Movements come and go. But some movements change the cultural landscape so much that they continue living on. Punk rock, which burst into the popular consciousness seemingly out of nowhere in the mid-to-late ‘70s, is one such movement. Today, people inevitably ask “Is punk rock dead?” “Yes” say some, insisting that punk died as soon as it was dubbed “punk,” or that it died during the last ever Sex Pistols performance when Johnny Rotten asked a crowded Candlestick Park if they ever got the feeling they’ve been cheated.
“No!” still others insist: Punk is going strong. The Ramones, The Clash, and most of the L.A. scene kept doing their thing after the Pistols’ fall, so why should we attribute the death of punk to one band? The Refused, Against Me!, Anti-Flag, Streetlight Manifesto, and a host of other post-1979 bands represent a generation of rockers who see themselves as punks — not proto-punks or post-punks, but bona fide punk rockers.
Whether or not you believe punk or the Reformation was good or bad, you can’t deny their incalculable sway on the course of their respective stories.Punk didn’t exist for me until late 2004, the year I purchased both Never Mind the Bollocks and The Clash’s eponymous debut. As a socially lackluster teenager with an affinity for music, I had been borrowing my dad’s Neil Young and Buddy Holly albums since I was a kid, and rock ‘n roll captivated me. But I didn’t just want to listen to rock ‘n roll. I wanted to understand it. This music held some secret to my identity, and I needed to understand it. All of it. This inevitably led me to the punk revolution. I found in Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer’s vocals, Steve Jones’ guitar, and whatever the heck Sid Vicious was doing on bass a truly unique if not disquieting spirit that seemed pure.
Then, for a while, I became a bona fide punk fundamentalist, mistrusting of anything that claimed the “P” word. I believed punk was dead. Sum 41 and the “pop punk” of my peers had hijacked a sacred genre and twisted it into harmless bubblegum pop. I wouldn’t and couldn’t budge on my position, but that was okay because most 15-year-old high school students didn’t care much about the semantics of rock ‘n roll genres, so my soapbox didn’t attract much of a crowd.
When I started reading the books of rock critic Greil Marcus, I began to see popular music as a powerful, interconnected, and evolving historical movement. Punk, in particular, was a story interconnected with other political, cultural, and historical stories. I realized it was something worthy of study and wonder, not absolute definition.
In Lipstick Traces, Marcus goes to great lengths to compare the 1976 British punk explosion with early 20th-century Dadaism, a politically motivated art movement that had its day at WWI’s outset. Throughout Lipstick Traces, Marcus makes connections that are not distinctly there. “This is the secret the Sex Pistols didn’t tell, which they only acted out,” says Greil Marcus as he concludes his narrative — the “secret” being the revolutionary, novel excitement of the movement that came and went with the Sex Pistols’ dissolution.
As a teenager, I found Marcus’ take on rock ‘n roll mixing with my freshly minted Christian faith, which gave me a lot to think through and even fewer people to share it with. Most of my Christian friends didn’t have the desire to wade into the world of “secular” rock ‘n roll with me and the very select few that shared my love of music did not share my love of Jesus. But I began to connect the theology that I was studying with the music I was listening to and the origins of both fascinated me; Paul and Augustine captured my theological imagination while I spent months lost in Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.
As Samuel Johnson observed, “[the fact] that wonder is the result of ignorance has oft been noted.” This being the case, my wonder grew as I realized how little I knew. Because of the place these unique interests held in my psyche at such a formative time in my life, the narratives of Christianity and rock ‘n roll intertwined in my mind. And thus, my first Marcus-esque connection emerged: I saw punk rock as the Protestant Reformation of rock ‘n roll.
American rock ‘n roll started as a mix of black gospel music, delta blues, Appalachian traditional songs, and whatever else the American South had to offer, all somehow united and interconnected. The Church left the cultural purity of Judaism and extended itself to a host of different cultures with one fundamental message and spirit. As time went on, both the Church and rock ‘n roll organized and found robust identity despite being relegated to the poor, the misfits, and the overlooked.
But then, something happened to both. Elvis converted America to rock ‘n roll and Constantine converted Rome to Christianity. The organizations grew and grew. After a while, the mass appeal brought with it unavoidable temptations and trials, as well as the lukewarm, the greedy, and the political — the Pat Boones and Leo Xs. The ideological roots of both the Church and rock ‘n roll seemed at times but shells of themselves, ritualized to the point of mindlessness. The masses seemed content with their trite entertainments. Each movement underwent corruption by forces, ideas, and motivations that were antithetical to its heart and then saw those antitheses cemented as values.
Then something changed everything.
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. 460 years later, Johnny Rotten, Steve Jones, Paul Cook, and Sid Vicious released Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Nothing would be the same.
In the years following these cataclysmic events, everything was on its head. Johnny Rotten was on the front page of the London Times; entire countries left the Roman Catholic Church in less than a generation. Kids who found punk transformed almost overnight, much to more than a few parents’ dismay. Wars broke out. Those being rebelled against saw these new expressions as a passing fad at best, and at worst, a movement that needed to be crushed. But the movements kept going. Soon, both punk and Protestantism began to organize and systematize. The second generation Protestant John Calvin published a thorough Protestant systematic theology, which was already splintering. The punk scene became “in” and a set of cultural norms and dress codes began feeding an increasingly standardized “punk image.”
Every rock ‘n roll band had to take a stand on punk: were they influenced by the Sex Pistols or did they hate them? Post-punk, new wave, and hardcore sought to follow in the footsteps of the original punk rockers, and some even dubbed themselves “original punks.” Centuries earlier, the Reformation incited a Catholic counter-reformation, paving the way for other churches to split from Rome for very un-Lutheran reasons, and changed Christendom’s landscape by adding scores of Reformed, Lutheran, and Anabaptist churches. Whether or not you believe punk or the Reformation was good or bad, you can’t deny their incalculable sway on the course of their respective stories.
What sustains rock ‘n roll and Christianity is different in substance for each, but not all that different in form. The movements’ purity is easily corrupted but the heart that continues to attract people is the same thing that started the movements in the first place: Kids make music because they want to express themselves and people come to Jesus because they realize that they are sinners in need of a Savior.
So is punk dead? Maybe. But rather than getting caught up in the debate, both punk and the Reformation give us an opportunity to consider something incredible taking place throughout human history. The legacies left by both punk rock and the Reformation influence everything they touch, and we will continue to have more revolutionary movements in both popular music and the Church. As history has shown, things as active and powerful as music and the Gospel won’t simply lay down to our deadness. They always come back no matter how far we get away from them.