Rejecting the Sexual Revolution: In the Praise Pit with the Young Christians
By Jeff Sparrow
In Jeff Sparrow’s new book, Money Shot, he explores the relationship between porn and censorship, and what it reveals about our social values. Along the way, he journeys from the censor’s office in Canberra to a porn cinema in Melbourne, interviews opinion-makers like Clive Hamilton and Melinda Tankard Reist, and visits gatherings as diverse as Sexpo and Planetshakers, the religious meet that attracts ‘hip, young’ Christians to ‘make noise for Jesus’ in the ‘praise pit’.
In this edited extract, Jeff joins the young Christians at HiSense Arena for the Planetshakers annual conference.
In the United States, the new chastity movement was huge and spectacular and largely evangelical, manifesting itself in dramatic events such as purity balls (in which daughters pledged to their fathers to save their virginity until marriage). The young Americans who wore abstinence rings indicated, through their public commitment to chastity, an opposition to the notions of sexuality promulgated by the media giants. But it was a conservative critique of the market, not a radical one.
In Australia, the scale was different, the movement less visible. Nonetheless, in discussions of contemporary sexuality, a second narrative bubbled up from time to time alongside the more common reports of hook-up culture and rainbow parties and the rest of it. In this other storyline, young people were rejecting rather than embracing the sexual revolution – turning their back on the whole caboodle. They were not scandalising their parents with schoolyard blowjobs; instead, they shocked Mum and Dad by embracing evangelical Christianity in an almost wilful refusal of secular norms. ‘Teenagers often lie to their parents when they are going out for the night,’ began an Age article by journalist Michael Lallo, ‘but some Melbourne teens are now telling their parents they are off to parties when they are going to church.’
For the last few years, the Pentecostal megachurches – most famously Hillsong – had been attracting huge crowds to their exuberant services, and these new worshippers were overwhelmingly young. In Melbourne, the local equivalent was the Planetshakers. While perhaps not as well known as Hillsong, the group could boast of their association with Guy Sebastian, the first winner of Australian Idol and, for a time, Australia’s most famous musical virgin. Sebastian had honed his melodic chops playing in the Planetshakers band. He – and the Idol phenomenon more generally – had brought the religious-inspired rejection of sexualisation to prime-time audiences, demonstrating that a remarkable proportion of Australia’s would-be pop stars had disengaged sex and drugs from rock’n’roll, and were enthusiastically saving their virtue for their wedding night. In 2006, with the show at its peak, a third of the Australian Idol finalists were evangelicals of one stripe or another: Christian, hip, and ostentatiously chaste.
So, before going to my second Sexpo, I’d decided to attend the Planetshakers annual conference – to see what a popular movement against sexualisation might look like.
I had caught public transport to Melbourne’s Hisense Arena, the conference venue. When my tram arrived there, almost everyone on the compartment disembarked – a carriage-load of under-18s, most of them clutching event programs and labelled bags and other Planetshakers paraphernalia. We trooped together across to the arena, and I could not help a certain self-consciousness about being about 25 years older than everyone else. Not my generation; not my values.
The older I became, the more I had to consciously resist nostalgia about the political climate back when I was young, especially since it wasn’t actually very good. Nonetheless, in those days overt religiosity had seemed as scarce as overt patriotism. Yes, there were Christians at school, but their enthusiasm for scripture was seen as vaguely shameful, like a disfiguring disease. These kids were different. They weren’t spotty misfits, but eminently ordinary, eminently confident: laughing and sending texts, as hyped about going to a religious meet as if they were attending a music festival. I latched on to a boy with a multicoloured emo haircut, who’d been lagging a bit behind his friends and thus seemed more vulnerable to my approach. ‘Off to the conference, then!’ I said, and, to my horror, heard that falsely hearty voice that adults use when ingratiating themselves with the young.
He looked at me, understandably dubious. ‘Yes.’
‘Have you been before? What’s it like?’
‘Awesome,’ he said, his face suddenly shining. ‘It’s awesome.’
‘Are other kids from school coming? What do they think about it?’
He curled his lip, and in the gesture I could see him mentally assigning me to the category of ‘old people who understand nothing’. ‘That’s who I’m with,’ he said, and he slipped back to join them. We arrived at the arena, one rivulet joining the human stream flowing into the foyer, where banners advertised Planetshaker books and T-shirts and CDs and courses. I could see through the door that the three-tiered arena was already nearly full, so I hurried to secure a place. I sat myself as far down the back as possible, like a delinquent in a theological college. Yet the people kept coming, until even these seats, about as distant from the stage as one could get, filled with teenagers – all seeming somewhat surprised to find a man there by himself, but too well mannered to comment. By my estimate, the arena held perhaps 10,000 seats, and soon all of them were taken.
I knew that lots of young people went to church these days. But to see them assembled like that, to feel their excitement about Christian worship, was something else. If I’d been surprised by the numbers at Sexpo, I was astounded by the numbers the Planetshakers drew.
On every wall, enormous video screens were looping clips. There was a long sequence in which a funky boy and girl from the Planetshakers band welcomed us before plugging the new Planetshakers recordings and the Certificate IV courses at Planetshakers College and an endless catalogue of Planetshakers products and services. ‘Why don’t you make your way to the resource stand in the foyer?’ they suggested perkily. The ads felt to me like shameless hucksterism, a pair of youthful moneylenders touting from the very heart of the temple. But no-one else was discomforted – perhaps partly because the clips were, like everything else there, inordinately slick. These weren’t the cheesy infomercials with which some evangelicals flooded late-night television, but high-tech productions that might have slotted effortlessly into the programming on a music channel. And then smoke began to billow from the stage and out over the stalls. The lights went down. There was a huge explosion, loud enough to hurt the ears, before the stage lit up with strobe lights and the music started with a squeal of feedback.
For the first ten minutes – the length of the opening number – I was, frankly, astonished. Because I’d always understood Christian enthusiasm for chastity as a conservative reaction to the sexual revolution, I’d expected the Planetshakers to manifest the same suspicion of secular culture that you found in traditional churches, where the musical accompaniment came from some bearded guitar- strummer singing ‘Kumbaya’ because rock’n’roll – like Hollywood, television, gay marriage, and pop culture in general – belonged to the devil. I hadn’t anticipated a 15-piece band putting out a wall of sound physical enough that the bass punched you in the guts. Guy Sebastian’s transition from the Planetshakers band to a pop career suddenly made perfect sense: the four guitarists knew their windmilling rock moves; the six singers up front possessed soaring R&B voices. The mix, the lighting, the effects: it was all done with remarkable aplomb.
Everyone – well, everyone except me – had jumped to their feet to scream, while near the stage, I could see that the mosh pit (or, rather, in Planetshakers parlance, the ‘praise pit’) was heaving uncontrollably.
‘Make some noise for Jesus!’ demanded one of the singers. Noise for Jesus was duly made. But after that initial song, the band transitioned into a soaring power ballad, and my surprise slowly dissolved into a more customary cynicism. Yes, you could see Guy Sebastian’s musical origins in the performance taking place. Yet if you were someone who actually liked music, that wasn’t a good thing, for it meant the Planetshakers produced a similarly saccharine, cloyingly commercial sound, all major chords and cheesy choruses and 15-octave vocal acrobatics, with thick dobs of Christianity slathered over the top. The songs were simultaneously too religious and not religious enough: on the one hand, lacking the husk of genuine gospel; on the other, freighting the banality of top-40 pop with repeated invocations of Jesus, in an awkward mash-up of the sacred and the profane.
I looked up to the screens, which had switched from the commercials to displaying lyrics so that we could sing along, karaoke-style. And, no, I hadn’t misheard – we were really supposed to join a lusty chorus of ‘Let Your power come inside me now.’ I bit my tongue, conscious that sniggering like a schoolboy was singularly inappropriate, especially since the people next to me – and, yes, throughout the arena – had launched into a strange dance, throwing their heads back and stretching their arms skyward, and making little twinkling motions with their fingers in the general direction of God.
I knew I shouldn’t laugh. If this stuff worked for them — if they found the corn spiritually uplifting, and didn’t see anything incongruous in these peculiar eroticisations of Jesus – well, good luck to them. They, no doubt, had cleaner minds than I. Most likely, they hadn’t just been researching XVideos.