By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Christian Shannon, a strikingly handsome security volunteer in a backward baseball cap, white undershirt, and black slacks, displays the tattoos he had before he became a Christian, and the ones he got afterward. This 22-year-old former Sex Pistols and Ramones fan (he's got a tattoo dedicated to the Ramones on his leg, but he won't lift up his trouser leg because "it's cheeseball") traces a finger across his forearm to emphasize one of his latest, a colorful sacred heart with flames shooting out one end and a devil's pointed tail curving out of the other.
"That symbolizes the deceit of religion," Shannon says. He won't elaborate much on the anti-Catholic overtones of his skin art, but referring to Catholicism specifically and the ecumenical body in general, he says, "There are all these rules and rituals. There's too many. Worshiping isn't about following a rule book; it's a heart thing. There are only two rules to being a Christian: 'Love your neighbors as yourself' and 'love your God.'" Similar comments from two kids waiting to see Embodyment were "I was Catholic before I became a Christian," and "I used to be Catholic, then Jesus came into my heart."
There's no Catholic-bashing from center-stage, however. C. Monkey, Pastor Rich, and Josh Yates, the 23-year-old leader of a Sunday-afternoon service called "Young Visions," give little impromptu sermons--exhortations, really--and lead prayers between sets. Yates is a bassist for a rockabilly band called The Calicos who's currently studying at junior college with an eye toward becoming a public school teacher. When The Calicos opened for Not For the Crowd, he played his instrument in stocking feet, white undershirt, and what appeared to be oversized flannel boxers.
"Life's about more than getting drunk and getting laid," he tells about 150 kids, and surprisingly, most of them have stopped talking to listen to him. Then he senses a presence in the room. His eyes closed, his slicked-back, sort-of pompadour gleaming under the spotlights, he delivers a warning to Satan himself: "I should've kicked your ass out of here a long time ago, punk. We're not wussy Christians."
The one Christian phenomenon that all four operators of GPI single out for criticism--and a few smirks, rolled eyes, and snorts of disgust--is the church youth group. It's a symbol, in their eyes, of how much American Christianity has failed today's youth by talking at them, not with them. The Word, they say, isn't being expressed in the vernacular of youth culture.
As an example of "the youth groupy thing we're trying to combat," Pastor Rich cites Jimmy Swan's decision to hire a retired NFL player, William Ewing of the Pittsburgh Steelers, to co-host last June's Tooth & Nail Christian music festival. Speakman, who attended the show and was--along with the kids--seriously underwhelmed by Ewing, says Swan, the area's premier alternative Christian music promoter (see sidebar, "A little child shall lead them"), "shouldn't have bothered."
"Most kids in that audience didn't care about the NFL; they'd sooner listen to a guitarist with purple hair," Speakman says. "You find out this stuff if you ask. But they don't ask, they just preach. Youth group leaders don't understand that hellfire and brimstone produces rebellion. Most youth pastors are paid for what they do, so once again, they have to get approval for what they say from above."
Speakman claims to identify with the kids he serves, because during the '60s, "before I became a Christian, all my concert experiences were about sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll...at least, what I can remember of them." He conducts a tour of the newest GPI venue called The Dungeon, where, starting in September, they plan to hold raves and concerts with Christian industrial acts, but we have to walk through a room with no working lights to get there. Pastor Rich, flashlight in hand, stops in the darkness to spotlight a framed pencil drawing of him done by his wife in the late '60s; Speakman's hair and beard are as long and full as Jerry Garcia's in his last days. Instead of pupils, his wife has drawn stars in his eyes.
Next to the illustration is a full-length mirror propped against the wall and, above it, a spray-painted message with an arrow pointing down to the mirror. On the edge of Speakman's dim, shifting flashlight beam, the painted words look slightly sinister, like Manson family graffiti. I ask him what the message says.
He aims the flashlight squarely at the words: FAIREST CHILD OF GOD. It takes a second to process what that, the arrow, and the mirror all mean. But Speakman, one step ahead, shines his flashlight directly into the mirror, blinding us both.
"'Fairest Child of God,'" he reads. "That's you.