The punk and the professor and what they say about God

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Growing up in Calgary in the 1970s, members of a punk rock band called the Hot Nasties, we were misfits.

Punks are always misfits, and proudly so. But our group – our gang – were misfits among the misfits. We were card-carrying church-goers. We’d party hard with all of our punk pals on Saturday nights, and then drag our grimy, grubby souls into St. Bonaventure Catholic Church on Sunday morning. In biker jackets.

We even wrote songs about God and the nature of existence (albeit from the perspective of under-educated, surly, snotty teenage punks). It was an endless source of amusement for our fellow punks, none of whom took God very seriously, or considered that He/She actually existed.

Punks are anti-authority, mainly, and religion is seen by punks as one of the principal sources of authoritarianism. So, whenever the Hot Nasties offered up a tune about God, or God’s doings, our pals were bewildered.

Bewildered is a good word to describe one’s immediate reaction to the slender new book by Arkansas history professor Preston Jones, Is Belief In God Good, Bad or Irrelevant? A Professor and A Punk Rocker Discuss Science, Religion, Naturalism and Christianity.

[pullquote]The book’s unwieldy title accurately describes its content. Mr. Jones, a fan of seminal California punk band Bad Religion, struck up an extended e-mail correspondence with the band’s lead singer, Greg Graffin. The book reprints most of their e-mails back-and-forth, debating God and science, over a period of several months in 2003 and 2004.

What makes the book interesting is Greg Graffin – but not because the punk legend is a celebrity. The book is fascinating because Graffin possesses a Ph.D in zoology – he wrote his doctoral dissertation on evolution, atheism and naturalism – and he is exceptionally intelligent. No punk caricature is Graffin. You are not likely to see him cursing and spitting in public, and throwing up on old ladies in airport waiting rooms, a la Sid Vicious.

Graffin is a smart, proud atheist, and Jones is a smart, devout Christian. Their correspondence is simultaneously respectful and revealing. Early on, Graffin whose band’s name was literally chosen to signal opposition to U.S. televangelists – sets the tone: “[Christianity cannot] revise and forget its brutal past. I see tinges of Inquisition rhetoric throughout Christian writing.” But then Graffin adds a telling admission: “… although I avoid anything by Christian scholars generally.”

And therein lays the rub. How can Graffin observe “tinges of Inquisition rhetoric” in Christian scholarship – when he simultaneously admits he “avoids” same?

That, then, is the dominant value of Jones’ book: in it, the Christian academic gently attempts to challenge, and thereby educate, Greg Graffin. To point out that the Christian religion is not all that, well, bad.

As a Roman Catholic and a Canadian, I found some of Jones’ antipathy for Catholics and Canadians off-putting. But, in the main, Jones’ side of the correspondence documents a credible case for God’s existence, and His/Her love for all of us, punks included. “Maybe,” he writes amusingly, “the hatred for God atheists feel is proof of God’s existence!”

Initially, Graffin – whose best-selling recent album, The Empire Strikes First, depicted on its cover a feral skeleton in clerical vestments – is contemptuous. “I was never baptized, never aware of a single story from the Good Book, never programmed by religious teachers, and never concerned about life after death.” By the book’s conclusion, however, his angry tone – if not his position – has undergone a perceptible shift.

“I think,” acknowledges Graffin, “there are all sorts of realities that we learn as we mature, and we are forced to rewrite our worldviews.”

True enough. At the end of their gentlemanly correspondence, Bad Religion’s Greg Graffin has not radically rewritten his atheistic worldview. But his earlier disdain for God, and God’s believers, has moderated somewhat.

As Christians – and as punks, too! – we should be grateful for that much. Inflexibility and intolerance are not terribly attractive, whether you’re wearing a biker jacket or cleric’s vestments.

Warren Kinsella is the author of Fury’s Hour: A (sort-of) Punk Manifesto, published by Random House.

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