt-right movement and in Men’s Right Activist (MRA) forums have grown. After the election of Donald Trump, reporters are starting to see what had been bubbling under the surface—disaffected, isolated young men on the internet, many who look a lot like the nerds and geeks I’ve always identified with, railing against “Social Justice Warriors” (SJWs) and “feminist Nazis.”
Many think pieces have rightly pointed to “Gamergate” as a spiritual precursor to the rise of the alt-right. For those who haven’t followed, Gamergate started off (to be as generous as possible) as an internal discussion on video game journalism ethics, but rapidly morphed into an opportunity for elements of the gaming community to threaten women, most visibly video game vlogger Anita Sarkeesian whose crime was pointing out in her videos that depictions of women in games are problematic.
This is, of course, not to suggest there that every nerd is culpable for relatively-fringe hatred—although I argue this is much less fringe than we want to believe. But I want to explicitly reject the notion that there is no connection whatsoever between the nerd narrative and the specific manifestations of hate that come from Gamergate, MRA, and the alt-right.
I, too, look at Rodger’s manifesto, and I confess how closely I’ve often felt to some of his feelings. Feeling that sense of victimhood, that sense that no one understood me, that sense of loneliness and lack of companionship.
Naming the False Narrative
But this jocks vs. nerd dichotomy—the nerd as superior to everyone else, the nerd as entitled to the woman who is just too stupid or vapid to truly get him, the nerd as entitled to the right woman as long as the nerd works hard enough and vanquishes the jock foe—this is dangerous precisely because it feeds the male nerd a sense of entitlement and moral self-righteousness. After all, the nerd in this narrative is inherently superior to the dumb jock or to the woman or to everyone else. He’s a “nice guy,” blind to his own misogyny and narcissism, blind to his reducing “jocks” with three-dimensional motives and thought processes into pawns of his own self-serving story.
And then Gamergate, MRA, and the alt-right all, in their own ways, offer narratives and explanations that justify their own sense of victimhood, a sense of superiority, and, most importantly, an enemy. Feminists. Social Justice Warriors.
(Witness, for example Youtube gamer PewDiePie claiming Youtube wants his vlog gone because he is white).
Telling the Truth, Living in Light
So what does this all have to do with youth ministry? These young men are in your midst. The sheer numbers on the internet suggest they are more prevalent than any of us want to believe.
And outside of the fringe hate groups, there are, of course, nerds all over. Many youth workers would self-identify as nerds, including, oh I don’t know, the type of person who would write for a youth ministry blog for the IYM.
Youth workers also regularly tell the story about how God loves all people, no matter who they are. And it is a privilege for us to tell nerds and dorks and outcasts who come in and don’t feel love in their schools or friend groups that God loves them, and being who they are isn’t wrong.
And thank God for this.
But when we have small groups about relationships, we have to stop feeding male nerds narratives about how they are entitled to the women they like. When we, male nerds, talk about our own struggles in high school, we have to watch the fine line between relating to their awkwardness and our own disguised misogyny. We have to deal with how the depiction of nerds has largely been intertwined with mainly white male protagonists, how the entire experience of minority groups (including minority nerds!) has been basically untold within this supposedly empowering narrative, and how that affects the people we pay attention to in our churches.
And, in particular, we have to come to grips with how the nerd-narrative, as it has often been presented, completely diminishes and belittles the teenage girl. How many nerds scoffed when they realized that Teen Vogue had excellent journalism? How many youth talks, in plotting the pursuit of God versus worldly interests, discuss how frivolous fashion and makeup and interests widely enjoyed by young women are?
So, male nerds, perhaps this season of reflection and repentance could include questioning the nerd narrative we’ve internalized. Let’s be Nerd Fighters—let us not forget to be awesome! But let’s question our internalized misogyny, our temptation toward hate and self-victimhood, and our blinders to racism and hate. Let’s be nerds refined by Jesus Christ.