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Rocking for Jesus

Christian soldiers now can march to a different, earthier rhythm

By DAVE TIANEN
dtianen@journalsentinel.com
Posted: June 30, 2006

They are lambs in heavy metal.

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They have names like War of Ages, Demon Hunter, Sanctus Real and Escape from Earth. As scary as they may sound, they are all bands that will be playing Lifest, Wisconsin's biggest Christian music festival, set for July 5-9 at Sunnyview Fairgrounds in Oshkosh.

Anyone who thinks the Christian music scene only consists of well-scrubbed pilgrims like Michael W. Smith has never been to Lifest.

The mainstream, pop side of Christian music is certainly there. In fact, Smith is there. So is virginity advocate Rebecca St. James.

But Lifest features seven stages. At the Edge Main Stage, tattoos, piercings, spiky Mohawks and Goth makeup will fit right in.

Greg Vandenberg, director of Lifest, admits that the Edge Main Stage sometimes generates tensions within the festival audience, but he doesn't mind it.

"Youth can come here and be in the mosh pit and have an awesome time and their parents can look at it and say, 'We don't get that.' And they can go to Michael W. Smith," he says.

"It's sort of a collision of cultures, but God's family is diverse. There can be a clash of cultures, and that's all right. We've received some protests and e-mails. We want to respect that, but we are called to be in the world but not of it. What does that mean to be 'in the world'? Jesus was called a friend of drunkards."

In his book "Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock," Spin writer Andrew Beaujon traces the origins of Christian rock to the '70s Jesus People movement and the music of pioneers such as Larry Norman, Myron LeFevre and Keith Green. In the '80s, Christian music figures like Amy Grant became mainstream pop stars. But the popularity of Grant and performers like her masked the growing diversity of the larger scene.

Indeed, Beaujon says, it was the diversity of the scene that most surprised him in researching his book.

"I think it's kind of like the diversity of evangelism in America," he says. "There is no one authority for the Christian church in America. Every church is a little bit different, you know. Everyone's take on being a Christian is different. I think the music really reflects that. There are bands that are very militantly pro-life and then there are bands whose main lyrical concern is social justice. Then there are people who are really just into being in a band."

In researching the book, Beaujon attended festivals like the Cornerstone Festival in Bushnell, Ill. He saw some of the culture clash that Vandenberg references, but he also saw a lot of acceptance.

"The Goths were definitely getting some sideways glances," he says, "but when you go to these concerts, the kids don't look any different. A lot of them are tattooed and have spiky hair. I think a lot of churches realize, in the same way that conservative churches opened up to hippies in the '70s, this is a way that kids can express themselves and feel safe within the church and have fun. That's important. They're not Puritans."

Demon Hunter, which will play Lifest's Edge Main Stage this year, was one of the bands Beaujon interviewed for his book. Their look, as he puts it, "is really extreme."

"Their music is definitely way, way left of center. Their promo photos are always holding dogs and tattoos and shaved heads," Beaujon says. "I met a couple of those guys and they were sweethearts. It's like that old thing that bands can't smile in photographs. If you're in a band called Demon Hunter, you've got a job to do."

As Vandenberg notes, the Bible admonishes Christians to be in the world but not of it. What that means in practice for Christian musicians varies widely.

"They have all different strategies," Beaujon notes. "You have bands like Switchfoot who tour with Kid Rock but then also play Christian festivals. They're sort of interesting because their lyrics often have two different meanings, one meaning for a Christian audience and one meaning for the rest of us. They try to relate to two different groups of people at once.

"You have bands that don't really try to be in the world and then you have bands whose relationship just gets more complicated," he says. "Mute Math, one of the bands I talked to for the book, is suing Warner Brothers because they say they don't want to be marketed as a Christian group. Why they signed to Word (well known as a Christian music imprint) is, I guess, kind of an open question. There are probably better ways to go about not being marketed as a Christian group."

There are a couple of specific ways in which Christian music remains sharply distinct from the mainstream rock scene.

For one thing, controversy does not sell. Michael English had been one of the biggest stars in Christian music, winning six Dove awards in 1994 alone. But when he admitted to an affair with another Christian singer, he was dropped by his record label and virtually disappeared. This year, he is performing at Lifest, but it's been a long road back.

"I got the 'Wow Number One Christian Hits' collection recently . . . and Michael English had actually been replaced on it by some hot new artist covering one of his huge songs because having him on there would actually hurt the sales," Beaujon notes.

There is also a certain discomfort level with sex that seems part and parcel of the Christian music scene. That ambivalence is especially pronounced for female artists.

"It is OK for men to be attractive, women, not so much even to the point of body types," Beaujon notes. "You don't see a lot of really curvaceous women. There's a story in Rolling Stone that Jessica Simpson told about getting turned down by Christian labels because she was too curvy."

There was a time when Christian bands would protest being labeled as such because, as Beaujon puts it, being a Christian band was "hip suicide." Now there are openly Christian bands on the Vans Warped Tour. Beaujon also thinks the mainstream culture is becoming more accepting.

"It's interesting looking at the reaction to this book because some people will just sort of rail against Christianity in America, basically. I think on the ground it's not that big of a deal. You figure a quarter of the country is evangelical. About 50% consider themselves Christian.

"It's not really all that weird. . . . It's a lot weirder to live in New York."


From the July 2, 2006 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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