Luis Palau, George Bush, and the Mall of America
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.
Hundreds of kids pour onto the skate ramps, the ultimate (and extreme) place to give yourself over to Jesus. Fourteen-year-old Shayne from Faribault came forward, he says, to show God that he knows he's real. His Afro adds an entire foot to his height, and his thick, long eyelashes look like they're stuck together with tears. But he's ecstatic about being one of the first to pray with a counselor on the plywood. There's a heightened element of fandom and excitement, and more kids pile in to get saved.
The clean-cut counselors, many of them young twentysomething men with goatees and sporty girls in ponytails who look they stepped out of a Gap ad, have to bend over to reach the kids: "Do you have a relationship with Jesus?" one of them asks a pint-sized kid with a skateboard and mullet-hawk. "Do you swear?" another asks two young skater-clothed boys who are anxiously filling out response cards.
"We're here to make Jesus famous!" the emcee says. And for this group of Jesus-hungry kids, the mood on the ramps lends itself to a fan-club-only meet-and-greet session. Sign up and shake hands with your savior! Apparently, this newfangled Jesus is awesome, extreme, gnarly, hardcore, and also incredibly vengeful. What happened to that Jesus from the '70s, that sandal-wearing granola softy who showered the masses with unconditional love? He's been replaced by a skateboarding superhero whose ultimate weapon is fear and whose catchphrase is "Skate (and Repent!) or Die."
"Tell George W. Bush, We Made It!"
Along with many of the adults, every other kid at the festival is wearing a red, white, and blue Bush-Cheney sticker on his or her shirt, including wobbly-legged toddlers of every race and bohemian-hip teenagers not yet old enough to vote. One little girl has a sticker plastered across her bright-pink top, alongside a silver-sequined declaration that "America Rocks."
A woman outside the skateboard park holds a clipboard and a roll of Bush-Cheney stickers in her hand, stopping passersby to ask whether they're registered to vote. She gets nervous when she spots my notebook and I ask how many people she's registered thus far. "Fifteen or so," she says. Bush political strategist Karl Rove said in a recent statement to the Associated Press that as many as four million conservative Christians did not vote in 2000--this year's strategy is to make sure they get to the polls.
In a surprise guest appearance, Bush's skyscraper-sized face flashes on the big screen. Over some tug-at-your-heartstrings instrumental music and with the American flag flapping in slow motion behind his enormous head, Bush praises Palau for teaching about faith, family, and values. Since 9/11, Palau has visited the White House seven times. Bush ends his minute-long speech with the obligatory "God Bless America," which results in roaring applause and cheers.
Moments later, Grammy-winning gospel singer/Pentecostal minister Hezekiah Walker takes the stage with his choir of 50 or so African American musicians and singers. With a backdrop of the Capitol's Quadriga, or the four golden horses that represent the power of nature and women as civilization, the group launches into the horn-fueled spiritual-funk tune "We Made It." The choir is filled with big-toothed smiles, and the singers shake their heads with powerful assertion each time they cry, "We made it!" Then Walker starts freestyling, summoning preacherlike guttural yowls from deep within his soul: "Tell Bin Laden, we made it! The devil's a liaahhh! We made it! Tell Afghanistan, we made it! Tell George W. Bush, we made it! The devil's a liahhhh! We made it!"
Any clarity of meaning (Is Walker talking about civil rights? The war on Iraq? Bush's faith?) is lost when two blond women wearing Bush-Cheney stickers and lots of denim raise up their hands and clap loudly and spastically to a song no one else is hearing. Maybe Walker is talking about the turnout. An hour ago there were an estimated 50,000 attendees on hand, and now they're saying as many as 80,000 people are roaming the Capitol grounds. "Tell George W. Bush, it's a victory! We made it! Your constituency is here!" You are either with us or against us. You either choose God/Bush or lose.
Actor Stephen Baldwin wants to make Christianity seem gnarly. "I was at Beachfest in 2003, and there were these skateboarders, these gnarly, gnarly skaters that loved Jesus Christ," he says during his onstage testimony. "I wish there was something cool like a skateboard ministry when I was a kid."
Baldwin says he became interested in Jesus when his wife started reading the Bible. "My wife came to me one night and said, 'I need to be a better wife. I need to submit to you.' And I thought, I kinda like this Jesus dude." Hmmm. I kinda don't like this Baldwin dude. This admission of submission piqued his interest in Christianity, but it wasn't until the September 11 attacks that Baldwin turned his life over to God.
He says that because of the impossibility of the attacks, he was convinced that anything could happen, including Jesus coming back to earth. "If my wife loves Jesus, and I've been reading the Bible, and I've been praying to God to give me an answer to this curiosity, and now the impossible is now possible and now anything is possible, well, then Jesus Christ can come back to earth tomorrow," he tells the crowd over whistles and cheers.
He repeats the phrase over and over: "The impossible is now possible and now anything is possible." Anything is possible? Could it be possible that the Bible is not infallible, and that the message of fear and shame and the definition of sin could be amended to reflect the more lofty goals of modern society? And if not, isn't almost every man here going to hell no matter what? (Leviticus 19:27: "Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.") Of course Baldwin is getting at one thing: Today is the day of repentance, because Jesus could come back at any time and judge you, you gnarly dude.
Along with Darren Wells, the president of King of Kings Skateboard Ministries, Baldwin recently released an evangelistic DVD called "Livin' It" that features skaters and BMX riders who preach the Gospel of Christ. Baldwin encourages attendees to donate $5 to send the DVD to troops in Iraq, saying, "The DVD is hardcore for Jesus Christ! Because that's where things are going now!"
Next year, Livin' It skaters and the King of Kings Skate Ministry will embark on a rock 'n' roll bus tour. Baldwin and his skater cohorts will go "where the kids are, where Satan controls them, where Satan has a stronghold in the shopping malls, and tell them about the Gospel of Jesus Christ." Moments before his testimony, an ad for one of the Twin Cities Festival's major backers, the Mall of America, pops up on the numerous big screens throughout the capitol grounds. The Mall of America, along with more than 100 sponsors and 800 churches, donated the $2.1 million needed to support the festival. Luckily, no one offends the proud Christian sponsors at Walser by talking about devil-made SUVs.
Fear and Self-Loathing
Though Palau's people maintain that the attendees must come forward willingly as Christ-seekers, one of the Luis Palau Evangelical Association's goals is to "win as many people as possible to Jesus Christ throughout the world, proclaiming His Good News by all available means to the millions of people who have yet to respond to the Gospel." The group also wants to equip the next generation by "influencing Christianity and raising up a new generation of godly leaders so that the church's commitment to evangelism will never die." The gnarly, gnarly skaters are the vessels for this message, already convincing more than 3,000 people to commit to God tonight.
Is the ultimate goal of evangelism to preach the gospel as the Bible instructs? Is it self-validation? What's the real motivation to convert millions of people? The Center for Evangelism at Southern Methodist University claims the ultimate goal is the sanctification of each individual and the restoration of the whole creation--to make things as they were. So is every nonbeliever a moral terrorist, creating rampant social destruction by disrupting the core structure of family and values? Luis Palau would like you to believe so.
Palau claims he doesn't talk politics. Yet his entire speech is peppered with tales that focus on the issues that so clearly divide the two political parties: abortion, homosexuality, and "family values." You can commit the sins that plague you every day, you can even "kill your baby," and God will forgive you, he says. But you must repent today, repent today, repent today, because you never know when you will die. He talks about how girls should remain clean, no one should have sex until marriage, sex can only be between a man and a woman, and that sex outside of marriage is sinful and empty. As if only able to reach kids through coy euphemisms, he also asks, "Who came up with the idea of ha-ha hoo-hoo?" God did. And he made the rules, dammit.
Jesus Christ calls his own by name, he says (hint: it's the guilt and shame you feel in the pit of your stomach). He interprets a Psalm and says, "Though my father and mother reject me, the Lord will lift me up." This makes my heart break into a million pieces. For lost and imperfect teenagers, whose lives become one hapless mistake after the next, even the onetime hippie Jesus sees them as a failure who must promise to never make the same mistake again in order to be accepted. "You're wild, you're out of control, Jesus knows you by name," Palau says, sounding about as impassioned and inspired as an auctioneer. Through fear, he encourages attendees to repent to God and stave off the fire pits of hell rather than preaching about living a more positive, passionate, and generous life. On top of the fear of rejection, the fear of death, and the fear of impending doom, Palau teaches us that the biggest thing we have to fear is ourselves. Hallelujah.
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