For those who requested to read my paper on American hardcore, here it is. I might make some alterations to some wording, but it’s pretty much completely done. There is a lot more to be discussed, and I realized that as I was writing this damn thing. I realize there are some holes, but, of course, time and deadlines win.
“Christ is not a fashion”: Christian Hardcore, Youth, and American Spirituality
Christian hardcore is one of the most unknown and wildly criticized sub-genres in contemporary music, by both Christians and nonbelievers. Low visibility and an association with a genre that can be best characterized as brutal and uncompromising, Christians involved in the hardcore scene have to balance faith and personal aesthetic. Those who identify with the hardcore Christian community have created a subculture that must defend its choices against the faithful and faithless. As a movement, Christian hardcore is youth-driven, loosely organized, grass-roots and promotes Christian values, evangelism, and fellowship between believers. Despite the doubters, the medium of hardcore music helps Christians communicate their message in an expressive manner that lecture and study cannot provide. Pinning down the exact demographics, statistics, or data on a population which is relatively new to mainstream consciousness is difficult. However, analysis of the available information on the nature of Christian hardcore ethics and expression will help uncover the bourgeoning community, its proponents, and shifts in American Christianity. Increasing distrust of institutions has placed the Christian community within and outside the hardcore scene are at a crossroads. Examining this subculture’s development could promote a greater understanding of how modern Americans approach their spirituality in an increasingly isolating and individualistic society.
Contemporary Christian Music’s, CCM, origins lie in the 1960s with the Jesus People Movement (McCracken). Some scholars contend that Negro Spirituals should be included in a wider discussion of CCM (Luhr 25). Disregarding the exact date of its inception, CCM has been a source of Christian inspiration for decades. Eileen Luhr wrote Witnessing Suburbia to explain how the shifts and changes in contemporary American Christian life are connected to conscious consumerism and the expansion of the American city. Luhr goes into great length explaining how late-20th century consumerism, suburban life, and nurturing of the individual created a market for Christian consumer goods and cultural commodities, such as music. Her work is a comprehensive history of Christian culture and consumerism in post-1960s America.
Luhr explains the latter part of the 1960s’ youth culture as being commonly associated with debauchery, wistfulness, and frivolity. Rarely does the activation of young Christian seekers looking for a way to reconcile modern music, art, and the Christ of the first century enter the conversation (Luhr 25). The Jesus People, a prominent Christian youth organization of the 1960s, shared many of the same sentiments of secular, radical youth groups of the time (Radosh 155). They preferred the company of their peers, desired self-expression, an individual experience, critiqued the “adult” view of the world, express their rebellion in style and consumption, and considered direct action the best way to change the world (Luhr 25). The Jesus People also dedicated their organization to spreading the word of God. Evangelizing was as important to them as their art (Luhr 25). As a results of the politics and social movements of the 1960s, by the 1980s, the individual had become the most important element in the public discourse concerning political, social life (Luhr 25). The spiritual quickly followed.
Much of this has manifested itself in how Americans Christians interact with popular culture. Over the past 30 years, cultural politics have become a heated issue with the suburban middle class. As suburban families became separated from those around them physically and psychologically, they grew more autonomous from community influence. The family nucleus became more discerning of the media their children and families consumed (Luhr 7). The backlash against mainstream society created a new middle class suburban mainstream, heavily influenced by Christianity and Christian leadership (Luhr 14). $4 billion in Christian merchandise sales annually, $747m in music sales alone, in 2008 indicate a significant amount of cultural consciousness in America concerning the content of entertainment media (Luhr 23). Including ticket sales, Christian music generated $1 billion in revenue in 2008 (Radosh 153). These numbers are pushed higher by the influence of church leaders and parents.
Inspired by the belief that youth attitudes are a gauge for the wellness of American society, contemporary Christian conservatives place an emphasis on saving young Christian souls (Luhr 23, 8). Instilling good, wholesome values in American youth not only develops good Christians, but it also saves youth from suffering later in life due to emotional and moral imbalance (Luhr 14). As the spiritual market grew and Christian attitudes were developed a la carte, as opposed to dictated, post-1960s American Christian-conscious consumerism increased as a means of expressing or seeking an individual’s own spirituality (Luhr 18). Even within this context of increasing Christian-conscious consumerism, Christian Contemporary Music has had a difficult relationship with the elders and leaders of Christian communities in America (Luhr 24). However, the appeal to parents of youth exploring their spirituality in music have been proponents of various forms of CCM. The transparency of the music allows them to monitor the messages being absorbed by their children (Luhr 24). The subcultures created around the music’s aesthetics and messages provide a safe place for the Christian soul to grow, express, and edify itself, free from the obstacles popular culture creates against Christian development. Individuals were beginning to grow more concerned regarding the spiritual and moral integrity of their entertainment.
The movement of advocating wholesome, Christian entertainment moved out of the boundaries of solely the modern American home. As evangelicalism grew in the United States, proselytizing within the dominant culture became normal with American Christian youth, dedicated to the spread of their Christian values and salvation (Luhr 26). In the 1980s, many Christian youths decided to express their rebellion against modern society, popular culture through Christian metal (Luhr 26). Christian metal, “white metal”, would eventually become one of the greatest forays into the mainstream CCM ever made. The legacy left by Christian metal in the 1980s affects how many view or express their Christianity in modern music. Eileen Luhr explains that 1980s metal’s use of theatrics allowed many to enter the public discourse more easily than Christian punk, due to the exposure it provided (Luhr 114). Organization was not a strong characteristic of the 1980s metal scene. No one could agree whether Christian metal counted as ministry, entertainment, or art. In truth, the genre embodied all three aspects, depending on the artists. Eileen Luhr’s research found that many of the bands interviewed in the 1980s saw themselves as crusaders for Christ in the evil, demonic theater of popular culture (Luhr 114). Christian metal bands took a rather abrasive medium and used it to engage people in discussions on big-ticket issues like abortion and premarital sex (Luhr 116). Many outside of the metal scene grew concerned about the aesthetics of the rising sub-genre, as it is with Christian hardcore today. Christian leaders and parents grew concerned about the explicitly gender-bending garb and the challenge to social norms that hair metal aesthetics posed to traditional beliefs (Luhr 116). Fighting these misperceptions about metal were the cost of trying to claim a hold on the misogynistic, out-of-control genre of metal (Luhr 116). Before anyone knew what happened, Christian metal was making progress in the secular scene with bands like Stryper and Stryken. Luhr explains that many of the bands had some of the same overarching themes in their songs like personal responsibility, self-reliance, and a conservative commentary on contemporary events (Luhr 135). Punk and metal bands of the 1980s, and today, tended to write about themes they saw affected teenage youth then–suicide and drug use (Luhr 136).
The complexity of 1980s Christian metal’s relationship to pop culture and society mirrors the practical application of a sentiment many in the Christian community may feel about their place in society. Christians, especially evangelicals, in America feel both ostracized from society at large and a duty, handed down by God, to correct the moral and ethical path of society (Luhr 236). This duality of a collective marginalized mentality and the desire to change society for the better can be seen as key characteristics of the Christian hardcore scene. As exhibited in the Christian hardcore scene, bands that play extreme music have dissociated themselves with the militancy employed by 1980s Christian metal acts (Luhr 192). Luhr’s observation is that today’s Christian youth are trying to shed the militantly conservative image of Christian music by promoting peace and forgiveness, not a rabid, deterring desire for conversion (Luhr 194). Eileen Luhr wraps up Witnessing Suburbia by asserting that Christianity is neither left nor right. Trends have changed in the youth culture in America, and those shifts are expressed in the approach of many contemporary Christian bands (Luhr 205).
Daniel Radosh’s Rapture Ready provides an insight into how American Christians express their Christianity through art and other mediums. In his search he converses with ministers, preachers, and followers of the Christian faith. Mark Allan Powell, a professor dedicated to researching the intersection of faith and pop culture, says that CCM is a “window into American piety” (Radosh 154). In the 1980s, musical acts were promoted as Christian alternatives to mainstream music. Today, approaches have shifted to a melding of Christian music and the mainstream making some religious acts indecipherable (Radosh 156). Radosh found that Christian musicians and their fans are more concerned with self-identification and individuality in religious expression (158). This approach has allowed many bands to avoid having a traditional idea of how a Christian band or individual should behave latched onto their image. Spirituality and expression of faith by the artist and listener has become a more self-guided enterprise (Radosh 158). The Christian individual in twenty-first century America is influenced simultaneously by their faith and the barrage of ideas and attitudes from the secular world, most importantly the need for self-fulfillment and liberty (Radosh 169). Modern life is a war of ideas, and the battlefield is the mind of the individual. The world would not have Christian hardcore were it not for this confluence and, eventual, harmony of modern and traditional ideals.
With the prominence of the Christian individual manifesting itself in music non-triumphant themes like vulnerability, contemporary Christian bands have attracted a new audience of spiritual seekers and those grappling with modern life (Radosh 169). Christian hardcore was inspired by the hardcore scene of the 1980s and 1990s in major cities like New York and Washington. From these urban centers, hardcore moved toward the suburbs and middle America at an increasing rate. Considering Luhr’s assertion that the suburbs are the Christian focal point of modern America, it was inevitable that young Christians would claim hardcore as a form expression for themselves. Today, hardcore music, which bundles together many different styles depending on who you ask, is a major force in extreme music and has an influence over a significant portion of American youth. With no clear lineage of bands and groups at the time of development, it is difficult to trace the exact origins of the surging Christian trend in hardcore music. In the 1990s, Christianity was a major influence with bands like Zao and Living Sacrifice which dined on the sonic edges of extreme music. Zao’s career is long and stretches over two decades. Their stamp on hardcore and extreme music has left a mark on many of the bands in today’s Christian hardcore scene (Ferret Music citation). More well-known acts like Thrice, As I Lay Dying, and Demon Hunter have all cited influence from one of the pioneer American Christian hardcore bands (Ferret Music citation).
The Christian hardcore community has many challenges facing it today. Artists have to wrestle with the appropriate level or depth in which one’s faith should be shared with nonbelievers should be. Is the music ministry or entertainment? Identity and self-fulfillment are important to individuals, but contemporary Christians who choose to express themselves within the structure of the hardcore scene must promote a tradition which promotes giving oneself unto a higher power. Many issues have remained at the forefront of the conversation surrounding Christian music from the late-twentieth century, only the names and manifestations have changed.
Lauren Sandler’s article in The Village Voice, “God Save the Teens”, explains her firsthand account of experiencing the Christian hardcore scene and interviews with some of its members in New York. There, she finds that, as explained by Radosh and Luhr, Christianity is shifting from a scorning of the secular world toward accepting the secular world and glorifying God in that environment (Sandler). Spirituality and faith are no longer something to be experienced behind closed doors. The wall between the secular and religious is being torn down by acts like xLooking Forwardx and Haste the Day. Christians playing secular shows allows them to, “…express their faith, minister to marginalized cohorts, and spiritually seduce new groupies,” according to Sandler’s interview. Christian bands aim to live, breathe, and prosper in the secular world, while maintaining their faith (Sandler). The idea that God will judge a person on the basic goodness of their soul and not appearance or choice in musical stylings has driven this community’s numbers and influence. Christian youths are no longer anchored down by social expectations laid upon them by their peers and family. This environment has allowed Christian hardcore to leave the musical ghetto and into the discourse over the future of hardcore (Sandler). The messages of hardcore bands are getting across to more hearts and minds than ever before.
Christian hardcore bands have a tendency to tackle issues that concern youth and the healing power of God. xLooking Forwardx, out of Richmond, VA, are dedicated to positive messages. In “You’re Worth It”, the band reaches out to youths that feel neglected and abused. Youths that feel incomplete and battered might find solace in the words “You’re a beautiful creation no matter who you are. Molded in the image of a living and loving God” (xLooking Forwardx). These are words that certainly may resonate with a group that may already feel ostracized for their aesthetic choices and their young, uneasy feeling about their place in life and society. Haste the Day’s, a rather popular band in the hardcore scene, track “American Love” explains a way out for youths who have grown wary of emptiness and abuse. “Help me stop this endless cycle. Remind me of how it can be. Take me back. I surrender all. Without you my heart is broken.” The song plays on the theme of redemption and a return to the light of God’s grace. He is the only force that can help one sort their empty life out. “I never should have let you go. Promise me, you’d stay with me forever, forever,” points out the need for redemption and, assumes, that God will take one back even after all their transgressions (Haste the Day).
One of the most popular, and seemingly non-Christian, bands of the last couple of years has been Attack! Attack! The band, credited for being the one and only “crabcore” band in the world because of their style of dance, caused an uproar in the metal-core scene with their musical stylings and appearance. Their shock value may have derided the merits of their message. Put incredibly simply, their single, “Stick Stickly”, deconstructs and then glorifies the relationship between Christ, the individual, and the arduous road to salvation in a 4-minute barrage of primordial screams, euro-dance breakdowns, and bone-crushing hardcore romps. The song begins, “You never said that this would be easy, so go on live.” “This is the best part of the message, and it only took one. We live for what He’s worth, and thats more than you’ll know. He died for what He loved, and what he loved was you” (Attack! Attack!) Eventually they invoke the voice of the New Testament Father and Son, “I’ll wait for you, you know I’ll wait for you” (Attack! Attack!) All of this seems rather tame in comparison to how the music ferociously attacks the senses. At full blast the song could not be deciphered as inherently Christian. Bludgeoning the listener to death with double-bass drum flares and buzzing, heavy guitar lines, Attack! Attack! are attempting to claim souls for the glory of God, and more importantly, for the sake of the secular listener’s soul.
Interestingly, this message of salvation and grace does not completely explain the Christian hardcore scene. Activism and liberalism are an ever-present attitude in Christian hardcore. True Christianity has little to do with being on the left or right. In The Chariot’s song “Daggers”, they declare the importance and beauty of life and lament the unfair process involving those who declare war and those who have to fight it. Not shy from putting himself front and center, the lead-singer of both The Chariot and, at one time, Norma Jean, Josh Scogin, uses his lyrics as a vehicle for his message of peace, love, and salvation. In Norma Jean’s “Memphis Will Be Laid to Waste”, another huge hit in the hardcore community, Scogins explains, “You find yourself helpless. Christ is not a fashion, fleeting away–fashion” (Norma Jean). The song vilifies the false prophets of the secular world. God is your only salvation. “Now you’re doing the waltz with your murderer.”
The tracks selected for interpretation are only a snippet of what the hardcore community offers its listeners. It is important to note that many of these themes do purvey most of the scene, but there is more left to uncover. As I scoured the Internet for an experience beyond watching music videos and reading lyrics, I stumbled upon hxcchristian.com. The forum was opened for Christians involved in the hardcore movement to be able to reach out to each other across the country. The technological age has spurred on the growth of faith and fellowship between Christians in the hardcore scene past the limits of direct, physical contact. After introducing myself, and warning them of my lack of faith, Josh greeted me. As the founder and administrator of the forum and website, Josh opened his heart up and shared ideas about faith, appearance, and how actions were louder than black hoodies. Josh explains that his world changed after he was saved. He no longer listened to secular bands with messages of pain like Sick of It All and Gorilla Biscuits. He listened to Christian bands like xLooking Forwardx and No Innocent Victim which edified his faith.
Username “theefaulted” explained that secular hardcore scenesters “piss and moan” about hardcore and Christianity being merged. He explained that their goal with me, and others, was not to proselytize, instead they aimed to share their feelings and beliefs in order for others to gain understanding. The group claimed to be non-denominational, consisting of people of many different and particular Christian faith traditions. There was no one wrong or right. People were there to share their experiences with Christ and learn from one another. Users use the forum to discuss scripture on topics such as bands, piercings, or if it is a sin to smoke marijuana. Jury’s still out. Young Christians on the Internet are not just Facebook chatting, but they are engaging in deep theological discussions concerning faith, salvation, and sin.
What the twenty-first century Christian must face is the dilemma of having to reconcile their worldly selves with their spiritual connection with God. Does every action or word have to venerate the Lord? For many artists the problem lies in the manner in which their message manifests itself in their music and can also ensure it does not alienate potential listeners, converts. Daniel Radosh interviews a professor of Christian music and finds that there are three categories of CCM musicians’ interaction with society. The seperationalists, integrationalists, and transformational approaches all offer different outlooks on how the Christian should posture themselves against popular or worldly music (Radosh 164-170). Seperationalists invite Christian listeners to cast off the secular world, enter a relationship with God, and express it through their consumptive behavior. Integrationalists offer antidotes to secular acts (Radosh 164). In the world of 1980s hair metal, Stryper and Stryken were the antidotes to Poison and Def Leppard (Radosh 165). Transformationalists, according to Radosh, involve God in their everyday lives. Christ and God purvey every facet of a Christian artist’s existence. The musical creations of Christian artists of this approach are inherently Christian by association. As T-Bone Burnett is quoted by Radosh, “ ‘If Jesus is the light of the world, there are two kinds of songs you can write. You can write songs about the light, or you can write songs about what you can see from the light’ ” (Radosh 168). This all-encompassing view best explains Christian youth and their approach to popular culture in twenty-first century America.
The debate rages on in the Christian community concerning what determines an artist’s Christian-ness. Katie Galli, in her article “Why Churchless Christianity Doesn’t Work”, explains that the church’s staunchest critics are from within. Cultural relevance and religious ideology have begun melding together. Ideology is losing way to the power of pop culture (Galli). The “decorpulation” of the Church hurts the established Christian institutions and the souls of those incorporated into the antichurch movement (Galli). Conversely, Christian Scharen states that the movement away from the Church’s traditional shunning of popular culture can enrich the spiritual lives of Christians. In “Imagination, Pop Culture, and ministry with Youth and Young Adults”, Scharen calls for youth to build a deep, faithful Christian imagination that can aid them in extracting Christian messages from secular sources (Scharen 342). A deep Christian imagination may provide Christian inspiration in places never before examined (Scharen 342). In Scharen’s case, he explains the inherent Christianity in Kanye West’s music. In the style of transformational Christian music artists, Scharen calls for Christians to create ideology out of pop culture and not just for the secular world (Scharen 343). Building a deep Christian imagination can also help those confronting their environment with the tools needed to surmount the challenges of modern life (Scharen 341).
Scharen and others claim that the youth of Christian America are no longer falling into the mold set by their parents. The traditional Christian community falls short of providing youth with the necessary ammunition to deal with the political, social, and religious environment of twenty-first century America. Young evangelicals are faced with poverty issues, global warming, human rights violations, and war. The paradigm of Christian political conservatism no longer functions as a narrative for how millions of evangelicals’ faith will manifest itself in the public sphere (Roberts). Tom Roberts contends that this shift is the expression of a deeper faith amongst young Christian in America. The idea of Christian understanding, peace, and charity have struck a chord with contemporary youth (Roberts). In today’s America, the spiritual are setting the political agenda. With Christian youth growing up and becoming contributing members to society, it is only a matter of time before the United States will have to come to terms with the sociopolitical shifts based affected by religious belief (Roberts).
This development has manifested itself in full in the “hipster Christianity” movement, which is garnering a substantial amount of attention from the faithful. There are many parallels to draw between hipster Christianity and Christian hardcore, past the superficial aesthetic differences. Brett McCracken, author of the recent book Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collides, explains the new phenomenon as having ripped away the vestiges of popular Christian culture. Much like those involved in Christian hardcore, there are youth in America that are looking for something more than a religious-political ideology that is dictated to them. The “latest incarnation of a decades long collision of ‘cool’ and ‘Christianity’, hipster Christianity is in large part a rebellion against the subculture that birthed it” (McCracken). In essence, this is the exact sentiment that has changed the established beliefs on how a Christian should comport themselves. The acceptance now being exercised by young Christians has a spurred a large seeker movement in America which combines modern life with Christian inspiration. McCracken postulates that by the 1990s, an industry grew around Christian youth. This development pushed many looking for more meaning in their daily lives away from the Christian mainstream (McCracken). This shift away from an obedience to an increasingly irrelevant set of moral values has pushed many in Christian youth subcultures to follow an idea that asks, “Since God is building his kingdom on Earth, then why can it not all matter?” (McCracken). Inclusion and not seclusion is ultimate shift in American Christianity’s political and social values.
Despite the evasive words of some practitioners, Christian hardcore through its mere existence is a tool for recruitment (Hodges). Kingdom-building might not be an expressed aim declared by many within the community, but their public worship and relationship with the hardcore subculture acts as a tool for evangelization. The Christian hardcore community proves that Christ and secular lifestyles can live together, in harmony. The glory of God is not only relegated to the designated areas and actions purported by Church and Christian leaders. The Christian hardcore scene is vibrant and being pushed to the forefront of many minds by the spread of technology. These warriors of faith act as couriers of God’s message in various ways that may not demonstrate themselves as inherently Christian. Hardcore style is brash, heavy, hard, thinking, questioning, and destructive. However, these elements are intrinsically Christian. Suffering and doubt are key elements to the development of the Christian soul. Through their music, Christian hardcore bands tackle these issues head on in an effort to spread their message to a community that by its very nature feeds on the emotions of anger and rage. Offering a way out of the darkness of secular, modern living into the light of the Father and Son is a substantial Christian act. In my journey, I found youth in the Christian hardcore scene not only engaging themselves in the Christian faith but helping those around them find their way through charitable acts, offering places for clean, faithful living, and being benevolent messengers of the faith. American youth are not using secular lifestyle choices to hide their Christianity. Instead, they are creating new ways for their faith to manifest itself in the public eye. They are disciples of Christ declaring their love for their Holy Father in a world and subculture that is hostile to them. What Christian hardcore has become is a place for refuge, fellowship, love, understanding, and cooperation all in the name of Christ. Christian hardcore is evidence of a shift in American faith further from the conservative, alienating political and social manifestations of the past fifty years. Christian hardcore members are fighting for a new age of living in Christ’s name for the sake of all humanity, not just those who are saved.