Go Get Em Tiger
The Arts District
A little after 10 in the morning on a Friday
Faith in God has carried Andrew Chen and Johan Lam through their lives to this exact moment in time, sitting with me outside a coffee shop in Los Angeles. An overwhelming fear of God drove me for most of my life, and that's how I got here. When I say “fear of God," I don't mean “respect for God” or “sense of awe in the presence of God.” I mean constant, grinding anxiety punctuated by fits of outright panic, starting when I was five years old.
A pair of childhood discoveries―language and clothing―saved me from my fear. I built a citadel around my trembling heart with bad words and questionable fashion. (My wardrobe was heavy on silk shirts and Guess jeans.) The United Pentecostal Church laid siege to my childhood, but it couldn't scale my walls of fabric and speech. Upon leaving the Church at age 16, I converted my defenses into weapons. I stung Christians with words like a hornet tormenting Canaanites. I put on clothing like a lion circling the coliseum floor, in wait of screaming meat.
Childhood defenses begat adult weapons. Adult weapons, after years of fighting, begat an imperfect peace. These are the generations of my fear of God. Today they have prepared a table before me in the presence of my old enemies. I once would have counted our differences like stars in the sky, but Andrew and Johan express their faith via the same medium that I processed my fear: clothing, the concealer of body and flesh, the revelator of identity and spirit.
For years, a conspiracy-ish theory has circulated among online denim communities: On the back pockets of 3sixteen jeans, the runoff stitching forms a Christian cross. This is true, provided that you do the following:
It helps if you cover one eye.
The runoff stitching itself is tight and neat. It meets 3sixteen's high quality standards. However, the shape of the "cross" falls woefully short. The sides of the horizontal plank―where soldiers would have driven nails through Jesus' wrists or hands―are ridiculously lopsided. The top of the vertical post is left open, with no room for a placard reading INRI, but plenty of room, it would seem, for fanciful interpretations. No self-respecting Roman governor would have approved this thing for use in public executions, that's for sure. Still, to those who have eyes to strain, let them see. Seek and ye shall find.
Andrew Chen, who co-founded 3sixteen in 2003 with Johan Lam, says the "cross" is unintentional and purely coincidental. Neither he nor Johan see it. These comments will do little to convince 3sixteen critics, who by Andrew's reckoning have become more vocal in recent years―specifically regarding Andrew and Johan's shared faith.
To be clear, Andrew and Johan do not feel persecuted. George Weckman, professor emeritus of religion at Ohio University, once assessed the ability of U.S. Christians to tolerate criticism by saying, "If you're on top, you should be able to take a little bit of shit." Andrew and Johan can take a little bit of shit. But, as we shall see, it would be easy for them to avoid shit-taking altogether. They essentially bring it on themselves.
I went to bed every night wondering if I would ever see Mom again.
Sometimes I woke up in the wee hours to pee. My first thought was, "Is Mom still here? Did the Rapture happen?" On my way down the hall to the bathroom, I would crane my neck inside my parents' bedroom. I was always relieved to see the outline of their sleeping bodies. But one of those nights, I knew, the bed would be empty. Turning on their light and pulling back the sheets, I would find two emptied pools of fabric: the lavender nightgown with white lace at the neck, and a pair of Dad's white boxer shorts with red pinstripes. These garments would have fallen away from Mom and Dad's glorified forms as they literally took flight, like Superman, out of their bed and through the roof, en route to Heaven. I knew all this because Mom, a trusted servant of God, guided newcomers to the United Pentecostal Church through a Bible Study course. She had a booklet with lots of drawings. The lesson on The Book of Revelation talked about the Rapture. There was a drawing of people in white robes, smiling as they flew like Superman towards a beaming Christ, who levitated in the clouds. At the bottom of the drawing, sinners were in Hell. They were screaming because they were on fire. None of the flying, smiling people looked back at the burning, screaming people.
Mom wouldn't look back, either.
On the 3sixteen website, the first sentence of the About page reads, “First and foremost, we are a denim company.” If denim is first and foremost, what is second and secondary? We already know about the subliminal cross. What else are they hiding? Subsequent copy on the About page discusses quality materials and manufacturing. The other boot finally drops in the fourth paragraph: "Our company's foundation is in our faith.” Ah-ha! Faith―sounds juicy! Alas, no details follow. Those hoping for 3sixteen to explain their "faith" by way of a supernatural God instead read about human decency. The copy states, "... humility and integrity are as important … as quality and design." Elsewhere, 3sixteen attributes its success to a larger community of "artists, craftsmen, and friends." Only with the final sentence does the brand hint about specifics, by way of an enigmatic reference to Matthew 20:16:
“3sixteen: the last shall be first.”
Suppose that 3sixteen made the following revisions to the About page: (a) delete “first and foremost,” (b) delete "the last shall be first" (and stop using the phrase elsewhere on the website and where it appears offline, like on the pocket bags of jeans), and (c) replace the word “faith” with “values.” In that case, nothing on the website—and indeed nothing related to the 3sixteen brand as a whole (besides the cross, of course)—would imply or indicate any religious or spiritual orientation.
Nothing except the name.
If religion is the opiate of the people, apostolic Pentecostalism is their methamphetamine.
When they get a blast of this old-time religion, the people dance in the Spirit, arms and legs flailing in an ecstatic thrashing of flesh against Flesh. They roll on the ground (thus the term “Holy Roller”). They sprint around the edges of the sanctuary with their eyes wide and teeth chattering. Their young men see visions. Their old men hallucinate, too. They pray without ceasing until their outstretched arms ache, their faces goes numb, and their hearing narrows into a prolonged squeal, like in the movies when someone slowly regains consciousness following a nearby explosion. Those are signs that the Spirit is moving. That's when you might speak in tongues. And you had better speak in tongues. If you don't speak in tongues before the Rapture takes place, you will burn in Hell for all eternity. That's why Mom would fly, fly away one day soon, and I would be left behind. She had spoken in tongues and I hadn't. When Gabriel sounded his trumpet―which could happen at any time: morning, night, or noon―the Dead in Christ would rise. The Dead in Christ included physically dead people, who would fly out of their coffins toward Heaven, and also living Christians (limited to apostolic Pentecostals) who had earned salvation by doing the following work:
In Acts 2:38, Peter advises a gathering of first-generation Christians to repent and be baptized, "and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost." The United Pentecostal Church bases its entire doctrine on that single verse. The Church believes that speaking in tongues indicates reception of the Holy Ghost. Here's the thing: You can complete the Acts 2:38 trifecta and still go to Hell. That's because the dead flesh constantly comes back to life. When the zombie hand of your Worldly self emerges from the spiritual grave, you must kill it again immediately. You do that by repenting.
You are eight years old.
I knelt next to Robbie O'Bannon at the altar.
We were praying for the Holy Ghost. Men gathered around us.
The preacher told Robbie, "Just tell Him what you want."
Jesus give me the Holy Ghost ...
Jezuz gimmetha Holy Ghose ...
Yushuh gemmee duh Heely Gast ...
Yoosuh geb mir dem Heyluh Gaast ..
Yoshke gebn mir dem Heylik Gayst ...
All the men shouted, loud, honest shouts of pure joy.
I stopped praying but kept my head down. God had given Robbie the gift of the Holy Ghost. I couldn't bear to watch the men hug Robbie and shake his hand. That was the real gift of speaking in tongues: regular human acceptance.
Words were in fact magic. I just couldn't learn this particular trick, no matter how hard I tried.
I sat next to Mom on the school bus.
She was chaperoning a field trip. Bart Gable sat behind us.
Bart told a kid, “Say ‘born on a pirate ship’ five times fast.”
The kid said:
Born on a pirate ship ...
Born onna piruh ship ...
Born onna piruh shuh ...
Born onna pilah shih ...
Born on a pile of shit ...
All the kids laughed, loud, honest laughs of pure joy.
Mom clucked her tongue. I looked out the window to hide my beaming smile. I listened to laughter wrap around Bart and the other kid like sheltering arms. The sun shone on my face and warmed me to the innermost.
Words were in fact magic. And I already knew this kind of spelling.
The "pirate ship" revelation transformed me into the sweariest child at Shade Elementary. I was quick to call out classmates whom I considered to be numbnuts, shit-for-brains, and fartgobblers. I also started writing little stories at church during Wednesday night Bible Study services. (High-octane stuff like speaking in tongues usually happened on Sunday nights; Wednesday nights were all about begats and Beatitudes.) The sanctified language of King James and the profanity of public school mixed into a weird alloy, in equal measures precious and septic. To this day it's how I naturally speak and write. Then in sixth grade, a classmate mocked me for wearing the same clothes two days in a row. I had no idea that clothing mattered. The UPC's Holiness Standards, which were written by men, mandate strict dress requirements for women, but men can pass unnoticed in the World. You might look weird wearing jeans in summer (God hates shorts), but that's about it. As my classmate and his friends laughed at my clothing, I was awestruck.
If wearing clothing the wrong way gets me laughed at, I wondered,
what would happen if I wore clothing the right way?
I began studying the appearance of other kids, especially the details: the fearful symmetry of a bowl cut; a braided leather belt, purchased extra-long to knot and leave dangling at the waist. I started to change how I dressed. The other kids noticed. They asked me how to French-roll jeans and coil the laces of Eastbay camp mocs. In ninth-grade home room, Ray Scott―Ray freaking Scott, the most popular kid in the entire freshman class!―struck up a conversation with me about my faux crocodile loafers. The pastor of my church pulled me aside after service one night. He said, "Don't follow the fads with clothing. Be your own person." I nodded and walked away without saying anything, but this is what I was thinking:
My shoes got Ray Scott to talk to me. What have you ever done for me, numbnuts?
The Crusades are too obvious. Ditto the Inquisition and modern-day Catholic priests. Self-proclaimed followers of Jesus are used to defending themselves against that stuff. Allow me to suggest a few deeper anti-Christian cuts:
Back in the day of internet relay chat, a mIRC channel operator and I decided to take our burgeoning relationship offline, with a phone call. When she casually mentioned going to church, I launched into a tirade about Christianity's history of sins, and expressed my grave disappointment in her for subscribing to such vapid mythology. Before she hung up on me, she started crying.
I couldn't have been prouder.
The 1995 version of me would have confronted the 2020 version of 3sixteen with some Cold Hard Facts. No pair of jeans―no matter how rare the denim! no matter how sick the fades!―can wipe from history the murder of Hypatia, the philosopher and mathematician who was skinned alive by a Christian mob in the year 415. Oh, you've collaborated with famed Canadian footwear brand Viberg on a Scout Boot featuring supple latigo roughout leather and the scored flex points of a Vibram Gloxi-Cut wedge sole? Well, what about Charlemagne beheading 4500 Saxons who refused to convert to Christianity at the Massacre of Verden? What about that, guys? But eventually, somewhere between 1995 and 2020, I stopped blaming innocent members of a given group for actions attributable to the entire group. These actions might include dismemberment and beheadings, or they might include colonization, military imperialism, and constant meddling at the highest levels of foreign governments. If I had to guess, I'd say this change happened right around the autumn of 2001. "Judge not," as it were.
Also, the cliche about time's curative properties have proven true for me. My damage healed with passing years. I still doubted. I just didn't have any open wounds to poke at.
I don't know which version of Jesus inspires 3sixteen. I don't even know if Andrew and Johan believe in the same version. Do the guys attend the same denomination of church? Are they pre- or post-Millennial? Pre- or post-Tribulation? Oneness or Trinity?
I made it a point not to ask.
The 3sixteen Jesus is most likely not the neo-America version who belongs to the NRA, loves war, and despises the marginalized groups for whom He so fiercely advocated in the Bible. He's definitely not the neurotic control-freak worshiped by the United Pentecostal Church. Mysteries of the Godhead aside, my visit with Andrew and Johan helps flesh out the faith mentioned in the 3sixteen About page. The brand's faith doesn't shout. It doesn't thrash about in an ecstatic, self-induced trance. It does not insist on itself. To the best of my knowledge, it does not frighten children with threats of eternal hellfire. It is quiet, sometimes to the point of being mundane. It softly drums in the background, happy to keep time as the saints go marching in. Sideshow geeks like Benny Hinn "speak in tongues" in megachurches, while Jim Bakker sells five-gallon buckets of mashed potatoes and TWENTY YEAR SHELF-LIFE PIZZA. Countless other grifters hang for-sale ornaments on the Tree of Life. Andrew and Johan are happy to tend the soil, water the roots, and content themselves with whatever fruit falls from the branches.
Corporations and entrepreneurs alike have spent the last several years whipping up "lifestyle marketing" and retrofitting it onto their existing companies.
Ornaments on the Tree.
Faith is the 3sixteen lifestyle. If you remove style, faith remains the 3sixteen life. It is a belief in the supernatural, but it clarifies the ordinary: which fabric mills will ship how much of what material, how seamstresses sew, what collaborations go into production, when products ship to retailers, how to approach late payments, whether (when on a family road trip) Andrew should take a two-hour detour so his son can see an old school friend who moved away, how much to tip the mail carrier for the holidays. Maybe―maybe―in the deep recesses of Andrew and Johan's unconscious minds, their faith subliminally influences design signatures, like a "cross" on the back pockets of blue jeans or (wake up, sheeple!) the crossed yoke on their Type 3 jacket. The faith of 3sixteen―their evidence of things not seen―might pertain to eternity, but it applies to every day.
Humility and integrity. Basic human decency.
Fruit from the branch.
If you want to understand 3sixteen, start with denim. If you want to understand John 3:16, start with Andrew and Johan.