Sunday, 22 November 2015

5 ways punk rock prepared me for following Jesus

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.  

                                                 Showbread - T shirt with lyrics from the song 'Anarchy'

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 Subhumans

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.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Does Hebrews 9:22 teach that there is no forgiveness without the shedding of blood?

Throughout history people have sought to appease the wrath of their gods through sacrifice. If it does not want to rain, throw a virgin in a volcano or slit someone’s throat. You need a blessing or desire prosperity? Maybe you need to sacrifice your firstborn to the gods…Yet despite the overwhelming testimony of scripture that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is not like any other god, somehow this pagan mindset has slowly infiltrated and infected our understanding of the purpose behind the death of Christ and we (the western church) have come to believe that Jesus’ death was all about satisfying the wrath of God or that God needed to be appeased and someone had to be sacrificed for His wrath to be quenched.

But before I go down the rabbit hole that is penal substitution, let me get back to the topic of this post which is Hebrews 9:22 which says this:-

“According to the law of Moses, nearly everything was purified with blood. For without the shedding of blood, there is no remission.”

Immediately when reading this, one realizes that we tend to delete and add a few things subconsciously to the text; most people would simply leave out the first part, change a few words in the middle and add a few more at the end interpreting it as, “Without the shedding of blood, there can be no forgiveness of sins.”    

So was God really harboring unforgiveness in His heart and did He need to sacrifice His own Son in order to stomach the site of you and I? Well, let’s backtrack a bit right to the beginning of the letter in chapter 1 verse 3 where we read that Jesus is the exact image of God and He reveals to us exactly what our Father is like. I mention the likeness of Father and Son because Jesus had no qualms about going around and freely forgiving people when He walked the earth, something which upset the religious authorities because they believed that only God Himself could forgive people of their sins (Mark 2:7-8). Even when Jesus hung on the cross He could say, “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing”. So are we to believe that Jesus was simply better at practicing 1 Corinthians 13:5 than His Father was? Of course not, all throughout the Old Testament we can see that God was able to forgive without the need to kill someone off first. Here are a few examples:-

The LORD (Yaweh) is slow to anger and filled with unfailing love, forgiving every kind of sin and rebellion.  – Numbers 14:18

But you are a God of forgiveness, gracious and merciful, slow to become angry, and rich in unfailing love. – Nehemiah 9:17

Though we are overwhelmed by our sins, you forgive them all. – Psalm 65:3

Their hearts were not loyal to him. They did not keep his covenant. Yet he was merciful and forgave their sins and did not destroy them all.” – Psalm 78:37-38

O Lord, you are so good, so ready to forgive, so full of unfailing love for all who ask for your help. – Psalm 86:5

He forgives all my sins and heals all my diseases –Psalm 102:3

Interestingly, Hebrews 9:22 also reveals that “almost all things are purified by blood”. Under the Old Covenant forgiveness could also be obtained using, among other things, water (Leviticus 15:16-17), oil (Leviticus 14:29) and even flour (Leviticus 5:11-13). And the most interesting thing of all is that all of the sacrifices and offerings mentioned in the law were for unintentional sins only (see Leviticus 4 and 5 and Hebrews 9:7). That means that even under the old covenant people had to rely on God’s grace and mercy to find pardon for their wrong doings (just like you and I do).

So clearly God can freely forgive without needing some sort of retribution but it still leaves us with the words in Hebrews 9:22 and how we should correctly understand them. If we go back to verse 21, we see that the context is that in the tabernacle the religious items were cleansed with blood and the preceding verse (20) says that “the blood confirms the covenant God has made”. In the Hebrew mind, blood did not symbolize death as we think of it but rather it was associated with life (Leviticus 17:11). The blood therefore had to do with cleansing which is important because the Greek word  aphesis which in some bible versions gets translated as forgiveness does not mean ‘pardon’ as we may be lead to believe but rather it has to do with ‘a release from bondage’. This idea of cleansing, purifying or the taking away of sin is found all throughout this portion of Hebrews (see chapter 9:13, 14, 26, 28 and chapter 10:4, 10, 11 and 18).

Blood is absolutely vital

So if God didn’t need Jesus to die so that He could bring Himself to forgive us, the next question would be why then was Christ’s death necessary? The short and simple answer here is that the death of Christ was necessary to overcome sin, Satan, death and the law. The blood ushered in a new covenant (Matthew 26:28) and cleanses us from all unrighteousness.

Without the shedding of blood, there can be no release from the bondage of sin and death. On the cross Christ conquered both and not only are we then pardoned for our transgressions but we are also freed from the very power that they hold over us. In other words, the blood (life) of Christ empowers us to break free from the chains of sin and the consequences thereof (Romans 6:23).