The CORNERSTONE Festival
My Cornerstone Experience*
It is easy to cross the line from judging what is being taught to judging those doing the teaching. I am sharing my Cornerstone experience with you with a cautious heart and much trembling.
The Cornerstone Festival began twenty-seven years ago under the umbrella of Jesus People USA, a Christian community based in Chicago, Illinois. This weeklong event takes place in a rural setting in the heart of Illinois. The Festival is known for its many stages where dozens of bands share time from dawn until well after dusk. It typically draws ten to fifteen thousand young people – many of which set up campsites.
I embarked on the journey after hearing stories – some good, but mostly bad. I purchased my ticket and organized my itinerary from the official Cornerstone website. The bands for this huge event were a strange assortment of artists from Screamo to Acoustic. Most notably were bands with names like Rodent Emporium, Sexually Frustrated, and Impending Doom… and a creepily-masked group called Grave Robber who looked like they came off an episode of "Tales from the Crypt." However, the most interesting part of the Festival were the seminars that were being offered.
Not knowing what to expect the first day, I arrived at the Festival enjoying the beautiful weather and pretty scenery. The attendees were already milling around. After parking in a distant pasture and walking to the Festival site, I was pleasantly surprised to find a used book tent to browse.
During the next four days I attended 17 hour-long seminars on 9 topics under tents in a pasture with busy sounding activity going on all around. Water trucks kept the dust under control and flatbeds were taking care of full garbage cans. Bands performed nonstop in the near distance – including AC/DC’s "Back in Black" blaring from a car radio.
It was impossible to attend every seminar, but there seemed to be some common themes among most of the seminars I attended. These were: social justice, poverty, monastic wisdom, environmentalism, philosophy, evolution, and Bono. I quickly learned that terms such as “Fundamentalist,” “Evangelical,” and “those King James people,” were spat out with bitter animosity. I was also quickly learning that: (1) Protestants and Catholics aren’t all that different because we can all agree on the Nicene Creed; (2) the Desert Fathers should be held in high regard; and (3) that getting people to be productive in their community seemed much more important than the condition of their eternal souls. On one occasion the following question was asked by a college professor who wanted to prove that we evolved: “How can we come to peace with having an ancestry of apes?”
There were two specific speakers that were of the greatest concern.
He is a minister at Ecclesia Christian Church in Evansville, Indiana and a novice Oblate of the Order of St. Benedict who also maintains a radical Christian blog called “An Absolution Revolution.” Mr. Barr describes himself as a recovering right-wing fundamentalist-cum-Christ-archist, a “liturgical Anabaptist,” a “practicing deconstructionist,” and a “free church catholic.” His special interest is exploring the pacifist and proto-anarchist roots of the Stone/Campbell Restoration Movement, the tradition in which he was raised.
This angry young man covered the topic of "Radical Environmentalism in Dialogue with Christian Theology." It was distressing to witness the nods of agreement and shared bitterness of the audience. In true Dominionist fashion, he held Creation (with its own agency) up with God as he explained the pronouns in Genesis 1:26, “Let US make man in OUR image,” he said were referring to God and Creation, not God the Father and God the Son. He explained that in Genesis 2:15, the real meaning of the word till isn’t “to work” but “to service,” as in we are to be Creation’s servants; the word keep means to maintain creation as a sacrament. We sat through the tirade of how the Earth was being raped, how we need to find a way to engage with the Earth, and how radical environmentalism is working to break the Earth’s oppression. To be honest, I was fearful for the people who kept messy, trash-strewn campsites at Cornerstone.
Mr. Barr made sarcastic comments about eschatology, the book of Revelation, and the Anti-Christ. Throughout the two sessions, he made statements like: “I do not endorse nor condemn blowing up bulldozers or breaking windows [for the cause of environmentalism], “and “I think that God is using the actions of these violent eco-people to protect the Earth and its resources.” At one point an audience member declared that he didn’t care if the FBI was there or not and proceeded to tell us about the Plowshares Movement which is a group of people who break into military bases to destroy weapons.
The Pastor of House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, a church she co-founded fifteen years ago for cynical Christians. Pastor Blue was leading two different three-day seminars based on books she has authored: From Stone to Living Word and Sensual Orthodoxy. The sessions were as follows:
From Stone to Living Word. This seminar dealt with our tendency to create an idol out of the Bible instead of focusing on the fact that our redemption is through the love and relationship with “a radically alive” God. You’ll notice there’s no mention of the atoning work of Jesus Christ nor the shedding of His blood for remission of sins. She made statements like, “The church [falsely] advertises faith as the key,” “We tend to think ‘inspired by God’ means inerrant and this stiffens the Word instead of setting it free,” and “It’s not good to read the Bible with the Platonic idea; we can get stuck on the idea that truth is static.”
Her teaching reduced Abraham to a crazy old hobo. The snake in the Garden of Eden was touted as being more smart than bad. The Fall was dismissed as she explained that the snake, who was a non-being, was referring to his own made-up, redefined god when talking to Eve. Pastor Blue encouraged us to read the Bible in the practice of midrash, which she defined as freedom to fill in the gaps and make guesses with ambiguity and an invitation to play. Noticeable was her resentment and bitterness towards her Bible Baptist roots. When faced with a question from an audience member asking her if there is a difference between knowing there is a God and accepting Jesus Christ, she seemed uneasy and unsure. This was especially obvious when a young man stated that there was a difference and why. But as with most of the questions, she threw it back at the questioner, asking him what he thought about it.
Sensual Orthodoxy. These sessions brought Jesus Christ down to our level complete with references to body parts that He possessed while here on earth. She also stated that He was a vulnerable four-limbed hairy mammal. (I could only handle one session.)
Viewing the Grounds
While walking around the grounds, viewing the stages and vendor tents, the music coming from the eastern region of the grounds sounded like twin turbo engines screaming. There were at least two places where tattoo and body piercing were available. Many skull-tattooed attendees were walking around. These tattoos seem to have had the same theme as most of the T-shirts offered by performing bands.
Goth and darkness were very popular. Cornerstone offered tents for Goth makeovers, a Halloween party, and movies. There was a late viewing of Troll 2, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or The House of the Devil. Also offered was a zombie walk with about 300 other people in the dark of night. In fact, I had the pleasure of getting to walk behind a young women dressed up as a zombie, blood and all, as she contorted her way through the vendor tent, advertising an upcoming performance of a band on her cardboard sign.
I visited stages throughout the day, some mellow and some involving mosh pits. There were tributes to Alicia Keyes and Bob Dylan. A song was being sung about murder which was blaming the churches’ for their refusal to deal with spousal abuse. Most of vendors were representing the bands. Some were declaring social justice. A few of the Native American booths advertised their religious heritage in their wares.
Feeling a great emptiness, I walked by a tent where there were no instruments except a hand drum as a group of siblings led children’s church. It was hard to keep the tears from flowing as I heard them sing "Wayfaring Stranger." Their voices were honest and pure as they were declaring that one day they would go to that bright land to see their Father. The memory of it still refreshes my soul.
My Cornerstone experience ended shortly after a conversation with a T-shirt vendor as we tried to hear one another over the noise and screams coming from across the lane. He was also perplexed and said he wasn’t coming back next year.
Among the bands and speakers, there were a many Dominionists, Vineyard, and Protestant/Catholic combined peoples putting out their theology. The Gospel may have been presented, but not once did I hear mention of Jesus Christ's sanctifying work or His precious gift of salvation. Instead I heard about the greatness of the monks and the need to make productive communities.
The greatest lack in this Festival was the proclamation of Jesus Christ, the real Chief Cornerstone:
"Then Peter, filled with the Holy Ghost, said unto them, Ye rulers of the people, and elders of Israel, If we this day be examined of the good deed done to the impotent man, by what means he is made whole; Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him doth this man stand here before you whole. This is the stone which was set at nought of you builders, which is become the head of the corner. Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved." (Acts 4:8-12)*
*This article was authored by a "concerned Christian," who embarked on this mission with the prayer support of Discernment Ministries.
**Emphases added in Bible verses
NOTE: This article has subsequently been re-published with permission and includes the author's PHOTOS of the event. It is re-titled "A READER’S EXPERIENCE AT THE CORNERSTONE FESTIVAL." See: http://apprising.org/2010/07/16/a-readers-experience-at-the-cornerstone-festival/