I discussed Bad Religion in both of my books, Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk and Punk Rock Hora: Adventures in Jew-Punk Land. When I was the Jewish punk guest on the Christian punk podcast The Shape of a New Thing to Come (read yesterday’s overview post and listen to the episode), it’s no surprise that Bad Religion—”the quintessential punk band that questions religion”—came up.
What’s striking is just how much depth we got into! As people of faith and fans of punk rock, the cohosts and I appreciate Bad Religion’s critical take on religion, albeit not in all instances. In some cases, it’s even shaped our own approach to religion! A partial transcript appears below.
Michael Croland (Jewish punk author): It’s amazing that a band that’s been around for 40 years is still putting out great music and thoughtful music and music that speaks to the current political climate. I’d be curious to get more feedback from you guys about Bad Religion because they are the quintessential punk band that questions religion, so that’s obviously a big point. But for me, yes, there are songs or their logo or their name that can cross the line and be offensive to somebody who’s genuinely trying to struggle with both faith and punk rock. But there are other songs that are very thoughtful—for example, “Sorrow.” I mentioned the Artists’ Beit Midrash about the Book of Job. I went back for another class, and we looked at “Sorrow,” which Brett Gurewitz wrote based on the Book of Job. That is a song of genuine struggle with religion. On the same album, they have a line in the song “Materialist”: “The process of belief is an elixir when you’re weak / I must confess, at times, I indulge it on the sneak.” That isn’t saying “Religion Bad” in a black-and-white sense. That is a tale of struggle and trying to figure it out. We might not form the same conclusions—me and Brett and Greg from Bad Religion—but I respect the struggle. I respect the people who are looking at religion in an open, critical way and saying, Here’s what I agree with. Here’s what I don’t agree with. And I am genuinely trying to figure that out for myself. I don’t think that all of Bad Religion’s take on religion is so wholesome. Again, they definitely cross the line sometimes. Besides being great music—and very important to the history of punk rock, so you can’t dismiss it for that reason—a lot of it is genuine, honest struggle, and that I respect.
Adam Baker (cohost): I very much agree with that. Listening to Bad Religion and bands like Propagandhi and other bands who are pretty vocal about their strong dislike for institutional Christianity in some ways. There are a couple of ways that you can receive that. Either you take that as a slam against yourself, or you can say, I think it’s really important to hear critique of how the institution you’re a part of is hurting other people or harming other people or being perceived by other people. I think that’s why I love those bands. Because it’s important for me to say, Is this what I believe? Am I participating in this? Am I complicit in a functioning of religious belief and practice that causes and leads to what they’re complaining about or yelling against? I really appreciate people who are willing to identify what they believe is wrong about the faith that I ascribe to so I can self-assess and then prayerfully think through, Am I a part of this in some way?
Jason Evans (cohost): I remember, going into young adulthood is when a lot of your peers that you may have grown up with in a faith tradition begin to, oftentimes, leave. And I had spent a few years by that point hanging out with punk rock and in this space where people were bringing new ideas to the floor—debating, discussing them. And you were in a space where your faith was critiqued. The way you were saying it, Adam—I also love the way Leonor [Ortega Till of Five Iron Frenzy, who was the guest in the previous episode] spoke specifically about Bad Religion and how she used that as a point of developing clarity in what she believed: Is that really what I think Jesus is like—or Christianity as an institution? Should it be different? When I was going into young adulthood, I had asked a lot of those questions with the assistance of punk and hardcore and participated in that kind of space of critique and coming to some clarity about Okay, yeah. I realize, here’s where we are a broken and weak institution and mess things up. But I still believe these things.
Adam: I think the thing that I’ve always appreciated about punk and political hardcore as well is that there’s an unwillingness to refuse to question the monolith. Anything that says you can’t doubt or you can’t be uncertain or you can’t possibly say, Well, I don’t know if I agree with this. That’s worth questioning! And that’s one of the reasons I find resonance in this music. It’s weird to be a pastor, because there are some people within the Church who react very negatively if you even constructively critique the institution. It makes them feel unsettled or unsafe. And they want some sort of stability, but that’s not necessarily a stability that’s deeply rooted in transformative belief. It’s a stability that’s rooted in comfort and knowing what’s going to come tomorrow and the next day because we have these typical patterns. And that’s actually not active faith in my book. The way that I understand my own faith—and this music has really served as fuel for this—I have space in my faith to be questioning and to be doubting and to be wondering and to be critiquing and receiving critique. That’s what’s been so helpful. It’s not just Burn the system down. I haven’t just been taught that. I’ve also been taught to say, Are you a part of what’s causing pain?