How to Be an Atheist: Working out the Worldview of a Skeptic, Free for CAPC Members
Mitch Stokes’ ‘How to Be an Atheist’ shows the work of the worldview of a skeptic.
During my high school years, I sometimes felt convicted that I had one foot in each of the two main camps—the church and the world. More specifically, the world of the Antenna club, a place where I felt almost as much at home as I did in the church. Although I was in youth group every Sunday night, I was often in the gritty, grimy, beer-soaked darkness of the Antenna club seeing 7 Seconds, Bikini Kill, and a host of national or local hardcore and punk bands on weekend nights (I went for the music and scene but never had a drop of alcohol). I was always trying to bring these seemingly “sacred and secular” worlds together. Although some of the sweet scented church folk I knew were afraid of, mocking toward, or actively condemned a punk rock aesthetic and praxis, I always felt that there was some deeper, more human connection that they were missing—even though I could not exactly name it.
The punk “family” created a safe space for lament (often disguised as anger) and audible, visible testimonies of often unspoken painful realities.When I was a part of (what my friends called) “the scene” in the late eighties—comprised of skaters, punks, artists, straight-edgers, and perhaps even a few metal heads—something was very poignant and real about the way my friends highlighted the jagged edges of life without trying to smooth them over. These were people of strong opinions based on strong convictions (about art, life, the structure of society, and the corrosive Barbie doll world of our suburban public high school). Of course, I had strong convictions of my own, convictions that had been formed by the biblical narratives that had shaped my understanding of the nature of reality. And I had some dear, thoughtful, and creative friends (and youth group leaders—several even introduced me to bands such as The Replacements and The Violent Femmes) in the church. I could fully express my deep spiritual longings in my church community—but I also felt a deep connection to reality in the world of “the scene.” I had a mixture of guilt, excitement, and compassion when I was a part of this movement—and a sense that something was both right and wrong in my being so drawn to the punk scene, its music, its community.
I did not really have a spiritual vocabulary through which to understand my love of the punk rock scene until I went to Covenant College and learned about the theological concept of “common grace.” According to Dutch-Reformed theology, because all humans are made in God’s image, they all have the capacity to communicate truth, even if not Christians, and even if sometimes mixed with untruth. Understanding this profoundly changed my thinking and transformed my conceptual framework so much that my black and white “sacred” and “secular” distinctions collapsed into something far more complex and beautiful. Although much of the Christian music I loved while in junior high (Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith) did speak words of biblical truth, something about their particular sweet aesthetic–and a connected industry driven scene–did not reflect the reality of everyday life as I experienced it. When listening to punk rock, and when speaking with my “scene” friends, I encountered a subversive mix of the sacred and profane amidst the roughness, anger, and rebellion.
I saw a profound desire for truth as my friends and our beloved music kicked against a deceptive, falsely beautiful “system”, refusing to play by its rules. I did see lots of anger as we collectively worked against a vapid commodification of culture, fueled by a vehement hatred for mainstream normalcy. I also saw anger because our suburban reality was often air brushed, and most were not speaking the truth about its seedy underside. In the punk scene, I experienced community built around shared stories of pain and brokenness; many (if not all) of my “scene” friends had suffered abuse, experienced divorce, been victims of abandonment, etc. The punk “family” created a safe space for lament (often disguised as anger) and audible, visible testimonies of often unspoken painful realities.
Because of the ways in which I feel that this music, this community, and this aesthetic were part of my own spiritual formation, I want to focus on some of their positive, perhaps even prophetic, aspects as I provide examples from different musicians and/or aspects of the scene. I want to be careful, however, to not romanticize these artists/movements and appear to say that everything that was done was constructive. The truth of this music is sometimes intertwined with a great deal of self-interest and self-righteousness, confusion, and darkness–and the reasons to expose the truth are not always noble. There is also a good bit of unhealthy anger and lots of flat out rebellion. But the desire for truth and the honesty with which it is expressed is something that has deeply challenged me in my own faith. As my friend, Ken Heffner, Student Activities Director at Calvin College, often says: “The kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of light are always everywhere at the same time.” It is, of course, our job to discern which is which.
One of my early musical favorites was the Warhol assembled, experimental proto-punk outlet The Velvet Underground. From 1964-1973, the Velvets not only sang about spiritual, emotional, and psychological discord, they actually sang and played discord itself. Unlike the romanticized notions of drug-induced peace, happiness, and free love that were typical of 1960’s counterculture, The Velvet Underground presented a sobering, sad, and chaotic picture of gritty urban life. Although the hippy and protest movements of the sixties were reactions against both war and middle class values, many protest songs (from Peter, Paul, and Mary; Joan Baez; CSN; etc.) sounded sweet and peaceful even when talking about violence and injustice. The Velvet Underground was a group of both musicians and conceptual performance artists; like the Dadaists (the philosophical and aesthetic grandfathers of punk rock), they made their art form reflect its chaotic, despairing, sometimes violent content. It was the opposite of idealism or any sort of wishful thinking.
Lou Reed’s starkly poetic lyrics crafted truthful pictures of hard topics, never judging or glorifying, just telling. One of the band’s most well known songs, “Heroin” is not a romantic glamorization of drug addiction, but a painfully sad admission of transcendent longings within the prison of addiction: “I don’t know just where I’m going/ But I’m going to try for the kingdom if I can/ ‘cause it makes me feel like I’m a man/ When I put a spike into my vein/ And I’ll tell ya, things aren’t quite the same / When I’m rushing on my run/ And I feel just like Jesus’ son/ And I guess that I just don’t know/ And I guess that I just don’t know.” In “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” model/ musicians Nico sings Reed’s questions about finding a sense of purpose and meaning in the midst of stylish, yet hollow New York art parties: “And what costume shall the poor girl wear to all tomorrow’s parties?/ A hand-me-down dress from who knows where, to all tomorrow’s parties/And where will she go and what shall she do when midnight comes around?.” In the midst of songs about drug deals (“Waiting for My Man”), perverse sexual practices (“Venus in Furs”), and existential crises (“The Black Angel’s Death Song”), we also hear a desperate cry for healing alongside acknowledged brokenness as Reed repeats the same lines over and over: “Jesus, help me find my proper place/ Jesus, help me find my proper place/ Help me in my weakness/ Cause I’m falling out of grace/Jesus/ Jesus.”
The Velvets intentionally sounded like ragged amateurs, perhaps even inventing the punk DIY aesthetic. The sound was rough, unpredictable, and seemingly thrown together, a reflection of their perceived reality. As the viola screeched, plates were dropped, Reed’s sing-speak vocals tried to catch up with a frenetic rhythm, and the broken urgency of their art indicated a desire for some sort of change—but at times, we heard a loss of hope, perhaps in their weakest moments, a romanticism of despair. The creative, confused, yet violently honest music made by the Velvet Underground did not refrain from showing reality devoid of gloss; these forerunners of the punk movement told it like it was but were lacking a vision of what could be.
Punk rock’s notoriety is sometimes well founded, sometimes simply based on ignorance, fear, and misunderstanding. The Sex Pistols, four young ragamuffin Londoners, started an intentionally provocative band in the back of Malcolm McClaren’s fashion shop on the very posh King’s Road in class-divided 1975 London. The band’s four members could not initially play instruments, but their frontman, John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) had a strong sense of moral indignation towards the mistreatment of the working class by the Thatcher administration. In Julian Temple’s brilliant, creative, and historically accurate documentary, The Filth and the Fury, an incredibly clever John Lydon narrates, explaining that during the 1975 garbage strike, there was rubbish piled high, stinking and rotten all down the King’s Road in wealthy Chelsea—and fashionable people were walking past, ignoring the stench. What later became known as punk rock “fashion” was Lydon’s initial visual, embodied response to a city that chose to ignore the rotting reality around them as they clung to their comfortable middle class illusions. Since so many were ignoring the garbage, Lydon decided to wear it himself to force them to pay attention. The band’s look (ripped clothes, safety pins), the sound (discordant and angry), and their behavior (often crude and rude) were meant to shock–but also to be an honest representation of a bleak social reality. Even the desire to shock was from a sense of moral outrage, at least from Lydon’s perspective. He was angry because those around him were sleepwalking, drugged by the comforts of “the system.”.
The Pistols’ famous act of spitting at the camera was a visceral attempt to create a (very foul) dividing line between themselves and the reality denying English government, monarchy, music industry, and middle-class. In their most famous song, the ironic mock anthem “God Save the Queen” Lydon snarls “God save the Queen/’Cause tourists are money/ And our figurehead/ Is not what she seems/ Oh God save history/ God save your mad parade/ Oh Lord God have mercy/All crimes are paid.” The song brutally distinguishes between appearance and truth, reality and fantasy. In “Pretty Vacant,” Lydon sings “I don’t believe in illusions/ ‘cause too much is real” and then mocks the shallow world of the “beautiful” people: “We’re so pretty/ We’re so pretty/ Pretty vacant…”.
Lydon’s project was arguably a prophetic—although sometimes cruel and deeply angry– critique of injustice, conformity, and the zombification of a culture. It exposed the truth and called for a change. When interviewed about The Sex Pistols’ controversial “alternative” national anthem (which was number one on the Billboard charts, yet banned for weeks), Lydon said: “You don’t write ‘God Save the Queen’ because you hate the English race. You write a song like that because you love them, and you’re fed up with them being mistreated.” The Pistols kicked and screamed their way outside of the system, enabling them to mount an outsiders’ perspective from which to critique it. Sadly, this initially authentic expression soon morphed into a fad; dissonant music, ripped closed, and rebellious behavior became cool simply for the sake of coolness, a commodified product that was fed right back into what Lydon calls the “shitstem.”
Although the Pistols’ music was aggressive and definitely divisive, it did encourage a solidarity of sorts with other outsiders, those who were seen as garbage (which they wore ironically), those who were “mistreated.” Lydon says of his own bandmate, guitarist Steve Jones, who was considered a “thug” and a “thief,” that “I can see a tragedy in him just like in me.” In a sense, the music was an angry lament for the collective woundedness, the subcultural tragedy of those that had been marginalized. Michael Kaufman, former label manager of Asthmatic Kitty Records, argues that in punk rock music and its makeshift community, we see a “desire for honesty and authenticity” that reflect a “transcendence in brokenness.” Lydon’s on-stage persona was a grotesque character that identified with his broken community: “I certainly weren’t no bell of the ball,” he claimed. He played a caricature that was partially modeled off of the quasi-historical antagonist of Shakespeare’s Richard III—“deformed, hilarious, grotesque”—challenging and redefining industry produced images of faux beauty and hollow value. Lydon even claims that, because of the character that he embraced, his fans starting to respect themselves, seeing a unique sort of beauty that deviated from a social norm.
The British punk rock community of the seventies heavily influenced the subversive communal mindset of the 1980’s punk/hardcore scenes which centered on bands located in either California (The Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, The Circle Jerks) or Washington, DC (Bad Brains, Teen Idles, Minor Threat). A large amount of this music was very socially conscious, all of it intentionally subversive. Although all of these bands are worthy of discussion for different reasons, I want to focus on DC’s Dischord Records, founded by Ian Mackaye and Jeff Nelson, more specifically on the music and philosophy of Mackaye’s most famous outfits, Minor Threat and Fugazi. Minor Threat’s songs were short, fast, both tight and ragged—a firing squad of angry accusations supported by a “Straight Edge” manifesto: “I’m a person just like you/ But I’ve got better things to do/ Than sit around and smoke dope/ Cause I know that I can cope/ Laugh at the thought of eating ludes/ Laugh at the thought of sniffing glue/ Always gonna keep in touch/Never want to use a crutch/ I’ve got the straight edge.” The music and attitude of the Straight Edge movement was often arrogantly angry, fueled by a sense of pride in being different. At the same time, there was a deep desire to be real, to always “keep in touch” rather than be defined by societal norms that prop themselves up on stimulants or massage with downers in order to sustain a false happiness. There is a distinctly countercultural effort to be, as the title of one song claims, “Out of Step (With the World).” In “Good Guys (Don’t Wear White)” Mackaye, like Lydon, wants to deconstruct the mainstream façade of who might be considered normal or good: “Good guys bad guys/ Which is which?/ The white collar worker or digger in the ditch/ Man who’s to say who’s the better man?”. Fugazi, Mackaye’s subsequent band, performed much more complex and nuanced songs about social issues including police brutality, the lies of corporate America, and the objectification of women (which was quite countercultural within the context of an often male dominated subculture).
Both British punk rock and DC hardcore were interested in collapsing binaries within their own “outsider” communities while at the same time promoting a distinct class warfare in attempts to resist corporate aesthetics and moral standards. Unlike The Sex Pistols’ fan base, many of the fans of DC hardcore were not working class, but very middle class; at the same time, they violently reacted against an encroaching suburban malaise. Both Minor Threat and Fugazi practiced what they preached as they resisted the “rewards” of corporate America. They never made music videos, would never charge more than $10 for concert tickets, and in Fugazi’s case, never produced, approved, or sold any t-shirts ( although there was a very popular “bootlegged” t-shirt which said “This is Not a Fugazi T-shirt” on the front).
Punk/ hardcore shows were also designed to resist a hierarchical structure as the barrier between audience and musicians was usually collapsed. In a sense, this was not a performance but a deeply visceral, communal conversation. Even the acts of stage diving and slamming in a mosh pit were a reflexive mix of both trust—and violence. Michael Kaufman claims that the mosh pit violence was often a “desire to be present.” Many of the young participants felt that they had been raised with the false belief that they were defined chiefly as consumers, a target market. Like the participants in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, perhaps these angry participants wanted to be able to feel that their reality was not corporately constructed. One of Fugazi’s most popular songs, “Merchandise” claims that “You are not what you own.” This broken, angry community could be identity defining and supportive, but also explosive. Ian Mackaye is famous for stopping Minor Threat or Fugazi shows to kick out someone who was harming another person—or to make one person apologize to one another, providing a sort of rough parental guidance for this haphazard concert family. Although the community could easily devolve into violence, it could also become a surrogate family space for any who had been physically, spiritually, intellectually, and/or emotionally abused by those who authority over them (always society and, often, their own parents).
In Everyday Apocalypse, David Dark argues that we have ignored the actual meaning of the word and concept “apocalypse,” which is an act of “revelation”, a disclosure of the truth that has perhaps been hidden under a façade (10). He goes on to say that “apocalyptic shows us what we are not seeing” and that it “can’t be composed or spoken by the powers that be because they are the sustainers of ‘the way things are’” (10). Apocalyptic does not conform in order to feel comfortable—but it “cracks the pavement of the status quo” as it “irritates and disrupts the feverishly defended norms of whatever culture it engages” (12). One of the many goals of punk rock was to form an inclusive community in an attempt to resist “the way things are” by exposing corrosion and darkness that masqueraded as sweetness and light.
Although the participants of the punk rock movement often failed to provide substantial answers, and sometimes confused darkness with light, they asked many of the right questions, and their devotion for seeking truth rather than being lulled by the false rhythms of suburbia have an apocalyptic resonance. Perhaps punk rock, in both theory and practice, can be a reminder to the church of our very countercultural call to speak prophetically into the culture, to make a space for lament, to resist oppressive and unjust hierarchies, and to welcome the outsider.
[button link=”http://christandpopculture.com/capc-mag-volume-2-issue-18-outsiders/” size=”medium”Read more in CAPC Mag Volume 2, Issue 18: Outsiders[/button]
Dark, David. Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, The
Simpsons, and Other Pop Culture Icons. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2002.
Kaufman, Michael. Phone Interview. 5 December 2008.
The Filth and the Fury. Dir. Julian Temple. Perf. John Lydon, Steve Jones,
Paul Cook, Glen Matlock, Sid Vicious. FilmFour, 2000. Film.
**All quotes from John Lydon were taken from The Filth and the Fury.
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