How Bad Religion Helped Me Become A Better Christian

Hi, I’m Adam Nigh, pastor, theologian and musical has-been. With this post I launch my new personal blog. This is not an academic theology blog. For that, I contribute to Out of Bounds with some fellow Aberdeen PhDs. Here you will find reflections on Christian faith in the context where it is lived out today, at the intersections of church community and the modern world. I, however, offer these reflections from my own perspective which has been shaped by experiences not entirely unique to me, but which make me something of an odd duck at least where I live. This first post explores one avenue of these experiences.

I grew up in an evangelical Christian home in which for some reason (though I’ll admit I’m thankful for this) Christian music was entirely absent. Our dad raised us on Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, the Temptations, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and a little bit of old country. My older sister was a musically typical 80s girl, bringing into our house lots of radio pop, especially Madonna. My older brother was open to plenty of radio rock bands, particularly the Cars, Men at Work and U2, but whenever he drove me around in his truck hardcore punk was in the tape player – Circle Jerks, Minor Threat, 7 Seconds, Descendents and Ill Repute, whose song “Clean Cut American Kid” was an early favorite for me. (I don’t remember my mom having any particular musical taste when I was a kid, though later on she got really into modern country. Gag.)

I, as opposed to my brother and sister, went to Christian school K-2 and then junior high and high school and got very involved in our church youth group from junior high on. Somehow or other in that full immersion in evangelical waters (lame Baptist joke) I became briefly convicted that I should avoid “secular music” and listen only to “Christian music” (plenty has already been written to undermine the distinction between Christian and secular music, like this). I got rid of all my secular music my freshman year of high school, which at that point was a substantial collection of Metallica, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Ugly Kid Joe and other Locks of Love contributors, and proceeded to fill my shelves with loads of horrible Christian metal (except for the Crucified – they were awesome).

But then, my sophomore year of high school, 1994 happened. Yes, that amazing year that saw the release of breakthrough albums by Green Day (Dookie), The Offspring (Smash), NOFX (Punk in Drublic) and most significant for me, Bad Religion (Stranger than Fiction). These bands were taking the 80s hardcore sound I had learned from my brother, moving it further in the melodic direction indicated early on by the Descendents, and massively upping the production value. The result was infectious and catchy tunes that retained the politically subversive message of the early 90s grunge stuff but gave it a dose of caffeine that made Pearl Jam and Nirvana just sound boring and melodramatic. My friends and I immediately formed a band and tried our best to be punk rock. The problem was that I was the main song writer and didn’t, as a matter of Christian conviction, listen to secular music, only horrible Christian music. That meant I wrote some horrible Christian “punk” songs (ooh, now look where the scare quotes are).

Eventually, my attraction to genuine artistry trumped my fear of the secular. Bad Religion, as I said, got particularly under my skin. They had a strong sense of melody and harmony that brought together virtually everything I loved about music (apart from diversity – they were and still are a one trick pony, but its a great trick). Their lyrics and their band name, however, caused me a bit of a spiritual crisis. They were unambiguously hostile to religion. Listening to them meant, as far as I could see at the time, a compromise of my morals. But I didn’t stop. As high school went on, I dropped the “no secular music rule” and bought almost everything coming out on Epitaph Records and Fat Wreck Chords. I kept listening to the Christian stuff and it actually got a little better (seeing Stavesacre live helped restore my faith that Christians could make a really good rock band), but this godless punk rock stuff got me far more excited musically and, I have to admit, intellectually.

Bad Religion were, like most punk bands, openly hostile to religion, but, perhaps unlike many others, they had an articulate message. They weren’t just flipping the middle finger to Christians; they were making conceptual arguments that had to do not just with the credibility of Christian belief in the scientific age (though they do love that topic) but also with the forms of life Christian faith has taken in America’s culture of consumerism. Wrestling with both sides of these arguments was good for me as a young Christian. On the first side, while I was forced to recognize that many expressions of Christian faith I saw around me were less than intellectually credible in the modern world, I was also forced to recognize many glorious exceptions. I have constantly found myself in the company of Christians who understood modernism’s challenges to Christian belief and demonstrated an ability to answer those challenges with an intellectually robust theological response. I decided in my late teens that I wanted to be one of them. This meant seeking out the finest minds who have contributed to Christian thought both now and in the church’s history. Discovering them has been a huge blessing to me, especially discovering the fact that at many points in the last 2,000 years, the sharpest minds in the world were also deeply pious Christians with intellects profoundly shaped by the gospel. I don’t think I would have taken the trouble to make these discoveries if I had not felt the need to respond to the challenges I first faced in Bad Religion.

It turns out, however, that it is really the social and cultural concerns Bad Religion have about Christianity and religion in general that dominate their lyrics more than preaching their unbelief. And on that score I found more and more about which I had to agree with them. One of the first songs of theirs I got stoked on was American Jesus. The title itself felt blasphemous and my first enjoyment of the song filled me with spiritual guilt, but something drove me to keep listening to it both musically and lyrically, and I don’t believe it was sheer spiritual rebellion. Take a listen to it, if you are morally at peace with such a thing, and read the lyrics below the video.

I don’t need to be a global citizen
Because I’m blessed by nationality
I’m a member of a growing populace
We enforce our popularity

There are things that seem to pull us under
And there are things that drag us down
But there’s a power and a vital presence
That’s lurking all around

We’ve got the American Jesus
See him on the interstate
We’ve got the American Jesus
He helped build the president’s estate

I feel sorry for the earth’s population
‘Cause so few live in the U.S.A.
At least the foreigners can copy our morality
They can visit but they cannot stay

Only precious few can garner the prosperity
It makes us walk with renewed confidence
We’ve got a place to go when we die
And the architect resides right here

We’ve got the American Jesus
Bolstering national faith
We’ve got the American Jesus
Overwhelming millions every day

He’s the farmer’s barren fields (In God)
The force the army wields (We trust)
The expression on the faces of the starving millions (Because he’s one of us)
The power of the man (Breakdown)
He’s the fuel that drives the Klan (Cave in)
He’s the motive and conscience of the murderer (He can redeem your sin)
He’s the preacher on T.V. (Strong heart)
The false sincerity (Clear mind)
The form letter that’s written by the big computers (And infinitely kind)
The nuclear bombs (You lose)
The kids with no moms (We win)
And I’m fearful that he’s inside me (He is our champion)

Yeah, we’ve got the American Jesus
See him on the interstate
We’ve got the American Jesus
Exercising his authority

We’ve got the American Jesus
Bolstering national faith
We’ve got the American Jesus
Overwhelming millions every day

One nation under God…

Though it took me a while to see it, they were not attacking Jesus, at least not the Jesus I was committed to, the one I was bound to as Lord of my life. They were attacking the role of Jesus in American nationalism. My problem at first was that I wasn’t aware of such a thing. I had been clearly and consistently taught that allowing anything but Christ to be the object of my faith was idolatry, but the temptations spoken about were always those having to do with desire for pleasure or security at the individual level. Patriotism was only ever praised because of its concern for the collective. I had not learned either at church or at Christian school to be aware of and resist the temptation to conflate devotion to Christ with devotion to America, American values, the American way of life, American economics. We saluted the American flag and the Christian flag together at our school assemblies. My first encounters with this song American Jesus, then, identified it as entirely unchristian, but after a while I started to see what they were on about. I saw their concerns actually reflected in the Bible, which demands that devotion to Christ be distinct from and superior to any us-vs-them sense of identity, particularly the nationalistic kind. (Bad Religion had a great song later on called Them And Us.) (I should probably include a disclaimer here that I am not saying all patriotism is idolatry. I am, however, saying that patriotism always presents a temptation toward idolatry as does every good thing that tempts us to place our love of it above Christ.)

Moving out from this song, I began to realize that while Bad Religion does consistently represent a naturalist worldview over against any form of supernaturalism, they just as consistently warn of the deceptions those in power wield over the masses, indifference to the needy and the overconsumption of resources, both natural and economic. Though I find their naturalism unconvincing in light of its own unsustainable presuppositions and because of how God has concretely revealed himself in Christ, I have actually been challenged by punk bands like Bad Religion to serve Christ better by more consistently paying attention to the motives of those in power, the plight of the needy, and my own contribution to the problem through over-consuming resources. These guys have made me think and do so openly with a sense of my own fallibility, all without taking away my sense of God’s infallibility. I suspect that Christians who insulate themselves from outside voices find their thinking subsisting at a fairly shallow level, neither being expanded by hearing contrary worldviews nor deepened by seeking out great Christian thinkers as an aid to competently responding to these intellectual challenges. In both these ways, Bad Religion has helped me broaden and deepen my faith. Thanks guys!