“The Punk Rock Sentiment” by Samuel Keithley

Punk rock is most known for Mohawk hairstyles, ripped jeans, obscene amounts of drug use, and anarchy (among other things).  It is a subculture that fights for individuality and individual responsibility at all cost.  These ideals were carried through the amps of the late sixties, early seventies of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols to now with the ever-aging, never-slowing acts of Bad Religion and NOFX.  At its worst, punk rock is just a naïve phase of youth and loud, repetitive music, but at its best it is a community built around acceptance and asking the questions no one else will.  Through all of the music, all of the drugs, all of the explicit and inappropriate gestures there is a core ideal that the punk rock scene has taken advantage of and taken to the extreme.  You may be surprised to hear that this ideal is actually one that is a part of our heritage as Evangelical Americans.  This sentiment is an individual’s conviction of a virtue that takes precedence over systems or authorities that the individual is under.  Thankfully, most of us find ourselves a part of systems and organizations that give us the ability to value and practice most of our strongest convictions, but for some this punk rock sentiment brings them in conflict with their current context.

What does this sentiment have to do with Christianity?  If anything, the link between this sentiment and the punk subculture that it has created seemingly has no connection to the average Christian and, in fact, seems directly opposed to Christianity.  Harry Blamires, an Anglican theologian, literary critic, and pupil of C.S. Lewis, wrote in The Christian Mind that a sign of someone thinking Christianly is the “Acceptance of Authority”.   “It follows equally,” Blamires states, “from all that has been said about the doctrines of individualism and self-sufficiency permeating current secularism that our age is in revolt against the very notions of authority that are crucial to Christian thinking and acting.”1  As black and white as Blamires is on this topic, Scripture is also explicit about submitting to authorities (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-7).  It would seem that this punk rock sentiment has nothing to do with the Christianity that has established itself as the statistical majority in today’s world.

It seems, though, that we are far from the golden age of Christianity and there is always the constant fear that soon Christianity will become the minority as it was in the early days of the church.  Christianity is constantly being attacked whether it is through politics from a liberal left or if it is one of the Four Horsemen arguing that Christianity is actually harming humanity.  This punk rock sentiment may become a more commonly shared sentiment among Christians the further time goes by.  This is fitting because, as mentioned earlier, this sentiment is not a stranger to Christianity past.  Coming through time this sentiment has been passed down to us and we have forgotten it and taken our freedom for granted in recent times.  We have forgotten our past, we have forgotten what is expected of us, we have forgotten what was expected from authority and part of recovering our memory is embracing the punk rock sentiment.

Many may wonder what is meant by “the punk rock sentiment is in our heritage”.  Despite being slightly anachronistic, what this signifies is that the moral conviction of an individual against an authority is in the history of Protestantism.  Let us start with Martin Luther, the reformer and probably one of the first cases of someone standing on principles that brought him in conflict with the system he was under. For those of you unfamiliar with Luther’s story, allow me to briefly describe it.  Luther was an Augustinian monk in Germany in the early 16th century.   In 1515, Luther was working through Romans where he could not get passed Romans 1:17, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”2  Thinking on this verse moved Luther to his famous doctrine of justification by faith alone, a doctrine that would bring him in conflict with the Catholic church.  In 1517, Luther nailed the 95 theses on the doors of the Wittenberg church, which was the beginning of Luther’s public protestation of several Catholic practices.3  Luther, under conviction from reading Scripture, could no longer come to terms with the church that he had given his life to at that point.  History looks back at the man trying to reform the church and sees that zeal for reformation eventually turn into a split and creation of the establishment of Lutheranism.  The beginnings of the Protestant break were nailed into the door of the Catholic Church.

Skip ahead a couple decades to the English Reformation where England separated from the Roman Catholic Church, primarily for the annulment of King Henry VIII’s marriage.  For the next few years England went back and forth between rulers who aligned themselves with the church in Rome or separated from it.4  The constant change is what drove the Puritans and the Presbyterians to distance themselves from the Church of England, realizing that they would not be able to escape what they saw as the shackles of Catholicism unless they left the national church.  The final straw that came was the reign of King James that brought religious persecution and caused the first colonists, the Separatists, to seek religious freedom.  Here again, we find people following their conviction to separate from the established authority.

The last point I would like to touch on is that then these separatists became the early American colonies.  Even though there were many that were still loyal to the crown, the colonies found themselves in a position where they were at odds with the ruling system.  Despite attempts to work something out within the system, revolution came– and the rest is history.  Here we are some two hundred years later.  The descendants of a legacy of people who stood up for what they believed, something that we were told to be proud of growing up in elementary school history classes.  For the most part, one argues, these were advances; these changes, reforms, revolutions were for a better future.  It was on the back of this sentiment that we find ourselves presently.

Why is this ideal so controversial today?  Partly it has to do with a cycle that we seem to find ourselves in.  There is an established system that is then replaced and seems to work for awhile but then another group finds something wrong and tries to make a newer system in its stead.  This cycle is one that C.S. Lewis describes in his work, particularly in The Abolition of Man. Lewis paints a picture of man attempting to create a new, better society.  This society then creates a new man. This pattern continues until man ultimately supersedes itself over and over causing the eventual abolition of man.  Partly is that it seems to be the ideal that leads to what Punk Rock is today; the overthrow of any system of old in hopes of creating a utopian society based on radical individualism and abolishment of any authority.  But break down the ideal from the punk culture and one finds the positive elements of individualism.

There are three very connected things that the punk rock sentiment asks of the individual.  The first is the burden to know what you believe.  In order for someone to have such a strong conviction about something that eventually brings them at odds with everything they have ever known, they have to know and believe in that idea.  The punk culture exemplifies this despite the content of their message being based in a naturalist perspective (versus the supernatural presuppositions of Christianity).  At this point punk rock takes to its passions and becomes an expert in the punk rock position- anarchy, drugs, destruction of social norms.  But what Christianity seeks to know is itself or, historically stated, it has sought orthodoxy.  In this respect, we as Christians need to continually do this—be able to understand and communicate what we believe.  This is the basis of respect in the punk rock community.  Even if you have a differing perspective, if you are able to clearly communicate the philosophies that dictate thought and practice that is the beginning of earning respect of your peers.

The next task asked of the individual is to then act on what one knows and believes.  This seems like a simple and obvious next step, but alas it seems to be one that people miss.  Again, in punk rock-dom this is what marks the culture.  When those who categorize themselves under punk they act out on their beliefs in drug use, free love, and want of no authority, even to the criticism of popular culture and, often times, better judgment.  In Christendom, this must look like us practicing the faith that we have sought to understand.  If we claim to know then we must act in accordance with what we know.  In Scripture this is the manifestations of verses like John 13:34-5, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”5  The first sign of insincerity that the punk rock culture is quick to expose is a person who does not act consistently with what they claim to believe.

The last requirement on the individual is then to stand up for what you believe.  If you know what you believe, are remaining consistent in action with that belief, and believe it to be true than you must stand up for it when it comes under attack.  This is what adds to the aggressive and offensive nature of punk rock, the idolizing of certain attitudes and rights to the point of ridiculing and disrespecting others.  Punk rock takes the attitude that if something is right than anything that stands to oppress it is heinously off-base.  Christianity, too, makes very exclusive claims.  It is only by having the boldness that is reinforced by the punk rock sentiment that one can be confident to evangelize or stand at the debate lectern.  It reinforces the spine of those like Athanasius, Luther, and the Separatists.

The effects of the punk rock sentiment on the individual are the cause of the individual’s reaction to society and authority.  Ultimately, the individual expects the same from authority and society that he or she expects of themselves.  Punk rock wants the authority to do the same thing it asks of the individual.  Respect is given to a social group or authority if they can prove that they know what they stand for and act on that stance.  To a fault at times, the punk rock community is highly cynical of the current systems in place.  The thing that punk rock cannot understand is why something simple becomes so complicated (and at times oversimplifying can be a fault of the culture).  The Reformation sought to do this at a certain level.  Luther returned to the common man the knowledge that he did not need the church to have a relationship with God.  As evangelicalism is concerned, Luther gave back to the common man what was always his—control over his standing with God.  The level between clergy and layman was equaled.

The only way that one can know about the state of the individual and the authority is honesty.  Yet again, here is another simplistic ideal but this is tied to the previous points.  If you know what you believe is right, then why would you have to lie about it?  In punk rock this shows itself in the explicitness and immediate reaction that is given off.  Often times rash, the punk rocker gives off a quick answer but, still, it is consistent with everything that they stand for beforehand.  In Christianity this should be even more obvious.  What is there to hide if one is acting from scripture and a clear conscious?  Even if the right path is not obvious, being honest in seeking help seems to be the noble thing to do.  Seldom does a revolution occur that is a complete surprise to the authority being attacked.  The examples given earlier all had protestation before separation.

The last thing, and the gravest offense that one can commit in a punk rocker’s eyes, is selling out.  Selling out is giving up or compromising what you believe for either a lesser thing or for a more convenient option.  It is seen as a tragic betrayal if someone “sells out”.  More commonly today you here that phrase in more of a joking attitude, but if put in a more serious context it is a lament.  In the punk rock culture those who simply grow out of the music or the lifestyle are seen as selling out.  But in Christianity, selling out is something more grave for it has eternal consequences.  I hope there are no sellouts… although we often are.  An example of this is Judas.  Even in secular culture “Judas” is the epitome of selling out and betrayal.  It seems simple: know what you believe, stay faithful and honest, and keep the faith.  But how often do we trade what we believe for lesser things?  Embracing the punk rock sentiment may not be a bad thing if it gives us a zeal against selling out on our God.

So where does all of this fit in with the Christian acceptance of authority?  Blamires directly follows the earlier quote with this; “That there is a good element in contemporary rejection of authority is not to be denied.”6   There is a point that on this earth, while under human systems, questioning and petitioning is a good thing.  Blamires goes on to talk more directly in his context (World War II era) about the point of questioning the authority and he concludes, “… in short the protection of freedom in all departments of life.”7  This is exactly the goal of the punk rock sentiment.

The purpose of the punk rock sentiment is summed up in the end goal.  The subculture of punk is seeking for a society whose core virtue is freedom—absolute freedom, anarchy.  I said earlier that this subculture mostly operates on a very naturalistic presupposition and thus the conclusion will be very different than that of Christianity, but still closer than we think.  For we too seek freedom, freedom in Christ.  That is also where we find our answer of balancing the acceptance of authority here on earth and the punk rock sentiment.  In Jesus day the parallel to today’s punk rockers would be the religious zealots that were against every sign of Roman oppression of the Jewish people.  But our example is of the one who said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”8  Jesus was not against Rome, He was about the Kingdom of Heaven.

This is what we are left with: Freedom in Christ and the Kingdom of Heaven.  In a strange sort of way these are the two things that Christianity is trying to live in and also march towards; already, but not yet.  Along the way we are trying to figure out what that means to us as individuals living in systems within systems.  Brothers and sisters, do not fear anything above the Lord your God, for this is the whole duty of man: fear God and keep his commandments. We will always be in systems and we will continue to struggle with our involvement and place within those systems.  The punk rock sentiment is simply motivation to be aware of our individual position and trying to remain faithful to that which we proclaim to follow.

Endnotes

1. Blamires, The Christian Mind, Regent College Publishing; Vancouver, British Columbia 1963. Print. 132-3.

2. ESV

3. Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language. Thomas Nelson Publishers; Nashville. 1995. Print. 239-40.

4. Pettegree, Andrew. “The English Reformation”. BBC. Web. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/tudors/english_reformation_01.shtml&gt;

5. ESV

6. Blamires 133

8. Ibid.

9. Mark 12:17, ESV

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