An analogous case…

I have been asked to share a little more about the imaginative process I employed to bring the subjects of punk and the life of Christ together. The following is a post dedicated to explaining just what I did.

Imaginative Reidentification

In his excellent book Discipleship and Imagination: Christian Tradition and Truth, David Brown explores how some biblical narratives have impacted our comprehension and practice of discipleship. He also suggests that the search for exact parallels between the life of Christ and our lives today is a flawed way to relate the original example to the present. In short, he suggests that the imitation of the life of Christ in today’s world will take a very different shape indeed.

Developing this theme, and looking at alternative ways of understanding discipleship, Brown suggests that the church does not have the luxury of being able to ignore authors, and indeed artists more generally, who do not have a clear commitment to Christianity because they may still help us in our reflections on the life of Christ.

To support this position, he points to the Ken Kesey novel, set in a rather archaic mental institution, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and to the fact that the book contains some very interesting ‘christological allusions’. Brown highlights the way in which the main character, Randle McMurphy (played by Jack Nicholson in the film), leads twelve patients out from the hospital and provides them with a fleeting taste of freedom. He also indicates how when the apparatus used to forcibly perform electroconvulsive therapy on McMurphy is placed on his head, it is described as a “crown of thorns [being placed] over the graphite of his temples”’.

While the scenes that Brown introduces are revealing, it is his summing up that is particularly helpful, for he suggests that in these instances: ‘The life of Jesus has in effect moved from being a set of specific examples for close copying to the status of being an analogous case that requires imaginative re-identification under very different circumstances…’. Kesey has provided us with scenes where he has taken an everyday occurrence and then linked it to an incident in the life of Christ, or, if I adopt the words of Brown, has imaginatively re-identified the life of Jesus in very different circumstances.

This is far from the only example of this imaginative work in play. If we listen to the lyrics of the song, ‘The Ballard Of John And Yoko’ by John Lennon, we hear him recount the story of how he has been hounded by the media and chased all over Europe. Each verse provides another chapter in his escapades but in the chorus we hear him say, ‘Christ you know it ain’t easy, you know how hard it can be, the way things are going, they’re going to crucify me’. Initially, it simply sounds like a rather irritable protestation against the level of intrusion into his private life. However, Lennon, as with artists more generally, is not able to hold a monopoly on the meaning of his art. This lyric may just as easily be read as a sense of desperation, harassment, victimhood and innocence through conjuring images of Christ.

In her book The Queer God, Marcella Althaus-Reid recounts the tragic story of the execution of two young boys involved in a street gang in Buenos Aires. She describes how the ‘bullets in their bodies [were] distributed like crucifixion nails, they also had plastic bags on their heads, as if mock crowns of thorns had been given to them. It was as if the bags, a symbol of their glue sniffing habit, were saying “Who do you think you were? Kings of the Glue Sniffing gang? See how powerful you look now”’. It is another example of imaginative re-identification at work. Althaus-Reid has taken what would normally be regarded as just another case of murder in a city with a high homicide rate. By using the language that she does she manages to link the case to the mocking and execution of Christ and, in so doing, increases the power of the symbolism and the tragedy of the story.

These imaginative parallels do not only draw on the life of Christ. In the novel Brighton Rock by Graham Greene we are introduced to a scene where the anti-hero, Pinky, is in a heated discussion. Up until this point Pinky has tended to speak in staccato-like language and lets the reader feel that he is cool and in control. But in this particular conversation, one that revolves around love and relationships, Greene suggests that one of the characters listening to Pinky, ‘watched with astonishment this sudden gift of tongues’. It is a powerful use of language and juxtaposes a razor-wielding gangster cum murderer against scenes of the first Pentecost and the revivalist preaching found in charismatic churches. In the imagination of Greene, Pinky has reached such a state of criminal psychosis that, when he speaks, it resembles a form of glossolalia.

In each of these cases what the writers are doing is tracing analogies between elements in the life of Jesus and/or his world and the pattern of life in places as different as an American mental institution, the life of a stalked celebrity, the slums of Argentina or Brighton between the wars. What is interesting is the way in which these comparisons bring a degree of illumination, in part, through the sheer dissimilarity of the subjects being compared and the way in which they encourage us not only to see fictional images but also the life of Jesus, in fresh and imaginative ways.

It was examples of imaginative reidentification such as these that provided me with a way of testing the hypothesis of my work. What I did was to ask whether similar acts of imaginative reidentification in the context of an engagement between punk and theology and on a far wider scale may grant enhanced insights into both the phenomenon of punk and aspects of Jesus’ life, ministry and teaching despite their very obvious differences.

Until next time…

Recommended reading & bibliography:

Althaus-Reid, M. The Queer God (London: Routledge, 2003)

Brown, D. Discipleship and Imagination: Christian Tradition and Truth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)

Greene, G. Brighton Rock (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970)

Kesey, K. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2007)

The front image of this post shows a book cover by Joe Sacco. Of all the images created to depict the story this Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition has to be one of the best.


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, please feel free. if you would be kind enough to put that would be much appreciated.

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