November 29, 2016

Out of Step: An Introduction

This is part of a series I am writing with my good friend Dan So. You can also read part 2, part 3 and part 4.

Dan and I met several years ago while we both lived in San Diego. We became fast friends; both of us were Christian leaders that were hopeless music fans, particularly of punk rock and hardcore.

After this contentious, fractured election season, the two of us were messaging each other. The rhetoric before and after the election has been disheartening, to say the least. So much hope is put in the office of president. Yet, as Christians, we place our hope in another leader, Jesus of Nazareth. For us, this hope makes us more present to the brokenness and needs of our world today, rather than just trying to hang on until we die and go to heaven.

As we begin the season of Advent, we thought it appropriate to reflect on why we’ve given ourselves to this unKing Jesus and why we feel some things are worth revisiting during this post-election and pre-Christmas season.

Though we increasingly just look like average dads, we’re both punks at heart.1 So, we’ve decided share our convictions through that lens. Punk rock is much more than a music genre. There is an important ideology that lies within it that you might miss if you’ve only listened to the Sex Pistols on the FM radio.2 In fact, in our adolescence it was punk rock that kept our faith alive and would nudge us deeper into our callings as Christian leaders.

We both might say that we are Christian because of punk rock. Dan remarked recently to another pastor that the DIY hardcore movement of the 90s was an essential part of his spiritual formation (more on this throughout the rest of this series).

We’re calling this series, “Out of Step” which we are borrowing from an old song by DC hardcore band, Minor Threat.

What Would Ian Do?
In late 1980, two young men started a record label in Washington DC called Dischord Records. Since then, Dischord Records has released over 150 albums from a variety of Washington DC-area artists. The label has never entered into an agreement with a major record label and has remained fiercely independent to this day.

One of the label’s two founders is Ian MacKaye. MacKaye was a member of the band that provided Dischord its first release, Teen Idles – a DC hardcore, straight edge, punk band. Not long after the demise of Teen Idles, MacKaye formed a new group, Minor Threat. For three intense years, Minor Threat played countless shows, touring across the nation and spreading their straight edge message.

Straight edge, an ideal that grew rapidly during the 80’s era of punk and hardcore, encouraged abstinence from sex, drugs, smoking and alcohol. The proponents of straight edge encouraged punks to think clearly about social responsibility and personal development.

Four years after Minor Threat split up, Ian formed a new group, Fugazi. Labeled as a “post-punk” group, fusing elements of punk, dub and jazz, Fugazi has released seven albums, and toured extensively both nationally and internationally. Even before words like “punk” and “indie” were used extensively in popular culture, Fugazi and Dischord Records were committed to operating their business in a different way.

Fugazi has always maintained a ticket price of five dollars for each performance though, given their popularity, they had many opportunities to charge far more than that. Dischord has consistently ensured that the bands on their label make a fair share of profits and provided fairly for record label staff. In a time when record prices soared, Dischord always sought to be frugal and fiscally responsible in order to keep their prices as low as possible so that young people with little money could afford their releases.

For the entire music industry (and beyond) Ian Mackaye has helped redefine success by refusing to tread the well-worn path. Through his identity as a musician and a business owner, Mackaye has defied market principles and creative definition. But more than simply critiquing the system, Ian Mackaye has also created alternatives to it.

We, as followers of Christ, could learn a thing or two from MacKaye’s example. Sometimes, we need to pause and ask ourselves, “What would Ian do?”

Out of Step with the World
As David Foster Wallace describes in This is Water, sometimes we need to take a step back and try to comprehend the cultural air we’re breathing. It does not benefit us to keep paddling down the same stream if it’s going to eventually dump us headlong over a waterfall.

In work, finances, business, relationships, and even recreation, our culture assumes that Newer! Bigger! Faster! is the best way to live. At the same time, many Western churches (and not only megachurches) have adopted the “more is better” mentality.3

Scarcity tells us there is never enough, that if someone else gains then I must be losing. Scarcity creates a constant, low-grade fever, a gnawing worry that we won’t have enough. Scarcity points the finger at the suffering and oppressed, blaming them for their condition. Scarcity screams get all you can, while you can. Scarcity is the walker among us, always consuming but never satisfied.

Advent tells us a completely different story, one that is out of step with this world. Advent heralds the coming of our unKing Jesus, whose generosity was so great that it frustrated, annoyed, and drove mad the scarcity brokers of his time but delighted and enchanted the marginalized and broken. Advent reminds us that, paradoxically, life is found in giving all we can, just as our unKing Jesus gave himself away completely. Advent pulls back the curtain to show us there is a better way to live, a way of freedom, grace, and wonder.

In the Book of Acts, Saint Luke writes of the early church, “There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.” Instead of scarcity, the Early Church practiced generosity, putting into practice the Jubilee and Sabbath principles that Jesus echoed at the inception of his ministry from Isaiah. They functioned on an economic paradigm of abundance. They were determined to make sure all had access to what they needed.

As MacKaye writes in his history of Dischord Records:
In the beginning it was basically a volunteer arrangement as there was no money to pay anyone, but by the early ’90s we were not only able to pay everyone, but also able to provide them with health insurance and other benefits. I’ve always considered this one of our most important achievements. Most businesses, including record labels, have used profits (or at least the fear of losing profits) as their guideline for operations. Because we have tried to approach the label as a mission of documentation as well as a community-based entity, we have managed to avoid many of the industry-standard practices. The fact that we are able to help support the people who work for us as well as pay royalties to the bands seems to be proof that such an approach is possible.
Perhaps MacKaye’s example can help us, as followers of Christ, reimagine what success looks like and help us reclaim the heritage of the Early Church. Like punk rock, the Early Church did not simply critique and challenge cultural norms, it offered an alternative. A generative community, whether the Early Church or punk rock community, is shaped by particular values and habits. Over the next three weeks we will share a post a week on our blogs that explores countercultural community, practices and ideals all through the lenses of our Christian faith and punk rock. We hope you will read and engage. May this season of Advent become one of abundance, generosity, and wonder as we celebrate our unKing Jesus.

Let’s go!

1. These days, before heading out to a show, Dan’s daughter (wisely) reminds him, “Please don’t hurt yourself.”
2. Simply reading the word “punk” might evoke the mohawked miscreants of the fictional band Pain playing “all the way from the hills of Hollyweird” in this particularly surreal episode of CHiPS: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dLyMjIccjL4. Pro tip: The song borders on listenable if played at 1.5x speed.
3. Bill McKibben offers an important critique in his book, Deep Economy (Times Books, 2007).