The following is an excerpt from Kurt Mahlburg’s new book, Cross and Culture: Can Jesus Save the West?
I have always loved punk rock music. I recently rediscovered some of my old favourite albums and my wife found it very amusing. Angie couldn’t take me seriously; she certainly couldn’t imagine me as a twenty-year-old ‘skanking’ at an underground show, or dressed in skinny jeans and a studded belt. I laugh too when I think back to those days, but my love of the music hasn’t faded.
Maybe we don’t choose our musical tastes — perhaps they are hardwired into our DNA. Or maybe there is something about punk rock that I relate to at a deeper level.
Hailing from a quiet neighbourhood in Queens and inspired by the Beatles, the Beach Boys and girl groups of the 1960s, four young musicians calling themselves the Ramones introduced an exciting new sound to the small clubs of downtown Manhattan. They had reduced rock ’n’ roll to its most primitive form. As one music historian described it: “‘1-2-3-4!’ bass-player Dee Dee Ramone shouted at the start of every song, as if the group could barely master the rudiments of rhythm.”
The year was 1974. Soon after, dozens of other punk rock outfits popped up around the world, from New York City to London. The genre took shape as a stripped-back reaction to the excesses of 1970s glam rock and other mainstream styles. It was known for its short, fast-paced songs, gruff vocals, irreverent humour, and fearless anti-establishment themes.
My introduction to punk rock was not through these original bands, but subsequent waves that went out from America’s “Left Coast” and had popular followings through my high school years in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Though I avoided obscene songs and I couldn’t relate to the anger or radical politics of certain bands, I loved the energy, authenticity, and countercultural spirit of punk rock.
Living in Adelaide, which was something of a punk rock scene at the time, also meant that I got to see a lot of live shows. Most intriguing for me was how many Australian punk rock bands from that era had emerged from Christian circles, and carried with them a different kind of anti-establishment message.
This, I believe, is why my connection to the music has never gone away.
To be a Christian in the West is to follow what is undoubtedly the most alternative, countercultural path. This explains the emergence of Christian punk rock bands and their popular following. But more than that, it helps explain to outsiders what it feels like to live as a Christian in a post-Christian era. Following Jesus is a kind of “underground” existence. It requires a thick skin, an unshakeable conviction, and a preparedness to be misunderstood. Being a Christian in a secular world is not for the faint of heart.
The truth is that most of the 1960s counterculture is now thoroughly embedded in mainstream society — whether in our rejection of sacred order and tradition, our liberal sexual mores, or our stamp of approval for all things unorthodox. Whether we turn to the corporate and Hollywood elite, legacy media, sports codes, government departments, or colleges and universities, the rebellion of sixty years ago is the “wisdom” of the present moment. To put this another way, the establishment of today is the anti-establishment of a generation ago. As such, our secular culture is fast running out of ways to react, and things to react against.
To turn back and embrace what our culture has now rejected — namely, following Jesus; treasuring marriage and family; taking responsibility for your life; valuing your country and your civilisation; doing good without drawing attention to it; and living selflessly in order to be a blessing to others, is now nonconformist. In fact, it’s revolutionary. G.K. Chesterton captured this paradox of the Christian walk when he said, “Christianity is always out of fashion because it is always sane; and all fashions are mild insanities.”
This is not unique to our era. Christianity has long been at home on the fringes of society. What corrupted the church was when it occupied the corridors of power — as unchecked power is wont to do with any group. Even when the Roman Catholic Church was at its apex in Europe, faithful believers — Catholic, Protestant or otherwise — were among its most noteworthy casualties.
To be a true Christian in any age is to inhabit Babylon. For the ancient Israelites, Babylon was a literal evil pagan empire that plundered their land and carried them off into exile. But for the people of God throughout history, Babylon means the “kingdoms of this world” that rule over us and demand our allegiance. Babylon is a picture of the pride, idolatry and greed of any human civilisation that elevates itself in defiance of the living God. To take a stand against Babylon, whether in ancient times or modern, is to display true courage and conviction.
For all these reasons, if we are going to live with genuine countercultural courage and see our culture transformed for the better, we need a higher path — one given from above.
Check out Kurt Mahlburg’s new book, Cross and Culture: Can Jesus Save the West?