Upon this Rock

Local Christian music builds a hardcore faith with a punk-rock choir

With a chicken sandwich in one hand and a copy of Peter Guralnick's Elvis-epic Careless Love in the other, I sit in the Foxfire Coffee Lounge, reading about the King's mid-'60s spiritual rebirth. At a turning point in the book, Elvis is driving across the desert when he sees a cloud transform first into Joe Stalin, then into the smiling face of Jesus Christ. "It's God!" he cries. As I read this, a throbbing roar shakes the building.

"Oh, that's the Bible study," says owner Elizabeth Larson on her way out the door for the evening. "They have their own sound people, so we get to take Tuesday nights off." Bible study? Sound people? Intrigued, I stick around until the Bible students begin exiting the back room, many of them bearing tattoos and other punk gear. When I ask who the minister is, I'm directed to a tall man with a short black beard and a curly mane tucked behind his ears.

Mark Johnson's eyelashes are thick enough to look as if he'd given them a coat of mascara, but if this lends him a slightly goth look, I get the sense he doesn't mind. At 36, he's far older than the college-age kids still milling around the coffee shop, and as a preacher to the punk flock, he could use some freak cachet. Sure, he says guardedly, I'm welcome to come to the Hardcore Bible Study. He tells me that the group is "Christian," which I take to mean nondenominational and evangelical. It's open to anyone, he says: Members chose the name because it sounded cool, not because the music performed at services is uniformly punk.

When I return later that month, the noisy band I heard before has ceded the stage to a charmingly self-depreciating alt-folk singer with an electric guitar. Dan Scott looks younger than his 25 years, with a left ear full of piercings and a shock of faded orange hair. After performing one of a series of "worship songs," he quips, "I like that one because it says, 'I'll seek you in the morning,' and I hate the morning." The audience laughs empathetically.

Casual as these proceedings sound, it's still church, and the song lyrics, displayed on an overhead projector so you can follow along, are interchangeable with any from a traditional worship service. The song "Magnify" is typical: "In my eyes and with my song/Oh Lord, be magnified/I will worship you with all of my heart," and so on. I later deduce that even when thrash bands like locals Fed by Ravens perform, the lyrics are still displayed on the wall and often read very much the same. Tonight, the crowd of about 40 sits on the floor or on couches, singing every note with no apparent need of the projector.

 

Christian rock is hardly new, but the Hardcore Bible Study represents an interesting wrinkle. From self-proclaimed "antichrist" Johnny Rotten to the hardcore punk of the Crucifucks and Dead Kennedys, punk culture has always been virulently and explicitly anti-Christian. It still is, judging by the punk protesters who hand out leaflets at Fed by Ravens shows. The irony is that many Christians were once just as fanatical about strangling "that devil music" rock 'n' roll in its crib.

But like those record-melting crusaders of old, many punks ignore rock 'n' roll's Christian origins. Postwar rhythm and blues lifted its propulsive beat and shout-along euphoria straight out of gospel music. And by the 1950s, the line between secular and religious black music had largely become a matter of lyric sheets, especially after Ray Charles scandalized the pulpit and shook up radio with his gospel-styled steamer, "I Got a Woman" (a play on the old spiritual "I Got a Savior").

Still, the white church looked down on popular music of any kind until well into the 1960s, when the folk revival came in through the back door strumming an acoustic guitar. My father, Peter R. Scholtes, was a priest and choir director on the South Side of Chicago when he recorded one of the first (and perhaps only) Christian songs to incorporate a bossa nova beat, 1966's "Missa Bossa Nova." His folk-rockish call for universal brotherhood, "They'll Know We Are Christians (By Our Love)," remains popular among Christians of all stripes, particularly evangelicals, and it's covered by local alt-folkies Trace. ("If the born-again Christians knew what my political and religious beliefs were, they'd probably disown me," Dad says.)

But for the most part, organized religion ignored pop's recruiting potential until ex-hippies in the Jesus movement created "Christian rock" in the late '60s. Larry Norman's 1972 song "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?" summed up the new attitude, and he helped pave the way for the entire "contemporary Christian" music industry that blossomed in the wake of Jesus Christ Superstar. Christian music now charts more than $550 million annually in cassette and CD sales alone, with Amy Grant's mellow pop and DC Talk's arena mosh-rap finding a remarkable--and largely underreported--crossover audience.

Meanwhile, the sort of pop spirituality pioneered by Madonna and the dirty preacher formerly known as Prince has gained some currency of late, and there's not an R&B or rap singer who won't give it up for God before dispensing shout-outs to family and friends. But as a genre, "Christian music" is only just beginning to shake off a well-earned stigma.

"I think it was pretty lame up until a couple years ago," says Nate Larson, guitarist for the acoustic-alternative band Clear, who formed in Minneapolis and currently hold a Top 10 single on the Christian charts. "You'd hear songs that were based on secular songs chord-for-chord, and it gave Christian music a bad name. But now you have bands like Jars of Clay, who were one of the first groups to push that acoustic guitar sound mixed with loops. The music is moving forward."

A good place to see this firsthand is the New Union in northeast Minneapolis, a sort of First Avenue for J-rock. Clear were signed to the Memphis-based Ardent label after an A&R director caught them playing the club's annual new band tournament, which this year wraps up its first round on January 9. The smoke- and alcohol-free club has earned a reputation for uncompromising policies, like the ban on playing mainstream covers. But the venue's calendar is more diverse than ever. "When we started 10 years ago, heavy metal was it, as far as musical styles," says New Union director Nancy Aleksuk. "Now you see everything from swing to hip hop."

On Saturday night, the audience is far more wholesomely dressed than the Hardcore Bible Study kids, and only the baseball caps and occasional Clear T-shirt would seem inappropriate Sunday morning wear at Aleksuk's church, the Living Word Christian Center, which supports the New Union. But Nancy's husband Steve teaches his own Bible study every Saturday at midnight, using live Christian-contemporary music. And the couple says they hope the service and the venue's clubby atmosphere bring in the "unchurched."

After giving me a tour, Steve asks whether I myself am a Christian. "Um, no," I tell him. "Give me a minute," he replies, then launches into a remarkably warm pitch for God that does, in fact, come in at about 60 seconds. "He knew you before any of this," he says. "And he knew you would come here tonight."

 

Of course, everyone in Christian rock will tell you the music is a means to an end. But there are tactical and tonal differences. You might not notice at first that the Coffee Shock, tucked into a strip mall in St. Paul, is a Christian café. In fact, the night I catch house favorites Arch Stanton, I think I might have the wrong venue. The squeaky-clean college boys playing Big Star-style pop fit the bill, but they don't use buzzwords like "praise," "joy," or "faith"--at least not that I can hear. They even cover a song by the band who once said they were bigger than Jesus. Only upon close examination do I notice that the "X" drawn on my hand by the ticket-taker looks like a cross.

Naturally, Hardcore Bible Study isn't nearly so loose and subtle. The unofficial house band, Better Than Nothing, performs only worship songs, and there's no mistaking their meaning, since they always bring the overhead projector--even to First Avenue, where they played a benefit show last year for St. Stephen's homeless shelter. What's unusual about these guys isn't just that they take Christian rock to its musical extremes; they also reach out to extreme people, the kind who presumably wouldn't set foot in the New Union, much less a church.

"When I was a youth minister, I remember these local kids skating in the parking lot near the church," says Dan Scott, who sang in the Foxfire service and plays drums in Better Than Nothing. "I relate to people like that personally. But even if I wanted to get those kids interested, the church offered them no reason to come."

Scott was attending Northwestern Bible College at the time, but says he didn't know what to do with his life until he realized he could minister to these outsiders. "Instead of expecting people to come into this church culture that's so uncomfortable for them," he says, "my idea was, why not just totally get rid of it, and set something up where they're comfortable?"

Raised as a conservative Baptist in rural Minnesota, Scott says his parents once considered rock 'n' roll an evil. "The Peters brothers went around doing those seminars about 'back-masking,'" he says, remembering the notorious satanic-message scaremongerers and their late-night TV appearances. "I grew up with everybody really believing that. But I liked the music." When Scott heard about a youth pastor from Coon Rapids holding rock 'n' roll Bible studies in a funeral home, he knew he'd found a kindred spirit.

The preacher, Mark Johnson, had also attended Northwestern, but didn't find the inspiration for rock ministry until he took a group to Amsterdam from his Christian Missionary Alliance church. There, he witnessed David Pierce preach to Dutch punks on a boat using live music. "It was like coming home," he says. In 1993 he and a colleague, Wayne Krebs, began holding similar events in the old, unused chapel of a Coon Rapids funeral home. Nathan Hieb, a volunteer from his youth group, printed up a flier that said, "Hey punk: We don't care if you're an anarchist, atheist or satanist. Come to our Bible study."

"The first night, eight kids showed up with piercings and mohawks--the kind of people we were trying to reach," says Johnson. "And Nathan jumped on top of the thing they put coffins on, and he started talking about how Jesus healed the leper. When he was done, a couple of the kids came up to us and said, 'That's me at school. I'm the leper.'" Many of the youths had troubled home lives, Johnson says, and some were doing drugs. As the Bible study continued, he began to spend more and more time with them, letting some stay at home with him, his wife, and two children.

When it became obvious that live music brought bigger crowds to the services, Johnson encouraged bands to perform and started singing in one of his own. ("I suppose it was better than nothing," said one audience member at an early gig, christening the band.) Johnson says Better Than Nothing's music was "really, really bad," but he says the band gets over on sheer spirit. "I just know what God's called me to do," he says. "I think people who have more talent musically, they probably struggle more."

After a year of Hardcore Bible Studies, Johnson left his job as a pastor to work on the project full-time. He kept his ties with David Pierce's Steiger International, a world missions group with similar pop-music ministries around the globe. But Steiger doesn't pay Johnson a regular salary, and to support his family, he's taken jobs with Federal Express, worked as a roofer, and clocked hours in a parking lot.

When their funeral home space was bought out from under them in the summer of '94, Johnson and company began doing street theater in the parking lot next to the Hard Times Cafe, the West Bank multiculti and counterculti crossroads. Nathan Hieb, who had preached to punks at the old space, got into a coffin, which friends covered with black construction paper. To begin their play, Hieb jumped out to give a prepared monologue about the hopelessness and meaninglessness of life.

"A lot of people clapped, because that's what they believe," remembers Johnson. "But then it was my turn, and the plan was to have this conversation where we'd talk about spiritual things, so everybody hears about it without being preached at. I said, 'Hey, crazy-guy. You're right. All man's philosophies lead to death. But there's another way. Jesus...' and as soon as I said it, the place kind of exploded."

Unable to finish the play, Johnson and the other Christians engaged the hecklers, talking to people in the back lot for hours and even praying with one. "As soon as you say 'Christian,' everyone thinks of fundamentalists," says Scott when I bring up some of the concerns people have with politically reactionary Christian groups. "It all gets mushed together, where Christian is Republican is pro-life is gay-bashing is blowing up clinics. That's not accurate, because following Jesus is on a different level. It's not political."

During his Foxfire sermon, Johnson quotes a Bible passage in which Jesus rebukes one of his disciples for judging the tactics of another follower. In painstakingly down-to-earth terms, Johnson tells his young audience that their disdain for other, stuffier Christians is as suspect as the judgments usually visited on them. "Anyone who claims to have the only, ultimate truth, I suggest you run away from people like that," he says. "None of us are experts. Sometimes we know more about some movies than we know about God. I used to be able to quote every line in Caddyshack, and I probably still can."

Johnson's speech, like his music, is accessible precisely because it's unpolished--casual, but also apparently heartfelt. In style and substance, he subtly rebukes traditional evangelical tactics. "When we send missionaries to other countries," he tells me later, "we make them learn the language and the culture. For some reason, we've been slow to do that here."

Call him a man with a mission.

Hardcore Bible Study meets every Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. in the Foxfire Coffee Lounge, 319 First Ave. N., Mpls.; 338-2360.

Clear performs on January 7 at the Coffee Shock, 1532 Larpenteur Ave. W., St. Paul; 647-1887.

The New Union celebrates its 10th anniversary December 31 through January 2, with concerts by Little Kelly, Lloyd, and Urban Street Level. 3141 Central Ave. NE, Mpls; 781-8488.

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