Weird Christianity: Latin Liturgy and Monastic Prayer as Punk Rock Rebellion against Secular Capitalism

A piece in the New York Times describes the trend among Millennials of embracing older rites and traditional forms of Christian worship as a way of rejecting modern individualism, secularism, and capitalism.

Weird Christians reject as overly accommodationist those churches, primarily mainline Protestant denominations like Episcopalianism and Lutheranism, that have watered down the stranger and more supernatural elements of the faith (like miracles, say, or the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ). But they reject, too, the fusion of ethnonationalism, unfettered capitalism and Republican Party politics that has come to define the modern white evangelical movement.

This is definitely a thing, albeit a small movement made much more visible by Twitter. When I go to a run-of-the-mill Catholic parochial mass, the ones wearing veils on their heads are no longer the little old ladies–it’s the pious twenty-somethings. Sounds like young Anglicans and Episcopalians are reaching back to their high-church traditions for similar reasons.

The author might be trying too hard to make it cool with the “punk” analogies, but I do think that committing to the religiously “old school” (if you will) is one of the few coherent avenues out of the contemporary right/left ideologies that feel (to some) similarly nihilistic.

Has anyone else encountered or experienced this kind of throwback impulse as a reaction to modern life?

Hmm. Seems much more likely to lead to reactionary attitudes than progressive ones.

I’ll admit to a minor fascination with early Christian mysticism and the Gnostics and such (there’s definitely an aesthetic component here), but somehow I don’t think that’s what they’re talking about.

It’s hard to say if “Weird Christianity” (let’s just call it that for ease of terminology) reflects a secular rejection of contemporary religious practice or a religious rejection of contemporary religious practice.

What I mean is that this impulse seems very similar to the 90s Christian Band thing, except that it’s the reverse and going back to ceremony. But these people might already be religious and are just looking for a different way of expressing that religiousness that doesn’t feel cheap and compromised and “consumeristic” the way that evangelical Christianity, with its embrace of blue-collar symbolism and style, does. It doesn’t seem likely that they are secular non-religious rejecting consumerism and rediscovering older religious traditions.

There has been a very tiny movement of people away from current Christian denominations to more “traditional” Orthodox denominations, such as Greek or Syrian Orthodox Churches, as having all the Poper-y of the Papacy but not the Papacy’s and Catholicism’s incredibly problematic past and contemporary history.

Personally it’s hard not to find a certain lack of gravity to cheapen the communal experience, but also that it’s impossible to conclude that Evangelicals, who open the doors to the barefoot and pregnant, so to speak, are doing it wrong either (at least in terms of accessibility - in terms of theology, yikes).

There are quite a few whitebread converts to Sikhism in Santa Fe, NM, for ex., from experience. In many ways I think there’s been interest in Eastern Religions for decades in the West as feeling more authentic. In a sense, by stripping out modern consumerism from religion, these people are finding that same “orientalism” in the religious traditions they already had.

The problem with Punk Christianity is ecumenalism; if they’re picking and choosing from tons of different faith traditions, it’s unlikely they’re going to be accepted beyond their circle. It’s basically a complete disinterest in the theological differences that once clove through Christian denominations ever since Protestantism. Which is all well and good until you care enough to actually understand why those differences are there. But then again, who cares about all that baggage anyway? What Punk Christianity may get at is those theological “differences” are mostly nonsense. But preferring ceremony to actual theology will be a pretty superficial sort of Christianity. Although, tbh, most Christian theology from hundreds of years ago is probably complete and total nonsense as well.

I think you make a good point that this is similar to people looking to eastern religions for a new set of values that they don’t otherwise find around themselves. I would bet that that turn to eastern faiths has been going on long enough (arguably a Boomer trope starting with the Beatles) that young people recognize it as just as tired as rote mainline Christianity.

Which highlights one of the reasons I get a little skeptical of Weird Christianity, despite being pretty sympathetic: It feels like just one more example of the pattern of generations looking for ways to reject what came before them. These folks don’t want secularism (the default mode in the public sphere), they don’t want eclectic exoticism or new agey-ness, and they don’t want bland conventional Christianity. I think they don’t want the standard political choices, either. So this is one avenue: Radically traditional Christian practice that has been out of style since at least the middle of the 20th Century.

As far as ecumenism, I would guess that Weird Christianity doesn’t find much purchase in an evangelical context. Anglicans (and their spin-offs, as I understand it), by contrast, have always had an essentially Catholic-esque liturgical tradition, which is more or less embraced by each community. So their reaching back and finding something that Catholics and Orthodox might recognize isn’t totally out of the question. Lutherans as Presbyterians seem stuck in the middle–they have hundreds of years of tradition to look back to, but theologically they’d have some big sticking points with Catholics and Orthodox.

But I don’t know that the point is for all of these folks to band together like a single church would. They could still recognize each other as cultural bedfellows. Much like different punk subcultures, they may not see the world the same way, but they can all agree on what it is they oppose!

What do you mean by “coherent”?

My wife and I were having a very similar discussion this weekend: I was pondering just what it was about Islam that would attract an American to convert. How is it different in any attractive way to Catholicism, or Anglicanism, or any of a dozen other non-Protestant sects? I just don’t get the attraction. (The conversation was about Cat Stevens)

There’s a possible actual conversation about differences between Islam and Christianity and whether those make sense to modern Americans to accept enough to convert, but for people like Cat Stevens i imagine it is more a rejection of the culture of Western Imperialism and joining a religion that, at least superficially, professes “radical” equality between all races and peoples. What’s the difference between Anglicanism and Catholicism and Protestantism when all of them were involved in terrible colonial events?

In essence, you have a deeper understanding of your own culture’s flaws and a much more superficial understanding of your adopted culture’s flaws, and for that moment, the new seems better than the old.

I think it would be possible to create an “American Islam” or Western Islam, if one rejected the entire body of Hadith literature and built Islam back from the ground up, throwing away all current traditions and inherited cultural understandings. I also imagine such an Islam would seem deeply heretical to most Muslims around the world today.

Maybe not the right word, but I mean fleshed out enough to sustain an individual’s worldview. Like, a counterexample would be deciding you’re going to live your life according to the Jedi code from Star Wars. Probably doesn’t hold up as well. (My apologies to any Jedi reading.)

I’m not deeply familiar with Islam, but I certainly find the core tenet of submission attractive–actually, probably for a reason similar to the “weird Christians”: Because it feels so at odds with modern fetishizing of autonomy. Also, the Arabic language looks and sounds beautiful, and it’s absolutely inextricable from their scripture and prayer.

I mean, the Black Islam of Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan would qualify, right? I don’t know exactly how they differ doctrinally and ceremonially, but it bet it looks different than what occurs in the middle east.

That said, I don’t know what it means to reconstruct a religion “from the ground up.” If you tossed out Mohammed and the Koran, say, I don’t think you would end up with anything that could be labeled “Islam” from any perspective, orthodox or not.

I’ve seen young Jewish people go ultra-traditional (sometimes, but not always, ultra-Orthodox, the difference being the social/cultural trappings of the latter generally are off-putting to younger congregants). It provides something that is rooted in a deep past that seems less mutable than today’s meme-driven culture of ephemera. It imposes specific requirements and has specific rules that are removed enough from contemporary political debates and modern lived culture that their onerousness is balanced by their exoticism.

I’ve even seen young folks go as far as to embrace true ultra-Orthodox lives, including young women willingly subordinating themselves to a patriarchal, paternalistic, and in my view frankly misogynistic experience, out of a need for identity and a sense of belonging. Extreme religion (X-Faith, maybe, like X-Games?) provides that total, whole-life framework for people who can’t seem to find any real anchors otherwise. It’s worth losing autonomy or even dignity for them to feel a rock-solid sense of belonging and connection with a community I suppose. Similar to the fundamentalist Protestants I’ve known.

As far as converting to Islam, a good friend of mine did this some years ago. He had been studying the Koran and Islamic literature and art for years, had traveled and lived in the Gulf region, and is of a generally philosophical bent in general. The teachings of the Sufis, Islamic mystics, in particular appealed to him (roughly analogous I guess to the Kabala and Zohar, if Kabalists wrote good poetry, though in some ways I suppose the Sufis are more like early followers of the Bal Shem Tov). Islam is a very simple religion on its face. You acknowledge the sole divinity of God and the authority of His Prophet, and voila, you are a Muslim. It is also a very text-focused religion, with the Koran occupying a place rather different than that of the Christian Bible or even Torah, though Jewish focus on texts comes closer I think.

The move away from current American Christianity is likely a rejection both of the current church and the current secular world. People want a source of personal piety that doesn’t also involve, for example, hurting the poor. In fact, they are looking for a way of relating to God that then finds its expression in, for example, helping the poor both directly and as a society.

Some have argued that American Christianity is headed toward a post-denominational paradigm. The particular institutional denominations will continue to exist, at least for a time, but Christians will no longer as strongly identify themselves with a particular denomination. I find this to be true for me, though I am not young; I’m not a good Presbyterian nor even a halfway decent Calvinist. But I love my church.

There are obvious problems with many current denomination. Some find the mainline churches a bit rudderless and also undemanding of their members’ personal piety and lifestyle. The contemporary Evangelical church, even before it was taken over by right-wing politics, lacks a real tradition of personal discipleship; it’s completely oriented around conversion and renewing conversion. In The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard criticized this model as framing the Christian life as “intellectual assent to a correct theory of atonement;” it completely leaves out what is supposed to happen next, which is what these young people are seeking in these older models of Christian spirituality.

Richard J. Foster wrote about the post-denominational church in his book Streams of Living Water. It analyzes six historical traditions in Christianity: contemplative, holiness, charismatic, social justice, (real) evangelical (which is not synonymous with “proselytizing”, and incarnational. Generally, denominations are strong in some and weak in others. Practically no Protestant denomination has a strong contemplative or incarnational tradition. A person or a group of people will be stronger in some of these than other, of course, but they are all good to keep in mind when considering living a Christian life individually and in community. I think young people are looking for ways to reincorporate the traditions that are missing from their past experience.

I think this is right. The article mentions some folks who identify as “weird Christians” and as progressives/socialists/Marxists. You can see another example in Liz Bruenig, a Catholic journalist who was recently added to the NYT opinion page (and who is under 30). I think it’s obvious to them that the religious currents that run parallel to the Republican party can’t be reconciled with Jesus’ statements on the poor. At the same time, I wonder if they’ll encounter a snag on the left as well, which frequently resents faith-based arguments in the public discourse.

On the other side, Catholicism and Orthodoxy have arguably lost their grasp on the charismatic and evangelical!

I’m a fan of Tom Holland and this interview made me appreciate Paul (St. Paul) more than before. NT Wright is also an interesting figure with a lot to say. His opening statements about pneuma being ambiguous about the status of the Holy Spirit kind of sold me on the guy right there, as that was always a question I had.

I wouldn’t mind having one of these

I think this fellow sort of embodies the spirit of this thread; a young person who willingly entered the Franciscan Order.

NT Wright is a brilliant scholar–and quite bold in his thinking–and the sort of person who I think can demonstrate well to skeptics that it’s possible to take religious faith seriously and with intellectual rigor (and without going politically overboard). In fact, he’s quite a bit like Bishop Barron at Word on Fire in that way.

Wright’s new book is supposed to be a hefty read, but looks pretty incredible.
https://www.amazon.com/New-Testament-Its-World-Introduction/dp/0310499305

Similarly, the WOF bible is on my to-get list, but I want a hardback version and they sold out in a flash.

Thanks for mentioning Breaking in the Habit. I hadn’t heard of it before. I watched one of the videos and subscribed right away. It happened to be a video (titled: Why care for the environment?") about Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’, which I read earlier this year and would recommend.

I am not as familiar with N.T. Wright as I would like, though I have run across quotes and others’ mentions of him. Last month, my favorite musician Terry Scott Taylor, in one of his “fireside chats” to the folks who kickstarted his upcoming solo album, recommended Wright’s *The Day the Revolution Began." It sounded akin to to The Divine Conspiracy, taking the Resurrection as its start rather than Conspiracy’s focus on the Sermon on the Mount. Revolution is now on my Kindle and my short list of “what to read next.”