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A.T. Holder is a punk.
On this Saturday night at the Fire Escape, he's only one of at least 100 kids finding high-decibel nirvana. But A.T. Holder can't help but stand out in this crowd.
He says he's 12 years old, but he doesn't look a day over 10. His proud blond Mohawk seems to point in every direction at once, like an unruly thatch of weeds. He's stocky and short, barely tall enough to reach the midsections of most of the teenagers and twentysomethings in the room. He's at least one size too small for his outrageously baggy blue jeans, a silver chain dangling from the back.
Holder's name is Alan Thomas, but ask him what his initials stand for, and he'll say, "All That."
Tonight, Holder is All That. When he's not playing the most impassioned air-guitar on the planet, he's feverishly flailing around in a circular mosh pit in front of the stage. He clings closely behind his frizzy-haired, 15-year-old sister, Dani, as they bang into moshers like pinballs bouncing off the bumpers. At one point, a visiting ska musician lifts A.T. on his shoulders and spins him around, creating a double-decker slam-dance effect.
A.T.'s parents aren't too thrilled about his Mohawk. But they accept it. Just like they accept the idea that his sister has a penchant for dying her strawberry-blond hair some variation of blue or green. Just like they accept the fact that these two kids spend their weekend nights moshing to loud, fast, abrasive bands.
Why so understanding?
A.T. and Dani are moshing for the Lord. The northwest Phoenix Fire Escape may resemble any number of underground-rock bars, but it's actually a self-described Christian coffee house. No alcohol, no drugs, no tobacco and no profanity.
The Fire Escape exists in a parallel universe to the one familiar to most hell-raising rockers. This remodeled auto-repair garage behind Pure Heart Fellowship Church hosts bands that look and sound just like any number of secular groups, and the audiences react with the same kind of energy. But at some point in every show, the band will take a pause from its power-strumming and head-bobbing to briefly minister to the crowd about Jesus Christ.
The raps vary a bit from one band to another -- sometimes the speaker will even hold up a copy of the New Testament and read a passage from it -- but they always end with the musicians offering to discuss Christ after the show with anyone who's interested.
On one level, Christian punk can be seen as just a fringe subculture, an "oxymoron," as one Web site concedes. The biggest Christian-punk band on the planet, MxPx, sells only about 100,000 copies per album, and it's had to distance itself from its Christian roots to do it.
Even a popular Christian-punk group is generally limited to national sales of 30,000 to 40,000 copies per album. The music's simply too aggressive for Christian radio, and too Christian for alternative-rock radio. And it's often ghettoized into Christian bookstores, where its true fans would never think to venture.
But even with such obstacles, Christian punk is emblematic of a growing generational fissure within the church community. Christian punks occasionally direct their bile at nonbelievers, but, just as often, they target what they don't like about the church: pointless denominational barriers, dull sermonizing, old-school dress codes and Bible-based homophobia.
This kind of rejection of institutional religion recurs constantly, according to Tracy Fessenden, assistant professor of religious studies at Arizona State University. Fessenden calls such movements "very American" phenomena. "It shows how strong Christianity is, that even though [Christian punks] may feel the church has turned its back on them, it hasn't caused them to turn their backs on Christianity," Fessenden says.
"There's this chasm between real life and church life," says Leon Quan, a 27-year-old Tucson-based youth minister, rapper and co-organizer of The Rage, an annual Christian-youth festival that drew 4,500 people to Veterans' Memorial Coliseum on August 6.
"There is an irrelevancy that church represents in our culture that no one wants to tackle. We talk about this all-knowing, omnipotent, omnipresent God, and then we totally limit Him in the way He can reach somebody, and which people He can reach."
Quan admiringly refers to Christian punks as "the modern-day cynics." He says that Christian punks are having deep spiritual experiences outside the realm of traditional churches -- in clubs, on street corners and in garages. It's part of what he calls "out of the box" Christianity.
It's hard to imagine anyone more "out of the box" than Mike Wall, a heavily tattooed Rage Against the Machine fan with a shaved head and a vaguely menacing glare. Five years ago, Wall and Bible-school classmate Jay Bakker -- son of former PTL leader Jim Bakker -- broke new ground in the Valley by launching the Revolution Church in Cave Creek.
It defied most Christians' concept of what a church was supposed to be: The congregation was made up of hard-core punks and skateboarders. The pews were ripped out of the building to open up space for moshing. The two-and-a-half-hour services mixed anarchic performances by both Christian and secular punk bands with Wall's fierce testifying.