Newsboy: The driving force of Festival Con Dios (Courtesy photo)

Festival Con Dios spotlights the conflicted subculture of Christian music

Festival Con Dios travels from town to town in a portable stadium, with a hydraulic stage that can be reconstructed in only four hours.

In a way, the logistics of Festival Con Dios - a diverse, live sampling of cutting-edge ministry music often described as a "Christian Lollapalooza" - mirror Christian music's relationship to the secular world.

Like its hottest festival, contemporary Christian music is a self-contained enterprise, taking its messages to the masses, but doing so within a protective bubble of its own devising. It's what Mark Allan Powell, a theology professor and author of the Encyclopedia of Christian Music, describes as a parallel universe. He points out that Christian music has its own radio stations, record stores, magazines, and award shows. The result is an ongoing dilemma: Christian music tends to isolate itself from non-believers, but it also wants to seize their attention.

What's fascinating about the Christian underground is the way it incorporates so many of the elements associated with secular pop culture. Festival Con Dios, for example, supplements its musical performances with extreme sports like freestyle Motocross, motorcycle stunts, bouncy boxing, and bungee jumps. "It's a revolutionary concept," says Lloyd Parker, general manager of K-LOVE, a listener-supported Christian-music network. "It's a great way for young people to see a wide mix of acts and also catch extreme sports events."

Every conceivable musical category - be it hip-hop, ska, hardcore-punk, space rock, or electroclash - is represented on the contemporary Christian scene, and sometimes the distinctions between secular and Christian are no deeper than the marketing strategies of the bands.

For example, if you ask the average MTV viewer what he or she thinks of "Christian rock," you'll probably get a dismissive sneer. But at least three of the most-played rock bands on MTV - Evanescence, POD, and Creed - are dedicated Christian acts. The trick then, for God-rockers who want to break through to the mainstream, is to start by building a grassroots base of Christian listeners, and then swiftly distance yourself from any religious baggage when MTV comes calling.

The Arkansas-based Evanescence established roots in the Christian-rock community, and was part of Wind-Up Records' plan to market its releases to Christian retailers. But early this year, the goth-metal band began to chafe at the suggestion that its music promoted a religious agenda. In an April interview with Entertainment Weekly, Evanescence guitarist Ben Moody complained: "We're actually high on the Christian charts, and I'm like, 'What the fuck are we even doing there?'"

Newsboys, Plus One, Kutless, Thousand Foot Krutch, and others
Sunday, October 19
$25 pre-sale; $30 door
Crossroads Mall
Moody's comments created an uproar with Christian radio and record stores, so Wind-Up Records CEO Alan Meltzer removed the band's album from Christian retail outlets. In an open letter to retailers, Meltzer explained that, given Evanescence's desire to be viewed as a secular band, he didn't want to mislead Christian fans into thinking the group represented their worldview.

POD's break with the Christian community hasn't been as dramatic, but its members similarly resist the "Christian rock" appellation. Creed leader Scott Stamp tends to code his beliefs (though he can't hide his messianic streak), while Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carraba chooses not to address the issue directly.

So why do these committed Christians shy away from their own beliefs? For one thing, they recognize that "Christian rock" carries a stigma, a guaranteed ghetto-ization that overwhelms and overshadows the musical content of the band. For another thing, the pressure that comes with being expected to write about nothing but Christ can be suffocating. Female singer-songwriter Sam Phillips left the Christian music industry (where she was known as Leslie Phillips) in the late 1980s, because she felt too constricted by the expectations of the Christian world.

That leaves the Christian music community with only the most earnest believers - artists who don't care about being pigeonholed, who don't fret about the limitations of their subculture - the kinds of bands featured at Festival Con Dios.

You get Seven Places, whose very name refers to "the seven places Christ bled from to save us from our sins," according to Seth Gilbert, the band's frontman. Kutless, widely regarded as the most popular new band on the Christian-rock circuit, has sold 100,000 records in the last year - a modest amount in the secular world, but an impressive figure in Christian circles. Singer John Micah Sumrall recently said, "God has simply blessed us. We felt this was the direction He wanted us to go and we have just tried to be faithful in following his will."

The defining act of this festival might be the Newsboys, Christian pop veterans from Australia, whose leader, Peter Furler, runs the God-rock label Sparrow Records. Whatever their musical deficiencies might be, Furler and his bandmates can never be accused of equivocation. The band named its latest release, Adoration: The Worship Album, and Furler doesn't hesitate to flaunt his faith: "I think about heaven all the time," he says on the festival's website. "I'm looking forward to the kingdom. That's all I do." •


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