Punks in prayer

Midway smells of hot sweetness and warm ketchup mingling with wafts of body odor. Over here, sounds of spindling, indie rock bleed into thumps of grindcore, while passing folk search for a rhythm that suits their wandering minds. Over there, it's Indian-style circle time in soothing acoustic reflection, backing up against a pogo of pop-punk power.

In many ways, it's nothing that you haven't seen, heard, or smelled at the Central Florida Fairgrounds before. Only, look a little closer, and you might just see the light.

This weekend heralds the arrival of Cornerstone Florida, a two-day celebration of music, love, art and peace -- but with a religious twist. It's not your parents' Woodstock or your awkward sister's Amy Grant revival, but something far more engaging, varied -- even relevant -- and much less embarrassing.

Already a 20-year tradition in its native Bushnell, Ill., Cornerstone is a well-oiled machine, comprising a collective of musicians and organizers that has organically gelled. Loyalty prevails, both to a higher cause and to the down-to-earth group of people who have successfully -- even subversively -- seen their dream grow into an annual 20,000-plus draw, one of the best-attended music events in the country.

Cornerstone was born out of frustration, actually. In 1984, some members of the hippie movement Jesus People USA -- "People who had tried the drugs thing and tried the sex thing and kind of came up empty," says Cornerstone's John Thompson -- were touring with their own Christian rock band, Resurrection. Seeing that at most religious festivals, the bands were usually afterthoughts, the band members decided to pool their own international following into something younger and more representative of their ilk.

"Most Christian festivals were a lot more slick and adult-contemporary based," says Thompson, the current Cornerstone marketing representative and longtime fan (he attended the very first show in '84 when he was 14). "So after a number of years of doing things, some of the members said, 'Boy, wouldn't it be cool if we could have our kind of festival for our kind of guys.'"

Now, after 20 years of success, the movement is reaching out, with both Orlando and North Carolina hosting satellite festivals this year. But it's more of a natural growth than an entrepreneurial expansion; nearly all of the bands involved have been involved with Cornerstone previously. The grass roots are merely growing.

But what of religion? For a sect mired by Falwell's brimstone and Tammy Faye's tears, Cornerstone's brand of Christianity comes off as something far more reasonable and sincere. It's a fact the festival folk are well aware of, accessing the more creative, more tolerant side of piety that kids can better relate to.

"This is not some slick marketing machine that's trying to capitalize on a trend," Thompson says. "All the folks behind the main festival have felt like there's so many people around the country that -- and how do I put this nicely -- there are Christians that don't give Christianity the best rap. One of my favorite quotes is [from] T-Bone Burnett, who back in the '80s said, 'I have to believe Christianity is true because it's survived 2000 years of Christians.'"

Cornerstone will host a clutch of incredibly popular (or incredibly hip) acts like Norma Jean, Pedro the Lion, Switchfoot, Ester Drang, The Violet Burning, Blindside, Further Seems Forever and Starflyer 59 (as well as up-and-coming regional players The Kick and The Young and the Useless) on a 50-plus band bill that -- devoid of any proselytizing -- would be an exceptional musical event.

But the music -- excellent as it may be -- doesn't diminish Cornerstone's religious mission. In fact, coupled with the four-stage musical showcase is a strong sense of education, reflected in seminars regarding sex, relationships, society and, yes, Jesus. Worship is encouraged, but not required.

"An event like Cornerstone is so intense that it's never gonna be too terribly 'mainstream.' It takes a certain kind of person, who's just really into roughing it, going out there and digging into this experience, teaching that's sometimes really controversial, the food, sleeping under the stars," says Thompson. "You know, that's not a shopping-mall experience. There are a lot of Christians, and there's a whole industry of shopping-mall music, events and products, and that's fine for the people that live in that reality. Cornerstone is for those of us who have never really felt like mall dwellers."

Like Tulsa's Ester Drang, an acclaimed Jade Tree outfit who sound more like The Flaming Lips than Michael W. Smith. Drummer James Mcalister maintains that Cornerstone is a worthwhile anomaly for the band.

"We're all Christian people, but I think those festivals are the only Christian things that we'll be playing," Mcalister says. "On the whole, it's not really our scene, just from a musical or even an industry standpoint. [But] it's just kind of a nice sense of community."

Even less likely in that community is Norma Jean, whose relentless grind belies any notion of spiritual serenity. Songs like "I Used to Hate Cell Phones, Now I Hate Car Accidents," are pretty far from the campfire hymns of church camp. Doesn't matter, though. There's ministry in there.

"That's definitely the reason that we're there, to hopefully be able to encourage kids with our music," says drummer Daniel Davison. "We tour mostly with non-Christian bands. We just feel more called to go out with non-Christian bands and get to be friends with them and encourage them, and the fans, but not in a preachy way."

If you doubt the authenticity, perhaps you should bear witness. "A lot of times people end up getting hurt," says Davison of the intensity of the band's gigs.

But rather than trying to glue a hip tag onto something sacred just to sell it to the kids -- a Christian Ozzfest, if you will -- Thompson and company are more intent on shining their own light in a progressive direction.

"When you go to Ozzfest, do they make you sign a card that says you worship the devil?" jokes Thompson. "I think sometimes Christians operate out of a position of fear and insecurity when they slap bumper stickers all over their work. They want to kind of almost keep the heathens away, and with Cornerstone, we want people to say, 'Hey, this is a cool event.'

"Even if a kid comes to the event, witnesses all of this amazing stuff and comes away and maybe doesn't become a Christian, but maybe their impression about what it means to be a Christian has been altered. All of a sudden it's not all about what you can't do, how you dress or what political party you agree with. Maybe we can start to shift this massive misconception a little bit closer to the truth."