Humor me for a moment. Allow me a trip down memory lane with you, my friends and readers, in tow. In this little series I plan to revisit some old memories from my past and reflect on how God has used various stages of life and development to help me grow.
As hard as it will be for some to believe, I actually used to camp…of my own volition too. Every summer for several years I would travel to Illinois and camp for an entire week, but I did it for one expressed purpose: to experience Cornerstone Festival. Cornerstone Festival was a one-of-a-kind event that opened me to a whole world of Christian faith and life that I never knew existed. Once I got a taste for it I was hooked. The significance of this event, however, was not that it got me camping. Cornerstone mattered because it showed me a people who used their subculture to deepen their commitment to Jesus.
Cornerstone was the product of the passionate and compassionate hearts of the Jesus People USA. JPUSA is an “intentional Christian community” birthed out of the hippy culture of the 60s and 70s. As the counter-culture of the 60s ran out of steam many hippies discovered the life-changing truth and power of the gospel. A revival broke out and in places all over the country ex-hippies were being converted. Out of that movement of the Spirit the JPUSA community came into existence. JPUSA is a mixed-bag of positives and negatives. Serious allegations have been leveled against the community in more recent years. At the time, however, their cultural awareness and sensitivity allowed them to see a whole group of kids for whom traditional Christianity had no appeal. They began to devise a way to reach those people and found that rock music was a medium for communicating the message of the gospel. What started as initial “Jesus rallies,” slowly, over time, turned into an idea for a festival. In 1984 the first festival was held and for twenty-nine years the event ran every summer.
What made it different was the culture it invited. The event was, as has been said by others, far more religious than the mainstream culture would tolerate, and far more rock than the Christian culture would stand for. It bridged two worlds in a way that maintained the faithful message of the gospel, but contextualized it to an audience that felt ignored or abandoned. In conjunction with avant-garde music Cornerstone was also serious about engaging in deep intellectual thought. They hosted serious conversations, lectures, and workshops each year. You could attend this festival and hear lectures on Kierkegaard, racial reconciliation, and evangelizing among the LGBTQ community. Music, art, film, and study blended together in a truly unique place. In many ways Cornerstone served as the context for creative Christian artistic development.
I first discovered the festival when I was in high school. I went not knowing exactly what to expect, except some good music. I was met, however, with a fascinating display of the gospel’s impact in a subculture. The festival was composed of all sorts of alternative types. Young punks with big mohawks, young women with gauged ears, and old hippies with long beards all stood together and raised their hands in worship of Jesus. I marveled as tattooed band members lead others in Bible study. I had never seen anything like it. Here, the gospel of Jesus Christ and love for one another were front and center. No one cared what you looked like, how you dressed, or what music you liked. There was a place for you. It was the place where I saw people encounter Jesus beyond concerns about suits, Bible translations, and denominations.
The gospel, in other words, is bigger than subcultures and yet can fit into them too. Jesus was both bigger than punk-rock and Bohemianism, and yet Jesus had huge appeal to these subcultures. He was the one that punks and hippies were really looking for, and His way of life was what they really wanted. I was struck by how passionately some of these folks followed Jesus. They were committed to Christ in ways that I, quite honestly, was not. I wanted to follow Jesus, but when following Him made me uncomfortable or didn’t fit with my lifestyle then I was less than excited and often less than committed. Here, however, were ex-hippies who had given up drugs and free love to spend their lives, their money, and their time following Christ. Their subculture was turned on its head in devotion to Jesus. Here too, were punk-rockers who had rejected the anarchist tendencies of their secular sub-culture and become rebels for Jesus. One group I met from Colorado had taken their theology so seriously that they called themselves the Church of the Scum of the Earth! A bold statement if ever there was one. I found myself instantly drawn to this place and to these people. They were authentic, real, passionate, and dedicated. They represented the way I wanted to live.
There were/are, of course, plenty of issues and qualms one can take with all of this. There are questions of theology and lifestyle that are worthy of time and energy, but at that time God used this experience, this place, these people, to help me think seriously about my own dedication to following Jesus. Who was I going to be? Who was I going to serve? How was I going to serve Christ? Christianity in many corners of the American west is comfortable and stale. Faith is a Sunday obligation not a lifestyle of sacrifice and service. Cornerstone Festival was the first place God used to deeply challenge my assumptions and tendencies. The punk rockers, hippies, Bohemians, and alternatives of all types used their subculture to empower their own commitment to Jesus. It sparked an earnest desire for that same level of commitment in me.
Nostalgic Song of the Week: “Good Intentions” by Slick Shoes
Slick Shoes was another pop-punk band on the Tooth & Nail label. Not only did they have some enduring power beyond the late 90s, they actually made a name for themselves beyond the Christian scene. This song, “Good Intentions” was on one of my favorite albums from high school: Wake Up Screaming! (2000). The chorus observes that good intentions amount to nothing, that we all fail and that ultimately our only hope is to fall into the “nail-scarred hands” of Jesus. It emphasizes the grace of God in Christ over the works of our best effort, a contrast that is massively important.
So, frontman Ryan Kepke sings:
You open your scarred hands to catch me when I fall.
Every time it happens you’re right there.
I could never repay my debt, but you don’t’ ask me to.
That is why I love you.
We fail, He catches us in grace. There is no other way to understand our relationship. The song also maintains a strong balance on the importance of our obedience and yet the desperate need for God’s grace. So, later in the song we hear:
Why must my heart be so corrupt when I can’t stand it?
You show your favor on me anyway.
Teach me to obey.
God’s grace in salvation and forgiveness are necessary, as is His grace in helping us learn obedience.
The song is catchy, compelling, and theologically quite rich. There’s much to love about it and about the band’s execution of it. It may not be Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, but it’s good pop-punk theology!