When I initially told friends I was going to the Cornerstone Festival this summer, they initially replied "What's that?" After explaining that it's one of the biggest Christian music festivals in the US, the response of many turned to "Umm, yeah... OK."
If that's your response, I probably know what you're thinking: wimpified, sanitized music with overly religious lyrics and a bunch of overly uptight types and conservative right-wingers beating each other over the head with bibles and "Jesus Music". OK -- maybe that's taking the stereotype a bit far, but you get the point. What you probably don't know is that the festival isn't that at all -- and although we're in the heart of the Bible belt, most Tulsan's haven't seen anything like it.
Now in its 25th year, Cornerstone has become nearly a cultural phenomenon. The festival includes roughly 300 bands performing during five days with seven official stages, roughly 42 independently run generator stages, camping, a food court and a late-night dance club as well as roughly 40 daytime seminars and a variety of sports as well as a skate-park. All in all, the best comparative analogy is to call it the Christian rock version of Bonnaroo.
If you think that sounds ridiculous, think again. Originally launched in 1984 at Lake County Fairgrounds, just north of Chicago, Cornerstone was originally conceived as a festival for Christian rock bands that really didn't have a market or niche that was Christian radio friendly. Within seven years, the festival had outgrown the fairgrounds and circumstances led festival organizers to purchase a 300 acre campground with a 125 acre lake in Bushnell, Illinois. From there, the festival continued to grow, peaking at roughly 25,000 in attendance in 2000 and 2001.
This isn't your standard Christian music fare, however. While there are a few mellow bands and progressive worship acts that participate (David Crowder Band headlined Friday night's 25th anniversary celebration), this isn't a festival dominated by Amy Grant, Mercy Me and Stephen Curtis Chapman. Instead, it's a festival that embraces individuality and subcultures as well as living in faith outside of the stereotypical church conventions.
Case in point: the main festival stage split its headlining status between more conventionally acknowledged Christian pop and rock acts like Disciple, Skillet, Leeland and Hawk Nelson and bands that get more mainstream and alternative recognition like Flyleaf, Still Remains, Haste the Day and As I Lay Dying. (Where else are you going to find a mix of bands that have played youth conventions, Ozfest and the Warped Tour?)
With a theme of "worship with dirty hands," this year's festival and artists did undoubtedly speak up (in some cases more than their typical venues allow) to reinforce their Christian faith and act out in such, but not necessarily in the fashion most evangelical churches do. You see, Cornerstone is more focused on action than words and "worshipping with dirty hands" has more to do with caring for the needs of others than talking and putting on heirs. As such, the festival tends to focus on social issues, subcultures and unity within the church--and it doesn't always mean that everyone approves.
As I pulled into the festival grounds on July 1, the first signs of this not being a typical Christian event were witnessed near the front gates. When I say signs, I mean that literally -- as in plaquards and picket signs with conservatives protesting outside the gate with posters that read, among other things: "Cornerstone Does Not Honor God!" When greeted as such, I knew in advance this was going to be an interesting week.
It's too bad the people outside didn't take a chance and step inside the gates, because they'd have probably been surprised. After all, not all is as it appears, and although I'm sure the protestors would have been appalled by the volume, shocked by some of the band names and scared by the Goth kids, they could have learned a few lessons about acceptance and unity from the mix of 40 and 50-somethings bouncing around in the pit with the preppy church kids and pierced and tattooed hardcore kids, all without a trace of discord.
I was lucky enough to attend the very first Cornerstone festival in 1984 and three of the four following festivals. And although it was a revelation for a suburban kid to see cultures intermingle and find music I could relate to, I admittedly never expected to see the event grow to the magnitude that it has.
Granted, the bands are even louder and heavier than they were in the 80's, but that's exactly what Cornerstone has always been about: accepting the youth movement and making it relevant in the church as well as the world. That spirit of innovation and acceptance hasn't gone away.
While I did arrive with an agenda and schedule of sorts already planned out with a number of bands ear marked as "must sees", I also got plenty of opportunity to catch a number of new bands. In turn, I not only got to see the return of some iconic Christian bands like Resurrection Band and the 77's, I also caught a number of rising stars like our own Capital Lights (who will be celebrating the new CD release this Friday night, July 11, at The Otherside), Run Kid Run, and The Fold.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the week, however, was a band that actually recaptured the spirit and joy of the very first Cornerstone festival. In 1984, much of the emerging Christian rock movement came in the form of So-Cal garage and punk bands like Altar Boys, Lifesavers, and Undercover. This year, Minnesota based Children 18:3 re-channeled all of that for 2008 with a look and sound that blends glam, punk, garage rock and pop hooks. Meanwhile, bands like In Fear and Faith and Once Nothing embodied a promising hardcore and metalcore movement that reaches beyond the standard growling with meaningful lyrics, big guitar hooks and even a few vocal melodies. All in all, I found enough cool music to know that despite what the mainstream labels might lead you to believe, there's still hope for rock and roll -- even Christian rock.
For those that have become jaded by religion, Cornerstone is an event that can shatter your view of the church and what its role should be. For others, it's a time of renewal and reinforcement of faith that the church exists outside the constraints of four walls or a hyper-conservative agenda. Undoubtedly, it's a celebration of faith for everyone in attendance, set to a soundtrack that our grandparents would have cringed at.
Of course, if you just wanted to enjoy the music (as I'm sure some did) you could do just that and try to ignore all else. After all, the music and weather were great, creating an excellent experience. To most in attendance, however, it was something more -- and with a knowing wink and nod to the people protesting out front, one band's t-shirt said it all: "Devil Music for Jesus!"
More information, including pictures, podcasts, videos and dates and ticket information for Cornerstone 2009 will be posted shortly at cornerstonefestival.com.
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