Live from Cornerstone

We are midway through the final Cornerstone Festival and it still doesn’t feel quite real. Now, Cornerstone never felt quite “real” in some ways. The combination of heat, sun, questionable nutrition and complete sensory overload creates a unique experience indeed. But this year, knowing that the experience will not be repeated, it is even more surreal. Lots of tears. Lots of stories. Lots of shaking heads.

If you’re not familiar with Cornerstone, imagine a mainstream rock festival like Bonaroo or Woodstock, combined with a hippie Jesus Rally from 1972, and occupied by a seminary’s worth of teachers, speakers and professors that would be deemed far too conservative for the Ivy Leagues and far too liberal for your average evangelical university. Throw in some carnival food, a slew of unique vendors peddling handmade jewelry, flowing sun dresses, heavy-metal leather fashions, independent books by activist authors, band swag, festival souvenirs and the occasional conservative evangelical college and you start to get the picture.

After several years of hefty financial losses and meager pre-sales, the festival organizers decided that this would be the final event. They announced this a couple months back so that there could be one final gathering. None of the bands or speakers would be paid. Most of the amenities were canceled. All of the sanctioned performances are combined onto two stages.

But despite the shrinkage the heart of the event is beating strongly. The DNA of Cornerstone is intact. Take away the massive main stage, the enormous video wall, the huge crowds gathered by mainstream breakout bands like POD, Underoath or Relient K and what you’re left with is a concentrated shot of radical, uncompromised, transformational faith. I honestly don’t think I’ll miss the main stage or the massive crowds, but the smiling, aging faces of the Jesus People who have faithfully busted their butts to pull this miracle off year after year … them I will miss sorely. In many ways this smaller version of Cornerstone is actually more like the event’s early days. Maybe a new version of Cornerstone can emerge someday; an event with the heart of Cornerstone but much less expensive overhead. One thing this year’s event is making clear is that Cornerstone doesn’t need headliners in order to work.

In addition to the sweltering set I performed today with my band, The Wayside, my main job here is to act as host and MC. I’ve already been stopped by several longtime festgoers asking if they can cry on my shoulder for a minute. One fellow told me he had been coming for 20 years and always looked forward to bringing his grandkids. “I just don’t have any grandkids to bring yet,” he said. “Now what am I supposed to do with them?” This brother is lamenting a future in which the Cornerstone Festival is not around to offer an alternative vision of what a Biblical worldview may actually look like when separated from mainstream Christian culture. Another gray-haired Cornerstone vet said much the same thing. “I just don’t know what’s going to happen to all these kids,” he said, nodding to a nearby tent full of screaming hardcore kids who were stopping for a prayer break. Michael Roe, of the Seventy Sevens, put it even more plainly last night after their epic farewell set: “What are we going to do about this?”


I get up on stage each evening to introduce the bands, make a few announcements, share some memories from the last three decades and hopefully to challenge us all never to return to “normal.” In our world “normal” means the ones with the money have the power. It means that God is frequently reduced to an amiable coach telling us we’re doing fine and promising us a big party some day if we win State. It means petty things - like politics dividing believers from each other - and stupid things, like fear dividing believers from the lost. In so many wonderful ways, Cornerstone has never been normal. Festival or not, I’m not going back to normal again.

What Do You Think?

  • Did you attend this last Cornerstone? What were your impressions?
  • What memories of Cornerstone will you keep?
  • What new events/groups might be able to carry the Cornerstone torch?


Comments (2)

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Well stated. I’ve been to 15 or 16 fests, and I appreciate the way you’ve summarized it. Sometimes you need an external voice to help process, and I enjoy hearing your thoughts. 

I thought Iona stated it well that “our King is here,” and wherever we go, we progress with Him as King.  I’m a pretty nostalgic guy, but the only thing that frees me from my nostalgia is the recgnition that the Lord can (and will) lead us forward.

Thanks for sharing, John.  It seems like you or your wife popped up at every show we saw—of course as MC and with your own band but then again with the Farewell Drifters & the Violet Burning, etc.  It was an incredible festival, and while I was mourning the diminished size a little bit (I last attended in 2005), I’m so, so glad that I went.  My musical new discoveries were the Hollands, Seth Martin, Josh Garrels, and the Violet Burning (obviously I can’t claim to be terribly “with it” despite going four times previously), all of whom seemed to portray a bit of that “beyond normal” spirit you’re talking about. 

Cornerstone has inspired me to walk the walk instead of just talking the talk.  I can’t imagine going back to what I used to think of as Christianity—the kingdom is so much bigger and better than that.  Cornerstone to me was like a prefiguring of heaven: all these odd-looking people creating this beautiful cacophony somehow informed by the same spirit.  Makes me think of this Flannery O’Connor story about an old woman who has a vision of heaven that is far wilder and crazier than she had imagined.  Not a tame lion/festival/God.

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