Showbread has been a staple of satirical punk-rock music with very distinct theological and christian overtones for over fifteen years. With the release of their final album, Showbread is Showdead, we were able to sit down with Josh Porter, front man and primary lyricist of Showbread, for an interview on his ideas of the intersection between art and faith. This is the first interview in a series in which we here at ECCLESIAM will be interviewing many different artists on this very intersection of art and faith.
Lucas: With over a decade of touring and the release of 8 very different albums, one’s ideology can go through a lot of changes. What would you say your biggest change in theology is from the release of No Sir, Nihilism is Not Practical to Showbread is Showdead?
Probably, just in a word, development. I don’t think that I had thought through many things theologically when we made our first record. It wasn’t until probably the second or third album that I became interested in theology as a discipline. I grew up in the church and I think I gravitated toward it, at least having intellectual conversations about it, but without any actual kind of study to build a foundation on. So, a lot of the ideas I had about Jesus, the scriptures, and the church were experiential only, or they were just amorphous theorizing; they weren’t really based on any influence or mentor. Then I kind of stumbled into reading and studying theology a couple of albums in just because someone handed me a copy of a book by Greg Boyd. He, as a thinker, was really interesting to me. The way he polished out some of his ideas in turn made me jump from him to other authors that were influential: folks in the Mennonite tradition, John Howard Yoder, and stuff like that.
Then that sent me on a tangent through Christian theology proper, less relegated to one specific sub culture of theology, and more on a wider spectrum. I found it quite fun, I guess, in a nerdy sort of way. A lot of the things I thought or had an idea on took more of a shape. Or with other things, I was like “I have no idea why I thought that” whether it was just something I grew up with or eschatological stuff. You know, I grew up in a southern Baptist church, and I deviated from the theology of the southern Baptist theology in great ways, but at the same time, in great ways, I still say the same thing I was taught in Sunday school about foundational theology concepts. So, it’s less of a change or a drastic 180, but more like I was floating out there and then I found a way to give shape to some of the stuff I was wondering about.
Aaron: When you start the creative process of creating and writing your songs, how intentional are you in your theological thought process?
In the beginning, the first two records were more about stream of consciousness; deeply personal but very abstract so anyone could pick up on it. There was a very Jesus-centric agenda but if anything it was more of an evangelistic type of thing, just telling people about Jesus in a rudimentary way. But once I got into theology it started to become more of a cipher, that everything I do or that we do is usually a thinly veiled metaphor for whatever is going on beneath the surface. It usually is something pretty bottom line.
Especially with novels, I have these bizarre concepts and then I think what would I say, how could I summarize. Like, this novel is about military violence or depression and it grows from that. Then, hopefully, there is a certain amount of theological research, prayer, and thoughtful contemplation that goes into building those concepts. But ever since I started to actually care about theology, I think we became far more deliberate. In fact, at one point, a friend of mine that was in the band and then not in the band for a long time, and then came back to the band, he said “You guys are like Rage Against the Machine, you only sing about one thing.” And I kind of like that. I like the idea that we have these things that matter to us, that we keep going back to the same topics, revisiting them, and finding new ways to talk about them. There is always the thread of the Gospel narrative that is comes in and out of all of our songs. It’s not all impressive in that sense, but that’s been the mainstay of the band all along.
Aaron: What, as a musician, writer, film-maker, and now church planter, really brought you to the point of seeing the need, or wanting to think theologically through so many different topics like gun-violence, predestination, technology, to even theologically thinking through raising your own son and encouraging his Christian walk?
All that is purely experiential or at least components of motivation to talk about the experiential world. When all of our records were severely preaching about gun violence, politics, and the marriage of the church and the empire, this all was coming out because we were living in southeast Georgia, and our experience was very much covered by a certain aspect of that church. When [I came to] live in Portland, Oregon for a few years, I [realized I] can say things that are totally subversive in Georgia, but here, no one cares. You immerse yourself in a certain conversation, you get hung up on these things, and you feel like they are important. I do believe there is validity to the things we were concerned about and not concerned about, but you transport yourself to a different conversation and you realize there’s a whole other thing going on over here and no one is concerned about the stuff we were obsessed with in this other conversation. It’s like setting down in certain pockets of the church conversation, especially in evangelicalism, especially here in the west.
Our whole tenure as band was born out of becoming enamored with the punk rock culture. The punk rock culture by its very nature has to be subversive and controversial to say anything, so we would pick up on these different conversations as we were out travelling around the world and in the states. We would ask what is confusing to people about Jesus that don’t follow Him and how can we speak to that, or what is keeping people from being receptive to a conversation about Jesus of Nazareth that we can speak into. With the easy example of politics, gun violence and stuff like that, we found that everywhere we went there was this sometimes well deserved, and sometimes ridiculous, caricatures of folks who follow Jesus that are highly politicized, militant, and all those things. And, you know, that becomes quite irksome when you’re travelling around and talking to people about Jesus, so you make records about it or you write novels about it. Hopefully, you become satisfied with what you had to say for a while, then you can move on to a different conversation, but it’s mostly just experience, what seems to be in the pulse of conversation at the time, at least from our vantage point.
Lucas: Throughout your writing career as a lyricist and novelist, your content is somewhat sensationalized, dealing with themes of violence, darkness and atrocity. While the purpose of this can be easily determined, I want to ask how much of your content is a part of you as a human. Are these themes that you draw from personal experience or ideas that you draw from observations to tease out the redemptive implications? And to follow up, have you found that themes drawn from personal experience tend to connect better with your readers / listeners?
I would say it’s almost entirely the latter. I have lived a life of tremendous privilege; I haven’t really gone through a terrible amount of tragedy, or even a terrible amount of pain, at least comparably to the people around me that I know of. Instances of just normal suffering I’m sure are woven into stuff. For the most part, it’s just a commentary on stuff that I see going on.
I think that one of the most commonly held misconceptions that is held about people who follow Jesus and the arts, is that if you depict something artistically means that you endorse it in some way. As a satirist, that is antithetical to the entire premise of satire, that you depict something on the premise of poking fun at it, to mock it, or even comment on it. In some ways its complicated but it almost never involves an endorsing just because you depict it. So, it makes a lot of sense to me that I, personally being a pacifist, would write about violence and I would satirize it in a way that is not glamorous or appealing, to sort of point the finger.
I think another aspect of that is people who follow Jesus that make art are also thought of not being that creative, as in not really having anything honest to say.
It’s kind of watered down and presented as a commodity, which is a bummer. So, I think a lot of the stuff that we do has to do with disarming walls, so that we can say what we would like to say. It’s not like a trick or anything, but if we can concede to be honest about what we think of a novel or album, then I think there is a level of reciprocity that happens with the audience whether they are like, “yep, this is like a real book, not just a Christian book.” or “this is a real album, not a Christian album” because they weren’t afraid to go here. It sounds like a pretensions thing to say, but really, there are conversations that happen with Christians that make them ask, “Can we really say that?” They feel like they should say it, and it’s important to the thing that they’re going to say, but they won’t because there’s these considerations as to how will they react, will Christian bookstores put it up, and all these different things. In the end of the day, we did what felt was necessary for the sake of our conviction.
Aaron: Your song, “Dear John Piper” [lyrics can be found here], is pretty intense. Can you tell me your thought process in writing that song? It would not be terribly hard for a Reformed theologian to refute your thoughts in the song, but I do not think that creating an argument to show how wrong predestination reformed theology is was the point.
It’s such an interesting thing when you try to do theology with a punk rock band, because, and this isn’t a boast of any kind, but there, at least to my personal knowledge, there isn’t a lot of punk rock bands that are being as deliberately theological with their lyrics, like mentioning John Piper by name. I don’t know of many bands that have terms like prevenient grace in their [music]. So you open yourself up immediately to the entire amount of criticism from the theological community or from people who are theologically minded. People who aren’t theologically minded, they don’t care, they are just like “It’s a cool song, I think I get it, I can track with it” and that’s fine. I like the idea of pushing the boundaries of what you can do theologically with a punk rock band, because there are certain things that you can get away with that you cant get away with in academic conversation.
I’m a seminary student right now, and if I am in my class and I start to talk the way I talk in the lyrics in “Dear John Piper” it will all, like you said, be easily dismissed. It will be taken as a caricature, an adhomynym, a red herring, and all that would be completely valid. But if you’re writing a punk rock song, you can do certain things with satire, you can do certain things that are seemingly vitriolic, and kind of blur the line between what is ostensibly theological, what are theological statements, even doctrinal statements, and what you’re just over with. I feel like that is kind of fun. Part of punk rock is also being provocative, not for the sake of provocation, but for the sake of conversation and for the sake of asking questions, but there is so much you can do in a four minutes song with so many lines. So, with “Dear John Piper” we had commented concepts like meticulous providence and double predestination, but unless you’re a seminary student, you wouldn’t really care or notice what we’re doing, so I thought that it would be funny to have this song that was so deliberate and so over the top, that would begin one way and launch into this sort of ironic, Calvinistic hymn.
That was what I wrote it in as in the beginning, a Calvinist Hymn, and then I added John Piper on top of it. It’s just funny that there is a punk rock song with John Piper’s name in the title. But, part of it all is personal and angsty, frustrations towards things that honestly grieve me and upset me. That is something that you get to do with art. The content of the song would be irresponsible to do in an essay, or a blog, or a sermon, but there is a certain amount of ambiguity that you can put in song lyrics and then draw conversation out of that. It’s funny, I saw online that certain people ran with the song as portent interest when they were reviewing the record, and, you know, out come the reformed folks that were understandably peeved, but they were trying to interact with it as though it is an academic essay and it just isn’t. I understand that that must be must be frustrating, especially since so many people have deeply held convictions about the stuff that we’re lambasting in the song. But at the end of the day it’s like, the irony of it is the song isn’t presenting itself as though it is an academic essay, so you’re already trying to play by the songs rules if you engage with it that way. I thought that it would go one of two ways, one, it would come out and people would be like “Well that’s weird, isn’t that the one pastor guy?” or two, it would do what it has done and would upset some reformed folks. But I know so many thoughtful reformed folks that I’ve met that kind of understand where we’re coming from and they understand the vehicle of punk rock lyrics. They all say it’s interesting that we would frame it that way. Obviously, they disagree, but they say it’s a worthwhile conversation. I like the idea of conversation, even heated conversation, growing out of something as silly as a rock song.
Aaron: Your inclusion of a quote on “Dear John Piper” by the Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart is interesting. How important is it to you as a creative to thoughtfully think through traditions that may be different than your own? How has this help with the creative process?
It’s easy to realize the importance of thinking outside of your own theological camp if you’re in a theological minority. So, when you’re in the mindset of theological minority, something that you get quite accustomed to is that no one really understands your view, no one has done any research on your view and has only read enough of a blog somewhere to say that you’re an idiot. And you’re always like, “What in the world? Why won’t you at least pay me the kindness of knowing what it is that I think before being dismissive?” Later on, when I realized I was in one or two theological minorities, especially in evangelicals in the west, I made it my business, probably pridefully, in the beginning, to understand the views that I really didn’t like, so I could thoughtfully enter into conversation and debate.
At the time it was probably more about “winning”, but then eventually, once I started to read outside my own camp I became more understanding and empathetic of views other than my own.
I wanted to be able to say, to sit down with my friends who are reformed and say, “Well, I’ve read institutes of your Christian liturgy from beginning to end, have you?” Or, “I know very well how someone like John Piper explains his doctrine, I’ve listened to his sermons, I’ve read his books, and this why I still don’t believe it.” Instead of just saying “My guy told me that your guys is bad.” Otherwise, there’s not much conversation to be had.
It’s theology 101 to go to someone who holds the view to learn about the view, don’t go to the guy that disparages that view.
You can go to him after, go to them simultaneously, or in tandem. That’s respect I don’t see often paid to folks when they’re dealing with folks outside of their camp. There’s a lot of boundary drawing, name-calling and fear that says “be terrified of this view” instead of entering into it thoughtfully and being considerate of someone else. I mean, still reserving the right to say, “I just think it’s wrong,” and that’s okay. That’s the thing I think is funny about “Dear John Piper.” There were a ton of people that were saying, “I just wish these guys would read their bibles. I wish they would do their homework before they write a song like this.” Not to say that I’m some sort of expert already, but the concede is that “I disagree with their statement so surely they didn’t do their homework, and if they did their homework than they would agree with what I’m saying.” Which is just ridiculous. It would be ridiculous of me to be that way as well, “If these guys just read more books then they would agree with everything that I think.” It’s just another way of being frustrating, by including a quote from an Eastern Orthodox scholar at the end of your punk rock song, like, “What are you doing?” When I read that line [quoted at the end of the song], I decided that was the punk rock thing to say, because it was so vitriolic and strongly worded. It’s almost like the emotion just comes out. I mean, he’s a severely academic person, and all of the sudden, he’s heated and personal, so I latched onto it.
Aaron: I understand there really isn’t such thing as a favorite, but who would you say your favorite theologian is? Or, more or less, whom are you tracking with right now?
It’s terribly predictable of me to say, but there’s a group of theologians that I read when I first got into theology, and that was Greg Boyd, who I found to be, this sounds insulting, but a mainstream version of John Howard Yoder, or Howell Ross, who is condensing these really academic ideas down into something that is palpable, understandable, and still being controversial along the way. So, I think of him as my guy who introduced me to theology. I didn’t even know at the time that he was a like a “boogeyman” to evangelicals and that people didn’t like him. I was just saying that is was so great and that it made me love God more, and he was the gateway drug to folks that I never would have gotten into. From there, I started to reach a bunch of the people political realm like Jacques Boul, people of the Christian anarchist tradition, Dorothy Day, and all that stuff. I didn’t even realize that I was reading strictly within a minority of a controversial group. I just thought it was awesome. When I became a pastor, the church I am a part of has a really high view on learning from theology writers like Dallas Willard, N.T. Wright, writers that have shaken the theology of our church. That was what kind of opened me up and pushes me to impart to people to read outside of your camp.
It’s fine to have a camp, as long as you don’t draw those boundaries too rigidly.
Aaron: Life on tour can be tough and can bring you in contact with so many different kinds of people of all different religious backgrounds. How have you found the intersection between your faith and music been beneficial in showing Christ to those who may not have ever thought the concept of Christianity?
All I know is that it is the primary vehicle to any effective evangelistic stuff that we’ve ever done. I don’t think we could have survived if we would have packaged ourselves as a traditional, Christian rock band. It still had those annoying teeter-totter affects between being too preachy to folks that were hostile to Jesus and being controversial for the purely Christian industry. In the same way I have conversation with you guys, we speak a certain a language that mentions certain thinkers, and then we know this is what we think about this and that. Punk rock culture has its own language and its own achievements that you unlock or share with other people that say this is the tradition I come from just like you do in theology and Christianity. We weren’t acting as rouse, because we were so affectionate for punk rock and its culture, just being a poor, dirty band, that travels around and plays crazy shows and sleeps on people’s floors, but the amount of people that would actually listen to what we had to say compared to if we had presented ourselves some other way was staggering. I wish I could say, everywhere we went, because we actually knew our stuff as band, people cared about Jesus, and that’s obviously not the case. People will still be dismissive of you for a whole manner of reasons as soon as they realize that you follow Jesus, and some of them understandably so. It has a lot to do with confusion or misconception and other times they hear what you’re saying they just don’t want anything to do with it.
But there’s this thing I think of most often, when we first started and we were a local band in Georgia, playing in these scuzzy bars every weekend, befriending these other punk bands that were playing in the same scene. There’s this young man that I met that was so impressed with the fact that there would be these folks that looked like he did and listened to the same bands that he did and that they were Christians. He was absolutely flabbergasted by it. He immediately loved and accepted us; we became friends with this guy and kept in touch with him of and on. Years and years passed of us touring, getting signed, and entering into a whole different world. We eventually made our way back to Georgia to play a show, and this fellow was there. I hadn’t seen him in close to a decade. We started talking and over the course of the conversation it became evident, and he told me, that he was now a disciple of Jesus. This was someone who was friendly and not a jerk, but completely shut off to the idea of it all, he was an atheist. But he said, “Yeah, ever since we started to have those conversations back in Georgia, I started thinking a lot about Jesus. I did research, I read, and pursued this and all signs pointed to Jesus.” So, in my mind, I was just thinking, “Huh, that’s incredible.” It was like the fireworks went off and we were like, “We won! We won!” It was, if we wouldn’t have had this thing in common, and it wasn’t a guise, it wasn’t something that we weren’t, it was just a place where we met culturally, I think that things would have panned out very different for this guy and us. So, the fact that we, at least, try to be honest and that it comes through a certain vehicle, is the reason that folks that don’t like Jesus and don’t know Jesus don’t stop listening immediately.
Special thanks to Lucas Randle, an English major and avid Showbread fan, for his thoughtful question and time in transcribing this interview.
This interview was conducted on 1/19/2016.