AGAINST NOTHINGNESS: ON CHRISTIANITY AND PUNK
by Chris R. Morgan
“It’s your fault, fucking up the kids.” –Botch
“DC made me and the rest of this mess.” –Orchid
“I hope for nothing from the world; I fear nothing from it, I desire nothing of it; by God’s grace, I need no one’s wealth or authority.” –Pascal
For as long as I’ve been culturally aware, I’ve heard about this or that anomalous cultural event as being the “new punk.” It is a testament to punk’s own endurance that this usage is almost never derogatory. But that it is not derogatory probably makes the ensuing and usually one-sided debate over whether or not this new punk qualifies as such, let alone what punk is, all the more acrimonious. It’s a shame because the answer is both unchanging and uncomplicated: it doesn’t. Though it is not so much a matter of the declaration being wrong as it is of its being imprecise.
First because “punk” as a concept has reached a dizzying vastness since the early-1970s when Suicide began putting the term on their show flyers. So when someone seeks to point out a movement or trend that reaches a significant amount of young people free of any assent of a corporate hegemon, punk is not very suitable, particularly since in some cases it did have corporate or at least mercenary motive behind it. Grunge, on the other hand, is. Not that that’s very attractive, given that grunge’s disruptive entrance was followed by an exit that was tragic and more prolonged than its early-1990s peak. And second, while punk cannot be replaced, it does have some close relatives, which are worthier of examination and even exaltation. Indeed, punk is simply another name for something more timeless—always shifting yet always constant.
In that light, Tara Isabella Burton’s New York Times feature “Christianity Gets Weird” (changed from the more explicit print title “The Future of Christianity is Punk”) is not objectionable. It was only a matter of time before it would reach that level of interest. I know because I wrote much the same thing in 2017. In fact, our pieces have a lot of conceptual overlap. Both are centered on youth who do not fit in hyper-liberal modernity, who reject the political binary, who go out in search of more amenable outlets, and who find one in religion (not “spirituality,” but religion: dogma, liturgical practice, of sin and its forgiveness, and the pursuit of moral clarity over pragmatism and individualism). Both of us even mention Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option. We both admit that this has a countercultural sheen to it; but where Burton focuses on the “Weird Christians” themselves, I examined its implications in culture and history, comparing the similarities between Ian MacKaye, straight edge, and Krishnacore with that of Girolamo Savonarola. More significantly, I did it from the point of view of a punk rather than that of a Christian. And it is there where my disappointment in Burton’s piece rests.
On matters of piety I have no qualms. I know that the young Christians Burton covers are earnest in their faith and struggling to maintain it in the middle of a plague (which, truth be told, is as trad as it gets). I’ve interacted with and met in person more than a few in that circle, even that MechaBonald fellow, who I met on his 21st birthday at the apartment of a First Things staffer. When I began hanging out with that crowd around 2014, those who knew me previously thought it was strange, and maybe not a little unnerving. I hadn’t given much thought to religion in any substantial way in a long time. I was many years distant from the Catholic faith into which I was baptized in infancy.
Still, I do not believe that it was matter of chance that I fell into that crowd. We had significant common ground. I never felt very much at ease in the wider mainstream society. I had a comfortable life in it, to be sure, but also felt somewhat separate from it. It moved at a pace I couldn’t keep up with and seemed shallow in what it wanted from the world and in what it asked of those who lived in it. My religious upbringing was fairly light to begin with, making its evaporation all but assured, and my intellectual and moral environment was similarly contingent. If I was going to foster any of it, I had to do it on my own, and in a place that was largely untouched by mainstream concerns. For them it was traditional/high church ritual, for me it was post-Fugazi hardcore punk. Maybe to our more experienced and/or jaded interlockers in these crowds we came off as too intense for their liking. I have distinct memories of exasperating older scenesters with my enthusiasm that could probably be detected in Vatican II-friendly boomer Catholics for them. Like the converts, I know what it’s like to feel at home with an idea of what the world should be like, and to explore it and want to embody it to unheard-of levels of purity.
My complaint, then, is not that punk gets mentioned at all, but rather that punk is mentioned so little. “Punk” appears only three times in the text, and in the most pedestrian of premises. “Weird Christianity is equal parts traditionalism and, well, punk,” Burton writes, “Christianity as transgressive alternative to contemporary secular capitalist culture. Like punk, Weird Christianity has its own, clearly defined aesthetic.” Indeed, the article is full of fondness for veils, Latin Mass, Gothic architecture, incense, old hymns and chants, and obscure prayers. It’s more than that of course, as Burton eloquently concludes:
The Weird Christian movement, loose and fledgling though it is, isn’t just about its punk-traditionalist aesthetic, a valorization of a half-imagined past. It is at its most potent when it challenges the present, and reimagines the future. Its adherents are, like so many young Americans of all religious persuasions, characterized by their hunger for something more than contemporary American culture can offer, something transcendent, politically meaningful, personally challenging. Like the hipster obsession with “authenticity” that marked the mid-2010s, the rise of Weird Christianity reflects America’s unfulfilled desire for, well, something real.
Deeply felt though this may be, I’m unconvinced. Weird Christianity is vying for the minds and souls of the young against other newfangled “movements” pledging to reject easy political categorizations and the dual corroding effects of secular liberalism and capitalism—your national conservatives, your dirtbag leftists, your Bronze Age Perverts. Yet the chief distinguishing marker is “smells and bells,” but with a punk garnish. I know there’s more to Weird Christianity than that, just as there is more to punk. This was always my point.
The difference between me and Burton is one of emphasis. For Burton, at least in this instance, the aesthetic embodies the ethic. For me, the ethic dictates the aesthetic. Because of this, I focus not on punk in general but on its 1980s offshoot hardcore. Hardcore lacks the vibrancy of its immediate predecessor, and pointedly so, but it is more copacetic with Weird Christianity. Both emerged in reaction to a culture pervasive in decadence and nihilism. Both shun the mainstream and thrive in smaller communities and develop cultural signatures unique to those communities. Both are propelled by a moral imperative that upholds affirmation over negation, integrity over compromise, and presence over absence.
Without hardcore, it’s hard for me to imagine punk lasting for as long as it has. Hardcore is an entirely bottom-up enterprise, implemented by virtue of its being needed. The wider culture cannot provide for everyone, try as it might. Some people want a certain sound, a certain social experience, a certain way of thinking that the wider culture cannot or refuses to comprehend. In that event, those who want it need to make it themselves. Hardcore, and by extension punk, is an ongoing process of creation and correction. Black Flag and Bad Brains built the world and forged the language; Fugazi, Sub Pop Records, and others made every punk a citizen. Punk thrives less because it is weird than because it is right. It is less about a lifestyle than it is about living, to the best of one’s ability, what one believes to be absolute.
I don’t think that this is misunderstood by the people who qualify as Weird Christians, and I do not mean to presume that they misunderstand. But I hope this thinking becomes still more prevalent, for their sakes. The feeling one gets from contributing, in whatever modest way, to the reduction of nothingness in this world is like no other I can think of. Indeed, this essay and all the other essays I’ve written on this subject likely cover just a fraction of the debt I owe to the people with whom I coexisted in the scene: the people who put on shows, promoted bands, made zines, helped and included others, who fretted over their own principles but not anyone else’s, who tolerated me personally. Anyone, in a word, who did much more as I shuffled at the periphery of the pit. Talk of “supporting the scene” is so profuse in rhetoric that it feels less sincere the more it is repeated. But at least in this instance, I am grateful to be reminded that supporting the scene is worthier and much more demanding than hyping a clique.