How to Pitch a Tent
I used to have this friend Chris. Chris and I went to church camp together and he never came back.
I’ve been doing some serious excavating in my 1:1 therapy over the last few months. One of the things we’ve revisited a lot has been my experience as a young man in my local hardcore scene. It’s been a part of a broader theme wherein I‘m letting loose of the normative voices in my head, some of which are projections from my own self-loathing, some of which are actual, real things people have said to me, and some of which are probably just revisions of my own history, altered for the consistency of The Narrative, as history so often is.
Sometimes I will sit and watch live sets of bands I like on YouTube and I will be inexplicably overcome with emotion; I’ll even feel tears well up in my eyes. This is certainly not because of the content, which is usually a display of chaos, aggression, and violence. I’ve never really been able to articulate the cause of this overcoming, and trying to explain it to anyone has always been impossible. People from outside the world of hardcore tend to fixate either on the violence and make a joke about having good insurance, or poke fun at the absurdity of “moshing” or dancing. It’s fair—without context, it’s inscrutable; a signifier with no signified. To be moved to tears by such a scene is beyond language.
Recently I had a conversation about the experience of having a friend go to church camp and then returning as 100% a different person. I’ll share my own story on the subject.
I had a friend in high school that we’ll call Chris (because that is in fact his name). Chris and I spent a ton of time together, he was a year older than me and played guitar in the youth praise band that I’d been drumming in. When we weren’t getting nerdy about the new Jars of Clay record or checking out the latest fare at Abercrombie, we were getting into the usual type of 9th and 10th grade boy trouble. Pulling pranks, making PG-13 jokes, and spending a lot of time chasing and thinking about girls.
Chris drove a Camaro and I have this very clear memory of us leaving school on a hot, early fall day with plans to go swimming at my house. Chris was goofing off, driving too fast, and when it came time for us to make a left turn, he couldn’t slow down in time. He aborted the turn and continued straight on, albeit, now, on the wrong side of the median. We had no escape for about a block, until he finally completed that aborted left turn into the neighborhood. For the entirety of that block, both of us were screaming, cashing in on adrenaline to pay the check our lungs couldn’t (regardless of the fact that we did not see another vehicle for one iota of those interminable five seconds).
This is the kind of shit I got up to with Chris, right up to the Friday before we left for a weekend-long discipleship camp. The weekend went off as every other one that I’d been to in my 14 or so years at the church I grew up in. I’d been spending weeks and weekends at Jesus-oriented camps since the summer after 3rd grade, and they were all about the same things for me: surviving the week on camp food, spending my parents money on candy, and, starting in about the 5th grade, girls. This particular weekend was so unremarkable to me, nearly no memory of it still pays rent in my head. There are some hazy details of unloading bags in the dark Friday night, and maybe one of sitting next to Chris in a folding chair during a small group meeting. If nothing else, I was probably incensed that the band wasn’t playing. The youth pastor brought only his guitar and eschewed the rest of the band, leaving me with a low-grade irk that I couldn’t play my drums all weekend.
We drove home Sunday, I think it’s even possible that it was Sunday afternoon, meaning that I did not have to attend the stuffy Sunday morning service as I typically would have. I can remember walking out of the church, Chris at my side, and asking him if we ought to get lunch. I don’t remember exactly his response, but it was something to the tune of ‘no, I need to go home and pray and read my bible’.
The crazy thing is, I never really hung out with Chris after that Sunday despite it being years before I left the church and ultimately lost my faith. Chris and I instantaneously shifted from a close friendship to a para-social relationship because the Chris I went to camp with never really came home. Chris had had a religious experience, he had felt God’s presence and was changed forever. As far as I know, after graduating high school, Chris went to seminary and works as a music pastor.
I tend to use the term “Lifer” for people like Chris, people who stay after everyone else has left. It’s funny, I use “Lifer” both as a term of endearment or as a pejorative judgement depending on the context. For Chris, it’s a judgement, but for myself as a hardcore kid, I wear it like a tattoo on my chest. I could never relate to Chris’ experience, just the same as those friends who are no longer around today but stood next to me at hardcore shows 20 years ago cannot relate to mine.
Perhaps the reason why these experiences are so difficult to articulate is because they are intentionally inscrutable; like Moses who couldn’t look Adonai in the face1, or Paul who said we couldn’t ever truly grasp God’s glory, that we could only see it “through a glass, darkly2”. We can’t know the face of God, only that we’re in his presence. Concrete language carves out a window, but we can only grapple with metaphor—the light spilling out from underneath a doorway.
The truth is, no matter how I try and metaphorize it, Chris’ experience and mine are the self-same. The reason watching a particularly chaotic set—even when displaced by the abstraction of a screen—can move me to tears is because it is literally scratching my soul. I lost God at church, but I found him in hardcore.
As I return to this formative part of myself, I’m trying to experience it without the bindings of normativity. Who is the me that lives fully in his real self and loves what he loves and how he loves it? How does he pitch his tent? Here’s what I think the answer is: the poles with which we ought to pitch our tent are these little religious experiences we have throughout our lives. Maybe our souls are pre-exposed to particular things, waiting to be touched, or maybe it’s entirely incidental; either way, at least I now know, God is but one stage dive away.
But He said, “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live.” And the Lord said, “Here is a place by Me, and you shall stand on the rock. So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by. Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen.”
Exodus 33:20-23 (NKJV)
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
1 Corinthians 13:11-12 (NKJV)