As far as I can tell (via the OED), the first usage of the word “punk” was in Early Modern English, to denote a prostitute. Let’s gloss over that historical tidbit…
The modern connotation of the word conjures up a style of music, leather jackets, mohawks, piercings, tattoos and taboo-breaking culture. Based on the experiences of my own youth, I think of the late 90’s remnant of the 70’s culture hanging around Piccadilly Circus in London. That was probably the closest I really got to punk subculture in high school. Being a theatre nerd, I had friends who flirted with punk-ness, but it’s hard to look back and know to what extent they found a genre of music that spoke to them, a fashion to follow, or an ideology to take to heart.
Punk culture was—and perhaps still is—about defying mainstream, consumerist culture. It’s easy to write off punks as troublemaking hooligans, but an ideology really does lie behind the spiked, dyed hair, the chains, the leering faces and the screaming thrash of the music. Or rather, ideologies, as punks are as varied as any other group of people. But in some ways, they’re alike. At its core, as I see it, punk is about a rejection of conformity in favor of diversity in individualism. Punks see a societal structure diseased in its consumerism and obsession with power and control, “us” and “them.” By challenging convention with unconventional appearances and behaviors, punks offer an alternative to tradition and its hegemony.
And yet, there is a community to be found in punk culture—you can recognize a punk when you see one. Punks hold in tension a preference for individuality exercised within the supportive network of an ideologically-based counterculture.
The word “punk” has made its way into literature as well—were I have more confidence in my understanding of its complex meanings. One of my favorite genres—cyberpunk—rose out of the angst of the eighties and nineties. The early authors of cyberpunk wrote about “high tech, low life” anti-heroes navigating a world in which technology had progressed beyond any centralized control and capitalism had evolved to an extreme that gave multinational corporations undisputed power over civil governments. It’s a genre that seems prescient as technology becomes ever more pervasive and our current president ignores traditional safeguards to keep personal and business interests out of direct political influence (ignoring, of course, the storied tradition of lobbying in our country). The cyberpunk characters of Gibson and Stephenson found their freedom in extralegal existences free from the constraints of corrupt legal and societal systems.
Of course, in literature, we now have a plethora of -punk subgenres: steampunk, juxtaposing imperialism and nascent modern corporations with Victorian society, science fiction and the occult; dieselpunk, combining a 40’s and 50’s aesthetic with…I don’t know what, actually. We could spend a good deal of time examining to what extent these subgenres have really embraced the “punk” portion of their titles, but such a digression is unnecessary at present.
What I want to focus on, given the title of this post, is how we ought to bring the punk mindset—at least parts of it—into our practice of Christianity. You see, at its heart, Christianity is countercultural—particularly compared with modern American culture.
Mainstream culture says that success is about money, sex and power; Christianity says that success lies in relationships, humility and love. Culture tells us that we can adapt Jesus to suit our predispositions; Christianity tells us that culture ought to conform to our understanding of Christ. Culture tells us that you can judge a person by his productivity; Christianity tells us that you ought not to judge but to love and support.
Without continuing ad nauseum, suffice to say that Christianity as I understand it rejects consumerist culture; the “us versus them” of ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic divides; the struggle for fame, fortune and power. It stands for something instinctually better, as pragmatically more workable as it is ideologically inspiring. It uplifts the individual as a child of God while still emphasizing community, relationships and our inter-reliance.
So why don’t more Christians look like punks? I don’t mean physically, primarily, but there are some examples to be had of this, too. I have one pastor-friend who often wears a bowtie, simply because it starts conversations with others in standing out. I have met another who has a braided and beaded beard that serves as an “alarm system;” he can tell just by how people look at him how open his reception will be, the extent to which he can easily connect with a person. Even John Wesley stood out, as he refused to wear a wig (the fashion of the time) and infrequently cut his hair so that he could save money to give away.
I’m not the type of person who is comfortable visibly standing out all that much, but I know some from experience that when we try to follow our faith in the practical decisions we make in life—where and how to work, what attitude to have toward money, etc.—we will stand out.
Israel was set apart by religious rites, a scriptural law, and guidance for how to live with others. As the covenanters of the New Covenant, we ought to be set apart by our commitment to follow Christ’s teachings, commands and person. Because there are so many places where this might conflict with society at large, we ought to be visible as a group that defies the conventions and traditions of mainstream culture in favor of a more excellent way. We ought to be ChristianPunk.