Sedition: ‘3. Conduct or language inciting people to rebellion…’ The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).
As this is the first post on seditioustheology.com, I thought I would start by addressing some of the questions that I get asked on the subject.
Q. Where did the term Seditious Theology stem from?
Some years ago I had a conversation with Trevor Hart, the then Professor of Divinity at the University of St Andrews and Director of The Institute of Theology, Imagination and the Arts. The subject of our chat was whether there were ways in which I could explore the punk movement from a theological perspective. It was perfectly clear that the genre had been analysed under a microscope, dissected with a scalpel, and picked over for subcultural clues for decades. Nevertheless, despite having had gallons of ink spilt in its name there did not appear to have been a meaningful work that had brought punk and theology together.
One Masters Dissertation, one Doctoral Thesis and one published book later and it turned out that the answer was yes, I could.
Q. How did you bring punk and theology together?
I needed a tighter area of research and so I elected to focus on the British punk movement of the 1970s and the words and works of Christ as found in the synoptic gospels. Having determined the scope of my subject I found the research quickly brought me in touch with topics such as subversion, deconstruction and confrontation and in so doing predictably brought to light the stark contrasts between the punk genre and the ministry of Jesus. However, more surprisingly, I also discovered some interesting similarities and ways in which we may look at both punk and Christ in fresh and unusual ways. By way of example, I discovered connections in how both challenged cherished symbols, evidenced gestures of revolt, made constructive use of conflict and shattered relational norms. What this act of imaginatively bringing punk and the life of Christ together did was gradually reveal a more ‘seditious’ pattern within Jesus’ life. With these images firmly in view I then explored whether there were any expressions in the field of theology that could be said to also evidence this pattern. After further research it became clear that, for example, both the earlier Liberation theologians and the more recent work of Marcella Althaus-Reid revealed notable and helpful similarities to the impressions I had been left with when I had worked with punk and Christ.
The result of this work thus provided a fresh and challenging image of Christ and a way of understanding what being a ‘seditious’ follower of Christ may look like for both the individual and the church.
Q. But why is it called Seditious Theology and not just, say, subversive?
There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, one of the most important geographical locations that helped spawn and support the punk genre was Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s shop in the King’s Road, London. Initially, the store was titled SEX, but as the movement flourished and metamorphosed they changed the name to Seditionaries. The aim of the shop was to draw people into revolting against the capitalist, consumer and corporate society of the day. This rebellion, as evidenced in the punk movement more widely, was not the sedition of the terrorist who aims to both violently and physically overthrow the elected government of the day, but was to be found in the semiotic, graphic, vocal, musical and relational acts that undermined and destabilised many artistic and political symbolic meanings and, in so doing, proclaimed their message of anger and revolt.
The use of the term seditionary in relation to the words and works of Christ was an even easier choice. I was aware that Jesus is sometimes described as a seditionary when he is being looked at in the context of his relationship with Rome. However, once I started looking at him in the light of the subjects I had seen during my work with punk, in the context of his relationship with the Jewish leaders of the day and in the light of his inauguration and ignition of the incoming Kingdom of God, it seemed to be the most appropriate term to use. Christ challenged considerable and powerful orthodox opinion on subjects such as the Land, Family, Sabbath and Social Hierarchy. He publically reversed some of the Jewish leaders’ teaching on scripture, exploited problematic language to make his point, created confrontational theatre as he accomplished miracles and challenged cultural and relational norms. Looking at Jesus from the perspective that I was, it seemed relatively clear that in the eyes of some of the people in the nation of Israel and particularly in the eyes of their leaders, he could comfortably be described as a seditionary.
There is one caveat that I need to introduce here because, although in many of the scenes I reference about Christ may have appeared to be overturning things, what he was actually doing was righting them back to the way God intended. He took the things that had been corrupted and recalibrated them back to the way they were originally meant to be. With this evidence, and more beside, to call the work a Seditious Theology seemed the natural choice. It was about the act of overthrowing either symbolically or in the act of re-righting what had been lost.
Q. Is there a way you can provide a quick example of what Seditious Theology may look like in practice?
If the reader looks at the main image that accompanies this posting they will see a photograph of the ‘DESTROY’ shirt that was sold in Seditionaries during the mid 1970s. It pays to look at this image more closely.
The initial encounter with the shirt will cause some people problems. It was designed to. We may now live with our postmodern ‘seen-it-all-before’ perspective but this remains a difficult image to dismiss and although it is forty years old it still retains more than a sediment of its original offense. But why does it cause such a problem?
This is no ordinary garment. It is clear that it is poorly made and while most garments pride themselves on their durability the creator of this shirt clearly wants it to have a life span of weeks rather than years. It appears devoid of any immediate sense of fit. The cut and the shape appear more of an anti-fit and the shirt does not look as if was made for any size in particular – it is for everyone and no-one. The sleeves are X Long, the front X Short, the back Long and the width Wide. Whoever wears this will drown in the material at the same time as being restricted by it. It resembles a badly made straitjacket and carries the sense of both restriction and discomfort and the chances of anyone finding this a good fit are roughly on par with the likelihood of the ugly sisters managing to cram a foot into the shoe. The pins that self-evidently protrude from the shirt look as if they are made to pierce as much as to protect. If you try this shirt on in a hurry, it might bite.
These physical problems recede in urgency as we awaken to the images and words that adorn the shirt. The graphic voice is so immediately loud that it is distorted to the point where it is rendered little more than visual feedback. The word ‘DESTROY’ is emblazoned on the front and the black lettering looks as if it has been created by slashing and cut up rather than simple graphic writing. The use of the term provides an immediate and confrontational retort to the T-Shirts of the late sixties that proclaimed PEACE, LOVE and RELAX. But what needs to be destroyed? This is not a difficult question to answer for the simple reason that it was never meant to be. The traditional stamp with the Queen’s head on it references the British Establishment and the authorities who had supposedly led Britain into the ruinous era into which the shirt was launched. This would be an easy message to dismiss as both childish and naïve if it wasn’t for the fact that there really were charges to answer and punk was far from the only voice to express this. The swastika was employed as what, with the benefit of hindsight, now seems a predictable way in which they could ratchet the shock level up to high. This is not the conventional image of the swastika with its original red, white and black palette but a rather cheery blue and yellow version that, paradoxically, does not reduce the potency of the symbol but elevates it. The symbol that automatically conjures images of holocaust and death is presented in positive primary colours that are clearly entirely inappropriate and make it more problematic still. There is an image of Christ on his cross, but instead of the more usual presentation the picture has been inverted and the adjustment of orientation brings with it an accompanying sense of disorientation for the viewer. Finally, the shirt preaches to us with the repetition of the phrase NO FUTURE. In the first instance, as a self-descriptor, it is true the shirt itself has very little future indeed. But it is also stating that the country, as portrayed by this shirt, has no future unless it addresses what has brought the country so low: the Establishment, Government and Church. This shirt may be aggressive and problematic but what it proposes is creation through destruction.
Q. I can see the seditious element, but what about the theology?
Taking a step back and exploring the image we soon start to discern a hint of what a seditious theology may look like. To see the cross in such a troubling way can immediately dislodge the viewer with its axiomatic unauthorised appropriation of the sacred symbol of the church. The artist has stolen the cross for their work and in so doing has transgressed the acceptable boundaries of its usage. Furthermore, they have then added to this offense by inverting the image and thus, for some, will have conjured up images of the more occult uses of the cross.
What we have is an image of the cross of Christ placed in a space of great offence and so placing us at a junction. One fork asks that we see this use as blasphemy and either ignore it or attack it. The other asks that we look at this from an alternative perspective. This cross may well sit in a space of offense, but this need not be entirely negative; after all, the cross is meant to be offensive. By this I do not mean in the way that the wearing of a cross on a chain around the neck and the subsequent problems that may ensue with an employer. That is an example of the cross as religious imagery and taking its place among the other symbols, clothes, practices and religions that find themselves at odds with twenty first century culture. The problem raised here adds to Jurgen Moltmann’s suggestion that the church has swaddled the cross with roses. The symbol that was originally loaded with the sense of an excruciating death and the promise of redemption from sin has, in no small part, been sanitised, detoxified and rendered almost harmless. We pass by images of the cross daily, perhaps sometimes hourly, and for the most part we barely offer a glance.
But here, on this shirt, we see the cross once more in a space of offence and, looked at seditiously, we may feel prompted to reflect on just where the cross now sits in our world and the degree to which it has lost its original offense. We need to ask, why has the marriage between symbol and message led to separation and what can we do about it?
Q. So, what now?
What I want to do now is move on from just looking at punk and the gospels and use the work I have done thus far as a starting point to develop the idea of a Seditious Theology.
The work that I have been describing thus far was conceived and birthed within the Institute of Theology the Imagination and the Arts at St Andrews University and the arts will remain of the greatest importance to this work. However, my work with punk looked at not only images, clothes, words and music but also feminism, terrorism, racism and consumer culture and I want to continue this broad reach. The arts will remain my base camp but I want to imaginatively roam elsewhere. Contributions may range from papers of interest or even just a paragraph, book reviews, cinema, television critiques or any other topic that may add to this subject.
I also hope that this will not become a personal soap box. I would like to hear from people who may feel they have something to contribute to the developing of a Seditious Theology. This may be a subject that has been deemed as beyond the theological pale or something that has yet to find a place it could call home. The work may focus on the sacred and/or the profane and may look at the power of inversion, subversion or reversal and perhaps reference the overarching story of the Kingdom of God as an inherently seditious approach to life. In cases where there seems to be great merit in the contribution I would happily offer a full post with image.
For those who would like a fuller explanation and more questions answered do please see the book, Seditious Theology – Punk and the Ministry of Jesus (Ashgate Publishing: Farnham, Surrey, 2014).
In the first instance, please go the Ashgate dedicated site at http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9781409467014.
After that, I recommend going on to Amazon as there you can read parts, including the Introduction, for free. (Don’t forget, you can borrow it from the library!)
Until next time…
This work would not have been completed without the help of:
My wife, Lainey.
My parents, Alan & Jenny
My Brother, Ian
Professor David Brown
Professor Trevor Hart
Dr Gavin Hopps
Dr Tony Lawrence
Dr Philip Shaw
Dr Eric Stoddart
A very special thank you to Simon (PunkPistol) Easton for his generosity in letting me have access to his photographs. In the case of Seditious Theology they really were worth a thousand words. See more at, WWW.Seditionaries.com.
Recommended reading & bibliograhy:
Althaus-Reid, M. All works
Beckett, A. When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies (London: Faber & Faber, 2009)
Brown, D. God and Grace of Body: Sacrament in Ordinary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)
Moltmann, J. The Crucified God (London: SCM Press, 2001)
Rowland, C, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007)
Savage, J, England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock (London: Faber and Faber, 1997)
Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God: Volume 2) (London: SPCK, 1999)
Where possible, I have tried to seek copyright. In cases where I have not been successful, if anyone has any information related to this subject I would be grateful if you were to contact me.
If anyone would like to use any of the work on seditioustheology.com, please feel free. if you would be kind enough to put MDJ@seditioustheology.com that would be much appreciated.