Michael J. Iafrate, “More Than Music: Notes On ‘Staying Punk’ In The Church And In Theology” (CONTENT WARNING)

“[S]taying punk” as a theologian will require my theological production to be committed rather than neutral or objective.  Practitioners of punk theologies will admit, as does [Kevin C.] Dunn, that “the punks are right: the world is fucked up, and we need to do something about it,” and we will align ourselves with the various strands of liberation theology, which have challenged theologians to commit to the struggle for justice. – Michael J. Iafrate, “More Than Music: Notes On ‘Staying Punk’ In The Church And In Theology,” in Beaudoin, ed., p.51

If ever there were a musical subculture that I admired, albeit from a distance, it is punk.  From The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, and the early Clash through bands like Husker Du, Fugazi, Bad Brains, and even “Nu Metalers” Rage Against The Machine (who incorporate a whole lot of punk attitude in their music) and traditional metallers Slayer (leader Tom Arraya’s vocal performance is little different from the usual punk shout of rage), everything from the music itself through the punks’s attitudes, both toward one another and the music, and the drive and commitment I saw among musicians and fans alike (as well as the way those lines were consistently blurred), this was a subculture that pulled at me, even as the music did little for me, and I was just a bit too bourgeois to toss away my commitments and identity in the way punk rockers do.

Iafrate’s essay offers two lessons.  First, I was correct in my impressions of punk as more than just music (as the title suggests) but a series of commitments reflected in the music, but that music was part and parcel of a much larger set of social, political, and aesthetic commitments that constantly challenge mainstream life and music.  At the top of the list of social commitments, as outlined by Iafrate, is what is known as Do It Yourself, or DIY.  He writes on page 40:

[B]eyond the familiar punk rock icon of the rebellious outcast, it is punk rock’s DIY ethic that is widely recognized as the heart of the movement.  In addition to wider social and economic trends, these youth detested the increasingly centralized and corporatized music industry that focused on a small elite group of superstar artists.  Mainstream rock, then insisted, did not speak to the socio-political conditions in which they found themselves and tended to function as more of a distraction from “real life”.

After a description of the Washington, DC punk scene, led by bands such as Fugazi and Minor Threat, Iafrate turns to the larger theme of being punk and Christian.  As described by Iafrate, many of the themes he rehearsed in the first half of the essay become easy enough to identify – a committed community in which public gatherings, centered on but not led by music, affirm the community’s existence; an attitude of questioning any and all authority – political, social, economic, religious; a suspicion of large institutions and their tendency to co-opt marginal movements then tame them for mass consumption – as ways “punk theology” might work, and serve both the church and the world.  Two quotes in particular, both long, highlight points of contact between “punk theology” and this writer’s vision both of his own calling and the place of “doing theology” in the way I do.  The first is a long quote from DC punk spokesperson Mark Andersen, quoted on page 52:

[O]ne thing common to all the meaning [of the word “punk” over time] is: It always refers to somebody who is seen by society as worthless, unimportant or useless.  For me, if you claim that title, then you’re claiming to be one of those throwaway people, one of the disposable ones, and you’re asserting your own value and by implication the value of all of those folks. . . . We’re trying to encourage a punk political perspective, which might be seen as solidarity with the folks who are on the losing end of the historical bargain.  You know, a standing with and for those folks and looking towards a world or a community or a city where there’s a place for everyone and where everyone matters.  And for me, that’s revolutionary.

The second quote, much longer, is from Iafrate concerning the theological calling, and needs to be transcribed in full.  Iafrate has captured both my own sense of call and my own distrust and suspicion of traditional academic theology. It begins on page 53:

Theological discourse in many ways remains tightly controlled by its own gatekeepers, i.e., the theological publishing industry, the academic journal system, ecclesiastical disciplinary bodies.  Technology, of course, has opened up new opportunities for publishing, both in print and online, and open-source journals have become a particularly important development toward the liberation of knowledge production.  A number of open-source theological journals intentionally privilege voices neglected by the theological mainstream, such as the Journal of World Christianity, the Journal of Postcolonial Networks, and the various journals of Sopher Press, and some theologians have begun to make theological arguments for a more widespread embrace of open-source theological publication.  This bypassing of the traditional gatekeepers of the theological academy makes some theologians uncomfortable, as they fear that theological quality will be sacrificed if the bar is set too low by new technologies.  Indeed, some explicitly insist that “not everything that gets published in theology today deserves to be published.”  From a DIY punk perspective, this view strikes me as profoundly elitist.  To make an analogy to the music industry, the possibility of opening up the processes of musical production beyond the gatekeepers of the major label system has certainly unleashed a flood of new musical output, especially today as countless artists take advantage of home recording technology and online methods of releasing music.  This has resulted in a massive increase in the amount of music that is available, admittedly music of varying quality.  But the ability to release music more easily has not done away with the possibility of thinking critically about music or being concerned with its quality, and discussion and criticism of music has gone on as it always has.  The same is true in the world of theological production.  Discussion and debate about the relative merits of various technological proposals continue despite the introduction of new technologies for disseminating more and more theological texts, as that is the entire point of theology.  The real issue is one of cognitive or epistemological justice, the ability of new, other, and alternative knowledges to be heard.  The exploration and embrace of alternative publishing possibilities, such as the online open access journal movement, in order to amplify neglected voices seem to be a necessary practice of a theology that “stays punk.”

Part of this anti-elitist stance embedded within punk’s DIY ethos is the insistence, as Iafrate says, “that everyone has a theological voice.”

[N]ot only theological experts or magisterial defenders of ecclesial tradition, and that the voices of those on the margins, those often deemed “indecent,” are voices to which we must attend and which we must indeed amplify.  This commitment challenges not only ecclesial leaders who imagine themselves as the only spokespersons for their traditions, but also theologians who still tend not to take the voices of average people seriously.(p.53)

Iafrate’s description of “staying punk” is precisely the ethos I have as I sit each day and write these blog posts.  Whether I’m reviewing a book, commenting on an event, or offering a perspective for the church I feel important, I recognize mine is a tiny voice, so far from the mainstream I might be in a different stream all together.  There are larger voices – some of the dangerous, some of them trivial, some of them paying obeisance to the powers that be – yet, I continue on, because I have to.  Also, because, as Rage Against The Machine Says in “Killing In The Name Of”, “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.”

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