Exploring the paradoxical world of Christian hardcore

by Chris Morin


June 14-16
RPL Theatre

As a guy who devoted a good part of his youth to hedonism and blasphemy, filmmaker Justin Ludwig might seem like an unlikely chronicler of North America’s massive Christian hardcore and punk rock scene.

Growing up in a predominantly Catholic family, an adolescent Ludwig discovered hardcore groups like SNFU and Propagandhi, which promptly led him down a path of punk-fuelled atheism. He eventually started his own bands and ran the Manhattan Room, a haven for the local punk scene.

During this time a parallel scene featuring religious hardcore punk bands began to ride into the prairies, and Ludwig saw local hardcore groups like Means and Goodsampark take off in popularity. Needless to say, it pissed him off — enough to pen a song for the band Amour Fou called “Fuck Christian Hardcore… This Is Hell.”

But when it came time to make ChristCORE, his first feature documentary as a director and producer, Ludwig held back his usual reactionary self in order to objectively examine a belief system that he completely abhors.

“I wanted to create a film that could be enjoyed and debated by Christians and atheists and everyone in between, so we strove to present our journey as plainly as possible — through my eyes, but with an [open-mind],” says Ludwig.

ChristCORE follows two American evangelical hardcore groups, delving into the music, the message and personalities while stripping away the bias of an atheist punk… or so it would seem.

Through these musicians, the viewer is transported to a world where mosh pit prayers and faith healings administered by band members are the norm. It’s unsettling at times, and hilarious at others. But according to Ludwig, there’s no ulterior motive: he lets the bands do the talking — and screaming — for him.

“If you see a young kid moshing aggressively and then praying in tears after the show, you’re either going to think it’s curious, crazy or inspiring. But it’s not for me to tell you,” says Ludwig.

The first band we meet in the 74-minute documentary is Messengers. Made up of some otherwise fairly normal hardcore dudes, Ludwig portrays a young band readying to depart their Texas home for a tour out to California.

Messengers is the quintessential underdog group: they’re young, talented and ambitious. They’re also broke and willing to do anything, including shirking adult responsibility, in order to “make it.” (One particularly memorable scene sees the members asking for free food at a fast food chain — and getting it.)

Despite their hard work and great intentions, they probably won’t make it, at least in any large sense of the term. But they have other reasons for hitting the road. Aware that churches aren’t exactly pulling in the kids these days, Messengers attempts to sell their idea of religion by uniting aggressive hardcore with prayer and Jesus.

Later in the film we meet the members of evangelic metalcore group Sleeping Giant — who, in addition to rocking out, perform mass baptisms and faith healings at their performances. It’s in these moments when you wonder if the music is simply an empty vessel for the message.

Almost as disturbing as watching a hardcore singer pray for sick kids is the lack of any sort of judgment at all during these scenes. In some ways, ChristCORE could have benefitted from exploring the thoughts of Christian hardcore fanatics who aren’t sold on the idea of faith healings at shows (and they’re certainly out there). But once again, Ludwig leaves the conclusions up to his audience — even though he clearly has strong opinions.

“For the most part, everyone we encountered was really full of kindness and a real lack of judgment, so it was easy to get swept up in the positive momentum of the people around us,” he says. “As much as I might’ve felt like a person I was talking to was lost in the narcotic haze of faith, for the most part enthusiasm prevailed in the moment.

“There were jarring moments of course — particularly with the faith healing, which I believe to be at best irresponsible and at worst a dangerous example to set for idolizing kids, who would rather pray for healing than visit a doctor.”

Ludwig says he first met Sleeping Giant, and their hugely charismatic frontman Tommy Green, in 2008 in Montana at a Scream the Prayer tour while filming preliminary footage. Green is popular and well spoken, and there’s no denying he has a voice that absolutely shreds. And, standing in the midst of a massive religious music festival that’s completely stripped of drugs and alcohol, Green does seem genuinely concerned for his flock.

“Some watch the film and say, ‘Wow, those people are crazy, that was intense,’” says Ludwig. “And some are inspired that a new generation has found a way to connect to Jesus through a youth subculture that’s strongly built on community and sobriety.”

Despite (or perhaps because of) the eeriness of the religious moments in the pit, ChristCORE is absolutely an entertaining watch for anyone with even a remote interest in hardcore. It won’t likely sway your beliefs one way or another, but it does provide some interesting footage of a world that most punks choose to belittle or ignore.

By the end of ChristCORE, Ludwig, who’s still in touch with the members of Messengers and Sleeping Giant, says his faith in people is “stronger than ever.”

But even though he never takes a strong stance against any of the scenes in his documentary, Ludwig makes it clear that his own atheism is still very much intact.

“There were times where we certainly felt strange being the only non-believers in the room and filming all these very emotional moments, especially since people often assumed we were Christian until we had to politely tell them we weren’t. That led to a few awkward moments.

“I will say, though, that being surrounded by so many devout believers really confirmed for me exactly how resolutely I don’t believe.”