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In the world of Rock and Theology, my interests have hovered around the relationship of underground music cultures, social movements, and religion. In particular, I’ve been interested in the relationship of DIY punk music cultures (broadly defined) and spirituality/religion and have done some writing on this, most recently in an essay in the new Rock and Theology book, Secular Music and Sacred Theology. In my essay on “staying punk” as a theologian, I spend a good deal of time discussing one of the “patron saints” of punk rock, Ian MacKaye of Fugazi and Minor Threat, whose distinct voice within the many discussions of “punk ethics” has made me think not only about my own musical practices but about the practice of theology.

In December of last year, MacKaye and his wife Amy Farina released their third album as The Evens. The album, The Odds, is another great batch of MacKaye and Farina’s “quiet,” but still uncompromisingly political, punk rock. As I was preparing final edits to the chapter I submitted for the book, I was also reading the press’ discussion of MacKaye and The Evens, and I realized that, had I had more space, I could have discussed The Evens as great example of the traditioning of punk, of the way punk evolves — “grows up,” even — but stays true to its commitments.

The Evens’ recent string of interviews contain some discussion that might help to push forward some of the ideas I’ve been tossing about on theology and punk rock.

Their December interview with NPR, for example, allowed MacKaye space in a mainstream media interview to offer, as he has consistently over the years, critiques of mainstream rock culture, e.g. its ongoing rootedness in the alcohol economy and its system of tightly-controlled music venues. Consider, for example, MacKaye’s words about alternative performance spaces as opposed to traditional music venues:

It’s crazy the amount of money it costs to put a show on, so if you’re trying to put a show on for a low ticket price, you’re up against it. So we discussed finding a way to split off from that system, and one way to do it was just to turn down the volume. Turning down allowed us to play basically anywhere. … It’s so great to play in a barn, or a museum, or an art gallery, or a theater lobby. Quite often, when you put music into an unusual or untraditional space, in many cases, the music really steps up. It’s not being filtered through the venue experience as much.

As I have said before, voices like MacKaye’s are important for discussions in the world of Rock and Theology because they can help us deconstruct dynamics of alienating “religiosity” that are so present in mainstream celebrity-driven rock, but often hidden from the view of theologians who are otherwise attuned to such dangers when they are present in “traditional” religious communities and cultures. What might MacKaye’s critique of rock venues reveal about our own musicoliturgical preferences and attractions? And, if we also identify with traditional Christianity, perhaps Roman Catholicism in particular, what is the relationship of these music performance preferences to our preferences in the world(s) of the official liturgy/ies of the church?

Second, MacKaye speaks more directly about religion in recent interviews, and specifically about the relationship between his upbringing in a progressive Episcopal church and his involvement in punk rock. One might expect that the comments of a punk rock icon like MacKaye, who does not consider himself to be “religious,” would follow the standard “oppressive-Christianity-drove-me-away-and-then-I-found-punk-rock” narrative. Not so for MacKaye — or his narrative, at least, is a bit more complex. In an interview with Mother Jones, MacKaye describes the positive influence that the church of his youth had on his discovery of punk and the politics that often accompanies it:

[T]he Evens tend to fly under the radar. They play unusual venues like art galleries and DC’s St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church—places where there are no barriers to entry and the band doesn’t have to max out its volume to be heard. In one song, Farina and MacKaye croon, “The capitol it is your proving ground, your centering. You and yours can keep your scores. But Washington is our city.”

It’s fitting that MacKaye, at age 50, now finds himself settled in his hometown and playing at St. Stephen’s. After all, the church, which his family attended (he no longer does), helped nudge him towards punk rock in the first place. He was only six years old when race riots erupted in DC following the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. On that Palm Sunday, the liberal St. Stephen’s decided to hold its service outside, on 16th Street, in the middle of a riot. “I saw the city basically under martial law. The buildings were still smoldering; there were police and soldiers and firemen everywhere,” MacKaye recalls.

MacKaye’s recollections and reflections not only gave me more insight into his own life and work, but prompted deeper reflection on the relationship between punk and religion in my own musical-theological life. In an earlier version of the ideas that I ended up putting down in my essay in Secular Music and Sacred Theology, I described that relationship — the relationship between “The Church” and the “church of punk rock” — in a singular direction. That is, I claimed that, as a young person discovering and rediscovering what “faith” might mean, punk rock prepared me in one way or another to receive “the gospel,” or at least a new take on the gospel that had much to do with inclusion, justice, and passion for social change. While that still seems true to me, certainly the opposite relationship, the one MacKaye seems to have experienced, is also true: that “The Church” was also preparation for receiving Punk and whatever “gospel(s)” it might contain.

3 Comments »

  1. Thanks, Michael – the question about Roman Catholic liturgies and their relationship to rock/ concert culture is one I ask myself from time to time – and in Europe at least, it seems to me that from ‘substitution’ of a decade ago, where people lamented liturgies that were not ‘contemporary’ enough, and its counterpart, those who leave Church and ‘worship’ in stadiums, things are shifting back to more classical Church style (organ is “in”, it seems to me, or on the way back) – and smaller venued concerts are gaining more interest…

    Comment by Maeve Heaney — May 6, 2013 @ 1:38 am

  2. Great post Michael! MacKaye’s sainthood in punk is without question, and i find it interesting how he helped found not only two huge musical movements (hardcore w/Minor Threat and arguably Emo w/Fugazi), but also an ideological one as well (straight edge). Both seem to have spiraled far beyond what his teenage self could have envisioned. In some interviews (in the film American Hardcore i believe) he seems to show almost regret for the way some of his ideas and lyrics were embraced (ie: militant & violent straight edgers or misinterpretations of the song “Guilty of Being White” by neo-nazis). I wonder if founders of spiritual communities accordingly ever feel similar amazement (and perhaps disdain) for what followers have done with their original message?

    Comment by Ian Fowles — May 8, 2013 @ 12:15 pm

  3. Great post! Minor Threat had a great impact on my life, I will always be indebted. Like Ian the Episcopal Church has also made an impact on me, and has made me see ( as punk rock still does) that there are things much bigger than us, and we need to step outside ourselves and embrace life. See the injustice, the violence and abuse, but also see the incarnation of Christ in every moment and in all places. Let it inspire you to make the change that we affirm in our Baptismal Liturgy to commit ourselves to social justice.

    The searching for truth that punk ignites in youth will almost always dip into the spiritual soon enough, and I happened to land in the episcopal church. The first Mass I ever attended changed my life in a way that punk had also done a few years earlier, it was even a fellow punk mate that took me to the Mass.

    Comment by Derek — June 28, 2013 @ 8:17 am

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