MORE

Sid & Jesus

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.

Basically, Holder looks like a pocket-size version of every punk archetype you can think of. Seeing him is a bit like seeing Opie Taylor go trick-or-treating as Darby Crash.

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.

Wall's methods have stirred controversy, but they've also been influential. The rise of the local Christian-coffee-house scene owes a lot to Wall's Revolution gatherings, which proved that there was a sizable audience for local Christian punk.

At The Rage, punk was only part of the entertainment. The all-day event, which aspires to be a kind of local Christian Lollapalooza, mixed mondo extreme sports with car shows, skateboarding demonstrations, postmodern ministering and a variety of music. But the Wall-sponsored Revolution Stage, which held court from 3 to 7 p.m., was where most of the action was.

Buried in the basement level of the arena, next to an exhibit of competing lowriders, the Revolution Stage drew a wildly exuberant collection of moshers. Around the corner, at the same time, a mellower slate of bands sponsored by Christian-rock magazine Seven Ball played to practically no one.

So The Rage offered ample proof of Christian punk's growing popularity, but the question lingers: Is Wall converting society's rebels and castoffs to Christianity, or are they converting him to rebellion?


Danneal Castillo sizes up the densely packed moshers in front of the Revolution Stage at The Rage. The crowd of 150 or so is undeniably worshipful, but Castillo senses that the mood is too serious, too intense.

"Ain't nobody laughing out there," Castillo good-naturedly shouts. "Somebody give me a fake laugh."

The request is pure Castillo, an irrepressible teddy bear of a man who could probably inject a sense of fun into a tax audit.

Castillo, 22, sings for the band American Made, a rowdy punk quartet that's on the verge of going nationwide with a September CD release on the Nashville-based Christian label, KMG.

The burly Castillo seems an unlikely contender for the role of punk icon. He's half black, half Mexican, with his buzz-cut hair bleached blond. He was raised in a strict Baptist home in west Phoenix. He never listened to punk music growing up, but has been rapping since the age of 12.

Surrounded by three skinny white kids onstage -- and a largely white, middle-class audience at every show -- Castillo is a guaranteed novelty before he utters a single note. His first instinct is to defuse any potential awkwardness with humor.

At the Fire Escape on a Saturday night, when Castillo starts babbling between songs, American Made guitarist Chris Brown suggests that the band hurry the show along. When the crowd applauds, Castillo takes on a tongue-in-cheek, tough-guy demeanor: "Even though I'm the only brother here, I'll fight everybody here. I'll put out." The kids laugh, as though their favorite uncle is pretending to be surly, but nobody's buying it.

Castillo discovered the joys of punk two years ago at a Christian summer camp in Prescott. At the camp, he met Chris Brown and his brother Aaron, two lifelong Christians whose father is the pastor at Calvary Chapel in central Phoenix. Both brothers played guitar, but after meeting Castillo, they decided to form a band, and Aaron switched to drums. With Aaron's longtime friend Eric Keeler recruited to play bass, they formed a group called Against the Flow, eventually changing the name -- for legal reasons -- to American Made. The result was a cultural collision that probably shouldn't have worked, but did.

"God brought us together," Castillo says. "It was cool, because we didn't expect anything to happen. We were just playing for fun, and two years later we're actually on a record label and able to talk to kids and show them that music can be cool, even though you may have beliefs behind it. It's cool to know that Christian music is not lame, like everyone says it is."

Castillo says he can't carry a tune, and still views himself more as a rapper than a singer, but his machine-gun vocal delivery is actually a hybrid of his hip-hop roots and the hard-core punk his bandmates have taught him. He realizes that it can be a bit jarring for people to see him fronting this band.

 

"If I was going to a show, and I saw a black guy in front of a punk band, I'd wonder if he was a sellout or if he was for real," Castillo says. "A lot of people have asked me, 'How do you get along with these guys? There's three white guys in your band.' I don't even look at color. Who cares? These guys are doing the same thing I'm doing."

Like so many people in the Christian music scene, Castillo says he looked to secular artists for early inspiration, because there simply weren't many Christian role models he could follow.

"All the Christian rap artists that I grew up with sucked, they were terrible," he says. "It was cheesy rap that didn't make any sense: 'We love Jesus, how 'bout you?' I was like, 'Dude, no one wants to hear that.' These guys were putting out rap in the '80s that was just no fun at all."

Though Castillo spent his early years in the Baptist Church, he soon grew tired of what he viewed as a rigid, oppressive environment. He recalls sarcastically that "if you had a musical instrument in that church, you were going to hell." Like so many in the Christian-punk community, Castillo gravitated toward non-denominational churches, eventually settling on Calvary Chapel in Glendale.

"All we do at that church is, you come as you are," he says. "If you have torn clothes, a beat-up shirt, you smell, you haven't taken a bath in three months, we don't care. We want you to be there because, guess what, we've all been down that path before, too.

"I'm kind of against all that denomination stuff," he adds. "That's what starts wars and people disliking each other. God doesn't care about that. He cares about what's in your heart."

It's a notion echoed by Mike Wall. "If people would really read the scripture, Jesus never wanted us to create church denominations or a structure of religion," he says. "We've obligated ourselves to so many rules and regulations when Jesus came to save us through only one thing, his grace and love."

In Castillo's eyes, Christ was "a grungy guy" who didn't hesitate to mix with the dregs of society. It's a concept common among Christian punks, who like to refer to Christ as the original rebel, even the original punk. Castillo views pious, suit-and-tie wearing preachers as a perversion of Christ's message.

But Castillo doesn't really like to write about stuff like that. You get the feeling that he doesn't like to dwell on any serious topic for very long. He says he simply wants to have fun when he's onstage. Although his lyrics are almost impossible to decipher in a live setting, most of his songs sound more like party chants than expressions of faith.

Like most Christian punk bands, American Made has tried to win a secular audience and not be straitjacketed with the "Christian" tag. Castillo actually seems more enthusiastic about playing secular rock clubs than Christian venues because he sees it as a chance to reach the unconverted.

But Christian punks like Castillo are savvy enough about the business to know that their usual onstage banter about Christ won't play at a club like the Mason Jar, a biker-friendly hard-rock haven. Even at the Fire Escape, Castillo is decidedly unpreachy, careful to follow his Jesus speeches by saying he doesn't want to "shove it down anybody's throat." But when American Made plays at secular clubs, even this kind of soft-sell is absent.

"We don't do a lot of preaching onstage at a show like that, because it's not received well," says Chris Brown, guitarist for American Made. "A lot of times, it's better to just play your music, earn the respect onstage, then on a one-on-one basis we can talk to them a little bit, share what we believe in."

It's surely a practical move, but it suggests that when Christian punks talk about reaching secular listeners, they mean reaching them with their music, not with their message.

Not all Christian-punk fans believe that onstage sermonizing is necessary. Geoff Brown, co-owner of Worthless Records, says he'd prefer to see bands let the music do the talking.

"You're giving a stage to kids that are 18, 19 years old and expecting them to say some kind of profound word from God," he says. "That's just not a realistic expectation. I'd rather they get up and kick butt and live a life that's glorifying to what they believe."

Up-and-coming Christian rockers Swell 26 recently won a band competition at Cajun House and subsequently played four straight weeks at the Scottsdale bar. With its big guitars and the booming voice of charismatic lead singer Hondo Valdez, the band has some of the classic-rock appeal of early Pearl Jam. Although Valdez remains connected to the Fire Escape scene, the 20-year-old Phoenix native seems captivated by the possibility of secular success.

 

"It seems like the audience response is a little bit more at secular places," says Valdez. "We play at Christian clubs, and I love it a lot, but it feels like you reach more people at secular places."

Churches have grown more willing to house Christian-punk shows, but the atmosphere is often uncomfortable. Many bands feel confined by the setting, and many church leaders worry that things will get out of control.

"A lot of churches won't do shows," Chris Brown says. "We've never played for a Catholic church. Usually it's non-denominational churches, maybe a Lutheran or Methodist church, something along those lines. But with a lot of them, they know that there's mosh pits involved, and it gets kind of rough sometimes. In fact, the roughest shows we've had have been at churches. Kids dislocated their ankles and things like that."

American Made was also onstage the only time in three years that trouble erupted at the Fire Escape. Chris Brown says a bunch of drunken jocks from a nearby school crashed the place and picked fights with the regulars. A series of brawls broke out, which resulted in one kid getting his head cracked open. Management briefly threatened the band with not getting to play the coffee house again.

The American Made fracas might explain the yellow flyer taped to the back of a Peavey monitor onstage at the Fire Escape: "Starting Fights Will Not Be Tolerated."


Mike Wall just got back to town and he's feeling a little funky. He just had two moles removed from the side of his oblong-shaped head, and the resulting scars make him look even more frightening than usual. The bigger scar, a bloody bit of business above his right ear, looks like an untreated bullet wound.

Wall and his wife, Heather, recently spent a month on the road, speaking in churches in Florida, Texas and Georgia. They talked to various congregations about the need to reach out to punk kids who are frequently ignored by the church. They also visited Revolution Atlanta.

Jay Bakker, Wall's old partner, has settled in Atlanta, and started a Revolution church there, reaching out to the tattooed and body-pierced crowd in the bohemian mecca known as Little Five Points. Bakker moved to Atlanta after setting up a Revolution branch in Los Angeles.

Wall met Bakker five years ago. Wall, 27, a native of Albuquerque, New Mexico, had moved to the Valley to attend a Bible school run by Phoenix First Assembly.

"Jay came down, and Revolution was something he'd had a concept of for a while, too, because he was a skater and he was into that scene," Wall says. "He said, 'This is what I wanna do.' He ended up living with my wife and I for a year, and during that time we really established the Revolution."

The church establishment was not pleased. "They thought we were a bunch of freaks and had no idea what we were trying to do," Wall recalls.

It's easy to see why. Though his demeanor is usually sedate and he rarely goes more than a few seconds without speaking of the need for love, Wall has an intensity about him that's scary. You see it whenever he fronts his noisy band Tragic Fate. When he closes his eyes, squeezes the microphone, and wails "Fear the freak in me!", there's no confusing him with Bing Crosby in The Bells of St. Mary's.

What Wall and Bakker were trying to do with the Revolution was create a new kind of outreach effort, one that didn't smack of the kind of corniness that often turns nonbelievers away. They wanted to reach an alienated subculture on its own terms.

"We started recognizing that there were a whole bunch of kids -- skaters, punks, hippies, hard-core kids -- that were in a whole world all their own," Wall says. "They didn't have anybody to go to -- society had rejected them, the church had rejected them, so many people had rejected them. No one was showing any kind of compassion or love to them. The only places for them to go were bars and clubs.

"So we wanted to provide a place that was a drug-free environment, a clean environment where we weren't going to preach Jesus down their throat, but we were going to let them know that we believe in Jesus, we love Jesus and if you want the kind of love we have, you can only find it in Jesus."

 

Wall staged his first Revolution event in 1994 at what had been an old bar in Cave Creek. He gutted out the walls, leaving just a long hallway. Outside, he set up skate props in the parking lot and created a small marketplace where people could sell jewelry and incense. Nearly 400 people showed up.

Even as the Revolution moved from one locale to another -- eventually settling in a Mesa strip mall directly behind a Teriyaki Kitchen -- the church developed a loyal following of nearly 100 people who showed up for every Sunday service. But Wall and his 26-year-old booking agent, Andy Myers, began to worry that the Revolution was turning into something they had never intended: a conventional church, albeit with spiky hair and body piercing.

"It became a church, in the sense that only Christians were coming," says Myers, who works by day as a youth pastor at Phoenix First Nazarene Church. "And as Christians, one of the things we want to do is grow in our faith through discipleship. And because of our minimal staff, we're not able to provide that. So a lot of these people came for years and years with no growth in their lives. So we decided to go back to outreach, to point them to churches."

Wall says the church had come to attract people who were already devoted Christians, but simply chose the Revolution because they felt more comfortable there than at other churches.

"Our whole thing is not about comfort," Wall says. "Our thing is about intensely letting people know that they're loved. Our goal is to help people that can't find comfort in other churches, because there's no church that they know of that will embrace them."

Wall and Myers also noticed that a local Christian-coffee-house scene had emerged since the founding of the Revolution. Between coffee houses, churches and secular clubs, the most popular Christian bands were gigging all the time. The Revolution was becoming nothing more than part of a Christian circuit for these groups. So Wall and Myers decided to concentrate on booking only the most extreme, inaccessible punk bands around, bands that had nowhere else to go, whether they were Christian or secular.

These days, the Revolution no longer includes church services. Before each show, Wall and Myers cover the walls with black curtains to conceal the psalms that are written underneath. Their intent is to attract hard-core kids, and not scare them away with the trappings of religion.

The result can look so much like a conventional hard-core-punk club as to raise the question: Where does Christ figure in the equation? How does the Revolution differ from the defunct Tempe Bowl, the one refuge many of these bands had a year ago?

Myers describes the Revolution's new strategy as "raw, backdoor ministry," where he can earn the trust of kids and minister to them on a one-on-one level after the show, rather than sermonizing to a congregation en masse. In a sense, punk music is a Trojan horse for the Revolution, luring kids inside, where they will be approached with the message of Christianity.

"There are so many people that have messed-up life stories," Myers says. "Alcoholism, drug abuse, overdoses, things like that. And they just start talking to us about their lives, and how they found this scene or that scene that helped them. And we talk to them about Christ."

No subculture is more stratified and fragmented than the hard-core scene. Kids tend to put up walls between themselves and anyone who doesn't share their views, or -- in some cases -- their clothing sense. Wall and Myers say they've seen some tension at Revolution shows, where straight-edge punks and Christian punks often size each other up with a look that says, "You're not part of my scene."

"We try to let them know that we're here for all of them, and not trying to create one particular scene," Wall says. "It's almost like unity through diversity. That sounds really hippie, but it can be incorporated into the hard-core thing, too, because they're so segregated and diverse in so many ways, but they also agree on a lot of things."

Wall, his wife, Heather, and their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Hannah, are on the verge of moving to Pensacola, Florida, where they'll continue speaking at churches, and periodically check in with Bakker in Atlanta.

Wall says he's had few pastors criticize him directly, but he's heard plenty of whispers behind his back. The big complaint is that he's taken on the traits of rebellion in order to relate to rebellion. "Some people thought we were becoming too much like them in order to reach them," he says.

 

Wall himself seems conflicted about the issue. He volunteers that his flirtations with green hair and full-on punk regalia might not have been necessary, but his mea culpa quickly turns defensive.

"Some people think that for some of these kids to come to Jesus they have to clean up, to change their appearance. And that's so stinking bogus. Righteousness and Godliness and salvation are not based on whether you wear a suit or not.

"So one of the things we tried to do by steeping ourselves in the culture is to show that Jesus didn't come to change people's cultures, he came to change people's hearts."

Suddenly, Wall stops himself: "I'm sorry I'm getting so preachy."


Even though it's rooted in gospel music, rock 'n' roll has always had an uneasy relationship with religion. In the mid-'50s, when rock transformed black gospel's ecstatic rhythms into something brazenly sexual, it was enough to send shockwaves through the churches of America. It was also enough to stir a lifetime's worth of guilt and confusion for Bible-belt rock 'n' rollers like Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Elvis Presley.

There was a brief period in the early '70s when openly spiritual songs -- like "My Sweet Lord," "Spirit in the Sky," "Put Your Hand in the Hand," and the soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar -- actually became trendy. But the snotty irreverence that defined rock at its best couldn't help but seem at odds with the piety heard in most churches.

U2 might have reached a massive international audience with a lineup that was three-fourths Christian (bassist Adam Clayton was nearly kicked out of the band in the early '80s for partaking of secular rock-star pleasures), but it was never pegged as a "Christian band." For one thing, the band recorded for Island Records, a respected secular label. For another, even its early, earnest songs like "Gloria" or "40" (inspired by Psalm 40) were cryptic enough to fly under the radar of most suburban rockers.

The first rock group to reach a massive mainstream audience by actually trading on its Christianity was Stryper, the late-'80s, spandex-clad heavy-metal band. The band's avowed religious beliefs brought so much attention to its hopelessly generic music that rock critics quickly started wondering if the band hadn't cooked up this Christianity thing as a gimmick.

At the same time that Stryper was the talk of Christian music, Geoff Brown was in Tulsa, Oklahoma, attending Oral Roberts University. Brown had little use for Stryper. He listened to Undercover, the Altar Boys and the 77's, bands that mixed Christian beliefs with punk's energy and gritty sense of reality.

"Those are the bands that really meant a lot to us, because it was more than just Christian cheerleading," he says. "It was a realistic look at the Christian life. Sometimes there's a dichotomy between what you hear on Christian radio and what you hear on that day."

Brown likes to compare the late-'80s Christian punk renaissance in Southern California to the late-'70s secular punk explosions in London and New York.

He's particularly fond of Christian-punk pioneer Mike Knott, who pushed the envelope by comparing his life to a plague of flies, or singing that he wished he could molest a molester.

"These people, because they had nothing to risk -- they weren't recognized as fantastic bands -- they just said what they wanted. There wasn't a corporate sense to it."

At the same time that Brown was absorbing Christian punk, his faith was shaken by Oral Roberts' infamous declarations that God would call him home if he didn't receive at least $8 million in donations. Brown searched his conscience and knew he couldn't stay at Oral Roberts University.

"At that point in my life, I just said, 'Hey, I've got to find something more substantial in terms of spirituality,'" Brown says.

Brown withdrew from Oral Roberts in 1989, throwing away two years of college in the process. He enrolled at Arizona State University, where he earned a degree in biology.

Geoff's younger brother Ryan followed him to the Valley, first attending Scottsdale Christian Academy, then double-majoring in business and English at ASU.

These days, Geoff, 31, teaches junior-high science at Rancho Solano, a private school in Scottsdale. Ryan, 29, works as a stockbroker for Charles Schwab in Scottsdale.

For them the music business isn't a profit-making proposition, but a chance to sink some of their money into something they love: Christian punk. They formed B-Spot Productions six years ago to fill what they perceived as a void in the Christian concert scene. They got involved with Worthless Records -- a small label begun 10 years ago by local musician Scott Roman -- for similar reasons.

 

As a seminal local figure on the underground Christian scene, Roman endured the wrath of local churches in the '80s when he played his Bauhaus-influenced tunes. He recalls pastors coming up to him after shows and saying, "You guys are evil." Such experiences inspired him to write a song called "Religion Sucks."

Like Roman, Ryan Brown uses Worthless Records as an outlet for his own music. His concept album, The Life and Times of Jesus the Christ, has been widely reviewed by Christian-rock zines.

Maybe because they're the graybeards on the local scene, Geoff and Ryan have a particularly mature, realistic take on Christian punk. They're the first to say that many Christian-punk bands are musically derivative, but they contend that the scene is gradually developing an original sensibility.

That contention is backed up by their new Worthless Records compilation, The Rage: Volume 2.0, which was released two weeks ago to coincide with The Rage. The new compilation represents a vast improvement over last year's Volume 1, showcasing how eclectic the local scene has become: the garage-punk of Free Sample, the Cure-meets-Cars new-wave of Fine China, the ska-punk of Dry Bone Kingdom and the '80s-flavored electro-funk of Pilot.

The album also defies the common misconception that Christian bands only sing about Christ. More commonly, Christian bands sing about their everyday life experiences, but they filter these experiences through the prism of a Christian mindset. "You can sing about chicks, too; a lot of bands sing about chicks," says Jonathan Huston, ex-manager of the Fire Escape.

Even if Christian punk maintains an uneasy truce with the religious establishment, for Geoff Brown punk was what brought him back to the church after "a couple of rough years" in which he wasn't a very strong Christian. After the Oral Roberts debacle, his one link to his faith came from the Christian-punk bands he loved.

"There'd be maybe a couple or three weeks when I wouldn't go to church, because I'd be down on church, but I'd plug in a 77's tape, just because I liked the 77's," he says. "And the message brought me back around."


Whenever Leon Quan talks to his older brother, he feels like he's in a time warp. His brother inevitably talks about events that happened years ago, girls that he knew ages ago, plans that he's been sitting on for nearly a decade.

Quan's brother, Nghia Vo, is confined to a protective-custody unit at the state prison in Winslow. Seven years ago, Vo was convicted of first-degree murder and theft in connection with the May 14, 1991, shooting of 19-year-old Jennifer Montgomery on the Black Canyon Freeway.

Montgomery was six months pregnant at the time.

Quan looks at his brother's life, and realizes he could have easily taken the same path. The product of a first-generation Chinese-American father and a Caucasian mother, Quan grew up with three basic interests: skateboarding, smoking dope and listening to hip-hop.

When Quan's parents split up, he lived for a while with his mom in Tucson, but in his midteens he moved to Phoenix to live with his dad and attend Camelback High School. Quan shared the house with Vo, an Amerasian refugee from Vietnam who had been adopted by Quan's parents. Vo was two years older than Quan, and already flirting with criminal behavior.

Quan kept out of serious trouble, but he was nearly as unfocused as his brother. He recalls grades that were all D's and F's at the end of his freshman year in high school.

Between his freshman and sophomore years, Quan says he was overcome by a "deep-seated sense of hopelessness," which triggered his commitment to Christ.

From that point on, Quan could see he and his brother moving in opposite directions.

"I found a real connection. I had some really good friends that were older, that were able to keep me doing things that were positive -- like going to Christian concerts -- and he just didn't.

"All of his high school years just slipped through his fingers, while I just kept plugging away and doing my thing and getting more involved in church. He got less involved. He'd been kicked out of our house many times and come back. He had an ongoing problem with drugs."

After high school, Quan, like Wall, attended Phoenix First Assembly's Bible-study program. When Quan formed a hip-hop group called RYI with producer Steve Peebles, Wall briefly contributed as an MC.

In 1994, Quan put together an all-day event that brought together local Christian youth groups of various denominations. Only 300 kids showed up. The next year, Quan hooked up with Todd Anderson, a Mesa First Assembly youth pastor who'd just relocated from Chicago. They decided to call the event The Rage. They figured it sounded hipper than "youth rally." Since then, attendance has steadily grown, to a peak of 4,700 last year.

 

Quan says that he and Anderson put much of their own money into the $60,000 event, and when there's a modest profit they sink it back into local youth events. He says that last year he spent about $7,000 of his own money on The Rage, and took out a second mortgage on his house. He was relieved when he only lost $200. He says his investment this year was $10,000. He's still waiting for an exact count on how many $27 tickets were sold before he knows whether or not he broke even.

Anderson and Quan have much in common. They're both youth pastors for Assembly of God churches -- in Quan's case, at Canyon del Oro in Tucson. They're both married to women named Dee. They both have young daughters. And both their wives are pregnant.

There are differences, too. At 5-foot-4-inches tall, Quan is dwarfed by the muscular Anderson. Quan's dark hair and Asian features also set him apart from the blond, classically middle-American Anderson. Their tastes differ as well. Anderson doesn't really relate to punk music.

"I can't stand a guy screaming into a microphone," he says. "I can't understand a word he's saying."

Understandably, Anderson leaves Quan in charge of booking music for The Rage.

Anderson, 31, is a former high-school football player, and he maintains the aura of a jock. He has a raspy voice, close-cropped hair and the effusiveness of a coach or motivational speaker.

He gets past his aversion to punk by approaching it from an athlete's perspective. He looks at Christian punks as people who are operating out of the same play book as he is, but simply choosing to run the plays differently. "But we're still running the same plays," he explains, "so let's not fight about it."

In 1995, Quan very nearly did have to fight over The Rage's musical programming. He went nose-to-nose with an irate pastor from a local Assembly of God church. The pastor stormed around the event, pointing at kids who had formed a conga line and were jumping around with newspaper hats on.

The angry pastor threatened to tell Quan's pastor what had happened at the event.

"Those kids moving around in front of that stage. This is absolutely wrong," he said.

Quan followed the pastor out to the parking lot and tried to explain, but the pastor refused to let him talk. Finally, Quan screamed, "Have you been to any of your church rallies? What happened at your last one? How many kids were there? Maybe 30 or 40?"

Then, Quan pointed to the field and said, "There's 670 kids out there having a great time. And they're doing it in a positive sense."

The pastor stayed for the rest of the night, but he never returned to The Rage.


As you walk into Veterans' Memorial Coliseum for The Rage, you're quickly immersed in pop culture. Vendors sell tee shirts designed to make Christianity look trendy. One psychedelic shirt sports a perfect Austin Powers logo, but on close inspection, it reads: "Awesome Powers: International Man of Miracles." Another shirt approximates the Tommy Hilfiger logo, but it reads, "Tommy Hellfighter." Another uses the GAP logo as an acronym for "God Answers Prayers."

The same pop consciousness is evident at the evening festival, where two huge video screens flank the arena stage. Between bands, a message repeatedly flashes on the screens: "Jump Into the Adventure." To accompany this message, a montage of wild action scenes from Jackie Chan, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger films flashes across the screens. With each snippet, 4,500 kids roar their approval.

Quan refers to Terminator 2 when urging the kids to create a history for themselves. Anderson introduces a pro-Christian video message from Cardinals receiver Frank Sanders, prepared specifically for The Rage.

If The Rage is a high-tech reshaping of pop culture to benefit Christianity, it's also the place where the Christian music scene unites. At the Revolution Stage, musicians praise each other and mosh in each other's pits. Danneal Castillo tosses a beach ball back and forth with Mike Wall's daughter, Hannah. Geoff and Ryan Brown sell Worthless Records products at a booth, while up-and-coming bands like the Straw Theory set up listening centers where their CDs can be sampled with headphones.

After a raucous set from hard-core band Long Suffer, one kid approaches bassist Nick Westby for an autograph, "because you guys are going to be famous."

 

Before Swell 26's 4:45 p.m. set, singer Hondo Valdez tosses M&Ms into the crowd. In an earlier era, for a different crowd, the offering might have been tabs of acid.

After Swell 26, Wall and his Tragic Fate bandmates take the stage. They've already played a 2:50 set, but because the doors didn't open until after 3 p.m., nobody got to see it. So Tragic Fate squeezes a two-song makeup gig into the schedule. As soon as the music kicks in, Wall begins screaming like the crusading Henry Rollins that he is: "This life is meaningless/This life is empty." Heather, his thin, raven-haired wife, wails out dissonant counterpoint.

Between songs, Wall addresses the crowd with doomsday intensity.

"There are no Christian celebrities, there are no Christian rock stars, there are no Christian promoters. The only thing we should be promoting is Jesus Christ."

The moshers cheer.

"Even us, with our clothes and tattoos, if we think that makes us individuals, the only thing that makes us individuals is Jesus Christ."

Todd Anderson is nowhere near the Revolution Stage during Wall's rant, but he probably would have agreed with the sentiment. Much as he dislikes punk music, Anderson's come up with a way of reconciling himself with the Christian-punk scene. It's probably the same thing a lot of pastors are saying to themselves these days.

"We're all going to heaven," Anderson says. "And God will let us know who was right when we get there."


Sponsor Content