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"You're going to love Sheetz, Eric," Pastor Steve told me, early on a morning in late June, as we drove out of a church parking lot in central Pennsylvania, leading a caravanning Christian youth group. "It's not a gas station. It's a fine dining experience," he said. Chef's kiss. Pastor Steve was right. Two hours later, an overweight woman behind a counter served me mac 'n' cheese bites, which are just what they sound like: balls of mac 'n' cheese, dipped in a deep fat fryer. I'd never heard of this somewhat questionable food before, but it was delicious. Throw a bunch of them in a plastic bowl, pick a barbecue sauce for dipping, eat, die early, and maybe go to heaven.
As I popped mac 'n' cheese bites into my mouth, a kid from youth group, whose name, by that time, I'd already forgotten, asked me what I thought of this delicacy. "Pretty good," I replied. Then Caleb, a kid whose name I had and have not forgotten, asked me a much tougher question: "Why did you leave the church?" I thought for a moment, and then told him the truth. "I don't know," I said. "I just started thinking about stuff a bit more." He looked up, nodded, and went to the bathroom while I sat wondering if my response was inappropriate. Had I just planted a seed in Caleb's head that would fuck him up for the rest of his life? Would it take him off of his path? Did he even care? But I hadn't lied; I'd just started thinking about stuff, like why God doesn't like gay people, or why God doesn't like sex, or why God would let anyone go to hell?
I was at a Sheetz eating mac 'n' cheese bites, considering my faith—or lack thereof—on my way to a Christian rock festival in rural Pennsylvania. My interests in the Creation Music Festival and reasons for being there were layered. As a music editor who'd noticed a lot of artists becoming more vocal about their beliefs (rappers like Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and Chance the Rapper, who earlier this year released an album that was essentially a banging hip-hop gospel record), I wondered if there'd been a change in the long tradition of Christian music sucking. I also wanted to know what it's like when tens of thousands of Christians gather in the name of rock 'n' roll, a genre steeped in and born of a tradition of substance abuse, sex, and rebellion. Like, do people smoke weed? But most dauntingly, I wanted to better understand why I left this faith. But if I'm being honest with myself, all the other questions were just excuses to answer this last one.
Watch 'I Saw the Light,' a documentary about Christian rock, faith, Jesus Christ, and Creation Music Festival.
Growing up, I attended church camp every summer. It was a trip that felt not unlike going to the Creation Music Festival. We'd travel to a various college campus in Iowa, usually in mid-July—smack dab in the middle of the hottest time of year, and it might surprise some (or it might not), but the summer heat in Iowa is nearly unbearable. Air conditioning was a primary concern every year heading into the week of camp. One year, when we stayed in a broken down dorm in Oskaloosa, we didn't have air conditioning. It was harder to believe in God that year (we still did).
The faith I followed was simple, yet incredibly difficult to describe. If you had asked me at the time, I'd have said something like, "I don't have a religion; it's a relationship." This is something Pastor Steve still says. Pastor Steve also believes, like I did, that Jesus Christ died for our sins. And when he was hung on the cross, he carried the sins of the world on his back. All there is to do, if you want to go to heaven and hang out with God for the rest of time, is to "accept him into our hearts," and he'll save us from eternal damnation. Honestly, that's a pretty sick deal.
Unlike most kids, I loved church. It was a place where I found community—friends became family and family became friends. The place I attended was called Grace Christian Fellowship, a tiny nondenominational church of maybe 150 people. My family started to attend when I was in grade school, just after I went through First Communion in the Catholic Church. Before I knew it, I found myself heavily involved in youth group, playing guitar in church, leading worship, taking a leadership role, doing my best to be like Jesus.
Senior year came and I needed to choose a college. I felt called by God to attend Oral Roberts University and become a youth pastor. That sentence feels weird to type. What does it mean to be "called by God?" To be honest, I don't know what it feels like. It just seemed like the thing I was supposed to do. So I did it.
Then I had what Christians call a "crisis of faith." Others call it growing up. I started to wonder why Jesus, the best dude, wouldn't be OK with two men having sex? Or why someone so powerful and great could allow the terrible things to happen in the world? After I arrived at ORU—a school with a history of corruption—everything began to unravel. I saw the money involved with being Christian. I saw willful ignorance of how the world works. I saw kindness used as manipulation to recruit a new generation of kids—something I started to feel happened to me.
At the end of my freshman year of college, I packed my books, my clothes, and my guitar, and I went home. I haven't been back since.
Every year, the biggest acts in Christian music flock from all over the world to Agape Farm in Eastern Pennsylvania for this nearly weeklong event. And so do Christian music fans—attendance ranges anywhere from 40,000 people to 100,000. The festival is massive. Creation rents the 285-acre farm, which is tucked into Appalachian Mountains, for its largest event of the year. The area that surrounds Agape is referred to as God's Country; it's easy to see why. We were bounded by lush green hills, tiny creeks that snaked their way along the roads and paths, and the clouds were the fluffiest I'd ever seen. The sky was so blue it looked like a mirror. If God exists, maybe he's Bob Ross, because God's Country looks just like a painting made on public access TV— just full of happy little trees. As Pastor Steve and I weaved our way toward the farm, which is run by a group called Jesus Ministries, cars followed behind us full of the 20 youth group kids; I asked him how he knew where he was going. He laughed. "Anyone who goes to Creation knows how to get to Creation." I admired his ability to both answer my question and not.
Some of my questions were answered though. I can definitively say that Chance has not made Christian music better (and it's not even worth the discussion, as nobody at this festival that I talked to even knew who Chance the Rapper was). Creation Festival is what would happen if church camp, carnival food, and average music had a child. Like most festivals, there was a main stage and a side stage. The big acts, like the Newsboys (the Christian U2) played Main Stage, and the indie acts, which were mostly punk and hardcore bands, played the Fringe Stage. I'm told this is where I will see "some real stuff."
Not all the music was bad. It was just a bit uninspired. Or at least its priority isn't to be the greatest or most innovative sound in the world. The first night's headliner, Australian band For King & Country, is pretty much a God'd up version of Coldplay. The performance was spectacular, with explosions and dancing and special effects and more. The band had members of the crowd going ballistic, and it felt like we were watching Chris Martin fly. But this isn't music that we haven't heard before. It's not a knock—this is just how it works. Every Christian band is basically a "Christian version" of a secular one. These acts serve as stand-ins for Christians, so they can have fun and get down in a way that is still deemed OK by the faith, a way that's "safe." When John Jeremiah Sullivan attended Creation over a decade ago for GQ, he wrote, "Christian rock is a musical genre, the only one I can think of, that has excellence-proofed itself."
This isn't lost on the artists, and indeed is a battle within the faith. Andy Mineo, a Christian rapper who does not like the label of "Christian rapper," (and when doing research for this story I noticed that the one Twitter user I knew that followed him—out of his 230k—was Gucci Mane) talked to me extensively about the obstacles he feels the genre puts on itself.
"Christians want to have stuff that helps encourage them in their spiritual journeys. When putting that title on it, it helps you find your audience," he told me. "But it can also be limiting. That Christian title can make those who aren't Christians not want to engage with it. They won't even listen to the music. The music doesn't even get a chance with those titles."
"You've probably been told it's like the Christian Woodstock," Lora Harrison, a young woman in the youth group in her early 20s, said to me before we'd left for the festival. Then she laughed. "That's because it is the Christian Woodstock."
Harrison plays in a rock band and has a genuinely stunning voice. At one point during the week, she sang, a cappella, a version of "Amazing Grace" that, momentarily, cleared up my doubt of the existence of a higher power. She was adamant about how important music is to faith. "This is getting back to the heart of things. This is spending a week doing nothing but literally worshipping our creator through the different styles of music that speak to us." Harrison later told me how, when she was five, she realized she had a pain addiction and would slam her head against brick walls. When she was 13, her brother was murdered. When she was 16, she was raped. "You ask me how I can believe in God," she said. "I ask how you can't."
I found myself hearing Harrison's words in my head on a night of Creation during which the entire festival—truly every single person—gathers together for the candle light service. David Crowder, a banjo player who covers the hell out of "I Saw the Light" and powers through his foot-stompin' music until you see the face of God, had just performed. Afterward, Pastor Harry Thomas, the man who started Creation nearly 30 years ago, walked slowly onto the stage. "Praise the Lord," he said, quietly yet assured. "Praise the Lord." He told the gathered about how the main goal of the festival is to help reach young people, to let them know that someone out there loves them regardless of who they are or what they've gone through. Then he handed out candles to every single person at the festival.
Close to the stage, at the front of the crowd, I stood at Thomas's feet. He held up a candle. "Jesus said that he is the light of the world. And then he turned to his disciples and he said, 'You're the light of the world.' He was passing the torch to you."
I climbed onto the massive amp that was to my left and looked over the thousands and thousands of people before me, all holding their hands in the air, the tiny flames growing throughout the crowd. A boyish man in front of me, probably in his early 20s, called me over, holding his lit candle out. I put mine forward, and ignited the wick. I looked up at his face and we made eye contact. His eyes, twinkled, lit by candlelight.
"Jesus loves you," he said. I didn't know how to respond, so I responded the only way I could.
"Jesus loves you, too."
Eric Sundermann is Noisey's editor-in-chief. Follow him on Twitter.
All photos by Jaime Chew. Follow her on Instagram.
The version of Hank Williams' "I Saw the Light" performed in the trailer is by Greg Mendez.