December 8, 2007

punk rock prophets

For years, I have thought about writing down some of my perspectives on punk rock ethics and Christian spirituality. I am now 32 years old. I have now lived as long with punk rock as I did without it in my life. I have grown more and more interested in it as time has gone on. It wasn't just "a phase".

I grew up, got married, had children and found the things I learned through punk to continue to inform my thinking and help me make sense of the world. I am now raising two children. I share with them what I have learned from both theology and my punk rock ethic daily. The two of these intertwined have assisted in helping me come to several conclusions about my spirituality that are presumably far outside of the norm of contemporary Christian culture. This probably isn't surprising. But what may be is that I am convinced that the coalesce of these ideals informing my head, heart and hands has led me back to the heart of the message of Scripture. I think several punk bands, now and then, have several points worth reflecting on if you are a follower of Jesus in the Western world. So, that is why I am writing this.

I decided to start with some thoughts on the seminal punk band, Bad Religion. Particularly, I'm focusing on their song, "American Jesus" from the album, Recipe for Hate. The lyrics to "American Jesus" can be found here and you can find the mp3 here.

The first time I saw a cross-buster, I was in junior high. Even then I knew that there was something very provocative about this emblem. I quickly came to realize that this design was associated with a band called, Bad Religion. A name, equally, as provocative. I grew up in a conservative, evangelical Christian home. The name and the image were overtly offensive to the community I was associated with. But I didn't find these things offensive. It made me curious as well as a little sad. "Have we done something that has given reason to these gestures?" I thought. The music was enticing to me as well. Fast, aggressive riffs and rhythm along side well-harmonized and thought provoking lyrics. My music collection was quickly filled with punk and hardcore music.

About a year ago I was watching this legendary band play in downtown San Diego near where I live. They ended their show with "American Jesus." At the peak of the song the audience chanted along in mocking tone "In God We Trust" , taunting the religious establishment that had reared many of us. But instead of cringing, I got chills. Because I think Bad Religion is actually right about alot of things said in the song "American Jesus" as well with many of their songs.

I can understand Graffin's cynicism. When I read signs that state, "God Bless America", I wonder, Why us? What's so special about this place? There is a stigma that has evolved not only here in the West but in the minds of people all over the world that Christianity is distinctly tied to Western ideas and an affluent, unsustainable lifestyle. If that is what Christianity is then I agree with Bad Religion; it deserves ridicule. But could it be that the intentions of the Scriptural story and legacy of the early Church had a whole other intent besides Christendom?

Four years ago we met a family of refugees from Somalia. Over time we became friends. One day, we dropped by to visit our new found friends. A leader from the mosque they attend was visiting as well. He and I were introduced to each other and began to talk about Islam and Christianity.

"You are a Christian?" he said.
"I am," I replied.
"You want this family to be Christian?" he asked me.
"Do you think they want to be Christians?" I asked back.
"No." he quickly remarked.
"Why?" I inquired.
"We all serve the same God," he said.
I was surprised.
He continued, "Christianity is for white people. Poor black people can't afford to be Christian."

I don't know about you but this bothers me. How did a religion that started in the middle east, around the message and life of a poor, middle eastern man develop into an ideology of elitism? When I interact with people like this, I realize that it doesn't really matter what I think about this. The rest of the world clearly thinks something else. The question is, what can I do to change things and am I willing to do it?

The criticism of Christianity voiced by punk artists such as Bad Religion can seem appalling to some but it can also be interpreted as prophetic. Just as the prophets of old challenged the people of God to turn from their idolatrous ways, punk rock has often challenged Christians to do the same. The Kingdom of God is not aligned with a particular nation state. Who do we follow? The god of affluence and consumer capitalism? Or the God of the Kingdom Jesus announced?

More to come.


Beth said...

Do you know Andrew Careaga? He was trying for some time to get a book on punk rock and theology published, but no publisher would touch it. He posted some of it at

Jason Evans said...

I've seen that name around the blogosphere. That's about all I know of him.

Ryan said...

As a pastor, reared in both conservative Evangelical Christianity, and punk rock, the Bad Religion line that always has stayed with me is also from "Recipe for Hate", from "Don't Pray On Me":
I don't know what stopped Jesus Christ from turning every hungry stone into bread.
And I don't remember hearing how Moses reacted when the innocent first born sons lay dead...

Although I bought "Stranger Than Fiction," after Recipe for Hate, I think it was probably "Don't Pray on Me" that ultimately turned me off to Bad Religion, that and their expressed gratitude towards Satan. Now however, I see their questions as valid, and where I may have been frightened of them as a teen, I now think that I could make an attempt in bringing light to them.

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