I used to be into the Christian hardcore scene*
(*NOTE: Please don’t judge me parrot-head who still collects shot glasses on vacation because WE ALL HAVE WEIRD RELIGIOUS BAGGAGE.)
Which means that for most of the mid aughts I wanted to get my lip pierced, was desperate to dye my hair black, consistently flirted with the idea of wearing girl jeans, and am forever grateful to a level-headed girl I was dating at the time (and later married) who kindly put the kibosh on all those air-tight ideas.
I was so emboldened by my love for the scene that I once took two high school boys to a hardcore show that started at 10:00pm (CST), ON A SCHOOL NIGHT, 3 hours away in Nashville, where one of them got punched in the face during a particularly violent mosh-pit.
He told his mom that he fell down the stairs on the way up to his bedroom. I don’t think she really believed him, but I’m grateful all the same.
The thing I loved most about this extremely emo* nook of the alt-Christian music scene (RIP: Tooth-n-Nail) was what everyone (myself included) referred to as “authenticity”. Like literally having-numerous-doctors-request-you-stop-making-hardcore-music-because-screaming-through-the-chorus-of-every-3-minute-song-you-write-is-turning-your-vocal-chords-into-ground-beef-KINDS-OF-AUTHENTICITY. The bad power chords were “authentic”. The desperately pretentious and self-involved song writing was “authentic”. The near-constant reference to one’s “art” as the driving force behind when to crowd surf or when to simply “windmill kick” the amp was “authentic”.
(*NOTE: the term “emo” is shorthand for a genre of music prizing "emotion" over "sound" that rose to popularity from 1996 (see Weezer’s Pinkerton) to 2013 (see breakup of My Chemical Romance). It was almost wholly written, produced, performed, and consumed by a group of people we were all comfortable referring to as “food court druids”)
Even though time has been terribly unkind to hardcore music, what this genre, especially as a subset of a much larger sheen-heavy-Christian-music-industrial-complex, inspired in most of us who were willing to both punch and be-punched in the NAME OF SCREAMO JEEEEEZUS at every show, was the ardent belief that we could somehow be “ourselves” (even if those selves were, at the time, all poor facsimiles of a Hot Topic employee at your local mall).
The idea that there was room for so many "weirdos" within the Christianity I had mostly inherited as a sweater-vested, middle-class white kid in East Tennessee was breathtaking, and inspiring, and (I would argue) an “authentic” representation of the inherent and necessary diversity of trying to attach corporate meaning to a crucified 1st century rabbi 2000 years after his death.
While my appreciation for the Jesus-centric hardcore scene has faded a fair bit in an ever-advancing traverse through back-pain and peeing in the middle of the night people are all comfortable calling “your 30s”, I must say that when I’ve ignored both the subtle or sometimes overly contrived efforts at authentically attempting to conjoin the truth of who I am with the truth of who Jesus might be, the pain has been overwhelming. One of the things we can sometimes come to believe about the word “authentic” is that for something to be true, to be real, it has to either be crushingly hard or entirely immature. Meaning, it has to come from this place of purity and pain where the resulting art could have only been forged in the fires of misunderstanding, rapprochement, alienation, or misguided adolescence. Somewhat like how every band you loved in the 80s sounded so much worse when they got clean, or how no one asks where the money comes from or “what it all means" when they’ve got a mortgage, and a kid in high school, and/or a dogged need to own an overpriced SUV.
In my much-less-VH1-behind-the-music-experience of things, I’ve often believed that “authentically” believing in the way of Jesus as a source of redemption and reconciliation for all things should inherently come from a place of discomfort and pain and misunderstanding in my own life, thus making it pure. What this means concretely is that I felt in order to become an “authentic" pastor I needed to work in faith communities and environments where who I am, how I see things, what I care about, and how I understand the nature of existence aren’t welcome, because the tension and friction are where the magic is.
Sometimes these things involved trite disagreements about how pastors should dress, or talk, or comport themselves in public worship spaces and small groups in people’s basements. Other times these things involved concrete and desperately necessary disputes about how money should be spent, how buildings should be used, and how beliefs about minorities and the Earth and the way politics informs the whole of who everyone is in public shape our shared lives together.
I believed that through the breaking of my own body and pouring out of my own blood (metaphorically speaking, I wore dress pants to work on the weekends) inherent in the disagreement and lack of shared understanding between myself and the institutions paying me to pray would eventually produce redemption both in myself as well as the staid, institutional churches employing me.
On good days this kind of role felt prophetic, and necessary, and like that time Dylan went electric (but much, much, much less cool: again, I actually own Dockers).
On many days it just felt hard and incredibly lonely.
And on bad days it felt like all the blunt force trauma was giving my soul CTE.
I’ve been told by seasoned professionals that these kinds of feelings are normal and an expected part of coming to grips with a gig charged with existentially squaring both the sweeping buoyancy of believing in a God liberating the whole of human existence, while also working in congregations filled with people who believe in God as a way of avoiding hell and the estate tax. In short, you’ll grow out of it when you get a kid in high school, realize you actually have to pay someone to unplug your breathing machine at the end of things, and/or a dogged need to own an overpriced SUV.
Over time, a career I once believed to be a lived-experience with authenticity, soon became a constant source of temptation to simply hide more and more of my self in an effort to pay my bills and move on with my life. That’s when I remembered how much I loved wearing black and getting punched in the face at shows in my early 20s.
The screaming and heavy eyeliner (which history will always remember as “guy-liner”) may have been annoying and a bit contrived, but they were attempting to take emotions, experiences, and parts of life most of us were taught to stuff, or hide, or grow out of, and drag them into the light of day as a way of reminding both those of us dutifully punching the sky in the mosh pit, and those idling in the parking lot outside waiting to pick us up after the show, that the whole of who we are is welcome and loved and known EVEN IF WE’RE WEARING ALL BLACK IN THE FOOD COURT.
That at the end of things there's a place for people like us.
That at the end of things we belong, on, like, a cellular level, simply because we exist.
For centuries both Jewish and early-Christian believers envisioned heaven not as a gated community with golden streets filled with houses and expensive SUVs for all of God’s favorites (this was the work of Gilded Age evangelists), but rather as a giant banquet table featuring not only Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, but even Judas (you know, the one who sold out). Long before heaven developed a cut-list and a bouncer, the banquet of God, bottomless wine (seriously), and “the bosom of Abraham” (a criminally underused Christian-band name) were these images of rest, redemption, and holistic, radically inclusive welcome awaiting all of us at the end of whatever path was ours to walk.
That at the end of things there is a place for us.
That at the end of things we belong, on, like, a cellular level, simply because we exist.
Which may be why, out of every available metaphor (from a courtroom drama to a judgment house at Halloween) Jesus chose the banquet table as the opening band for his mysteriously redemptive execution. No matter the misunderstanding, betrayal, confusion, or pain accompanying those siting and drinking wine together over a traditional Jewish shalomim the evening before his death, the message was and is that all of who you are and what gave you that limp are welcome and known and loved. In the breaking of the bread and pouring of the wine that foreshadowed the breaking of his own body and the pouring of his own blood, Jesus tells a room of people who would largely abandon him that who they are worth is worth dying for.
Again and again and again.
For too long, too many of us have spent our lives in relationships, systems, jobs, churches, families, and institutions that have convinced us that who they are, and what they believe, and what they do is worthy of our death. That salvation is somehow inextricably bound up in their maintenance and influence and ongoing power, and if we want to “make it” (whatever that might mean for your world), we best swallow our pride, and our spirit, and those weird parts of us that stick up no matter the amount of hair gel we use.
What makes the way of Jesus compelling isn’t that it sacrifices others on the altar of its survival, but that it sacrifices itself again and again and again on the altar of a room of people who largely misunderstood what the whole thing was about in the first place. Actually, the only thing that made faith “authentically real” for almost all of them, was the dying and the abandonment and the loss, not of their lives, but of God’s.
It’s almost like being willing to shred your vocal chords for a scene that would flame out 4 years later was what made all of it real underneath the tight pants and crowd surfing and comically long song titles.
If you aren’t part of a community willing to die, or make space, or go to bat for your weirdness it might be a lot of things, but one thing it won’t ever be, is Christian.