Thus says Justin McElroy, one of the co-hosts of the wildly popular (and wildly nerdy) podcast, “My Brother, My Brother, and Me." He would know. He never expected to become a subculture celebrity when he and his three brothers from Huntington, West Virginia first started a podcast for their own amusement in 2010, where they would provide insincere but good natured advice, "Ask Amy" style, to equally insincere question askers and to somewhat more sincere inquirers on the “Yahoo Answers” platform (the latter remain anonymous, as they didn’t anticipate that their questions would become the fodder for a comedy show).
"MBMBAM" (pronounced muh 'bim bam by its cult followers) now sells out major concert venues in cities across the country and boasts such esteemed guests as Jimmy Buffett and Lin-Manuel Miranda due to a cultural shift, which is tough to prove and yet everyone who has passed from high school into adulthood over the last couple decades is vaguely aware of it: Nerdy = cool now.
If there’s anything to this, it’s difficult to pin down any one cause for it, but I have to think it has something to do with the Internet. With social media and the instantaneous spread of information, it’s easier now to find your clan, to use a computer gaming term. Just as the Gutenberg printing press skyrocketed the amount of information available to your average cobbler or, at least, to him via the literate person in his town, and he began to suspect that the Pope might not be right about everything, cultural influence has become too channeled and diversified for there to be any one central paradigm or authority. How can the quarterback run the school with any consolidated rule, if I spend most of my time ignoring him and instead corresponding on my “Reds vs. Blues Banter Page” (a Facebook group in which fans of the English football clubs Everton FC and Liverpool FC trash talk each other)?
I use "nerds" and "geeks" interchangeably, and those terms no longer refer to someone who is bookish or academically inclined, though it could be that. These are any persons who both exercise their individuality and find community through the shared love of anything that is not general interest. Whether it be theater performance, the syndication of the TV show "Lost," or expensive barbecue sauce. The particular object of affection doesn’t matter so long as it can act as a conduit, connecting small pockets of community in a wearyingly massive and pluralistic world.
I wouldn’t suggest that people are merely feigning interest in designer cheeses or "PrittenPaws" (an Etsy shop, which sales pseudo-sexual fury accessories designed to help people "feel more feline") in order to meet people. I think the enthusiasts of these things really like them. But in a world without one overarching cultural narrative where almost no commonality with a random passerby can be assumed, people are building sub-communities electronically through the things that they like.
This has relevance for the church. In a weird way, we have the opportunity to be Jesus nerds in a way that we have not been able to replicate for ages. When 4th century emperors Constantine and Theodosius I made Christianity the official religion of the Roman world, in one day, the word “Christian” went from describing about 5 to 10 percent of the population to 100 percent. Only one of two things could result: either everyone in the empire would start actively seeking to reflect Jesus in their lives—forgiving each other’s faults, protecting the vulnerable, renouncing violence, etc.—or the meaning of the term “Christian” would become diluted. I don’t need to tell you which one ended up happening.
It’s the paradox of church history that if everyone is a Christian, then no one is a Christian. Christians who fear that the faith is dying because smaller numbers of people are showing up on Sundays or because we don’t have the ten commandments posted in public schools have likely not thought much about what it would really mean to embody Christ’s way of being in the world.
But in the collapse of the world where everyone was handed a nominal Christian identity as a birthright, I see an new niche opening up for something that couldn’t have existed in a majority Christian culture: the Jesus nerd.
Zoomba dancers and indy film enthusiasts have a distinctive identity in our society specifically because not everyone is into Zoomba or indy films. For the first time in, Oh, about one thousand seven hundred years, the same can now be said about people who identify themselves as followers of Jesus.
If you’re of a more experienced generation and Jesus nerd sounds like a simple reprisal of the Jesus freaks from the 60s and 70s, the main difference, is that there is no real hostility toward Jesus nerds in this generation. There might be plenty of hostility toward “religion” or “Christianity,” but those identifiers will continue to have less and less to do with Jesus in the popular mind. The Jesus wavelength will be a wavelength that not everybody is on (they never were, btw), but the popular mind will broadly assume it to be an entirely different wavelength than the one that, say, the moral majority was on.
The decline of Christendom is a huge loss, if your goal is to get a large collection of warm bodies together once a week. But it’s so much the better for the more discerning Christian. Suddenly, we are entering a time where “Jesus nerd” might actually mean something.
Selena Gomez fanatics and World of Warcraft players have a clear commitment to something and there is no ambiguity as to who they are. Finally, we are nearing a time where Jesus nerds can say the same thing. Perhaps we can even say more.
Cheers and Peace,