October 12, 2014 by James Crossley
A couple of years ago Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University who has published extensively on the history of Christianity, including this book on earliest Christian texts, published an article (‘The New Soviet League of Militant Godless’) on Real Clear Religion (republished on ABC Religion and Ethics) which was critical of western support for Pussy Riot. Most of the article attempts to show that a case could be made for Pussy Riot’s actions being a ‘grievous act of religious hate crime’ which is then contextualised in post-1917 Russian history.
Jenkins ventures into the world of popular music with this aside:
I’m also wondering why liberals are suddenly so fond of a band that claims inspiration from the “Oi!” music invented by Far-Right British skinheads
The association of ‘the Oi! music’ with far-right groups is not new and not entirely unjustified. Nevertheless, and to use another analogy, it might be like making statements such as ‘the hip-hop music was invented by misogynists’ or ‘the death metal music was invented by murderers and people who burn down churches’ or ‘the classical music is all about nationalism and anti-Semitism’, all of which would be excluding a great deal of alternative description.
If we assume for the moment the standard myth of origins, ‘the Oi! music’ emerged from punk in the late 1970s and contained number of left-wing, anarchic, and Marxist bands, participants and followers, as well associated ‘apolitical’ bands and, of course, far-right bands, participants and followers which sometimes means that the far right gets categorised in a different genre from the left, no doubt in part due to political embarrassment. All of this, incidentally, could be said about punk more generally. Or the classical music. The journalist most associated with ‘the Oi! music’ and who coined the term ‘Oi!’, Garry Bushell, has long tried to distance ‘the Oi! music’ from the far right, though recognising far-right elements, claiming that such involvement was a ‘hijacking’ and that no other genre has been so misunderstood. Bushell, now somewhat shifted to the right of the political spectrum (see Viz‘s Garry Bushell the Bear), was then a socialist and so if we are going to insist on origins why not the first journalistic champion of ‘the Oi! music’? Or, if we are to stick with the myth of origins, why not turn to the band typically claimed to be one of the begetters of ‘the Oi! music’, Sham 69, whose lead singer, Jimmy Pursey, would go on to produce ‘the Oi! music’ records? Sham 69, who were directly confronted by far-right skinheads at gigs, were known for their likewise direct anti-fascist stance. Or, why not select from a range of other themes from ‘the Oi music’ thematic archive. After all, ‘the Oi! music’ contains a common range of issues with a strong working-class identity, issues including police violence, unemployment, dole, football, hooliganism, drinking, fighting, or whatever. Perhaps an alternative analysis might involve listening to more recent bands such as Hard Skin who continue ‘the Oi! music’ in ACAC and in this must-hear, sing-a-long appreciation of the police.
Things were more complicated still as Bushell put together the compilation Strength Thru Oi! (1981) which, unintentionally according to Bushell, sounded unfortunately close to ‘Strength through Joy’ from Nazi Germany. The front cover, as Alexis Petridis worded it, ‘featured a photograph of a skinhead who turned out to be the delectable-sounding Nicky Crane, who – nothing if not a multi-tasker – managed to combine life as a neo-Nazi activist with a secret career as a gay porn star.’ So, like any musical genres, ‘the Oi! music’ is complex in its political affiliations and should be used no more than the classical music to invoke Godwin’s Law.
So, why does an article published in Real Clear Religion make such a choice like this? Presumably, for a case to be labelled a ‘religious hate crime’, Pussy Riot need to be sufficiently associated with the typical hate crime descriptors and if Soviet Russian atheists aren’t enough, then fascists and Nazis certainly are. It is notable that Jenkins also ends with a hypothetical analogy of a band like Pussy Riot carrying the same act out, not in St Paul’s Cathedral or something that might be designated as the heart of state power, but in a recently restored synagogue in eastern Europe. This is a more subtle way of distancing religion (in the form of the Russian Orthodox Church) from Putin (whom Jenkins claimed ‘may be a thug’ but, from the perspective of Jenkins’ argument, has an inconveniently close relationship with the Church). The restored synagogues in eastern Europe, which have a a different history as victims of fascism, antisemitism and Nazism in the twentieth century, are, it seems, assumed to be of the same ‘religion’, or indeed ‘sacred’, category as an Orthodox church in Moscow.
And, lest we forget, we might (re)turn to the following from N.T. Wright, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St Andrews, who, according to his academic website, holds achievements such as ‘half-blue in Rugby Fives; College 1st VIII (Rowing)…School Colours for cricket, rugby, music and athletics‘. Wright provides a Fox News-ish claim from the world of New Testament studies about a group popularly perceived as ‘liberals’ who are, somehow, paralleled with the Nazis:
Have the New Questers, and the advocates of the Cynic Jesus, come to terms with the problematic analogy between themselves and those German scholars who, in the 1920s and 1930s, reduced almost to nil the specific Jewishness of Jesus and his message? (N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God , p. 79, n. 233)
To bring it back to the Soviet Union and then some further baddies, Wright spoke about the definition of ‘marriage’ in relation to same-sex marriage. Rather than simply not bothering to get married to a man and getting on with life, Wright went on the attack and brought up parallels with the Nazis…and Soviet Russia…and the Iraq War.
But maybe there is something tokenistic in using the history of Jews and Judaism to promote certain Christian agendas. So, to finish, another quotation from the man who once defended bishops, such as himself, living in castles. Good guys, so it seems from the following quotation, like the classical music and the classical musicians can stand out (as sufficiently ‘sublime’?) just like Jesus stood out over against Jews, Judaism and everyone else (though not quite the early church):
Jesus’ praxis is thoroughly credible within a first-century Jewish context, and makes good sense as part of the presupposition of the early church; at the same time, this praxis breaks the moulds of the (my emphasis) Jewish context, and is, in detail, significantly unlike the characteristic activity of most (my emphasis) of the early Christians. Mozart’s music is incredible without Bach and Haydn as its predecessors, yet it is strikingly different from both; it is the necessary presupposition for Beethoven and Schubert, yet is still gloriously distinct. Jesus’ prophetic work makes historical sense, yet remains in a class of its own…Like Salieri in Shaffer’s Amadeus, scandalized that his god should choose the disreputable Mozart as the vehicle for divine music, Jesus’ hearers could not but be struck, if they realized what was going on, at his extraordinary and shocking implicit claim (Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, pp. 169-70, 228)
(It’s probably just as well for his argument that Wright did not mention Wagner.) Though we should probably not expect such analogies from ‘the Oi! music’ too soon in the rarefied world of such such scholarship, even if we replaced the classical music analogy with an analogy of ACAB as ‘incredible’, even without The Clash or the Sex Pistols, but ‘the necessary presupposition’ for ACAC, the issue and construction of sublime otherness to justify an agenda would, of course, remain the same…