Fellow Passengers: Today’s Pastoral Passage (I Corinthians 10: 1-13) transports me to the fringes of London’s music scene, 1974, when groups like the Clash, long before they were pegged “the only band that matters,” were creating a new counter-culture genre of rock and roll. Rooted in local underground scenes that rejected mainstream culture, the Clash gave voice to an authentic sense of disenfranchisement among the youth. Fast forward two years, and the Clash signs a record deal with CBS, prompting the editor of the punk-zine Sniffin’ Glue to lament, “Punk died the day The Clash signed to CBS.” The favored term among the faithful for this kind of sellout to the mainstream culture was poseur. The word started showing up in a lot of hardcore punk lyrics, deriding the pretension of sellouts. The arguments raged, as they do in every subculture seeking to establish and maintain an identity, whether it be classic punk, hardcore, hip hop, goth, you name it. Poseurs abound and provoke zealous calls for authenticity.
All that helps me understand where Paul is coming from when he is writing his first letter to the Corinthian church. From the vantage point of 2010, after centuries of Christianity enjoying its privileged role as purveyor of establishment values, it’s hard for us to go back and really have a sense of what it was like for the followers of Jesus to be a fringe, anti-establishment group. They, like the early Hebrew wilderness wanderers, were the original Clash, creating new counter-cultures and radical alternatives to the prevailing cultures of power and privilege. And, like the hardcore true believers in the world of punk, Paul is here railing against the poseurs who want to have the label of Christian but who are selling out to the values of the mainstream world. The rhetoric of death as a judgment for selling out is not so different from Sniffin’ Glue’s epitaph, “punk died the day the Clash signed with CBS.” The radical nature of the liberation movement died in the wilderness when people made the golden calf and then went out to play. The sting of the counter-culture critique died in spades when the men started sleeping with the mainstream enemy. The force of love was poisoned by serpents when the people lost the authenticity of love and started mimicking the world’s voice of discontent and greed.
This “clash” between maintaining an authentic, core (hardcore?) identity and assimilating into the wider mainstream world has been part of the faith community’s struggle since day one. The threat of death as a judgment on assimilation is more than rhetoric; it is real – marginalized cultures do die out when exposed to the mainstream. And yet the larger culture is oftentimes enriched and transformed when the radicals do enter the mainstream – after all, the Clash brought us London Calling after they signed with CBS, deemed the best album of the 80s by Rolling Stone. The Church, likewise, brought Michelangelo and Beethoven to the world through its assimilation into mainstream culture. We’ll always need the hardcore authentic keepers of the Jesus movement’s radical identity – the Mennonites come to mind – and we’ll always have assimilation into mainstream. It’s a clash, to be sure, and whichever side of that equation you find yourself on now, you might find yourself drawn to the other side, and if so, consider the question posed by the Clash – should I stay or should I go now?
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.