Tattoos, Piercings, and Prayers

Write what you know, they always tell you. But it can be so much more interesting to immerse yourself in what you don't know. That's what Andrew Beaujon, indie rock semigod (of the band Eggs, the label Teenbeat, the magazine Spin and the Washington City Paper), did with "Body Piercing Saved My Life," a year-long journey into the heart and soul of that most forbidding of all musical genres: Christian rock.

Armed only with a recorder, his dry wit and an unusual amount of sympathy (for a journalist), Beaujon traveled to Tennessee, Michigan, Seattle -- anywhere 100 or more rockers gathered in His name. Along the way, he met and interviewed anti-abortionists, pro-arranged marriagers, some of the originals of the scene and its doubting Thomas: David Bazan of emo-lite band, Pedro The Lion. He also spoke with a smattering of Christian goths, Christian publicists, Christian producers ... pretty much everyone connected to this billion-dollar-a-year industry that just might be taking over.

Lisa Carver: Who's gonna read this book?

Andrew Beaujon: I don't have the foggiest idea.

LC: At first it seemed like the worst idea for a book I've ever heard. You know the Christians won't buy it; it won't even get in their bookstores. You're not a believer.

AB: There is a Christian underground starting, where people are chafing at the restrictions. But I've already had trouble with people interviewed for the book who used profanity -- they are upset that I quoted them ...

LC: You mentioned that Christian rock is the only movement where controversy doesn't only not sell, but it'll cancel your entire tour.

AB: I don't have any illusions about this book cracking the Christian market, but I hope that it adds to a conversation that's already going on about the meaning of Christian culture.

LC: I can't see the mainstream buying your book either. Christian rock?

AB: The only thing I've got going for me is ... after the last presidential election, people started saying, "Maybe there is a reason to know what Christians are doing, are thinking."

LC: Could your figure actually be right: 48 percent of Americans consider themselves "born again?"

AB: Yes, and when you're talking about a country as big as America, that's a lot of people.

LC: After I finished your book, I thought maybe the intellectuals would buy your book, because they're wondering how they lost the culture war.

AB: God, I hate to think of anyone smart reading my book. I don't know, but I used to live in New York, and I was always struck by how little people there knew about America as a whole. In a way, they're as sheltered from the Christians as the Christians are from them.

David Crowder, who I interviewed for the book, told me how he'd have to sneak upstairs with his radio to listen to Top 40 under the covers. Which is a very un-Christian way of life, if you don't mind my editorializing. Jesus was out among the tax collectors and the lepers. I hate to compare non-Christians to that, but ...

LC: Here's what I don't get. I went to a Baptist church for Easter. There was a 16-piece band, 8-member choir, fantastic sound system, everyone was happy, and they were singing stuff like "You are good all the time/All the time you are good." It was very different from the stuff I hear on the radio, but it was really great music. I'm wondering why there's this huge, huge market of watered-down imitations of other genres substituting the word "lord" when church music is good and church culture is good. Why copy substandardly?

AB: There's the idea that you have to reach kids and provide them a Christian alternative so they're not hiding under their covers listening to Top 40 furtively. And then there's the basic thing about America, which says that when you change your life, you have to get a whole new lifestyle. And there's a lot of money in that. A lot of the products are geared toward parents more than towards kids.

LC: One of the anti-abortion protestors you interviewed said that's how he makes his living. How do you make money demonstrating?

AB: There are a lot of kitchen table contributions, you know -- $25 checks, but also a lot of foundations that fund these groups in various ways. The Thomas Moore Foundation, for example, will pay you to sue your school system if you get in trouble for wearing an anti-abortion shirt. ...

LC: Why did you interview no women?

AB: There are not a lot of women in Christian music, or in the business. I think that reflects the evangelical worldview that women are secondary. But it's not that different from most of the music industry, in that most of the publicists I talked to were women.

LC: Yeah. We can't be, but we can promote the men who [are]. Woman is the shit-worker of the world.

AB: Yeah. A further parallel is that while most Christian music sucks, most mainstream music sucks, too. I don't think the percentage of good bands is wildly different.

LC: Was it Minister Mark Driscoll [in your book] who described dating as prostitution?

A few years ago, I went to the Bunny Ranch [brothel] in Nevada, and a regular there described prostitution as dating. He went to prostitutes instead of having a social life because he found it easier with all the terms up front, how much it was going to cost him, how long it would last, which services would be rendered. I thought it was funny that the Bunny Ranch regular agreed with Minister Driscoll. You wrote that when he said that dating is prostitution and we should go back to arranged marriages, the hip young girls in the congregation were nodding.

AB: It was crazy. Thousands of hip, young, pierced and tattooed beautiful people ... But he was really getting through to people. It reminded me a lot of the hard-core scene when I was growing up, in that it was supposedly a rejection of "the rules, " the mainstream, but really it was just a new set of rules.

Kids are generally looking for structure, and whether you're into this or into Earth Crisis, I think a young person is going to have a very similar way of looking at the world; they want to know who is right and who is wrong.

LC: You wrote that Mark Driscoll referenced pop culture a lot in his sermon, including the Hilton sisters. What did he say about them?

AB: Some servant was sent out to find a wife for his master, and some lady comes to a well and he sees her, and she's a virtuous lady, so he does the deal. Mark said, "She wasn't standing there like one of the Hilton sisters!" He humanizes his sermons that way -- but it's also genuine. The guy really is consumed with pop culture.

LC: Do you think this view of women as secondary comes from Eve and the apple -- how women may tend to be more curious and swayable and aware of multiple realities at once, which all adds up to doubt, which evangelicals look at as sin?

AB: I suppose you could go back to Eve. When you have a couple-thousand-year-old book written by men, I think you could pretty much take your pick for moments where women are put down. The evangelicals look more through the eyes of Paul rather than through the eyes of Mary, which is a more Catholic way of looking at the world. There's a lot of mother imagery in Catholicism, while evangelicalism is more the stern daddy of the religious world: "You won't do this, you won't do that." I think the biggest problem for evangelicalism is that the youth fall away from the culture when they learn that life isn't always clear.

LC: I liked what David Bazan had to say. Is he leading this new strain you're trying to appeal to, where doubt is incorporated into belief?

AB: Yeah, I think he's a big part of that.

LC: My kids' nanny is over in L.A. right now for ... you remember the Great Awakening, maybe 70 years ago? It's happening again now, somehow they know something is happening, and she's there, She let me know she might not come back, and my kids might just disappear at the same time and not to worry, she'll look out for them. The Rapture. She's been trying to get me to accept Jesus into my heart for weeks now, more and more fervently. Time was running out. Right before she left, she said there was a tiny window of opportunity left for me to go to heaven if I accepted him now, but I would have to be decapitated.

AB: Headless in heaven. She may be right, we may be screwed. How much time is left?

LC: It's all over. Whatever happened, happened, and I'm still here. Unless I just think I'm here. This might be hell for me.

AB: Yeah, definitely. You'll get up to the pearly gates and somebody will be waving the cover of Drugs Are Nice at you, saying "nuh-uh!" I think the world is a scary place for most people, though, and any portion that they can control ... they could look at someone and say, "Well, that person is going to be decapitated."

LC: What's the deal with San Diego? So many people in your book came from there.

AB: Well, the military's there, and a lot of people in the military are Christian. But I think it goes back more to the Jesus Movement starting there. And lots of hippies became Christians.

LC: Are you afraid of some kind of retribution for your book? Will you get beat up?

AB: Gee, I don't know. I'm sure my publisher would love that; I can just see the press release now. ...

LC: ... Christians lost track of the world. How did that happen?

AB: I think a big part of it was thinking you're better than everyone else. I certainly get that a lot from my friends in New York. Nine times out of ten, whenever New York magazine does a piece on anywhere outside of the tri-state area, it's one of those "Planet America" type pieces: Look at these crazy rubes! What I was trying to do with this book was really honor people's beliefs. Look at them critically, but not as a sign of how stupid they are.

LC: Yeah. There is a terrible lack in journalism of curiosity combined with sympathy.

AB: I agree. And I think that's one of the many reasons why the Democrats keep losing. The people who vote for them really have no interest in trying to figure out the rest of the country. And if they do, it's one of these half-assed ways like in Virginia. We have a Democratic governor who is pro-gun and pro-death penalty. I see that as a huge problem, if the best you can come up with is being like Republicans, but not quite.

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