Christ-haunted GQ

creationfest.jpgGQ + CCM = Laff riot.

At least that’s the formula I would expect. In a PR release on Jan. 18, GQ added to my dread that barrels of snark would be on tap: “Rock music used to be a safe haven for degenerates and rebels — until it found Jesus. Now Christian-rock concerts have become a quiet force in America drawing worship and money and swaying the devoted. GQ correspondent John Jeremiah Sullivan went deep into Creation, the genre’s biggest annual festival, and found that the Lord rocks in mysterious ways.”

In his opening sentences, Sullivan shows just how easy it would be to phone it in:

I’d stand at the edge of the crowd and take notes on the scene, chat up the occasional audience member (“What’s harder — homeschooling or regular schooling?”), then flash my pass to get backstage, where I’d rap with the artists themselves: “This Christian music — it’s a phenomenon. What do you tell your fans when they ask you why God let Creed break up?” The singer could feed me his bit about how all music glorifies Him, when it’s performed with a loving spirit, and I’d jot down every tenth word, inwardly smiling. Later that night, I might sneak some hooch in my rental car and invite myself to lie with a prayer group by their fire, for the fellowship of it. Fly home, stir in statistics. Paycheck.

Instead, Sullivan has written an 11,000-word essay, in which he pokes fun at himself (as he drives a 29-foot RV to the Creation Festival), makes new friends with a group of young men from West Virginia and faces his conflicted past as a onetime believer.

Sullivan has some fun at Creation participants’ expense, but it’s not vicious and much of it is funny:

Their line of traffic lurched ahead, and an old orange Datsun came up beside me. I watched as the driver rolled down her window, leaned halfway out, and blew a long, clear note on a ram’s horn.

Oh, I understand where you are coming from. But that is what she did. I have it on tape. She blew a ram’s horn. Quite capably. Twice. A yearly rite, perhaps, to announce her arrival at Creation.

. . . For their encore, Jars of Clay did a cover of U2′s “All I Want Is You.” It was bluesy.

That’s the last thing I’ll be saying about the bands.

Or, no, wait, there’s this: The fact that I didn’t think I heard a single interesting bar of music from the forty or so acts I caught or overheard at Creation shouldn’t be read as a knock on the acts themselves, much less as contempt for the underlying notion of Christians playing rock. These were not Christian bands, you see; these were Christian-rock bands. The key to digging this scene lies in that one-syllable distinction. Christian rock is a genre that exists to edify and make money off of evangelical Christians. It’s message music for listeners who know the message cold, and, what’s more, it operates under a perceived responsibility — one the artists embrace — to “reach people.” As such, it rewards both obviousness and maximum palatability (the artists would say clarity), which in turn means parasitism. Remember those perfume dispensers they used to have in pharmacies — “If you like Drakkar Noir, you’ll love Sexy Musk”? Well, Christian rock works like that. Every successful crappy secular group has its Christian off-brand, and that’s proper, because culturally speaking, it’s supposed to serve as a stand-in for, not an alternative to or an improvement on, those very groups.

But Sullivan takes the greatest editorial chance in revealing that he’s an ex-evangelical who still can’t quite forget Christ:

Why should He vex me? Why is His ghost not friendlier? Why can’t I just be a good Enlightenment child and see in His life a sustaining example of what we can be, as a species?

Because once you’ve known Him as God, it’s hard to find comfort in the man. The sheer sensation of life that comes with a total, all-pervading notion of being — the pulse of consequence one projects onto even the humblest things — the pull of that won’t slacken.

And one has doubts about one’s doubts.

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  • AH

    Golly, I admire the public candor. That must take professional cojones. I’m reminded of Beverly Donofrio, author of the deeply-felt and hilarious Riding in Cars with Boys, who was assigned by NPR to cover the Marian apparitions and when last heard from had moved to Mexico to adore Our Lady of Guadelupe. These journalistic assignments!

    For me, the good Enlightenment beckoned because the evangelical construct was a tasting menu only, it melted, didn’t have deeply coherent and millenia-culture-tested ways of doing things, freeze-drying or slash-editing the full deposit of the faith, some things too important, some things not important enough. It vomited me/I vomited it out, wiped my mouth, took graduate degrees, married, practiced professions, the full eucatastrophe.

    Finally hungry for real Food, I won’t belabor where after 40 years I’ve edged cautiously through the door to swallow my (as it turns out nourishing) doubts. A place much, much older, pocked with horrifying if temporary spot and blemish, conduit to the heart of a deep refreshing spring out of layers of lively accumulated intellectually-robust devotion to that non-ghostly Figure in all His specificity of promise for the species. One who lays out a feast for even the most dubious or reluctant or dÃ(c)classÃ(c) guest who can choke out the request for a morsel of truth…

  • Joshua Cordell

    “Well, Christian rock works like that. Every successful crappy secular group has its Christian off-brand, and that’s proper, because culturally speaking, it’s supposed to serve as a stand-in for, not an alternative to or an improvement on, those very groups.”

    Very interesting. Perhaps Christendom could ponder that one for a while. Christ offered something that is the opposite of what the world has to offer, when the church tries to copy the world, the church usually looks Dumb.

  • Andy Crouch

    Amazing, amazing. This piece works on so many levels.

    I complained on another thread about writers who inject themselves gratuitously into their stories in that time-honored GQ fashion, but this one is in no way gratuitous. It’s brilliant and beautiful and moving.

    Gotta love what words can do when writers are honest and true.

  • Beth

    Extraordinary piece. I can only echo Andy (hello, Andy!) “Gotta love what words can do when writers are honest and true.”

    Doug, thank you so much both for pointing us to this article and offering your thoughtful perspective.

  • Greg Popcak

    I didn’t know about Beverly Donofrio. That caught me by surprise. The article actually put me in mind of Randy Sullivan’s Miracle Detective. I’m not usually given to books on apparitions and whatnot but I couldn’t put it down. Actually, a quote at the end of the book was worth the price, “Faith is no more the absence of doubt than courage is the absence of fear.” Another example of what words can do when the author is honest and true.