It was after 1 a.m. but the air was still sticky with southern Illinois’ July humidity. I was nimbly feeling my way through randomly pitched tents when I heard it: music that sounded like Cookie Monster stuck in a garbage disposal.
This is the moment - for the first time in my life - when I thought, “Christians can do that? Awesome.”
I grew up in the church - a small, rural Methodist congregation - but not in the Christian subculture. As a kid, I went to Sunday School and VBS but I had no idea who Psalty or McGee and Me were. Later, I was ignorant to the very existence of CCM music; I wasn’t exposed to Michael W. Smith, Sandi Patty or DC Talk. I knew Van Halen, Metallica and the Beastie Boys.
One summer, my younger sister’s youth group leader asked me to chaperone a trip to the Cornerstone Music Festival, which sadly ends this year. I agreed because I wanted time with my sis and I never had much of a youth group experience. I thought Cornerstone would be like the Christian camps I’d attended in junior high. You know, ones where everyone was pretty much just like me.
It wasn’t. And the difference was about more than just hard rock. Over the course of several summers, Cornerstone challenged and broadened my notions of what a Christian is. In fact, this nearly 30-year-old event was integral in teaching me that not all Christians look like me, believe like me or express themselves like me. And that it’s OK. Actually, it’s wonderful.
My education began on that first drive through the 579-acre camping and festival grounds. I remember looking out the car window at two men browsing through a table of vinyl records side-by-side. One was in his 60s. He wore a straw hat and khakis. The other: a young man in camouflage with tattoo sleeves and a two-foot red mohawk. Cornerstone attracts a wide collection of folks - hippies, Goths, punks, preppy college kids and grandmas. I loved the idea that they could all come together here, bound by an essential tie.
Later that night I realized there was no reason Christians couldn’t rock. Other realizations that humid week went deeper. It was here that I was first forced to reconcile the idea of committed believers - sometimes Bible in hand - lighting up a cigarette or casually spouting four-letter words. It was here that I discovered that Christians could intelligently embrace and discuss The Simpsons or Quentin Tarantino. And this was certainly the most intense exposure I had with Christ-followers with whom I disagreed on Biblical, theological and ethical issues. But it wasn’t threatening or combative. It was refreshing.
Years later, I wrote a Christianity Today article about the festival. In it, I quoted a woman who played the festival several times. She said, “I grew up in a conservative church where I always felt like an oddball. I had to defend myself for having a tattoo or burning incense. It's nice to find a place where people understand you.”
I am not sure I ever felt like an oddball in Christianity. I never had to defend myself for being different or for liking music that wasn’t published on a certain label. But Cornerstone was where I truly learned Christians could be different out of the complete freedom through Christ. And this is where I learned to love that about His church.
What Do You Think?
- What are some of your memories of the Cornerstone Festival?
- What role has the event played in your faith life?
- Are there other events/people who have changed your definition of a Christian?