Luis Palau, George Bush, and the Mall of America

An afternoon with the holy trinity of terror

Two middle-schoolers just completed their first big mission of the day: They helped save a six-year-old boy. With a touch on the shoulder, a quick prayer, and the signing of a response card, 14-year-old Alex Lundberg and 12-year-old Brad Boyd have given the young boy the ultimate gift of eternal life. Lundberg and Boyd are both decked out in white visors that cause their shaggy skater hair to flip out over the elastic bands, and both are wearing identical black T-shirts featuring a skateboarding Jesus. Jesus is in his signature sandals, sailing along in mid-ollie, his robe flailing behind him. The words "Xtreme Jesus" are written in skater-style letters across the bottom.

Since 1999, Twin Cities Festival organizer Luis Palau has been employing extreme means and extreme sports to reach an MTV-bred generation of kids worshipping MTV-made false idols. At Palau's insidiously titled Beachfest in Ft. Lauderdale in 2003, 300,000 people showed up to celebrate God, Jesus, and skateboarding.

Along with appropriating pop culture in an effort to make religion more relevant, Palau and his association also are capitalizing on the heightened sense of fear and panic that has caused a surge in duct tape sales and a wave of stories about the terror of traveling with a group of "suspicious" Syrian musicians. "You never know when you will die," Palau says. "Repent today, repent today, repent today," he repeats over and over during his speeches. In other words, the terror alert is on high, dude, and you just can't skate your way into heaven.

It's fitting that Palau would use fear as a vehicle to amass younger Christians, since he himself was struck by the fear of eternal damnation at the age of 12. He was on the cusp of becoming a delinquent teenager when a Christian camp counselor asked if he was going to heaven or hell: He decided at that moment to dedicate his life to Christ. After Palau served as translator and crusader for big-tent evangelist Billy Graham in the early '60s, Graham donated money to Palau's cause in 1978, allowing the Luis Palau Evangelical Association to become a separate organization, with headquarters in Portland, Oregon.

Though Palau claims he brings a message of hope to the Twin Cities, throughout the festival there's a pervading theme of doom. Not only is the Grim Reaper's sickle casting its shadow, but Satan's pitchfork has already pierced our confused souls. We are all born sinners who terrorize ourselves, our families, and our communities, resulting in a sort of sin storm that's spiraling out of control and wreaking havoc on society's values. If we don't make amends for our misdeeds, like Palau's nephew did before he died of AIDS at 25 because "he was living the gay lifestyle," we are condemned to a life of torture.

Ironically, some evangelical Christians have chastised Palau for being too ecumenical (he embraces Catholics, the ultimate Christian sinners) and for dismissing biblical absolutes. This watered-down version ignores the true wrath of God, they contend, and creates quickly made converts who are never truly "saved." Though Palau refrains from dropping the most fire-and-brimstone Bible verses, he manages to exploit the already present fear factor with a message of salvation. As if we didn't already have enough to worry about, what with terrorism and Big Corporate America preying on our weaknesses, we're also in a battle with Satan and our own sinner selves. Thankfully, though, there's extreme Jesus who can take down the horned one in a gnarly skate-off and who is so totally extremely understanding, he'll forgive even those who've killed their unborn babies.

 

Skate (and Repent!) or Die!

Skater Paul Anderson is giving his testimony in front of thousands of kids and their parents using a 9,600-square-foot temporary skateboard park as his pulpit. With tattoos on his arm, he's a walking billboard for sin (Leviticus 19:28: "Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD"). But the 40-year-old Anderson, who runs the Skate Church in Portland, Oregon, is a neo-preacher with a mod haircut and a tight-fitting T-shirt who looks like he could be the lead singer in an emo band. Despite his penchant for skin ink, Anderson tells the crowd of kids from kindergarten to high school age: "The Bible says that if you sin, you will die." His loud, intense voice sounds more like a football coach's than a preacher's.

"The Bible says you will receive burning and torture, suffering and punishment for the bad that you've done forever," he offers the kids, who hang on his every word. "How many of you have seen The Passion of the Christ?" he asks, and the crowd squeals like Justin Timberlake just shouted their city's name. He asks how many of them have ever lied, and when no one raises a hand, he says, "You guys are all liars." He's just played the ultimate trick. Now, unless everyone wants to be burned, like, forever, they have to come forward and ask for God's forgiveness. He goads them further: "I want you to come forward and see how awesome Jesus is." He also throws in words like dude and gnarly since, you know, Jeff Spicoli is every preteen's idol.

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