831 [tales From The Area Code]
Singing For Jesus: Spirit West Coast had a message, and the message was green.
Thursday, July 31, 2003
At its best, music is about passion. Whatever stirs the artist is somehow communicated to the listener, whether through a catchy pop song on the radio or the complex symphonies of Beethoven. Even when there are no words, or the song is in a different language, music can transmit feeling and mood from one person to another, through time, space and imagination.
And really, what message is more universal than that of a higher power? Christianity is the largest religion in the world, with millions of followers in the Unites States alone. How fitting, then, that some have taken to heart the notion of singing God''s praises all over the land.
Christian music is big news, and big business. According to a recent article by Lauren Sandler in The Nation, it''s the only musical format that showed increased sales last year, and is fast overtaking country music in numbers of albums and CDs purchased.
Welcome to the seventh annual Spirit West Coast, last weekend''s three-day Christian music festival for young and old, punked-out teenagers and the whole family, with a lineup featuring everything from rap to rock to songs that are somewhat easier on conservative sensibilities. Each year about 20,000 people swarm together at one of the West''s largest Christian gatherings to worship God in a musical way. And who better to send into a teeming mass of Jesus freaks than me, a xenophobic agnostic?
Christianity and I have a checkered history. I attended Catholic school for two years, tried Mormonism when I was seven (I had a crush on a boy) and went to a Presbyterian youth group until I decided God was dead, or at the very least, a total asshole. My father is a hardcore atheist and my mom is sort of hippy-dippy, so I don''t have that innate love or hatred of Christians themselves, although I''d like to think I''ve developed a healthy dislike for anyone shoving dogma down my throat. Still, I was ready to give the Christians a chance, so I did my best to go into the experience without prejudice or fear.
Stepping onto the grounds last Thursday, I immediately realized I was overdressed for the 85-degree weather, so I stepped into a cool, shady tent and marveled at the incredible number of vendors hawking wares. I purchased some "Christian Girl" sandals and pants to match, and bought a T-shirt that read "If I saw Satan, I''d poke him in the eye." Having done my best to blend in, I snapped into observational mode and immediately noticed a few things.
The first was that there were far more families with young children than I would have expected. I was under the impression that the festival grounds would be packed with rebellious-looking youth wearing punk clothes and black lipstick, with big gothic crosses around their necks. Much of the Christian music I''d heard involves a fair bit of screaming and yelling, but at Spirit West there was also the more Amy Grant variety of sincere, apple-cheeked singers praising His name in three-part harmony.
The second thing I noticed was the astonishing variety of goods for sale. Most of the stands in the tent were selling T-shirts and accessories, but outside there was a wide array of nutritionally-devoid food products, sugar-packed carbonated beverages and even more clothing, including some scandalously short miniskirts emblazoned with religious logos. There was even a stand offering about a dozen different flavors of cotton candy.
Aside from the hundreds of booths selling stuff, there were college representatives and Christian radio stations such as Air1 drawing some of the teenaged crowd into contests for prizes ranging from temporary tattoos to a shiny new Jeep. Wandering around, I was shocked to see that the US Army also had a recruitment booth, complete with a rock-climbing wall. The separation of church and state seems mighty thin when an agency of the US government comes to a religious event and offers a "fun" incentive to give your address to recruiters. Slightly horrified, I moved on.
What about the music, I wondered. Where can I hear some of this great Christian music? Bands played on the main stage and the Air1 Stage, with the latter being the edgier venue. I listened in to a few of the performances on both stages, but found none of it very interesting or compelling. Live music also piped out of a large tent, but the sounds I heard were much more of the soft-hits variety, and so I figured the hot spot must be elsewhere.
I never did find the hot spot.
While I didn''t expect the Christian rock festival to be an orgy of sin, I was more than a bit surprised by how benign it all seemed. I was apparently the only smoker out of the 20,000 attendees, and certainly among the more pierced. There were some of the skulking adolescents I''d expected, but most of the teenagers present seemed squeaky-clean and like they were having a lot of fun loving Jesus.
Matt, a 19-year-old Christian rock fan, was especially excited to hear the ska group Five Iron Frenzy. "They played pretty well, but instead of ending with a song, they went into this long prayer. This is their last year of touring, so it seemed like kind of a waste."
Some of the music was good, and the crowd seemed to be getting what they wanted from the performers; but something still seemed a bit off. Sure, the T-shirts were all about Christian values and religious kinship, and the music itself talks about the Savior at length--but what was most noticeable to me about the whole event was the enormous exchange of money taking place. Jesus himself, if I remember correctly, cast the merchants out of the Temple for trying to make money in a place of divine worship.
Spirit West is obviously a commercial venture, requiring money and resources to keep going every year. Still, when the only food available is crappy meat product at $3 a paltry portion, and the most common drinks seem to be of the Slushee variety, one begins to suspect she''s being swindled.
The religious fervor of the crowd isn''t the question; it''s more the direction of their adoration. In a crowd where having a cute "My [heart] belongs to Jesus" shirt is enough to make an imposter such as myself seem like one of the flock, it''s difficult to know who''s sincere about their commitment to Christ and who''s just in it for the social scene.
Which isn''t to say people weren''t nice. They were super-duper nice. One woman even said she''d pray for me to allow God to help me quit smoking. The parking attendants hit on me in a non-threatening way, and I didn''t notice any scary fundamentalists or anything. In fact, the two scariest things I saw all day were a six-year-old girl with "Jesus Freak" painted on her face, and a question-and-answer format T-shirt on which "Concerned Student" asks God why he allows such violence in school. God''s reply is "I''m not allowed in schools."
The most sin I saw taking place was the rampant consumerism (greed!) and the frightening obesity of many of the attendees (gluttony!) many of whom were wearing tight bicycle shorts. I also saw two lesbians kiss outside the gate, but they were just cute.
Deciding there was no possible way I could make it overnight at the festival without having a panic attack that would warrant hospitalization, I headed over to my car. On the way I heard a hippie father tell his two-year-old son, "I can''t reward this behavior, Jeremy. I want to give you blessings right now, I want to bless your socks off, but I can''t if you''re gonna be hateful to me."
I got in my car and sped away like a bat out of hell.