What are the best festivals in Pennsylvania

My week at the biggest Christian festival in the USA

Photos: Jaime Chew / From the Music Issue 2016

"You're going to love the Sheetz, Eric," Pastor Steve Price tells me as we leave the church parking lot in Pennsylvania one early June morning. Behind us are the members of a Christian youth group. "It's not a gas station," he says . “It's a gastronomic experience.” Price is right. Two hours later the plump woman behind the counter serves me “Mac 'n' Cheese Bites,” fried macaroni and cheese balls. I've never heard of this somewhat questionable food, but it's delicious. You probably die young from that stuff, but happy for it.

The organizers are distributing free Bibles to visitors in the prayer tent of the Creation Music Festival.

One of the young people in the group asks me what I think of the crispy delicacies. "Pretty good," I say. Then another boy named Caleb asks me a much more difficult question. "Why did you quit church?" I think for a moment and then tell him the truth. "I dont know. I just started to think a little more about everything. "He looks at me, nods, and goes to the bathroom while I wonder if I said the wrong thing. I planted a thought in Caleb's head that was for him Will cause trouble for the rest of his life or lead him off the path? Does my statement interest him at all? But I didn't lie. I just started brooding about why God doesn't respect homosexuals, or why God doesn't like sex, or why God even allows it, that someone has to go to hell.

I eat mac 'n cheese balls and think about my beliefs because I'm on my way to a Christian rock festival in rural Pennsylvania. I have a few questions that I want to investigate. As a music journalist, I've noticed that many artists are now speaking more openly about their beliefs (rappers like Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and Chance the Rapper, whose award-winning album released this year is basically hip-hop gospel). I wonder if that means that Christian music doesn't have to be bad anymore. I also want to know what it is like when tens of thousands of Christians gather in the name of rock 'n' roll — a genre riddled with drug use, sex, and rebellion. Do people smoke weed there? The hardest question, however, is about my own apostasy. In fact, the other questions are just excuses to answer the last one.

The Creation Music Festival is similar to its secular counterparts in many ways. Tens of thousands of fans see big acts on the main stage and indie bands on the side stage.

In my childhood and youth I went to church camp every summer. The trip to the Creation Music Festival reminds me a lot. We traveled to various colleges in Iowa, mostly in July when the heat in the state was unbearable. Our main concern was whether there would be air conditioning. If there weren't any, it was more difficult to believe in God (but we still succeeded).

My belief was simple, but it's hard to describe. At that time I would have said, “I have no religion, I have a relationship.” Pastor Price says similar things today. He believes, as I once did, that Jesus Christ took the sins of the world on his shoulders at the crucifixion. It says if if you want to go to heaven and hang out with God forever, all you have to do is "open your heart" to him and he will save you from eternal damnation.

Unlike most children, I loved the Church. I found community there — friends became family, family became friends. From elementary school on, I was part of the Grace Christian Fellowship, a non-denominational church with about 150 members. Soon I was a member of the youth group, playing guitar at mass, praying, and taking on a leadership role. I did my best to be like Jesus.

High school was nearing its end and I had to pick a college. I felt called by God to go to Christian Oral Roberts University and become a youth pastor. Today it feels strange typing this sentence. What does it mean to feel "called by God"? In all honesty, I don't know. It just felt right, so I did it.

Then I had what Christians call a "crisis of faith". You could also say "growing up" about it. The first doubts were already there, and when I got to university - the ORU had dealt with corruption scandals in the past - everything fell apart. I saw all the money that flows in Christianity. I saw stubborn ignorance of the facts of the world. I saw charity used as a manipulation to recruit a new generation. I started to see myself as one of those manipulated sheep.

After my first year of college, I packed my things and never returned.

On the last day of the festival, Creation organizers baptize visitors who want to express their faith in this way.

For nearly a week each year, the greatest Christian music acts gather at the 115-acre Agape Farm, a retreat center and campsite in the heart of Pennsylvania. And with them come innumerable Christian music fans; the number of visitors fluctuates between 40,000 and 100,000. Many people call the land around Agape "God's Country", which I can understand. Small brooks splash through a landscape of lush green hills, and when we arrive, the fluffiest clouds that I have ever seen pass through the sky. If there is God , he is maybe Bob Ross, because God's country with all its "happy little trees" looks like a canvas of the TV painter.

My big question remains a difficult one, but the small ones are easier to answer. For example, after a short while I can say that Chance the Rapper hasn't made the genre of Christian music better as a whole (and that it's not worth talking about here because nobody at the festival seems to know it).

The Creation Festival is a cross between church camp, fair food and average music. As elsewhere, there is a main stage and a secondary stage. The big acts like the Newsboys (the Christian U2) play on the main stage and the indie acts, mainly punk and hardcore bands, play on the fringe stage. I am told that there I would see "some real stuff" - elsewhere they would have spoken of "shit".

The music isn't all bad. She's just plain unimaginative. This genre is not about having the best or most innovative sound in the world. The first night's headliners, Australians For King & Country, are Coldplay in religious. The show is spectacular, with explosions and dancing and special effects. It's not something I haven't heard before, but that's just how it works. Every Christian band is actually a religious version of a secular band. They act as substitutes for Christians so that they can celebrate and dance without breaking their faith. When journalist John Jeremiah Sullivan visited Creation over a decade ago, he wrote in GQ: "Christian rock is the only genre of music I know that has immunized itself from excellence."

The artists do not miss this, and it is actually discussed at the festival. Andy Mineo, a Christian rapper who dislikes the term “Christian rapper”, tells me in detail about the obstacles that the genre puts in its own way in his opinion. “Christians want things that encourage them on their spiritual path. So this term helps you and your audience, "he says. “But it can also have a limiting effect. The category 'Christian' often leads to the fact that non-Christians want nothing to do with it. You don't even listen in. Music from this category doesn't even get a chance. "

"You were probably told this was Christian Woodstock," Lora Harrison, a young woman from the youth group, said to me before we left, and laughed. "That's because it's true."

Harrison plays in a rock band and has a stunning voice. One day she sings an a cappella version of “Amazing Grace,” which temporarily removes my doubts about the existence of a higher power. She emphasizes the importance of music for faith. “Here we come back to the heart of things. Here it's about nothing more than worshiping our Creator for a week through any form of music we like. " Harrison later tells me that when she was five she developed a pain addiction and banged her head against brick walls. When she was 13, her brother was murdered. When she was 17, she was raped. "You ask me how I can believe in God there," she says. "I ask you how you can not do that."

Harrison's words echo in my head as one evening the whole festival — every single person, really — gathers for candlelight mass. David Crowder, a banjo player with a hell of a good cover of "I Saw the Light," who stamps feet with such power that you can see God's face in front of you, has just finished his set. Then comes Pastor Harry Thomas, who founded Creation almost 30 years ago, took to the stage. "Praise the Lord," he says in a calm, confident voice. “Praise the Lord.” He explains to visitors the main purpose of the festival: reaching out to young people and reassuring them that someone loves them, no matter who they are or what has happened to them, and then distributes sweets for everyone.

I'm at the front of the stage, at Thomas' feet. He holds up a candle. “Jesus said he is the light of the world. And then he turned to his disciples and said, 'You are the light of the world.' He said it's your turn now. "

I step on the huge loudspeaker box on my left and look over the thousands upon thousands of people in front of me, all of them holding up their hands. Tiny flames go off all over the crowd. A boyish man, maybe in his early 20s, calls me and holds out his candle. I hold mine to it and ignite it. His eyes sparkle in the candlelight when they meet mine.

"Jesus loves you," he says. I don't know what to answer, so I'll say the only thing I can think of.

"Jesus loves you too." ***

The complete documentationI SAW THE LIGHT see you soon on Noisey

Follow Noisey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Get the best of VICE emailed to you every week!

By subscribing to the VICE newsletter, you consent to receiving electronic communications from VICE, which may contain advertising or sponsored content.