Thursday, May 04, 2006

Negation: Punk Rock & Church

Obligatory declaration of bias: I know a number of people who are very much involved the ministry of The Meeting House (TMH), and I really, really, enjoy the music of The Clash. That out of the way, here goes:

There was an interesting piece on CBC radio about The Meeting House (see part three, or listen here). For those of you not aware of churches in and around Toronto, it's a fast-growing one that is based out of Oakville with other locations stretching from Hamilton to downtown Toronto. The membership is somewhere around 2000 and it continues to grow, particularly among a younger demographic. Officially affiliated with the Brethren in Christ (BiC), a Mennonite denomination, it strives to look nothing like a traditional church.

There was the usual presentation of a popular new religious movement by the popular media (ie: a restrained suspicion that it is nothing but hype). Additionally, the segment seemed to level the charge that TMH is too marketing-driven. I think that it is fair to say that TMH is very marketing-savvy, I would disagree profoundly with the notion that it is "marketing-driven," there is a lot going on there. The segment did however get me thinking about something rather interesting about how the Meeting House styles itself - primarily as a negation.

The principle slogan of TMH is "A church for people that aren't into church" and its website opens with a few pithy quotes about religion. TMH concludes this flash show with the line "God hates religion." Certainly I can understand the validity of what TMH is trying to say with this kind of presentation, religion has track record that is maybe only rivalled by government for its overall dreadfulness (corporations are big gainers in this field, but they have only been around in their modern form for about 150 years - they need to play catch-up). It sounds like a perfectly reasonable set of assertions to put forward.

Reasonable - and yet it is still a negation. TMH is saying what it is not, that is arguably the primary way that it defines itself. It reminded me other negation-defined movements. Punk rock set out to be everything that 1970s prog-excess was not. It was a big "no" to The Eagles, Yes, and everything else that was bloated about 1970s rock. It was a great movement that probably saved rock music from itself, but by the 1980s it had died out. Why? Well, the punks ended up winning, they could get major-label deals, they could fill stadiums. But in doing so, they were now the establishment, there was nothing for them to negate. The same happened with the Dadaists, as they set out to be anti-art, but in so doing, they created a body of art.

When a movement is primarily a negation, it tends to have a limited shelf-life. It becomes incorporated into the mainstream and therefore is self-nullifying, the "no" becomes a secret "yes." The rebel becomes a member of the establishment. Look at the pathetic remnants of punk today. Tim Armstrong of Rancid writing songs for Pink, Hot Topic, neatly packaged "punk" bands that are nearly indistinguishable from boy bands.

The moral is that it is difficult to sustain a movement that is primarily a negation. TMH has a big building now. Sure it's a warehouse stuffed with tech gadgets, but it's still a building. Physical real estate is something that looks very church-y no matter where it is. If TMH redefines what church is (a definition that has evolved over the years, and remains ephemeral) then it will be a church for people who are into church.

TMH is growing, it is succeeding, but it had better be prepared, lest it become a victim of that success. Conversly as TMH becomes something that looks more and more like a typical North American church, it is most likely that any number of elements of TMH's success will be adopted by other churches. Thus the convergence will add to TMH's looking like another church. This is something that TMH has got to be able to deal with in order for it to continue doing what it has been doing.