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Brushed red, living in black and white
Looking back at Christian music, purity culture, and becoming different people in the light of day.
Sup. I typed a shitload of navel-gazing1, and if you choose to read it, you’re the one choosing to read it.
Elsewhere in newer-ish stuff:
The Shutdown Fullcast added an After Dark show, even messier than the regular show.
Bushnell, Illinois’ Cornerstone Festival was uhhh something like the Coachella for weird Christians. Started by Jesus People (think hippies) in 1984, it ended in 2012 for hippie reasons: it never charged as much money as it should’ve. Nothing weird can stay. All ships eventually sink, especially if they’re on fire.
I went once, in 2000, with much of my youth group crew, the bros I quoted The Birdcage and played all-night Mortal Kombat with. I met some internet friends IRL, which felt bleeding-edge futuristic. The girl who’d marry me was there. We crossed paths many times before we met 17 months later.
This was my pre-college road trip, so I remember everything. Everyone’s tent flooded, but everyone was happy. Me and my internet friends rapped beside a mud path for money. Zao was my favorite non-rap group, and their singer wordlessly thanked two of us who told him his bleak lyrics had led us through bad times. We got used to the cow smells of Bushnell. I had a camp crush on a tall blond girl from somewhere west. Me and the boys fancied ourselves music experts, always firing up new bands, so we took notes on stagecraft, like figuring out MxPx’s snap count for each song: lead singer spits on stage, one, two, three, go. We’d been inside heavy Christian music for years, but still couldn’t believe Extol and Underoath were playing black metal, the soundtrack of mid-‘90s Norweigan church burnings (never doubt the willingness of Christians to make anything about Jesus).
It’s weird, being able to go back 21 years and pinpoint the date I first suspected I was unmoored from the person I’d always thought of as myself. But the internet says July 5 was when Hopesfall played Cornerstone 2000.
I stood to the left of their stage, in front of the pit, unhidden from sunlight peering under the tent, as a typical thing happened: a “united in Christ, united” chant, a way for the crowd to yell a hug together.
And I wondered whether it’d be a lie for me to chant along, because something within me had failed to stay the same.
In that sunlight, backslidden was the term in my head. A term for self-imposed distance from God, to be corrected by better Christian behavior and Grace and so forth.
In hindsight, I’d been shedding stuff for years. I’d been way into dinosaurs as a child, so Young Earth Creationism was never my thing, which planted seeds of doubt about anything else a Creationist grownup said. Y2K passed without any Rapture, making me rue my elementary-school hours spent reading Hal Lindsay in fear of being left behind. Spending childhood years in a diverse city, and making friends via work or school or sports, made me realize the way we’d heard entire demographics described by some Christians didn’t square with reality. And my friends had found Christian oddballs like Rich Mullins, Thomas Merton, and these musicians playing competent and sometimes excellent hip-hop, metal, and punk, songs about things besides praise or evangelism, the things non-churchy people assume all Christian music must be about.
Standing in Hopesfall’s sunlight, unable to chant with my kindred about Jesus, wasn’t the final nail in my childlike faith’s coffin. That came later, a combination of realizing my church was rich, along with convincing myself to admit Hell is a lie. But the Hopesfall tent was the coffin’s first nail I perceived as a nail in real time. Because of all the times I’d ever felt dirty, this was the first time I wasn’t sure I should.
Because a few days before our van had left for Cornerstone, I’d done my biggest sin ever, according to the value system I’d gleaned from 18 years of church world.
Kids raised in purity culture never know exactly where The Line is, just that to cross it is to permanently defile two souls, ruin two future marriages, and break God’s heart. Some thus scoot as close as possible to wherever The Line might be, often with galaxy-brained logic about which acts leave partial virginity intact.
Youth group sin-justification analytics might’ve concluded me and a girl from school had just become 95% impure forever.
It’s almost always girls and LGBTQ kids who suffer the heaviest damage of purity culture, of I Kissed Dating Goodbye saying to write love letters is unjustifiable. And dress codes that force girls to be hyper-aware of their shoulders, knees, backs, and curves even while playing sports, dress codes that give 40-year-old men license to tell 14-year-old girls their summer clothes are making boys lust. And chewed-up-bubblegum metaphors that make girl bodies sound like land mines, quicksand pits, and poison vials. And on and on. Purity culture wrecks hetero boys too, at very least asking us to fear, resent, and control women2. And many boys strain to devote every waking (and dreaming) thought to avoiding lust, rewiring brains into self-hatred machines clogged full of thought-capturing labyrinths. Especially the boys who already doubt salvation and ask too many questions about church stuff.
And we were indirectly taught this insane thing: Jesus forgives murder, but there’s nothing His Blood can do to fully scour away premarital sex (unless your church edited the inventive theology of purity culture3 by spinning up one-last-chance Second Virginity). It’s presented as the one sin that alters you forever.
If you didn’t grow up in that world, think back on a fairly typical 18-year-old romantic experience that fumbled near counting as sex. But add in both participants trying to balance God and their bodies and high school peer pressure and the youth-group doctrine that to buy a condom is to commit premeditated sin, plus shame and fear and Hell. Now imagine their headspace for weeks afterward.
So there I stood in Cornerstone sunlight, a 95% lowlife yellowing a fellowship. United in Christ? A wretch like me? Who’d done that days earlier, then worsened it by going on walks with the tall blond girl from somewhere west, hoping for more lines to cross? Who’d maybe corrupted a friend I wasn’t even committed to? Even though we both agreed we weren’t doing big evil, just regular evil? Was it not written: everything hidden will be discovered by sunlight? In that tent, was I hiding because I knew the sunlight could see my good ol’ healthy shame giving way to something dangerous, giving way to doubt?
Back home from Cornerstone, I defied my memory of the tent. My body needed concrete evidence. I got a tattoo of an anchor, arguing to myself I remained a united in Christ, united kid. Because an anchor was Hopesfall’s logo. Blood. Ink. An anchor. A ship that mustn’t ever budge.
About 12 months into my deconstruction (at the time, this was called sleeping late on Sundays), a similar thing almost happened with a different girl, one willing to negotiate a way for me to non-break my promises to a God she didn’t believe in. It would’ve been 99% sex, per youth-group analytics. And I ventured so close to agreeing, I treated myself as if I’d actually done a 100% (Matthew 5:28: “To look lustfully is to commit adultery”), as if I’d showed my unsaved friend Christians don’t keep promises. She was confused. I was getting really tired of shame spirals.
And then my crew went to Birmingham, Alabama for the second annual Furnace Fest, a non-Christian event that included tons of Christian and Christian-ish bands.
I still dunno how to describe this emo-hardcore-metal scene. It’s for kids in black shirts who like loud music, sure. But specifically the kids too snobby/woke for Kid Rock, too behaved to throw bottles at Limp Bizkit, too messy for Drowning Pool, too pent-up for moshing without a running start, and too A.D.D. to write algorithms that decode Tool. Kids who are just as sad or happy as they are mad, might’ve grown up straightedge, and might’ve been raised religious. Kids who love to punch each other’s faces and preach eco-anarcho-socialism, but otherwise follow rules.
In most genres, it’s rare to see Very Christian Musicians on par with musicians who might only happen to be religious — like, imagine if a quarter of the most popular rappers were basically LeCrae. The hardcore scene is pretty unique in its lack of separation between “Christian” and “secular” artists. Zao is an unquestioned pillar of metalcore despite spending the ‘90s snarling typical Christian theology. Tons of Christian (back in the day, at least) bands like August Burns Red, Norma Jean, and The Devil Wears Prada gained total acceptance. P.O.D. played with secular bands a half-decade before making TRL. In 2001, Underoath was pivoting toward becoming one of metalcore’s all-time most popular bands. Looking back, the reason I found this clique was that Living Sacrifice made Christian metal dope enough for Freshman Me to share at school without feeling lame4.
So in Birmingham at Furnace Fest 2001, my crew wasn’t the weird kids who liked Jesus. And we weren’t the weird kids who listened to loud music that wasn’t Korn. In Birmingham, we were among kids too weird to give a shit who did and didn’t like Jesus. Good news for the kid who had no idea what he believed about anything!
Hopesfall’s No Wings To Speak Of came out that week in 2001, and we already had the lyrics somehow. No overt references to the New Testament, just Ecclesiastes, the book about making peace with never again being who you were yesterday. Hopesfall screamed, “Here I stand on this hill alone, never turning back.” And screamed, “I’m left with silence.” Grief, change, dread, parting, and old things passing away.
In 2000, I’d felt like the abomination in Hopesfall’s sunset crowd, the doubter with way too many questions, clinging to anchors.
In 2001, I felt at home in front of Hopesfall, singing along to a full moon, “We drift further away.”
“Secular rap and Christian loud stuff” was my typical music combo at a kid, though the latter fell away as I became some sort of college agnostic. But the past couple years, as I’ve realized I can choose parts of my spirituality to unearth, I’ve gone back to the “ember in my heart that reminds me who I once was,” as Zao snarled in fuckin 19985.
A few days ago, Birmingham’s Furnace Fest returned for the first time since 2003. It’s much bigger now, no longer just for teenagers within one-tank-of-gas distance, but former teenagers who can fly in. The former straightedge-adjacent fest is now sponsored by Tito’s vodka.
Zao played all three of these festivals. In between, they spelled out their long-obvious move from being A CHRISTIAN BAND, referencing their old songs in 2016’s I Leave You In Peace. One of their closers in Birmingham was Praise The War Machine, bitter sarcasm about the Christian-Military-Industrial Complex.
And emo band Further Seems Forever revealed a one-song revival of mid-’90s hardcore band Strongarm. But first, FSF issued a content warning that the song contains evangelism and assured younger listeners that the band believes Christianity is about universal love, not Trumpism.
Newer band Silent Planet is just about metalcore’s most openly Christian major band at the moment, even named after a C.S. Lewis book. Their main message is apocalyptic environmentalism. In Birmingham, their singer denounced colonialist white supremacy as blasphemous.
In 2013, post-hardcore band Emery left Christian label Tooth & Nail and founded BadChristian Records, which seems self-explanatory. They polled our crowd on how we’d grown up, then concluded with jokes that many of us shared religious trauma.
Stretch Arm Strong, long a peppy hardcore band on Tooth & Nail, said nothing in Birmingham about religion, only professing LGBTQ allyship before inviting women to take control of the space around the mic.
And other stuff like that.
To be clear, these bands pretty much always had inclusive/unspoken politics and/or were never preachy. But still, over and over, what I heard was: current/former Christians thanking this agnostic space for 25 years of acceptance, regardless of how unaccepting so many Christians have been.
And Underoath, long ago an Evangelical band playing Norway’s most devilish music, was night one’s headliner. Some of us were surprised when they played this 2004 song:
A Boy Brushed Red, Living In Black In White is blunt about a moment that might only make sense to youth group veterans.
Can you feel your heartbeat racing?
Can you taste the fear in her sweat?
You've done this wrong
It's too far gone, these sheets tell of regret
I admit that I'm just a fool for you
I am just a fool for you
Here is where we both go wrong
Tonight's your last chance to
Do exactly what you want to
And this could be my night
This is what makes me feel alive, makes you feel alive
Here is where we both go wrong
There’s more. It gets brutal. This hookup between two young Christians produces thoughts of “slit wrists.”
The last few months, I’ve been stunned to realize/remember how many songs by/for Christian adolescents were confessions of shame, impurity, and religious body horror (listening to this through the Norma Jean song will make you nauseous). Looking back, it seems both genuinely insane and the natural byproduct of grownups putting these things in the brains of teenagers. But at the time, this was a level of kinship I didn’t really grasp. These bands were wallowing in guilt alongside us. Alongside us boys, that is.
In 2018, Underoath appeared on Emery’s podcast and talked about discarding chauvinistic Calvinism.
“[That song] still bothers me to this day,” Underoath co-founder Aaron Gillespie said while bringing up A Boy Brushed Red’s lyrics, unprompted. At one point the song’s speaker mocks “a sucker” for falling in love with an unspoken word that, according to the rhyme pattern and the band’s admittance, would’ve been “whore.” It’s not letting Underoath off the hook to remember purity culture and the Bible’s male prophets constantly using “harlots” as evil metaphors can absolutely stain 20-year-olds with notions of foul temptresses.
When you play a nostalgia fest, I guess you play the old hits. With distance from the song’s old context, maybe it’s become about general relationship mistakes. I dunno. I do know 2021 Underoath immediately played a self-rebuttal of sorts.
I'm fine without you
I'm not your fucking prey
So save yourself
And no one else
So where were you
When I fell out
Went back into the dark
I'm lost again
So don't come find me
It’s about rejecting a Church that first rejected you. And I think about the girl in A Boy Brushed Red’s lyrics. Maybe she shouts words like these by 2018 Underoath, not just at youth pastors and Joshua Harris, but also at 2004 Underoath. (And I can’t judge 2004 Underoath from some position of superiority. Even at my least religious, it wasn’t until 2009 or so that I realized becoming irreligious wasn’t enough to delete fundie girl-policing logic. It has to be uprooted on purpose.)
Amid a weekend of old music in new lights, and of conversations with multiple groups about the years it takes to dig purity culture out of your brain, I stumbled upon something while looking up tweets from the USF-BYU football game, a typical Sunday thing. This was when I saw an ex-Mormon’s TikTok comedy video about “jump humping,” a literally over-the-top joke about an urban legend mocking LDS adolescents. “Soaking,” it’s called, supposedly a practice of penetrating and then preserving virginity by not thrusting, because the thrusting is what creates out-of-wedlock babies. It’s a funny video, especially in the context of the creator’s previous jokes about the subject.
But on Twitter, I found ruthless stereotypes of the supposed clueless goodie-goodies who must be engaging in something so bizarre, without the context that people inside/from this world are humans who often make fun of this world too6.
If “soaking” is real, it’s two 19-year-olds willing to risk believing they’re courting God’s disgust while also knowing they’re becoming the world’s weirdest college students. (And while I’d bet multiple pairs of Christian youths have tried it, I’d bet it isn’t exclusive to Mormons. No, I’ve never obtained knowledge of whether “soaking” is real.)
If “soaking” isn’t real, it becomes a joke punching down at random adolescents, rather than up at patriarchal indoctrination. It’s sometimes a joke made in denial, by people who also grew up with religions they never chose and want to project that weirdness onto young Mormons.
Besides, Evangelical teenagers have had stranger ideas than “soaking.” Think of those % workarounds as things like hands and/or clothing technically in the way, plus other mysterious techniques whispered by youth group seniors in earshot of youth group freshmen, lifehacks for 18-year-olds eager to express reckless love and avoid being mocked by peers imagined to be boning like wild, all without alerting God’s sex detectors too badly7.
People don’t choose to become like this. Adolescence was already the weirdest thing the typical human ever endures, then made a million times weirder by control systems based on bad readings of old books.
I still love Underoath. And all these bands. And lots of other stuff.
Many old things I talk about have become old things for me, even if it takes a great while to learn from them. In 2021, I’m both baffled by Teenager Me and equipped to finally understand that kid’s trauma responses.
Maybe I talk about old things because they might not yet be old things for others. Some people might never be that fortunate. I’ll always feel defensive and protective of young people in/from a world that uses fear of Hell to shove everyone into one patriarchal mold. Unsure how else to try and help.
One thing I’ve learned is that setting aside old things doesn’t always require setting aside everything. On my teeth, on my terms8.
In 2021, beside the downed moon, Further Seems Forever played from their best album, The Moon Is Down.
Emily and me sang along to FSF’s best song, New Year’s Project, 18 years after it was our wedding song, when “you were the outline of everything you would become.” We now have, among other things, a Bible podcast. It says God’s kinda beyond gender and kinda a Girl, the Bible’s homophobia is no match for the Bible’s ethic, most heresies are harmless fun, and the character Moses got hijacked by incel fanfic, because the Bible is just as much ours as it is some fundie pastor’s.
Earlier that day, I sensed a little unbearable transcendence, a few seconds of dread so deep it’s awe, the sense that something in the skies is being hastened by human-made beauty. Their name is Deafheaven, and they’re not my favorite band, just objectively the best rock band ever. Right there was the band of Sunbather, washed in the sunlight that birthed all of us together, the star to which we’ll all return together, all dirtbags being made new together, a process foretold in our sky every morning. God summoned by a band called freaking Deafheaven, because God’s secular too.
And Hopesfall played most of No Wings, that ancient EP about losing anchors. Palms seeking sunlight, the same praise hands of Cornerstone, we all yelled, “I hear your voice say, ‘My child, I’ll pick up the pieces.’” Because there is nothing new under sunlight, except all of us all the time.
In Genesis 1, God created sunlight.
God then called sunlight “good.”
In Genesis 1, God created your body.
God then called your body “very good.”
So maybe religious leaders have shamed your body.
But Genesis 1 says sunlight is lucky to adorn it every new day9.
Gazing at navels: sinful.
My dad taught me to honor women, but it was youth group friendships that made a lesson really sink in: girls are people. This sounds obvious! But it’s not a lesson boys in Straight White Man society necessarily ever learn. It sure wasn’t Jerry Springer, The Man Show, or Eminem that taught me.
Yeah, there’s no verse that says anything like “Thou shalt not premaritally sex.”
I met Emily in the scene, first on Project 86’s message board, then on our first date at a Converge show. Therefore, our daughter wouldn’t exist if Living Sacrifice hadn’t assembled to learn Dokken songs in 1985 Arkansas.
I also spend as much time as I can writing fiction about early-2000s Christian teenagers, so listening to the vaults counts as productive business research.
You know how many times I’ve laughed while telling the story of 12-year-old me discovering a cool trick part of my body could do, then immediately praying it wouldn’t get leprosy as punishment, because I assumed whatever had just happened must’ve been shameful?
The one time I remember my teenage mind thinking, “This sex advice seems thorough, applicable, and wise,” was when my Super Mario-lookin’ boss told me, “Sex is for adults, even though most teenagers are dumb enough to think they’re adults. Most adults are dumb too. Try not to be dumb.” The genius in his tactic: not deferring to the Bible, a book I’ve always known how to contort until it says everything and nothing at once.
For the last couple years, I’ve had no idea how to describe my religious identity. Calling myself agnostic was easy, but this mid-deconstruction thing??? Maybe I’m a Christian who doesn’t know whether Jesus is among people who’ve found an afterlife, and I’m convinced “the sacrifice on the cross” was a retcon by people desperate to keep his poor-people’s campaign alive under the thumb of the empire that’d lynched him. Yep, a Christian who denies the Virgin Birth. Show me the verse that says Mary and God kept their jeans on.