catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 14 :: 2006.07.14 — 2006.07.28


Concerning the Sighting of Aliens in the Cornfields Near Bushnell, Illinois

Or The Way in Which Neil E. Das has an Ecclesiastical Epiphany in the Great Cornerstone Labyrinth

If the title of this piece reminds you of Sufjan Stevens, it should, as it a wholesale plagiarizing of the titles of two of the songs from his watershed album Illinois. And this is entirely appropriate because Sufjan was at Cornerstone. Ok, so he wasn’t actually there performing, nor was he rubbing grimy shoulders with the thousands of campers, as far as know. But I could still hear the rumbles from the avalanche of praise he received for Illinois, which have only grown in crescendo with the recent release of Illinois, Part II, titled, appropriately enough, The Avalanche, but more on all that later.

By way of introduction, this piece is intended to be a review of sorts of Cornerstone 2006, though admittedly it can only be very narrowly focused to the parts of the festival I actually experienced.  So, for a bit of value addition it is also a sort of reader response essay on the entire Cornerstone phenomena.

I first became aware of Cornerstone through the magazine of the same name sometime in the late 80s or early 90s. And, though I didn’t know it, it plucked a chord in me that has been resonating ever since, growing in volume through the years. The magazine intrigued me, perplexed me, sometimes angered me, but always challenged me to enlarge my categories of what godly, obedient living might look like. Jesus People USA, the parent community of Cornerstone, and their emphases on living amongst and serving the urban poor, wrestling with the doctrines of the cults, providing guidance on sexuality issues, participating in the arts, all wrapped up in rather counter cultural living, complete with dress and music styles that were outside my aesthetic categories all opened up new worlds for me, worlds that I was hesitant to enter. 

It would not be until 2000, actually, that I would go to the festival, a waiting I now regret. And there it all was, like a living, breathing fold-out of the magazine itself, with the music ranging from Christian death metal (now there’s oxymoron for you) to Jennifer Knapp; with seminar tents featuring some fairly well know speakers, some of whom stood out like Mother Teresa in a mosh pit; and with an art show and film festival and dance club, which I really was not expecting. “Shake your booty for Christ? I don’t think so.” But even there, I was completely missing the point.

That festival involved a lot of rubbernecking on my part to look, up close and personal, at punks and hippies and goths, around whom I had never really spent much time. It was like species meeting in a zoo; some from the subcultures of Chicago, the other from the rarefied atmosphere of the missionary community in Pakistan, by way of metro St. Louis. I may not have realized it then, but it was like the Kingdom of God. Cornerstone helps me realize that as believers we are all aliens in this world and citizens of a new earth that’s coming, even while we live in this world in a multiplicity of contexts that can bring glory to God.

By my third time at the festival, for two days last summer, I was trying to determine whom I found more attractive, the punk women or the hippie-esque ones. FYI, the hippie ones had the edge. I think the way some of them carried wee ones on their hips or in a sling across their breast might have got me. This was also the festival in which I allowed myself to sync with the techno-worship led by world class British DJ, Andy Hunter. I will still take liturgy and hymns any day, but it was a moving experience, and one which Andy carefully attends to as a vocation and calling, as he detailed in a seminar the next day. I still skipped his dance set on the next night, though.

In this year’s Imaginarium, a venue that features lectures and films centered around a theme (this year’s was “Days of the Dead”) John Morehead explained how increasingly one of the features of Halloween is to allow adults a space to act out, explore, and try out new identities. While this can have potentially have negative ramifications, it can also have positive ones, and I think this is an apt description for one of the functions of Cornerstone. Youth can experience people radically different from themselves and experiment with things like Mohawks and henna tattoos in a pretty safe environment. And adults too, somewhat more seriously, can consider presentations of radical living for Christ which are different from but may enrich their own. But who am I kidding, as I type with forearms henna tattooed with an Iona cross and a Trinity symbol. So what Cornerstone magazine did for me for all those years, is what I principally find Cornerstone festival to do for me now, to make me consider, and potentially be enriched by, the giftings and viewpoints of other believers. And, increasingly, I am feeling at home in that space.

This year’s festival was no different. Highlights for me included a spirited game of pick-up soccer; camping and hanging out with friends and church members in some truly beautiful weather; going on late night, introspective walks; and catching some cool bands.

Anathallo: Like a cross between Sufjan Stevens and Five Iron Frenzy, only not quite that frenzied. They had lots of energy, though, with horns, jumping around, and beating on drums large drums.

The Violet Burning: Michael Pritzl has been around for a while, but still cranks out a tight show of infectious, catchy rock and roll. Sadly, my favorite “Gorgeous” was at the beginning of the set and the somewhat sensuous, but rocking, “Berlin Kitty” was missing.

The Crossing: The set of dancers that this Celtic band from Uptown Chicago got to its feet with its jigs and reels was not as large as at some festivals, but still impressive. I should have gotten up, but didn’t.

Bernard: This band is an absolute must for fans of Coldplay or basically any anthemic, Brit-pop group, with its chimey guitars, soaring vocals, and lush soundscapes, all married to visuals that the band have put together themselves and synched perfectly to their music. They must be seen live to get the full effect, but in any context are lovely. Amongst our little camp, they were one of the highlights of the festival.

Mute Math: There was once an innovative, electronica band in the Christian market called Earthsuit. This is the reincarnation of the lead singer Paul Meaney’s vision. Some of this sounds like the Police, but with lots and lots of energy. The drummer tapes his headsets to his head before they start. Another one to catch live, perhaps on the Warped Tour (if you must), throughout this summer.

Over the Rhine: They rounded out Thursday night with a lovely set at midnight. Nothing quite like Karin Bergquist’s voice over Linford Detweiler's keys.

Relient K: This is a band with cross-over appeal both to the CCM world and to the secular mainstream. These guys have a lot of fun, but you get the sense that there is a great deal of seriousness ensconced in their souls. It was fun to see them after MXPX who were seeming old, in spite of their lyrics and genre.

P.O.D: These guys also seem past their prime, but were still fun nonetheless. As if realizing there senior status, they ripped into an old-school punk number with Sonny Sandoval saying, “Let’s show these kids how it’s done.” It was also nice to see some diversity in melanin. For all its diversity, by the nature of music that is played at Cornerstone, there is not a high percentage of either performers or listeners who are people of color.

Well, to make this a balanced review, I suppose I should include some of the disappointments. I wanted to see how Leigh Nash would do on her own, but none of her songs reached the thoughtful lyrics and musicality that Matt Slocumb brought to Sixpence None the Richer, as her encore of “Kiss Me,” perhaps SNR’s fluffiest song, was easily the best in the set.

As noted earlier, I caught just a sliver of the entire musical offerings available. My campmates also very much enjoyed Josh Garrels, Force Family 5, The Winston Jazz Routine, and The Psalters. Ah, the Psalters, who Wikipedia describes as a “Christian Anarcho-punk band from America,” and whose music my roommate describes as “pirate worship.” It does sound like that a bit, and a lot like gypsy music, and it all follows the liturgy. Go figure. The members of the Psalters live in a community, travel in a bus that burns biodiesel, and have a serious counter cultural message to American materialist culture. It is not one I am likely to agree with completely, but I am glad the Psalters are there to get me thinking. And there CD is great.

So, where did I say was Sufjan in all of this? Well, I do not think a band such as Anathallo would have found such a ready audience if it were not for his quirky, marching band meets wistful lyrics meets complex orchestrations music. He was there in one of the features of Flickerings, Cornerstone’s very own film festival, which Jeffrey Overstreet, one of Christianity Today’s film critics, describes thusly, “If you can find a more challenging film festival for the head, the heart, and the soul anywhere in the country, tell me about it.”

The film was actually about Daniel Smith, an even quirkier artist whose music, quite frankly, I have not even really tried to access as it seems rather cacophonous. The film, though, was a wonderful exploration into the mind of an artist. And there was Sufjan. Young Sufjan stepping in to learn the drum parts for the European tour of Daniel Smith’s family band the Danielson Family. It would be surprising to me if it would have taken him very long to get the drift. The film ended with a note about Sufjan’s album Illinois selling “more albums than anyone could count.” And his influence was clearly apparent, as several hundred sleepy, hipster Cornerstone campers woke for the film’s screening at 9:00am on Friday morning.

I need to bring this ramble in for a landing and I haven’t even been able to tell about any of the lectures, of hearing John Perkins rambling, but rambling with such wisdom. It was just a joy to see an old man of God combining reverence for the Bible and evangelism with radical social action with such humor and energy. He literally bounces when he talks. And I haven’t been able to tell you of all the wonderful art, of the multi-piece installation depicting passages from C.S. Lewis’ brilliant The Great Divorce.  I haven’t even been able to really describe the Labyrinth, the tracing of a maze in white rocks ensconcing artistic depictions of the Stations of the Cross. My experience there was not earth shattering, but it was good; good to be asked to take off my shoes out of reverence; good to walk like a pilgrim over bumpy ground, kneeling where suggested, and following the discipline of the maze without walking over its walls. That’s something I need more of every day of my life.

And, finally, a poem about my first time ever at Cornerstone. I am still learning how to dance.

dance tent, cornerstone 2000

i went alone
while she slept
to the dance tent
it was a hot, steamy building actually
i stood withdrawn
in shadows on the side
and watched and wondered
the life in the lights
and not only with judging scorn
as she might suppose
but wondered what it would take
to free my soul enough to dance
to free it of its associations
with sex and lust
enough to trust
enough just to move at first
and then to Move
with glad abandon
as all dance was meant to be

as i watched the bodies shake and move
as the dj sprayed the crowd with water
like Job sanctifying his reveling children
i was torn

and she slept
without ever having to learn,
the sweet secret of that freedom

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