Friday, May 23, 2014

Watching Jesus People USA Through A Telescope: Then & Now

When I was 16 I wanted to join the Jesus People.

The year was 1981. I chose to get baptized, and was doing my best to read and believe the Bible the way my bearded and bonneted forbears had — which was completely at odds with everything that seemed to be happening south of 49. Ronald Reagan was in the White House, and the only book of the Bible he seemed to place any faith in was the Revelation of St. John the Divine. Christians were apparently on-board, professing themselves pro-nukes and anti-abortion, and pro-Free Market in a big, big way.

Life sucked.

To make matters worse, I was listening to Christian Rock, which also sucked. I liked my music HARD, dammit: AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, RUSH. I mentioned this to my youth pastor. He said, “Have you heard Resurrection Band?” No, but the name alone did not bode well. “Give them a try anyway. They're pretty hard.”

I took a bus downtown to the Canadian Bible Society, then trudged upstairs to their second floor, where they had a small room devoted to Christian records. Sure enough, behind a divider labelled “REZ Band” were two albums — Rainbow's End, and Awaiting Your Reply. The second was larger, with a gate-fold, and looked just a tad more promising. I bought it and took the next bus home.

It rocked.

And not just the music, either. Even the lyrics were bracing: when frontman Glenn Kaiser sang,

“Tell me why did you come 
and why were you born 
where the dogs eat dogs 
and the pigs get all the corn?”

and put a little spit behind his emphasis on pigs, it gave me the shivers.

And the album art was first-rate — edgy and counter-cultural, but polished, and not at all amateur. There was a mini-sermon in the corner, addressing the sort of social ills suburban churches were keen to ignore. All in all, a package that spoke directly to the alienation and disaffection I felt as a pious young Menno.

Tripping the gate-fold fantastic.
The credits said the band were members of Jesus People USA, and were living in community in the mean streets of Chicago. At the time, JPUSA was publishing their own magazine, Cornerstone, which pulled together many of the same strains: hippie-ish left-of-centre political critique, a heightened social conscience, and heaps of on-the-street sass and verve, particularly in its graphics and lay-out. And these cats were serious about their journalistic exposes, often bringing to light some supremely unsavoury activities from deep within the shiny bastions of the Evangelical elite. I subscribed to the magazine for over a decade, long after I'd lost interest in the music.
Up from the basement.
Flash-forward nearly 35 years later, and stories have come out alleging that JPUSA's Chicago commune was pretty much a fallow field for sexual predation. And I'm depressed by two things: the horrific accounts, of course, but also the fact that I don't find any of this the least bit surprising.

JPUSA is locked in legal wranglings with at least one of the alleged victims. I haven't any thoughts about that, one way or the other. These things get very complicated very quickly, and very ugly right from the git-go. The only reason I mention any of this, is this week JPUSA's legal team issued a “Cease-and-desist” letter to the film-maker who brought this story to light.

Now, granted, I'm still working on my PhD in Stoopid. But I'll go out on a limb, here, and declare that nothing good is gained — ever — when a religious institution issues a “Cease and desist” order.

JPUSA should know that better than anyone.

The eyes of the world are watching.

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