Monks in the Mosh Pit
There are obvious similarities between punk rock and religious monasticism.
Both are cultures that deviate from the mainstream. Both eschew high fashion in favor of simplicity. Both believe in a Do It Yourself (DIY) ethic. (Corporate label won't sell your record? Produce and distribute it yourself. The secular world is obsessed with fame and toys? Wear a robe and shave your head.)
Punks and monks are about a stripped-down opposition to a sinful world that can me sermonized into making sense.
Enter MONKROCK. The all-caps official name of the company is the brainchild of Kevin Clay, a musician and artist who lives in Tennessee. Clay, who is a "lay monastic," believes that the most authentic expression of punk in 2015 is traditional Catholic monasticism. From his website:
The anti-pop...spirit of punk finds its highest expression in the monastic vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and a rule of prayer, repentance, and work offered to "God alone." Through community and the dissemination of art, media, propaganda and merchandise, MONKROCK exists to make everyday life a religious experience by empowering people to see the world as their monastery.
These days MONKROCK is even more punk rock than so-called authentic punk rock. The liberal magazine The American Prospect recently ran a piece about punk rock in Washington. The D.C. "harDCore" scene was a 1980s subculture of punk artists, activists and musicians. The most visible, led by the band Fugazi, were political liberals, arguing against racism, censorship and Reaganomics and for feminism, higher wages and gay rights. One sub-genre, "straight edge," didn't drink or do drugs.
But what happens when the dog catches the car? In 2015 we have a liberal black president, a feminist Secretary of State who may be the next president, a focus on income inequality, and gay marriage legalized by the Supreme Court. The things the D.C. punks went to the barricades for have come to pass. (Although it would be interesting to hear what "straight edge" punks think about marijuana legalization.)
What's left is what the punks once criticized mainstream rock for: bloat, meaningless posturing and sad nostalgia. There seem to be endless documentaries being made about the history of D.C. punk -- more films than have even been made about communism. In the Prospect piece, contemporary punks, faced with the kind of leaders and cultural atmosphere they could only dream of in 1984, are left with vague slogans about "social change." There's also what I call "retroactive repression," wherein a liberal confronted with a string of culture war victories resorts to complain about the past. Thus a woman in the Prospect piece is angry because there weren't enough "women or people of color" in the 1980s punk scene.
Punks and liberals seem to have won the culture war, but leftist iconoclasm is so woven into their sense of self-worth that they ignore the real misfits and rebels of 2015. Completely co-opted by liberalism, punks have no interested in what is now a truly marginalized group: the orthodox religious.
A talented punk band like Priests can complain that "everything is so right wing," but the amps go silent when it comes to government harassment and coercion of the Little Sisters of the Poor. Planned Parenthood is selling baby parts, a monster like abortionist Kermit Gosnell ran a butcher shop that was worse than anything out of a horror movie, and punk has nothing to say. 40 years ago punk legends had the courage to address abortion, and their take was decidedly not pro-choice.
Where is today's Johnny Rotten, a punk who will sneer not only at the easy targets -- Republicans, born-again Christians, the Confederate flag -- but questioncoercive liberalism, feminism, the gay agenda, or even defend Israel? The saga of the Little Sisters of the Poor seems tailor made for D.C. punk rock: the government wants to force a small counterculture to violate its beliefs. If the government had tried to pull the same stunt, but instead was forcing AIDS organizations to promote abstinence (and hitting them with a hefty fine if they didn't), you can bet there would be a punk anthem written about it within days.
Most punk rock is the angry and destructive puppy that is now a sleepy old hound. In it's place of resistance are people like the Little Sisters of the Poor, Christian bakers, florists and photographers, and Kevin Clay of MONKROCK. One of the most important aspects of Clay's work is the quality of the merchandise he sells. Punk rock was always about art as much as music.
The Catholic Church and religious conservatives have largely fallen behind in recent decades in creating art. MONROCK'S t-shirts, stickers, books, buttons, prayer ropes and medallions are not the kind of items you'd find in your average Vatican gift shop. The color saturation on the shirts is rich, and the artwork, vintage renderings of Jesus, the cross, the Virgin Mary and the saints, is genuinely artistic. It's the kind of stuff you might find in a hipster Brooklyn shop.
And the message is every bit as brave and rebellious as Johnny Rotten's 1977 gear questioning the Queen.