Hallelujah Palooza

Faith and Rock Mosh Together At Christian Music Festival

Washington Post/July 7, 2004
By Andrew Beaujon

Bushnell, Ill. -- The 3,000 people crammed into this tent are tingling with trepidation and illicit thrills: Will David Bazan . . . swear out loud tonight?

If this were one of the punk clubs that Bazan's band, Pedro the Lion, usually finds itself in, the bearded 28-year-old singer would have to do a lot more than cuss to raise even a single pierced eyebrow. But as a performer at the Cornerstone Festival, an annual Christian-rock expo in western Illinois that took place over the weekend, Bazan is expected to follow the same rules as the attendees -- no drugs or alcohol, and while profanity isn't specifically banned, it's certainly not encouraged.

Bazan has already blown through a gallon jug of water mixed with vodka, so what's one more shattered taboo?

"You were too busy steering the conversation toward the Lord," he sings, "to hear the voice of the Spirit begging you to shut the [expletive] up."

A slight squeal goes up, and then some objects fly at the stage.

They're a few pairs of ladies' underwear.

It probably goes without saying that not many of the festival's 25,000 attendees expected such a scene when they paid their $110 admission (which includes camping, showers and all the music they can handle), and it's an anomaly even for Cornerstone, despite its reputation as a relatively liberal Christian event.

This is the 21st year that the Jesus People USA, a Christian commune and ministry in Chicago, has presented the event. Music is central to the Jesus People's practices; Cornerstone's director, John Herrin, played drums for a pioneering Christian rock group called the Resurrection Band.

For anyone used to the minimum-security-prison ambiance of most rock festivals, it's a surprise to see stocked merchandise tables left unattended at night. But if you take away the safe environment, the reasonably priced food and the sober teenage virgins, Cornerstone is a lot like Ozzfest.

The pathways between the seven main stages are, depending on the weather, sources of unbearable dust clouds or shoe-stealing mud. The toilets are a challenge to city-softened sensibilities. And most of the attendees are white middle-class kids in their late teens or early twenties -- many sporting mohawks and henna tattoos that one suspects will not be making the trip back home -- who are here to see rock bands and meet people their own age.

Cornerstone is unique among Christian festivals, though, in that it focuses not on the adult-contemporary light pop most people associate with Christian music -- Amy Grant, say, or the Elms -- but alternative bands with names like Demon Hunter and Torn in Two.

The musicians in these bands mix freely with attendees -- indeed, generator-powered temporary stages dot the festival grounds; bands not on the official schedule can perform on them on a first-come, first-served basis -- forgoing a rare opportunity to be seen as stars.

"This is a different scene," says Jonathan Foreman, singer for the modern-rock group Switchfoot, which started on a Christian record label and has since achieved secular success with its Top 40 single "Meant to Live."

"By contrast," he says, "we just did a festival with Kid Rock and Lynyrd Skynyrd in Alabama, and it got very violent, a lot of fights and things."

This is Switchfoot's third year at Cornerstone, the only Christian festival the band chooses to play. Sitting backstage and enjoying some pre-show pizza, Foreman is palpably wary of identifying himself with the genre.

"If we're gonna stay out of the box," he says of the Christian-rock tag, "we have to be very conscientious of what everything we do is saying. But now we're fortunate enough to pick the shots, and this is one of those festivals where it's a lot of people that are, you know, searching spiritually. They want to see the world change for the better. That's important to me."

Labels, Unwanted vs. Major

Brandon Ebel understands Foreman's reluctance to associate himself with any sort of boxing-up. "Christian music was invented for more of a lifestyle," he says, noting that there's no one "sound" to Christian rock. "It's more of a shared belief system."

Ebel founded Tooth and Nail Records 11 years ago in Seattle. Since then the label has spawned two sublabels: Solid State, which specializes in Christian metal and punk, and BEC Recordings, which offers mainstream Christian pop in the mold of such big Nashville-based labels as Sparrow and INO, home to MercyMe and Newsboys, respectively.

Christian music is still known mostly for nonthreatening acts such as Third Day and Steven Curtis Chapman, which mostly stay within the confines of the evangelical community, playing at large churches and events like the Creation Festival. But in the past few years a number of Christian rock bands, or at least rock bands made of people who've grown up in evangelical culture (many of them with parents who were born again in the Jesus Movement), have led successful assaults on mainstream charts. Since P.O.D. hit big in 2001 with the singles "Alive" and "Youth of the Nation," the record industry has begun eyeing many Christian bands' crossover potential.

Jars of Clay, Sixpence None the Richer, Staci Orrico, MercyMe and Chevelle all had success in the secular market (and that's not counting Creed and Evanescence, both of whose members have been downright prickly about their religious affiliations). Tooth and Nail, like other large Christian indies (Forefront, Gotee), has major-label distribution. And while a few older fans bemoan the loss of bands to the "dying world," most younger ones are delighted to find out that there's no conflict between their beliefs and what's hot.

On modern-rock radio, for example, the Switchfoot chorus "We were meant to live for so much more" is an appropriate drive-time sentiment for anyone with a lousy job. At the end of the band's show at Cornerstone, though, it's hard to miss what the sentiment meant to the mostly teenage crowd singing along with Jonathan Foreman at the top of their lungs.

Even though Ebel met BEC's most popular artist, Jeremy Camp, at Cornerstone, and squeaky-clean bands like Relient K are represented, the festival's audience is much more interested in the kinds of groups Tooth and Nail puts out, and the label's stall in the exhibition tent is mobbed at all hours.

Ebel says his goal in starting Tooth and Nail was creating a label that is "totally relevant and totally musically right in there with everybody else. But still promoting a clean lifestyle." He sees validation in the fact that the band Underoath recently sold 10,000 copies of its debut album for Solid State the week it was released.

"Ninety percent of the sales were general market," meaning not at Christian bookstores, Ebel says. "So obviously, lots of kids that aren't Christians don't care" about Underoath's spiritual orientation. Still, it's easier for the proverbial camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a song with overtly Christian content to get on MTV, so the route to stardom for Christian bands often entails swallowing hard and getting on the mainstream circuit; Underoath will play on the Warped Tour all summer.

Several Tooth and Nail groups have tested their mettle by leaving the Christian market behind. The pop punk band MxPx jumped ship to the mainstream pop label A&M in 1998, and had a gold record in 2000 (the group has since been dropped but is still popular enough to headline Cornerstone's second night). Nu-metalers Project 86 left for Atlantic Records in 2000 but returned to Ebel's fold this year. Most recently, Squad Five-O left Tooth and Nail for Capitol Records.

With his shirt on, Squad Five-O's singer Jeff Fortson could pass for an anorexic version of Dewey Finn, Jack Black's character in "School of Rock." On Cornerstone's main stage, he exhibits similar joie-de-rock -- somersaulting into the crowd, holding his microphone so crowd surfers can sing along as they pass by. When he is bare-chested, though, Fortson's tattoos indicate he has a god other than Mick Jagger -- his right arm sports a stylized alpha and omega and a kicky fish symbol.

"The bottom line is, it's Christian and everyone knows it," Ebel says of his label. "But we don't want to market our faith; we just want to put out great records."

Cornerstone is not without moments that reflect evangelical Christianity's sometimes awkward cohabitation with rock music. Before one group plays at the Tooth and Nail showcase (the only label to get its "own" day at the fest), a representative of World Vision takes the stage to encourage kids at the festival to sponsor its AIDS outreach in Africa.

"Does anybody here watch the news?" he asks, and quiet rapidly descends. World Vision provides food and medicine, he explains, but the most important thing it provides is God, so AIDS sufferers "have somewhere to go when they die."


"And now let's welcome Ace Troubleshooter!"

Hard Music

Doug Van Pelt's emcee skills are a bit less shaky. Like the bluesman Robert Johnson in reverse, Van Pelt found Jesus at a crossroads -- actually, where several freeways come together in Dallas. It was there, at a free concert called Explo '72, which starred Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash, that the 9-year-old Van Pelt first became a Christian. The concert marked the ascendancy of the "Jesus Movement" of the 1970s, when many disillusioned hippies came to the church. Van Pelt's early conversion didn't take, but when he converted to Christianity for good 10 years later, he already knew he didn't have to give up his love of pop music.

Yes, the Ted Nugent and Black Sabbath records had to go. That's a common experience for rock fans who are born again, Van Pelt says between introducing the bands playing on the HM magazine stage on the festival's second night. Van Pelt is the editor of HM and remembers feeling like he was "sitting down with the guidance of the Holy Spirit saying, 'What albums should I get rid of?' "

Van Pelt eventually went back to many of his old favorite albums, and he keeps up with secular music. One of HM's most popular features is called "So and So Says," in which a writer sits down with a secular band to find out what its members think about Jesus. (Cannibal Corpse's George "Corpsegrinder" Fisher on the Good Book: "I don't know what the exact words are, but the Bible says, uh, that no one is fit to . . . you know, I don't know what the exact words are . . . who the hell are you to sit here and judge me?")

Van Pelt's bread and butter is Christian "hard music," which is what HM has stood for since he ditched the magazine's original title, Heaven's Metal, in 1995 on its 10th anniversary. It's hard to believe he's been chronicling the harder side of Christian music for nearly two decades; his writing swings between enthusiasm and disillusionment so rapidly you'd swear he was a 23-year-old kid with a stack of fanzines and bootleg CDs in his backpack.

Last year HM ran an essay called "The Ugly Truth Behind Christian Rock," in which Van Pelt railed against the mediocre standards of Christian radio and the dodgy deals signed by many Christian bands. He wondered aloud what makes an artist "Christian" -- personal beliefs? the "Jesus Per Minute" factor of the songs? -- and called for competition with secular bands, and for fans to support such endeavors.

"That was 19 years of frustration coming out in one article," Van Pelt says. Thing is, he loves the stuff. There are plenty of strengths to Christian music, he says, chief among them what he calls its "pastoral" role in reinforcing faith.

Many of the bands HM covers sound like popular secular bands. That bothers Van Pelt, who wishes Christian groups would take more chances artistically, though he cites Christian groups such as King's X and Zao as real innovators.

And then there's the music's undeniable gift of coolness for kids who come to evangelical Christianity through parents who won't let them listen to secular music.

"If the kid gets approval from Mom and Dad," he says, "they can go to a concert, jump around in a mosh pit, and just go crazy. It's not super-spiritual, necessarily, but I think that serves a great purpose."

Tees of Many Slogans

It's not just Christian rock that's a lot cooler these days. The tables in Cornerstone's exhibition tents promote outfits with names like onetruth.com, Something Sacred and Teen Mania. Black T-shirts ring the tents at eye level, boasting slogans with plenty of attitude: "Moshing for Jesus," "Reject Religion. Embrace Jesus" and "Body Piercing Saved My Life" (the back of which shows two hands with holes in the palms).

Antiabortion shirts abound. A group called Rock for Life appears to be doing a brisk business selling tees that warn an undefined "you" to "Stop Killing My Generation." Its booth is staffed by a guy who wouldn't have looked out of place on Carnaby Street in 1977, sporting a ceiling-scraper mohawk and a leather jacket festooned with patches from punk bands who'd probably have coronaries if they saw where he was working.

There's also a table selling "The Word on the Street," a hip retelling of the Bible by Rob Lacey, a Welsh performance artist. Lacey himself takes the stage between main-stage bands to share some of his material: a three-minute version of the entire Bible as well as an update of the story of the Prodigal Son, in which "Sam Aritan" stops to help an injured stranger.

Lacey then starts shouting "Rewind!" and casts several others in the role of the Good Samaritan: an illegal immigrant, a Welshman, a homosexual (who minces and lisps and calls the man's wounds "just beastly") and, to loud boos, a Frenchman. ("Boot ah em a pacifeest!" he protests.)

Not all Christian artists are comfortable with the assumption that they're politically conservative. James McAllister of the Oklahoma indie group Ester Drang says that while his band plays the festival every year, none of its members is particularly jazzed by some of the sentiments expressed there.

"You can't really walk around the merchandise tent without seeing things that are offensive to some people," he says. "The truth of this festival is that it's basically money-oriented. There's a lot of good aspects of it, but at the end of the day, people are trying to turn a profit."

Tooth and Nail's Ebel isn't flustered by such criticisms. "I don't say we're a ministry," he says of his label. "We want our bands to make money, we want to make money, we want to pay our rent."

The Doubting Believer

Pedro the Lion's Bazan hasn't seen "Saved!" yet, but it's likely he'd agree with the central thesis of the film, which manages to poke fun at evangelical culture without demeaning it: At the end of the movie, Jena Malone's character asks why God would make everyone so different if He wanted them to all act the same.

Seated in an artist hospitality area before his concert, his jug of happy juice half full, Bazan and drummer Tim Walsh (wearing a T-shirt with a picture of George W. Bush and the legend "One-Term President") hope to present a different view of evangelical Christianity.

Bazan grew up the son of a Pentecostal minister and listened exclusively to Christian music until he discovered D.C. punk pioneers Fugazi in his late teens. He's probably the only indie-rocker who can talk without irony about loving Amy Grant.

Still, he hates that his faith has become so politicized, and he despises the Christian music industry. And he plays Cornerstone every year.

"They have bands that have no voice in the context of greater Christianity," he says of the festival's organizers, the Jesus People USA commune and ministry in Chicago. "All the rest of the festivals are very commercial. That's why I personally come back."

For the past couple of years, Pedro the Lion has played the main stage, but this year Bazan requested a smaller berth -- one where he could, say, curse without worrying about offending the parents of young children.

Bazan's own faith is clearly a work in progress. He feels Pedro the Lion is "representing a minority of people who deserve somebody to stand up and say, 'I believe in the deity of Christ, and yet I can't honestly call myself a Christian.' " On Pedro's new record, Bazan offers to buy anyone interested a drink and "tell you why I doubt it and why I still believe."

And on this night, as he stares out at thousands of faces aglow with three days of fellowship and fun, Bazan lifts up one of those dissenting voices he thinks is missing. After warning the crowd he'd have to tell his wife about the airborne underwear, he tells the crowd that their vision of Jesus as a "rugged individualist" is a 20th-century conception unique to America and inexorably shaped by television.

"You may think your church is descended from the Church of Acts," he tells them, invoking the voguish idea that today's evangelical church hews closer to the original Christian community described in the New Testament book of the same name than any of its contemporaries. "But you don't know what it's like to live in ancient times. I don't mean to be condescending; it's just something I thought of."

And then he plays a song that contains no swear words whatsoever.

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