Evangelist rock splits ear drums, saves souls

Published July 24, 1996 12:51PM (EDT)


once a year, deep in the heart of rural Illinois, 150 "alternative Christian" rock bands explode into power chords, bursting the eardrums of 15,000 green-haired, pierced teenagers. Bikers for Christ, astride their hogs, whip huge, leather-bound Bibles out of their Harley Davidson saddle bags to preach heaven's way to Hell's Angels. Fashion models for Christ preach inner beauty and God's true love.

It's the Cornerstone '96 Festival, a four-day concert held here in early July -- another example of American evangelicalism's determination to co-opt any subculture and infuse it with its own brand of conservative Christianity.

Now in its 13th year, this surreal, PG-rated forerunner to
Lollapalooza keeps growing in popularity. At least a half-dozen similar concerts -- Creation in rural Pennsylvania, Tom Fest in Portland, Ore., Fishnet in rural Virginia -- promise to draw over 50,000 young people, potential converts all, before the end of the summer.

Sponsored by the Chicago-based evangelical
Jesus People USA
, Cornerstone bills itself as a "Taste of Heaven on Earth." Its goal, says spokeswoman Terri Knudson, is "to provide a wholesome atmosphere (no alcohol, drugs or indecent clothing allowed) for religious youths and families as well as a place to attract non-believers to expose them to issues of faith." Held at a 365-acre property 5 hours southwest of Chicago, there are concerts on 10 different stages, plus dozens of workshops on creationism, the interplay between art and faith, and racial reconciliation.

That doesn't stop bikini-clad young women from splashing in the lake, while in a nearby tent a minister preaches abstaining from sex before marriage. Less-than-wholesome, full-throttle heavy metal music blares out of boom boxes in pup tents at 4 a.m. just hours before groups gather in front of campfires with bowed heads to recite morning prayers.

While Cornerstone's message is straight-out conservative
evangelicalism, the music hangs on the outer edges of the more mellow contemporary Christian music scene. Thrashing guitars and plenty of noise rule here. Groups like the acoustic alternative Jars of Clay, melodic punk MxPx, and hard-edged gospel rock Resurrection Band shriek through songs of longing for meaning and love. In the frenzied mosh pit, multiple divers leap from the stage. Beach balls and chunks of bagels are tossed in the air amid clouds of dust from thousands of stomping feet.

But you're reminded that this is no ordinary alternative music show when a lead singer stops in the middle of a set to pray aloud with teenagers sporting "The Devil Sucks" T-shirts, bible tattoos and crosses in pierced navels.

The ultimate goal at Cornerstone is "to bring people to salvation," says Christian rock pioneer Steve Taylor, who performed at Cornerstone. "We believe we have ultimate truth and so we are going to want others to join us."

For many, this is a place where they feel touched and uplifted -- literally a church. "It was the first time I did stage diving and surfing and it was such a rush! It was insane," enthuses Doug Neuman, 16, from Glen Ellyn, Ill., who converted to evangelicalism a year ago.

Weez Borchardt, 27, manager of the Christian music store True Tunes in Wheaton, Ill., remembers her first Cornerstone as "life changing. . . To see people so inspired by their relationship to God and to hear them sing cool songs about it made God real to me."

© Pacific News Service

Quote of the day

Don't give us your tired...

"People who come to this country sign a document that says they will not become wards of the state, and what's happening? Millions of people are coming to this country. They're bringing moms and dads over. Mom and dad qualify for Supplemental Social Security Income benefits. You and the taxpayers of this country are picking up the tab as we become the retirement home for the rest of the world."

-- Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., arguing in favor of a welfare bill which would deny benefits to legal immigrants. The bill passed the Senate Tuesday, 74-24. (From "Senate Approves Sweeping Change In Welfare Policy," in Wednesday's New York Times).

By Andres Tapia

Andres Tapia has been reporting on race relations within the evangelical church for almost 15 years.

MORE FROM Andres Tapia

Related Topics ------------------------------------------