Hope and pop culture

I love punk rock. When I was in college in the late-’80s and early-90s, the Clash rocked my world (and they still do, whenever I listen to them). In the late-’90s, a female punk trio called Sleater-Kinney similarly blew me away. If you scanned my record and CD collection, you would also find beloved punk albums by the Ramones, Television, Patti Smith, the Sex Pistols, the Replacements, and many others. Punk rock has the ability to say—loudly and angrily at times—that something is very wrong with the world and needs to change.

I agree with that sentiment. And I also appreciate that at the root of this message is hope: to say that the world is wrong and needs to change is to believe that change is possible, that something better exists. As one extreme example, the Clash have a song called “Straight to Hell,” which seems very bleak. In reality, however, it challenges us to consider how cheaply we often value human life. We often say to people through words and actions, “Go straight to hell,” without knowing it. The song raises our awareness, and it hopes that we can change.

By contrast, even though I was exactly of an age to appreciate them, I always hated Nirvana. Their pessimism bordered on nihilism. There was no hope in their music. I couldn’t relate. (You are free to disagree with this assessment, as I’m sure of you will.) Of course, this pessimism and hopelessness in popular culture is often celebrated as really clever and realistic. “This is really the way the world is,” many artists say, “and it’s Polyanna-ish to say otherwise.”

Sorry, I’ll pass.

I want my art to be life-affirming and hopeful because that is what is realistic: because as a Christian, while I strongly affirm that there is so much suffering, pain, and injustice in this world, we are never without hope. And, through God’s Spirit, we can change the world for the better. In fact, in our baptismal vows, we commit ourselves to doing so by standing up to injustice and evil in the world in whatever forms they present themselves. At the same time, we believe that ultimately the change we seek comes in all its fullness through God’s act of re-creation on the other side of resurrection.

Our hope, in other words, is not rooted in any political agenda, ideology, or human institution—although God may work through them or in spite of them; it’s rooted in God.

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