November 30, 2010

Catholicism And Punk

Funny how the Internet works. Magnificat magazine, which I follow on Twitter, retweets one Sr. Lisa, so I click her profile to check out her blog (pretty great, by the way) and run across an entry about this blog, which looks kind of neat to me. Punk musician gets religion - sounds a little like my story. But it's not. I feel for this guy and God love him for doing his best to dedicate himself to his formation and live a good life but I just can't relate at all.

Part of it's because I want through my rebellious phase in my early teens; I was over it by the time I started a punk band at 18. Part of it may be because although I was baptized Catholic, I wasn't raised in the faith so I never grew tired of it as a teenager. And a big part of it is that I've rejected punk dogma outright almost since I knew what it was; and even when I embraced it I couldn't seem to get along with the people who were on my side. But the biggest reason I can't relate is that I've been playing in a punk band for 25 years. It's how I earn my living and I love doing it. Punk rock supports my family. It puts food in my kids' mouths. And I'm thrilled to be able to make music for a living, and I see no contradiction between that and being a faithful Catholic.

Even at my most earnest and naive, as an eighteen year old who really thought punk was something new and exciting, I found it impossible to go along with the crowd. I had a good internal bullshit detector, and the flashing red lights and sirens started going off by the time I attended my second punk show. I hated the groupthink of punk and wasn't shy about saying so. It made me a lot of enemies - actually, it still does. As much as almost anything else, being at odds with punk culture has fueled my career. I enjoy being on the outside. I like that I've never really fit in anywhere in punk. It pleases me to no end that new generations of punk rockers keep coming to the conclusion that I'm an asshole. I wouldn't have it any other way; I stand for so many things that punk culture despises, and I'm against so many of the things it raises up. I'm not sure being punk means anything, but if it does, surely it means above all being true to yourself, no matter how many other people tell you that you shouldn't because you're breaking their rules.

But what's really kept me interested in punk is the music. Punk culture, as fun as it can be to point and laugh at, is ultimately far too predictable and dull to sustain the interest of anybody but the most boring people. It's the musical equivalent of a Star Trek convention, minus the fun. But great punk music is truly awe-inspiring. And if you take away the liturgical function of the best church hymns, they serve the same purpose as popular music: to inspire, uplift and energize us; to point us to things that we can't articulate. Part of the attraction of anything new to us - a new girlfriend or boyfriend, a new place to live, a new drug - is the hope that we've finally found what will bring us ultimate happiness. The Christian - even the Christian in terrible circumstances like imprisonment, political oppression or chronic illness - has found that ultimate joy and peace in God. Everything else that we try to turn into little gods fails us. We're left empty, alone and hungry for another experience - one that we hope next time will be true, real and lasting. Music speaks to our core; it speaks to that for which, to paraphrase the Psalmist, our body yearns and our soul thirsts. Great music - and all great art - points to God. I can't imagine leaving punk music behind.

Not that I don't despise much of what makes up punk culture. The problem with punk rockers is the same problem with everyone else: we keep trying to find that ineffable, inexplicable joy that lies beyond our comprehension in the mundane: TV, mindless consumerism, drugs, alcohol and sex, and even music scenes. As the Buddhist might say, we keep mistaking the finger for the star it's pointing at. We can turn anything - family, friends, even religion - into poison with our need to serve our ego. It's not that buying things, or watching TV, or even drugs or alcohol, are necessarily inherently bad; it's that we make twisted little self-serving idols out of them. We warp and mutate our surroundings in an attempt to build a world of happiness, joy and peace, and the harder we try, the more we fail. The Christian knows this is the case because he knows that we can't create lasting happiness and peace; he knows that these things can only come from God. But punk culture is violently opposed to the concept of God, so it keeps turning in on itself and churning out self-inflicted misery.

What punk culture is never going to accept - because it requires belief in a concept to which punk is diametrically opposed - is that true freedom comes through obedience; true happiness comes through denial of our ego-craving, not by attempting to sate it with worldly things; and true peace comes through embracing our suffering and our flaws, not by trying to stifle them or run away from them.

As for me, I figure I'm good at making punk music so I ought to do it. Laypeople are called to be in the world without being of it. For a long time I couldn't see how to do that; it was a particularly difficult concept when I was a Buddhist. And I don't know if I can explain how to do it. I just know that I don't feel any contradiction between what I do on stage or on records and my life as a Christian; they're one and the same. I don't doubt for a second that I'm living out my vocation by being a husband, father and musician. Many times over the course of each year I'm fortunate enough to meet fans who tell me what my music has meant to them, and, often, how much it's helped them. That has nothing to do with religion, but there's no question that it's a thing of the spirit, and it's a remarkable experience, one that never gets old. My job isn't about punk culture - it's about connecting with people, even in the most seemingly silly, inconsequential ways, like through a simple punk song. I don't know if the particulars even matter that much, which is probably why I don't feel the need to write explicitly about religion, and why I don't feel particularly remorseful about having written things in the past with which I now disagree, sometimes vehemently. Music is a noble line of work, one through which we can know, love and serve God.

Posted by benweasel at 11:04 AM