Religion (Religiosity?) as Rebellion

I am fascinated by the idea, put forward in the lit seminar I’m taking, that in the middle of the 20th century it was fashionable for artists and writers to convert to Catholicism. I’d never heard that before.

I was reading about Robert Lowell’s transformation from Boston-bred Puritan/Congregationalist/etc heir to Catholic, and found a consensus (among half a dozen online sources, anyway) that his conversion was an explicit rejection of the WASPy, industrial mores of his upbringing and native Northeastern context. Max Weber might concur. There’s also at least some religious longing here, though, says A.O. Scott:

The poems are populated by figures from New England’s past, including some of Lowell’s own ancestors. But Lowell, descended on both sides from prominent Yankee families, had undertaken a twofold rebellion against his inheritance, rejecting Harvard for Kenyon College and the bleached-out Puritanism of the Congregational Church for a notably sanguinary, “fire-breathing” Catholicism.

Scott’s full article here.

Because I’m a soft little soul, I know a few things about indie music.  We’ve talked about Sufjan/Flannery before, but the more I think about the number of good, working indie bands out there that also happen to be plaintively (if not commercially), well, Christian, the more I wonder if their influx since the mid-late 90s has something to do with secular suburban kids rebelling against the norms and expectations of their settings. I won’t bore you with tales of my own Tenth-Grade Nothingness or an uninformed discourse on how the straightedge movement corroborates this idea. More on “Christian” art that’s still…good…in this article on emusic.com.

7 thoughts on “Religion (Religiosity?) as Rebellion”

  1. Religion has always been one of the short list of ways for young rebels to rebel, especially attractive since it seems to be taking the moral high ground. The particular manifestations of rebellion get sort of hard wired into the expression of religion, such as beards on the Amish.

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  2. I also wonder if indy music artists might enjoy using religion for effect to some extent. One group I know of whose music is positively infused with religiosity is packed with several kids who consider themselves, from all I can tell, agnostic. (And while I think they are quite good, I mean, really quite good, the more you pay attention to their lyrics, the less it seems they are saying, but regardless, they are worth a listen: http://www.lala.com/#artist/Joshua_James/more/songs — and they are definitely worth a live show attendance if possible. One of the most interesting and put-together live shows I’ve ever seen, and I mean it. He’s melodramatic, almost to a fault? but I’m ok with it and actually rather drawn in)

    I ought to qualify “indy” by saying I think Joshua James has an indy sound, rather than is independently produced. I think he’s signed with a mainstream label now. I don’t know what they call themselves. I’d definitely say some of it sounds like gospel. Google Joshua James, go to Lala, and listen to Coal War.

    Anyway, my buddy played pedal steel for him, and he said they were reading Bertrand Russel and debating the existence of god across the entire country, while their music seemed to convey more of a specific belief in Jesus Christ. Of course, I do think the music has shifted more to match the ideology. New Lyrics: “If the lord loves his children like your good book does teach, he’d burn these here bastards and put shoes on my feet” (from “Mother Mary”). Still, the album opens with “I aint cuttin’ my hair till the good lord comes”

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  3. And check out the song “Daniel” for the quintessence of brilliant music and WTF lyrics, in my opinion.

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  4. Yeah, you ought to try to see them live. The only caution is that Joshua James himself is extremely, extremely dramatic. For me it works. From what I know of him and from what my friend has told me he’s sincere anyway.

    I don’t think their music does justice to their live show. He always finds very talented musician to play with him.

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  5. I know less about religion an artists than about the sociology of religion in the 20th cen. It seems that as the new rationalism took hold of the mainline churches in the early to mid century, there were few places to go for someone with a truly passionate religious sensibility other than Catholicism and the then still backwoods evangelicalism which prided itself on its unschooled bible reading as a specific reaction against the rationalist approach. Thus, there were a fair number of public Catholic converts in every field, not just the arts–not to mention among the common folk–my grandmother was one of those!

    Anyway, I would surmise that those artistists that did become Catholic during the period were looking for something other than a fellowship hall. They were looking for some kind of pure experience as artists often do. Catholicism of the era was something etherial, yet profoundly real, or at least reality making. At mass, one entered an entirely other world from what one left on the street behind him. So, while I do not know specifics, the fact that there was a number of artists who became Catholic at the time does, at least to me, seem to fit.

    Thanks for the post.

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