"The sky could turn red and we'd be gone," said the 15-year-old girl in the big glasses. She was standing in a shed on top of a hill in Front Royal, Va. She had the peculiar severity that comes not only when children speak of grimness, the very end of days, but when they do it in the soft, winding vowels of a Southern accent.
Her name was Emily Kennedy and she had come from Greenville, S.C., for the 16th anniversary of Fishnet, a Christian rock and evangelism festival run by Larry Andes of the nondenominational People's Church in Manassas. Behind the big glasses, her eyes had the hardness of the eyes of kids when they're right and know it -- they aren't afraid to look you in the eye.
The sky could turn red ...
As it happened, the sky was fulminating with black, a skyful of thunderstorm over the Blue Ridge foothills, a storm that had just heaved tents through the air and left children screaming for their mothers, but praise God, everyone said, we needed the rain, the water table was three feet low, and rain is God's gift anyhow, thank you, Jesus.
Now Kennedy and four friends were standing in the shed, drying off and killing time till the music got going again on the sound stage down the hill. They were talking to someone who was not saved, a fact that had quickly became the focus of the conversation.
"We would be gone, and where would you be?" Kennedy said. "If we started lifting through the ceiling and you were left, what would you do?"
Gone, lifted through the ceiling. This is the rapture, which will be the instantaneous taking into heaven of those who are saved and the leaving behind of those who are not, a separating of the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the chaff, dangerous business, the final days, Judgment Day.
She looked at the ceiling of the shed. Then she looked at the unbeliever. "What would you do?"
"Doesn't it depend on whether you're a pre-tribulation rapturist or a post-tribulation rapturist?" asked the unbeliever.
"You've read Scripture!" said Dave Godzwa, 16, of Erie, Pa. He was wearing a black T-shirt that said "YOUTH QUAKE," with the two words superimposed to form a cross. Earlier that day he'd been kneeling, sobbing and speaking in tongues in the counseling tent, rolling his eyes back and grinning at the bare light bulbs, but now he looked like any other teenage mall-rat in a T-shirt.
"Not really," said the unbeliever. "I picked that up from some other people here."
"I'm pre-trib myself," Godzwa said, meaning he believes that the rapture will come before the seven years of tribulation that accompany the final days, the end times, thus leaving a last chance for unbelievers to become saved before Judgment Day, by some interpretations.
Kids in cutoffs, kids in high-tops, kids in bandannas, tattoos, camouflage and earrings, kids waving their fists in that triumphal right-on dice-shaking wave you see at rock concerts, kids gimbaling their hips and clapping on the offbeat, thousands of kids along with thousands of parents, church groups, brothers and sisters, babies, old folks, blacks and whites, believers, doubters, speakers in tongues, charismatics praying with their palms toward heaven, newcomers to Christ getting baptized in a big inflatable pool with little "no diving" signs on the side, children sitting on carpet remnants inside the children's tent and seeing whether it's the boys or the girls who can sing loudest, hills covered with campers and tents, even a Fishnet Mall, so-called, with stores selling books, tapes, groceries, T-shirts, jewelry, a scene that descends on one side from the old-time camp meetings and on the other from Woodstock.
And all of it a world that is ignored, largely, by the governing class in this country -- ignored until it appears to be capable of tipping some political balance, in which case it is much scrutinized by the media: Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority in the 1970s, the creationists at the Scopes trial in the '20s, the temperance Protestants with Prohibition before that. At those times, there is much talk of rednecks, Bible-thumpers, backwoods snake-handling populists and so on, until times change again. They have been here at least since Jonathan Edwards warned sinners of the hands of an angry God in the Connecticut Valley of the mid-1700s, and it is likely that in America, which is more religious by standards of belief in God and churchgoing than other Western nations, they will be around to startle the media and the governing class a few more times.
"So many times news reporters twist things around," said Georgianna Crist, 15, of Greenwood, S.C. "They say it's just another religion."
It's not a religion?
"It's not a religion, it's a personal relationship with God through Jesus," she said in the saddened voice of someone who has been disappointed over and over by the media -- people here just stare at the ground and sigh when they talk about coverage of the antiabortion march in Washington last spring.
Not a religion?
"Religion," said Jim Hosenfeld, 16, "is going to church because you have to."
"You're either all there or not there, you're either radically saved or you're not," said Godzwa.
Ghosts of 1930s which-side-are-you-on communism, of the 1960s, when you were either part of the problem or part of the solution! Indeed, here are all these people -- organizer Andes was predicting 20,000 before the rain started -- wallowing in the secular sex-drug-and-mud-crazed tradition of Woodstock.
"As Christians, our hearts are different now," said Hosenfeld. "I have no non-Christian friends."
"You have no non-Christian friends?" said Crist.
"My old friends, they don't want to hang out with me."
Shame and vindication, embarrassment and exultation, tribulation and rapture. In some of its basics, the world of Fishnet is not that different from other worlds in America. There is pain and healing, doubt and hope, and there is rock-and-roll music amplified to the sort of tower-of-amplifiers level that drowns out thunderstorms and physically hits you until you feel like you're on the losing end of a nonstop pillow fight. Christian contemporary music has prospered in the past five years. It is no longer a matter of quartets working their way through "How Great Thou Art" while the congregation sits there and watches the bass's Adam's apple go up and down.
There are idols such as Carman, who has a sort of neo-Bobby Darin lounge act smoothness. BeBe and CeCe Winans have Whitney Houston sitting in on recording sessions, Whitecross takes heavy metal rock and turns it into what T-shirts at Fishnet called "Heavenly Metal," and Mylon and Broken Heart come out with clouds of smoke, fireworks, windmill guitar playing and Mylon himself in a week's growth of beard, a ponytail and an earring.
But no smoking, drinking, muddy love-wallowing. No small-faced kids sitting on the ground saying, "I'm so screwed up." No sharp-faced pair of girls in concha belts trying to figure out how to split a gram of cocaine and one backstage pass. No trash! A whole day into the festival, which continues through tonight, when the guest speaker is Lt. Col. Oliver North, and the Hillside Cathedral, as the slope in front of the stage is called, is bare of all but the occasional soda-straw wrapper.
There were boys with insignia buzzed into the hair on the sides of their heads, but the insignia were Christian fish, sometimes with the word "net" written on them. There was a camouflage hat with pins on it -- a gold cross and a fishhook.
"We came here to jam for the lamb," said Toby McKeehan, lead rapper for the Christian rap group DC Talk, all of them striding around the stage in that odd elbows-out rappers' strut.
There was a sound reminiscent of the Miller Lite cheer in stadiums.
"Love God," one half of the crowd would yell.
"Hate sin," the other half yelled.
There was the noise of the Crest 8001 amps with the 40-input Scorpion monitor console with the cabinets loaded with EVX drivers, and in the middle of it, the parents of the kids sat doing needlepoint and reading their New International Version Bibles (referred to simply as "NIVs").
There were shirts emblazoned with skulls, flames, iron crosses, musclemen, surfboards and all the other fetishes of mall-rat-dom, but they were Christian shirts: "Megalife Through Prayer"; "Sea of Galilee Beach Club"; "Son Lover"; "Ski & Surf Mt. Ararat Beach"; "God's Gym -- Receiving Power From on High, Acts 4.8"; "I Am Not ASHAMED of the GOSPEL of Jesus CHRIST."
Ashamed? Why should anyone be ashamed? Who looks hipper nowadays? What is there left to do to prove the exquisiteness of one's pop sensibility?
"Backward," said Jill Sellers, who came here from El Dorado, Ark., with her children and her husband, Charles, a boiler farmer at the Lion Oil Refinery.
She had been asked what the media think of the sort of people who come to Fishnet, or Atlantafest or Creation, or any of the other Christian festivals around the country. "Behind the times, maybe religious fanatics."
She sat in a folding chair by the light tower, listening to a harpist named Greg Buchanan, who just then was saying, "No cesspool is too deep that the blood of Jesus can't wash it away."
Sellers wore cutoff jeans, white sneakers and a red T-shirt. Back home, she organizes antiabortion activities, she trusts only U.S. News & World Report in the mainstream media, and she writes letters to politicians and the Supreme Court.
"The news media can and do manipulate people's ideas with just a few words here and there, a little angle on the camera," she said. "Molly Yard and the National Organization of Women and all that, they get all the attention. When we had the pro-life march in Washington, they ignored us."
She had the quickness of the very smart, though she got only C's in high school, and she knew exactly what the educated elite think of her. She knew what goes in what pigeonhole.
She said: "I do not like disarmament at all. You should read a book called 'The Selling of Gorbachev.' I'm a home- schooler too. I teach my 9-year-old. I will not allow my kids to learn to read with sight-see-say, I want phonics. I don't want her programmed with situation ethics."
The media have been telling her she's wrong for all these years, backward and so on. She can stand up to it. There seemed to be others at Fishnet for whom it is harder.
There was an old man praying to heal his wife of cancer, and he wore a hat that read "I'm Proud to Be an Italian for Jesus."
"I'm not ashamed of Jesus," said a Christian comedian named Ken Gaub. "I pray over my food in restaurants."
"The world thinks I'm crazy," sang Carman, "but I'm just radically saved!"
Radical: the crowd liked that word.
A T-shirt: "Forget Peer Pressure, Is God Pleased With Your Lifestyle?"
"Kids aren't ashamed anymore," said DC Talk's McKeehan when he finished performing. "When I was 11 or 12, I would have had a problem wearing a shirt that said 'God Is Awesome.' "
Meanwhile, over in the counseling tent, where most of the performers went after they played to pray and talk -- or "fellowship" -- Michael Tait of DC Talk exhorted a crowd of kids. "It's Satan's trick to make you think you're going to be embarrassed. Was Jesus embarrassed to be hung up there on the cross?"
And Kevin Smith, another member of the group, led the tent in prayer: "We pray to stand up and not worry we won't be accepted or be as cool as the next guy."
The pain of youth, the pain of life. There were doubters whispering their fears to ministers. There were prayers to heal that sickness of the soul called racism, prayers to lift prejudice and make us all one in Jesus. There were amputees and recovering drug addicts. There were kids from bad homes and no homes.
"When Jesus is present, there is no such thing as a broken home," said a preacher named Tony Martorana, although a word like "preacher" was just as unpopular as "religion."
Josh McDowell, who runs the Why Wait teen chastity campaign out of Dallas, said, "I don't preach, I communicate."
McDowell filled his communications on sexuality with all the statistics and study citations of the secular humanist intellectuals. He could heap scorn on their institutions and talk statistics at the same time.
"At Stanford University," he shouted to the crowd, "one-third of the women have been raped and one-tenth of the men have been raped. Fifty-two percent of the women at Harvard have had sex forced on them!"
And he had learned the trick of frankness from Dr. Ruth Westheimer, possibly, or Geraldo or Donahue (three names that kept coming up as symbols of untruth), when he launched into a discussion of oral sex that might have gotten him stoned to death at a evangelical gathering only a few years ago. He concluded with the statement that a study had shown that gonorrhea now infected more students than four or five childhood diseases combined, and a lot of that "is gonorrhea of the throat!"
Statistics, New Age frankness and the old-time religion, coming together.
Of course, the Christian tradition has always been a raw one, particularly in America, where the passions of the New Light evangelicals who came over with the Scots-Irish lighted up the frontier with the old British tradition of field meetings. There were the swoonings of the Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries -- awakenings that some religious historians thought were being repeated in the 1960s with the instant godhead seizures of LSD, the transports of Woodstock and radicalism, the unanalyzed immediacy of it all. Americans tend toward that sort of thing.
"You have to know Him intimately and personally," said Rev. Fuchsia Pickett, who did not give her age, but said she'd been ordained as a Methodist minister in 1947. After her talk, she went down to the counseling tent and was followed by a crowd of charismatics -- you could tell by the way they prayed with their hands in the air, stood in that grim glow of a tent in the daytime and gathered around her asking for sickness to be healed, the demons of doubt to be cast out, hallelujah, amen, thank you, Jesus.
"Out of their mouths will run a river of living water!" she said.
Yes, Lord, thank you, Jesus.
"If you want it, he's gonna do it."
Thank you, Lord, thankyouthankyou... .
Hands in the air, trembling! Praise God! ThankyouJesusthankyouJesus ... Faces knotted into the terrible mingling of grin and panic that is sobbing. Eyes rolled back, and then you could hear it, the speaking in tongues, a gift of the spirit, the blazon of Pentecost shundershundertalakamatathankyouJesusaratatathankyouLordkyahashamana ...
There were faces hollowed into the the sort of bony agony and final joy you might only have seen in combat or on people being led out of burning buildings ... the miraculous grotesquerie of ecstasy, way beyond the sort of crying that embarrasses you at a party, to a sort of raw nakedness. It made everyone in the tent look huge for a moment, the way you remember the rich, the powerful and the famous as being huge...
And then it subsided like a curtain when you finally shut the window on a windy day.
People leaned against each other in long, long hugs. Praise God. Fuchsia Pickett went off to eat lunch in the trailer backstage. In the big rubber doughnut of the baptism pool, some people were fully immersed, fully dressed, by an ordained minister. Up at the row of tents called Fishnet Mall, kids watched Carman videos and shopped for T-shirts.
Not a religion. Personal relationship with God. When the sky turns red. Love God. Hate sin.
And booming out of the speakers, a sound check: Testing. One. Two. Testing.