In The Beginning

An airfield in rural Kansas, September, 2005. The last echo of guitar feedback pulsed through the afternoon air as tattooed roadies carried equipment off the stage and the mosh pit untangled. A lanky teenager made his way out of the crowd and ran to where his friends were waiting on the periphery, sweat smearing his thick black eyeliner. “Awesome performance,” he grinned broadly. “They prayed like three times in a twenty-minute set.”

I glanced around. If anyone else thought this was a strange criterion on which to evaluate a rock concert, they didn’t show it. Not for the first time, I wondered what I was doing here, at a Christian music festival where the merch tables sold “Got Jesus?” T-shirts and Bibles that looked like beach novels. Dustin, the sixteen-year-old prayer fan, continued his rapid-fire appraisal of the hard rock band Disciple. A black-clad girl named Amanda gazed at him admiringly, and I began to suspect that her T-shirt — “I’m a sucker for guys in eyeliner”—was not chosen by accident. Amanda’s friend Alexis smiled mischievously at her. Alexis is my sister-in-law. These were her friends. This was her world. Teenage hormones, rock ‘n’ roll... and Jesus Christ? It occurred to me that I had never before been in a situation where everything felt simultaneously so familiar and so disorienting.

I had only met Alexis two days before. She’s the much younger daughter of my wife’s formerly-estranged father and his second ex-wife. So it’s not exactly a close relationship. The first time I saw her she was wearing a form-fitting black trench coat, studded knee-high boots and a shoulderless red shirt, for a look you might call neo-goth meets Harajuku girl. She was as chic as any sixteen-year-old should be, and I wasn’t sure why this surprised me more—because she lives in Wichita or because she is an evangelical Christian. I’m a liberal New York Jew in my mid-thirties, but we hit it off well enough, and I thought it might be fun to tag along for the trip to SHOUTfest in Neodesha, a hundred miles east.

Picking up my ticket at the gate, I looked over the dozen bands who would be performing on two stages. Jump5, ZOEgirl, Skillet, Disciple. I didn’t recognize a single name. I wasn’t expecting to, but it was still an unusual experience. I’m fairly pop-culture savvy. I download the latest singles from iTunes, my Netflix queue has five hundred movies in it, and I can name all seven Harry Potter books, all six James Bonds and both of Britney Spears’s husbands (at press time). And now I was getting a taste of a teeming subculture that was almost completely off my radar. Sure I knew Christian rock existed—was Stryper still around?—and the words Left Behind had a familiar ring, but I’d never really given this universe much thought.

And it is an entire universe—vast, complex and with strange rules all its own, like a mirror universe from a science fiction tale, where everything is the same on the surface only Spock has a beard and worships Jesus. As we made our way into the field a volunteer handed me a yellow sticker that read, “The Logan Show.”

“Who’s Logan?” I asked.

“Omigosh, he’s the host. He’s so funny! He’s like the Christian Jon Stewart.”

Alexis and her trend-conscious clique were something of an anomaly at SHOUTfest. Most of the people wore baggy jeans or cargo shorts with camo baseball caps. They had bad haircuts and extra pounds. “Other Christians think we’re freaks because we wear black,” Amanda laughed mirthlessly. “We’ve been called Satanists.” The irony is that for these kids, their alternative trappings are symbolic of a deeper embrace of faith, not a rejection of it. They are theologically, politically and socially conservative evangelicals. And to a remarkable extent, this worldview comes wrapped up in pop culture ribbons. Amanda’s favorite teen magazine is not CosmoGIRL but Brio, published by the far right Focus on the Family. Alexis was reading an inspirational book called Sister Freaks, about female martyrs. And Dustin—don’t even get him started.

“So, I’m curious,” I got him started, “why is how many times a band prays what makes a good set?”

“Because it’s becoming more and more rare. A lot of so-called Christian bands are really what I call crossover bands. They write these songs where they replace Jesus with You, so you can’t tell if they’re singing about God or a girlfriend. They can tell Christian fans, ‘Yeah, we’re still believers,’ but nobody else knows. I don’t want to judge, but I think a lot of bands try to hide it. They claim their music should be the message, and think the music speaks for itself, but even their lyrics have very little spiritual meaning if any. And if they do, it’s very, very vague and could easily be confused with other intonations.”

“Um, OK, but Christians don’t just have to sing about God, right?”

Dustin looked at me like I had two heads.

“I mean, I haven’t heard any love songs all day. Christians fall in love, right?”

“Love songs are all a bunch of clichès,” he said. “How many times can you sing, ‘My girlfriend left me, she broke my heart, so now I’m going to chop her up and bury her in the basement’?”

I guess some people have had enough of silly love songs. I thought about a Seventh Day Slumber song I’d heard earlier in the day. The chorus went, “I believe in Jesus / He rescued me.” It sounded to me like, well, a clichè. Not to mention a little simplistic. Even if you believed the message, what could this formulation of it have to do with the messy real world? Dustin was clearly a bright guy, so I asked if the lyrics didn’t insult his intelligence. “The music I listen to thrives on ambiguity and irony,” I explained. “What makes it rewarding is that you have to figure out for yourself what the singer is saying, or if he even means what he says.”

“If they’re really a Christian band, and they’re trying to win people over to Christ, there’s no blurry lines,” said Dustin. “The truth is bold. I don’t think people who hear a song should have to do something to find out what a song means.” He gave the matter one last thought. “Irony in Christian music would not be good.”

“Why not?”

“The Bible says, ‘Do not cause anyone to stumble.’ If someone interprets a song wrongly, the band is held accountable for that.”

In so many ways, Dustin reminded me of friends I had in high school and college. He was a rock snob, only instead of scorning a song for being too melodic, he kept tabs on the number of times it mentioned Jesus. As for his convictions about the music he loved—his ingrained belief that doubt was something to be banished rather than wrestled with, and that any questions must be swiftly followed by pat answers—was I wrong to see in them a parallel to creationism and abstinence education? Much has been written about these and other political and social movements, but what if we can only really grasp their meaning by listening to teenagers talk about hardcore rock?

More excerpts and adaptations

The Good Book Business in The New Yorker

The Gospel According to Aaron in Utne Reader

Hip for Him in The New Yorker

Holy Sex! in Salon

Crashing the Passion Play in Jewcy

Bibleman vs. a New York Jew in Gawker

2008 Daniel Radosh    Design: Pat Broderick     Programming: Kevin Shay