About 15,000 Christian young people gathered at Knott's Berry Farm on Thursday night to welcome the New Year in a celebration that depended less on spirits than on the Spirit.
The rides and the cotton candy may have been of the usual secular variety, but on what the celebrators called "Christian Night at Knott's," the atmosphere was a clean cut above even the amusement park's normally unthreatening ambiance.
The two themes of the celebration were expressed by two overlapping bumper stickers on a parked car, tersely proclaiming: "God Rules" . . . "Rock 'n' Roll Forever." For no less than the viewers of "Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve" or the MTV "New Year's Rock 'n' Roll Ball," those at the New Year's Eve Christian Alternative Celebration came for the music, belted out by such religious rock bands as the Choir and the Altar Boys.
Backed by guitar licks and synthesizer warbles vaguely reminiscent of Rush and sporting blow-tousled hair of the best MTV variety, singer Benny Hester nonetheless offered his fans the kind of lyric more often found at Sunday morning services than "Friday Night Videos."
Priming the crowd at Calico Square with between-song banter, Hester told his fans, "This is one about a couple of people I think you can identify with." His band, dressed in familiar rock regalia, kicked in as Hester sang the chorus:
"He came out of an empty grave to fill your empty heart!"
While Hester had the ersatz-frontier setting of Calico Square's outdoor stage in which to perform, the top-billed Steve Taylor performed to wildly appreciative audiences at the indoor Toyota Good Time Theatre. "His music is like you hear on the radio, but his message is more meaningful," said Christina Sicre, 19, of Palm Springs. Taylor's message, she said, deals with "personal fights with the devil in our daily lives."
Growing impatient with Taylor's delayed appearance upon the Good Time stage, the members of the audience took to their feet and, with arms raised, began chanting, "We love you Jesus, yes we do, we love you Jesus, how about you?!"
As different sections of the crowd responded in kind, each trying to yell the cheer louder than the other, Sicre smiled and said, "That's fellowship, you know."
Finally the lights dimmed and the curtain opened, revealing a tableau of musicians standing motionless on a stage cloaked in purple fog.
Posturing and strutting like a born-again Alice Cooper, the flamboyant Taylor began his set with a yodel, then went through a series of fast-paced numbers, punctuating them with an occasional change of costume.
The crowd was enthusiastic but respectful. In this rock concert, the only smoke in the auditorium came from the theatrical smoke machines, and no one drank a Coke, much less a Bud. There wasn't even gum under the seats.
Taylor sang with the amplified incomprehensibility of successful pop, and he worked the crowd with equally professional aplomb. Like Bruce Springsteen decrying a jingoistic misinterpretation of his song "Born in the U.S.A.," Taylor paused to complain that some fans had misunderstood one his best-known tunes, "I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good."
Although he opposes abortion, Taylor said, he has equal trouble with those who bomb abortion clinics. The song is intended to be satirical rather than instructional, he said. Of the abortion clinic bombers, Taylor told his fans, "I have a hard time thinking they're following God's plan."
As popular as Taylor and the other religious rock acts were, some celebrators said they were drawn to Christian night to circulate in a place where everyone shared a similar outlook.
"The whole idea of being here with different Christians is exciting," said Roann Broude, 19, of Torrance. "Everywhere else there are really weird people."
For at Christian night, even the punkers were born again.
With his bleached Mohawk haircut, black pants and leather jacket, boots and accessories, only the Crucifix earrings dangling from his double-pierced ears identified Jim Griffin of Riverside as an observant Christian. "I accepted Christ as my personal savior," said the 18-year-old, adding that he is a singer for Alternative, a Christian band that wasn't on the lineup that night. He came to watch his friends in other religious acts perform.
Griffin said his rebellious regalia symbolized nothing but his quest for individuality. "I just want to be who I am," he said.
Of those who might prejudge him by his appearance, he said, "They just look on the outside. God looks inside, into your heart."
Others proclaimed their faith in more conventional, if still youthful, ways. Rob Barnes, 12, came wearing a trendy, acid-washed denim jacket, festooned with an "I Love Jesus" button on his collar and a painted cross on the back.
For him, Christian night was the best possible New Year's Eve.
"You're with your Christian friends, and it's more fun worshiping God than not."
Though his companions from a Los Alamitos church group loudly seconded his view, even among the crowd at Christian night, a few had temporal grounds for coming to Buena Park instead of points south.
Asked why she came to Knott's for New Year's Eve, Cathi Decker, 23, of Anaheim said she didn't even know it was to be a religious celebration.
"It was half the price of Disneyland," she said.