GQ + 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.