20,000 Christians Convene at the Gorge: God Doesn't Show
Long before I was given the opportunity to attend Creation '99 -- a giant festival of contemporary Christian music held last month at the Gorge in George, Washington -- I'd pretty much made up my mind about Christian rock. My take on the entire genre could be stated as follows: Singing overt praises to Jesus through rock 'n' roll music makes about as much sense as shouting Sex Pistols lyrics during a church hymn. The elements just don't mix. I don't object to people in bands being religious; that's not the problem. The problem is the emphasis on proselytizing that distinguishes Christian groups from other groups that happen to be Christian. In other words: U2 is okay. Petra is not.
There is also the matter, regarding Christian rock, of a conflict of interest. It's always struck me as ironic that self-proclaimed Christian rock musicians are in fact utilizing an artistic form their church has spent the past 50 years condemning as satanic and sexually depraved. It's not that Christians should be banned from listening to or even occasionally playing rock music (in the privacy of their own homes). After all, it's a free country. But to use rock music as a vehicle for spreading the gospel word of Christ seems a bit paradoxical, hypocritical even. From Elvis Presley to Ozzy Osbourne to Marilyn Manson, the Christian community has expressed very public outrage at that unholy trinity of inextricably bound awfulness -- namely, sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. I can almost understand extracting the
sex and the drugs from the rock 'n' roll. It might still float. But to introduce Jesus into the mix? It's a pig in a poke. It's bad karaoke.
Heading to the Creation '99 festival, I hoped that my opinions about mainstream Christian rock -- and mainstream Christian rock fans -- would turn out to be too extreme or unfair. That my suspicions would not be confirmed, that I'd be surprised. To be honest, I was also a bit scared. How does one adequately prepare to meet up with thousands upon thousands of Christian music fans, on their own turf and on their own terms? The best I could do was to throw my old leather-bound Bible (in a spirit of humility and acceptance) into my backpack, along with Stephen Mitchell's The Gospel According to Jesus (to maintain an open mind), some clean underwear, three gallons of water, a toothbrush, three packs of cigarettes, and a small dose of raw opiates (contingency plan for facilitating openness of mind).
As I crossed Snoqualmie Pass, rain turned to sunny skies and the reception on the radio went to fuzz. Cattle stood in fields, chewing grass. Wind whipped through the open windows. I put the car at 75 and set the cruise control, rolling through God's country.
I forgot to pray.
"I'm Into Jesus"
More than 20,000 contemporary Christian music fans had gathered in George, Washington, on the sun-baked, windswept scenic plateau overlooking the Columbia River basin. This huge congregation was ostensibly arranged by Come Alive Ministries, Inc. in order that Christians from around the country could participate in a musical celebration of the true spirit of Jesus Christ. Says the Creation '99 program: "Our motive has always been to 'give tribute to our Creator' and it is our desire to see lives changed by His Spirit. Literally thousands of people have declared Jesus as Lord at Creation through the years.... Creation is often described as a gathering of family."
One of the first things I noticed upon arriving at the festival was the stunning preponderance of white skin. The last time that many white people got together in the middle of a desert, half of Mexico was annexed. I saw only three black individuals the entire time I was there, and one of these individuals was actually a hired actor, playing the jive-talkin' sidekick to Bibleman in an unforgivably tacky skit put on at the Children's Tent (more on that later). I would have been more upset had not the utter lack of diversity been explicable by this one simple fact: Only white people -- in particular, white, suburban, lower-middle-class Christ-crazy people (which they turned out to be) -- could tolerate this kind of music.
The second thing I noticed was the abundance of holy merchandise. The Gorge was literally transformed for the weekend into an impromptu strip mall for Christ, with eager shoppers partaking in a variety of blatant consumer activities, each one underwritten by God and bearing the consistent trademark of a muscular and belligerent Jesus Christ. The catch phrase of Creation '99 was "Whoever takes the Son, takes it all." This aphorism states perfectly the overarching theme of the festival. Forget the stuff about camels squeezing through the eyes of needles and the difficulties of rich people getting past the pearly gates; access to heaven is on a strictly cash-and-carry basis these days. Beneath the broad tents set up throughout the grounds there were Christian entrepreneurs hawking all manner of Jesus gew-gaws: T-shirts, bumper stickers, glow-in-the-dark crucifixes, Bibles, interpretations of the Bible, compact discs, key chains, and jewelry.
The incredible adaptability of Christianity to modern marketing techniques was fully evidenced in the logo-mongering and sloganeering that marked these products. The phrases and sayings emblazoned on the clothing at such places as the "Know God" tent ("Christian Apparel with an Attitude") promulgated that brand of neo-Christianity which touts Jesus as a buff, ass-kicking man of combat, waging an eternal battle against Satan. This iconic appeal to such gross capitalist sensibilities is one of the most tragic aspects of modern Christianity's loss of substance. Christ, as a spiritual product, has undergone a stunning military-industrial make-over, emptied of content and shrink-wrapped for the television generation. That this transformation has been enacted by the very same people who so righteously wave the banner of "family values" is beyond ironic. It's sick. It's everything Mark Twain and Friedrich Nietzsche ever feared about the Christian church -- greed and hypocrisy masquerading as righteousness.
War metaphors, corporate-label copycatting, and pseudo-hip appropriations of Hollywood gangster talk were all utilized at Creation '99 in the effort to sell the paraphernalia of this absurd Rambo Christ. The haranguing tone was extraordinary. And what was Rambo Christ selling? He was selling success, plain and simple. A way to get on top. Would someone please show me the passage in the New Testament where Jesus lays the groundwork for getting even and getting ahead in society? Where he tells you how to one-up the Joneses next-door? "Jesus is particularly stimulating to me," Kurt Vonnegut once wrote in a letter to the Dean of Chapel at Transylvania University, "since he noticed what I can't help noticing, that life is so hard most people are losers or feel like losers, so that a skill essential to most of us, if we are to retain some shred of dignity, is to show grace in defeat.... What I can't stand are sermons which say that to believe in the divinity of Jesus is a way to win."
Even the somber event of Jesus' crucifixion was given a glib and self-congratulatory updating by such T-shirt slogans as "Hang Out With Jesus, He Hung Out For You" and "Body Piercing Saved My Life." Body piercing saved my life? I'm not sure what this means, unless it's a bogus attempt to conflate the cultural significance of trendy nose rings with the excruciating pain of having nails pounded through one's palms. Body piercing saved my life? It sounds desperate, defensive, and mean-spirited all at the same time -- like Nietzsche's notion of Christian ressentiment. In fact -- and much to my dismay -- it was exactly this combination of desperation and defensiveness, a sort of passive-aggressive appeal to social relevance coupled with a guilty conscience, that surged beneath the collective attitude at Creation '99. I mean, what kind of a person would wear a T-shirt that says "Addicted to Jesus"?
The kind of person who bought a three-day pass, that's who.
The Fringe Stage, set on the grassy plateau near the main entrance, was where the festival's younger, edgier bands plied their brand of Jesus-inspired punk/ska before crowds of hip, sweaty Christian kids -- bands such as Fold Zandura, the Normals, P.O.D., Squad 5.0, According to John, and Insyderz. It was Grunge for God. This noisy, ghettoized little venue was probably the very place Jesus, had he suddenly shown up, would've decided to spend the majority of his time (Christ would never have made it past the gate without a shirt on, though). I say this not out of any desire to appear snide. I say it because there was a glimmer of authenticity and spontaneity to the music that seemed to be lacking from the rest of the proceedings at Creation '99. In short, the kids were alright. Most of the ones who crowded the stage -- some with dyed hair, some moshing -- seemed like normal kids stuck at Christian summer camp. They were making the most of an otherwise un-fun situation, in their own awkward, lanky, hormonal way.
Wherever bored, disaffected teenagers congregate in public -- even if it's someplace as repressive and surreal as Creation '99 -- there is always that volatile admixture of alienation, attitude, and restlessness that is vaguely threatening and energizing. Of course, there wasn't a lot of making out going on at the Fringe Stage, or smoking, or drinking, or anything else you might associate with an outdoor rock festival (I'm by no means endorsing these behaviors). This wasn't, after all, Lollapalooza. It was Christapalooza. Human and heavenly surveillance were perpetual factors. But between the requisite sermonizing and token Jesus Christ name-dropping by the bands onstage, it seemed like any old rock show: loud, sloppy, and humorous, with an emphasis on hairstyles and posturing.
"I'm the Christian the Devil Warned you About"
If you've never seen the main stage at the Gorge "Amphitheatre," let me tell you: It's an impressive sight. The stage -- with its gargantuan sound system suspended sky-high in the steel rafters -- is located at the bottom of a long, terraced slope that ends abruptly at the precipice of a massive bluff overlooking the canyon, at the bottom of which flows the mighty Columbia. It's truly breathtaking to behold. Standing at the very tip-top of the hill, looking down upon the whole glorious view of God's sweet geography, you can't help but experience a deep reverence, a sort of spiritual shiver that moves through your spine and up into your head.
Leave it to a bunch of Christians to completely ruin this wondrous effect with their perpetual clamoring about "personal relationships" with Jesus. There was a lot of this talk over the
weekend: Do you have a "personal relationship" with your maker? Well, do you? Huh? It was my impression that only schizophrenics and disciples professed personal relationships with Jesus. Apparently modern Christians deem it necessary to establish a chatty, therapeutic rapport with Christ as well. And they do it loudly, in public. It used to be good enough just to pray in silence. Now you've got to get the Lord on a party line.
But I was talking about the main stage. For the festival, the coordinators of Creation hauled in a massive television screen -- a monstrous apparatus that stood some three stories tall -- and set it just to the left of the stage. Now, this is arguably a necessary evil during a concert at the Gorge. People, after all, like to be able to see what's going on. What's not up for debate is the sheer violation of human rights it entails to leave the television playing when nothing is happening onstage. At Creation '99, as soon as one event ended, the image on the screen immediately reverted to fancy advertisements for all kinds of Jesus stuff.
And get this: The night of our arrival, we attended "Worship with the Katinas," which commenced at 7:10 sharp. The Katinas weren't that bad, actually, a kind of hiphop doo-wop outfit with a traditional R&B backing; they sang beautiful harmonies in praise of Jesus and in condemnation of Satan ("Creation, Creation, Creation's on fire/We don't need the devil cuz the devil is a liar"). But just before the Katinas took the stage, a solitary individual with a microphone began talking to us about the need for an offering. He explained how hundreds of white plastic buckets would soon be distributed throughout the crowd to collect our money. To this end, he appealed to our deepest emotion of spiritual compassion, giving a heart-wrenching story of suffering and loss.
What was the goal of this offering? What grievous fiscal void was it meant to replenish with unselfish sacrifice? Was it meant to alleviate the suffering of those in wartorn regions of the globe? World hunger? Ecological devastation? No. None of the above. The specific aim of this offering was to raise $25,000 to pay for... the big-screen TV. And what necessitated this offering? Some horrible con artist, commissioned by Come Alive Ministries to provide the entertainment system for Creation '99, had absconded overnight with both the funds and the big-ass television. (William Burroughs once said: "When doing business with a religious son-of-a-bitch, GET IT IN WRITING!") Come Alive Ministries had done some eleventh-hour scrambling in order to procure an alternate TV for the festival, bless their hearts. I watched as the white buckets filled up with money. This is the exact point at which my sense of proportion began to go out the window.
In all fairness, there were organizations represented at Creation '99 that did not -- in the most general sense -- vilify the entire concept of charity. The Christian church's missionary position of imperialistic do-gooderism continues on in such tax-exempt organizations as Compassion International: "Best of all, that child will have the love of Jesus explained to him or her through consistent Christian training." Training? Eighty cents a day and a noseful of scripture for the starving.
"Life is Short. Pray Hard."
The much-anticipated performance of Michael W. Smith ("Smitty") took place Friday night at 10 on the main stage. With a career spanning just over two decades and album sales topping the 6 million mark, Smith is considered a living legend in the mainstream Christian music scene. Smith, who is ruggedly good-looking in a George Michael sort of way, speaks with the soft rhythms and infectious twangs of a Nashville native (he moved there in 1978). In person, he's a highly affable and at the same time modest individual, someone who appears relatively at ease with his status as an international hero of Christian rock.
During his press conference (which took place in a sweltering tent during the Jars of Clay performance) he fielded questions from a cluster of reporters and fans. When asked how he viewed himself and his work in relation to the rest of mainstream Christian musicians, Smith responded: "I feel like I can be a light in a dark place." He went on to hint that there were bands, even bands present at the festival, who had drifted too far from the church. He suggested that touring outfits hire a full-time minister to accompany them on the road.
Smith further acknowledged the internal divisions and political squabbles hindering the Christian music scene with a plea for bands to make a stronger effort to connect with the world at large. "We've got to get out of our little subculture," he stated. "If this is what God called me to do, then I better get off my tail and do it." All of this was very refreshing to me. Smith appeared to possess common sense, humility, and a spirit of inclusion, attributes which -- in my experience, at least -- are sorely lacking among the majority of Christians. I found myself sort of looking forward to his set, which followed quickly on the heels of the press conference.
To further enhance my viewing pleasure, though, I found it desirable, prior to Smith's set, to resort to that most common and useful of rock festival accouterments: drugs. This was an altogether difficult procedure, for obvious reasons. First, just to smoke a damn cigarette, I'd been forced to hide in Port-O-Potties all day long. The only alternative to this leper-like ostracism was to hike a good half-mile off festival grounds (which would wind me too much to enjoy the cigarette). I admit
that smoking is a baleful and noxious habit, but to forbid it in the middle of nowhere, outdoors, strikes me as extremely intolerant. Smoking, at the very worst, is only a venal sin.
At any rate, through a bit of strategic planning I was able to get the narcotics (the specific nature of which shall remain strictly between me and my Creator) into the holy vessel of my body. And before you jump to any conclusions, let me remind you: "So if you don't judge, you will not be judged; if you don't condemn, you will not be condemned," etc.
It was a beautiful, beautiful night. The sun had set and a low covering of clouds held the heat of the day to the earth, while a warm breeze played across the plateau, cooling the sweat on my skin. I found a place on the asphalt close to the stage and, along with thousands of invariably sober Christians, awaited the appearance of Michael W. Smith. All around me, children were swinging these glow-in-the-dark chains with green neon crucifixes attached to them. Other people were stretched out on the lawn on blankets, and some were sitting in collapsible lawn chairs. There was anticipation in the air -- you could feel it: the hushed buzz and physical restlessness of collective excitement.
Or maybe it was just the drugs. A few years back I was coerced into going to my first (and last) Grateful Dead show, at Memorial Stadium, by a group of friends who thought they were doing me a big favor. Gee, thanks! But it did occur to me back then, as I wandered aimlessly through the bra-less, hacky-sacking crowd -- bored senseless by the music onstage -- that it would be oddly exhilarating to be the only person not on hallucinogens at a Dead show. And now, as Michael W. Smith took his place before his stand-up synthesizer, with the lights swirling across the stage and the audience whooping up on the hill, here I was in the inverse position. Hopped to the gills, my head expanding to embrace the stars and universe above and my body pulsing with physical euphoria, I was surely the only chemically bent atheist among a crowd of ecstatic Christians.
As impressed as I was by Smith in conversation, I was totally underwhelmed by his music, even on drugs. It sounded to me like a combination of Toto and Journey, with a little Asia thrown into the mix. The stuff was as emotionally manipulative as a movie score: soaring, dramatic, triumphant, and completely patronizing carrot-and-stick music. Smith and his band had all the outward trappings of talent, meaning they played and sang with competence and precision. But there was nothing to recommend the music at all. It was just a liturgical fart in the breeze. Smith's attempts -- through melodramatic chord changes and over-the-top lyrics -- to swell the listener's heart with joy and uplift the soul were so aggressive and misinformed that they actually had the opposite effect on me, in the same way that too much salt in the soup makes it inedible.
The people around me were dancing clumsily and clapping off beat, and some, in a gesture I saw repeatedly over the course of the festival, were lifting their hands in the air, palms upward, with their heads tilted back and their eyes closed in a display of public rapture. So once again: Who am I to say? Who am I to doubt the sincerity of these displays? And why did these Christians in particular so utterly spook me? I was just a fly on the wall in the house of the spirit. Was there anything to explain or justify my presence at Creation '99?
I can only say this in my defense: If curiosity, ambition, and obligation sent me to the Gorge that weekend, then a deep sense of frustration and confusion compels me to write the things I am now writing. Because it got worse.
"Would You Take A Bullet For Jesus?"
The Saturday morning 9:25 service was given by Dawson McAllister, a "provocative" call-in radio host whose two-hour show is broadcast in over 425 radio markets nationwide. According to the press release, he is "one of the most relevant youth communicators of our day, keeping in direct communication with students through weekly conversations with teenagers everywhere." And I say: God help us.
McAllister, who looks like an anemic Texas ranch-hand shaking off a three-day bender, promotes the kind of intolerant, spare-the-rod "tough love" that has made the fascistic Dr. Laura Schlessinger such a darling of bigoted yuppies everywhere. McAllister, in other words, is a mean-spirited son-of-a-bitch doing what he most obviously believes is God's will, as revealed to him through a direct line to heaven above.
McAllister began his sermon by recounting -- in very dramatic detail -- the final minutes in the life of Cassie Bernall, the student shot through the head during the Columbine massacre in Colorado on April 20th of this year; she was gunned down after she professed her belief in God to her executioners. Of the killers, McAllister said that "they had a demonic look on their faces because I believe they were demon-possessed." This immediately short-circuited any expectation that his sermonizing would be grounded in earthly reality. He was after bigger prizes.
Following his contention that "God never allows evil to act outside his own boundaries," McAllister said of Cassie's murder: "She went into the library to study the Bible, and she left a martyr." He repeated this. He paused, then added, "You don't have to be perfect to be a martyr, you just have to be prepared." Speaking with absolute certainty regarding his own prospects in the afterlife, McAllister revealed that he "can't wait to see our Man, to see Cassie, to see anyone who has made the commitment to get to the other side."
Then he raised his voice and posed the question of the day. "Are you willing to take a bullet for Jesus Christ?" People in the crowd cheered wildly. He yelled it again. He asked anyone who was willing to get shot for Jesus -- if they were confronted with the wonderful possibility, that is -- to stand up. Most people stood. The few who didn't -- myself included -- looked around timidly at each other.
McAllister went on to explain that there were in fact four reasons God allowed Cassie to die. He wasn't making a lot of sense, so I lost the thread on two of these reasons. The two I could extract went approximately as follows: God allowed Cassie to die because he wanted you (plural inclusive) to meet her, and God allowed Cassie to die because Satan hated Cassie. "We live in a fallen world where we are allowed to make the wrong choices," McAllister warned the audience. "God's sick of our talk, he wants to know whether or not we'll walk. By God's grace, I'LL WALK! Jesus will rise again and rock the world!"
At the end of his sermon, McAllister held aloft a T-shirt with the phrase "She Said Yes" -- a reference to Cassie Bernall's response to her executioners -- printed across the chest. McAllister, who had designed the shirts himself, implored all of the teenagers at Creation '99 to meet him after the service and buy a shirt, which he wanted them to wear on the first day of school. This would be a bold statement of conviction to teachers and classmates.
Just imagine it.
"She Said Yes."
And me? I have nothing else to say about this jackass.
"Jesus Beat the Devil with a Big Ugly Stick"
If the "Bibleman" skit, which was performed Saturday afternoon at the Children's Tent, is any indication of what's passing for educational entertainment in the Christian community, we're all in a mess of trouble. All weekend long, the Children's Tent -- which was set up next to the petting zoo at the perimeter of the fairgrounds -- was host to Jesus-related puppet shows and Jesus-related comedy routines and the like, all intended to keep the youngest festival-goers engaged.
The premise of the "Bibleman" skit was basically this (I'll give it in the present tense, to build suspense): Miles Peterson is a man who once had it all -- money, family, fame, etc. Miles Peterson still feels lost and empty inside. Then one night, in an agony of despair, Miles Peterson falls into a muddy ditch next to... a Bible! From that point on, his life is transformed. With his "sword of spirit," his "helmet of salvation," and his "breastplate of righteousness," Peterson, along with his black sidekick Coats, becomes a burly superhero for Jesus Christ, stamping out evil around the globe.
A tent-full of hot and sweaty children were given this background information through a loud videotape which played on a pair of screens flanking the stage. Then the real-life actors appeared. Bibleman came crashing onto the stage and started swinging his light saber around. After this, Bibleman checked in with his trusty computer, U.N.I.C.E. (Universal Networking Intelligence Computer Entity). At one point, the computer asked Bibleman if God loved computers too. Bibleman chuckled and responded in the affirmative: "God loves all His creations."
Then Coats came onstage. Coats and Bibleman exchanged some offensively clichéd cross-racial banter. Coats was lovingly chastised by Bibleman for being late (Coats lied about why he was tardy -- he was playing video games, ha, ha, ha). Bibleman was coyly paternalistic.
Flash to the enemy, who suddenly appeared on U.N.I.C.E.'s warning screen: Oh my god, it was a BIG OLD TRANSVESTITE! Dressed like Dee Snider! The kids booed and hissed as previously instructed. Then the transvestite suddenly jumped onstage, swishing and swooshing around and generally hamming it up under a barrage of disapproval from the audience. And what was this bad guy/gal's mission? To conquer the world with sadness.
At this point in the skit, a few discerning mothers in the audience grabbed their kids and walked out in disgust. I decided to follow suit. I'd had enough and seen enough. Creation '99 could kiss my ass.
I found the rental car and headed home.
Who do you think would win if Bibleman and Satan got in a fight? Do you believe that body piercing saved your life? Would you take a bullet for Jesus? Are you addicted to Jesus?
These are stupid questions.
There was another question I saw printed on a few T-shirts at Creation '99. It was "What Would Christ Do?" That's definitely not a stupid question. Too bad more Christians don't ask themselves that one.
As for the music: Most of it wasn't very good. In fact, most of it was very boring and derivative and bad. But the music was only peripheral to what was really going on at Creation '99. The festival was primarily a vehicle to sell a particular brand of Christianity to a community of like-minded people who'd gotten together to confirm what turned out to be their mutual bad taste. They belonged together, these milquetoast worshippers of a Christ turned capitalist mascot. They thronged the product tents and boogied stiffly to bad ecclesiastical Muzak. I, on the other hand, didn't have a place at Creation '99, seeing as I wasn't about to be converted and didn't want to buy anything besides a cup of coffee.
Religions are founded on basic assumptions and premises about the world and how to exist in it. When I read Stephen Mitchell's book on the Gospels of Jesus, I have a difficult time locating any similarities between what Jesus says and does, and what the people -- in particular the organizers -- at Creation '99 said and did. Mitchell's Jesus is a beacon of righteousness who leads the way through a dark world to eternal peace, love, and eternal salvation; the Jesus of Come Alive Ministries is a blue-light special, pointing you to the quick fix of a righteous bargain in the shopping mall of endless consumption.
These two versions of Christ, and the premises they entail, are antithetical. They negate one another, leading me to a very unsettling, unpleasant conclusion about Creation '99: It was, in the end, a very un-Christian affair.