As a kid skateboarding and punk rock were the first real things I was ever passionate about. I remember watching the movie Thrashin’ over and over again when I was probably only nine or ten years old. I remember hearing the Circle Jerks song ‘Wild in the streets’ in one of the scenes and thinking to myself that it was the best music I had ever heard and by the time that I was 16/17 years old I was playing in bands of my own, I found in the scene an expressive outlet and a community of like minded people which helped me through that awkward phase of life.
Now that I am older, my music taste has broadened substantially but I occasionally still like to pull out some of the old stuff and give it a listen. There is something timeless in the spirit of punk that still appeals to me and I recognize how it relates to my faith journey as well. below are some of the ways that I think my punk past prepared me to be a follower of Christ.
1 – Punk rock was never cool
Back in the mid to late nineties, long before the bands were getting radio play, it was the uncool, misfit kids who listened to punk. You were never going to get in with the popular kids at school and you really didn’t want to anyway. Neither were we going to play to massive crowds and sell tons of CD’s despite all of the hard work that went in to writing and performing music. Punk was in a musical sense the path less traveled. Nevertheless, it taught me to be content with and even embrace our status as a peculiar people and to stick with my convictions rather than try to be a people pleaser.
While it is hard to identify much of what flies under the banner of Christianity nowadays with the narrow road, actually trying to follow Jesus is still very much the path less traveled. Every time we speak out against injustice, every time we love our enemy or feed a hungry person and every time that we suggest an alternative to what mainstream Christianity advocates we look peculiar to those around us. The second punk rock became about selling more records and being cool, clean and comfortable everything changed, the music and message was watered down to tickles our ears, many bands flying under the punk label are making a lot of money nowadays but the old school guys will find absolutely nothing in it that they can relate to. I sometimes wonder, apart from the name, how much the New Testament Church would have been able to relate to our modern churches and the lifestyles that go with them. We have become rich, successful and likable and it makes me uncomfortable.
2 – Punk rock taught me about community
In South Africa there were about 10-15 bands that were constantly playing together to the same crowd of people week in and week out. We became one big happy family. If we toured to the coast we stayed on other bands couches and then we would return the favor when they came up to Johannesburg. There were no backstage areas anywhere that we played; we hung out with our friends in the crowd. We learned tolerance and recognized that the diversity found within only made us stronger and less susceptible to becoming too narrow minded. Without working together the scene would have folded before it had begun.
And so it is with the church; if you speak with anyone long enough who has spent any significant time studying the scriptures you are soon going to find a few things that you will disagree on. Immature believers and those that seek after power are willing to divide over the smallest of things. While there are circumstances that may require separating from others (such as unrepentant sin or those who are preaching a different gospel) we need to recognize that there is strength in unity. Christ works through the ‘one anothering’ in His church. We teach, we exhort, we pray for, we rebuke, we strengthen, we support, we give, we fellowship with, we send out and we love one another. A Christian without community is like a band without instruments, a stage and an audience.
3 – Punk rock helped shape my theology
This might sound ridiculous at first but it really did! I remember having a One Bad Pig tape (let’s hear it for cassettes, walkmans and fanny packs!) as a young kid. Listening to songs like ‘GodArchy’ left an impression on me as a young kid; while everyone else was singing about dancing on the ceiling, pouring sugar on themselves, getting dressed for success and chameleons; punk musicians tended to sing about deeper social issues like racism, greedy politicians and religion. Some of it, maybe even most of it was just angry kids venting their frustration but the point is that it was music that oftentimes encouraged deeper thought and a call to action.
Later on some of those bands like Praiser and Showbread ended up pointing me toward Anabaptist literature which gave me a different (and in my opinion more Christlike) perspective than I had previously been exposed to. Radical ideas like loving ones enemies, having no other gods and non-violent resistance (overcoming evil by doing good) were treated as ideas that Jesus was actually serious about us following. Some of those lyric sheets ring more true than the majority of sermon notes floating around today.
4 – Punk rock began to suck when it became commercialized.
Punk is unique in the sense that unlike other styles of music, it was never meant to appeal to a larger audience. There was always a DIY ethic there where the artists aimed at keeping as much control over their art as possible. Some indie labels did pop up to help people get their stuff recorded and out there but it was always at a hands on, roots level. As I mentioned in point 1, as soon as big labels started signing punk bands up they had to polish up the product as well. They were never going to make money out of the Gorilla Biscuits or the Subhumans but they could sell a lot of Fall Out Boy and Good Charlotte records. I mean no disrespect to those artists but the point is that in reaching a larger audience and gaining mainstream acceptance punk rock had to give up its very soul.
The church is exactly the same. The early church was just a bunch of common folk; there were few wise, mighty and noble people counted among them and yet they somehow managed to turn the world they lived in upside down. There were no big productions, just simple gatherings in peoples homes. To gain Christ meant to lay everything else down at the cross. The institutionalization of Christianity was in many similar to the commercialization of punk rock. It became safe and nice, even fashionable and profitable but it came at a cost. With the power of the state behind it the Holy Spirit took a back seat and governance fell into the hands of a few select people. The outcast became the trend setter and its inner beauty was replaced with outward extravagance and apparel. To the old time purist, they took something true and made it ugly.
Organic expressions of the church have existed throughout the ages but they have always being met with derision and that’s okay. It’s kind of what Jesus told us to expect anyway. If history has taught us anything it is that the majority are generally wrong anyway.
5 – Punk rock was raw
I just used the word organic and it is a good word to describe the church. Any good music should spring forth from the depths of a man’s soul and you will know it by the way that it smacks you in the gut when you hear it. Church should happen when Christ is expressed through the corporate life of a gathering of saints; it cannot be imitated through a repeatable program led by professional orators week after week. There may be some good organic moments experienced in those meetings but they are oftentimes extinguished because the show needs to proceed and remain on schedule. CD’s are predictable, you know the order of the songs and all of the mistakes have been edited out in production but they never quite capture the energy of seeing those same bands play live. Church should not be over produced like a good CD. It should be a place where we are allowed to fail and take our masks off. Maybe it has lost its appeal to the younger generation because they do not feel like they can live up to the standard they see on a Sunday morning. The big smiles, the well prepared and great sounding bands and the five point sermons that make up a typical service; or maybe they see through it all and just crave to see something as messy as they themselves are. It’s not that we glory in our brokenness (or limited musicianship) but that we do not pretend to be something we are not.
Bonus thought – Anyone can play in a punk band
I love all kinds of music from country, blue grass and folk to ska and even symphonic metal. I wish that I could have started a ska band at some point in the past or have learned to play the piano, banjo and cello but when it comes down to it I am just not a very good musician. Fortunately for me punk rock pretty much required 3 chords and a distortion pedal and I was good to go. It’s not for professionals only and as one band said, “that’s the best thing about punk rock, anyone can get on the stage”. Following Christ is similar in that there are no spectators in the church, we are all brothers and each one has something to offer. If Christ is in you then you are a priest, qualified and capable to serve in whatever manner He has called you to.
Oi to the world.