The tickets to the concert we’d promised for her birthday came free with the price of admission to Carowinds. Our niece, an otherwise quite sophisticated and cultured nearly-teenaged girl, had somehow never been on a rollercoaster. Since I’d last been to the park, new rides with names like Cyclone, Nighthawk, Afterburn, Hurler, and Intimidator had opened. We were going to be the coolest kids on the block.
This was to be the first Christian rock band experience for all of us. I’m nervous, hoping to pass unnoticed with my Episcopalian irony intact. We listen to the band on her ipod all the way to Charlotte. They sound like Journey, or Def Leopard, or any of the bands that I loved when I was twelve. I can’t understand a word, but when I look she’s looking out the window, her lips moving in time with the singer. Her mother and little brother follow in a second car. “I feel like a monster,” she sings along with the band. “Like a monster.” Intelligent, gentle, loving parents who occasionally attend a Unitarian service have raised her to be the gracious girl she truly is today, but this is what teenage looks like.
“This Biscuit band is pretty good,” I shout over the drum solo.
“Skillet!” she screams. “They’re called Skillet!”
We roll down our windows as we inch towards the parking lot, bumper to bumper with church vans, pickups, SUVs and Civics, our eyes wider with every scream that rolls across the pavement. We couldn’t wait, but waiting, as anyone could have told me, was pretty much the only non-optional element in the day. Waiting for rides, for bathrooms, for $4 Cokes. It wasn’t yet noon.
At first, there seem to be so many rides that we didn’t know how to start. So we picked one, a ride that seemed friendly, miniature cars curling around a track. The line didn’t seem so long, but it was the better part of an hour before the five of us were standing beside the little cars.
“I’m thinking a water ride instead?” says the niece.
“Climb in,” I tell her. No mercy. The pimple-faced attendant pushes the padded bars onto our laps and then we’re riding The Ricochet. I forget about the kids, because I’m falling. We’re going sideways, then jerking the other sideways. This is terrible, a terrible mistake. My hat flies off, but it doesn’t matter because we’re all going to fall out and die and there’s no time to think about it. And suddenly we’re grinding to a screechy, rickety stop.
“That was awesome! Totally awesome!” She’s glowing, and her little brother laughs. “Can we ride it again?”
“Anybody ready for a lemonade?” her mother asks, sensibly. It’s still seven hours before the concert.
A few more rides and a thunderstorm later, we’re exhausted. We’re sunburnt and shivering, and can’t find a place to sit down. Three hours to go. There are so many people here; the sheer number of bodies is like something from a movie. There are more people in Bondi Beach alone than in all of Madison County, and the better part of Asheville. People of all shapes, sizes, colors: it’s a casting call for diversity. But the people I’m most nervous around are the ones that are probably most-like-me, the white people wearing sweaty shirts that read things like: Jesus is my Hero, or God Rocks. I’m getting nervous again.
And suddenly it’s 8:00 and we’re late, hurrying to the palladium. None of the diversity that’d been in the park is in this concert: these people are all white, and range in age between children who don’t look like they’re even in kindergarten yet, and, well, us. Turns out, we’re the elders, the ones who’re clutching their ticket stubs, stumbling towards their seats. We stuff our ears with shredded napkins, but it’s not our eardrums that are bursting from the music. No, it’s beneath our bones where we feel the intensity of the beat, as if the music is literally beating our hearts, pounding beneath the sternum. I’ve never heard music this loud before.
“I need a Hero!” the singer pounds the air with his fist. Fire blazes from portals behind the stage. Thousands of fans stand on their seats, howling. “I need a Hero, to save me now!”
We’re all impressed, paper hanging out of our ears. Fireworks shoot from the lead singer’s guitar. Pow, pow. Smoke pours from the front of the stage. The bass player is punked-out like Joan Jett, and the drummer’s hair streams down over her muscular shoulders. The twelve-year old is rapturous, mouth open and eyes wide. “I want to be a drummer!” she cries.
“I love you!” someone screams at the band. “I love you too,” the singer shouts back, adding thoughtfully, “A voice from the wilderness… that’s from the Bible.”
To handle the noise, I attempt intellect, looking for signs of whatever would have made me so uncomfortable with the idea of attending a Christian rock band concert – or, for that matter, a concert that billed itself Christian at all. The lead singer is speaking at length about standing up for what you believe, not letting anyone else tell you what to think. How to believe. What you can and can’t do and say. The crowd roars its relief. Yeah, yeah. We won’t let anyone tell us what we can say, what we can do. Christianity as an oppressed minority, a bunch of misunderstood loners struggling to be heard. It’s compelling, as any teenager could tell you. You’re not the boss of me, you humanities-stupored secular society, stunned by revisionist historians into a bleating confusion. No, don’t let anyone tell you what to think. Don’t be afraid to be who you are.
The band launches into their hit song, “It’s not me – it’s YOU!” And this is when I remember what makes me nervous. The heart of this music is the message that the world –as if the world weren’t both you, and me – is not us, that we’re different: we’re chosen, selected apart from others. It’s not me, it’s you. It’s not about developing understanding, paying closer attention, witnessing the lives of others around us. It’s not a bad place to start, but it’s a damaging place to stay. You can ride the feeling for the thrill of it, and readers, we did, but afterwards we all piled in the car, and came home, together.